The King and His Kingdom
Dec 8th | The Reverend Kevin Scott Fleming | Isaiah 11:1-10
The world learned this week of the passing of Nelson Mandela. Even a
cursory understanding of Mandela’s life and work leaves a person in wonder
and amazement at the difference one person’s life can make. Mandela fought
against the systematic discrimination known as “apartheid” his entire life.
Though imprisoned for twenty-seven years, his cause never died and he never
ceased to be a galvanizing figure in the struggle for justice and freedom. When
he was released from prison in 1990, after twenty-seven years of
imprisonment, Mandela went to work to ensure the full participation of all
South Africans in their government. Becoming his nation’s first black
President, Mandela instituted a Committee for Reconciliation that traveled
across the nation allowing people to tell their stories of discrimination and
Mandela’s legacy includes so many wise and astute observations and
lessons. But, among the many quotes that have been shared since his passing,
this particular one always speaks to me:
No one is born hating another person because of the color of his
skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate,
and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love
comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.
Nelson Mandela – his life and his example – are shining examples of what
human beings are capable of achieving when they give themselves to
something greater than the accumulation of possessions and tributes.
Isaiah offers us a glimpse of a great leader and the world that leader would bring into being. The passage we read for the morning really falls into two distinct sections. First, Isaiah describes the kind of king that Israel would receive. Second, the world this king will usher in is described in an engaging way. The lesson is simply justice and peace.
The king is something of a surprise. The family tree of the royal line has been cut down. All that is left is a stump – apparently lifeless and dead. Yet, from that old stump, a new shoot appears. As one commentator put it: “Our kings and executives are not possessed of these depths of reverence, wisdom, righteousness, and effectiveness in righting the world. Such a ruler does not evolve from among us. This is a new and miraculous sovereign presence, stepping forward from the mystery of God.”1
Is Isaiah talking about Jesus? Probably not. Isaiah is talking about an idea – a dream – the deepest desire of his own and Israel’s heart. We talk that way too. “Oh for a president, a congress, a governor, a general assembly, a school administrator – oh for someone to come along and put it all right.” It is a vision that proceeds from a deep and insatiable longing for something new – something better – something more perfect than what has become accepted as commonplace.
Yet, when we read and hear these words, we see the promised coming of Jesus. We cannot hear these words and not think of Jesus.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
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 for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
In these words, we find a description of Jesus – even if the words themselves were written centuries before Jesus was even born. These words describe the Jesus we know – the Jesus who first attracted us to him – the Jesus who is more than an image in a stained glass window or a painting.
This new shoot from an old stump is unlike that which came before. The adjectives that describe this king are telling: righteousness, equity, faithfulness. This new leader is possessed of wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and the fear, which is to say, the love of the Lord. He sees beneath and behind that which presents itself. He cuts to the heart of the matter.
This new leader – this new king – this promised one – is more than we can imagine.
The new King will usher in a new kingdom. Having provided a new king, God will now provide a new earth – a recreated one – a new paradise of a world – Eden regained. The prophecy gives it to us in a profound way:
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.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
The danger here is over-sentimentalizing the scene. We would do well not to get too caught up in the “sweetness” and “cuteness” of it all.
The text has its eye on the deadly aggressions and fears that plague and sicken the world and its people.2 Eons of evolutionary behavior are reversed. There is no more “flight or fight” response. The impulse to attack is gone. Aggression is no more. The predatory behavior of nations, individuals, institutions, and societies that live by destroying the vulnerable have disappeared. Fear is a thing of the past.
This recreated and renewed paradise will not come easily. There are always those who fear peace and justice. There are always those who resist it, who tell us who we can and cannot trust. There are always those who speak against peace as “capitulation” and “appeasement.” Peace can be a fearful thing – a source of anxiety and worry – a vision of life that is not welcomed by some.
We introduced the painting, “The Peaceable Kingdom” last week. It is a painting by the American painter and Quaker preacher, Edward Hicks. The painting clearly presents the passage from Isaiah that is at the heart of our worship this morning. All the animals are there. A child stands among them, unafraid. Two more are playing where the snakes and asps live. The bear is eating corn. The wolf and the lamb are cuddled together in sleep. Even the Native Americans and the Quaker settlers of Pennsylvania are getting along in the background. There is no trace of fear – no hint of dread – no apprehension or trepidation.
As time went on, Hicks kept returning to this painting and this passage. As the conflicts of his time increased – even conflicts within the Quaker community – the animals became more ferocious in appearance. Hicks painted at least 62 paintings in this series of “Peaceable Kingdom” paintings. As the situation became more desperate, the animals became more fierce, and the hopefulness of this painting faded more and more.
And there is the great danger. The great danger is that we will just sit back
and wait for God to bring it all about. The great danger is that we will absolve
ourselves of all responsibility for making peace. The great danger is that we
will continue to choose fear over hope, conflict over concord, violence over
As God’s people, we know that we are called to walk in the way of justice
and peace. We know that we are to take the risks and face the dangers of being
people who stand up for what is right and true and lasting. We know that we
are called to be peacemakers and to do justice, practice kindness, and walk
humbly with our God. We know all of that.
But it is so hard to do and we know that too. It is so hard to resist the urge
to attack when we feel endangered. It is so hard to like our enemies, let alone
love them. It is so hard not to persecute even as we feel maltreated.
But the way of fear and violence is a dead stump. It has no life in it. It is
dried up, lifeless, inert.
A new shoot must come forth. A new branch must emerge from the dead
ends of the injustice and violence. And if that new shoot – that new branch – is
not us, then who will it be? If we cannot take the first steps toward the new
world God has in mind, who will take them?
Nelson Mandela was not afraid. He was willing to face whatever risks and
dangers were before him as he pursued his calling to justice and peace. When
he addressed the court that sentenced him to life in prison, he said:
During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the
African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have
fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a
democratic and free society in which all persons live together in
harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope
to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I
am prepared to die.
The world God envisions for us is no less and ideal which we must hope to
live for and achieve. And, if needs be, it is an ideal for which we must be
prepared to die.
May we live into the light of God’s truth and walk in the light of the Lord.
For now and evermore. Amen.
1. Feasting on the Word, Year A volume 1, p. 29
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