There is a television commercial you may have seen which absolutely makes me smile every time I catch a glimpse of it. I can’t say that very often about TV ads, but I really can about this one. It’s for an insurance company and shows a variety of African animals at a watering hole.
Instead of what might really happen at such a site, little mammals ride on the top of crocodiles and one little prairie –dog like creature does a perfect dive off the head of a giraffe, barely making a splash as he plunges into the pond! Elephants give all of them a shower with water from their trunks! And all this is accompanied by a song from the Scottish band, Aberfeldy, with the recurrent line, “Well, we get along; yeah, we really do!/ And there’s nothing wrong, with what I feel for you.”
The commercial is really an animated version of Edward Hicks’ early 19th century painting, “The Peaceable Kingdom.” You are surely familiar with that rendering of our passage from Isaiah this morning “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. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand in the adder’s den. They shall not hurt of destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters covcr the sea.” (Isaiah 11: 6-9)
Although many people think that painting impossibly sweet and naïve, they probably don’t realize that Edward Hicks was a dedicated Quaker activist whose heart was broken “to see his fellow Quakers becoming worldly with excessive material goods, inflated pride, and thinking of themselves as some kind of spiritual elite…”
“His own education included ancient concepts of animal symbolism with references to aspects of the human personality. These symbols came into his paintings. The lion was quick-tempered and willful. The wolf was full of melancholy and reserved. The bear was sluggish and greedy…the leopard buoyant. In his paintings, these were both animal qualities with potential violence” (Friends’ Journal, Feb. 2000) and were destructive human qualities as well – rage and selfishness and greed and all the rest of it.
The little child in his earlier paintings had actually appeared representing, not Jesus or the Messiah, but liberty and freedom from oppression. Politically, that meant kings and princes who had often oppressed the Quakers. But spiritual freedom had to be obtained as well. Hicks sought that in the Quaker concept of the ‘Inner Light” of the Spirit, even when that might be at odds with the established Church or the accepted views of his time.
Well, that vision of “the peaceable Kingdom” certainly was in the mind of the Prophet Isaiah in our First Lesson today – the hope that someday, when the Messiah came, the “shoot from the stump of Jesse,” everything would be set right again – with righteousness he would judge the poor and decide with equity for the meek of the earth. (Isaiah 11:4)
Centuries later, John the Baptist was still looking forward to that same future. But it was his sense that the time had almost come. “Repent,” he tells the people of Judea, “for the kingdom of heaven has come near!” (Matthew 3:1-2) Like the Quaker, Edward Hicks, John knew that repentance would be necessary if the Kingdom is ever to be realized in its fullness here on earth.
Hicks criticized his fellow Quakers for materialism and pride and elitism. And John the Baptist says the same thing to his people, “You brood of vipers, “ he roars at the Pharisees and Sadducees, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, we have Abraham as our ancestor; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”
In other words, don’t rely on your ancestry or your pedigree to save you. God is absolutely uninterested in any of that! God is interested in precisely what Isaiah said he was interested in, for the poor to be treated righteously and for the meek of the earth to be treated with equity. That, for John the Baptist, would be “fruit worthy of repentance.” It is that “fruit worthy of repentance” that we need to be meditating on this Advent. How are we living our lives?
Skeptics will sometimes point out that nothing really seems to have changed as a result of the birth of Jesus, the coming of our Anointed One. Wolves do not lie down with lambs or calves with the lion. No matter how loudly we sing Glory to God in the highest, peace and goodwill has not yet come to the peoples of the earth.
And, while it is true, that the “earth will not be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” until that last Great Day when the Kingdom dawns in its fullness and God sees to it that the poor are treated with justice and the meek with equity, that does not absolve us of our responsibility to cooperate with God in the building up of that Kingdom. We know how God wants us to live. We have known it since the Psalmist sang these words:
Give the King your justice, O God/ and your righteousness to the King’s Son;
That he may rule your people righteously/ and the poor with justice;
That the mountains may bring prosperity to the people/ and the little hills bring righteousness.
He shall defend the needy…rescue the poor and crush the oppressor/
…there shall be abundance of peace till the moon shall be no more
We are to create governments and societies ruled by righteousness…where prosperity is enjoyed by all the people…where the needy are defended and the poor rescued. We are to work for that peace which is the fruit of justice, not peace simply enforced by domination or power.
No, that Kingdom has not yet come. It is for that state of affairs that we wait, and pray for, during Advent. But…while we wait…let us heed John the Baptist’s warning…and in our lives “bear fruit worthy of (our) repentance.