The Peaceable Kingdom

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.

One remarkable day this summer, I set out from camp with my fellow group of adventurers for a ride through hilly country at the base of an escarpment in the Masai Mara region of southern Kenya.  Our horses knew the territory well, and we visitors were instructed by our guides to trust the horses to lead us away from danger should any arrive.  The trustworthiness of the horses in this regard had been tested the day before when, while walking casually across the savannah astride our horses, and seeing nothing but an expanse of tall grass in front of us, much to our fright and surprise, suddenly two large hippopotamuses stood up from their repose in a muddy wallow, and objected to the disturbance of the horses and their riders by heading toward us with looks of determination in their eyes.

I’d had no time to respond, but my horse knew what was going on, and he instantly wheeled around 180 degrees to the right, only to find his path of escape blocked by the other horses, and so began to spin back toward the left so quickly that I was sure I would come out of my saddle, off of the horse, and be trampled by a hippo.  Somehow I managed to stay on and trusted the horse to find the direction of safety.

Meanwhile our guide had noticed that the horses were not the only factor in the disturbance of the hippos, as they spotted a lioness lurking in the tall grass a mere twenty yards away.  Whatever her intentions had been, the confusion caused by the horses’ swift about-face, sent the lioness off in the other direction, and by the time I saw her she was seventy-five yards away, in search of a quieter corner of the African bush.

All this was fresh in my mind the following day, when, on a sloping hillside, our guides suddenly hushed us and brought us all to a nervous halt.   Just over a rise ahead of us, they had spotted a large, lone cape buffalo: older and separated from its herd, and therefore (they told us later) particularly dangerous.  We had come this way, up the hillside, because our intended route on lower ground had been blocked by a small group of elephants, lovely to look at from a distance, but not to be toyed with up close.  I was aware that trusting my horse on this steep hillside, covered in uneven clumps of tall grass would be significantly more difficult than on the flat grassland we’d been traversing the day before, especially if safety meant going downhill.  We eventually made our way around the big, old buffalo by taking the horses uphill of him, as our guides placed themselves between the buffalo and the nine of us in their charge, and we picked our way quietly and somewhat nervously around the old guy until we were at a safe distance.

Eventually we made our way down the hillside to the broad, flat savannah at the base of the escarpment, where we moved through tens of thousands of wildebeest making their annual migration, and happened upon a statuesque hartebeest posing for us on a small mound of earth.  We moved closer to the animal, with its distinctive horns, as though we were observing him at a zoo.  But this was no zoo, and we got a little too close for the hartebeest’s comfort.  When he bolted away, our horses – always alert to danger – spun around in flight mode, sending one of our riders, whose hands had been on a camera rather than his reins, to the ground, where, fortunately, no other danger awaited him.

The experience of moving through the natural habitat of large numbers of wild and dangerous animals, from the somewhat vulnerable vantage point of a saddle, has, for me, put Isaiah’s vision of a peaceable kingdom into what you might call perspective.  Calves and lions and fatlings do not lie down together, nor does the leopard lie down with the kid, unless she has killed it and is devouring it for supper.  The wolf does not live with the lamb; nor do the cow and the bear graze together.  And don’t even get me started on hippos.  Isaiah’s vision of a peaceable kingdom represents a drastic shift away from the created order in which nature really often is red in tooth and claw.

It is, of course, difficult for modern people like us to come into contact with the natural world, and even more difficult to do so in a way that allows us to experience anything like vulnerability, to actually interact with other species of animals or to observe their interactions with each other.  The wild kingdom had never been anything for me but a TV show before my African safari.  But it is wild and it is real.  And I hope I never forget the feeling of galloping away from a grumpy elephant who doesn’t know who you think you are, and has started moving toward you with deliberate speed, ears flared, perhaps to put you in your place.Ú

Wild kingdoms are all around us – in nature and of our own making in human society.  And it is just as well, from time to time, to get in touch with just how wild the world around us is.

It was a 19th century Pennsylvania artist from Bucks County, Edward Hicks, who made famous the image of the Peaceable Kingdom that Isaiah describes in our reading this morning.  He produced more than sixty versions of the image, depicting the ox and the lion, the leopard and the lamb, and the little child among them who shall lead them.  You probably have a version of one of his paintings filed away in the folk art section of your mind, and perhaps you can picture it now.  Hicks’s paintings look to me like representations of a dream that spring from some deep part of the soul that yearns for God’s righteousness and peace, but knows how distant a hope this is.  And in Advent the church aspires to an impossible task – we try to measure the distance from our wild kingdoms to the peaceable kingdom that God will establish when he shall come to judge the earth.

