A month or two ago as I was sitting at my desk, I noticed a Junco picking at peanut fragments under the feeder outside my living room window. Normally Juncos wouldn’t prompt a lot of attention – they’re fairly common wintertime visitors to these parts. But I noticed this little guy because he was the first junco of the season…back from his breeding grounds further north. I was glad he found my feeder after his journey. I had only a moment to ponder this bucolic scene, when out of nowhere a grayish brown streak whizzed past the feeder and with an explosion of black and white feathers, the junco disappeared. I eventually found the culprit perched in a tree, twenty-five feet or so into the woods. The Sharp-shinned Hawk was plucking my Junco for his late morning brunch. “Sucks for the Junco” I thought, but that is nature, ‘red in tooth and claw,’ survival of the fittest and all that. I’ll be the first to admit, I’m always a little thrilled to see an accipiter work his acrobatic display in pursuit of a meal. I’ve come a long way from the cartoonish and romantic “happily ever after” idea I use to have about nature. Bunnies and skunks and baby dear playing all day long amidst the wildflowers in the friendly woods …
There are many things that turned out to be vastly different from what I thought when I was small: mayonnaise really tastes great on a sandwich, and football players have normal shoulders when they aren’t in uniform. Amazing. Now that I’m older, I’m still learning that things aren’t always as they seem. The diagnosis of cancer is not a death sentence and the ones who look like they have it all together are sometimes the most broken. Another thing I know: God’s view of people and the world is vastly different than mine.
Every year, when Advent rolls around again, the Church turns to the prophets. The prophets consistently challenge our status quo. Isaiah foretold the coming of the Messiah -- God’s Annointed One, and the new age to come under his reign. This Messiah will bring peace to the world and his reign will be characterized by a new order. It sounds upside and backwards from the way things presently are. See Isaiah’s prophecy here:
The American Quaker artist Edward Hicks painted a number of panels in the first half of the nineteenth century known collectively as the “Peaceable Kingdom” paintings. There are at least 62 renditions. I love the primitive artistry and the colors and especially the subject matter – it’s a literal depiction Isaiah’s Prophecy (my favorite part is the smiling bear in the bottom right corner – sharing some grass with an ox). It suggests how the world will be when the new King reigns. Somehow, the strongest, fiercest animals will live in harmony with the mildest, most docile animals - predators and prey will live together in peace. (GREAT news for Juncos). According to Isaiah, when humans finally work out the real rule of justice in our dealings with each other, that transformation will be paralleled by a similar transformation in the animal realm as well.
While a beautiful vision, the promises of Isaiah seem outrageous, especially in light of the current state of affairs in the world today. The last I checked, lions, tigers and bears still enjoy sitting down to a meal of lamb, goat or beef. The last I checked, kings and their newly elected equivalents still pander to the rich, and they court the powerful while the poor remain poor, and the meek stay at the bottom of the heap suffering from a lack of justice and righteousness. Isaiah says that the ultimate plan for creation is peace and harmony. That kind of peace seems highly unlikely at both a societal level and in the natural world.
Who are the weakest and most vulnerable? Children certainly, and this vision belongs to them. How about those who are disabled? Yes, I think most would say they qualify too. How about the poor? Are they included? Here’s where we start to have difficulty. It’s hard to look at the poor and not wonder what they did to deserve to be there. To be poor in our society is shameful…it’s downright un-American. Who are the poor and why can’t they embrace the American dream? Before we’re willing to include them in God’s compassionate vision, we ask, “Why are they poor?” Did they make some bad decisions? Are they lazy? Are they substance abusers? Maybe they don’t deserve compassion. It’s a slippery slope. If the biblical witness is consistent on any point, it is this: God is concerned for the poor and meek.
The “poor” and “meek” of Isaiah’s vision are simply those who are needy – for any reason. The prophecy is that the poor and the meek will be treated fairly and with great concern and compassion. All will enjoy the benefits of good health, not just those who can afford a good diet, adequate medicine, and healthcare coverage. In this vision of peace, everyone has access to housing at fair rates, not just those who are best able to afford them. That’s what “judging the poor with righteousness and deciding with equity for the meek” looks like. It’s not judgment with an eye to blame, it’s righteous judgment that something is not right with the imbalance. We’re out of balance – out of sync – upside down and backwards from the vision.
Last week, I watched “It’s a Wonderful Life” on NBC. I’ve seen it at least a dozen times and I love it, though I still cringe at its silly and sentimental theology, like angels “earning” their wings. Even so, I found myself hearing part of the story in a new way. Early in the movie, George Baily defends his father’s Building and Loan business against the evil bank president, Mr. Potter. He’s disgusted by the slums Mr. Potter’s customers are forced to live in. George believes that people should be able to live in a decent house, with no leaky roof, with a fireplace, and a kitchen, and that’s what the local building and loan allowed people to do. It gave poor people a hand up. How about that – in an old black and white movie from the 1940’s - we hear a piece of Isaiah’s vision.
Some might say Isaiah’s prophecy is a critique of present injustices. Others hear a call to action. Maybe there is an element of both. But really both these interpretations miss the mark. The most important thing to realize about Isaiah's prophecy is that it is purely good news foretold. Whether in this world and the course of history in time and space, or beyond it, the prophet cries joyfully that God wills – and one day will bring about – justice and peace for the world and all its living creatures. That’s the plan. It’s that plain and that simple. And that upside down and backwards from the world as we know it.