December 23, 2018

Son of David, IV: Prince of Peace

Passage: Isaiah 9:1–6; 11:1–9; Luke 2:8–20

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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. —Isaiah 11:6

In April of 1981, my wife Kathy graduated from the University of Michigan. In May, I graduated from Calvin College. In June, we got married. In August, we scraped together $500 for a U-Haul truck and moved to New Jersey for graduate school. In September, I started classes and we became the proverbial starving students.

Well, not quite. We weren’t burning the pages of my sermons to keep warm like Mimi and Rodolfo in La Bohème, but we had no credit card, and I do still clearly remember one week when, after we paid the rent, the tuition, and the electric bill, we had nine dollars left to buy a week’s worth of groceries. Thank God for Kraft macaroni and cheese. Four boxes for a dollar. You could eat for a week on two dollars.

So we didn’t dine out very often, but when we did we went to this place called the Temperance House in Newtown, Pennsylvania; Bucks County, about two miles from where Washington crossed the Delaware and full of colonial history. The food was okay, but we went for the murals on the wall, early nineteenth century American folk art.

The American folk artist Edward Hicks was from Newtown, PA. Maybe you know this famous American folk artist. After James Whistler, he of the famous Mother, Mr. Hicks is the most recognizable nineteenth-century American folk artist of all.

He’s the one who painted the Isaiah prophecy I just read in something like 100 different versions of what have become known as the Peaceable Kingdom paintings.

Do you know them, all those wide-eyed animals gazing blissfully out of the frame, a lion and an ox eating straw together, a little child leading the zoological menagerie? In the background of most of them, William Penn can be seen signing a peace treaty with the Native Americans with whom the Penn colonists were sharing the land.

Ten years ago, Christie’s sold one of Mr. Hicks’ paintings for $6 million, the highest figure ever for a piece of American folk art, but I have five cheap copies in my living room that I bought for about $100 each.

As a child, Edward Hicks was raised Episcopalian but became an orphan very young when his mother died and his father was banished from the community for his loyalty to the King of England, so little Edward was raised by a Quaker family, from which he must have inherited his irenic sensibilities.

It seems to me that Mr. Hicks got Isaiah just right, don’t you think? Thanks to him I have a visual image of Isaiah’s words. And what he got right was the shalom at the center of Isaiah’s prophecy. You know, of course, that the Hebrew word for ‘peace’ is a more three-dimensional and substantial word than the English word ‘peace’ and its Greek and Latin ancestors.

The dictionary definition for the Greek word for peace is this: “an interlude in the everlasting state of war.” In other words, peace is what we have when we’re not fighting. In English, French, German, and their Latin and Greek antecedents, ‘peace’ is defined as an absence, not as a presence.

But in Hebrew, shalom is more than the absence of conflict; it is the presence of life. God’s peace, the kind of peace Isaiah is talking about in his beautiful prophecy is more than the absence of conflict; it is the presence of life. Shalom is life, fullness of life, joy, benediction, beauty, serenity—whole, unfractured relationships between neighbors, strangers, creation, and the Creator.

Isaiah puts it so beautifully: “The wolf shall lie down with the lamb, the leopard with the kid, the lion with the calf and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” It’s this, this exquisite photograph of nature no longer red in tooth and claw.

Have you ever seen the musical Rent, Jonathan Larson’s retelling of Puccini’s La Bohème for the 1990's in bohemian New York? One of the characters says—I forget just why—but one of the characters says, “the opposite of war is not peace. The opposite of war is creation.”

Yes, that’s just it. The opposite of war is creation, creation in harmony and serenity. That’s what Edward Hicks was trying to get across—the Peaceable Kingdom is life, the earth teeming with pacific life. It’s a vision for the end of time but it’s something to reach for in the midst of time. The Russian word mir perhaps captures the essence of it—a word that means both ‘peace’ and ‘world’.

Okay, so Isaiah’s prophecy is the backdrop for Luke’s nativity story, when the angels deliver their message out there in the peaceable kingdom of the shepherd’s fields: “Fear not, for I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people, for a savior is born to you this day in the city of David, Christ the Lord. Peace on earth, good will to all.”

More than the other Gospel writers, St. Luke anchors the birth of Christ to the political and historical realities which prevailed when Jesus was born under less than ideal circumstances to a couple of peasants in an obscure corner of the Roman empire. Luke is the only Evangelist who tells us that Jesus was born during the reign of Caesar Augustus, one of the most powerful and astute rulers the world has ever seen, best known for the first postal service, the first police force, and the first fire department. The fire department had obviously deteriorated somewhat by the time of Nero 40 years later but let that pass.

Augustus created a vast highway system connecting the far corners of the empire, rid the seas of pirates, subsidized grain for the urban poor of Rome. Roman architecture became the world's standard. They said that Caesar found Rome brick and left it marble.

Also the Pax Augustae, the peace of Augustus, sometimes the Pax Romana. Augustus put to an end the bloody battles that had been wreaking havoc across the western world for decades.

