Reflection for Sunday – December 4, 2022
Readings: Isaiah 11: 1-10; Romans 15: 4-9; Matthew 3: 1-12
Preacher: Sonja Livingston
Edward Hicks was an 18th century Quaker minister and American folk artist famous for a series of paintings inspired by the words from Isaiah we read today. Hicks was so gripped by the imagery of Isaiah 11:6-9, he made 65 paintings of the scene over the last thirty years of his life, titling each, “The Peaceable Kingdom.” Hicks, who gave the paintings away, wasn’t motivated by money. Instead, he was caught up in Isaiah’s stunning vision of peace and the paintings were an expression of faith.
In Hicks’s paintings, lambs nuzzle wolves, and children rest their hands on lion’s heads. Sheep and babies and fattened calves are surrounded by bears, unseen vipers and wild cats. Actually, the innocent creatures are not so much surrounded by dangerous beasts as integrated with them. All dwell side by side. This isn’t a temporary laying down of fear or hunger, but a complete reordering of the world into a magnificent and lasting peace.
Our gospel reading presents us with another prophet. John, the wild man, is in the desert preaching repentance. Prepare ye, John cries out. He knows that Christ will usher in peace, but only to those ready to receive him. John isn’t talking about superficial preparation but deep inner reckoning. He refers to the Pharisees and Sadducees as a brood of vipers—a far cry from the peaceful creatures of Isaiah’s heavenly kingdom. John’s sternness is a warning about the pitfalls of smugness and complacency. The great one is coming, he proclaims. We can feel how electrified he is by this. The kingdom of heaven is at hand! Jesus is the real deal, John is saying, and simply relying on tradition or going through the motions isn’t going to cut it anymore.
As I thought about these readings and considered Hicks’s depictions, gazing into scene after scene of lions lounging alongside lambs, two things occur to me. First, there’s a similarity between Hicks’s paintings and popular renderings of the Nativity with its unlikely combination of creatures coming together in a simple but wondrous display of peace and adoration. Secondly, given the violence and hardline factions of our time, is such peaceful coexistence even imaginable anymore? Can lions lie down with lambs in December of 2022? Though this question speaks to external divisions, I suspect that part of the answer—the Advent part, anyway—must come from closer to home.
Years ago, I worked with grade school children struggling with disabilities or sadness or trouble at home. I was a decent counselor, but the woman in the office beside mine was phenomenal. One afternoon, I overheard Katie talking with a boy who’d done something inappropriate in the classroom. Children typically worked and played together quite happily, but occasionally, someone got upset and yelled or flung toys and books around the room. A large part of our job was helping kids to name what was bothering them while finding better ways to respond. I don’t remember what landed this particular boy in the counseling office, I only remember Katie asking him what was going on.
“I don’t know,” he sounded genuinely confused. “I have a monster living in me sometimes.” “Well,” Katie eventually asked, “who’s bigger—you or the monster?”
I love this question. As much as we like to think of ourselves as lambs, aren’t we all home to a few lions and snakes, too? They can take many forms. Violence. Impatience. Perfectionism. Doubt. Greed. At no point did Katie suggest that monsters were terrible or even unusual. She simply reminded the boy that there was more to him than the beast who’d roared so loudly that day.
Bringing lions and lambs together is a sacred business. It requires hope, faith and great care. It’s not a battle of might or will but a negotiation of an entirely different kind. In Isaiah’s vision, the lamb doesn’t trounce the lion, nor does the child flatten the viper underfoot. Instead, they abide together, and are led by a gentle open hand. Is it possible we needn’t work so hard at battling the beasts around us and within us, but might nurture a space where they’re subdued by the tender vulnerability of the lamb?
Advent is many things. Joyful expectation. Excitement. Watchful waiting. But it’s a serious call to action as well. We cannot simply go about business as usual but must ready ourselves for the Light of the World by making peaceable kingdoms of our own hearts.