Sermon preached for the Second Sunday of Advent at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
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, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
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. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 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.
On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
“What is the one thing our society needs?”
That’s the question posed to a bevy of beauty pageant contestants in the 2000 comedy Miss Congeniality. The contestants know the answer. As one says, flashing a kilowatt smile, “that’s easy… world peace!” All up and down the line, that’s the answer: world peace. Then the movie cuts to Sandra Bullock, playing a no-nonsense undercover FBI agent. Asked the same question, she responds that the society needs harsher penalties for parole violators. The room goes silent. Finally, she adds, “and… world peace,” and the room erupts in cheers.
It’s a satire of course, and not a terribly subtle one. We all know that we’re supposed to want world peace. We all applaud the idea of world peace. But it’s such a universally popular idea that it easily becomes a shallow catchphrase, an overused cliché. We throw a peace sign and off we go.
Of course, for many of us, our longing goes much, much deeper. We do really want world peace. We pray for it. We work for it. We grieve the endless violence and destruction and abuse. We are overwhelmed by the immensity of hatred, bitterness, war. World peace—true world peace, with no person in danger of violence from another—seems impossible. It hasn’t happened yet, not in our whole human history. We seem doomed—by genetics or sin or psychology—to go on shooting our way through disagreements until somebody finally decides to pull the trigger on one of those nuclear warheads tucked in various countries around the world.
It’s a bleak picture, and I will admit I have very few ideas on how to solve it. I mean, I don’t even know how to keep a vanful of kids from getting on each other’s nerves during a half-hour car trip. World peace? Not a clue.
Luckily, there are brighter and braver people than me all over the world serving as peacemakers. Often their success comes in lowering expectations—seeking not some elusive, fantastical ideal of “world peace,” but a more achievable, attainable sense of tolerance or stability in their particular corner of the globe.
This past spring I attended a fascinating lecture by a professor at the University of Virginia. He co-founded the Global Covenant of Religions, a non-profit dedicated to reducing interfaith or faith-based violence, especially in the regions of the Middle East and Northern Africa. The group’s strategy is simple: get folks of different faiths to sit down together and read their respective sacred texts together. And not just the nice bits, or the really crucial doctrinal stuff. The weird bits, the odd stories, the stuff no one quite knows what to do with. The idea is that by helping each other realize how complicated their religion is, by illuminating what is strange in each tradition, it will cut down on the kind of simplistic thinking that leads to faith-based violence. I have to admit that I went to the lecture expecting the kind of miracle stories that you often get in sermons like the one I’m preaching now, where enemies are transformed into best friends and war becomes peace in a few short sentences. I was initially disappointed, therefore, when the professor told us, “we aren’t hoping they’ll like each other or even respect each other when it’s all done. We just hope they won’t shoot each other. That they’ll see each other as complicated and human enough not to shoot. ” It felt like a let-down—actually, if I’m honest, like a betrayal. What about world peace? I thought we were a world-peace-or-bust kind of people? But then again, what Professor Ochs and his team are doing actually works; they have an effect that a dozen beauty pageant contestants mugging about world peace to the cameras never will—or even, if I’m honest, one Presbyterian pastor talking about it from the safety of her pulpit.
Still, even knowing how truly insane the idea of world peace is, I can’t help but fall under the spell of Isaiah’s poetry. Our passage from this morning is sometimes referred to as Isaiah’s “peaceable kingdom.” It’s a dreamworld, a place where even the lions retract their claws and the snakes refuse to bite. A place so gentle and calm and safe that you can leave your preschooler in charge and everything will be just fine. It’s little wonder that this is one of the most beloved passages in all of scripture, and one of the most quoted. All week I’ve been singing bits and pieces of different hymns and anthems to myself. There are paintings and poems I could show you, too. We love the idea of the peaceable kingdom. A place of total safety. A place where we don’t have to worry about anything at all.
I want Isaiah’s world to be real. I want to be able to cuddle with lions and leopards. I want a mountain where no one hurts or destroys anyone else. I want that world of peace. For myself, for those I love, for all people. I like the way Isaiah thinks. I like the dreams Isaiah dreams.
But I know how impossible it is, this peaceable kingdom. I know how people work; how they think and behave. I know the long history of hurts and traumas that prop up the ongoing conflicts of our world. Behind almost every act of violence is an act of violence before it; people lash out because someone lashed out at them, or at someone they loved,. It would take an act of international amnesia for world peace to come, it seems. As long as there is memory, there must be bitterness and conflict. As long as people are the way they are—not to mention lions and leopards and snakes—we might as well wish for the moon.
