Dec. 8th, Rev. Judy Chan

Choose a Better Way

8 December 2019

Judy Chan

SS: Isaiah 11:1-10, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3: 1-12

Around 20 years ago, there was a meeting that I really wanted to go to in the Netherlands. It was the Assembly of the World Association for Christian Communication. I’d been involved in the Asia region of this ecumenical network. And every 6 years they had a global assembly of all the regions. But the problem was I didn’t have enough money to go. Then I heard that WACC was running a logo design contest for the meeting. The theme was “From Conflict to Community”. Anyone who was a regional member could enter the contest. And the grand prize? A free trip to Amsterdam. Here was my chance! Now, I don’t know how to do computer design, so my logo had to be drawn by hand. And what I came up with was a drawing of a lion and a lamb lying down together and the words “From Conflict to Community” over the top. The image, of course, is taken from Isaiah 11. Well, my brilliant idea done in primitive art style didn’t win the contest. The good news, however, is I found other funding and I got to go the Assembly anyway.

20 years later, here we are again with an image of a lion and lamb lying down together in the Old Testament reading. This has captured our collective imagination. If you see pictures of this, usually it’s a majestic lion lying down on the grass with a gentle lamb nestled up in front of it.  Other artists inject a bit of humor with a drawing of a lamb and a lion sitting together at a bar having martinis. But the one image that many people think of for Isaiah 11 is the famous painting – The Peaceable Kingdom. This was done by the American Quaker Edward Hicks in the 19th century.  Here he takes all of verses 6-8 to include the different animals and children. And way in the background is the Quaker leader, William Penn, negotiating a peace treaty with the native Americans. I didn’t know that Edward Hicks actually painted 62 versions of this picture. And as the story goes, he became more and more discouraged by the conflicts of his time, especially within his religious community. So, in the later versions, he paints the lions and leopards and wolves looking more and more ferocious with glassy eyes and bigger fangs.

It’s obvious then that this dream of a violent world returning to the Garden of Eden wasn’t happening in his lifetime, and maybe not in our lifetime either. There are endless jokes about the lion and lamb lying down together. Here’s one: The lamb says, “Let’s call a truce.” The lion replies, “After I have my dinner, thank you.” This peaceable kingdom then seems no more realistic in the animal world than in the human world. Wild animals do not live together with domestic animals. Lions are not vegetarians. And little children do not lead them, much less play near snake pits. So, what is going on here?

To understand this poem, we need to look at the setting. It’s the 8th century BC and Israel is under threat by the Assyrians. Isaiah predicts the fall of the Assyrians like a tree cut down that will never grow again. But then he turns to the house of David, son of Jesse. And even though David’s house is falling too, Isaiah says there is hope. From that tree stump will sprout a shoot whose branches will grow out from the root of Jesse. A greater King is coming whose reign will truly be one of peace and righteousness.

Christians of course understand this passage to be a prophecy of the Messiah Jesus Christ. The King of kings will save us from our sins. He will protect the poor and the vulnerable. His kingdom will reconcile and restore all of God’s creation – humanity, animal life and the land. But ‘when?’ you ask. Jesus came as a babe in the manger over 2000 years ago, and still there is endless injustice and violence. There’s a carol we often sing at Christmas called “I Heard the Bells”.  It’s not just about lovely bells that remind us this is a season of peace. Actually the 5th verse was written while the country was in Civil War. Here Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote:

And in despair I bowed my head;

“There is no peace on earth,” I said;

“For hate is strong,

And mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!” (and women)

Why is there no peace on earth this Christmas even though Jesus Christ has been born?  If Jesus is who he says he is, why do lambs continue to be eaten by lions and wolves? Is Isaiah 11 just a faraway vision that will only happen at the 2nd coming of Christ? If so, why did Jesus come the first time if it didn’t really change anything?

Today, I tell you we make a big mistake if we think the coming of Jesus didn’t make any difference. In fact, his Advent into the world 2000 years ago changed everything for you and me. How, you may ask?

By giving us three of the most important things we need:

The promises of God.

The justice of God.

The peace of God.

Let’s look more closely at these from our Bible readings for the 2nd Sunday in Advent.

