Sermon preached by Jack Cabaness
First Presbyterian Church of Katonah
November 22, 2015
Texts: Isaiah 11:1-9; Mark 1:12-15
One preacher tells the story of what happened when all the animals in the forest decided that now was the time to establish the peaceable kingdom once and for all. They issued a proclamation that all the animals in the forest would henceforth live in peace. Shortly after the proclamation was issued, a lamb saw a sleeping lion and nuzzled up to the lion, using the lion’s mane as a pillow. Then the lion woke up and ate the lamb. The moral of the story is that there’s always going to be someone who didn’t read the announcement. (from Presbyterian pastor Rick Spaulding, who is currently the chaplain at Williams College).
Isaiah’s vision of all the animals living in peace doesn’t seem very realistic. It’s beautiful poetry. Or it’s a beautiful image, as painted by the American folk painter Edward Hicks. Hicks repainted the Peaceable Kingdom at least sixty-two times, but even Hicks grew increasingly discouraged by the conflicts of his time, and each time he repainted the scene he made the predators more ferocious. (John Dillenberger, The Visual Arts in America, Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1984, pp. 130-132).
|The Peaceable Kingdom (1833). Worcester Art Museum.|
Painted by Edward Hicks (1780-1849).
A few chapters earlier in Isaiah, the prophet offered another utopian vision. The prophet speaks of a day when then nations “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
The people who first heard Isaiah’s message were devastated. What was happening a little more than 700 years before the birth of Christ was that the Kingdom of Judah was caught up in the Syro-Ephraimite War. Some people have referred to this as the first Jewish Holocaust. The holy city of Jerusalem itself was threatened with destruction. Their hope for rescue seemed cut off; their fortunes looking no better than a dead stump.
But still Isaiah dreamed of the day when the nations would no longer learn war. The proclamation of Isaiah 2:2-4 is repeated in Micah 4:1-3, with Micah echoing Isaiah’s hopes for a time when the nations would beat their swords into plowshares; and their spears into pruning hooks; but then Micah added an additional line to that beautiful oracle of hope …
Micah proclaimed, “They shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.” Micah moves from the universal desire for peace among all nations to the individual’s desire to feel safe.
We don’t need a biblical scholar to help us decode what Micah is talking about. We don’t need a historian to help us make Micah relevant to the present day, because we can hear this ancient promise that “they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid,” and we can immediately translate that to our own time ...
We can imagine Micah saying, “They shall all travel on planes, trains, and automobiles over the Thanksgiving holidays, or they shall stroll through Times Square in New York City or the Mall in Washington, D.C. or through the streets of London or Paris or Istanbul or Cairo, and no one shall make them afraid.”
In the aftermath of terrorist attacks in Beirut, Paris, and now Mali, we have seen terrorists learn new ways of waging war. How do we defend ourselves against those who are willing to blow themselves up to inflict harm on others? Isaiah and Micah dream of a day when the nations will not learn war anymore, but can we really unlearn war in an age of terror?
Before we simply dismiss the prophets Isaiah and Micah as unrealistic dreamers, notice what they both say after they speak of the nations unlearning war. Neither prophet promises that this vision will come true simply by magic. Isaiah says, “Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!” And Micah says, “We will walk in the name of the Lord our God.”
Peacemaking is a journey--a long, ongoing, step by step journey, in which we strive to remain faithful to the vision of peace that God has given us.
Anita Datar was a U.S. Citizen, a resident of Tacoma Park, Maryland, who lost her life on Friday when terrorists sieged the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako, Mali. She was a public health worker who had dedicated her life to working for the well-being of others.
It is in these devastating moments when the peacemakers loose their lives, that we are reminded that peacemaking is a long, long journey, full of many heartbreaking setbacks.
A few weeks after September 11th, 2001, Madeleine Albright, the former Secretary of State, spoke at the House of Hope Presbyterian Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. She said,
There are different ways of waiting. There is waiting without carrying hope within ourselves, sitting—waiting for salvation to come from the outside …
And there are those who wait with faith and who fight for truth even when they are defeated and beaten back a hundred times. This is the kind of waiting that sends forth seeds out of which change and progress may one day grow. The difference is between waiting for lilies to appear that have never been planted, and doing your utmost to help good seeds find nourishment in rocky soil.
She went on to say,
It is, of course, beyond our power to turn the clock back before September 11th, 2001. But we can choose to use the waiting time wisely: to be the doers, not hearers only; to acknowledge the presence of evil, but never lose sight of the good; to endure terrible blows, but never give in to those who would have us betray our principles, or surrender our faith. (as quoted in a sermon by John Buchanan, preached at Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church, December 9, 2001).
Today is the Reign of Christ Sunday. It is the Sunday when we look forward to the day when Christ’s reign will be fully realized. Long ago, the prophet Isaiah dreamed of the time when the earth will be as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. Isaiah dreamed of a time when the wolf shall live with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid.
And in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus proclaimed, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.” And right before Jesus made that proclamation, the Gospel writer Mark tells us that Jesus was in the wilderness with the wild beasts. Isn’t that an intriguing detail?
Could it be that there in the wilderness, the wolf was already nuzzling up to the lamb, and the leopard was already lying down with the kid? Could it be that signs of the reign of Christ were already there for those with eyes to see and ears to hear?
No matter how bleak the future seems. Even when we feel cut off from a future for which we had dearly hoped, we can dare to imagine a future in which green shoots do indeed grow out of dead stumps.
Where, in your lives, have you felt cut off? Perhaps you lost a job that you absolutely loved. Perhaps you’ve been cut from a family member or a loved one, and nothing exacerbates the pain of separation more than the holidays. Perhaps you are deeply worried about the state of our nation and the state of our world.
In whatever way you feel cut off, you can dare to imagine a green shoot growing out of a dead stump, even in these barren late November days.
I’m not trying to suggest that figuring out the next steps is ever easy or automatic. You’ll not hear me preach any sermons entitled, “Nine easy steps to get the lion to lie down with the lamb.” If Isaiah’s vision were easy to achieve, we would have already done it. But I believe this vision is enough to give us hope.
Several years ago, a future United States Senator was working as a tenements rights lawyer in Newark, New Jersey. He was walking around the neighborhood trying to offer his services. One day he knocked on the door of one Mrs. Virginia Jones. Virginia walked out of her tenement building and asked him to follow her. She said to him, “Tell me what you see?” He said, “I see crack houses and run-down buildings and gang graffiti.” Virginia replied, “Then, you can’t help me.” And she walked off. He went chasing after her and said, “Wait, you have to tell me more. Why are you walking away?” She said, “Young man, you need to learn something. If all you see is hopelessness and despair, then it’s a reflection of what’s inside you and you can’t help me. But, if you see signs of hope, new life, even the face of God, then we can get started.” (from a 2007 interview on NPR with Cory Booker, who at the time was the mayor of Newark).
What do you see? Do you see the stump—the evidence of heartache and tragedy?
Or do you see the green shoot?—the sign that the reign of Christ is already breaking through?
All glory and praise be to our God. Amen.