When I was a child, my family attended a church in Newhaven on the north side of Edinburgh. The congregation was served by a kind and gracious minister who believed that every word of the Bible was literally true.
I remember on one occasion he gave a children’s address on the passage from Isaiah which we have heard in this service. I suppose I must have been about nine or ten at the time, so I don’t really remember what he said. However, I remember how I felt about it. I thought it was complete nonsense.
In those days, we had not had a television for long, but a staple of Sunday evenings would be watching a nature programme, usually presented by David Attenborough. I just love the fact that this is still a staple of Sunday evenings. In many ways, over the decades, these programmes have changed. The photography has improved, the diversity of creatures featured has increased, the bigger issues such as climate change and hunting are more prominently addressed. But in other ways, these programmes have not changed. At their core is the telling of the life story of animals. And the life story of animals is mostly about mating and eating.
Listening to a children’s address about the prophecy of Isaiah, I had this other authoritative information in my mind. I knew that animals eat each other. I saw it on the television. I knew that humans eat other animals. My mother maintains that before I could walk, and with my father carrying me on his back in papoose, I would point at sheep in the fields and gleefully shout, “dins!” So from a very early age, I seem to have known that eating animals, and animals eating other animals, was natural, that it was meant to be.
Now, before going on, I want to clear up one potential misunderstanding. I am not criticising vegetarians. There are compelling environmental, ecological and health reasons why humans should eat less meat, though I admit that this is something where, in my life, knowledge does not translate into practice. So I’m not criticising meat eaters either. The sermon is not about that.
But can I take you back to the phrase I just used – it is meant to be. That’s a very loaded phrase. Meaning does not just emerge out of nothing. Meaning is given. And it can only be given by a sentient being, by something that thinks and interprets. Saying that certain animals are meant to eat other animals implies that someone created that intention, and that someone could only be the one who created the animals with their meat-eating physiology. No please don’t think I am arguing against evolution. I’m not. It is quite possible to hold together a belief in the natural processes of evolution with the belief that the origin of life lies in the will of God.
Anyone who watches programmes about animals eating animals knows that, though fascinating, the sight is not pretty. What we cannot say is that this natural phenomenon is a sign that creation has gone wrong, that it is disordered.
Now, I say that you cannot say that because cows and bears do not graze alongside one another that creation is disordered, but others do say just that, people who set themselves the intellectually impossible task of taking every word of the Bible literally. It is delusional and misleading to take all of this passage as a literal and accurate prediction. Isaiah spoke into a very different intellectual time from ours, a time when people were much more attuned to hearing truth in story, in imagery, in parable, in poetry. Does God literally intend lions to eat straw like oxen? Of course not: but let us not delude ourselves into thinking that there aren’t other things which God intends to change, to put right. These are not to do with changing the natural order, but to do with changing human sin, which is a disorder of what God intends.
Focusing on the animals in the second part of the reading means that we can easily overlook the first part. The imagery here is more opaque. Roots and branches may make us think that this is about plants. Of course it is not. It is about a person.
A person born from a particular family, the family of Jesse, father of King David. In other words, this person will emerge from the very heart of the chosen people, deeply and fully one of them; not from outside, not set apart. This person will have a particularly close relationship with God. As God is wise and understanding, so will he be. As God is mighty, so will he be. All that he will be, will be founded on his love and respect for God.
Now, listen to what this close relationship with God will enable him to do. He will judge, not just on what he sees and hears, because these can be deceptive, but with deep wisdom and understanding. He will ensure that the poor are treated rightly, no longer exploited. He will not do as others do who ignore those who are quiet, but will give all people their due place. Fundamentally, this is about peace, for in human relationships, no good ever comes of violence. So rather than by using force, he will affect change by the words of his mouth, with what he says. His whole being will be bound together with what is right and just and faithful.
Sound familiar? Of course. Isaiah is speaking of the Messiah, who we know as Jesus of Nazareth. All these things are descriptions of the way he would be. All these things were true, are true. And what the Messiah will bring, says Isaiah, and remember this is a promise from God, is a time of perfect peace, a time which Isaiah describes using very poetical rather than literal imagery.
Do you think this all sounds a bit airy-fairy? It is, of course, a promise which has not yet been fully fulfilled. But it is being fulfilled. In a few weeks, we celebrate the birth of Jesus. That moment marks the beginning of the fulfilment of this promise. His life on earth was lived by the attributes Isaiah described, and he continues to live on earth among those whose lives seek to mirror his, among those who judge with wisdom, who treat the poor with equity, who speak peace rather than practice violence, who are guided at all times by righteousness and faithfulness. In Christ, God broke into and disordered world. Amid continuing disorder, it is a life, a calling, we can never give up on, because it is how we witness to the way things are meant to be.