When the Lord brought back those who returned to Zion,
we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
and we rejoiced.
Sometimes, if something feels too good to be true, we might just pinch ourselves a little, just to make sure that we’re not actually dreaming. So, give me just a second here…Tom, could you give me a pinch... Okay, you’re all still here, yes? What a relief! I wanted to make sure because sometimes a dream, pleasant though it may be, is nothing more than a figment of the imagination.
But, remember, that’s not how God thinks about dreams or about the dreamers. The Bible tells us that angels show up in our dreams to bring us good news. And in dreams, prophecies can be revealed to us. And even God can show up in your dreams. When God made a covenant with Abraham in Genesis, even though God knew how to talk to Abraham when he was awake and had done so before, and even though God knew how to show up in person on the earth and would do so with Abraham later, when God first makes the covenant with Abraham, God waits until Abraham falls into a deep sleep and then comes to him in his dream to make that covenant, that promise, that new beginning that changed everything.
Why? Why a dream? Why does God trust the space of our dreams for the most important business of our lives? After 16 months away from this sanctuary and away from each other, maybe we feel “like those who dream” just because it feels too good to be true to be back together again. But there’s another way to be like those who dream—to be like the Judean people returning to Zion, singing psalms and rejoicing, after generations in exile, to be like Abraham getting the news that even though he is old and has no children, God is making a covenant with him to become the father of a great nation.
We’re not like dreamers just when it’s too good to be true, but also when it’s so good that we get a glimpse of God’s vision for our future possibilities. Seeing such a vision, not a figment of the imagination, but God’s dream of the possible—it’s like a dry riverbed in the wilderness of Negeb after the rains finally fall, and overnight there’s an explosion of life and flowers and colors in the desert. Dreams—full of joy and possibility—are a sacred space where revival can be planned.
We are like those who dream when the thing we thought was impossible becomes our possibility again—to be a father, to be a nation, to be an in-person church. The arrival of possibility is not the end of the dream—it’s the beginning of the dream. Don’t wake yourselves up yet! Parenthood, nationhood, churchhood—they’re visions of possibility that we dreamers must hold in our sacred imaginations long after we’ve woken back up to the hard work of reality. That’s why the poet William Butler Yeats wrote, “In dreams begin responsibilities.” Because this Sunday, with all its joy and freshness, is not only this Sunday. This Sunday is just the beginning.
So, beloved, you dreamers you, welcome back to the joy, to the community, to the revival, to the possibility, to the church that is both our pleasant dream and our joyful responsibility. Hallelujah! The choice is yours: You could pinch yourselves and simply allow being here this Sunday to be the fulfillment of the dream, or you could let this Sunday become the foundation of a revival.
And let’s be honest: After 16 months out of the habit of in-person worship, in-person meeting, and in-person community, we need a revival.
Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like the watercourses in the Negeb.
May those who sow in tears
reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves.
Who among us hasn’t suffered over the last 16 months? Some of us have been luckier than others, but all of us have suffered. For 16 months we have sown in tears. God’s promise is that our tears are never wasted, and our suffering is never meaningless. Locked arm-in-arm with our troubles and our trials is our liberation and our revival.
Not every saint makes it to the Promised Land, of course. But Moses, who led the people through the wilderness for 40 years, and who died before reaching that Promised Land, still goes to the mountaintop and is allowed to see the Promised Land before he dies. Not all our saints make it to the Promised Land, but that makes it all that much more important that we fulfil the possibility of the dream, of the vision they shared with us.
Our time apart may have been the most productive time we have ever spent learning about the ministry of Jesus Christ and what it means to be the church of Jesus Christ. The lives we have lost, the loneliness we have suffered, the depression that has laid beside us in bed at night, the tears of mourning and loss we have wept in rooms by ourselves with no one to offer us a hug—here are the very seeds of the harvest we shall gather! Here are the goads that are driving us deeper into the arms of our joyful and crucial mission—bringing good news to the world. We need one another!
Marie Kondo, the world-famous organizer, author, and host of “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo,” has a fascinating ritual when she starts with a new client—and her clients are people who are struggling with various levels of hoarding, clutter, and disorganization. She takes all of their clothes and puts them in a giant pile. Then she tells her client to pick up each piece of clothing and see if it still “sparks joy” for them. If the piece of clothing brings them joy, they put it in the keep pile. If not, they thank it for all it’s done for them, and they put it in the give-away pile.
This is another part of revival: To plant new seeds, we need to make room for the new garden beds. After 16 months of tears, we need to make a lot of room for the dreams and the possibilities. And we know this for sure: the God we worship and serve is a God who sparks joy in us always. And if something is getting in the way of the joy we feel and the joy we show to others, it’s high time to thank it, whatever it is, and dismiss it. After 16 months of tears, we’re ready to say goodbye to the things that don’t bring joy to us or to the community we serve.
Revival doesn’t necessarily mean going from nothing to a whole lot of something. Sometimes it means simplification—getting back to basics, cleaning out the cupboards, opening up the windows and letting a fresh breeze into the house. When we get rid of the things that don’t spark joy for us, we open up the space to establish healthy habits in our lives. In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus is at the very beginning of his ministry. And he decides that it’s time to commit himself to the dream. The time has come for him to announce himself and his ministry to the world. How does he do it? Did he try to gain an audience with the high and the mighty to announce himself to the powers of the world? No. Did he pull together a crowd of thousands of the common people to announce himself to the masses? No. Did he climb to the top of a mountain to announce himself to the heavens? No. When Jesus went to declare the extraordinary news of who he was to the world, he didn’t do an extraordinary thing. He did a simple thing—he went to his hometown synagogue. He went to church—and this wonderful little line--as was his custom.
Jesus is the Messiah who always manages to do a lot with a little. And, in fact, one of his biggest recommendations to those of us who have a lot is to give it away until we have just a little, so that we don’t get distracted from what matters most by the many, many, many luxuries, entertainments, comforts, and privileges that ultimately do not matter at all.
And this is how many of us live our lives. The most important things—our health, our joy, our relationships, the meaning and purpose of our lives—are crowded out by the less important concerns and pursuits—status, power, pleasure, money, clutter. And these less important pursuits often leave us feeling empty and miserable and despairing that there’s nothing more to life than a hamster wheel of work and consumption. And there is nothing “more!” But there is something “less!” Simplify! Give it away! Let it go, if it doesn’t spark joy! Come back into the customs of your heart!
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “The Sabbath is the day on which we learn the art of surpassing civilization.” In other words, your Sunday, your day of holy rest, is not there to give you a chance to recover just enough to go running back to the rat race on Monday morning. You’re not a beast of burden, are you? Your Sabbath day is about transcending civilization—beating it at its own game—reclaiming your sacred center from the world and returning it to the One it came from and whose claim upon it can never be successfully dissolved or disregarded. Coming to church should not be one more thing in the competition of priorities and events and schedules in your life. Church is the Sabbath habit that simplifies your life, returns you to yourself, and highlights the true joy that so many of us have been missing.
And so Jesus reads the scroll:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
It is the distillation of Jesus’ mission in the world. A mission that he passed on to the Church—to all of us. After reading it he rolled up the scroll and sat down and said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The scripture is fulfilled. But the ministry is just starting. The dream is just about to begin.
Beloved, may this Sunday not just be the end of 16 months of tears. May it be the beginning of a revival of your Sabbath, a revival of your soul, the revival a vital, life-saving, joy-giving mission.
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Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations