David A. Davis
December 4, 2016
It doesn’t get any more familiar than this. “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him.” Discerning wisdom. Strong counsel. Knowledge that drips with the fear of the Lord. Delight in the worship of God. “He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear.” The poor judged with righteousness. Fairness shall abide with the meek. Evil and wickedness upon the earth will be brought to ruin by his word and by his breath. Word and Spirit. Righteousness and faithfulness will surround him. “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.” Cows and bears will graze in the same place. The young animals will curl up together. Even the lion will eat straw. The nursing child, the weaned child, will play with the most dangerous of snakes. “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”
It’s the soundtrack of a lifetime of Christmas Eves. The words of the prophet Isaiah. On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the people. A signpost for the people. The root, the branch that came forth from Jesse, shall be the landmark, the cairn, the banner, the lighthouse, the benchmark to the people. All the nations will seek him out and his dwelling; his dwelling place, his home, will be glorious. The holy mountain, Zion, where there is no hurting, no destruction. Glorious. Lions, cows, bears, wolves, lambs, leopards, kids, fatlings together. Glorious. Evil stomped out. Equity for the meek. Righteousness for the poor. Glorious. His kingdom, that budding branch of wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and the fear of the Lord, his kingdom, his dwelling is glorious. Not just peaceable. It’s not just peaceable. It’s glorious.
The prophet reprises the kingdom song near the end of the Book of Isaiah. Isaiah 65. Like a composer who brings the tune back at the end of the work, it’s all familiar. “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth… no more shall there be an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime… They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be… Before they call I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox but the serpent — its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.”
By now Isaiah’s audience, Isaiah’s readers, ought to be humming along, closing their eyes, nodding their heads, and visualizing the kingdom. Glorious! Glorious!
Of course for Isaiah and the rest of the Hebrew prophets, it was never about an audience. Prophets don’t look for spectators. They don’t put out the call for religious onlookers. They are about creating, shaping, pruning, sending a kingdom people. God’s kingdom people.
Edward Hicks was the early 19th-century Quaker who created the famous painting of “The Peaceable Kingdom.” Many will remember the scene with all the animals there in the forefront painted with such bright colors and vivid features. A lamb at the feet of the lion. A child there in the midst. The painting was “posterized” in churches and homes long before the word “posterized” made it into the urban dictionary. There is a familiar Hick’s painting of Noah’s Ark as well. Edward Hicks actually painted over 60 different versions of the peaceable kingdom. He probably painted more than that but 61 exist today. One wonders if his persistence was about an artist trying to get it right or someone with a Quaker heart trying to decorate a lost world with as many visions of peace as he could.
One of the features in most (if not all) of the “peaceable kingdom” paintings is a contemporary scene to the left of the animals, sort of in the background, just beyond some body of water. Interpreters say it is most often a depiction of William Penn and associates making peace with a group of Native Americans. The Garden of Eden-like scene dominating the foreground of the painting with a depiction of a 19th-century example of peacemaking (at least peacemaking in the artist’s eyes) off to the left. A vision of the prophet’s promise casting a light on humanity’s world. The peacefulness of a new creation spilling into the world the artist sees around him. The eternal hope of a glorious kingdom giving perspective to the present reality.
Perhaps the artist’s rendering of a discussion of peace with Native Americans could serve as a kind of ironic reminder that humanity has never really learned the things that make for peace. As Jesus said when he wept over Jerusalem, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace.” (Luke 19:42) Nonetheless, Hick’s Quaker-influenced theological point should not be tossed away. It is a visual depiction of the prophet’s “already and not yet.” While waiting for that promised glorious kingdom to come, God’s kingdom people are called to point to, work for, shout out, and claim the reign of God now. That sounds like Advent to me. A vision of Christ’s promised kingdom casting a light on and transforming humanity’s world. The peacefulness of God’s new creation yet to come spilling into the world you and I see all around us. The eternal hope of Christ’s glorious kingdom giving perspective to the present reality.
Earlier this fall I was in Wyoming to officiate at a wedding for a church member. Cathy and I spent a morning driving up into the Grand Teton National Park. It wasn’t that long after we had passed through the gate that we came upon a park ranger standing smack in the middle of the road with one of those bright orange vests on. Facing us, he was rather energetically pointing to his left. I thought he was telling me to pull over but this was a narrow road in national park and there was no berm to the road at all. So I just stopped and rolled down my window. Before I could say a word, the ranger blurted out in a loud voice for all to hear, “You can’t miss this!”. And he tossed his arm like a referee signing first down. Cathy and I turned to look in that direction and there was a moose, just off the road, taking a bath in a beaver pond. The moose was completely unruffled by the rangers booming voice. They must have been friends. We sure would have missed it. “You can’t miss this!”
Sometimes the prophet’s message comes in sublime beauty, like Brahms German Requiem and his setting of Psalm 84, “How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place.” Other times the vision is communicated with the subtlety of brush strokes and interpretation, art history, and the proclamation of God’s people. Isaiah’s message, Isaiah’s kingdom song comes in the complexity of the Hebrew Bible and it is to be studied with the best tools of scholarship, history, theology, language. Bring it all, bring everything we can muster to shed light on God and the mystery of the already and the not yet and God’s plan of salvation for us and for all of creation. But every now and then, and especially right now and right then, God’s kingdom people have to stand smack in the middle the road and shout and point, “You can’t miss this!”
The poor bathed in righteousness. The meek showered with fairness. Evil and wickedness plundered. Righteousness. Faithfulness. “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… They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” You can’t miss this! This Advent season a cantata just won’t do. Just look around. You and I have to stand up, put on a vest and point. Point to the eternal hope of Christ’s glorious kingdom that gives perspective to the present reality.
Actually, we just can’t point. Because prophets aren’t interested in spectators who just sit and point. Prophets aren’t interested in Christians who sit in the pew and say the church should stay out of politics. Prophets aren’t interested in self-absorbed Pietists who have concluded that it’s really all about them and their punched ticket to eternity. Prophets call people to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with their God. Prophets inspire people to let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Prophets tell of the Messiah, the Savior, the Son of God who stood up in the temple and unrolled the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and read, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). Prophets proclaim the Messiah and his glorious kingdom. Prophets are about pruning, shaping, sending, creating, empowering, inspiring, encouraging, calling a kingdom people. God’s kingdom people who are willing to point and shout and work and serve and love.
The world can’t afford to miss this vision of the glorious kingdom. Christ came from this kingdom. Christ inaugurated this kingdom. Christ fulfills this kingdom. Come, Lord Jesus! Quickly come. The glorious kingdom. His glorious dwelling place.
He comes from the glory. He comes from the glorious kingdom. He comes from the glory. He comes from the glorious kingdom. Sue Ellen Page taught that song to our youngest children at Nassau Presbyterian Church. The song was part of the Christmas Pageant for 573 years. More children than we could count. Children. youth, young adults. Adults now spread all over the world.
The Virgin Mary had a baby boy,
The Virgin Mary had a baby boy,
The Virgin Mary had a baby boy,
And they say that his name is Jesus.
He come from the Glory,
He come from the Glorious Kingdom,
He come from the Glory,
He come from the Glorious Kingdom.
Sue Ellen in June. She went on to glory just last Sunday night. Our children, your children, and mine. She didn’t just teach them to sing. She gathered them around and the way that only she could do, she pointed to the glorious kingdom and said with her life, “You can’t miss this!”
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