Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom is one of the most powerful visual descriptions of the kingdom of God we have in all of Scripture. It is visual. It is intended to guide what we see. So, let’s practice. Close you eyes as I draw your attention to elements of the vision. Your task is only to create them in your mind’s eye. Visualize this message.
… Guided visualization….
You come to a gathering place. Wide and barren. In the high place, there is a big stump, old, deathly. You go to sit down, for it looks like a throne, inviting. On the back side, you see a flash of green. There is a sprout of life coming from this old stump!
The sprout’s delight shall be the fear of the lord.
And what does that look like? You become aware of movement and look up. Animals walk lazily by…
leopard kid goat
little child shall lead them.
cow bear snakes
Slowly come back to the room
Edward Hicks was captivated by this image. He painted 62 versions of this theme. As a Quaker minister, Hicks was convinced that the light of Christ within us could and would break down all the natural barriers we see – not just in the animal kingdom, but between human beings hopelessly lost in prejudice.
Yet sometimes, I think that when we hear or read this passage, we don’t turn on our mental movie theater. We let the words flow through us quickly, without visualizing them. We don’t easily pause and make a movie, or a painting.
But what we see is so much more powerful that what we hear or read. The images stay in our minds. As a photographer, I know this is true. I can see in my mind that picture I am trying to find. But where did I file it? When did I take it? The picture is alive in my mind, and vivid. And more, the thing photographed comes back to me through the photos I took. The visual of the scene stays with me and the photo is just a small reminder.
The advertising industry of today, know this very well! When I go looking for information at some websites, they require me to turn off my ad blocker. And when I do, it is much more difficult to navigate their site because of visual images – still and video – which grab my attention at the side of the screen. All that movement and light slow down my computer and cannot be ignored.
This past week, I have watched a lot of football with my friends in California. I watch so little TV as a rule that I am very aware of the commercials. It sounds like his and hers watches for this season are nothing! It has to be his and hers trucks! That is an image which is fixed in my memory, whether I like it or not. At least, I find myself choosing whether or not I like it. But unless we are very careful, these images and their messages get in as “just the way things are.”
Oh, our mental movie theaters are alive and well. But what is playing is the question for the dark gestation time of Advent.
Jan Richardson, whose Advent themes we are following this year, describes it like this: “Each year, early in the fall, the voices begin clamoring to tell us what we want. We cannot go shopping, read the newspaper, listen to the radio, or watch television without being told what will make our holidays complete. Toys for our children (if we have them), jewels for our partners (if we have them), presents for our coworkers (if we have a job), lavish food for the family holiday meal (if we have family, if they live close enough, if we even want to be with them)…. But these voices will never tell us what we really want, what we really long for, what we desire with heart and soul. Those who have sat in the darkness know…. Without sight, without our heads swimming with images of what others tell us we want, we can turn our gaze inward and search our souls.” [Night Visions, p.20]
Barbara Brown Taylor has a book titled, Learning to Walk in the Dark. In it, she says: “I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light…. New life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.”
Richardson and Taylor both hint that the yearning of Advent may best be done in the dark. Without the demanding advertisers, and the bright lights of the season, we get to see what might be burning in our souls.
Yearning for Jesus brings focus to our desires. Following Jesus integrates our desires. We find that all our yearnings – whether personal desires, political desires, even our longing for God – come from the same place. Will we allow the living Christ to take up residence there and guide our desires? Shed light on all the messages of desire which play in our mind’s movie theaters? Will we let our deepest desires come from the Holy Spirit?
I remember reading a verse from the Psalms as a teenager: “Take delight in the Lord, and God will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4). What a great promise! God would give me the desires of my heart! That’s a blank check! But the more I pondered this verse, the more I realized its truth – God will be giving me not anything I want, but my desires themselves, the wishes, the dreams – these are what God gives when we focus on God. God gives us the internal movie theater. And it is much more like the vision of Isaiah, than what may have been written in a teenage girl’s diary!
No matter how chaotic the world may seem, no matter how much creation itself seems to be in travail, no matter how kingdoms jostle for power, no matter how much the poor, the imprisoned, the immigrants suffer, there is a shoot birthing from this old stump. New life is springing forth.
Isaiah picks up this same theme in chapter 43:
“Forget the former things;
do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland.
The wild animals honor me,
the jackals and the owls,
because I provide water in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland,
to give drink to my people, my chosen” (Is. 43:18b-20).
It is time to turn off the flashing lights of our world, and be in the dark. Before you go to bed, light a candle and turn off all the other lights. Let this small light take you to the desires of your heart. What do you see? Go into your mental movie theater. The images with which you surround yourself in the dark will begin to shape your vision in the daylight, too. When the images are warm, let them comfort you. When the images are troubling or dark, don’t turn right away. Wonder if there is something good trying to reach you through the dark.
When my siblings and I were children, we used to sit in the darkened living room with only the light of the Christmas tree. Yes, we spent time imagining what was in the wrapped packages. But it was more. What I remember seeing through the dark was love, and it held me wrapped in warmth.
Today, as we gather around this table, keep your minds movie theater open. We see bread, we see juice. They are little snap shots which we today find as familiar as Jesus’ friends did around their ancient table at that first supper. What do these images say? What desires do they hold? Go there. Let the images play.