Drew’s sermon from December 8th, 2013, talks about the unnatural visions of peace in Isaiah 11:1-10, and how unnatural peace is in our lives. But the coming holiday reminds us that our hoped for peace is more real than we know, and that the kingdom of God springs forth like a sprout through cracks in the sidewalk.
In the gardens next to St. John the Divine in New York City, there is a large statue called Peace Fountain. It is one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen. The archangel Michael is there, intertwined among the necks of nine giraffes. The base is a double helix, to symbolize DNA, and there is a giant crab climbing up the base, with the head of a decapitated Satan dangling his claw. Just above that are sculptures of the sun and the moon, and all around the fountain are various fantastical creatures, a winged horse, a tadpole looking fellow with arms and a human face, and frogs and birds and something that maybe looks like Noah’s ark.
In spite of the many references to creation in the fountain, the word I think that best describes the fountain, is “unnatural.” A giant crab clawing at the sun in the shade of giraffes tied up like pretzels, is an unnatural sight indeed. And what that highlights for me, is that to us peace is a completely unnatural sight.
In the last job I worked at, I realized that a lot of the kids I was working with had never been alive during a time when the United States was not at war. This doesn’t include the various other declared wars we are engaging, ones with more nebulous enemies that may never be vanquished, such as the war on terror, the war on drugs, the war on cancer, war on AIDS, and the war on Poverty, all declared at sometime or another by U.S. Presidents. Nor am I counting that technically the Korean War has still not ended, since technically it never began in the first place.
Peace is, quite simply something we have never seen in its natural habitat. Occasionally it breaks through, such as in the Great Christmas Truce of the First World War, when English, German and French troops called cease-fires for the day, and shared food and gifts, and in a couple of instances games of soccer. But it is usually quickly squashed by a return to our senses, orders that anyone seen fraternizing with the enemy will be shot, or simply the memory of what the enemy had done the day before.
Quite simply, the world has no experience of peacefulness, and since we base our understanding of nature on our experience of the world, peace, real-love-your-neighbors-far-as-well-as-your-neighbors-near peace, is as unnatural as a giant crab climbing a strand of DNA to reach a bunch of nuzzling giraffes standing on the moon.
Isaiah uses similarly unnatural imagery to describe his visions of peace. In our text for today, we see wolves lying down with lambs, lions eating straw like oxen, children playing around and in the dens of poisonous snakes. We all know that this isn’t what nature is like, I watch the discovery channel, the lions eat the zebras, the crocodile lies in wait for the deer to take a drink. Predators and prey don’t live together in peace, they are locked in constant struggle. These images in Isaiah are as unnatural as unnatural can be, as bad as a crab climbing DNA.
And peace was no less unnatural for Isaiah than it is for us. Isaiah lived at a time of deep political uncertainty, the Kingdom of Judah at this time was sandwiched between massive two political empires, Assyria and Egypt. These two superpowers were constantly fighting it out through client kingdoms such as Israel and Judah, and Judah was invaded several times during Isaiah’s lifetime. Living in Israel during the reign of Ahaz was kind of like living in Vietnam in the 60’s.
In both Isaiah’s time and our time, peace seems a little bit farfetched. To hope for peace, to believe that it’s possible seems naïve and ridiculous. Even the phrase “world peace” has become a little bit of a joke, said only by children and pageant contestants, and even they have avoided it of late, as a little cliché.
You could hardly blame someone for thinking that hoping for world peace is nothing more than a cliché. No water has flowed in the Peace Fountain for a long time.
But Isaiah says something different. He speaks of the stump of Jesse. That stump is dead. Isaiah describes this in the verse just prior to the beginning of this passage, “the tallest trees will be cut down, and the lofty will be brought low.” But now he says a new thing. A shoot shall come up out of the stump of Jesse, he says. New life will begin where the old has passed away.
It’s amazing what a little sprout can do. Sometimes you see them, poking up in cracks in the sidewalk, breaking concrete where hammers could not.
If you’re willing to look for it, everywhere you go you can find little sprouts, digging into the masonry and machinery of sin and brutality that govern our world. We lost one of our strongest examples this week, Nelson Mandela, a man who, after being imprisoned for 27 years, chose forgiveness, rather than anger at his captors, and helped his nation forgive as well, supporting a nationwide forgiveness commission, called the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to offer forgiveness so that the country could move forward.
But he’s not the only one, a bunch of my friends have gone down to volunteer with an organization called Ultimate Peace, that brings Israeli and Palestinian children together to play Ultimate Frisbee and develop relationships with each other to build on for the future.
If you’re looking you can find it other places as well. Last week we read in Isaiah that God will turn swords into plowshares, meaning that the weapons of war will be turned into tools of health and prosperity. Now of course we don’t fight with swords anymore, we’ve found much more efficient ways of doing evil. But did you know that today’s chemotherapies were developed out of chemical weapons used in World War I?
Louise Williams tells this great story of a wisteria bush that her mother-in-law used to have. She had planted it by the chimney, and it drove her husband crazy. He was a mason, you see, and the wisteria bush would grow up the chimney, and the little tendrils would work their way into the cracks and dig at the masonry and he just hated that bush. And so every year he would cut it down. And every year, come March it would be back stronger than ever, the blossoms so thick you could hardly even see the chimney. People driving by would stop to take pictures of this magnificent wisteria bush.
As crazy as it may seem, Isaiah is calling us to put our hope and our effort into small, sprouts of peace and faithfulness in our world. He is calling us to believe in the sprout from the stump of Jesse, when the great tree has been cut down. He is calling us to believe that our deliverance shall not come in a great king, but that a little child shall lead them.
In the coming weeks we anticipate the coming of a tender little sprout into our world, a branch, growing out of the root of Jesse. And of that branch it is said that 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 the meek of the earth. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
Paul tells us that we are engrafted onto the root of Jesse through faith, and what that says to us is that we are enjoined into the work of peace, the kingdom work of peacemaking, and that we can reach our tendrils out and make peace in our world, dig at the masonry and machinery of sin and evil in our world, tear down the walls of oppression and hurt that restrain us. In planting and nurturing sprouts of peace and faithfulness we can hope and we can expect that some day the blossoms of our labors will cover the whole chimney, the whole world, in peace, and the hurtful and the helpless in our world will lie down together like the wolf and the lamb, content in the light of the Lord.