OT: Isaiah 11.1-10
NT: Matthew 3.1-12
The Peaceable Kingdom
The image of the wolf and the lamb lying down together in peace, natural enemies reconciled, fascinates me like few other Biblical passages. Especially this time of year, during Advent, on the Sunday when we light the “peace” candle.
There’s a famous painting called “The Peaceable Kingdom” which depicts that scene. It shows the lion eating straw in the background while a child is surrounded by all the creatures who should be enemies. You’ve probably seen it before, but if you haven’t you can certainly picture it. It looks like a petting zoo set in a park with a small child at the center. I think that’s how most folks picture Isaiah’s words: A cute and cuddly greeting card with a happy baby surrounded by his favorite stuffed animals. It’s enough to make you say, “Awww, how precious!”
That was Hick’s first painting depicting Isaiah 11. When he was a young man. It was simple and colorful and pleasant. As he grew older, his life took several wrong turns. He battled an addiction to alcohol. His Quaker community forbid his ornate paintings. He gave up his artistry to become a farmer, but he failed miserably. He no longer saw the world as a cute and cuddly place. The more he lived, the scarier the world became. Can you identify with that? Is the world a scarier place now than when you were a child?
Over the course of his life, Hicks drew that same painting 62 different times, and it always looked different. With each new version, the scene grew darker, more imposing, and downright scary. He added more animals. He made the animals increasingly larger. Whereas they once looked down submissively, they now stare at the child aggressively. Some of the animals fight one another in the background. The once leafy, lush trees lost their leaves. The once plush, green grass died and withered away. The child looked in control at first, but now…he looked as though he was on the verge of tears. The more of the world Edward Hicks saw, the less he thought “The Peaceable Kingdom” was a possibility. Can you identify with that? Is peace on earth a nice thought…but a naïve impossibility?
Don’t tell me when you sat around the Thanksgiving dinner table you didn’t wonder about peace. It may have felt like a wolf was sitting next to a lamb and you weren’t sure how long the peace would last! So let’s think about what “peace” meant in Isaiah’s day. We think of peace as inner contentment, but that wasn’t what Isaiah had in mind.
When Isaiah was written, peace was something the Hebrew elders talked about…it was not something people of that day and age had experienced. They were a small nation with little land always being conquered by more powerful, more aggressive, better funded, better equipped nations. They were sheep surrounded by wolves. So Isaiah, playing the role of cheerleader, assures them that it will be OK. He told them the messiah would one day make the wolves lie down with lambs.
And they reacted just like you do when a beauty queen says she wants world peace. Get real! It ain’t gonna happen.
The Hebrews wanted a savior to get rid of the wolves! Not make them get along, because that was a ridiculous idea. They wanted a hero to ride in on a white horse with his sword drawn and his army in tow to slaughter their enemies! Instead, they got a baby in the middle of a petting zoo.
That may sound silly but it is monumentally significant. You see, back in that day, killing a lion was a sign of divine favor. A human who did that was seen as worthy to rule as a prince or king. For example, David was chosen to fight Goliath because he once killed a lion when defending his herd of sheep in the wilderness. Kings fought and killed lions. That was their role. People wanted a king who could slay lions, because if they could do that then they could surely defeat their enemies!
But the king of Isaiah 11, the king of the Hebrews, the prince of peace, the baby at the center, does not hunt or kill lions. He remakes them. He has them lie down with their enemies, and he sits in between them to keep the peace. Getting a baby in the middle of a petting zoo instead of a warrior says something fundamental about who our God is and what the Christ child’s mission is. His peace is different.
So let’s think about peace. What is it? What is peace at the family Thanksgiving meal? Is it not talking about the election or whose dessert is the best? One of my relatives, who shall remain nameless since this is a small town, once started a fistfight at Thanksgiving. So the next year, peace meant there wasn’t a fistfight. God sets a higher bar.
Peace is not just the absence of visible conflict; it is not a warm and fuzzy feeling. In Hebrew, the word for peace is “shalom,” and it means wholeness, harmony, completeness, prosperity, and welfare. Peace, then, is not just a “me” thing; peace is a “we” thing. It’s wholeness for an entire community. Jesus came not to hunt or kill or destroy anyone; he came to bring shalom to everyone. He came to ensure that we can all sit down together in peace.
That was the idea that fascinated Edward Hicks enough to paint about it 62 times. By the end of his life, it was not as frightening as it once had been. It wasn’t a scene from a Disney movie, either. He was asked near the end of his life why he painted it so many times. “Because the child’s offer is still on the table.”
On this peace Sunday in Advent, we must know that the peaceable kingdom is not a fairy tale. Neither is it yet a reality in this world where humans devour each other for sport. The peaceable kingdom is God’s intention for our world, so much so that God sent the child to sit in the middle of sworn enemies and keep them safe from each other.
The offer still stands. Will you accept it? Will you embrace it? Will you make peace this Advent? Amen.