It may come as a surprise to us every year to be reminded that God is not merely leading us on a safari through a dangerous life in a wild kingdom, and to hear, instead, that God’s will bends toward a peaceable kingdom in which violence, enmity, and discord have no hold, and in which even nature’s teeth and claws have been cleansed and soothed.  The image of the peaceable kingdom haunts us at the outset of the church year, because it points toward a hope that is greater than the quite modest hope that we might learn to be nice to one another – an accomplishment that ought not to have to wait for the end of time, but so often these days among the highest aspirations of the church.  No, the peaceable kingdom is not merely the polite and friendly kingdom.  In the peaceable kingdom of God, the very nature of creation is bent back toward God’s will in the perfection of goodness whence all things sprang into being.  Nor is the peaceable kingdom a vision of heaven, the realms of the courts of God Almighty where angels sing and saints abide.  No, this description is Isaiah’s version of the apocalypse: the revelation of God’s secrets for the earth and its inhabitants that shall come to pass in the fullness of time.

What does it say about our society that entertainment these days is full of apocalyptic visions of zombies and the living dead, but almost nowhere can be found an image of the peaceable kingdom?

If we have convinced ourselves that God’s judgment consists only of punishment, destruction, damnation, and hell, then we have shaped a religion that can have precious little good news; and we are saying a lot more about ourselves than we are about God.  Maybe we are only saying that in the time of judgment we suspect that we’ll get what we deserve.

Back at camp in the Masai Mara, at the end of each afternoon’s ride we were greeted by the smile of the young daughter of our guide: eleven months old, growing up in the African bush, on safari for weeks at a time, in the midst of the wild kingdom.  She could have been a model for the child depicted in Hicks’s expressions of the peaceable kingdom of God.  And in her face one could see the wisdom of God revealed by Isaiah that “a little child shall lead them,” for it is in the face of a child like her that hope is so easily found.

Here we are in the midst of Advent, looking ahead to try to see what God has in store for us.  Taking our cues solely from our immediate environment, it might appear that God is preparing us for a frightening and daring safari through a wild kingdom.  Whether it’s your personal relationships that are a mess, or your spiritual life, of the weather, or the political climate, or your economic reality, or even the state of the church, it can be easy to conclude that you’d better hope you have a steady horse because we are in for a rough ride, and at some point you are going to simply have to hold on and hope you are led to safety.

But thanks be to God for the vision of the peaceable kingdom in which the wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid all lie down together; and the calf and the lion and the fatling; and the cow and the bear; and the ox.  To borrow the categories from Charles Dickens, this is not an image of how things may be; no, the vision of the peaceable kingdom is an image of how things will be – according to the divine purposes of God.  All creatures will find peace and harmony, old enmities will be laid to rest, violence will be heard no more, nothing will be hurt or destroyed, and the knowledge of God will be known to the ends of the earth.  And a little child shall lead us into this peaceable kingdom: the child Jesus.

About the second or third day of my safari I said to our guide that I felt I wanted to stop about every forty minutes or so and have a little cry because what I was seeing was so beautiful.  On reflection I have to ask: if the wild kingdom (red in tooth and claw) is that astoundingly beautiful, how beautiful will the peaceable kingdom be (in which righteousness and peace have kissed each other)?  And how will I ever be able to bear such beauty?

We often think that the principal character of God’s people is supposed to be our faithfulness.  But much of the record of religion indicates that the principal character of God’s people is our failure in faith.  We forget that God’s Word is good news to us.  We substitute hope with fear, and no end of misery results.  And we lose sight of the promise of a peaceable kingdom, assuming that the wild kingdom is all that God will ever have in store for us.

So we put our saddles away, and let the horses forget how to lead us to safety.  We build fences and find ways to exterminate the lions, rather than allowing them their space.  And we determine never to go on safari again, so that the only way we can ever see the beauty of God’s creation is through the bars of a zoo, or with the narration of David Attenborough.

Better to skip the zoo and go to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where you’ll find a painting of Edward Hicks’s – an early version of the peaceable kingdom, with Isaiah’s words painted to frame the entire image:

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.


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

4 December 2016

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Ú This episode happened not on safari in the Masai Mara, but in the Laikipia region of Kenya during an afternoon ride, and really should be the basis of its own sermon some day.

Posted on December 12, 2016 .