By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, December 4, 2022
Reading: Isaiah 11:1-9
One of my favourite questions to ask in getting to know you guys is how you came to be part of our church. One of you answered this way: you came for a Christmas service and there was a live camel in here. And what could you do but stay? It makes me wonder what other improbable wildlife could we use to draw people in? I mean, are unicorns available?
Our passage for today has a vision of animals in mutual harmony: the wolf and the lamb are bunkmates; the cow and the bear are in line at the salad bar; children treat poisonous snakes as playthings. Scripture promises, “They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.”
That world, it is safe to say, is not yet.
I remember the deep anxiety when our children were little. The world was nothing but danger: Cars, electric sockets, stairs, strangers, anything that could be swallowed. Our job as parents was to play defense constantly. Israel’s life is a bit like that. Any journey outside at night, could meet with a leopard or a scorpion. These animals could also represent hostile nations. Israel is surrounded. Any one of these beasts might choose, on a whim, to take a bite out of her.
The lion is mentioned most often here. It’s a symbol for Assyria, who destroyed the ten northern tribes in 722 BC, and who is still on the prowl. Judah is rightly afraid. And in the middle of this fear, the prophet Isaiah offers outrageous hope. Not only will God protect from the lion. God will domesticate the lion. It’ll be a pet and eat straw. It’ll be vegetarian besties with the bear. And a little child doesn’t need defending anymore. No, no, no. A little child will be Lord of this menagerie of dangerous critters. The prophet could’ve just said, “Don’t worry, God will protect us from Assyria.” But prophets are poets and dispense magic. Don’t worry, God is going to make the lion a housebroken pet and end all danger from the animal kingdom forever. Through a little child.
This is what prophets do. They say your hopes are too small. Imagine the unimaginable. That’s what’s really real.
There was a basketball player in the NBA named Manute Bol, 7’7”, from Sudan. He was impossibly skinny and surprisingly nimble. You know how we sometimes say, “my bad” when we make a mistake? That was Manute Bol’s invention. He made a mistake in practice, said that in his rudimentary English, his teammates fell out laughing and started saying it, now we all do. One rite of passage in Bol’s Dinka tribe to become a man, you had to kill a lion. The media got hold of this and kept asking about it. Bol finally got tired of it, so he responded, ‘Look, it was little. And it was sleeping.’ They never asked again. All romance and danger evaporated.
It’s possible to kill a sleeping lion, that’s what I would choose too. It’s possible to kill an angry one. It’s not possible to domesticate one. It’s even less possible to make one a vegetarian. God promises the impossible. Woody Allen jokes that if the wolf and the lamb lay down together the lamb won’t be getting much sleep and only the wolf will be getting up in the morning. Funny, and realistic. God says the wolf will eat salad and be satisfied. Impossible. But remember that’s what God promises.
Sometimes we refer to this as Isaiah’s apocalypse. His vision for the end of the world. Some visions of the end of the world are full of terror. Not this one. Terror is what Judah is already facing. So, the prophet floods her imagination with hope.
Animal advocates find hope in this passage to this day. It’s an image of animals no longer being destroyed. And of course, the animal that destroys the most other animals . . . is us humans. There are Christian vegetarian organizations that use this as their main text. Well, they say, in God’s time we’ll all be vegetarians. We were in Eden. We will be again in heaven. In Christ, heaven is already here. So, let’s eat . . . kale. In Jesus’ own ministry there’s not a lot about animals. Isaiah fills in that gap. The little child so alters the cosmos that predators don’t prey on prey anymore. God doesn’t just fix us and our little hearts. God repairs all creation, ends violence between species and nations. You see how our hope is too small?
I just wonder what lion you’re facing, sleeping, or raging. What conquering Assyria. What devastating flood. I’ve been here long enough already to hear about plenty of pain: relationships that won’t heal; illnesses, mental and physical; aches decades old; injury you’ve learned to live with in quiet sorrow. God promises not just to heal what hurts in you, but to heal what hurts in every living thing.
And this is no fantasy. It happens right now.
My former colleague at the Vancouver School of Theology, Rabbi Dr. Laura Duhan Kaplan, wrote a splendid little book on animals in Israel’s scripture. She points out that inter-species friendship is not all that uncommon. Animals don’t just eat one another all the time. They befriend one another. And the internet notices. Some of the internet’s heaviest traffic are clips of predators and prey becoming friends. There is video of great cats in Africa cuddling and loving up humans. It happens. Isaiah promises a future in which friendship between enemies is not the outlier. It’s not even just the norm. It’s the only thing there is. Pain, sorrow, predation, are the aberrations. Our deepest sorrows now signal something that is passing away: death. What’s coming is life, and nothing but life.
