Since we moved to Lawrence, I have had an ongoing battle with a hackberry tree in the backyard. Some of you know exactly what I am talking about, and moan with sympathy to hear my plight. If you aren’t aware, hackberry trees are an incredibly hearty species that some would call invasive. They are very persistent, and tend to grow in places that you don’t want them to grow, like the one under our deck. The first year we moved here, I cut the thing down, not needing a tree growing under our deck. I cut it to the stump, and waited for it to rot so I could pull it out. It didn’t. In fact, the next year, a little branch started coming out of the root. I thought it curious, but cut the branch off and moved on, still waiting for it to die and rot. It didn’t. In fact, the third year, another little branch came out of another part of the stump, and I was starting to get tired of this tree. So, I dug around it, cut the stump down beneath the level of the ground, and covered it with mulch. No light. No photosynthesis. No tree. Right? The next year, I’ll be darned if there wasn’t a little branch growing out of the mulch in the same place where that stump was. It was the branch that would not die! So, I cut it back again and started to do a little research. What I found, and should had figured out, is that hackberries are incredibly tenacious. If there is any root left, they will sprout a new branch and start to grow again. The only way to get rid of them is to completely yank out the root, leaving nothing to sprout again. If not, all winter, it waits, apparently dead, as the nutrients simmer and wait for it to pop up again the next Spring. I will try again this Spring, but I have a feeling that as much as I try to get rid of this hackberry, it will just keep coming back.
In the mind of Isaiah, the kingdom of God is a hackberry branch! This image is a perfect example for the message that Isaiah is trying to convey in his writing. There are two sections to this passage, and together they form two sides of the same coin. Their message is this: The Reign of Fear is ending. The Reign of God is coming.
In the first section, there is a hope in a future kingdom, a leader who will come and bring about peace and righteousness. Many scholars believe that this passage was written during the Exile, during the time when the Israelites had been defeated by Babylon and had lost everything. The Temple was gone. The Promised Land was gone. The monarchy of David and Solomon and their sons was gone. And they were terrified. Isaiah spoke to that fear, saying that there was a hope that was coming. That the reign of fear would not last forever. That God’s Reign was coming. He speaks of a new king from the branch of Jesse. Jesse, who was David’s father, was the father of the most important monarchy in Israelite history. But that monarchy is gone, and with it the hope that God is really in control. Fear not, Isaiah says, the Reign of God is coming. A new kingdom is coming, where righteousness and peace and hope will reign, and not control and oppression and fear. And God will change the way that we interact with each other, in society and government and power. The reign of God will change everything. The Reign of Fear is ending. The Reign of God is coming.
Then, there is this abrupt change midway through the passage, where Isaiah starts to talk about this vision of animals that normally eat each other just kind of…hanging out. Lions and calves. Wolves and sheep. Babies and snakes. Clearly, this is not the way things are now. Calves are afraid of lions. Sheep are afraid of wolves. Babies are afraid of snakes (or at least their parents are…). And for good reason. But Isaiah paints a picture in which animals and humans who would commonly fear one another now sit in peace, in harmony. The child does not fear the snake. The lamb does not fear the wolf. It will change not only the way that humans interact with each other, but the way that the natural world behaves and the way that humanity interacts with the natural world. Instead of a Reign of Fear, it is the Reign of God!
The shorthand way of talking about this vision is the concept of shalom. The shalom of God. The right relationship between God and humanity and the whole of creation. In this shalom, everything is right and ordered by God. In this shalom, the Reign of God is realized and the Reign of Fear is banished.
And it is more than just an eschatological vision for the way that things will be in heaven or in the end times or outside of our world. It is obtainable in our world. Maybe not in full. But in part. That is what Jesus meant whenever he talked about the Kingdom. The Kingdom of God is here, he said. The Reign of God is here. It’s not just some pie in the sky eventuality. We can see glimpses of it here and now. We are watching the Reign of Fear ending and the Reign of God coming. Do you ever notice how often Jesus says “do not be afraid”? It is a cornerstone message of his Gospel, that the Reign of Fear is ending and the Reign of God is coming. What are the first words that he tells the disciples when he returns after the Resurrection? “Do not be afraid.” The Reign of Fear is ending and the Reign of God is coming.
