Animals

HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
December 11, 2016

Isaiah 11: 1-9 (CEB)
A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse; a branch will sprout from his roots. 2The LORD’s spirit will rest upon him, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of planning and strength, a spirit of knowledge and fear of the LORD. 3He will delight in fearing the LORD. He won’t judge by appearances, nor decide by hearsay. 4He will judge the needy with righteousness, and decide with equity for those who suffer in the land. He will strike the violent with the rod of his mouth; by the breath of his lips he will kill the wicked. 5Righteousness will be the belt around his hips, and faithfulness the belt around his waist. 6The wolf will live with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the young goat; the calf and the young lion will feed together, and a little child will lead them. 7The cow and the bear will graze. Their young will lie down together, and a lion will eat straw like an ox. 8A nursing child will play over the snake’s hole; toddlers will reach right over the serpent’s den. 9They won’t harm or destroy anywhere on my holy mountain. The earth will surely be filled with the knowledge of the LORD, just as the water covers the sea.

As a young girl a friend of mine grew up on a farm. Her family was poor and no one in her family had ever gotten more than an 8th grade education. The area they lived in was not highly populated and so there weren’t a whole lot of churches. Her family didn’t attend church, though there was a family chapel on their property. Occasionally, a minister would come out to that chapel to preach and share communion. Overtime, my friend got to know this minister, and she started going to his church in town. This minister became such an inspiration to her that one day she came home from church and told her mother that when she grew up, she wanted to be a minister. Her mother said to her, “Women can’t be ministers, but they can be missionaries.” From that point on, my friend had a vision of herself—one day—becoming a missionary.

Now, she knew that in order to become a missionary she would have to go to school. And even though she wasn’t a particularly good student, she made it her goal to become the best student she could possibly be. Eventually, she got a scholarship to Emory and Henry College. After graduating from Emory and Henry, she went on to seminary. And it was in seminary that she felt called to fulfill the original vision God had given her. So she went on to become a minister. And now she is the Superintendent of the Chattanooga District of the United Methodist Church—my boss—Reverend Brenda Carroll. A vision was planted in her life by God’s Spirit and it determined how she acted and what she gave her life to.

What we have before us today as we continue our look at the Nativity scene and the significance of the characters surrounding Jesus at the time of his birth is a vision. The prophet Isaiah foretells of a time when there will be such harmony and peace on earth that predator and prey are companions, and children play in the nests of poisonous snakes without fear! It’s really a pretty preposterous and seemingly impossible vision. This is the kind of thing we read in the Bible, and think, “Well, that’s really nice, but it’s just an ideal, not reality!” And the truth of the matter is, right now, this is just an ideal. I think we can all agree this is certainly not reality.

As we observe the world around us, there is no question that predator and prey are not at peace with each other. The wolf doesn’t lie with the lamb; the leopard still hunts the goat; poisonous snakes are still a threat to humans. But even the peace this vision is supposed to represent, peace in all of creation especially between humans, is not even close to reality. I think that’s what’s most shocking to me! We humans were not created to be natural enemies. We are not supposed to be like predator and prey; we are not supposed to seek domination over our fellow humans, nor are we to feel as if we have to cower before other humans. But this is the reality of our world right now, isn’t it? Even we humans do not live in peace, which is ironically humorous when you consider that that’s probably the most prayed prayer around the world, especially at this time of year. “Let there be peace on earth.”

A couple of weeks ago, I was a part of a roundtable discussion with several other United Methodist clergy from our area; and by our area, I mean our immediate area. Now, this group is diverse, representing churches from downtown, through East Ridge and Brainerd, and well into East Brainerd. We were gathering to talk about how we might work together to create “new places for new people” in our community. It was a tough discussion because, as you can imagine, there are a lot of possibilities in this area—a lot of mission opportunities, a lot of needs to be served. But then, as the conversation sort of waned under the weight of a kind of feeling of overwhelming helplessness, one of my colleagues spoke up and said, “I think we need to address the elephant in the room.”
He went on to say, in essence, “Our country is so divided right now
down racial and ethnic lines and a lot of
people are under a tremendous amount
of stress.

