Isaiah 11:1-11 Visions of Peace
A question to begin this morning’s sermon: What do you desire most in life? I want to suggest to you that above all, the thing we desire most is peace. Everything that we do, even our aggressive actions, are carried out so that we might achieve peace.
The ancient Hebrews used a familiar, but significant word, shalom, throughout their writings. In its purest sense, shalom means peace. It is a very positive way to greet a person. When people wished one another shalom it didn’t mean “I hope you don’t have any trouble in your life.” Instead, it meant, I hope that you have the highest good coming your way. I hope that you live in the best possible world.
Our tendency is to think of peace as being a time when there is no aggression. We wish for peace in Afghanistan or Syria or Palestine. We are thinking of the absence of times of difficulty. Or in our own lives, we think of peace as the opposite of running around in the midst of a state of constant anxiety. The Chol Indians of Mexico define peace as a “quiet heart.”
However, the Kekchi Indians of Guatemala have a different understanding, defining peace as “quiet goodness.” It is not the removal of oneself from trials or struggles but rather is learning to have a contentedness in the midst of the turmoil of daily living. Peace is something that dwells within – that is not touched by what is happening on the outside. But it is also working actively to change things as they currently are, to something better.
I think of Jesus when he comes to the realization that he is going to be arrested on charges of sedition. It is just a matter of time. He seeks to comfort his followers with the promise of the Holy Spirit. His words from what must have been the most agonizing moments of his life, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful.” [John 14:27]
When we have this sort of peace, then I think that rather than being influenced by external circumstances, we can affect and even overcome things that are oppressing us. When I picture peace, I picture someone like Gandhi, or Mother Teresa, or Nelson Mandela. Rooted in their peace, they were able to accomplish great things.
This morning, for our second Sunday in Advent, we turn to another bit of prophecy from the book of Isaiah. I love the image we are presented with: The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.”
There are two pitfalls when dealing with prophecy in these Hebrew Scriptures. The first pitfall is what I call the “Harry Potter pitfall.” In Rowling’s book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Professor Trelawney falls into a trance and speaks:
The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches…Born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies…and the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not…and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live with the other survives. [p.841]
I was reading this to my children and as we read the professor’s words, we all knew whom she was referring to: Harry Potter. The whole story is the living out of these words. This is not prophecy, this is prediction; the forecasting of future events.
Isaiah, when he gives his prophecy, is not predicting the coming of Jesus. Isaiah is not in some kind of trance, oblivious to the world, his society, everything around him. These words are not road signs to the coming of Jesus. This was the interpretation given by the later Christian community. The best way to consider these words is that they were spoken in Isaiah’s own time to proclaim the wonders that God can bring about. We believe that God is still speaking to us, so they are also words that proclaim to us the wonder that God can bring about in our own times.
A friend went to work at a new church. For a number of Sundays, she listened to another minister tell the children’s story, and when he asked a question she noticed that the answer was always, “Jesus Christ.” The children knew this. So each time he asked a question, hands would go up and someone would answer, “Jesus Christ.” Finally, she had a turn to tell the children’s story and she was determined to ask a question where the answer was not “Jesus Christ.” She started off by asking the question, “What is brown or black or grey with a bushy tail that climbs in the trees and can be seen running along the telephone wires? What gathers up nuts and seeds in the fall and hides them for the winter? Hands shot up and she asked one little boy. He replied, “Jesus Christ.”
If we see God in some way speaking through these words to us, we avoid the second pitfall, which I like to call the “historical ditch.” This is where we say that these words were proclaimed by a man either six or eight centuries before Jesus lived and that his messages were relevant to his own times but that they have little connection with our own lives. If we fall into this ditch, then we run the risk of our faith being based on nothing more than a historical story. Yet if God is still somehow speaking through these words, then we have the opportunity to listen and apply them to our own lives. They are a means by which God is still speaking to us.
The picture of shalom that we find here is a time when all creation eases up on hostility and destruction and finds another way of relating. These words speak of the impossible possibility of a new creation. In God’s peaceful world, the little ones don’t get eaten up by the big ones. The lion and lamb lying down together, as an image for me, is that in finding my peace, I have to look at the areas in my own life where I contribute to the lions dominating the lambs. How does my lionesque first world, or global north lifestyle contribute to an absence of peace in creation? I am not going to have shalom in myself if I am not working to contribute to shalom in the wider creation. Or how am I working to make shalom in my own relationships? Do I strive for the making right of everything in my own life? What, this morning, is our personal encounter with these words of Isaiah?
Is it possible? These words, this concept of shalom, are presented as a new normal for our lives. The current normal is that it has become customary for us to hear about the death toll in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, or when you board an airplane, to expect to run a gauntlet of security measures. I am one of those people who always seems to get pulled aside for what they call extra screening. Finally I asked one of the security people why this was so; did I look suspicious? I don’t know if she was joking, but she said that they pull aside the people whom they don’t think will give them a hassle. So from then on, when I go through security, I try to look cross. It has been working. It is normal for us to read about this and that toxic toy, especially as we approach Christmas, or hear of violent, senseless murders. These things are not normal for God’s creation. The shalom Isaiah proclaims is God’s normal for creation and for our lives. We can lose sight of this because we are so caught up in the normal of this world that we forget that God has promised us something better than this.
The theologian Walter Bruggeman helps draw all of this together, this vision that sustained the people of Israel through conquest after conquest, that sustained our ancestors in the faith and the same vision that sustains and inspires us in this Advent season. He says, “The song of the prophets and the image of the poets, the voices of Moses and of Jesus, that a new world is about to be given, we can trust ourselves to it and live as though in it.”
So this morning, what would a “new normal”, a detoxified world, look like for you? We have Isaiah’s vision of it and assurance that God is at work. Isaiah continually called people to do something. So what would you have to do to make a new normal in your life? What do you need to do to bring about a greater measure of shalom? What are the powers that exercise control over your life and how are you going to address them?
I remind you that we, too, are messengers of God, prophets in our own times in the way we live our lives, in peace, in justice, in caring for one another and God’s good creation. Shalom. Amen.