Second Sunday of Advent
I enjoyed the liturgical passages for today, especially the Peaceable Kingdom verses in Isaiah. In case you haven’t seen them, those passages were as follows: Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72:1-7 & 18-19; Romans 15:4-13, and Mathew 3:1-12. Next week’s passages are included in the church calendar on the website.
In the sermon time I spoke with a copy of one of Edward Hicks’ paintings behind me, a painting of the peaceable kingdom. He was a cool, Quaker sign-painter quite a while ago. Google him and you can learn all you ever wanted to know about his work. We had several of his paintings at the Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, and I enjoyed his style back then as now.
What a beautiful picture… the Peaceable Kingdom. It’s a haunting image of all the animals and serpents and infants wallowing in a seemingly blissful harmony. And as Hicks’ paintings all had social and political ideas strung through the with the scriptural imagery and meaning, so today the image of the peaceable kingdom laid out for us in Isaiah can be read and used in many different ways. I Googled it last week and found a website using it to promote a vegetarian lifestyle. Even though I have all kinds of respect for vegetarians, I doubt seriously that the leopards had turned to bean curd and the lion to mango smoothies. I appreciated so much the thoughts that Michael shared during communion of their appetites being so satisfied by God that they had no need any longer to kill and eat one another. What a great insight.
You see, as I dwelt on the passage throughout the week I came to realize that the image might be getting in my way. The image follows a description of the One who comes to make the kingdom possible. The kingdom is not the hope, but the One who comes is the hope, the point. The kingdom simply follows after, very naturally.
The kingdom is the daily manifestation of the One’s sovereignty. Go back and read that description of the One, Isaiah 11:1-5! How can I miss that the point is not found in lions and lambs and leopards and snakes, but in the coming of the One, and the reign of such a Sovereign that can change us into a community of peace, allowing us to take our place in that great mosaic of justice and truth?
So, we have our baby Jesus in a manger… another image that we get so caught up adoring and fighting to have on display. I love that image! I don’t want a single nativity scene going back in the closet! But, I also want to make sure that I don’t allow the images I pick and choose to be able to distract me from the realty of what is happening.
Here’s what I mean… I was thinking this past week about the whole birth scene of Christ. I started to have a few questions: What was Joseph thinking? He took Mary on a road trip when she was nearing the end of her term? What was Mary thinking? Why didn’t they use Expedia.com or call ahead and book a room? We won’t hardly let pregnant women fly these days, especially not in their third term! Why was there nothing for Joseph there in the “city of his family?” He’s the hometown boy, and he’s got no strings to pull?
But, then I remembered a little something… you know our sensitivities are probably a lot more delicate than Mary’s and Joseph’s. I mean, we are constantly building bigger and better hospitals, fine-tuning every aspect of the experience, incurring more and more debt. Why? Because our sensibilities say that no baby should be born into anything but a $2000 a day, psychologically soothing birthing suite with a flat-screen TV, movies and good drugs on demand.
Joseph and Mary don’t seem to put off by the manger. And neither does God. I mean, God can arrange for the star, but not a room at a Best Western? Of course, God could do anything needed in the situation, but a room at the inn didn’t make the cut. Even so, it was the orchestration of the whole scene that grabbed me. John is sent to “prepare the way.” There’s a census in the empire. Jesus’ family must go to the prophetic town of Bethlehem. (Every knows that the Messiah will be born there!) Angels are dispatched to alert the shepherds and a star is hung to announce to any and all with the ability to read it, “This is the place!”
There was a fair level of orchestration going on here, but not the theatrics that the manger can become for us. The momentous event is the arrival of the One, the arrival of Christ.
The images are great stuff and have stood the test of time. But they are there to convey the ultimate glory of the One who has come, is coming, is here. The Peaceable Kingdom is about the reign of One who can change our lives and bring us the peace. The manger could have been anything, and it would have made no difference to the coming of the One. I read a little further in the Romans passage, in fact into the next chapter, chapter 14… and in the context of our making sure of our mutual respect and acceptance of one another, Paul pens these words,..
“For the Kingdom of God is not a matter of what we eat or drink, but of living a life of goodness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. If you serve Christ with this attitude, you will please God, and others will approve of you, too. So then, let us aim for harmony in the church and try to build each other up.”
The peaceable kingdom is not lions and lambs, but you and I. The Kingdom of God is not what we eat and drink, but how we meet and greet. If I could take the liberty to just pull the kingdoms together for a moment, we’re talking always about the reign of God in a people who claim to be beholden to such a King. The making of congregation is the manifest image of the kingdom as we submit to the reign and the sovereignty that calls us together. There is no other way to make the peaceable kingdom, to dream such dreams, than to give ourselves, our fealty, our will to God for the using. I love the idea of satisfaction that Michael shared, and I also believe that the lions are simply commanded not to kill the lambs. Isn’t that the point of the strong caring for the weak? We are beholden to One who calls us to peace, regardless of the many appetites that might also call to us.
We finished our sermon time with a prayer by St. Ignatius Loyola. I read it in the plural sense for our corporate worship, but I’ll render it here, faithfully, as it was written:
“Take, O Lord, and receive my entire liberty,
my memory, my understanding and my whole will.
All that I am and all that I possess
You have given me.
I surrender it all to You
to be disposed of according to Your will.
Give me only Your love and Your grace;
with these I will be rich enough,
and will desire nothing more.”
St. Ignatius Loyola