The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
This year all of our Old Testament readings in Advent come from Isaiah, which gives us a chance to encounter some of the world’s great poetry, and today’s reading from Isaiah 11 is no exception. Christians hear this text as pointing to what the Advent season asks us to expect – not merely Christmas, but the fullness of the Kingdom realized in Jesus and in us. I just quoted one of the most famous sections of this famous passage, the section describing a world that has been fully reconciled to God, a world in which ancestral enemies have been set free to collaborate in love, a world in which, as Isaiah puts it, “the wolf shall live with the lamb.”
I discovered this week that trying to find a depiction of that phrase, of a wolf and a lamb living in harmony, is an interesting task. An awful lot of visual artists seem to have decided that the only way to make it even seem possible is by depicting the wolf as completely unlike a wolf – you’ll see cute, doe-eyed, fluffy wolves snuggled up with a sweet little lamb. Isaiah dissolved into a Precious Moments mug. Sure, wolves can lie down with lambs -- as long as they aren’t wolves. There’s no actual redemption or reconciling power in that, you’ll note; it essentially treats Isaiah’s text as a touching fantasy. (“Wouldn’t it be nice? If only it could be that way. Sweet, naïve Isaiah. Sweet, naïve Judaism and Christianity. It’ll never happen, but at least it warms the heart to dream about it a few weeks a year.”)
Isaiah, of course, is a lot less naive than a Precious Moments mug. He chooses these words because he knows what a wolf is and what predators do to prey. Lamb plus wolf means: that lamb is dead from the beginning. This is so common a piece of knowledge that Aesop has a fable on the topic, and there are versions of the same story in Buddhism and Persian literature, as well as in later Western writers. The version I know best is the one by the French poet La Fontaine. Being translated, it goes like this. (“The Wolf and the Lamb,” by Jean de La Fontaine)
The reason of the strongest is always the best: May we show you how this is true?
A lamb was quenching his thirst in the water of a pure stream.
A ravenous wolf came by, looking for something; hunger had drawn him there.
—How dare you meddle with my drinking? said the wolf to the lamb, very angry. For such temerity you’ll be punished!
—Your Majesty, answered the lamb, kindly don’t be so upset; But rather, please consider that I am taking a drink of water in the stream more than twenty steps below you; and that, consequently, in no way could I be troubling your supply.
—You do trouble it, answered the cruel wolf. And I know you said bad things about me last year.
—How could I do that when I wasn't born last year? answered the lamb; I am still only nursing.
—If it wasn't you, then it was your brother.
—I don’t have a brother!
—It was somebody, said the wolf, from your family. You people never let up on me, you, your shepherds and your dogs. I’ve been told all about it. I’m obliged to pay you back.
And into the woods the wolf carries the lamb, and eats him – so much for jury, judge, and trial.
That’s the kind of wolf Isaiah means: a predator, not a fluffy wolflet from a Precious Moments mug. With this image, God has given Isaiah a glimpse of the costly and complex longterm divine plan, the plan we read about two Sundays ago on Christ the King: “to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven.” That’s Colossians 1:20. “To reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven.” And as God discloses it, Isaiah starts to see it. Arabs and Jews, the oppressor and the oppressed, the violent criminal and the victim, predator and prey, reconciled by God.
What an incredible feat it would be, changing a real wolf who is going to kill that lamb no matter what, into a real wolf who is not going to kill that lamb no matter what. And because the prophecy is a global one, across species and cultures, the feat God has made his mind up to pull off is far bigger. Because you know as well as I do, all too often species and cultures and us individual human beings will, like the wolf in that fable, find a way to justify getting what we want. We may not be overtly violent, we may not be predators -- though some of us are -- but in at the very least the little things, for every one of us our natural state is that self comes first. When we lie down with someone, we may not slaughter them, but we sure as heck aren’t going to let them take our blankets.
This is a key insight of Thomas Cranmer, the framer of our Book of Common Prayer, who famously described human nature in this way: “what the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.” Ashley Null, one of the world’s leading authorities on the English reformation, explains, “According to Cranmer …the mind doesn’t direct the will. The mind is actually captive to what the will wants, and the will itself, in turn, is captive to what the heart wants. The trouble with human nature is that we are born with a heart that loves ourselves over and above everything else in this world, including God. In short, we are born slaves to… self-gratification…..Therefore, [in the Anglican understanding,] God must intervene in our lives in order to bring salvation.”
An intervention. We need an intervention. And that’s the part Isaiah doesn’t quite know. He sees that a reconciled world will come, but he lacks the data on how. How will God do it? How do you change a real wolf who is going to kill that lamb no matter what, into a real wolf who is not going to kill that lamb no matter what? How do you change a human being who is instinctively going to grab the best seat -- or steal the blankets, or argue for their culture’s superiority to another culture, or do any of the million "Me First" things we do all day – how do you transform that human being into a human being who is free not to do those things? How could God change my heart and yours from one that instinct makes centered on self to one that is truly free to love?
Cranmer and our Prayer Book have an answer to that, and of course they got it from the Bible. When I read that verse from Colossians a minute ago, I stopped early. The full phrase says that God’s plan is this: “to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his Cross.” If you want a real wolf to lie down with a real lamb, it’s going to mean blood. But that’s how God does the heart-change, that’s how God makes inner freedom possible: he gives his blood, not the lamb’s. His suffering, not some oppressed group’s. His wounds, not mine or yours. Yes, there’s a cost to our Advent promise, and it’s immense: the torture and death of God himself in the body of Jesus. You want what he promises, you want all things made new, enemies reconciled, inner freedom? -- that’s the cost. Real wolves, real lambs, real blood. If we brush off the price he paid and the blood he shed, all the power of that divine intervention is flushed away, and Christianity becomes one more sentimental fairytale that would be nice if it were true.
Ashley Null on how that intervention works again: “[Cranmer knows that] at the same time we receive the gift of [faith]… God also sheds abroad in our hearts a new love for him and one another. This new heart love for God, from God, naturally redirects our wills away from sinful selfishness towards a life lived in thankful obedience to God’s commands…. In Cranmer’s view…the miracle of [Jesus] is this reorienting of the human will by transforming the heart.” What the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies. But what if your heart loved God? I mean, first. As instinctively and naturally as you love your family, or your favorite meal, or taking all the blankets. When John the Baptist says today that Jesus won’t merely pour some water over our outsides as a symbol, but will baptize the whole of us, inside and out, with the Holy Spirit, that’s the kind of interior newness he’s talking about.
St. Paul describes the same intervention this way: “The Love of God is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who is given us.” (Romans 5:5) Poured in beneath the level of instinct. Deeper than the selfishness that enslaves us. That’s what Jesus died for, to make it possible for God’s love to enter human nature so deeply that when that Love has finished its work, all things actually can be reconciled to God, starting with me and you. God’s kind of reconciliation works from the inside out -- slowly, in fits and starts, but it works -- as we let the love of God that has been poured into our hearts reorient our wills and our minds.
Isaiah didn’t know yet how a real wolf could lie down with a real lamb; how a real narcissist could really put someone else first; how a real bigot could really embrace someone they’d been raised to despise. Isaiah didn’t know. But Jesus does, the New Testament does, the church does. It happens by the reorienting of love through the interior action of God, and then the consequences of that intervention rippling outward until the earth is filled with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea. Till the wolf and the lamb live together. Let’s not treat this like a sentimental fantasy. Let's not relegate it to a Precious Moments mug. Let’s let it get to the heart.