It is the way that Edward Hicks imagined the vision of his world in his piece titled “The Peaceable Kingdom.” It is a vision of Isaiah 11, where the wolf and the lamb and the serpent and the little child are hanging out together. But as you look more closely to the picture, you notice what is happening in the background. There are some men talking to each other behind this picture of peace in the animal kingdom. Hicks is painting a picture of William Penn and the peace-loving Quakers, signing a treaty with the Native Americans in 1683. Instead of beginning with an attitude of fear toward the Natives, trying to attack instead of communicate, Penn paid the Natives a fair price for their land, and entered into treaty with them. Hicks was making a point about the ways that Penn treated the Natives like people instead of threats. It was an Isaiah 11 type example of overturning the expectations of violence and control and fear, and moving toward peace instead of conflict. The Reign of God is realized and the Reign of Fear is banished.
And this message can be reenacted in our own lives as well. Fear is not a requirement. In the science fiction movie After Earth, the character played by Will Smith is a leader in a world where aliens have attacked the earth. These aliens are technically blind and unable to see humans, but they can sense the hormones that humans release when they are afraid. Literally, they can smell our fear. Will Smith has been able to conquer these beasts because he has been able to master his fear. Thus, they cannot sense him and he can defeat them easily. At one scene in the movie, when his son asks him how he does it, he replies,
Fear is not real. The only place that fear can exist is in our thoughts of the future. It is a product of our imagination, causing us to fear things that do not at present and may not ever exist. That is near insanity…. Do not misunderstand me, danger is very real, but fear is a choice.
What Gospel lines these are! “Danger is real, but fear is a choice.” This Advent, we, too, can conquer the beasts of fear that threaten to overcome us. Today, I want you to take a moment and envision the fear that seeks to overwhelm you. Look at its fangs full on. Hear its snarl. Feel its hot breath. Acknowledge that danger is very real.
What today are you afraid of? What are the dangers in your world? Where are your wolves that hunt you at night? Your serpent that is ready to strike? Your lion that stands ready to attack? What are you afraid of?
- Are your wolves financial problems? Making ends meet? Trying to figure out what bills to pay? Wondering if the month or the money are going to be longer this time around?
- Are your lions relational problems? Another fight with my spouse? Another day with my parents? Another holiday with my family? Or a holiday without a family member for the first time? Will I always be alone? Can I ever make everyone happy?
- Are your serpents problems of the world around us? Crime or economy or global warming?
Danger is real. But fear is a choice. Fear is not a requirement.
Now, hear what the Word of the Lord says in response to these beasts:
Isaiah says, “do not be afraid.”
Mary sings, “do not be afraid.”
Jesus preaches, “do not be afraid.”
And the risen Christ smiles, “do not be afraid.”
Fear is not real. Danger is very real, but fear is a choice.
If there is a final message of Isaiah today, it is that the Reign of Fear is ending and the Reign of God is coming. It is not message is not about something else to do. It is not about stewardship. It is not about instruction. It is not about admonition or law or prophecy. It is not even about what we should do to bring about peace and justice on our own, a conversation that we must continue to have, but not one that is had in this passage. In Isaiah 11, the bottom line is unqualified, unchecked, unadulterated good news.
God is doing this, whether we like it or not. Regardless of what we do. It is the message of grace! God is bringing peace and justice and a new world order and a death to fear. The Reign of Fear is ending and the Reign of God is coming! Whether it happens in our lifetime or any of our lifetimes, it is happening and it is coming. It is like a branch that keeps coming back. Try as hard as you will to kill it, the reign of God keeps coming back. Try as often as you will to ignore it, the reign of God keeps coming back. Throw as much fear at it as you can, the reign of God keeps coming back. It looks dead. It looks buried. It looks gone. But you cannot keep it down forever. It is coming back. It will win one day. And that is good news.