And so Rome built an altar to honor the Peace of Augustus, and made his birthday, September 23, the first day of the new year. On that day, they celebrated with these words: “the birthday of this god marked the beginning of good news through him for the whole world.” Some called him the “Savior of the World.”

Good news for the whole world. A Savior is born. Do those words sound familiar? Have you heard them before? Do you see what happened? St. Luke just up and stole the titles belonging to the Roman emperor and lays them at the feet of a baby born in a stable to an unwed teenager and her peasant fiancé and welcomed into the world by no one more distinguished than a bunch of woebegone shepherds.

Augustus may have been the most successful sovereign the world has ever seen, but somehow Luke makes Bethlehem, not Rome, the center of history, and we celebrate December 25 instead of September 23, and all the Temples Augustus erected to the gods of Rome became basilicas honoring the Child of Bethlehem.

The Pax Romana is not enough; it has to be the Pax Christi. Augustus’ peace was an enforced peace. It only prevailed because of the bristling threat of his Roman legions. The Roman historian Tacitus quotes one of the British chieftains who was supposed to have been a beneficiary of the Pax Romana. This defeated British leader said of the Romans: “They have created a desolation, and called it peace.” The Pax Augustae was nothing but an interlude in the everlasting state of war. It falls short of God’s peace.

So, what do you think? Augustus or Jesus? He was born to a manger and went up to a cross. His first stop was a stable and his last a garbage heap called Golgotha. He said, “Love your enemies; pray for those who persecute you. Turn the other cheek. If someone asks for your coat, give him your shirt too.” He embraced the foul leper and hung out with women of questionable repute. He welcomed into his love every lost and lonely soul who came down the pike. Most people thought he simply didn’t ask enough questions before he started inviting people over for dinner. At the end he was led mute and weak like a lamb to the slaughter. Apparently he would rather die than kill.

The opposite of war is not peace. The opposite of war is creation. The UN estimates that it would cost $265 Billion a year to end global poverty. Not a single hungry child. Not a single illiterate youth. Not a single person in the world without clean water.

That’s a lot of money: $265 billion. But it’s less than a third of the Pentagon’s budget, and less than one percent of global GDP.

Gosh, it’s hard enough to keep peace in the family; how are we ever going to achieve peace between the nations? One mother told how she had to break up a fight between her two young sons. They were both trying to tell her their side of the story, talking over each other, and she told them to take turns. “It all started,” said Jamie, “it all started when Michael hit me back.” I thought that was an interesting interpretation of the events.

If global poverty is just too much for you to tackle, how about trying to become a prince of peace in your own little arena? The bad news is that in the media just now we are getting vivid, unmistakable life lessons in how not to be peacemakers. Most of the prominent people on our televisions and small screens are so belligerent. They have no interest in ending conflict; they just demand their own way.

But the good news is that you can learn a lot by negative example. Can I give you 90 seconds of advice on how to become a peacemaker? And then I’ll quit.

First, compromise. The right way might not be your way, and it might not be his way; it might be a middle way. If you’re in business, you know instinctively how to do this.  No deal gets hammered out unless both sides flourish in the end.

Second, humility. In his column on Friday David Brooks offered a provocative concept. He talked about “epistemological humility.”[1] Sometimes it’s called “intellectual modesty,” but those are just polysyllabic ways of saying, “Conceive it possible that you might be mistaken. Conceive it possible that your antagonist is not an idiot.”  It’s unlikely that your idea is God’s gift to the world of ideas.

Third, empathy. You know that hackneyed, self-evident bromide which is nevertheless inescapably true: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” Step into the sandals of a starving Yemeni perishing under an onslaught of American-made bombs, or an asylum-seeker fleeing gang violence in Honduras, or a Rohingyan in Myanmar.

And it’s true closer to home. In the last two weeks, I have tried to help three sets of parents my own age or older who have had to bury their children. I can’t think of anything worse than that. But everybody’s got something. If it’s not a suffocating melancholy at the holidays, it’s addiction to alcohol or something worse, or fraught family relationships, or a comprehensive sense of one’s own unworth, or a bully in the eighth grade. Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle. Can we remember that even when someone cuts us off in traffic or hurts our feelings with a blunt or thoughtless rebuke at work?

Compromise. Humility. Empathy. Peace?

Isaiah’s vision, painted so winsomely by Mr. Hicks, seems an impossibly unachievable utopia. But Jesus Christ remains for us, in the words of Reinhold Niebuhr[2], “the impossible possibility,” and we continue to reach up toward that ideal of harmony. The opposite of war is not peace. The opposite of war is creation.


[1]David Brooks, “A New Center Being Born,” The New York Times, December 20, 2018.

[2]Reinhold Niebuhr, “Why the Christian Church Is Not Pacifist,” in War and Christian Ethics, ed. Arthur F. Holmes (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1975), p. 302.