In the early part of the 19th century, artist Edward Hicks, a Quaker preacher who lived in Bucks County, PA, painted many paintings that now grace the walls of art museums in many places including the Metropolitan Art Museum in New York City and the National Art Gallery in Washington, DC. As a Quaker, Hicks’ faith was quiet and deep and likely included the Quaker longing for the kind of peace that would bring harmony to this world. Hicks’ paintings reflected his faith and this longing. Most of his paintings are based upon this passage from Isaiah 11, which is full of appealing images and a vision of peace, where adversaries are no longer adversaries, but live together in harmony.
“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.” (Isaiah 11:6)
He painted over 60 different interpretations of this passage, with the most famous of these paintings in the Worcester Museum in Massachusetts which includes all the animals, the child in a peaceful landscape and in the back of the landscape, Hicks painted William Penn making a treaty with the Natives. All of these paintings are called The Peaceable Kingdom.
Every three years, this passage from Isaiah is a focal point of the second Sunday of Advent and stands alongside another rich passage found in the Gospel of Matthew, where John the Baptist is proclaiming a message of urgency to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 3:2) At the core of both passages is this promised kingdom where the values of the world will be turned upside down and while John’s language is rough and harsh compared to the tender images of Isaiah, he is clear in his proclamation. This kingdom is so important that he doesn’t want anyone to miss it. John the Baptist wants everyone to recognize this kingdom, which is described in this first part of Isaiah. John the Baptist risked his whole life for this kingdom and the reality of what this kingdom could mean for a world that was in such despair. He took on the Pharisees and the Sadducees, those who would block the coming of this kingdom, calling them a brood of vipers, because this kingdom, which the prophet Isaiah spoke about, was so important. It would be a kingdom that would not be established on greed or power. It would be established for all people to share in together, where peace would reign, where the Spirit of the Lord, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord would be the guiding principles for the One who would come to rule, from the house of David, from the stump of King David’s family tree, his father Jesse. John the Baptist, in his urgency, called the people to pay attention and to prepare for the Messiah, who brings the kingdom to us—Emmanuel, God with us, Jesus.
As Isaiah spoke of this kingdom, he spoke of hope and the coming of a Prince of peace, the Messiah. The people were ready for Peace. The period in which the prophet was speaking was the difficult period of tensions around 733 BCE. Violence was all around the people and even among each other. Assyria invaded and their impact led to the destruction of Samaria and the end of the northern kingdom in 721. These chosen people of God were in chaos. In the years to come there would be exile, destruction of the temple, and longing for home. The people would wonder if God was still with them. They would wonder if God would ever forgive them, if God would ever redeem them.
In the midst of this chaos and darkness, in the midst of the fear that gripped the people, there comes a word of hope, a vision of peace.
It is a painting of tenderness, where the words of the prophet are spoken on behalf of God. These tender words pour from God’s heart of love for the people. Through the prophet, God is speaking tenderly to the people, to all people.
It is a message hope.
It is a message of peace.
It is a message of joy.
It is a message of love.
In the kingdom of the Messiah, all is just. Those who have suffered will be cared for with equity and hope. The tender images say it all. There will be no cause for alarm or worry or fear.
Enemies will make peace.
The wolf shall live with the lamb
The leopard shall lie down with the kid.
The calf, the lion, and the fatling together
The world will be so safe that young children can play over the hole of poisonous snakes with no fear.
And this safety, this peace is for the whole of creation. The whole of Creation will participate. The whole of earth will know this experience as the waters cover the sea.
They were ready.
They were ready to feel God’s grace.
They were ready for peace.
They were ready to hear the tender words that spoke to them of God’s heart, of God’s peace, of God’s longing.
The pain and agony that Israel had experience and suffered had made them ready.
Are we ready? Are we ready to hear words of tenderness? And then to respond to that tenderness, that love, that forgiveness and grace that comes from the Messiah who established that Peaceable Kingdom?