Rabbi Laura points to a famous painting. Edward Hicks was a Quaker minister and painter in Pennsylvania in the 1800s. He painted Isaiah’s apocalypse dozens of times. Sometimes he put in the background an image of the signing of a peace treaty between William Penn and local indigenous tribes, the Shackamaxon Treaty in 1670. It brought peace to that region for 70 years. It was a rare treaty that Europeans actually kept to (God bless those Quakers—they’re into peace). Peace in the animal kingdom now, and among us humans, seems unlikely. But both do happen. So, we’re not off the hook with our terrible politics. We can make peace now too. Shall I pass out the kale?
One image in the Bible for conquest is a flood. Assyria subjugates its enemies and drowns them. Isaiah says . . . no, no, no. The flood that’s coming is this: “Earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” The flood that’s coming is . . . God. Christians see baptism here—we’ll have some baptisms here next week. Baptism is a death by drowning. Even more it’s life unending. Some of us admit, bravely, we don’t know how to pray. Me neither. I can suggest this or that, we have programs for prayer in here. Isaiah says your inability is a longing for knowledge that will flood creation one day. Keep longing.
Our ancestors in faith in the church and Judaism point out that in the Garden of Eden animals don’t eat one another. Only after we humans sin does God make clothes for us out of animal skins, before that no animal-killing. In Noah’s ark animals also don’t eat one another. There are only two of each, so eating a fellow passenger means that species is gone forever. God is the first conservationist. So, all fruit and salad all the time on the ark . . . I guess eggs could work occasionally. These moments of salvation show what eternal salvation is: not eating each other. Not preying on each other. When God is close to save there is peace not just between peoples, but between species. I wonder what mosquitos eat. CS Lewis was asked if mosquitos would be in heaven. Nah, he said, that’s what the other place is for. Sometimes jokes tell the most truth. Karl Barth was asked if we’ll see our loved ones in heaven. Not just our loved ones, he said. Enmity will be gone. Hatred undone. Friendship all that’s left. Because that’s all God is.
And at the centre of this menagerie of life, this limitless interspecies kindness: “A little child shall lead them.”
I’m struck by our stained glass in this sanctuary. Look how often the child appears. We have Jesus being born in Bethlehem. We have Jesus as a 12-year-old in the temple astonishing the elders. We have Jesus as a child learning from his stepfather Joseph and growing strong. We have Jesus insisting that the children be allowed to come to him and not be hindered. Our elders in here focused on Jesus the child. Why? A lot of these windows were put in right after the First World War, when Canada bled so terribly. Lots of lost little boys. A fellow pastor in this town, Jenny Andison, puts it this way: Canada’s parents poured their grief into glass. Focused on Jesus the child.
Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ isn’t my favourite, but one scene I love. Mary is watching Jesus carry his cross. He falls to the ground several times, as happens in Catholic meditation on the passion, the stations of the cross. As he falls Mary thinks back to when he was a child, just learning to walk, when he would fall and hurt himself, like all children. She would run and scoop him up and comfort him. As he falls under the weight of his cross, under the weight of all our sins, she can’t scoop him up or comfort him. The soldiers won’t let her. All she can do is grieve. God knows our pain. God is not distant from it; God buckles under it. And she grieves with us too.
So much of our pain is in the gap between generations: fathers and sons, mothers and daughters. A wise elder, Phyllis Tickle, used to joke that grandparents and grandchildren get along so well for a reason: They have a common enemy . . . I hear stories from you of women desperate to be moms who cannot. Of parents alienated from children, or vice-versa. Family makes us us. It also undoes us. I so love that Jesus’ own family is not ideal. No Norman Rockwell fantasy. He has no biological father. Whispers about that follow him his whole life. No spouse or children of his own. His siblings and his mom fear for his sanity. His brothers flee when he’s in trouble. Family makes us us and injures us. And do you know what Jesus promises? I’m injured too. I’m not above the pain. I’m in it. Suffering it. And I’ll heal it. One day soon.
Isaiah promises the snake will become as harmless as a stuffy. Hard to imagine anything more terrifying than a snake between you and your child. The snake turns up often in scripture: in the garden of course, it tempts us. But then surprisingly it also shows up positively. When the Israelites are bit by serpents, God tells Moses to raise a serpent on a pole to cure people. We still see images today of serpents on poles as a symbol for medicine. And Jesus himself says this very strange thing: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” Jesus sees himself on his cross in the snake that cures. St. Mark promises in one place that those who believe can handle snakes and not be harmed. There are snake handling churches out there that take this frightfully literally. There’s a fantastic book about snake handling churches called Salvation on Sand Mountain where a secular writer ends up unsure what he believes about God, but he’s sure picking up snakes in worship is awesome. There is something enticing about danger, right? Keep those things away from me. But here’s what I think is going on with snakes in the Bible: the snake is a creature like any other. It has a ticket on the ark. It symbolizes evil sometimes. It can also symbolize good—early Christians saw the snake as a sign of resurrection because it constantly regenerates its flesh. I wonder how your serpent, your deepest sorrow, can become a surprising source of healing? How can your wound, healed over, become your superpower? Isaiah promises poisonous snakes are playthings in the hand of the saviour. One day what tries to kill us can be our plaything too. It can even be that now, surprisingly.
