An Advent Reflection on Isaiah 11: 1-10
What do we dare hope for? It’s an interesting expression, isn’t it? Daring to hope. But how else to describe this vision, of a peace beyond our wildest imagination?
We don’t know exactly when these verses were written; the book of Isaiah contains material that ranges over a century or so of ancient Jewish history. Possibly this passage comes from sometime in the eight century BC, when the neighboring kingdom of Assyria laid siege to Jerusalem. Possibly it comes from sometime in the seventh century BC, when the neighboring kingdom of Babylon destroyed Jerusalem. Isaiah’s people were not accustomed to justice, or peace. Yet in these verses, the prophet offers them a bold vision of hope, based in his faith that God was not finished yet.
Isaiah begins with an image of new growth from a felled tree, a shoot from the stump of Jesse — Jesse being the father of King David. This new king of Israel will usher in a reign of justice:
With righteousness he will judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.
He shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
As if this wasn’t already more than his people would dare to hope, Isaiah’s language then explodes into an even more extravagant vision — a Peaceable Kingdom in which conflict and enmity are ended, even between predator and prey; a world in which children will be free from all peril:
The cow and the bear shall graze,
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
This, Isaiah tells us, is God’s plan for us. Nothing less than this.
Think about this for a moment, and ask yourself, which seems like a more achievable form of security: a world in which the lion shall eat straw like the ox, or a world from which lions have been eradicated?
Before pursuing my call to the ministry, I was an ecology professor, and I can tell you from a purely biological perspective, there’s no way a lion is going to eat straw. It’s not just a matter of instinct; it’s a matter of digestive enzymes and dental structure. It’s just not going to happen. On the other hand, we humans have come pretty close to successfully driving lions to extinction.
The fact is, that we do routinely fantasize about killing off predators in our midst, or at least fencing them out. But do we dare to imagine a world in which foes are not vanquished, but reconciled? Or is such a world as unimaginable to us as a lion eating hay?
Several Christmases ago, a well-meaning relative sent my then two-and-a-half year old daughter Phoebe a picture book as a gift. It was the story of Henny Penny. Now, for those of you who may need your memories refreshed, Henny Penny is the tale of a chicken who, having been struck on the head by an acorn, becomes convinced that the sky is falling. She gathers together her friends – Turkey Lurkey, Loosy Goosey, and the other barnyard fowl – and they all set off to warn the countryside. On the way, they meet Foxy Loxy. The fox tricks the birds into entering his den, whereupon he promptly gobbles them up.
This particular version of the story was accompanied by remarkable illustrations, collages of photographs in which the animals appeared both realistic and full of personality. So when we turned the page, and there was the image of the fox, gleefully devouring Henny Penny’s friends, my daughter burst into tears. Deep, grief-stricken tears.
You see, to Phoebe, it was not the lion eating hay that was unimaginable; it was the fox eating chickens.
As adults, we have become accustomed to the world as it is. We learn to be realistic in our expectations, and so we avoid the cruelty of disappointment, the grief of loss. We don’t get our hopes up. But then we come face to face with a child. And we remember what hope is like. We remember, not how the world is, but how it should be.
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.
Who is this child? Who is this child, so at home in this unfamiliar, longed-for world?
In some sense, this child is Phoebe — or any other child. The child that ushers in this peaceable kingdom is every child. Because, when we come face to face with a child, any child, we remember what hope is like, and we remember who hope is for.
But this child also recalls to us one, particular child. From the earliest days of the church, Christians have seen in Isaiah’s prophecies a foreshadowing of the reign of Christ. When we read these scriptures, we see Jesus: not only in the ideal king, who will judge the poor with righteousness and the meek with equity, but also in this little child, leading the calf and the lion home together.
And it strikes me, what an odd thing it is, that we so often picture the founder of our faith as a child. As often as we see Christ on the cross, still we see him as the baby in the manger. It’s a fairly distinctive feature of our faith. How often does one speak of the baby Mohamed, or the Buddha Child? Yet Christ is for us, somehow, always a child.
Now, some might dismiss this as sentimentality, and it is undoubtedly easy to love a baby who hasn’t yet spoken to us of things we would rather not hear. But I think there is also something deeper going on here.
These verses are part of our worship at this time of year, because they capture the spirit of Advent – that time of year when we become children again, and remember what hope is like. For Advent is not just a season of remembrance; it is a season of anticipation. We sometimes tell our children that on Christmas we celebrate the birthday of Jesus, but this isn’t quite right. For it is not Christ’s birthday that we await during Advent. It is Christ’s birth. Christ was not just born in Palestine, two thousand years ago. Christ is about to be born for us, right now, right here. Christ is our hoped-for child, who teaches us to hope again.
God is about to do a new thing; now it springs forth; do you not perceive it?
A child is coming, to bring us hope.
(sermon preached at Belchertown United Church of Christ, 11.29.2015)
(photo: detail of The Peaceable Kingdom, painting by Edward Hicks)