December 18th, 2022 homily on Isaiah 11:1-10 by Pastor Galen
Recently I came across this cartoon, which depicts two cats sitting at a bar. The Christmas lights hanging behind them suggest that it is the holiday season. The first cat, drinking out of a martini glass, turns to the other cat and says, “I always give them a few days to enjoy the tree before I destroy it.” The other cat, chugging from a beer mug, says “Me too. It’s the season of giving.”
This cartoon reminds me that, as much as we humans may love animals, and especially our pets – sometimes they can be difficult to live with. Our cat is usually pretty gracious with our Christmas tree. As long as we put the glass bulbs high up on the tree we’re usually OK. But when we buy a new couch or stuffed chair, our cat doesn’t even give us a day before she starts clawing the stuffing out of it.
Now, the destruction of a Christmas tree or couch is a small price to pay for the love and affection we receive from our pets – most of the time. But overall, our relationships with animals can be quite fraught. Think of lions, and tigers, and bears. Or how about spiders and snakes and mice…and mosquitos? In many ways, we have a love-hate relationship with the animal kingdom.
While we as humans have sometimes been on the receiving end of the destruction wrought by animals, the reality is that we have committed more than our fair share of destruction as well – sometimes intentionally destroying animals or their habitats, other times making their world less habitable through our careless waste and pollution.
The reality of our fraught relationship with animals makes Isaiah’s imagery here in chapter 11 all the more fascinating. Wolves living with lambs. Leopards lying down with goats. Cows and bears grazing together. Lions eating straw like oxen. Calves and lions living together, and a little child leading them! Isaiah tells us, “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” (Isaiah 11:9-10).
A Signal To the Peoples
Here the prophet Isaiah looks forward to the day when there will be peace on earth. Peace that saturates every single corner of the earth. Nations will not go to war against other nations, as we saw in Isaiah chapter 2, and even the wild animals will get along with domesticated farm animals. According to Isaiah, the whole earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord. And the “root of Jesse” will stand as a signal to the peoples.
The word “signal” here is a banner that was used in battle to show where the commanding officer was in the midst of the chaos of the battle. The signal, or banner, would have had the king or queen’s emblem, and the banner bearer would have led the way. An indication not only where their commanding officer could be found, but also a reminder of who they were fighting for – and where their loyalty lay.
Isaiah says that the “root of Jesse” – a descendant from the line of Jesse, the father of King David, will stand as the signal – the banner – leading the way, pointing the nations – the whole world – in the way we should go.
Earlier in chapter 11, Isaiah says that “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” The imagery here is of a plant or tree that has been cut down almost to the ground, and there’s just a stump left. It looks like the plant is dead, but then a tiny little green shoot grows out of it.
Isaiah was speaking here to a people who had lost hope. Their kingdom had been cut down and it seemed that all that was left was a mere stump. The prophets had made it clear that this was a well-deserved punishment for the fact that as a people they had gone astray – practicing idolatry and turning their backs on God. And yet Isaiah provides a glimmer of hope, saying that God can and will bring new life out of what appears to be dead and lifeless. God will send a Messiah – an anointed one, a descendent of King David, from the line of Jesse. And this anointed one will raise up the banner, lead the way – and not just for the nation of Israel – but for people of all nations. Nations who had previously been at war would come together in peace, with God as their ruler.
Isaiah says of this Messiah, “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” (Isaiah 11:2-5).
And then Isaiah launches into this image of even the wild animals living peaceably with the domesticated animals and a little child leading the way. And Isaiah says, “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9). The Messiah’s reign will be glorious, and he will reign over a peaceable kingdom.
The Peaceable Kingdom
Now, when you hear the words “the peaceable kingdom,” you may be reminded of a painting of animals clustered around a small child. There’s one famous historical painter in particular – a Quaker minister and painter by the name of Edward Hicks who lived from 780 to 1849, who is well known for his paintings called “The Peaceable Kingdom.” I say paintings, because he painted over 100 variations of this painting during the course of his lifetime! 62 of those paintings are still in existence today. Some of the most famous variations include the famous Quaker William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, in the background of the painting, signing a peace treaty with Native Americans.
Hicks’ early paintings are hopeful and optimistic, and seem to look back on Penn’s peace treaty with the Native Americans as a hopeful indication that the world is getting better, that society is becoming more peaceful. These earlier paintings depict wild and domesticated animals lying down together in a playful style. Predators and prey living together in perfect harmony. In some, the tiny child is almost floating above the animals.
But historians have noted that there was a subtle change in the depiction of the animals over the years. As time went on, Hicks began to depict the wild animals with sharp teeth and even snarls. In this painting, for example, the cow seems to be cowering behind the wild animal, and the sheep and goats seem ready to run away at any moment.
It seems that over the years the painter had begun to lose hope in humanity as he watched the barriers between peoples grow higher and stronger, and the animosity grow deeper and more violent. He was most likely discouraged by what was going on in his own denomination, where a major split occurred during the course of his lifetime – and this seems to be represented here in the tree that seems to have split down the middle.
But what is fascinating about those later paintings is that the child, a Christ figure, is larger and more pronounced. Not only that, but rather than seeming to float above the animals, he seems to be actively restraining the wild animals, gripping the lion’s mane and the bear’s neck, holding them in place with his strength.
Rev. Derek Weber explains that throughout the course of his lifetime, “Hicks, though he began losing hope in the workings of the human community, began to cling even more tightly to Christ. In Christ, Hicks would put his hope.”
Peace is Only Possible Through Christ
Now, I love that the name of Hicks’ famous painting includes the word “peaceable,” because it sort of sounds like the word “possible.” But you and I know, as Hicks came to find out, that true peace is only possible through Jesus Christ.
Several years ago I had the opportunity to speak with a woman who had been actively involved in working for social justice for many decades – since the time of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. And I asked her, in her opinion, whether she had seen progress in the many years she had been working for change? In her opinion, was our society becoming more or less just? And she said the answer is both – simultaneously. Our society is becoming simultaneously more and less just at the same time. Yes, she had seen positive progress in some areas, and yet in other ways she was seeing our society becoming more and more divided.
This is why Isaiah’s prophecy rings so true. It’s why Hicks’ paintings evolved over time. Because there has never yet been a peaceable kingdom, and true peace and justice and harmony will never be achieved by our own strength and will, but only through Christ.
Fortunately there is hope in the midst of despair. Part of Isaiah’s prophecy, in fact, has already come true – that a shoot would come from the stump of Jesse, that a little child would lead the way. This is the Good News we proclaim at Christmas and all year long – that Christ has indeed come to usher in the Peaceable Kingdom. Christmas is not just a festive season or a reason to celebrate in the midst of a cold winter. Christmas reminds us that there is hope in the midst of despair. There is life even in the midst of death.
There is still a lot of work to be done, and Advent reminds us that we still await the final fulfillment, when Christ will return to set the world to right. But even here and now we can experience hope, peace, joy, and love, with Jesus leading the way. When we love others as Christ loved us, when we welcome others – particularly those who are different from us – in Jesus’s name, and when we share about Emmanuel – God with us – we stand as a signal to the nations that there is a God among us and there is a way to know peace, and there is hope in the midst of despair; there is joy even in brokenness.
We are called to stand as a signal. So let us raise up the banner! Let us point the way to Christ, that all may see and experience the peace and hope that he brings. Let us follow Christ wherever He may lead. And, as the apostle Paul says in Romans 15:13, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”