Sermon – December 4, 2016 – Second Sunday of Advent

Advent 2 A


Peaceable Kingdom

Have you ever had the experience of getting a song stuck in your head? One that you just can’t get out? Well, I have a picture in my head. It is of Edward Hicks” peaceable kingdom”. You know the pictures that I’m talking about, don’t you? It is the one that represents our reading from Isaiah today. Lions and leopards and bears are represented side-by-side with lambs and cattle and a child or two. Do You know the one that I’m thinking of?

How do you respond to that picture? What does this painting invoke in you? Certainly , it is the projection of an ideal creation where animals lose the distinction of predator and prey. With that distinction removed, there is a new and peaceable community. No one was eating anyone. No one is dying.  There is harmony and rich life.  Lots of healthy plants and creatures and we are certainly meant to hear that God intends reconcilation of all creation.  Of course, what we see depends upon what picture we are looking at. Edward Hicks painted 62 versions of the peaceable kingdom an all of them had some sort of background, the Isaiah scene in the front, and another contemporary scene of some sort in the background.   For example, some of them had as background the treaty that William Penn brokered with the natives he encountered in 1681. Hicks saw that as evidence on the coming kingdom of peace and fellowship. Other pictures depicted as background a woman and a child, white dresses, red ribbons sitting under a tree.  It was probably his adoptive family, his mother and sister whom he apparently loved very much. Hicks was once a Quaker minister, but had some theological problems with the orthodox bunch, and so took up another vocation but he did paint some versions showing gatherings of Quaker elders holding a banner that read,” peace on earth and goodwill to men.” Another version and added a banner,” I bring you tidings of great joy.” The Christmas story, the incarnation was a sign.    Later versions of the peaceable kingdom included a character called “Liberty” who is shown feeding an eagle, the symbol for the new America. His idea of the peaceable kingdom depended upon where he was in his life, events or struggles that may have been current. So, from just one man’s point of view, the peaceable kingdom and the present day may have been a pact between differing peoples, or the proclamation of the good news in a new land, or the emergence of a new nation, all signs in Hick’s eyes.   I suppose we could spend the rest of our time fishing around the symbols of this painting, my point is that we read this lovely text from Isaiah and ponder what it may represent in the midst of our days.

Actually, the name of these paintings was not just a peaceable kingdom, but,” the peaceable kingdom of the branch.” This is what rises out of the root of Jesse, the branch that bears hope and reconciliation, harmony and restoration. The latter is impossible without the former. No root, no branch.  But we are to hear the role of the branch.

In his rough and the disarming way, John the Baptist–no Edward Hicks–proclaims the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. The root has burst forth in the person of Jesus, and the branch that emerges as a result is called to bear the fruit of the kingdom. The people have been waiting for generations to hear this news. And now it was upon them and they were bid to prepare and take up their part. You see, this news has always been spoken to the community and they were to receive it as such. First to Israel as the covenant people and now to all those who would hear. And that news, as the temple elites discovered, was not restricted to the few or even those privileged by ancestry, but to whomever would respond to the admonition to repent–that is to turn from the old to the new –be baptized and begin.

Isaiah’s rich promise begins to blossom among these gathered around John as he proclaims the one on whom the spirit of the Lord rests, who will bear and bring righteousness and equity for the poor and the meek and who will forgive sins, challenge evil, predation and violence. And the expected hope of generations of watchers and waiters will begin its fulfillment.

If Edward Hicks had been around as a contemporary of John, maybe he would’ve painted a picture of John baptizing in Jordan as his background. Or he might paint in the background the star shining over the manger, bearing a light that no darkness, political system, rulers or fear could overcome. Maybe another version would be the grown child drawing near the broken, the  raising of Lazarus, the healing the lepers or the shared meals with the outcasts and those of low estate. And then he would paint the cross and the empty tomb where hope burst out unequivocal and unrestrained as the surest confirmation of this in-breaking promise.

It is a broad canvas, brothers and sisters, but there is room for more. How would you paint the background of the peaceable kingdom? What hope, what sign would you identify in your own life? In your community? In your church? What word or event or experience brought unexpected reconciliation, brought unexpected peace, realized dreams? What in-breaking of this new kingdom have you witnessed, and how would you render it in relation to the fullness of grace and hope and purpose in Christ?  What would you paint as a member of the community of the root of Jesse that bears hope and life and mercy?

As we consider these things, let’s remember this promise was meant to go widely abroad. Even as Isaiah spoke to the people, and now speaks to us, so too does this divine promise speak to the poor, the meek, the disenfranchised and the preyed upon. We were meant to overhear this promise to them who will not be forgotten by the one who ushers in  this kingdom. So, we paint for them too. The fruit that we bear is not only our worship and thanksgiving and praise to the God who has broken down all barriers and liberated us in Christ, but it is also the work of reconciliation and advocacy and struggle and mercy for those from whom this hope is elusive, who are strangers to mercy and resigned to the predation of corrupt and greedy systems.

If we hear from this that God loves us so much that we would be made part of the branch, the family, then maybe God loves enough to expect something from us, that the freedom we receive as a gift would carry us onto the path bearing hope and light and mercy.

Today, I might paint our little farm in the background.2016:

Total harvest: 17,264

Total donation: 5,280

Total percentage: 30.5%

Maybe our Christmas gifts for kids in foster care, our work in New Orleans, our Sunday school kids gathered for instruction or song. . . . newly baptized.

And what dream would we paint? What do we long for?  What to we pray for? What do we live for and for what would we be willing to die?   Peace in our streets, reconciliation of differences of race and creed, equity in our justice systems, a well-fed world . . . you name it.

That’s how hope starts . . . with a tendril that grows and blossoms and sets deep roots.  Like the root that grows out of the stump of Jesse.  That’s how hope starts, and for us it is undergirded with the loving promise of God.  . . . . .

Maybe this isn’t such a bad picture have stuck in our heads.  The vision of God’s restored creation and an invitation for us to receive the gifts of hope and forgiveness and new life conveyed by that vision, and then the challenge to participate in that restoration, to take up our own brushes, to proclaim the signs and paint the picture of God’s good news for all people.

That’s worth have stuck in our heads and our hearts.

Thanks be to God.