It’s unnatural. It’s aberrant behavior. So aberrant, so unnatural that St. Paul called it scandalous. Unnatural! Aberrant! Scandalous!
It is because of this scandal that a lot of people look askance at Christians, assuming we are mad as hatters and crazy as loons.
They have a point. It is unnatural. It is aberrant and deviant behavior when a divine being, a divinity, a god, especially, T.H.E. God—our God, Author of the Universe, Master of the Whirling Planets, the Mysterium Tremendum, the Awesome Mystery beating at the heart of the universe—climbs into human flesh and submits to the humiliations of the flesh: to suffering and mortality.
This God’s ungodly stooping to the level of humanity is nothing if not, unnatural, indeed, aberrant behavior. It is what St. Paul and theologians after him call the scandal of the Gospel.
I will tell you something else that is unnatural and aberrant: the Peaceable Kingdom … the scripture passage we read today … the picture Isaiah paints of a highly unlikely scene: the wolf getting along with the lamb, the leopard in peaceful coexistence with the kid, the lion as a re-born herbivore … and leading this unlikely menagerie is the most vulnerable of all, the one least equipped to defend himself in such company … a little child.
And, listen to God’s own foolish aspiration: “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.” In your dreams, God!
Don’t think for one minute that Isaiah didn’t understand how preposterous and unnatural this scene … how foolish it sounded even then. A peaceable kingdom? Rubbish! Foolishness. Impossible. Unnatural.
Isaiah lived at a time and in a world red in tooth and claw … a time and a world in which hungry and ferocious animals created a climate of insecurity and terror … a time and a world in which childhood was perilous … infant mortality terrifyingly high.
And if wild beasts and disease weren’t enough, Isaiah lived in a time of war. His people had been fighting for decades … first with the Assyrians, and then the Egyptians, then the Assyrians again, and then the Egyptians again.
War was routine. The spilling of blood, the suffering, the death, the sending of the young and hale into combat … these were routine, natural, inevitable.
Little Hebrew children—Isaiah’s own small sons, but also Egyptian sons and Assyrian sons—
grew up playing with weapons from an early age … rocks and spears and swords … playing war games as do small children in too many parts of the world today.
Violence is nature’s way.
Consider some popular human leisure activities: boxing, professional wrestling, cage fighting, cock fighting, bull riding, hunting, football, hockey, car racing. Articles and books have been written about sports violence … not only what occurs on the ring, rink, track, field or court … but also about fan violence. Virtually every athletic contest is an engagement in combat, a little battle, producing victor and vanquished.
Last night I stayed up late doing research for this sermon. (I am very committed to this job, very dedicated.) I watched a Sylvester Stallone movie: The Expendables. It’s about a group of mercenaries hired to infiltrate a South American country and overthrow its ruthless dictator. Oh my! The graphic violence was stunning.
Chris Hedges wrote a book entitled War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. He should know. He was for years a war correspondent who became addicted to war. He has since shaken that addiction.
This past Thanksgiving I traveled to Nashville, TN to visit with my brother and his family. On one leg of the trip, a flight from Nashville to DC, the plane carried quite a few uniformed soldiers. The flight attendant asked us to rise and give to our American warriors and heroes a standing ovation. The passengers readily obliged … relishing the opportunity.
We live in a nation addicted to war.
War is a force that gives life meaning.
The peaceable kingdom, on the other hand, is unnatural … ask the lions and the lambs, the cats and the mice, the street gangs and the police, the soldiers and the war-weary civilians;
ask the Israelis and the Palestinians; ask the fans of the Red Sox and the Yankees, the New England Patriots and the New York Jets; ask Sylvester Stallone and the movie and video games industries.
The peaceable kingdom is unnatural. If you still don’t believe me try, if you can, to wrap your head around the staggering immensity of world military spending. Oh my!
War, combat and violence give life meaning and keep economies humming.
Don’t think for one minute that Isaiah didn’t understand how preposterous and unnatural
was and is his vision of a peaceable kingdom … how foolish it sounded. War was an economic engine in his day as it is today. I am sure poor Isaiah was laughed out of many a room. “That Isaiah,” they’d say, “He’s mad as a hatter and crazy as a loon.”
Peace is unbelievably difficult … but not impossible. Or is it?
That is today’s question … the question behind Isaiah’s vision of the Peaceable Kingdom.
It is also the question behind Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. It is the question that lies at the heart of Old South’s proposed Vision for the 21st Century … the Vision we will soon take under advisement.
Put another way, the question at the heart of the matter is this … (what is at stake is this):
how much of the Judeo-Christian tradition and ethic do you really believe? How much of it do you find credible? Do you believe in things that are manifestly unnatural? Do you believe in scandalous aberrations? Do you believe God became human? Do you believe the Peaceable Kingdom is worthy of our highest efforts?
I do. I really do. Or at least, on my good days, I do. Even on my bad days, I really want to.
I know this: God did not go slumming in human flesh just to make us safe … but to make us disciples … to make us better … citizens of God’s new age.
This is what is at stake in our Vision.
I believe that Christian discipleship is really, really hard … that Christian courage, wisdom and love are forged ever so slowly and ever so painfully from the disciplines of worship and prayer, study and kindness, community and solitude.
I believe that the Peaceable Kingdom, while manifestly unnatural, is not foolishness. I believe war is foolishness … ungodly foolishness. I believe the Peaceable Kingdom is laudable, calling us to virtuous lives, an overcoming of our baser instincts, and requiring of us great character and purity of heart.
I believe that Isaiah was right in prophesying that the Peaceable Kingdom will never be either a solely human achievement or a solely divine achievement, but requires the unnatural alliance of two very disparate partners: human and divine.
The proposed Vision for the 21st Century holds up God’s peaceable Kingdom as worthy of our highest aspirations and requiring of us our finest efforts … an expenditure of time and resources, of heart and soul in pursuit of something exceedingly difficult, exceedingly rare and exceedingly beautiful.
Violence is natural. Violence is primal and instinctual. But here’s the thing my dear Christian sisters and brothers: it is not inevitable.