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the peaceable kingdom

December 10, 2010

The Vision of the Prophet:  Isaiah

The prophet Isaiah, living in the eighth century before Christ, had a dream, a vision, and over time this dream, this vision has been given a name:  the peaceable kingdom.  It's a compelling vision:  A shoot will come from a stump.  A stump is a tree that has been cut down, destroyed.  But the hope is that life will come out of destruction.  We often place our hopes on a new leader, the next leader, and so an ideal king would be enthroned, and would come from the family of David.  A new political order would fulfill the hopes of the people (verses one through five of Isaiah 11).   This passage may have been read on inauguration day, with the prayer that the Spirit of the Lord would guide and govern the leader.  Accompanying the spirit would be three sets of gifts, listed in pairs:

Wisdom and understanding: how we make decisions; Counsel and might: how we use our power; Knowledge and fear of the Lord:  how we study the ways of the Lord and how we live in the awareness of his glory. 

There will be no pride in the one who will lead us, for pride goes before a fall.  The one who will lead us will be humble.   How will we know that the leader is of God?  The leader will see beyond the surface, things as they appear, and will protect the weak and the vulnerable.  The poor, who often have no access to power in the world, will be treated with justice and fairness.

Then Isaiah's vision shifts from politics to the creation, a vision of a new heaven and a new earth:  the wolf and the lamb will lie down together, no one shall hurt or destroy on God's holy mountain.    Paradise will be restored.  All nature will sing in harmony.  Isaiah is painting a picture:  this is what peace looks like.  This is the peaceable kingdom.

Peace is a word that has been hijacked by our hyper-contentious politics, trivialized in our stress-avoiding lifestyles, and rejected in our ultra-violent sports. But we cannot avoid the fact that peace is important to God.  If God's people sit still long enough, listen closely enough, discern carefully enough, it becomes clear.  God even paints a picture for us.

In these days there are wars and rumors of wars.  We read and hear about hiding in caves and friendly fire, special operations and prisoners of war, classified information from throughout the world being dumped into the public domain.  We know what war looks like.   There has been a continuous war for almost one hundred years, somewhere on the planet.  At the end of the day we almost dread tuning into the television, for somewhere there has been an explosion, a suicide bombing, an assassination, involving gangs and tribes, drugs and oil, property and power.   In detail we hear the story, and because of our advanced technology we hear it with graphic precision.   We know what war is like.

The biblical writers asked a different question:  "what does peace look like?"  For the prophets of the ancient Middle East also lived in days where there were wars and rumors of wars.  They could also describe it in vivid detail.  Yet they had a different focus, an alternative vision, when they asked the question, "what does peace look like?"

The Vision of the Painter: Edward Hicks

This vision of the prophet Isaiah has always been inspirational.  You can see it, and of course, that is a part of what makes it so compelling.  In the 1820s, almost 200 years ago,  there was a deep separation within the Quakers of our country over slavery.  It was a church fight.  Some of us have been through church fights.  I could make a list in my own over twenty-five or so years.  Maybe you have been in a church fight?

Edward Hicks lived in Bucks County, Pennsylvania and was a Quaker minister. To make a little extra income, he painted, mostly responding to the needs of others---he painted tavern signs, farm equipment, whatever was needed, and he was good at it---although he was self-taught, he had a gift.  He began to make a fair amount of money, and this upset his Quaker congregation, who felt that he was violating their customs of simple living.  Finally he became enmeshed in a church split---between those who wanted to live more frugally, and those who did not see a problem.  So he gave up painting and took up farming, but he was a terrible farmer. Later he gave up the preaching ministry too, and transitioned back to the craft of painting. 

