The Second Sunday of Advent, Year A.
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 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.
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. On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.Isaiah 11:1-10
Remember when it was easy to have a dinner party? Before you had to worry about everyone’s special diets? Vegetarian, Vegan, Pescatarian, Paleo, gluten-free, Pastafarian, it can be a nightmare to keep up with when cooking; and we haven’t even gotten to January when everyone picks two or three more because they finally are going to drop that 15lbs! But that isn’t even the most dangerous part of hosting a dinner party these days. Not only is someone going to have a unique diet but if you aren’t careful about your ingredients; those lovely peanut-butter cookies you made from your grandmother’s special recipe? Little did you know that they were the perfect instrument for…Murder? That’s right, you forgot to ask if anyone had a peanut allergy. But that still isn’t the most treacherous part of hosting a dinner party these days. As we all know what the hardest part about hosting a dinner party these days is what we all fear most: the conversation. Everyone just seems so angry about every little thing. Advice columns everywhere are making lists of strategies for surviving this holiday’s dinner conversation. Topics like “how to politely ignore your casually racist uncle” or, “how to still love your family after the holidays.” Why can’t we put our differences aside and go back simpler time? You remember what those holidays were like right, back when you were young, and it was like the “Freedom from Want” Rockwell painting?
I’m glad that you remember those simpler times, because I don’t.
Truth be told you don’t remember those times either. They were never real to begin with. In fact, our minds have a strange relationship with memory; we are highly selective about how we remember the past. Especially around holidays and times filled with tradition, when we are unsure or frustrated with the world as it is, we retreat into a softer, more idyllic past that never existed. Today’s Isaiah passage happens to be a great example of this quirk of our psyche: let me ask you, what animal will lie down with the lamb in the peaceable kingdom?
How many of you immediately had this phrase spring into your mind: “…and the lion shall lie down with the lamb…”?
I’m sorry to say that’s not right. You’ve been tricked by the title of a 19th century painting and your brain’s natural inclination toward alliteration. Now I’m sure there are a few who rather self-assuredly thought “I’ve heard of this trick! I pay attention during the Old Testament reading! It’s ‘the wolf will lie down with the lamb’!” I’ve got some bad news for you too. Turns out that lamb is going to stay standing, because the passage actually reads: “the wolf will live with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the kid [goat]”. In fact, if your Christmas dinner conversation gets out of hand, try that little trivia exercise. You’ll be amazed how quickly the fighting will turn into utter confusion!
Why is it that collectively we have so much trouble remembering this iconic passage correctly? Partially it is due to its fame. We latch on to great phraseology, especially when the alteration matches what we want the person to say. I’ll give you another example, “Be the change you wish to see in the world”. This is commonly attributed to Gandhi. It’s short, catchy, apolitical, and just the right size to put on bumper stickers, t-shirts, and office inspirational posters. Problem is, Gandhi never said it. The closest we have from him is this “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. …We need not wait to see what others do.” Similar idea, but I’m glad some marketing guru fixed Gandhi up to sell merchandise better.
But what does it matter if it’s the wolf, or a lion, or a tiger, or a bear that lies down with the lamb (oh my!)? Or if someone thought it was a good idea to make Gandhi’s phrase more digestible? It’s about the message behind these iconic phrases! That’s exactly why these details matter. Because when we get the details wrong, and we are so assured that we are right, we do not hear the message. These iconic phrases have been heard, re-packaged, and sold to us again and again for so many years that we do not hear them anymore. Like an old sweater, a roaring fireplace, a rainy night, and shameless nostalgic rhetoric, they are used to comfort us, to make us nostalgic, to make us complacent.
When Isaiah wrote these words, he meant to comfort a people hopeless in exile. He also wrote them to shock and stir the people when they heard God’s intention for the future. The promised messiah would not just be the savior of Israel, he will be the savior of the all the nations. The peaceable kingdom will come when the earth knows the Lord.
But how will that vision come to pass? If we are not to be complacent, or nostalgic for a future time, what must we do? Thankfully for us we have the wisdom from another who misquotes this chapter of Isaiah: Paul.
Paul’s answer to these trying social questions begins in chapter 14 of his letter to the Romans, and our reading today from chapter 15 is the conclusion of his larger argument. Like many difficult social problems, the answer can be found by asking, “What are we going to do about dinner?”
Paul begins chapter 14 by directly addressing what clearly had become a topic of serious debate for newly converted Roman Christians: “what can we have for dinner?” During the various holiday seasons in the ancient Mediterranean world, it was common during festivals to make animal sacrifices to various gods, then for everyone to eat the meat from the sacrifices. This leaves Christians with a dilemma: Do I eat the meat, participate in the festivals and do my civic duty with my family, even if I don’t believe the god is real? Or do I refuse the meat, cause a scene, be excluded, but stay true to my beliefs about not worshipping idols? This was a common issue in Christian communities throughout the Roman empire, even Peter got into a scandal when he was discovered having dinner with meat that had (unbeknownst to him) been offered to an idol.
What then, is Paul’s advice? If they want to eat meat, let them eat meat, if they want to have vegetables, make sure there’s an option. Turns out it’s never been easy to have a dinner party…
Paul uses this common debate to make a larger point about how Christians are to live, which is where our reading today picks up, “Welcome one another, as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” He goes on to quote many places of scripture, including our chapter in Isaiah (though he also misquotes it, replacing “Nations” in 11:10 with “Gentiles”) to remind us about our goal, and how to truly achieve peace. The way of peace is not through nostalgia, it is not waiting for someone to fix our problems for us, it is through welcoming one another, loving one another, and doing all things for the glory of God. You can start at the dinner table. God’s peace not only means inviting those who are troublesome to you but talking with them. God’s peace is not politely ignoring that casually racist joke for the sake of a pleasant conversation; but standing up for what is right. All the while speaking up not out of anger, but out of love and for the glory of God. God’s peace will come when we make a place for His Kingdom, and our Savior. “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you [us] to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you [we] may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Amen.