"The Peaceable Kingdom,” a print by the German-born illustrator Fritz Eichenberg, is one of many artistic representations of the oft-quoted passage from Isaiah we hear today. We see animals that are natural enemies sitting together peacefully under the widespread branches of a sheltering tree: a lion, a bear, a cheetah, a wolf, a snake, along with lambs, a rabbit and a small child in their midst. When we consider the reality of the world of which we are a part, we might wonder: Is this scene merely a fanciful myth? An impossible dream? Or might it be a vision of our future, promised by God?
We sometimes forget that passages depicting such tranquility are meant as characterizations of future times, not descriptions of present reality. The future form of the verbs tell us this. Isaiah envisions a future king who will be filled with the spirit of the Lord and whose rule will establish peace. Perhaps at the time, Israel was enduring some political struggle or was threatened with invasion by enemies. In the face of acknowledged vulnerability and fear of attack, the prophet paints a picture of reconciliation and peace. Is this an example of denial, or of unrealistic optimism? On the contrary, Isaiah is reminding the people that real peace comes from God.
Paul’s words to the Romans might well be addressed to us today: “Whatever was written previously [the passage from Isaiah] was written for your instruction, that by endurance and by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” Hope for what? Surely more than merely the coming of Christmas. We know that Advent is a time set aside for us to remember that God is indeed “God-with-us.” The conviction of God’s presence in our midst is the grounding for the peace of which we speak at Christmas, the peace for which we all so earnestly yearn.
If peace is of God, do we simply wait patiently for God to give it? By no means. The words of John the Baptist are loud and clear today: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” “Repent” comes from the Greek root for metánoia, a change of mind and heart. The peaceable kingdom of God for which we long may require that we put an ax to resentments and biases that are rooted in our hearts. We may have to winnow our greed and overindulgence; we may have to burn the chaff of our impatience. Only then will the wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid, the calf and the lion, the child and the cobra find rest under the widespread branches of a sheltering tree in the peaceable kingdom.