“Candles of Peace for Tempest-tossed Days”
Isaiah 11: 1-9
By Rev. Don Ludwig, December 20, 2020
Edward Hicks, Peaceable Kingdom
Howard Thurman once wrote: “Whatever may be the tensions and the stresses of a particular day, there is always lurking close at hand the trailing beauty of forgotten joy or unremembered peace.” On this Fourth Sunday of Advent, the day on which we light the Candle of Peace, we read about a vision from the prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament. Isaiah paints a picture of peace and safety, a place where former enemies, even natural enemies, are no longer in competition with one another for survival. Wolves live with lambs. Cows and bears graze together. They will not hurt or destroy. It’s a beautiful portrait of the kingdom of God—a heavenly vision—a picture, a painting, of peace and reconciliation, of abundance and wellbeing.
I am reminded of a painting entitled, Peaceable Kingdom, by the nineteenth century painter, Edward Hicks. I am sure that many of you have seen it. For a moment, I am going to have Amanda put it on full screen so that you sit with it and imagine me.
Here we have a calm lion and lamb are together. A leopard saunters across the canvas. And, indeed, a child is standing on top of the lion, holding on to the leopard and leading the way.
All told, it is estimated that Edward Hicks painted this painting sixty-one times. In each one, wolves and lambs and leopards and kids and fatlings rest together. In each version a child leads them. The child, of course, represents the Messiah, just as we imagine the coming of a messianic child, Jesus, this time of year. But, for Hicks, the child also represented liberty and innocent freedom from autocratic oppression. Hicks painted about freedom from kings and princes and imperial institutions. The very fact that Hicks painted sixty-one different versions of this same scene, demonstrates to us that it can be painted again. In fact, it needs to be painted again, in our time. What would the lions and lambs and cattle and oxen and bears and cows of our peaceable kingdom look like today?
Maybe it would start with Duck fans and Beaver fans rooting together in the next Civil War game? Maybe we can all become platypus fans. Can you imagine that? I can. So could Hicks. But more importantly, what would a world be like with conservatives and liberals—Democrats and Republicans—Trumpers and Never Trumpers— black and white and brown—gay and straight—able bodied and disabled—rich and poor—what would it be like if all were able to come together as one humanity? Can you imagine it? Both the prophet Isaiah and Hicks could. Yes, the peaceable kingdom of Isaiah is a vision worth repeating again and again.
What is holding us back?
So what is holding us back from realizing the peaceable kingdom? Apparently, the older Hicks became, the more he realized that the true enemy of humanity lay within each of us, in our selfish egos and greedy desires. As a Christian and Quaker, he began to emphasize the Inner Light, a true light that resides within every human soul. As he began experiencing more discord in the world, however, his paintings shifted to not only show more light but also demonstrate more and more cynicism and gloom.
Isn’t that the story of our lives? We start with a wonderful vision of peace but that quickly becomes tempered with reality. We begin with HOPE — but life wearies us and we become saddened and wallow in despair. Will a peaceable kingdom ever come?
In these tempest-tossed Advent days before Christmas, each of us is more than aware of divisions that long to be reconciled. Some might be playful divisions (Go Beavers!), but there are so many divisions that are deadly serious. And many of us have become cynical toward any positive resolution. Our vision of the peaceable kingdom needs repeating and refreshing.
Howard Thurman was a man of conviction and inner strength. He lived in a time marked by racial division and distrust and fear and deception and hate. Much like our world today. But even when his friend Martin Luther King was shot and killed, he did not call for revenge — he called for a change from within — an inner strength that would lead toward love to heal the divisions — an inner transformation that would lead to a peaceable kingdom.
So as we prepare for Christmas, let us see again this vision: the vision of Isaiah. Let us realize that we are the painting — we are the vision! We are the ones who can bring peace to a divided world! Peace that welcomes grace into our relationships. Peace that is committed to inclusive practices in all that we say and do. Peace that allows no place for force or division or war — but knows the power of Love is greater than the Love of power.
So light that candle of peace, my friends. Let it burn in the darkness. Light it again and again and again and if it burns down to where the wick gets snuffed, light another candle of peace. Let its gentle burning change the darkness — let it transform the division — let it bring Peace on Earth.