“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” John the Baptist announces in today’s gospel (Matthew 3:1-12). But it’s Isaiah in today’s Old Testament reading (Isaiah 11:1-10) who describes the kingdom. It’s Isaiah who gives us a glimpse of that kingdom.
“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. … They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.”
It is the peaceable kingdom. That’s what I want, don’t you? That’s how I want to live. I want to live with more balance and harmony. I want the divisions and contradictions within me, the parts of myself that often argue with or fight each other, to find reconciliation. I want my heart to be at peace you and others. I want my wolf and lamb to live together. I don’t want my words or actions to hurt another. I want the peaceable kingdom to come near. It’s what I hope and pray for myself, you, and the world. “Thy kingdom come … on earth as it is in heaven.”
The images Isaiah offers are not only about our relationships with others but also about our relationship with ourselves. It’s easy to see the wolf and the lamb as two different nations at war or two different people who struggle to get along. And that makes sense. But what about the wolf and the lamb within you and me? At some point the divisions within me and the harms I do myself become the divisions and harms between me and you. Peace within and peace without are two states in the same kingdom. You can’t have one without the other.
I want to live in the peaceable kingdom and I want it to live in me. Maybe you do too. I know that for me that’s, at least in part, because of what happened in Uvalde a little over six months ago. But I also know that’s not the only reason. It just happens to be the most recent and pressing reason. I’ll bet you have your reasons too. I think we all long for peace within ourselves and peace between ourselves and others. I think it’s what we want for our children and grandchildren. I think it’s the legacy we want to leave for all who will come after us, even those yet to be born.
I wonder what parts of your life today are in need of some peace? Do you need to make peace with yourself? Are there others with whom you need to make peace? Where is the peaceable kingdom in your life today?
I’m not talking about peace as simply the absence, avoidance, or suppression of conflict or violence. I’m not talking about just going along to get along. I’m talking about living in such a way that we neither hurt nor devour another or ourselves. I’m talking about peace as reconciliation and wholeness, the freedom that allows us and others to become our truer and more authentic selves, mutual respect and wellbeing, the willingness to be expansive and more inclusive with our web of relationships, space that promotes creativity and generatively, vulnerability that risks intimacy and deepens relationships, a connection to something larger than and beyond ourselves.
How does that sound to you? Do you like that? All in favor of peace say, “Aye.” Any opposed? No? Then the ayes have it. It’s unanimous. But here’s my problem. The ayes may have it but I still don’t. I struggle with finding, making, bringing, and sharing peace. What about you? Maybe you do too.
So what happened? If we’re unanimously agreed on peace where is the peaceable kingdom today? Where is it in Ukraine, in America, in our hometowns? Where is it in our families, workplaces, and schools? Why does peace have such a hard time in our lives and world today?
I don’t think it’s because people are bad. I don’t think it’s because we don’t know how or because we lack the necessary answers or resources. And I don’t think it’s because we don’t want peace or because we lack the will power.
It think it’s because we have no imagination. We have so normalized the way things are today that we cannot even imagine a world in which peace actually exists; a world in which the wolf lives with the lamb and the leopard lies down with the baby goat. We look at the wolves and lambs in our lives and world and think, “Isaiah you don’t get it. That’s not the way wolves and lambs are. You don’t know the wolves and lambs I do. It’s a nice idea but it’s not practical or realistic.”
We lack the imagination to move beyond the current circumstances while still living in them. We’re stuck. We repeat the same old cycles. The wolf attacks the lamb and the leopard attacks the kid. It’s business as usual. Since we can’t imagine a life of peace, we settle for a life in pieces. We live divided and broken.
Isaiah, however, is unwilling to settle. He proclaims something new and different. That’s what prophets do. They look at what is and imagine something new. Isaiah comes to us with a “ministry of imagination” (Lederach, The Moral Imagination, 83 (quoting Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, 2001) speaking about wolves and lambs living together, leopards and kid goats lying side by side. I don’t think Isaiah is naive or ignorant about wolves and lambs. He’s asking us to imagine with him and God what the world might be. Without imagination the peaceable kingdom makes no sense.
So what if imagination is the first ingredient necessary for peace? What if “imagination is the key to [the actions] by which new things come into existence, old things are reshaped, and our ways of seeing, hearing, feeling, thinking and so forth are transformed”? (Lederach, The Moral Imagination, 27 (quoting Mark Johnson, Moral Imagination: Implications of Cognitive Science for Ethics, 1993))
I’m talking about the kind of imagination that moves beyond the pieces that already exist and is not limited to or confined by our current circumstances, knowledge, or what we’ve always done. “It is the art of creating what does not exist.” (Lederach, 28) In terms of today’s gospel we might call that kind of imagination repentance.
Maybe John and Isaiah are saying the same thing. “Imagine your life different. Imagine something new. Imagine a possibility you always considered impossible. Change your mind. Turn around. Go in a new direction. Try on something new and see how it fits. Imagine. Repent.”
Look at your life today. What is one aspect of your life in need of some peace? Maybe it’s peace with yourself, your past, or a challenge you face today. Maybe it’s peace with someone else. Maybe it’s a relationship that needs harmony, reconciliation, hope for a different future. What are the wolf and the lamb in that situation? What is the same old pattern of hurt that keeps happening?
Imagine your wolf and the lamb living together, not hurting or devouring, without aggression or fear, without fighting or running away. What does it look like? What does it feel like? Where is it happening? What are they doing? What is being asked of the wolf? What is being asked of the lamb? What might they say to each other? What does each need from the other? What might each offer the other? What might they learn from each other? What needs to be acknowledged or forgiven?
If we can imagine the wolf and the lamb living together we’ve taken the first step toward peace. But it’s got to move from our heads and hearts to our hands and feet. It has to take action.
What’s one thing you can do today for your wolf and lamb to live together? Keep it simple. Make it concrete. Take the risk and do it. And then pick one more thing. Keep it simple. Make it concrete. Take the risk and do it. Maybe that’s the path of peace. Peace isn’t something we accomplish or achieve. It’s a way of being that orients our lives and guides our thoughts, words, and actions.
As difficult as it may be to see and believe Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom, it’s the promise of Advent. Advent always promises that something is coming, some new and unexpected. We don’t know when or where or how it might come. But it comes. And it comes to us as a call, an asking, an insistence that we respond. It asks our participation. That’s our hope, for ourselves and one another.
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.
Imagine, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.
Be at peace with yourself, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.
Be at peace with another, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.
Be at peace with all of creation, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.
Be at peace with God, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.
Peace be with you today, tomorrow, and always. Peace be with you.
I think Isaiah was giving us a glimpse of what the future could be in spite of all that is going on in our world today. He implied also that God is still in charge and ultimately, it is our loving God who we need to please as He is eager to give his children peace of His Kingdom.