The prophet Isaiah gives us a beautiful vision of harmony and peace on this second Sunday of Advent. This passage is sometimes called “The Peaceable Kingdom”, where predators and prey live together in harmony. Wolves and lambs curl up close for a nap, leopards and goats cozy up together, bears and cows share a meal, and the mighty lion – the carnivorous King of the Jungle – is happy eating straw with an ox. Perhaps the most emotionally visceral image in this Peaceable Kingdom is that of the baby playing safely next to a poisonous snake.
Given the current tensions in the world, we might find it hard to believe that such a scene could happen. It is a scene to be longed for, but how could the threat and danger just disappear? Woody Allen picked up on this when he once commented on this scripture, saying, “The wolf shall lie down with the lamb, but the lamb won’t get much sleep!”
It’s the lion in the story that gets me. He is lying down next to a young calf and a fatling. A fatling is a young, tender animal that has been fattened in readiness for slaughter. And yet, there they all are together, along with a little child leading a kind of peaceful parade.
I’ve never had the privilege of seeing a lion in the wild. Bears and wolves I’ve seen, but not the majestic lion. I would not shoot a lion, but I’d like to go on safari in Africa to get close to one. If I was on an actual hunt, I suspect I would be like the man in Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”.
Macomber and his wife go on safari in Africa with a guide. He hears the lions roaring from his tent the night before and is terrified. The next day, they come upon a huge lion – he and his guide shoot and wound the lion, who retreats into the bushes. The guide says that they have to go into the bushes after the lion, to make sure that the job is finished.
Approaching a wounded lion is, of course, extremely dangerous and Macomber falters. He makes excuses but finally is shamed into going by his guide. When he comes upon the cornered lion, Macomber bolts. “The next thing he knew he was running; running wildly, in panic in the open, running toward the stream.” The guide shoots the lion while Macomber flees. Like I said, I’m afraid I would panic too. But, I do hope Christie wouldn’t be like Macomber’s wife. Her reaction to her husband’s cowardice is to have an affair with the guide later that night and shoot her husband in the head the next day. The end.
Lions are terrifying in their power, yet something about them attracts us. If it were a safe thing to do, who wouldn’t want to bury her head in a lion’s mane? In fact, who wouldn’t want to be a part of the Peaceable Kingdom, where bears and babies play together? Who doesn’t long for that? The experience of longing places us squarely in the season of Advent.
What are you longing for? You may be in a place where you are longing for peace and justice in the world. This past week I read an editorial in the New York Times about women in prison. Most of the women who are incarcerated were sexually abused as children. They grew up in a chaotic, violent, drug- ridden world. In this world, the little child is poisoned again and again by the snake. Many of the women in prison are mothers, leaving their daughters to the same fate. The odds stacked against these women seem impossibly, even hopelessly high.
While a story like that inspires us to do what we can when we can to help, it also makes me long for a world free from addiction, violence, poverty, and abuse. It makes me long for a world where all children are able to play safely, and to grow up with the hope of a happy, productive life. It makes me long for a Peaceable Kingdom, where the categories of predator and prey just don’t make sense.
Of course you don’t have to go outside your own life to get in touch with longing. You might long for a better marriage, or just a marriage at all. You might long for fulfilling work, or emotional stability, or a better relationship with your son. If you’re like me, then you long to undo some hurtful things you have done. You long to unsay some hurtful things you have said. And you also long to do some things you haven’t done to make this world a better place. Really, you long for something better, other than this world, even if and when this world is filled with the good and the beautiful.
There is a heartwarming Apple commercial that taps into this longing. Frankenstein comes into a crowd surrounding the village Christmas Tree. He starts singing, “There’s No Place Like Home For the Holidays”, but his voice fails, perhaps due to his fear of rejection. Then, a little girl comes up to him and joins the monster, singing in her beautiful little English accent. The villagers then sing along. The ad ends with “open your heart to everyone this holiday season.” This is a current version of the Peaceable Kingdom for which we long.
The experience of longing is emotionally powerful, sometimes almost overwhelming. C.S. Lewis names this longing with the German word sehnsucht. He calls it “the inconsolable longing in the heart for we know not what.” This longing is “the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” His own experience of longing led to the creation of Narnia and the great Lion Aslan, who I think the premier Christ figure on all of literature. He’s not tame, but He is good.
Lewis’ experience of sehnsucht – or longing – led to his conversion to Christianity. As he says, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” This second Sunday of Advent we name the scent of the flower and the echo of the tune in our collect of the day. We long to “greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer.”
Jesus Christ isn’t tame – when He comes again all that is wrong and evil and hurtful will be cast into the outer darkness by the Lion of Judah, as he is named in the book of Revelation. As the Scripture says, “And one of the elders saith unto me, Weep not: behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof.” He will loose the seals and open the book of life. All creation will bow down to the King of Kings, and he shall reign forever and ever. Jesus Christ isn’t tame, but He is good. He will execute justice and establish peace in ways that we can’t even imagine.
If we are to imagine the Lion’s justice and peace, then perhaps the way in is through a child’s imagination. As our reading today says “and a little child shall lead them.” There was a moving story in last week’s religion section in the Daily Progress. A father wrote about his autistic son and his love of Disney movies. This is not the family who was at the film festival. This family lives in Richmond.
The boy loves Disney movies and is especially concerned with the villains like Cruella De Vil. He has a clear understanding of good and bad; he knows who is the predator and who is the prey. He wants to know whether the villains will go to heaven or to hell. He’s got action figures of all the characters and makes up his own stories.
While the boy understands the justice must be executed on all that is bad, he hopes that the villains will be in heaven. He says things like, “Cruella had a hard childhood – that’s why she acts the way she does.” His father says, when a villian’s actions are really bad, inexcusable in his son’s mind, he solves the problem once and for all. He brings out his action figure of Jesus Christ who says, “I forgive you.”
The real Jesus of Nazareth was neither an action figure nor a lion. Nor was the forgiveness granted to villain and villainized alike done with the wave of a wand. The Lion of Judah left his Father’s Peaceable Kingdom to enter our strife torn world as a little child to lead us. He would eventually crush the head of the serpent under his heel, but first the serpent destroyed him. In his crucifixion, Jesus became the fatling, the calf readied for slaughter – the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, opening God’s heart to everyone.
When the Lion of Judah returns, all that is wrong will be made right. As Lewis’ friend Tolkien says in his book “The Return of the King,” that “everything sad will become untrue.” In the meantime we long for the Lion, we long for a world where “they will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.” We long to “greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer.”
- Isaiah 11:1 - 10