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Isaiah 11:1-10 and Matthew 3:1-12
Reflection on the Scripture Readings

Reflection on the Scripture

I know how badly this is going to date me, but I hope I’m not the only one here who remembers the double record album with great fondness. Remember removing the shrink wrap and opening it for the first time? Oh, the bliss of twice as many songs from our favourite artists, twice as much room for the cover art, maybe even the complete lyrics!

There were two kinds of double albums, albums where both discs followed the same theme, and albums where the discs had very different themes and musical styles. Those albums were a little harder to understand. Sometimes it seemed like the two discs were only united by the cardboard hinge that connected the two covers.

When we listen to today’s passage from Isaiah 10, it sounds a bit like that kind of double album. The theme of the first disc is the anticipation of the coming of a new leader full of God’s spirit of justice and righteousness. It voices Judah’s hopes for immediate help as they sort out their allegiances in the face of the military and economic threat from Assyria.

This new king will be empowered by the spirit of God, he will embody wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and love of God. He will rule with justice, supporting the weak and punishing the wicked. As Paul Simpson Duke describes him, this “young king…exudes vitality and strength, severity and a brilliance of joy; deep wisdom is in his eyes. On a distant hill behind him, cruel-faced monarchs lie dead. Nearer to him is a gathering of the poor, whose faces are lifted and radiant.” The young ruler described by Isaiah has been reinterpreted in the Christian era to be our Messiah, Jesus Christ. But in Isaiah’s time, he represents the prophet’s right here, right now hope for the just new king needed to save a broken kingdom.

The second theme sounds like a prophecy for a more distant future, a world where predator and prey co-exist in peace, where toddlers are safe at the mouth of a snake’s lair. The leader now is not a strong champion of the weak, but a little child. This hope seems fixed on a future that is so distant that we can barely imagine it, a dream of peace that seems impossible, that goes against what we understand as the laws of nature. Because without prey, how can predators thrive? How can the weakest survive surrounded by danger? How can a child lead?

In these beautiful verses, Isaiah expresses his longing for a world in which violent impulses don’t always win out over the spirit of gentleness and playfulness and peace and safety.

The hinge that holds these two themes together in our prophetic double album is that longing for a better world: a better world right now, where a just ruler will save his country, and a world in the future when the need for conflict has ceased. Peace with justice now, and universal peace in God’s kindom to come.

As an animal lover, my attention is naturally drawn to the verses about predators and prey and I’d like to dig into those more deeply. Sometimes it feels like I’m confronted every day with the many ways in which the animals I love are destined to either hunt and kill or to become food for predators. I thrill to the huge beauty of the passing transient orca and worry about the seals and sea lions that they must eat to survive. I’m grateful when our dog or cats rid us of marauding rodents, yet I still mourn the little lives that are snuffed out. And I worry about the way that the convenient dichotomy of predator and prey, weak and strong has become an excuse for the worst kinds of injustice in human society.

In the middle of all these mixed feelings, I realized that these verses are not just a metaphor about peace between people and nations. They are also about the real world, where creation is a place of wholeness and harmony.

They are also not just about the most obvious differences between the wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid, the calf and the lion, one group predator, one group prey. Listen to those groups again: the wolf, the leopard and the lion. The lamb, the kid, and the calf. The first group are all what we call “wild” animals, and the second are all what we call “domestic” animals. This is a dream of harmony between all beings, the so-called wild and the tame. The animals beyond our control and the animals under our control. And not only the animals but the land is included in this vision: the holy mountain, the earth, and the sea.

I think it’s significant that there are no adult human beings in this dream,

other than their implied presence as owners of the domestic livestock. The only humans are the toddler playing near the poisonous snake, and the little child that leads them all.

This is a longing for an innocent world, the world that we imagine existed before humankind destroyed the natural balance and became the greatest predator of all. It is a world that is still possible with God’s help. It is a world where the wild animals are no longer demonized as an excuse to destroy them, where compassion and respect become the rule in our treatment of livestock and companion animals, a world where the mountains, the earth and the seas can once again flourish, where the weak are safe and humans live in balance with each other and the rest of creation.

Today, as in Isaiah’s time, it can be hard to separate our hopes for a peaceful future from our nostalgia for the “good old days”. Isaiah’s vision of a future king includes a glance backwards at the “golden age” of the kings of Israel. And his image of the peaceful kingdom of God contains within it the people’s longing for their lost garden of Eden.

Bruce Springsteen sings, “Glory days, well they’ll pass you by”. True hope cannot be built on past glories. Hope looks unflinchingly at today’s reality, the lost dreams of youth, the stump of Jesse, a world that is anything but harmonious. But within that reality, God calls us to search for the green shoot, to watch and wait for the coming Messiah.

And what contemporary examples can we turn to in the animal realm for our vision of peace? There are a lot of images out there in our popular culture that mirror Isaiah’s dream of predator and prey living together in harmony. We have all heard the stories of baby ducklings adopted by a mother cat and seen the photos of the polar bear patting the dog on the head. The fact that we are so drawn to these stories speaks to our primal attraction to God’s dream of a peaceful kindom.

We know that predators and prey alike run before a forest fire, their immediate need for survival overruling their usual relationships. But will it take the societal equivalent of a forest fire to force us to all travel together? I hope and pray that there might yet be time for a more gentle solution.

Listen to this short quotation from a poem called “What the Day Gives” by Jeanne Lohmann:

In the frozen fields of my life

there are no shortcuts to spring,

but stories of great birds in migration carrying small ones on their backs,

predators flying next to warblers

they would, in a different season, eat.

I don’t know if this really happens, I couldn’t confirm it with a quick internet search. But I choose to believe that it is possible, that a shared instinct to migrate to a place that we have never seen can overcome our differences.

Let’s choose to believe that, while there are no shortcuts, Isaiah’s dream of the peaceable kingdom is also possible. Let’s choose to believe that the impulse to travel together towards a better world is stronger than the impulse to harm and destroy. Let’s choose to believe that it is our Creator calling us to that new world and bearing us up on a mighty wind of love and mercy and compassion.

Because God has done and is continuing to do something completely new. God is sending us a new start, a little child to lead us.

And as we migrate towards that new world that only God can fully love into being, we rehearse what it might be like to live there. We gather around Christ’s table, strong and weak, rich and poor, all equal in God’s eyes and on the holy mountain where God’s dwelling shall be glorious.

Let us pray:

God of imagination and all creation, help us to broaden our minds to see your desire for your Kin-dom. Open our hearts to allow us to live in harmony with all your people, and with all Creation. Let us imagine and live into your possibilities. Amen.