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The Peaceable Kingdom
Deacon Mike Meyer / Sunday, December 4, 2022 / Categories: Blog, Homilies

The Peaceable Kingdom

Homily for the Second Sunday of Advent, Year A

   Not too far from here in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Edward Hicks, a Quaker minister and painter, lived and worked in the early 1800s. While best known in his time as a distinguished preacher, he made more money painting houses, coaches, and tavern signs. As fate would have it, he’s barely remembered as a preacher today, but he’s well-known as the American folk artist who painted an idyllic composition called The Peaceable Kingdom. You see, during his lifetime, a serious rift occurred in the Society of Friends that divided the Quakers into two squabbling sects. Hicks wanted peace, but his preaching wasn’t helping, so he painted it—62 versions of it—depicting predators peacefully lying down with their prey and one or more children playing among them. He painted today’s first reading, boldly declaring to the world, 62 times, that the Peaceable Kingdom is at hand; it’s closer than we think. And that’s the message of today’s readings.

         In our first reading, the prophet Isaiah announces the coming of the perfect King, a King who will usher in an era of universal peace and justice. Isaiah’s speaking of the same King celebrated in today’s Psalm, the one under whom justice and peace will flourish forever. His reign will renew the world and transform it into the Peaceable Kingdom God created at the beginning of time, the Kingdom that John the Baptist says, “is at hand.”

To understand what this means for us today, we need to appreciate how our Jewish brothers and sisters interpret this passage. Jews at the time of Isaiah understood this passage as a promise of an imminent King emerging from the royal line of David. When that didn’t happen, they began to see it as a prophecy of the coming of a great political leader who will establish Jerusalem as the center of all world government and inspire Jews and Gentiles alike to live in accordance with God’s will. The Jews call this future leader the Messiah.

Christians, of course, find the fulfillment of this passage in Jesus Christ, the “one” identified by John the Baptist in today’s Gospel. Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah, the Prince of Peace who opened the gates to his Peaceable Kingdom to all who repent and do God’s will. Jesus wasn’t the kind of Messiah the Jews were expecting. He wasn’t a political leader or warrior, and he didn’t conquer Israel’s earthly enemies. That’s why they’re still waiting for the Messiah to come. So why do we believe that Jesus is the Messiah promised in our first reading and psalm and announced by John? Because only a human can be a descendant of David, and only God can make a wolf the guest of a lamb and the cow and the bear neighbors. Only God can cause a leopard to lie down with a kid and a lion to eat hay like the ox. Only God can make justice and peace flourish forever. To fulfill these prophecies, then, the Messiah had to be fully human and fully divine. We find both natures only in Jesus.

OK, so if Jesus is the King foretold by Isaiah, where’s the peace? We’d be hard pressed to say that everything’s hunky dory. The world’s still plagued by wars, political unrest, and mass shootings. Wolves still eat lambs, and no responsible parent would let their child play by a cobra’s den. Our world is hardly the rosy picture envisioned by Isaiah and painted by Edward Hicks. Well, we Christians believe that Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection opened the doors to eternal peace. But in divine wisdom, God hasn’t unveiled the Peaceable Kingdom to us all at once like a new painting at an art exhibit. God reveals it brushstroke by brushstroke and invites us to paint along with him. Yes, we believe that the Messiah has come, but we also believe that he’ll come again in glory to unveil God’s masterpiece in its entirety at the end of time, to usher in the fullness of God’s Peaceable Kingdom for all who do God’s will. God’s Peaceable Kingdom is at hand; it’s closer than two coats of paint. It’s in our midst, but there’s more to come. In the meantime, we need to pick up a brush, touch it to the palette of Christ’s peace, and contribute our talents to God’s magnum opus.  

So where do we find Christ’s peace in our midst? It’s closer than we think. We find it right here—in Church! When we come to Mass, we step out of time and into eternity, into the everlasting peace of God’s Kingdom. At Mass, we experience that peace through encounters with Christ himself in the Word and the Eucharist, dwells within us when we receive Communion, and it strengthens us as we sit in quiet adoration (at least when our children are behaving). Now, I realize that I’m preaching to people who come to Mass, so please think of people you know who could use a little peace in their lives and encourage them to come to Mass with you. Another great way to find the peace of Christ in our midst is to spend time with him. Wipe your canvas clean of sin and distractions and sit in a quiet Church before the Blessed Sacrament, read Scripture, and, of course, pray. We can’t understand a work of art fully until we get to know the artist, and Advent is the perfect time to start.

In Advent, we prepare for Christ’s first coming at Christmas, and pray with joyful expectation for his second coming at the end of time. So finding the Peaceable Kingdom in our midst and clinging to the sure hope that it will be unveiled in its fullness at the end of time is what Advent’s all about. If we incorporate these simple devotions into our regular routines, I have no doubt that we’ll find that Jesus and the peace he brings are a lot closer than we think.

         Speaking of close, not too far from here in Clinton Township, NJ, Bill Bell, a musician and painter, lives and works near Round Valley Reservoir. Best known as a music producer in his professional life, Bill took up painting in retirement. As fate would have it, he’s barely remembered for his distinguished music career, but he’s widely known as an American folk painter whose whimsical works adorn children’s books, jigsaw puzzles, and even the walls of Fr. Chester’s and my offices downstairs. Bill Bell painted his own version of today’s passage from Isaiah that he also called The Peaceable Kingdom. Like Edward Hick’s composition, Bell’s painting depicts predators lying down with their prey in peace. It even includes his Golden retriever serenely standing next to a skunk and a porcupine. There’s one feature that distinguishes Bell’s painting from Edward Hick’s—a break in the woods in the left quadrant of Bell’s composition reveals a familiar image – the Red Mill in Clinton. The Peaceable Kingdom is at hand; it’s closer than we think.

Readings: Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72; Romans 15:4-9; Matthew 3:1-12

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