From the Prophet Isaiah we have a vision of the Realm of Heaven on Earth (Isaiah 11:1-9) It’s a vision of peace among all creatures of the earth, not only peace among human people, but peace among all animals, all living things. This is a peace that comes, according to Isaiah, from all creation living in alignment with the wisdom and the will of our Creator.
“The earth will be full of the knowledge of GOD as the waters cover the sea.” The Messiah, the Anointed One has come, and everything has passed through the refining fires of judgment and justice, and the result is peace and safety and prosperity.
This is a vision of all dwelling together in tranquility: predators and prey, the meek and the mighty, the defenseless and the venomous, all settled in a harmony: “They will not hurt or destroy on my holy mountain.” And: “A little child shall lead them.”
When I imagine this prophetic vision I just think of my four-year-old holding court over her menagerie of stuffed animals. You know? There are dogs and dinosaurs and lions and tigers and bears and birds all tumbled together soft and safe with a child at play. There’s a sweetness and an innocence here… But the thing is: this isn’t how the world is, in the full truth of the matter. This hope in a peaceable kingdom has a kind of naivety to it. A real bear is not like a teddy bear, it’s not something to run up to and hug and cuddle, right? (It’s important that children learn that, learn about the dangers of this world. Part of me is just kind of puzzled by “The Teddy Bear.” We domesticate a danger.)
But I think stuffed animals are such an important part of childhood for a similar reason why this prophetic vision of Isaiah can have such a pull on our hearts: because in a fundamental way, in our original unconditioned state, we are built to relate to other beings of all kinds – animals as well as to other people. Kids just naturally are drawn to animals and want to mimic them and to imagine themselves being a cat or a dog or a frog or a deer or a horse or, Alma went through a lizard phase – she’d scramble over rocks saying she’s a lizard. This is important for adults too, especially if we actually are living with and within the natural, more-than-human world. A lot of indigenous cultures have rituals where they play the roles and take on the behaviors of animals that they live among and hunt. And I think in our culture which is mostly removed from the natural world, we relate to animals either as stuffed toys to cuddle or vicious predators to eradicate. We don’t tend to relate to the other creatures in God’s creation in a way that really respects and honors who they really are and the ways they are different as well as similar to ourselves.
It’s really significant that a lot of stories about holy people, about people who are in a full and mature union with God, involve stories where animals are just drawn to them and are at peace around them.
St. Francis is famous for this. In pictures you always see birds flocked around him. There are stories of wolves coming to him to lick his feet.
There’s Thecla, an early Jesus follower, the generation after Jesus, who got thrown to the lions for being a Jesus freak and a strong women. But the lions just bowed before her.
There’s Daniel in the Lion’s den, of course, from the Bible.
And there’s Jesus in the wilderness. We’re told, “He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.” My Dad’s theory is that, you know there are the gospel stories of the disciples catching tons of fish when they’re out with Jesus on a boat – my dad’s theory is that that’s because the fish were drawn to Jesus like iron filings to a magnet.
Anyhow, I could go on: It’s a big theme. People at peace with God have this strong, magnetic connection with the creatures around them, human and other animal. The result of this is peace.
And then there’s this prophetic vision from Isaiah of the peaceable kingdom, as it’s known … all God’s creatures dwelling in harmony upon the holy mountain. But the fact still remains that none of this makes the world as it is right now any less of fierce and dangerous place often times. We can’t just go around expecting that magically no harm is going to come to us. … So what does this all mean for our actual lives, as flawed people with at least some faith, in this fraught and sometimes violent world?
Well, let’s see what Jesus has to say about that:
The twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food… “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” – (Matthew 10:5-10, 16)
“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” The word for “Wise” here could be translated as “Savvy” or “Street-wise” – the Greek word here is about wisdom, care, prudence that comes through experience. Jesus is saying, “Don’t be naïve about how vicious and sinful the world, and we ourselves, can be.” So, we have “Savvy” and “Street-wise” on the one hand… But, on the other hand: “innocence.” Do not let your experiences, no matter how vicious and disillusioning they can be, do not let them cover over our fundamental purity – the child in us at play, eager to explore and relate with the other creatures of God’s creation. I find this just such a helpful teaching. It’s something I try to keep in mind every day – the balance we need as disciples of Jesus between toughness and tenderness, gentleness and grit, savvy and innocence. So often the balance is off. You’re either naïve or mean as a blade. You’re either hard-hearted or a push-over, a soldier or a softy, a victim or a perpetrator. But what Jesus tell his disciples is: Be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. To be a Christian means to know in a very keen way just how vicious and entrenched sin is in ourselves and in the world. Jesus was never surprised by anything. The saint of the world have a very sober assessment of just how messed up humanity can be. But with God, they experience that recovery of our original innocence, our pure nature as beloved and loving children of God, which leads them to live with great compassion and great courage.
“Lead us to holy innocence, beyond the evil of our days,” as it is in Parker Palmer’s poetic translation of the Lord’s Prayer.
So Jesus sends out his followers savvy as serpent, innocent as doves, for the mission of bringing healing to our sickness, the mission of calling out and casting out the demons that haunt us, the mission of giving new life to the dead, voice to the voiceless, good news to those who have lost hope. So we live out our faith in the vision, the promise of the peaceable kingdom, the “beloved community,” as Dr. King put it, the Realm of Heaven on earth.
Thanks be to God.