For the Hebrew people, hearing these tender words and images gave them hope, but it was a prophecy of something that was to come. In Advent, we deal with a tension. We stand between hearing the tender words of hope that the prophet spoke long ago and the knowledge that the Messiah he spoke about has already come to us, to this world that always seems to be in chaos and fear.
Often, we ask where is this peaceable kingdom?
Christ has come, but there is still chaos and fear. Reading the news every day will tell us that there is still chaos and fear. Just this week there were more shootings. There is political strife throughout the world. The ugliness of racism is rising worldwide. There are people who do not feel safe, even in their own homes. Relationships are broken or are painful. There are people wandering the world with no place to lay their heads and are rejected. Poverty is still among us. People are rejected and scorned for just being who they are, who God made them to be. There are disasters. There is pain. There is suffering. And all of us feel it.
We are bewildered.
Where is this Peaceable Kingdom? Where are the words of tenderness?
Emmanuel—God with us—the Messiah came to us and invited us to be a part of this Peaceable kingdom, to live and work together, offering hope to this world until the world has hope. He called us to live and work for peace until this world has peace. He called us to embrace his upside-down kingdom and make it our own, a place where there is kindness and justice, where we walk humbly with God.
I believe that our Messiah, Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, has invited us to speak in our lives as the prophet did long ago—to speak tenderly and as we do, we will hear the tenderness spoken to us.
In Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol, there is at least one character who can teach us something about living in God’s Peaceable Kingdom and about how speaking tenderly can transform and bring hope. The Ghost of Christmas Present is described as huge, filling the entire house. Dressed in forest green, flowing robes, as he and Scrooge go out into the world for their walk among the people of earth, he carries something that cannot really be described. It may be a bowl, or it may be a large jar. It may be silver or maybe not.
Once in a while, as they encounter groups of people, many who are arguing or are sad and in despair, he reaches into the container and with a sweeping motion sprinkles something over the heads of the people they encounter. It sparkles as it falls upon the heads. It makes a tingling sound as it lights upon the people.
A tender, tingling sound.
Is it water? Is it stardust? Is it magic?
Instantly, arguments cease, and tender words are spoken. Sadness disappears and is replaced by joy. Despair becomes hope.
Scrooge watches this happen over and over as the Ghost of Christmas Present looks tenderly upon the people that they encounter, and he asks the Ghost what he is doing and what is he sprinkling. The Ghost replies that it is a blessing. He is pouring a blessing over the people who are arguing, who are sad, who are in despair.
Scrooge notices that the Ghost gives an extra helping to a poor beggar, who is cold and hungry and sitting in a doorway. He asks the Ghost why and the Ghost replies “Because he needs it most.”
I will admit it. I love this character who loves humanity and in his own way speaks tenderly to those that he meets. I love the way he is patient with Scrooge and by example teaches him that he can also speak tenderly to those around him. I love the way that Dickens had people transform when words and actions of tenderness fell upon them.
How is the Messiah calling us to speak tenderly? Who in our lives needs to hear tender words? Words of hope? Words of forgiveness? Words of encouragement?
How can speaking tenderly help the Peaceable Kingdom to shimmer all around us so that others can see it? How could we help change lives if we took even just a day and spoke tenderly all day long? How would our own lives change? What if we took this Tuesday and declared it Speak Tenderly Tuesday?
We can speak tenderly. We can be a blessing.
You and I are called to help bring about this Peaceable Kingdom in the places where we are. The marvelous thing is that we don’t have to do it by ourselves because the Messiah, the One who we are waiting for has already come to us and poured over us love and grace and forgiveness and tenderness. He has spoken tenderly in our lives and has blessed us with life that is renewed, redeemed, restored over and over again.
Thanks be to God.
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
Who alone does wondrous things.
Blessed be his glorious name forever;
May his glory fill the whole earth.
Amen and amen. (Psalm 72:18-19)