Sermon: Lion Taming

09 December 2007

The Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)
December 9, 2007

Second Sunday of Advent

Lion Taming

Isaiah 11:1-2, 6-10
Romans 15:5-6

Prayer: May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts and minds be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Our text from Isaiah today is so beautiful that it has inspired many artists to create their own images of this “Peaceable Kingdom.”  Maybe you’ve seen, or sent, Christmas cards with all of these different animals lying down together in blissful rest, maybe even with the little child leading them. But if the card had only two animals on it, I’d be willing to bet you didn’t have a wolf lying down with a lamb, or a lion lying down with a calf.  I know you didn’t have a leopard lying down with a baby goat, or a cow and a bear sharing dinner!   No, it’s always the lion lying down with the lamb, isn’t it?  What a classic dream of peace! I’m sure it’s even more meaningful to us than to Isaiah’s people, since the lamb has become a symbol for the resurrected Christ, the lamb of God whose blood was shed for us.  And for early Christians, when some were actually being thrown to the lions at the Roman coliseum, it must have been especially powerful – as a word of hope, as a promise of peace.

When I was home from seminary one time, visiting North Carolina, I sat and talked with an old friend who was just finishing an intricate needlepoint Christmas stocking with a lion and a lamb together at the toe.  She was a busy working mom, and it had taken her about 5 months to get that far – and it was beautiful.  But I couldn’t help but open my big mouth and say, “But you know, there’s actually no lion and lamb lying down together in Isaiah.”  I swear, if she had tried to kill me with that blunt needle in her hand, I would have felt better than I did at that moment!  I could see in her face that I had really made her feel stupid, and bad.  I felt terrible.  But I share that story because I know we’ve all had moments like that – where we didn’t mean to, but we really hurt somebody.

It’s a constant struggle in our life of faith – to try to do the right thing, in spite of our human nature.  Most times, we seem completely unqualified to be peacemakers.  Sometimes we can’t even keep peace with our best friends and family.  Even when we try our hardest, like during the holidays, we often mess things up and say the wrong thing.  And some of our families, let’s face it, always serve up a good argument at the table – they get used to fighting like cats and dogs.  The types of animals don’t really matter, do they? Lion, lamb, calf, wolf, goat, bear, leopard – whether it’s animals or people, nations or religions, denominations or political parties, whenever those wild creatures of un-like kind get together – if they do actually get along, it’s a real miracle of peace! 

Not long ago, we had a particularly rough week at our Northern California UCC Kids Camp. We were short-staffed, because no one wanted to turn away kids from church camp – “let the children come,” said Jesus!  OK, Jesus, but did you know we’d break heat records that year, and get highs between 100 and 105 every day?  Fine, Jesus, we all love children, so let them come – but did you have to let the wild pigs dig up the main pipeline and cut off our drinking water and showers?  Tempers were short, to say the least.  And dear Lord Jesus, did you have to inflict us with state laws that made children rest in the heat of the day, in a hot-box cabin in the middle of a field with no shade in sight?  That’s where the big fight broke out – who knew a cabin of little girls could turn so vicious? 

After the dust settled, it was my job as chaplain to gather not just these girls but the whole camp together to make peace.  So first I separated the sheep from the goats.  The boys played sports with the men counselors – so the males could do peacemaking in their own way, as befits their species.  We females made peace as perhaps only girls can do – we shared our feelings, we yelled, we laughed, we cried, we hugged, we forgave.  But here’s the thing, at the end of that awful week at camp, the scripture for our closing worship was “The Peaceable Kingdom”!  I tell you, not only is God still speaking, God is still laughing.  How ridiculous our petty human fights must seem to God, most days!

I had my little campers work together to create a banner of Tibetan peace flags with pairs of rival animals for our outdoor worship.  They drew together every animal they could think of, except the ones in this Isaiah text.  So … we finally celebrated communion under a clothesline full of fluttering images like:  smiling sharks swimming with colorful tropical fish, starfish dwelling with friendly clams and octopuses, mighty horned owls snuggling with fluffy baby bunnies, giant snakes curling up to nap with tiny mice, cats and dogs playing together with hamsters and parakeets, and (my favorite) eagles making nests in the treetops, with salmon!  We were still hot and tired, but we went away with hope renewed that if the Holy Spirit were powerful enough to make even these wild beasts get along, then maybe our own vicious little souls could be tamed.

