God's Peaceable Kingdom

God's Peaceable Kingdoma sermon by Pastor Teddie McConnell 12/4/22
Back in the 1800’s, Quaker preacher and folk artist Edward Hicks painted the same scene over and over again, at least sixty-two times that we know of. Here’s one of them on the screen. They’re popular enough that you may have seen one before. The images portray today’s scripture from Isaiah, and every painting is titled, “The Peaceable Kingdom.” There are smiling children and wild animals posed standing, lying down and sitting together, enjoying each other’s company, none of them worried about being attacked or eaten. You could say all is calm, all is bright.
In the background of certain paintings, as in this one, Hicks portrayed William Penn making a peace treaty with the Lenni Lenape Native Americans. Hicks profoundly believed that peace is more than a vision or a dream, but a reality that God can and will bring forth in the world to all kinds of people, piece by piece, peace agreement by peace agreement.
If you were to read this passage from Isaiah out of context, you might think it was written when times were good, when peace could be easily predicted, even expected. But the truth is that Isaiah wrote this after the terrible Syro-Ephraimite war in Judah, after the fall of Israel and the deportation of her people. Everyone he was speaking to had lost family and/or been robbed, plundered, victimized, or taken away as slaves.
Then as now, the poor and needy were taken advantage of by those with the money to buy judges, lawyers, or armies. Although God’s laws were supposed to give extra breaks to the poor, the orphaned, the widowed and strangers from other lands, that didn’t usually happen. Isaiah wanted them to know that peace and justice would come eventually, wanted them to keep their hope. He foresaw the renewal of the kingship of God, not under an earthly ruler, but under Jesus, a direct descendent from the stump of Jesse. Christ won’t even need to see or hear the evidence, because the righteousness of what needs to happen and of his decisions will come from God and be completely obvious to all. When it comes to taking care of the basic needs of our neighbors, the Bible should be easy to understand and follow. It’s not rocket science. Too bad not everyone reads it.
We live in a time when most everyone who has power, every talking head on the news, is either an expert or has one on staff and has an opinion of what is right and who is in charge and who is at fault. Here’s a hint- it’s never their fault. Getting two groups of people, or even two individuals, to agree about anything can be challenging in the extreme. People with more power than compassion grab for even more power by starting wars and by taking advantage of the powerless. What people do to each other is often far worse than how animals kill each other for food. Won’t it be great when we can all bring our concerns before Jesus. the holy ruler, and receive true, dependable justice?
The return of Jesus Christ will be so much grander than we can imagine! His kingdom will be peaceable and just. The full knowledge of the Lord will cover the earth. Every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. He will judge with righteousness and faithfulness, with the poor and needy as his highest priority. His government will reflect God’s divine plan for the earth, treating everyone equally and with respect. No one group will think of the truth as their exclusive property. All will know the beauty of the Lord, and all will find peace in the family of God. People and animals will loose their aggressive natures and going back to the vegan ways they had in the garden of Eden.
For now, until Christ returns, the peaceable kingdom is a goal we must work toward as we serve God. To help bring in the ideal world of God’s justice and peace, we will have to abandon our independent ways and learn to work together in the teams that make up families, churches, and communities.
I must admit, I’ve never been good at sports. As a kid, I was clumsy because I was always tall for my age, and I didn’t like to get hurt. I spent more time reading and doing art than practicing. I was enough of a nerd, got good enough grades, that the C students loved to pick on me when I messed up in gym class. I understood the idea of being part of a team, but I didn’t learn the true value of it until I joined a church as an adult. We had to work together to put on an inspiring vacation Bible school, to make pleasant music in the choir, and to make good decisions as a Session. It’s not always easy. Our egos tend to get in the way unless we pray for humility.
To have peaceful progress, we have to remind ourselves and each other that the wisdom of the Lord includes considering the well-being of others as well as our own. The self-centered nature of the human race won’t be overcome completely while we wait for Christ. At times, as the Spirit leads us, we’ll need to be as openly critical of immoral behavior as John the Baptist was.
