The 19th century Quaker Edward Hicks painted a particular subject more than 62 times during his lifetime.
The subject was “The Peaceable Kingdom” that vision described in today’s reading from the Prophet Isaiah. The wolf shall lie down with the lamb, the cow and the bear shall graze, the lion shall eat straw like an ox, the young child shall put his hand over the adder’s nest…and in Hicks’ portrayal, there in the background are his Quaker forebears in calm discourse with Native Americans. An apt expression of the peaceable kingdom that Hicks thought that America might be…but why 62 times? What new vision could be wrung out of that imagery in 62 different ways?
Hicks’ versions of the painting grew darker over the years, as he became more and more frustrated with dissension between groups of Quakers.
And yet, he kept painting them, in the hope that a vision of a peaceable kingdom might yet be possible, even if he was not sure it would transpire in his lifetime.
Hicks’ train of thought – hope for peace whenever it might come – paralleled that of the prophet Isaiah himself.
This passage is an interesting vision in itself…
It begins with the imagining of a hoped-for new king, a new shoot out of the root stock of Jesse, who was the father of King David. This fresh new growth out of a line that had appeared to have withered away has qualities that would be especially admirable in a king. He is strong; God loves him, his righteousness is absolute, not conditioned on the political whims of the time, he is so powerful that his words alone have the ability to change the world.
And then, from that vision of the king, Isaiah lays out a vision of what the world might be like in the reign of that king. Predators become vegetarians, children are safe from any vile creature – in fact, no creatures are vile any more, and the whole of creation knows the Lord and lives in the fullness of that knowledge, in peace and tranquility.
We hear this passage and we immediately think “Aha! Isaiah is talking about Jesus!” It is certainly a natural response, given that we are reading this during Advent. But before we assume that Isaiah is talking only about Jesus, we should reflect a bit more on the time in which this was written.
It was a time of war. The northern kingdom of Israel allied with the Aramaeans of Damascus , attempting to force Judah and King Ahaz to join their rebellion against Assyria. Isaiah advised Ahaz against this move. Ahaz followed that advice, but then formed his own alliance with the Assyrians, against Isaiah’s advice. This led to the destruction of the northern kingdom and a time of great tension…you don’t ally with Assyria and expect that they will leave you alone afterwards. Isaiah hoped that Ahaz’s successor, Hezekiah, would be the righteous ruler out of the line of David that would bring peace.
So is this passage about Hezekiah? Perhaps. Is it about Jesus? Perhaps.
What is more important about the passage, though, is not the identity of the “shoot out of the stump of Jesse.”
It is about looking forward in hope for peace. And it is about looking forward without a clear idea of when the things we hope for will transpire. When we try to pin things down to a specific vision of the way we want them to be, in a specific timeframe, we get into trouble. Just ask Edward Hicks, who tried to paint how the early days of Quakerism in America were the Peaceable Kingdom. He kept having to revise and redraw and paint over, and it made him half-crazed with frustration.
You see, Isaiah prophesies like any good Old Testament prophet would do: he looks forward with a look way beyond the horizon. His timeframe is not one measured by the clock – what the Greeks would call chronos, like the word chronological – but it is one marked by God breaking into this world and doing wild and unexpected things. This kind of God-time is called kairos, the warp of the commonplace world by God’s intervention.
It’s a kairos moment, this arrival of a new anointed one prophesied by Isaiah. And he doesn’t try to fit it into our humanly limited brains by giving it a chronos – an earthly arrival date. He just puts it out there, in hope and faith, because he really wants God to bring peace to the people, but he knows God will do what God will do when God decides to do it.
And in case we have any doubt that this arrival will change all the rules, Isaiah paints a picture of creation that seems like something out of a fever-dream. It is a world turned upside down. Creatures who were natural enemies are now companions. Animals who attacked humans no longer do so. And the head of this realm of utter peace and tranquility? A child. Not a mighty warrior king. A child.
A child, and yet more than a child, because Isaiah has already told us that this leader is extraordinarily wise, full of wisdom, full of the fear of the Lord.
Now, when we hear about this prophecy, we, like the children that we are, want it NOW.
We want our anointed one, the one who will bring God’s holy shalom, God’s sense of wholeness and wellbeing, to the world, right NOW.
Well, God doesn’t work that way. God brings the anointed one when the time is right.
God teaches us patience – that thing that we are so very poor at – and makes us wait and watch, because you don’t know when the moment of breaking in to the regular world – to the chronos world – will happen. You never know when kairos, like a tornado, will shake our world. Except, of course, that it will come when God deems we need it most.
Funny thing about that picture, “The Peaceable Kingdom.” It was a poor predictor of relationships between settlers and Native Americans. But what it did show, in its very primitive style, was something that is not immediately obvious. The lion in the picture is smaller than the cow. The bear and the cow are almost equal in size. The child is larger than would be proportionate in real life. Something has happened in this kairos moment. Not only have the strong and violent been defanged, the weak have been made the equals. They have been enlarged and strengthened by the presence of this child who leads. God has broken in and equalized the power in some fundamental way. And in doing so, all creation has fallen into a blissful state of harmony.
Does it matter whether Isaiah is talking about Jesus, or about his situation in the midst of the battles between Israel and Judah and Assyria? Not really.
Because the prophecy still stands, and still has power for us today.
We, too, need peace through wisdom and righteousness. We look forward in hope for it. And we hope for a child, whom we call the Christ, to bring it to us.
The peaceable kingdom may not happen in chronos, in human time. It will most certainly happen in God’s kairos moment. And as we look forward in hope to Christmas, so too we look forward to the final kairos moment, when we know the ultimate peace. And the child will lead us to it. Pray for the child, and pray for peace.