Looking back over our lives, I’d venture to guess that most of us here can vividly recall at least a few memories from our childhood. Stories we can tell in precise detail years later, complete with sights and sounds and colors and aromas and a spot on accounting of any other human being or living creature who happened to be part of the event.
One of those indelible childhood memories for me happened when I was ten years old. My grandfather was an ordained American Baptist pastor who served for years as a Protestant chaplain at Rutgers University. And after my grandfather retired, he and my grandmother spent their retirement years serving as missionaries at various overseas locations around the world.
Before they ever started these missionary ventures, however, my grandparents promised my father, my uncle and my aunt that they would invite each of their grandchildren to come and visit them overseas for a period of a couple of months. And sure enough, in 1975 when I was ten years old, I became the first Abernethy grandchild to get on a plane and fly halfway across the world to visit my grandparents.
For two months that year I lived with my grandmother and grandfather in a small house in Nakuru, Kenya. While I brought plenty of American schoolwork with me, thanks to my fifth grade teacher who was kind enough to give me the work I needed to keep up with my classmates, I attended an African school. And every Sunday we would go to the small Nakuru church where my grandfather would preach in English and have his words translated into Swahili as he spoke.
Those two months I spent in a radically different country, immersed in a culture that barely resembled the one I was accustomed to, was an incredible gift from my grandparents. In fact, there are a few memories from that time that I can still recall clearly now more than forty years later. But the one memory that came back to me this week is the memory of a safari trip we took to the Amboseli National game park near the border of Kenya and Tanzania.
If any of you have ever been to a game park, you know that it can be somewhat hit or miss when it comes to seeing wildlife. Chances are good you will see plenty of animals, but if you have your heart set on seeing one kind of animal, you might wind up disappointed. In any case, the three of us set out in the morning, driving along one of the roads that runs through the park. When all of a sudden, we happened upon a small pride of lions.
Although the lions were only about twenty yards away from our car, I didn’t feel at all threatened. Because the lions were huddled around the fresh carcass of a wildebeest. And they were so focused on the feast in front of them that they paid scant attention to anything else.
As you can probably guess, we stopped the car to watch for a few minutes. But we didn’t just stop to watch the lions, as mesmerizing as they were. We also stopped to take in the whole scene. Because looming in the distance high above the entire game park, we saw snow covered Mount Kilimanjaro, rising nearly twenty thousand feet above sea level. So right in front of our eyes we had a pride of lions devouring a wildebeest in the foreground. And majestic Mount Kilimanjaro towering in the background.
If only I had a cellphone back then, I would have snapped a picture or twenty and put it up on Facebook and Instagram just to see how many likes it would have gotten. Some images in life cannot be forgotten.
Aside from being the kind of photograph you would see on a postcard, watching those lions in Amboseli was one of the first times in my life I learned something about what it means to be a predator. And what it means to be prey. There are reasons why lions are known as the “king of the beasts.” They sat there and ate completely unfazed. Not the least bit worried about being disturbed or disrupted in the middle of their meal, they had a satisfied, almost regal smirk on their faces. The kind of facial expression that clearly said, “it’s good to be at the top of the food chain and you can’t touch us…”
We live in a world filled with predators and prey. The same world the prophet Isaiah spoke about centuries ago when he preached about the lion and the lamb. But Isaiah wasn’t simply making reference to the circle of life. He was also talking about human community.
The fact is the Israelite people Isaiah was writing to knew what it meant to be hunted. The kingdoms of Assyria and then of Babylon had them in their sights. And both dynasties were ready to pounce.
Still, long before the Assyrian and Babylonian empires even arrived on the scene, Isaiah makes it clear that the people of Israel had already accepted the paradigm of predator and prey as a way of understanding their own lives. By all accounts, the Hebrew people in Isaiah’s world had in fact been devouring each other. The powerful had turned their backs on any call for justice or compassion. The vulnerable were being exploited. Everyone who was weak was fair game. And anyone who was defenseless was doomed.
You and I still experience this predator and prey paradigm today thousands of years later. Mainly because we live it. Predators and their prey are plainly visible out there in the world we live in. And predator and prey are, in some measure, within each one of us.
As one of many examples we could point to in the world, consider for a moment the drones that are so much a part of modern warfare. Inflicting countless damage in the form of human casualties, the remotely controlled aircraft that fly on missions of destruction around the world have a particular name. They are aptly called “predator” drones. And in addition to preying on particular strategic targets our government has identified as the enemy, those predator drones have also killed any number of innocent civilians along the way. Human beings are the prey.
Political discourse, corporate takeovers, predatory bank lending. There are so many other examples which fit the predator prey framework. But if we are tempted to dismiss the paradigm as somewhere far out there beyond us, we have all been through junior high and high school. While it may not be akin to warfare on a global scale, some of us know what it is like to be the predator. And some of us know all too well what it’s like to be the prey.
Teaching the predator-prey model starts for most of us at a young age. Early on we find out it’s a dog eat dog world. Eat or be eaten. The fittest survive and thrive. Whether you are in school or at work, it’s best to stay at the top of the food chain. And gradually this paradigm takes on a life of its own. It’s in the air we breathe, in the expressions we use, in the images we carry in our heads. So much so that we recognize the qualities of the predator and the qualities of the prey. And we spend a tremendous amount of time and energy trying to be the former and trying to avoid being the latter.
The big problem seeing the world through a predator-prey lens is the fear it tends to breed. Fear of intimidation. Fear of weakness and vulnerability. Fear of being consumed. And when fear is our primary motivator, then vigilance and suspicion become the primary way in which human beings relate to one another.
Thankfully, Isaiah puts forth an alternative vision in this morning’s Scripture lesson. Deep in what Walter Brueggemann would identify as Isaiah’s “prophetic imagination,” Isaiah invites us to adopt a new paradigm. One that involves shifting how we see the world. When the world is filled with predators and prey, the constant vigilance required to keep us from being swallowed up keeps us restless and anxious. Always on our toes.
On the other hand, in the peaceable kingdom Isaiah describes, human beings are invited to set aside the notion of predator and prey. Substituting watchfulness for vigilance. And substituting promise for restlessness.
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.”
Generations later when the New Testament writers followed in the footsteps of the prophet Isaiah, it comes as no surprise that both Matthew and Luke begin their Gospels with stories about the birth of Jesus Christ. Like Isaiah, Matthew and Luke wanted us to know, from the outset, that Jesus would live out a different paradigm of power and relationship and possibility. Jesus invites all of humanity, indeed all of creation, into God’s peaceable kingdom. Instead of living in fear and vigilance, Jesus invites us to live in peace.
As we break bread and share the cup on this second Sunday in Advent, the Sunday of peace, remember this alternative image. For those of you who learned proper table etiquette, when you put the knife down at your place, you are supposed to turn the cutting edge of your knife inward towards the plate. By that simple action you symbolically shift the knife from a weapon into a tool. Thereby turning predator and prey into community. And transforming an entire table into a place of peace.
Come then to the communion table whether you are hunted or haunted or feeling the need to lash out. Come to be fed with justice and to drink in hope. In this season of the lion and the lamb, we watch and we wait and we work together for peace. Amen.