And so it is we resign Isaiah’s holy mountain to the realm of dreams, of fantasies. If the carnivores are going to have to learn to go vegan and the great military complexes of the world grind to a halt, it’s going to take an act of God to bring peace on earth. And while we believe God could and even that God will, God doesn’t seem to be terribly rushed about it. Which, honestly, is pretty frustrating. Usually, though, when I start getting irritated at God, and why God hasn’t done something I want done, I find God standing in front of me with a great big mirror. Usually I find that God is making space for us to do the work, for us to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world. For whatever reason, God seems to have faith in us—often times more faith than we have in God. God asks us to be the blessed peacemakers. But if peace is in our job descriptions too, then I for one would like a hint on how to go about it—I’m just so overwhelmed by the task at hand.
And I think I’ve found it—of all places, in this very same scripture. Convenient, no?
So far, I have focused almost entirely on the second half of this passage—the holy mountain. It’s the piece of it I know best, the piece that gets turned into songs and paintings. The first half stands a little in its shadow. But let’s look at it for a moment, and see if Step One can give us any guidance on how to get to Step 2.
Isaiah begins with the image of a tree stump—once the strong and proud dynasty of King David, Jesse’s son, now chopped down to a rotted stump, withered by greed and war and faithlessness. Isaiah has hope though, that one more King might rise from this lineage; one more true leader for Israel. As I did last week, I want to make it clear that Isaiah is not predicting Jesus here. He would have had a very human ruler in mind, but a human ruler filled with the Spirit of the Lord, just as Israel’s ancient heroes were said to have. In fact, usually when the Old Testament says the Spirit of the Lord rests on someone, it means they’re about to have a really good day on the battlefield. Here, though, Isaiah sees that God’s spirit enables humans to work for peace rather than war. God’s spirit confers not just power and might but wisdom and understanding, empathy and clear sight. Isaiah’s spirit-filled ruler is not swayed by shows of wealth or privilege. He can’t be bought, bribed, or intimidated. Unlike the rulers of the day, who often scapegoated the poor in order to let the rich off the hook, Isaiah’s spirit-filled ruler will take time to find out what’s really going on, and to judge fairly. He will see through stereotypes and prejudices and false fronts. He will see through it all, and count each person equally. No one will be cast aside or considered less important, less valuable. That was revolutionary governing in Isaiah’s time, and if we’re honest, it would be revolutionary in ours too.
Isaiah’s ruler, with God’s help, is able to lay aside his own prejudice and preference and see people for who they really are—too human and too complicated to shoot, as Professor Ochs would say. He is able to judge them with respect and compassion. Now, make no mistake—he does judge them. And if the ruler’s example is one to follow, this makes us uncomfortable. After all, we don’t want to be known as judgey people. But if we think of the ruler’s judgment not so much as criticism but as discernment—what should we do next? What is the healthiest, best outcome for this situation? What is the fairest choice we can make together? Those are judgments we should all be making, and if we can make them without prejudice or making assumptions, perhaps we would be putting our foot on the start of the path to that holy mountain.
Collective amnesia is one path to world peace, but not one that preserves humanity in any meaningful way. Another way—much harder, much longer, but in the end, more lasting—would be for us to learn to judge each other—interact with each other—with equity and righteousness, with a spirit of understanding and wisdom, not judging by what we can see on the outside or by hearsay, but seeking to understand the whole person, complicated as they might be.
It’s a long path to peace, one that starts with each individual human interaction. It’s a long path to peace that requires us to draw on God’s spirit at every turn. But it is still a place to start.
The mountain is still far off, and only Christ can lead us to the top. But the spirit of the Lord will keep us facing the right direction, inviting each person we meet to know that they are respected and loved by us and by God, until even lions and lambs trust each other.
This is the peace God offers: not just that we will refrain from conflict and violence out of fear that we ourselves might get hurt in the backlash, but that we will see each child of God as so beautiful, so complicated, so fully human, that we will not be able to imagine causing them hurt. That even when there is friction, even when we disagree, we will never judge that the solution is to cause pain. To them, or to ourselves. God’s peace, God’s wholeness, is based on this premise: that we act with justice towards each person, regardless of wealth or status or color or creed. That we see God in their faces as surely as we see God in the face of a baby in a manger.
The day is coming, says Isaiah, when they will not hurt or destroy on all God’s holy mountain.
For that day, we pray, and for that day, we work.