He went on to say, in essence, “Our country is so divided right now along racial and ethnic lines, and a lot of people are under a tremendous amount of stress. This division is especially evident right here in our community, in Chattanooga, and I think we have to talk about this. We have to have real conversations about racism so that we can help our churches have these conversations. We have to face this and deal with this in a positive and healthy way so we can move past this place of division!” His comment sparked an intense conversation where many began to get real about their own fears, their own struggles with racist feelings or tendencies. It was the first of what will be many more conversations as we clergy in this area seek to work towards a more peaceful existence in our little corner of Chattanooga.

But the thing is, the reality my colleague pointed to is just one of many divisions not only in our community, or in our nation, but around the world. Aside from race, we are divided along social, cultural, economic, political, religious, and moral lines. Nations are constantly vying for a “bigger piece of the pie,” and some nations at least, don’t care what innocent civilians are harmed in the pursuit of greater dominance.

So, just take a minute and compare this vision from Isaiah with our present reality. When we really start trying to fit the pieces together, it just doesn’t work, does it? But what if we, the church, decided this vision from Isaiah is the vision we are going to pursue with all our passion and purpose—just like Brenda did when she felt called to become a minister.

Here’s the thing—what Isaiah laid out hundreds of years before the birth of Christ was an ideal. It was not reality, and it has never been reality since; except for one moment 2,000 years ago. At that moment, this baby was born in Bethlehem and laid in a crude manger—the feeding trough of livestock. History would call him Jesus, Christ, Emmanuel, Lord, Savior, Prince of Peace. But listen to some of the other ways he is named: Lion of Judah, Lamb of God.

God only knows the assortment of animals and living creatures surrounding the manger that night—sheep, oxen, goats, donkeys, camels, doves, mice, snakes, roaches; it’s really anybody’s guess. The Bible lists no specific animals present in the stable—we are left to imagine for ourselves. But whatever it was, there in the midst of some motley gathering of animals just trying to rest for the night, was a tiny child who was the embodiment of both the great, ruling lion, the king of all beasts, and the meek, sacrificial lamb. He brings together both power and might and costly self-sacrifice. “The wolf will live with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the young goat; the calf and the young lion will feed together, and a little child will lead them.” Here is this child—swaddled in a manger, surrounded by animals—the incarnation of peace.

The birth of Jesus Christ—the Lamb of God, the Lion of Judah—who was laid in a manger surrounded by sheep and oxen and goats, was proof that Isaiah’s vision was not just some lofty, unapproachable ideal, but a real possibility. For 33 years, Christ lived a life pursuing the fulfillment of this vision: he was righteous and faithful, he judged the needy with righteousness and decided with equity for those who suffered in the land. He spoke decisively against wicked and violent ways. Then, in the face of worldly dominance, he hung on a cross—the sacrificial lamb—offered on behalf of all of us humans who are still trying to dominate one another.

Christ has shown us beyond any shadow of a doubt that Isaiah’s vision can be real. It was real in him—in his life, ministry, death, and resurrection, and it is a reality to which God in Christ Jesus calls us. This is a vision to which we devoted ourselves when we gave our lives to Christ. But how well are we really doing in establishing the “peaceable kingdom” which Isaiah envisions? Are the animals in our nativity scenes more than just a quaint reminder of a single night long ago when peace broke into the world for a brief moment? We have to live for this reality where we exist in this world not as predator and prey, not as enemies, but as brothers and sisters. Like Brenda’s decisive decision to be the best student she could possibly be so that she could become the minister that God was calling her to be, we have to be the best peacemakers we can possibly be. And that begins with us laying aside our own desires for power and domination. If we ourselves are not willing to walk away from the fears and motivations that divide us, then how can we ask the same of others? If we are not willing to love our enemies, then how could we possibly ask our enemies to love us?

Isaiah’s vision can be a reality—Christ not only showed us that, but it is Christ that makes that reality possible. But as long as we remain disengaged, this vision will never be anything more than an ideal. If we want peace to be real, we have to be active in making peace real!

The animals of Isaiah’s vision showed us an ideal kingdom of total peace. The birth of Christ shows us that peaceable kingdom can be real. That’s what we celebrate each Christmas!

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