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Where Peace Resides
December 5, 2010
Isaiah’s vision in Chapter 11 is perhaps the most lyrical and poetic vision of peace in all of scripture–a wolf lies down with a lamb, the lion eats straw like the ox, the cow and the bear graze together while a little child plays over a serpent’s den unafraid and unharmed.
Inspired by Isaiah’s vision, 19th-century artist Edward Hicks painted The Peaceable Kingdom at least 62 times. In his early paintings, all the animals are there, a child among them, and in the background a delegation of Quakers is engaged in peaceful conversation with some Native Americans. Over time, though, Hicks grew increasingly discouraged by the conflicts of his time, and, his paintings changed as a consequence. Jan and I have a print of one of his later renderings of The Peaceable Kingdom. In this painting, the animals are in the foreground along with the child, but in the background is a dark forest where shadowy figures tote guns giving the scene an ominous feel. Well, on this second Sunday in Advent our feelings about peace may be similar. We proclaim Isaiah’s magnificent vision of peace, knowing that our world is far from peaceful.
We Americans pick up the morning paper and hope there hasn’t been another suicide bomber, that the North Koreans haven’t launched an attack on their southern neighbors, that a Palestinian rocket hasn’t precipitated a deadly Israeli retaliation, and that more beautiful young Americans have not died in Afghanistan. This week, confidential American diplomatic cables were disclosed on the internet. In the words of The New York Times, “The cables show that nearly a decade after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the dark shadow of terrorism still dominates the United States’ relations with the world.” Given this shadowy world of terrorism, nuclear threat, tenuous alliances—a world in which war is increasingly accepted as a permanent reality—where, if anywhere, is peace?
Clearly peace as Isaiah envisioned it resides in the future. Notice that Isaiah’s vision of peace is all cast in future tense, with the repeated use of the word shall. “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse…The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him…The wolf shall live with the lamb.” Isaiah’s present world was no less plagued than ours. For Isaiah, as for us, the present day is mostly a dog-eat-dog world—what the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson aptly described as “nature, red in tooth and claw.” Yet surprisingly, inexplicably, really, the prophet was able to imagine a new world that would n longer be characterized by predators and prey. As we sing during Advent, “envy, strife and discord will cease and the world will be filled with heaven’s peace.” No, it’s not here yet. But don’t lose hope, declares the prophet. One day, as Julian of Norwich said, “All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” Peace, God’s promised Shalom, is in the future.
But is peace only a future hope? In Advent, we not only turn our gaze to a future hope for peace, but we look backward in history making the audacious claim that peace has already come among us. In the New Testament, the tense changes from future to present tense. With the advent of Christ’s birth, instead of hearing, “The spirit of the Lord shall be upon him,” at Jesus’ baptism, the voice declares, “The spirit of the Lord is upon him.” At Jesus’ birth, the angels sing “peace on earth, good will to all.” Luke tells us how old Simeon prayed at the infant Jesus’ dedication in the Temple, “Now let thy servant depart in peace, for my eyes have seen the salvation of the Lord.” And according to John’s Gospel, after a day with Jesus, Andrew returns home and says to his elder brother, Peter, “We have found the Messiah.”
These early witnesses saw in Jesus the dawning of the prophet’s vision, when “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” The peace that God intends for all creation took on a human form and dwelt among us. No longer merely a future hope, in Jesus, God’s peace is revealed, made flesh, embodied in a person. That’s why the search for peace in our world takes us—as it did the wise men from the east—to the manger at Bethlehem. All our joyful Christmas carols spring from the conviction that peace has come into the world for the purpose of reconciling and restoring all things. “All glory be to God on high, and to the earth be peace; Good will to all from highest heaven begin and never cease! Begin and never cease!” The peaceable kingdom pictured in Isaiah has begun in the coming of God’s Messiah and will never cease until all envy, strife and discord are no more. Where does peace reside? Advent people answer that we have found God’s peace in the person of Jesus.
Well, we could stop here, satisfied that we have answered the question of where peace resides in a way that is instructive and, I hope, theologically sound. But to do so would leave a glaring omission. This morning we read these words from Isaiah, “The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” Do these words sound familiar? They should, because every time we baptize in this sanctuary, we lay hands on the person and pray using these very words from Isaiah. In the act of baptism, then, we declare our conviction that the peace envisioned by the prophet and revealed in Jesus also resides in the community of the baptized. As we say in the baptismal litany—“we are joined to Christ’s ministry of love, peace and justice.” Contemporary theologian Stanley Hauerwas lamented the disconnect between the act of baptism and the church’s vocation as peacemakers. He wrote, “I have come to think that the challenge confronting Christians is not that we do not believe what we say…but that what we say we believe does not seem to make any difference for either the church or the world.”
Friends, what we say we believe about the shape of the future and about Jesus must make a difference in how we live, serve and care for others. Last Tuesday a young pregnant woman came to our Uplift assistance ministry for help. We had helped her in the past to get her transcript from Houston Community College to ACC, where she has enrolled for the spring semester. She came asking for some items for her baby due in January. When asked to make a list of the items she needed for the baby she included the following letter.
“Dear University Presbyterian Church,
I just wanna say thank you very much for everything ya’ll have done for me. There are no words that express the feeling I feel. Ya’ll are an awesome people here at University Presbyterian Church. God knows that I have been struggling so much and everyday it’s been hard. I’m soon to be a single parent and also I don’t have any family out here. …God knows I’m trying my best everyday I wake up. I can’t do without God so with this blessing you would make my life a little easier…So thank you once again…”
That letter is just one example of how the Spirit of the Lord is upon us empowering us to join in Christ’s ministry of love, peace and justice.
So where in our troubled world does peace reside? Truly, God’s peace lies before us as the prophet Isaiah’s vision of a creation healed of all strife and discord. Just as surely, God’s peace lies behind us, having entered the world in the person of Jesus. And most importantly, God’s peace lies among us and is within us, changing us and making a difference in our lives and in the way we treat our neighbors.
May the peace of Christ be with you all.