1) The promises of God: I admit sometimes I forget Jesus was a Jew. We seem to emphasize so much how he was at odds with the Jewish people that it sounds as if he disowned them to start a new religion. As if God had gotten disgusted with the whole lot of them and decided to give someone else the blessing. But that’s definitely not the case. As St Paul wrote to the Romans: “For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.” What is Paul saying? Instead of feeling smug that we have the Gospel and others don’t, we need to recognize how we got Jesus in the first place – through the Jewish people and the mercy of God. I like the way one of our radio speakers put it. He said, remember, “the Lord we worship and follow is of the tribe of Judah, the son of David; a Jewish child of a Jewish mother.  We call him by a Jewish title, Christ, the Messiah.  The privilege of belonging to the people of God is ours . . . nevertheless . . .  the gifts and calling of God to his ancient people the Jews, are irrevocable.”[1] They can’t be taken away.

This evening, then, let us be grateful that the promises of God to Israel are also ours through the coming of Jesus Christ.  As Paul quotes from Isaiah: “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him . . . The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.” The promises of God.

2) The justice of God: The 2nd way that the coming of Jesus changed everything is through the justice of God. We read over and over again in the Old Testament that God hates injustice and takes the side of the poor and marginalized and oppressed. And not only is God on their side, so should God’s people be on their side. We know this. We’ve heard it and we believe it. But we also are quite sure we know who are the lions out there and who are the lambs, who are the predators and who are the prey. In many situations it’s obvious. But what if the lion and the lamb are found in the same person? That’s right. What if there is a little lion and a little lamb inside each one of us? Then we have to come to terms with the potential within each of us to become an oppressor as well as the oppressed. To be the bully as well as the victim.

I think that’s why the words of John the Baptist to the Pharisees and Sadducees are so powerful. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” Remember, John was calling on all the people of Israel to repent, everyone to prepare the way of the Lord.  But he held special contempt for those who thought they had nothing to repent of, that they were faultless.  “Don’t go telling me who your father was,” John says. “If you aren’t bearing the fruit of righteousness, God is ready to chop down your tree.” Wow. If that’s what God says to the people of Israel, what’s the message to us Gentiles? Nothing less than this: God won’t tolerate injustice – to His people or from His people – and that includes you and me.

3. The peace of God: That’s the 3rd way that the coming of Jesus changed everything by making peace truly possible.  One of the verses we often quote in this context comes from Philippians 4:7: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” I don’t think that means that God gives us a kind of peace that no one else would call peace – that we passively accept tragedy and violence and suffering in this life because God will give us comfort in the next life. Remember we’ve been talking about “peace on earth, goodwill to all”. So the peace Christ brings to guard our hearts and minds must make some difference now between his first coming and his final coming. And I say it does if we follow not only what Jesus said but what he did.

What then has Jesus done that makes peace possible? We need to look no further than the Cross. For what was his crucifixion but the most violent, humiliating punishment that the Romans could dish out to enemies of the state? I always imagine the Cross of Jesus and the thieves standing alone on Good Friday. But likely there were many more victims hanging on crosses all along the road. This was the Empire’s way of warning others “you might be next”. Yet only at the Cross of Christ do we find meaning and redemption. Only Jesus died out of love for his enemies. Because he knew there was only one way to lasting peace. And that is to accept that even my enemy is a child of God. That God’s ultimate goal has never been revenge or reversal but forgiveness and reconciliation. That’s why Jesus chose to suffer violence rather than be the cause of it. To speak God’s truth by every means possible except violence and hatred. Because he knew once we release our inner beast, we may start to become what we hate. And that would be the greatest tragedy of all.

Of course, we’re not Jesus. And it’s way harder for us to follow his example, he who was both fully human and fully divine. We only got the human part. Yet the good news of the Gospel is that through Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection, God has done for us what we could not do for ourselves. We now have the possibility of living in peace. If we choose.

So, it turns out the image of the Peaceable Kingdom really is fitting for the Advent season. It’s God’s vision that we do not need to depend on each other’s destruction for our own survival. That in fact, the Gospel tells us that we are ultimately responsible for the life of our neighbor and especially the lives of our enemies.[2]

In Advent, I have given the sermon the title “Choose A Better Way”. And that’s how I will close. By asking you to choose a better way through Jesus Christ who opened the promises of God to the Gentiles.  To choose a better way through Jesus Christ who showed us God won’t tolerate injustice towards anyone or from anyone – including you and me. To choose a better way through Jesus Christ who made peace on earth possible by trusting faithful witnesses to follow His way – all the way to Cross if necessary until there is justice, peace, healing and unity for all.

[1] Rev. Ross Royden, “Minutes That Matter”, RTHK Radio 4, 30 July 2019.

[2] Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom, p88.