Sermon notes – Advent II, Year A (St. Peter’s Episcopal Church/Ladue, December 5, 2010)
Let’s go back for a moment to this morning’s reading from First Isaiah, to the part that begins, “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.”
When I read this passage yesterday, the thought bubbled into my brain that perhaps Lewis Carroll had it in mind when he wrote about the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass, the sequel to Alice in Wonderland.
Lewis Carroll, whose real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, would certainly have known these verses; in addition to being a distinguished mathematician, academic, and author, he was also the son of an Anglican priest, an ordained deacon in the Church of England himself, and a man who took his Bible seriously.
Furthermore, the White Queen is chiefly famous for being able to believe “six impossible things before breakfast,” and I count at least seven apparently impossible things in that passage: Four groups of assorted carnivores and herbivores living together in harmony, two venomous snakes ignoring nature and instinct, and every single one of them obeying frail human infants, and doing exactly what they’re told.
It almost sounds like some kind of Wonderland. But this is a far better place: it is the Peaceable Kingdom, the beginning of a new age that is to be ruled righteously under a new law, with a new King who works through love and freely given obedience – not through fear.
This vision of the Peaceable Kingdom brings together dangerous beasts and tame ones, and permits them to live in harmony. Their essential natures may not be changed, but they will learn to control those natures, to dwell together in justice wherever the new King rules.
The vision is no guarantee that the Peaceable Kingdom will come about in all the world – but it is about the opportunity for peace and a new way of approaching things for those who are open to such change.
And so it is also an ideal text for a Sunday in early Advent, before we get down to the details of the birth of Jesus – angelic visitations and Joseph’s issues and various aspects of the unpleasantness of the Roman occupation of Palestine. The Peaceable Kingdom gives us a vision of what life could be if we follow Christ.
The beginning of the passage presents us with a new shoot from an old tree, that new king from the branch of David. He will judge the poor and deal in righteousness, and maintain a zero-tolerance policy toward wickedness and injustice.
From there we have the wonderful passage that brings together predator and prey in peace, and the promise that “the earth will be full of the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea.”
As I read it, this kingdom will not come about by conquest. It will be a voluntary association. We will have a choice to join together with God – or not – in God’s kingdom. This is the antithesis of the Roman Empire, so harshly marked by force and cruelties. This is an opportunity to be a part of the Kingdom of Love.
That makes this passage the truest prophecy of the coming of Christ. For, as it turned out, the Messiah did not come as everyone had confidently hoped and expected – a mighty warrior, sweeping all before him, conquering as the Romans and the Babylonians and the Assyrians had conquered, putting the faces of all enemies of Israel into the dust.
Instead, he came as a frail and vulnerable baby. He came, in fact, much like the little child in the passage from Isaiah, surrounded by enemies and dangers.
Jesus did not make all things right for his people in an instant. He worked with them as individuals or in small groups. He forced nothing on them; he asked for their faith, trust, and belief in him. He healed them, he comforted them, he gave them hope and salvation.
Two millennia later, Jesus still offers us every hope and comfort but forces nothing on us – and two millennia later, some people are still surprised by the nature of God’s kingdom.
Jesus still asks for our faith and trust and belief. That, of course, can be a challenge. Like all those who had certain firm ideas about what the Messiah would be and do 2,000 years ago, we still have our own set concepts about how we, as faithful Christians, should find the world working today. We may still find ourselves confounded by the necessity of believing six impossible things before breakfast.
I was recently diagnosed with inflammatory carcinoma, a rare and aggressive breast cancer. I have excellent medical care, a strong community of support, and a firm faith in God’s love and care. I believe that this can be beaten.
In a way, it seems right that I learned of it just before Advent, the season of new beginnings, new changes, new hopes. As those who yearned for a powerful Messiah in Roman times learned, those changes may not take the forms that we expect – but God is in them.
I am entering this new Church Year in a spirit of seeking, of trying to trust and to accept what’s ahead for me. I am trying to look at all things in a new way, from the familiarity of ancient scriptures to the beauty of the just-born.
It may not always be completely obvious to us, but, in the words of the sermon hymn, “For the glory of the Lord now o’er earth is shed abroad; and all flesh shall see the token that the word is never broken.” Lord, give us the vision to see your new creation.
– Sarah Bryan Miller