Soon enough, he came to discover that he could use his painting to express his faith. He began to draw oil paintings based on Isaiah's prophecy in chapter 11, especially verse 6:  The wolf shall live with the lamb, a little child shall lead them.   He drew the same painting over and over again, and there are now over 100 versions.  We know it now as the Peaceable Kingdom, and it is his best known work.  One version of the painting is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, another at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., another at the Worchester Art Museum (which inspired the composer Randall Thompson's choral work) and another at the Reynolda House in Winston-Salem.     

In most of the paintings the predators and prey are together.  There is a bull, a lion, a lamb, a bear, a child.  They are most often to the right of the painting, congested together.  For the artist the animals reflected something of our temperaments---the lion was anger, the bear was calmness.  To the left there is often a separate scene, William Penn conducting a treaty with the Indians.  A river flows toward them, and light shines upon them.  The spirit, the light placed within us by God, helped us to dwell together in peace, despite our animosities and our differences. 

It could be that Edward Hicks was inspired to paint this picture, over and over again, because he was obsessed with a vision of peace.  Perhaps it was due to the growing division in America between North and South over the practice of slavery.  Perhaps it was due to the conflict that was present in his own church, over the teachings of his church and his lifestyle.  Perhaps it was due to the inner turmoil within, over what exactly God wanted him to do with his life.  

A Vision for Our Time and Place

You may be thinking about the words of scripture or even looking at the painting and wondering:  those are prophets, but I'm not very spiritual, those are painters, I'm not very artistic.  How is all of this relevant for me, a 2800 year old collection of words, a 200 year old painting?  It is relevant because you and I struggle with the very same questions:  What is our vision of peace?  Is it a restored relationship?  Is it a decision to help those who have been treated unjustly?  Is it an acceptance of God's will for the future?  What is our vision of peace?

It is easy to visualize war and violence, and our media conditions us:  the war in Afghanistan, now in its 10th year; the Shiites and Sunni Muslims fighting in Iraq, and the persecution of the Christians there; the saber rattling going on between North and South Korea; the drug wars in Mexico.  It is a violent world.  As Woody Allen, who said he remembered just enough of his Jewish identity to make him neurotic would say, "The lion and the lamb will lie down together, but the lamb won't get much sleep!"

The ruins, the devastation, they are all around the  prophet Isaiah in the eighth century, but he does what God's people have always done:  he sits still long enough, listens closely enough, discerns carefully enough, and  it becomes clear.  God even paints a picture for him, and us.  How do anger and calmness, strength and weakness live together, in our families, even within each of us?

It is precisely in a culture that is saturated with hyper-contentious politics, stress-avoiding lifestyle trivia and ultra-violent sports that we unplug, detach and take the long view.  What is God saying to us?  What does God want us to see?   What does God have to do with how we make decisions, use our power?   

It is a moment when the message and meaning of Advent emerges.   Christians believe that Christ is the fulfillment of the prophet's wildest hopes and the artist's deepest imaginings: a little child shall lead them.    The peaceable kingdom is a new way of doing politics, for sure, and it is a new creation, but it is also the formation of a new community, and this morning that has everything to do with the good news, which we receive as forgiven and reconciled people, which we receive because we seek to live in peace with one another, because we have been marked with the sign of the cross, where his body was broken for us, his blood poured out for us. 

Today God gives us the vision of the prophet, the artistry of the painter and the provision of daily bread, and if we have eyes to see and ears to hear it is all a gift, the mystery of our faith, Christ has died----and making peace with God on our behalf; Christ is risen---breathing on the disciples and saying, "peace be with you"; Christ will come again---this is Advent...."Emanuel---God with us---shall come to Thee, O Israel"

So, what is our vision of peace?  If w sit still long enough, if we listen closely enough, if we discern carefully enough, it will become clear.  Let us open our eyes and our ears, our hearts and our hands, and see the salvation of God. 

The peace of the Lord be with you.

Sources:  Edward Hicks, The Peaceable Kingdom.  John Braostoski, "Hicks' Peaceable Kingdom", Friends Journal, February, 2000.  The New Interpreter's Bible, Volume VI. 




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