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1When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.
2Then 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.”
3The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.
4Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb.
5May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.
6Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; 2to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 3to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.4They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.
8For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. 9Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed. 10I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. 11For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.
When I was a little girl, my great Aunt Ruth lived with us during the last years of her life. My mother converted our dining room into a room for Aunt Ruth, and it was a beautiful space, with big bay windows that allowed Aunt Ruth to sit in her wheelchair, bask in the warm sunlight and observe the activity in the neighborhood. And the activity that Aunt Ruth loved to observe the most was watching me walk home from elementary school. From her perch, she could see me slowly wander up the hill doing something that just tickled her to pieces. I talked to the trees. She just loved watching this little girl meandering towards home, dreamily chatting to herself and the big poplars that lined our street. I wish I could tell you what I was talking about, but I have no idea. But for most of my childhood, I had the reputation of being a daydreamer. I was the kind of kid who is was so preoccupied with talking to trees and creating stories in my mind that I tripped on the sidewalk and skinned my knees at least once a week.
And I still have the scars to prove it. And I bet a few of you do too. I’m willing to bet I’m not the only one here who had the reputation of being a dreamy kid. When we are children, when life seems to stretch out endlessly before us, filled with nothing but promise and possibilities, dreaming comes naturally. When we are children, everything is possible and nothing seems impossible. If we can dream it, it can most certainly happen.
Then, at some point, we grow up and life slaps the dreaming right out of us. We wake up and can see reality with all its sharp and dangerous edges. At some point, we lose our ability to daydream, and begin thinking like straight up rational adults. We remember exactly where that bump in the sidewalk is located and will go way out of our way to walk around it. Even at night, we no longer sink into that deep and dream-filled slumber that comes so easily to children. When we get into bed at night, many of us spend more time tossing and turning than dreaming.
Maybe that’s one of the reasons we are so grateful for Christmas when it finally rolls around every year. There’s something downright dreamy and child-like about the Christmas story. The Christmas story isn’t brightly lit, but bathed in soft starlight with plenty of bumps on the way. The story we hear about Jesus’ birth at Christmas is so outrageous, it sometimes seems like a fantastical fairy tale that could only be imagined by a child. It is an impossible story, about a majestic and mighty God coming down to earth and taking on all of the frailty and foibles of human flesh. It is a crazy story of the king of kings and lord of lords being born into a most unremarkable family, in the most inhospitable environment imaginable. It is an improbable story, complete with stinky shepherds and corrupt politicians and sneaky magicians and heavenly bands of angels appearing out of nowhere in the middle of the night. It is a story so impossible that it has mostly become the stuff of children’s pageants, because it may be that the Christmas story is so fantastic that only a child can believe whole-heartedly in it.
Because the Christmas story is the stuff of an imagination that cannot be contained or controlled or tamed by human reason. The Christmas story is the product of God’s inventiveness, God’s dreaming, God’s intention for how the world will be forever changed and redeemed. And maybe the only way that God could imagine changing a world that very often makes no sense at all is through a story that makes no sense, at least to a reasonable adult mind. But God’s dream – this scandalous, child-like dream -- makes all the sense in the world. God’s dream of incarnation makes all the difference for the world.
Both of our Advent texts today invite us to become like people who dream. Children and grown ups alike are invited into God’s imagination through the words of the psalmist and the prophet. And, not surprisingly, God’s dreams startles us with the insistence that life as we see it is not how God sees it. Which is why, if we’re going to enter into the Christmas story with all of our hearts, the first thing we have to do is let go of our hard earned realism. Advent calls us to become like dreamers who are not shaped by the limits of our experience. We have to open our minds to the limitless possibilities inspired by God.
The psalmist speaks of Zion’s dreams of restoration after years of agonizing exile in foreign land. We see God’s people who, despite great tragedy, have begun to dream again, and what they are imagining is not just restoration for themselves, but for all people. We see people who dream of restored relationships that filled not with anger or distrust, but with laughter and joy. We see people dreaming of a new community, so overflowing with God’s justice and peace, that other nations look upon them with great amazement and say, “Look at that! Look at what God is doing through them!” We see people dreaming of tears and weeping being transformed into great shouts of joy.
The people begin to dream of something wildly and divinely new, trusting that the Lord who has done great things for them in the past has the imaginative power to do great things through them in the present, even through their tears and weeping.
If we cannot dream in Advent, when can we dream my brothers and sisters? When can we make room in our hearts, in our worship, in our prayers for God’s dreams if not in Advent?
Ok, I’m going to tell you a story about how my family celebrated Christmas when I was a little girl that’s going to make you think they are terrible people, but they weren’t. Believe me. They were just goof balls. Particularly, my goof ball uncles.