The most painful relationship in my life was with my mother. You’ll hear more about her for years to come, but for now, there’s only sorrow. I wish more than anything that I had as good a mother as my wife is, as y’all are. But if I have any sensitivity to others’ pain at all, it’s from her, that wound, that scar. Strangely I wouldn’t give any of it back. It’s a snake that’s a surprising symbol of life.
There’s someone else in this passage. God the Son, Jesus our Lord is glimpsed here. So too is another person of the Holy Trinity. One of our Alpha course folks is exploring Christianity, asking good questions. And she said ‘I hear a lot of talk of God in church. A lot of talk of Jesus. Don’t you guys also have a Holy Spirit too?’ This is why we have to have outsiders. They ask such good questions. The Spirit is often the forgotten person of the Trinity. God raised up the Pentecostal movement in 1906 to remind us, ‘hey, I’m Holy Spirit too.’ Pentecostals have grown from zero people in 1905 to almost one billion now. That’s decent growth. Remember what Isaiah promises: “The Spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, and the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” Jesus is on no solo journey. Every move he makes is steeped in the Holy Spirit, drenched soaking wet with the Spirit’s healing balm. Isaiah says the Spirit gives things we all hope our young people will have: Wisdom, courage, respect, strength. We hope our elderly have them too. They’re gifts the Spirit gives till they overflow. In fact, they’re gifts the Spirit is.
Sometimes when Christians speak of the Spirit, we use the name Gift. Capital G. The Spirit is God giving God’s self unendingly, nothing held back.
Another way we speak of the Spirit is this: the Father and the Son are in eternal relationship. The Father looks at the Son and loves him. The Son looks back at the Father and loves him. That love also has a face, and a capital L. That Love between the Father and the Son is the Holy Spirit. You know how in any human relationship the relationship is almost its own thing? We date it with anniversaries, celebrate it, toast it, lament it. It’s a thing. That thing in God is the Holy Spirit, the Love, capital L, between Father and Son. God is nothing but relationship. Shared with us in baptism, prayer, growing up strong, loving enemies, dying well. Our Pentecostal siblings celebrate the Spirit with ecstatic worship, hands up, praying in languages they don’t know. We can learn from this. The Spirit is wild, free, and not very Anglo-Saxonly respectable, but very, very human. We see glimpses of this when anyone celebrates anything: football victories, nightclubs, street celebrations. Apparently even people born blind when they celebrate throw their hands in the air—without ever having seen anyone else do it. That’s God the Spirit in ecstatic self-outpouring love, even if the folks celebrating have no idea. God is nothing but generous Gift, unending lover, God can’t help it, that’s just who God is.
You might notice the times we do mention the Spirit in here. They’re important moments. Every baptism. No Holy Spirit, no proper baptism. Every Lord’s Supper we ask for the Spirit power on the bread and wine. Every ordination. Some of you noticed last week our church was listed among churches to pray for in our order of service. You worried that meant we were in trouble. We are in fact in trouble. Every church is. Martin Luther said when God builds a church the devil builds a chapel next door. Join me in praying for our church all the time. Invoke the Holy Spirit. Pray with me, Holy Spirit, come upon us with your power, your gifts, and your love.
Okay, so we have God the Son, a little child, leading a tamed animal kingdom. We have the God the Holy Spirit pouring out gifts. Where does that leave us? You and me? Sermons should be practical, right? Leave us something to live with? Well, here’s a go. A little thing that might actually be a big thing. You know how sometimes you’re listening to music and a lyric jumps you? Assaults you? The Germans call it an “ear worm.” That happened with me in here recently. We sang “Christ whose glory fills the skies, Christ the true the only light.” Charles Wesley compares Christ to the sun that lightens our world and says Christ is so much brighter our sun looks dark. Christ puts our sun to shame. I went and memorized that hymn and have been singing it for weeks. I remember as a child hating hymns whenever I got dragged to church. They went on forever. I’d count the verses and there were always too many. The church in her wisdom is saying something. Slow down. Steep in what you sing. We put these words in front of us all and sing so it’ll seep in deep. Change our feelings. Make us new people. You’ll see. Keep at it. Eventually a line will jump you too, devour you. So, this Advent, be on the lookout for a song line that undoes you. Worms its way into your imagination and makes something new of you. That’s a way to prepare for Christ this Advent. To prepare for the peaceable kingdom where there is no such thing as prey anymore, just friendship. To ready yourself for a kingdom of nothing but life, life, and more life. Bring it quickly Lord Jesus, by the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.