You know, in worship it’s easy for a pastor to wax poetic about our fellowship in Christ, as I did last Sunday when we received our new members.  I welcomed them as “brothers and sisters” in this “family of faith” – and you all smiled warmly and, I suspect, felt all pretty good about it.  It’s a beautiful dream, to picture all of God’s children – red, yellow, black, and white – holding hands around the globe.  But when you stop to think about it, “family” may not be the best model to choose, if we really do want world peace.  That angry cabin of girls was supposed to be a “family” group, but like a real family, when push came to shove, they got good and sick of each another – and it was war!

We know God wants peace for the world – because we know God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and Our Father, is the One God and Creator of us all.  But if that is so, God surely must be the grieving parent of us all. Did you know that there were a few poor mothers on the border states during the Civil War who had one son fighting for the North and another one fighting for the South?  What a nightmare!  And yet, surely this must be what God feels every day, as this world continues to spin off new revolutions and insurrections at every turn. It’s no wonder that the faithful have prayed for a “Day of the Lord,” when God would step in, at last, and set things right – like a mom who’s heard enough of the yelling and finally separates the fighting kids! In fact, if you want to understand great prophets like Isaiah, who call for the Lord to pass judgment on the “nations” – it helps, I think, if you have a brother or sister who’s hard to get along with.  You know that deep, primal longing for a good and fair leader to take charge – to settle our disputes once and for all, and to make true peace with justice a reality.

In Isaiah’s day, as I said last week – with the struggling and divided nations of Israel and Judah surrounded on all sides by hungry and heavily armed empires like Assyria, Babylon, and Egypt – the Hebrew people would have had real sympathy with small sacrificial animals like lambs, kids, or calves.  They could have easily identified themselves as prey, so the idea that God’s anointed one would come someday and bring peace to the hearts of predatory enemy nations would have been very good news indeed.  What a miracle – for carnivore to turn vegetarian!  Only a tremendous outpouring of God’s peace could inspire one who lives literally on the life of another to turn completely around and settle for a lifestyle far below his or her accustomed, high place in the food chain.  What is it, exactly, about the coming Prince of Peace, the God in Christ Jesus whose coming we celebrate this season, that is strong enough to tame the mighty lion? 

I don’t have job experience as a lion-tamer, but I am a mom.  And I did tame a feral kitten once.  She was living on garbage behind the house one of my college friends, who had a big, friendly yellow lab named Lucy.  So to be fair, it was Lucy the dog who first tamed the wild kitten.  It was so cute the way this spunky little black-and-white ball of fluff would follow Lucy everywhere – even on her daily lunch run to MacDonald’s, where the students fed them both French fries.  But I thought it would be better for the kitten to get a real home, or at least a checkup at the vet, so I tried to take her in.  Oh, my God —who knew something so soft and fluffy could have so many sharp edges!  I soon realized that it wasn’t going to be an easy job to tame that lioness.  So I had to go slowly. 

First I just sat on the back steps and watched her play with Lucy.  I talked to them in a soothing voice, and told them about my life.  Lucy would come over to have her ears scratched, but LeBeau, the kitten, wouldn’t come near me.  I started coming over every day.  I’d bring my books and study on the back steps.  I’d bring tempting kitty treats with me, and Lucy was usually happy to take a nibble, but when I held one out to LeBeau, she would always run away.  Finally, when I just put it down on the bottom step, she ran up and took it.  So, in stages, I’d move the kitty treat each day to a step one higher than the day before.  The kitten was getting closer, but I didn’t dare make a move to touch her again.  Finally, she was taking food right out of my lap, but any small move of my hand would make her leap wildly away.  One time, finally, after eating a kitty treat I’d put in my lap – to my enormous surprise, she just curled up into a tiny ball in the hammock of my skirt and went to sleep. I didn’t move a muscle for what seemed like hours.  I just stared at her, because it felt like I had witnessed a miracle.  That kitty grew up to be my cat.  She moved all the way cross-country with me to California and lived a long, full life.

But I still wonder:  What tames the lion that lives within our souls?  God’s unconditional love?  God’s unending patience, and constant presence?  God’s love is a power greater and more gentle than any force on earth.   Just this past week in our Faith Forum Bible study, we were discussing this beautiful line in chapter 4, verse 18 of the First Letter of John, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”  We have all been loved with the perfect love of our Savior Jesus Christ. This is the love the prophet Isaiah foresees when he writes:  “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”  God’s Spirit may indeed empower us to be peacemakers in his name, in this season of Advent. May we patiently await his coming. 

Thanks be to God for this Good News.  Amen.



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