Reflection for Sunday – December 4, 2016

Readings: Isaiah 11: 1-10; Romans 15:4-9; Matthew 3:1-12
Preacher: Marilyn Catherine

There is a famous painting, The Peaceable Kingdom, inspired by this week’s first reading. It depicts a child embracing a lion and traditional natural enemies of the animal kingdom gathered together in peaceful company.

The painter, an American folk artist, Edward Hicks (1780-1849) spent 29 years of his life composing over 62 known versions of The Peaceable Kingdom. Again and again he worked and reworked the vision Isaiah presented. It conveyed Hicks’s belief in the Quaker doctrine of the “Inner Light,” or as Paul says, “Christ in you.” When we yield our small self will to the divine will of Christ within us the barriers caused by the differences between us can melt and we can live and work together harmoniously.

A nice picture, right? But really, is the peaceable kingdom something we can still envision after encountering head on the deep and heart wrenching divisions in this country that were exposed in 2016?

Maybe it depends on how and where you look. Edward Hicks was born in a time of conflict and division; his father backed the “wrong” side of the Revolutionary War and was left penniless. His Quaker neighbors disapproved of his decorative painting and for a while Hicks struggled, torn between their view of acceptability and his responsibility to keep his family of five young children from the brink of financial disaster. As new settlers arrived in his Pennsylvania Quaker community many branched off into sects whose differences conflicted with one another.

It was not unlike the experience of the Jewish community when and where Matthew’s gospel was written. The Jewish community (of which the followers of Jesus were still just one sect) was rife with competing factions, hostile rhetoric, and a highly charged engagement in the process
of ordering and defining their beliefs and self-definition following the catastrophic consequences of Roman rule.

Human beings have always lived in a world riddled with conflicting interests, with predators and prey, with differences that set us in opposition, engaging us in an endless cycle of winners and losers. It seems to be the way of the world—and yet… There is this one cockamamie vision of Isaiah wherein a spirit of wisdom, of understanding, of counsel, of strength, humility, and delight in God prevails, where the earth is filled with knowledge of the Lord and the differences that made us foes are laid to rest.

Written for our instruction that by endurance and by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. For thousands of years Isaiah’s vision persisted and came to settle in the heart and imagination of one American, Edward Hicks, who couldn’t stop painting it. The divisions and conflicts among his people greatly discouraged Hicks even from continuing his work preaching as a minister. Instead he embraced his life work as a painter using his canvases to convey his belief.

We who have been baptized in Jesus’s name with the Holy Spirit, are called to represent—to become—a version of The Peaceable Kingdom, each in our own inspired way on whatever canvas our life presents.

In this age of conflict there is as always the longing for peace and harmony. This Advent we are especially cognizant of the need for conversion in order to welcome the Christ God is sending into the world. No one ever said it was easy or quick work but as Christians it’s our life work, and we cannot stop painting. The Peaceable Kingdom of God is not only at hand, it is in our hands.

Marilyn Catherine
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