Since the end of September, we have had a guest at the Dawson house… a young female cat named Twiggy.
Twiggy belongs to my brother and sister-in-law who are just finishing up ten weeks in Germany getting to know the new company they work for. They also have a black lab, Rachel, but she was staying with a family that better understands how to take care of dogs.
Now, Twiggy is adorable and playful… but she is also ferocious and territorial and quickly became the alpha in our house. My husband has nick names for both of our kitties… Black Cat and Fat Cat… he affectionately refers to her as Satan cat. This is an evidence-based conclusion… She is known to hiss and growl, strike and chase the other cats, block their way to the food, and overall, causes a lot of racket.
The other day, though, I walked into the bedroom. All three kitties were curled up sleeping on the bed together.
For that moment, there was peace again in the Dawson house.
In our candle-lighting text for this morning, we hold before us a vision of that kind of peace for all creatures. The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard with the young goat, the calf and the lion will feed together, and a little child shall lead them. (Isaiah 11)
When we look around us today, this is not the reality we experience.
We read about violence in Jerusalem, we lament the five-year anniversary of Sandy Hook, and just this morning, there are reports of a suicide bomb and gun attack on a Methodist church in Pakistan…
Our relationships with one another and with the animal life of this world was intended to be very different. As the days of creation unfold in Genesis, God commands the waters and sky and land to be filled with a diversity of creatures. And unlike the plants, each of these new creations require relationship in order to reproduce. God then shifts attention towards humanity, creating us “in God’s own image,” so that we might care for and have dominion over all the living things that breathe.
And then verse 30 tells us – God gives to all creatures all the green grasses for food. What is laid out in this chapter is not a science-based description of the violent food chain we experience… but of peace and sustenance.
The vision of the peaceable kingdom we long for in the new creation is simply a restoration of how God created us to live.
But as the next chapters of Genesis tell us, and as we explored in the first week of this series, humanity quickly rebels against God’s plan.
We were cut off from the abundant life of the garden. All of creation was impacted – from the soil to the air to the creatures that were to be our companions and helpers.
John Wesley, on of the founders of our United Methodist tradition wrote about how our sin shook the foundations of creation and changed our relationship with what he calls the “brute creatures” of this world. Although they were formed to be our helpers, no longer do the creatures love and obey humanity – they flee from us or would seek to destroy us. Just as our hearts are caught up in violence and destruction, so too, do they turn and destroy one another. Nearly every creature on earth “can no otherwise preserve their own lives,” Wesley writes, “than by destroying their fellow creatures!” (“The General Deliverance”)
As John Wesley notes, it isn’t just the large creatures of prey that are violent; even the “innocent songsters of the grove” eat forms of life that are lower on the food chain than themselves.
In 2015, when I took the Organic Ministry class, I spent an entire day each month on my friend Tim Diebel’s farm, Taproot Garden. One of my favorite things to do during our afternoon sabbath was to sit by the chickens and watch them interact and strut around the yard. They appear so gentle and beautiful, but they are part of the violent circle of life. When you watch them there in the yard, they peck and scratch and will rip apart any worm or bug that crosses their path.
“The girls,” as Tim calls them, are well cared for. He lets them out of the coop every morning, pampers them with choice feed and treats from the garden, gathers their eggs, and safely tucks them in every night. Occasionally the chickens get territorial, and sometimes bigger ones would pick on the smaller ones, so multiple coops and a process for integrating new birds into the flock helped to manage that process. But you can’t guard against every danger and you can’t change the fact that chickens are also prey.
My heart broke one afternoon as I saw a post from Tim on his blog about “nature’s harder edge.”
Just as he was heading out to put the girls to bed for the night there was a commotion in the yard. The chickens were in chaos and making a ruckus and Tim caught out of the corner of his eye something larger that had been scared away by his presence. When he finally had a chance to take in the scene, three dead hens were found. It had been foxes, who had watching for just the right moment to grab dinner.
In the midst of his grief, Tim’s words capture the tension of what it means to live in this time of longing for the new creation:
“Here in the rawness of God’s order are pests and diseases in the garden and thieving birds and squirrels in the orchard. There are moles tunneling through the yard, and there are predators above and around the chicken yard attentively watching for and eventually seizing their hungry opportunity. It’s beautiful out here, and serene, but it’s also torn feathers and blood, rot and thorn.”
The reality of torn feathers and blood, and the pain and the violence, death and destruction, amplify the longing of all living beings for the peaceable kingdom.
Wesley reflected upon the violence of creation, but also had harsh words for how the brute creation is treated with cruelty by “their common enemy, man…” and… listen to these words, to what Wesley calls us, “the human shark, [who] without any such necessity, torments them of his free choice.”
From inhumane confinement operations, to dog or cock fighting rings… from the neglect experienced by so many pets to the ways some beasts of burden are abused. Not only did Wesley believe that in the new creation these creatures would be restored to full and abundant life… that all dogs and cats and lions and bears WOULD go to heaven… but that God’s creatures would “receive an ample amends for all their present sufferings.”
He encouraged people to reject our sense of entitlement and to remember God’s care for every inferior creature… in the hope it would soften our hearts towards them here and now. And he was not alone.
Charles Spurgeon wrote, “cruelty hardens the heart, deadens the conscience, and destroys the finer sensibilities of the soul … For the man who truly loves his Maker becomes tender towards all the creatures his Lord has made.”
And so we cannot divorce Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom in our focus text for this week from the verses that precede it.
In verses 1-5, we hear good news of hope for all who are needy and oppressed. The promised one will come to transform all relationships, human or otherwise.
And as Gene Tucker notes, “the rule of justice in human society is followed or paralleled by a transformation in the relationship among animals and between animals and human beings.” When our hearts are right, peace will prevail for all creatures.
And God calls us to account.
In these days of Advent, we are comforted by the image of peaceful animals around the manger and we hear the good news shared with the shepherds and sheep in the fields of Bethlehem.
But the expectation of Advent is not only about preparing our hearts for the birth of Jesus, but for Christ to come once again.
We are waiting for God’s kingdom to burst forth and set us free from the endless cycle of violence and death, revenge and pain.
We are waiting for that day of endless peace, justice and righteousness.
How shall we wait?
Well, first, we need to remember that when the Prince of Peace comes, there will be a great reckoning… Our Great Shepherd will gather the flock together and as much as we want to identify with the sheep and not the goats, we have to remember our obedience to God is shown in how we care for the most vulnerable of this world – the least and the last and the lost.
So, this season of Advent is a great time to remember the creatures around us…
You could donate items to local animal shelters and veterinary offices like old towels, pet food, and cleaning supplies. We also collect pet food and take it out with Joppa when we visit the homeless in our community.
Or you could give the gift of animals through Heifer International and help empower small-scale farmers across the world…
or maybe, you could foster or rescue an animal yourself.
God has never stopped calling us to practice care and dominion for the creatures of this world.
And when we do so, when we take up our responsibility, we are ushering in the peaceable kingdom in our little corner of the world and stewarding it until that day comes the little child shall lead us into the promises of the new creation.