Every year at Christmas, we would gather at my great-grandparents’ farmhouse, the only place big enough to contain my extended family for Christmas dinner. We’re talking a cast of thousands here. Total mayhem. In my mind’s eye, I remember sitting at a dining room table that seemed to go on forever and ever with hundreds of people, just like the Who’s in Whoville, but it’s more likely I was sitting at the kid’s table in the kitchen. In any event, when dinner was over, one of my uncles would stand up and say, “Kids! Check the bottom of your plate. Whoever finds a red dot on the bottom will win a prize.” Every year, my uncles did this. And every year, the awarding of the prize would go something like this:
“Susan! You’ve got the sticker! You’ve won!”
“Uncle Bobby, what did I win?”
“Well, Susie, ba-doozie, what do you think you’ve won?
“I don’t know.”
“What would you like to win?”
“Uh. A color television?”
“That’s it! You’ve won a color television! Merry Christmas!”
Whichever uncle was in charge that year would send the winner running upstairs to one of the bedrooms where the child would expect to find their gift-wrapped color television waiting for them. And when the child got to the bedroom, you know what he or she would find? Nothing but a giant pile of coats stacked on the bed. No prize. No present. Not a color television to be found. One year, my cousin won and she expected to go upstairs and find a gift-wrapped pony. It was very disappointing, and maybe we weren’t the smartest kids because we fell for it every single year until we finally got tired of playing. We got too old and too wise to believe our uncles anymore. Experience finally taught us to give up on ever getting the pony, to ignore the goofballs at the other end of the table, and just eat a few more Christmas cookies.
I know that’s a terrible Christmas story, but here’s the point. We are like those worldly wise and pouting teenagers at the table, shoving cookies into our mouths because we’ve stopped believing in the possibility of God surprising us. The people who heard the prophet Isaiah were the kind of people who had the rug pulled out from under them at least once too often, and were loath to believe any of the promises of God. No more, Isaiah. You’re not going to fool us, you crazy dreamer, you. The exiles returning to Jerusalem took one look at what was left and felt as betrayed by God as I felt betrayed by my uncles. No temple. No homes. No there, there. Nothing left in the place that was once God’s glorious city.
But Isaiah speaks to them of this dream given to him by the spirit of the Lord God. A dream not rooted in the sharp edges of the reality staring them in the face, but in God’s reality. Before the people of Israel can begin the hard work of building up the ancient ruins, raising up the former devastations, and repairing the ruined cities, they have to learn to dream again. To trust not only the voice of the prophet, but also the dreaming purposefulness of God.
Can we dream of our ugly Christmas sweaters – and let’s admit, we all have ugly Christmas sweaters -- we dream of our Christmas garb as our garments of salvation? Can we dream of our wrapping paper as a robe of righteousness? Can we dream of our bows and tinsel and twinkle lights as the garland that decks the bridegroom and the jewels adorning the bride?
Can we dream that in receiving the gift of Jesus Christ, we have been entrusted with God’s dream of bringing good news to the oppressed, binding up the brokenhearted, proclaiming liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, proclaiming the Lord’s favor, comforting all that mourn – to adorn the whole world with garlands, anoint the whole world with oil, and boldly raise a mantle of praise instead of letting our exhaustion lead us to drop the hammer of cynicism?
It would be so much easier to limit our Christmas dreams to nothing more than a few flakes of snow, some holly, and maybe a new television. Those are perfectly fine dreams, but they are not the dreams of the prophets. They are not God’s dreams.
Several generations later, the scriptures tell of us of another dreamer, another prophet, another man who came back to his hometown synagogue to preach. The fourth chapter of the gospel of Luke tells us that this man was given a scroll to read.
He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
‘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 favour.’
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ (Luke 4:17-21)
We remember from this text that the people stared at this man for a long time, because he had read well. But they saw him not as a prophet or the Messiah, or the Son of God, but as Joseph’s son, that dreamy kid they knew when he was growing up. And a couple verses later, when Jesus speaks of God’s dreams for all people, not just their kind of people, his friends and neighbors wanted to kill him, like the prophets before him. But God’s dream was Jesus’ mission on earth. A mission that has been passed down to us – the people of God.
On this third Sunday of Advent, let us be thankful for dreamers. Let us be thankful for God’s dream of abundant life and great joy for all people, in all places, in all times. Let us be thankful for the dreams of righteousness, even in the face of the sharp edges and cruel injustices that still rule in our streets and in our lives. May we have the child-like courage to bear witness to what God is doing among us by speaking truth, even hard truth, the kind of truth that will build up ancient ruins, raise up former devastations, repair our ruined cities and the devastation of too many generations. May we provide comfort for those who mourn, and give them a garland of joy instead of ashes. May we be blessed with the treasure that is God’s dream that is coming to us in Jesus. May we welcome the scars that mark us as God’s dreaming people.
Thanks be to God. Amen.