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The Wolf and the Lamb
The prophet had a vision of a new world in which there would be peace, harmony and prosperity. The old fears of destruction and death would disappear. People would live long lives and enjoy the fruits of their labour. They would live in harmony and in the knowledge of God who would be ready to answer even before they called to him. Interestingly, although Isaiah speaks of both a new heaven and a new earth, he ends up with a striking picture of harmony in nature: The wolf and the lamb shall feed together --
It is part of the promise of restoration. God will heal what is broken, come to the help of those in trouble, find the lost, and save those whose lives are being destroyed. The people of God are discovering what God is like as he shows his nature in the ways he deals with them. He is a God who saves and redeems his people.
God brings justice to the destiny of nations
In the particular historical context of the latter part of the book of Isaiah, the people to whom the prophet spoke had suffered a terrible time: the destruction of their city, enslavement and exile of many of their nation. Then, when their enemy had been defeated, they had been released and allowed to go home again. Historical events are always different from one another and different from our experience, especially if we are looking back over many centuries. We can never know exactly how other people felt or what they thought, but perhaps we can draw some parallels with events in our own more recent history. It would be a little like the reunion of families that occurred when the Berlin wall came down a few years ago, in other ways like the liberation of conquered nations as the allied armies advanced at the end of the Second World War, or in a limited way in some respects like the restoration of some degree of peace and well being in Cambodia after the terror of the killing fields and subsequent foreign rule. People who experience such things discover with joy that the powers of evil do not have the last word.
The promise of living in peace and harmony
It was with that understanding of God as one who can bring good out of evil that we see the promise of the Messiah at an earlier stage in Isaiah chapter 11 with images of "paradise regained" spelled out more fully than in the reading today. After referring to the future coming of the holy one of God who will come from the royal house of David, like a shoot from the old stump where the tree had been cut off, there will come one on whom the Spirit of the Lord would rest [Isaiah 11:1-2], who would rule with equity for the meek and judge for the poor. We find his rule expressed also in the harmony of nature:
What do you make of that? We can easily enough understand that a good and powerful government could establish peace and harmony where there had been war and exploitation. We can, especially if we have a Christian understanding, believe our relationship with God can be restored; and we can see how loving God is related to loving people: indeed a restored relationship with God can renew human relationships, and the loving service of other people, especially those most in need, brings us closer to God and his Kingdom. In all these ways harmony, healing, wholeness and peace can be experienced as gifts of God in our relationships with him and with one another. But what about harmony in nature? How can The wolf... live with the lamb? Is it only symbolic of harmony in human affairs or does it really point to a change in the whole of creation?
Restored health and prosperity
First, let's be clear that whatever else it might mean it does refer to changed relationships and improvement in the lot of people who have suffered. It what we read today we have an exact reversal of some earlier prophecies. In the great day of the Lord things will be turned upside down. In this later vision we have:
That is a direct reversal of earlier prophecies called the "futility curse" which had in fact been fulfilled when Israel and Judah were conquered by foreign armies. It was like some of the things we have seen in Bosnia with people driven out of their homes which were taken over by others, the so-called ethnic cleansing. Notice, however, that in the prophecy of Amos those who suffered were not innocent victims, they had treated others badly and deserved to be punished:-
Compare that with the opposite in Isaiah's vision of hope: They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. [Isaiah 65:21].
Or consider the similar gloomy prophecy of Zephaniah:
The threat is then reversed, as people returning from exile will enjoy the security of their homes and the produce of their vineyards. That is more than a change in human relationships, though the defeat of enemies bought it about, it also sets man and woman, as we now say in the standard great prayer of thanksgiving in our present communion service, "at the heart of creation":
Christ's role in the harmony of creation
We give thanks to God in the Eucharist because he has set us at the heart of his creation, and there is a sense in which we believe that it is his intention that we should live in harmony with nature and enjoy its fruits. Here we begin to see how restoration of relationships with God and peace on earth contributes to and is understood in harmony with creation, harmony through which blessings come.
The old prophecies of Isaiah about fruitful harmony with nature were related to the coming of the Messiah, and in the great prayer of thanksgiving at the Lord's table we say in the love of Christ your Son you set man and woman at the heart of your creation.
What has Christ to do with our living in harmony with creation? This has to do with who he was who died on the cross. Peter said to the crowd who gathered in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, when he first proclaimed the good news:
The Messiah or Christ is the anointed or holy one of God. Where did he come from, this holy one of God? John says he came from God; indeed he was God; and he was with God at the beginning. He shared in the creation of the world, so that
In the epistle set for next Sunday, the feast of Christ the King, Paul takes up the same theme:
Then Paul goes on to say how God was to fulfil his promise of harmony, the very peace of which the angels sang at his birth, through this man's death and his victory over the disintegrating powers of death:
It was the purpose of God that all things might be brought into a unity in him. How can that be in nature, cruel in tooth and claw? Again it is symbolic, but more than that. The humble servant teacher of Galilee, the suffering servant of Jerusalem, is the servant Lord of all creation: very God in all his humility.
Perfection of an incomplete world -- the new Jerusalem
Let me share with you some thoughts on a mystery we do not by any means fully understand. Indeed, we have very limited insight into it. We live in an incomplete and uncertain world. Not only is it a world in which there are evil powers represented in people who exploit and harm others, and not only do we see evil in thoughtless and selfish exploitation of the gifts of God in creation, we fear other evils in the world that are not due to human agency. Some of these things which we do not understand people sometimes ascribe to spiritual powers of evil, and that might not be as simple minded and primitive as modern man once thought, for we are learning that when people now speak of spiritual things they are not always talking of what is good. In any case we Christians believe that whatever spiritual powers of evil there may be they cannot stand against Christ. But there is more than that to our fears about uncertainty in this life.
Fire and famine might often, most often in our day, result from human oppression and exploitation, especially in times of war and the breakdown of good government. They can, however, be due in large part to what we call "natural disasters". What about earthquakes? Perhaps people should learn not to live in dangerous places, but there is a sense in which this is in any case a dangerous world. There are dangerous snakes which, even if they have a useful role in the balance of nature, can take human life in what seems like an undeserved and arbitrary way. It is a world of change and chance; even a world which seems to be deliberately made with elements of uncertainty. Put it around the other way: if everything were predictable it would not be the world we know. Our world is good, but imperfect and incomplete. We do not know how it will work out, but the promise of God is that the damaging aspects of life in a dangerous world will be brought into a state of harmony and peace in the end. In our world today we can see that moving towards harmony with nature is more in accord with the will and promise of God than is the careless exploitation of God's gifts in creation as if they were ours to use without any sense of responsibility.
In this, remember the gospel reading for today: those who stand by Christ must expect to be persecuted: You will be hated by all because of my name. That is where Christians stand out from popular trends. It might be popular, at least in many places, and as long as you don't actually do too much about it, to be concerned with `the environment' - I would rather say `with creation' - but in this fashionable enthusiasm you will not be at all popular if you name the name of Christ, the Lord of it all, whose task it is to reconcile, restore and renew. Yet in time the truth will appear: it is through him that God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven. So we recall with thanks and wonder the words of the ancient prophet:
And we look forward, not knowing exactly what it will be like to see the fulfilment of that same vision which came again after the time of Christ's great victory, as it is recorded near the end of the Bible in the book of Revelation:
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1. "Life out of darkness" was the original wording in the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving composed for Uniting in Worship, according to Robert Gribben, its principal author; but it was changed by error during the typesetting stage of publication to read in a weaker less imaginative form of praise, "light out of darkness".