The Holy Spirit brought crowds to John for repentance, but not everyone who showed up to be baptized was looking for forgiveness. John recognized the Pharisees and Sadducees as proud and self-righteous, holier-than-thou kind of people, not likely to admit or even understand their sins, and not likely to change. They wanted to be baptized for the sake of appearances. They thought being descendants of Abraham gave them the right to put themselves above others, a superior place in society like membership in a country club with the rich and famous. Their identity was their get-out-of-jail-free card.
John recognized their hypocrisy, their sense of entitlement. He mocked them, saying that God can raise up children of Abraham from stones, which are as cold and hard as their hearts were. They went through the motions of righteousness, prayed ritually, but they didn’t really care about God or about others.
John’s words remind us that we can’t be the kind of people who are just going through the motions if we want to be ready for the coming of Christ. We can’t just do what we’ve always done because we’ve always done it that way. We can’t be so comfortable with the promise of heaven that we become complacent about what God wants us to do here and now. We can’t assume that we’re living toward holiness automatically just because we’ve been baptized. We can’t be like the Pharisees, thinking we’re superior. We need to pray and ask God to show us the straight path.
Especially at Christmas time, we don’t like to think about Christ coming with a winnowing fork in his hand, ready to gather the wheat into the granary and burn the chaff. Sounds pretty grim for the chaff! And a dramatic contrast with that helpless baby in the manger. It’s so much easier to think about Jesus as an innocent child than as our judge. But the love that comes to us through Christmas is “tough love.” It’s meant to inspire a lasting change in us. Jesus wants us to examine our thoughts, words and actions. He wants us to understand where we fall short and hurt others by our selfish and thoughtless ways, then repent. The word “repent” means to turn around, change direction. God doesn’t expect perfection, but the prayerful effort that leads to insight and improvement.
We must understand the noble standards that were established for us in God’s Word as we work to love our neighbor as ourselves, not just go through the motions of following the law. We need to love God with our whole lives, our whole being, every action captive to the ways of holiness. By prayer and study, we can allow God reshape us into kingdom people. If we don’t, we’ll be like trees that bear no fruit, like the artificial Christmas trees that we decorate this time of year. They may be pretty, but they have no other real purpose. They couldn’t even be burned in a fireplace to warm the house if the power went out.
There’s still time to surrender our hearts to the God who wants to dwell not just with us, but within us. We need to make our paths, our lives, straight and just, a blessing to those around us.
Changing our hearts begins with changing our thinking. When we catch ourselves thinking judgmental thoughts toward others even though we know we fall short that way ourselves, we can pray, repent and ask God to help us start again. As theologian Chelsey Harmon said, “If we are carrying Christ’s sandals in humility, we will not be able to be tempted to pick up the ax or threshing fork in judgement.”
Only by understanding the nature of grace, the healing and forgiving love of God through Christ, can we truly understand that we all have fallen short, we all need to repent, both individually and collectively, out of gratitude for what Jesus went through for us. Then we can have the courage to start fresh every day, to pray often, calling on the Lord for help and understanding. Let Jesus be the judge, not us. We all need to accept and love each other as flawed, imperfect, but valuable creatures in God’s kingdom, people God loved enough to reclaim through the death of the Son.
I’d like to start a prayer group here outside of Sunday morning worship, a time to invite the Holy Spirit to work her ways in our hearts. She’s so patient and gentle that She won’t impose herself on us. But when we pray together, we can plug into real power for change, for personal growth, for innovative ideas and creativity, and for new opportunities for this church. You don’t have to be on the session or even a member to take part in this. I want to include folks who can be here in person and those who can join via Zoom or even by phone. Yes, we pray during church, but if we want to be all that God wants us to be, we need to ask for God’s help consistently, regularly, and fervently. I’ve seen prayer change things many times in my life, and I believe it can change things here. Let this be the Christmas when the Christ Child is born in our hearts in new ways. If you’d like to be part of this smaller group of prayer warriors, please contact me, and we’ll find a time that will work. If you can’t join us, pray anyway.
And all God’s people said, Amen.

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