December 8, 2019

A Dream of Peace

Passage: Isaiah 11: 1, 5-9; Romans 15: 8-13

Synopsis: Isaiah’s vivid dream, in which all manner of animals live in peace and are led by a child, inspires our imaginations. Paul’s letter to the Romans then brings our dreams of peace down to all the messy stuff of human relationships. In Christ, we are enabled to reach out beyond our church fellowship to become a community of reconciliation.


Isaiah’s dream of peace with its fantastical imagery captures our imaginations—inviting us into the realm of magical realism. Latin American magical realist writers tell stories based in real time but include mystical or magical elements that push our imaginations beyond the ordinary and what we would expect in the here and now.


Isaiah begins with his image of a fresh new shoot growing out of an ancient stump. “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of God shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and fear of God.” That stump symbolizes the house of David, which ended up being an immense disappointment for the Jewish people. They had placed their dreams and hopes in a royal house that could not live up to their expectations.


Perhaps this is akin to the hopes and dreams we Americans place in presidential elections. I share such hopes but I find myself wondering. As national politics grows increasingly dysfunctional, will nation-states as we know them end up on the dustbin of history as ancient royal monarchies have. We will want to do what we can to strengthen our national American democracy, while working for peace with justice and the wellbeing of all creation through local governments and various non-governmental institutions, including our church.


Biblical scholars identify the fresh new shoot that Isaiah refers to as king Manasseh who ascended to the throne of David as a twelve year-old boy. His reign, however, was a huge disappointment, perhaps the worst in the history of Israel. After fifty-five awful years of misgovernment, it eventually led to the fall of the southern kingdom of Judah.[1]


Isaiah’s dream, however, will not stay wedded to a particular king. It, instead, expresses our never-dying, universal hope for wellbeing and peace. As expressed in a New Zealand Prayer Book, “God, you shape our dreams. As we put our trust in you may your hopes and desires be ours, and we your expectant people.” Deep in our hearts, we all embrace the dream that Isaiah saw.


The Middle East is one of the places in our world where peace has remained so elusive. This dream was poignantly expressed by Israeli prime minister Begin, on signing the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1979, when he proclaimed, “No more wars, no more bloodshed. Peace unto you. Shalom, salaam, forever.” Since then, however, we have not had the courage and imagination, nor have we been able or willing to do the hard work to make such peace possible.[2]


In Isaiah’s dream, the righteous and faithful ruler will be filled with God’s Spirit of wisdom and understanding. This ruler will oppose the wicked and judge with equity and justice for the poor. The dream then soars into the mystical vision of a future world where the wolf will lie down with the lamb, the calf and the young lion will feed together, and a young child will lead them all.


I love the way the John August Swanson depicts this in his painting. Peaceable Kingdom. His mother was Mexican and has father was Swedish. Some of his paintings have a Swedish feel but others, like this one, reflect a colorful Latin American folk-art genera that allows our imaginations to soar. Look at it with me.


Ours eyes are first drawn to the center where a child is holding a candle. The foreground is chock-full of all different kinds of colorful, exotic animals. To the left, a big friendly lion with a huge mane dominates the canvas. Far up on a tree, to the rear, two wise owls peer down on the scene. Behind them the hills stand in array with the backdrop of a full moon glowing in a fantastic blue sky filled with bright stars. (What else do you see?)


The naturalist in me recognizes this as pure fantasy. Our natural world depends on a mixture of plants, herbivores, and carnivores to keep nature in balance. But that’s beside the point. Biblical scholars think that the ferocious animals in Isaiah’s dream are symbols of nations in their devouring capacity. In Isaiah’s dream, they will be tamed and led by a child. I love that!


Christians have long interpreted this scripture passage as referring to Jesus, the Christ. Here, at last, is a different kind of king, fitting the mold of the dream that Isaiah saw. While Isaiah’s dream of a world at peace enables our hopes to soar, the passage in Paul’s letter to the Romans gently brings us back down into all the messy stuff of human relationships.


Immediately before the passage that was read this morning, he writes, “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up” (15: 1-2). He tells us to “accept one another just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (15: 7).


This puts us right into the nitty-gritty of working for peace in our own church fellowship, in our families, and in our community.  Ah, yes, that takes patience and endurance. It involves the tedium of our daily work and routines. It means slogging it out in the midst of disappointments when we’re not sure we’ll be able to find the inner strength to keep on going.


I love Paul’s vision of how we support each other. I get it when he talks about the strong helping the weak but I want to add that we all have strengths and weaknesses. We’re all strong and we’re all weak. This means that we must all help each other. And the part about accepting each other as Christ accepted me means that I need to accept myself and my gifts just as I am. Only then will I have the capacity to reach out to help others. In this way, we build each other up.


When this happens, we develop the capacity to be a peace church that reaches beyond our own fellowship in at least three ways. First, we are enabled to look beyond the problems we face as a congregation to see how we’re part of the larger purposes of God’s Spirit working in our local community and in our world. The problems we face are not unique to us and the capacity we gain in working through them in positive ways can be a model for others.


Second, this helps us to understand the inclusive nature of God’s love. God’s purpose is inclusion, not exclusion. This is the most profound witness we can give to a watching world. Our tribal identities and loyalties run so deep in human cultures. We’re called to live out a different community where all have a seat at the table. Paul tells us to welcome one another as Christ has welcomed us. This is what it means to be a welcoming church.


Third, our tolerance for those whose understanding of faithfulness is different from our own is crucial for a peace fellowship. I’m not talking about sweeping disagreements under the rug but about being able to tolerate our different understandings of what Christ’s lordship means in our lives. Mennonite faith tradition has not been very good at this. We’re being called to repentance and transformation.


In this Advent season, as we wait for Christ’s coming, our scripture text from Romans announces “that the one who comes is faithful (as he is to Israel) and merciful (as he is to gentiles) and therefore we may greet his coming with joy. He comes to restore unity [and peace] to the broken peoples on the earth.”[3] Like Isaiah, we yearn for an end to evil and bloodshed and for the establishment of universal peace.


The hope announced in Isaiah becomes our joyful acknowledgement with Paul that in Christ the dream of peace has already become a reality and we see it’s fruits in our midst. Advent is a time of expectation and joy, of waiting and fulfillment. In that spirit, let’s meditate on the poem Root of Jesse by Miriam Therese Winter:

Root of Jesse


from many an ancient prophesy


promised child

to all who would be reconciled

breaks through at last.


A virgin shoot accepts

God’s seed

bows to the Might Deed.

One branch

bears bud, flower, fruit:

Christ blossoms as David’s root.


Lord, you are stem, stalk, tree!

Let your fruit take root in me.


[1] Christopher Seitz, Isaiah 1—39, Interpretation

[2] As quoted in Susan Blain, ed., Imaging the Word, vol. 2 (Cleveland: United Church Press, 1995), 87.

[3] The above points were excerpted from Paul Achtemeier, Romans, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1985, 226-227.

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