Isaiah is putting together some pretty powerful images. He is offering parings that seem impossible. The scripture imagines that the nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp and if you search asp google will promptly offer you photos of an Egyptian Cobra. Isaiah does not stop there, he says, “the weaned Child shall put its hand on the adder’s den”..which means a toddler is hanging out with a whole host of snakes in the viper family. This is a scenario you will never find encouraged in a parenting handbook. The thought of my own baby playing in a den of poisonous snakes is so terrifying I thought about cutting this stanza from the poem. I mean Babies hanging out with Snakes…is not the theme for a child’s nursery.
Isaiah is committed to these impossible pairings. A pack of wolves hanging out with sweet little lambs, not even grown up sheep. The calf, the sweet baby cow with those big brown eyes is hanging with a Lion and his mama cow is grazing near by with the bear that has developed a sudden taste for grass. It’s like suddenly all these veracious predators have had an epiphany and decided to be vegetarians. I like to imagine the wolf telling the Lion, “Oh I just have so much more energy on this green diet, you know plus I just feel good knowing my food is ethically sourced.” And the Lion nods while the Leopard and says, “Yeah, plus I have so much free time without all that hunting and its been kind of great getting to know the goats…you know one actually made a joke about having a BBQ.” They pause awkwardly…”Such a kidder.” And really its one thing to be the Lion or the Wolf but to be the sheep or the cows; stuck hopping none of your new friends have a relapse or remember that they don’t have four stomachs for processing grasses. That’s faith right there.
Isaiah is writing about the impossible. Snakes and toddlers living in harmony. Lambs and wolves taking a little nap together, the lions and bears eating straw…you know…just chewing the cud with the cows…Isaiah doesn’t even need to say, ”though it may seem impossible, nothing is impossible for the Lord.” He has pretty much clarified that God dreams an impossible dream. Isaiah offers this word when Israel is in an impossible place. Their days of being the Lion are long gone. They are not the regional power they were when David was king. He rose to power when other regional superpowers were in decline. So with a bit of charisma, violence, cunning and luck David not only rises from obscurity into royalty, he takes his country with him. They become an imperial power, they become the lion but no matter how much David invests into the future of Israel, his grandsons and great-grandsons will struggle. And now they are the lamb and they are circled again and again by violent and deadly armies.
If you read about this time period in Kings you will find an interesting litany. Every chapter or so the new king is named, his parents and then it will say he did what was evil in the sight of the lord. Over and other, the king, his parents and he did what was evil in the sight of the lord. Clearly being king has a pass/fail grading system and only two pass. Only two kings do what is right in the sight of the Lord.
The two right and just kings, the two good kings are Hezekiah and his grandson Josiah. They are notable for their commitment to their faith identity. They are committed to listening to God and to being a part of the covenant that their fathers and grandfathers shared with God before them. And when they commit to the covenant they re-commit Israel. Israel has a complicated history of not listening or living into the covenant and the kings really highlight this struggle. Listening to the covenant means putting the vulnerable first and creating just working conditions but most kings don’t grow kingdoms that way. Additionally, as the nation grew in power, the opportunity to grow even more was enhanced by marriage. A princess from another country brought wealth, trade agreements, access to goods and she brought her Gods. Having many God’s complicates a covenant to the One God of Israel but they keep trying it anyway. Jerusalem became a cosmopolitan city and priests and practices, altars and shrines from other faith traditions took their place in Israel, in Jerusalem and even in the temple that belonged to the One God of Israel. Some of these practices involved priestly prostitutes and child sacrifice, practices Israel had long ago abolished. And the relationship between people who want to be faithful to the covenant with God grow in conflict with the royal family that increasingly drifts from the covenant. Hezekiah and Josiah go on a rampage cleaning house. They tear down the altars and shrines and remove and even kill the priests. And it begs the question is that what it means to do what is right in the sight of the Lord? Do you have to remove the alternatives?
Israel has always had a mindfulness about their identity and about maintaining it often to the exclusion of others but that has not always been with an attitude of purity. They celebrate the story of Ruth. Ruth a Moabite who loves her mother-in-law so deeply that she will risk it all to journey with her, works the fields and even secures a new son and her family land by marring Naomi’s relative, Boaz. Ruth is celebrated. She is honored. She is an outsider, from a different tribe with different Gods and she is King David’s grandmother. David understood the covenant with God was about listening and about being faithful, just like his Grandmother Ruth. David understood that even as he made mistakes God was still part of his family.
Every Christmas there are debates and discussions about a war on Christmas. News personalities with great passion will argue that we are loosing our christian identity and that christmas is under attack….not because Lexus uses the name of a peasant baby born in a barn to sell luxury automobiles but because a cashier says Happy Holidays. We live in a nation where we don’t have to doubt a vast majority will have Christmas day off of work and yet there will be a month of ranting and raving about Christians being oppressed because public school children don’t sing Christmas Carols anymore. I suspect this energy is not a reflection of wanting deeper faithfulness as much as it is an anxiety about change.
Fifty years ago you could open up a Methodist church in any new suburb and the people that grew up Methodist would show up. There was no need to prod, market or invite and if anyone got really angry with their church they might do something crazy like become Luthern. Fifty years ago there were probably people lining up to join the finance committee or to serve as a trustee or to help bake cakes for the funeral lunch. Maybe people were just better or maybe they really worked a forty hour work week. Regardless, no one really gets enthusiastic about serving on a committee today. Fifty years ago you could pray before the high school football game and you just had to make sure the Methodist pastor shared with the Baptist preacher and the Catholic priest.
The world is different and I don’t think we have to see it as a threat. It’s not really even new…maybe just new to some of us. Diversity is an ancient reality. Maybe we are just starting to get back to the kind of diversity that the our faith ancestors negotiated on a daily basis…I mean Jesus is talking about people going to the Hebrew temple caring Roman coins and that is really just the start. We live in a world where people are free to choose; choose their faith and even choose none. You see when people can really freely choose, their choice means something. When people can choose they can be rooted in their tradition.
Maybe that’s what makes a king right in the sight of the Lord. Maybe it’s not the removing of choices as much as it is this one thing that King Hezekiah and King Josiah practice. They go into the temple and they pray. They are the only kings that go to the temple; they listen, they read the sacred texts and they urge people to practice their faith. They are the bearers of the covenant and they find themselves rooted in it. It allows King Hezekiah to make a decision when the ruthless Assyrians are surrounding the city, proclaiming destruction and violence. He listens to God, seeks council from the Prophets and maybe the covenant reminded him to care about the people so much that he turns out to be one of the only kings invest in the infrastructure of walls, tunnels and wells that could save his people.
We have the chance to do what is right in the sight of God and continue Isaiah’s wild dream. Maybe if he was writing today he would day, Isaiah would add the Republican will sit down with the Democrat. And the person with the Jesus fish tattoo will dip his toes in the water of the Jordan with his Jewish neighbor and his muslim friend. Maybe the American general will sit down with the Afghan child. Maybe the man that drives the car with the “GUN control means using both hands” bumper sticker will sit down with the father that lost his five year old daughter in the Sandy Hook School shooting. Maybe the politician calling for war will sit down with the wounded warrior longing for peace. We have a table. It’s God’s table and we are invited to dream big about who can sit down at the feast. May it be so, Amen.