Advent lectionary on the PCUSA website has Isaiah 11: 1-9 listed multiple times. The narrative is titled “The Peaceful Kingdom” in my NRSV Bible. The narrative offers an image of peace: wolf and lamb, leopard and kid, calf and lion, cow and bear. The powerful shall be led by a little child. A child can play alongside the most poisonous of snakes. In this vision—it will be a promised reality because the knowledge of the Lord will fill the earth—like the waters cover the sea.
This is the stuff of Christmas cards, Christmas pageants, and simple songs. It is not the logo for living life too much of the time; rather, it is an ideal, as a sometime far-off hope, a gentle political vision; a day in December with candlelight and soft songs; careful drawings of lion in protective embrace of the innocent-eyed lamb. These verses shaped my identity from the time I was a small child. It seems ordinary to imagine in my little girl mind a lion and a lamb—mostly. It seems still that is the primary relationship between animals recalled this time of year, though here in this particular set of verses—it is a lion and a wolf. Not so much the adder and child intertwined, or the bear and the cow, the leopard and the goat. Intriguing though to consider in my adult imagination—even now—less possible perhaps given the graphic video narratives of snakes of the world or the great grizzlies to the North or the gray wolf packs making their way through blizzard conditions. There is a tension in this tri-part book of Isaiah.
One of a poetic vision, like this text, and another one of enemies which impede the reality of the vision requiring a resilient hope of a kind we are not accustomed to consider. Enemies of our own making and enemies who see us with fear. This tension weaves back and forth throughout the book. When all else fails there is a possible possibility for a future not yet experienced because after all we know really how lions, adders, wolves and bears are driven by instinct. We need to protect ourselves from the enemies which abound all around us.
I have learned to assume nothing in this biblical text or in any other part of scripture. I cringe when preachers are so certain in the preaching of a text. I’d rather not hear it for they assume a certainty and a quickness which is not present in Isaiah. Those who know this text intimately, have studied it for all their adult lives, are keenly aware of its patient and careful construction aimed toward a particular set of present moments to evoke the patient promise of participating in renewal and restoration. It is as one scholarly author titled his book: prophecy and propaganda.
In Advent, if it is to be purposive, is it not to challenge? Lay the groundwork for the courage to consider a shift from constant fear and what feeds it to faith and what fulfills it? To do so requires of us courage and patience and vulnerability and honesty. From whence does faith come? The point is not an idealized lion and lamb in warm embrace—the point is facing the abyss and the terror—understanding the waters and the sea as one.
Written by the Rev. Dr. Susan Kendall, Director of the Doctor of Ministry Program at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary