The way out of the wilderness? Dream – dream God’s dream!
Sunday, February 25, 2007. Early communion with Bob Cramer, First Congregational
United Church of Christ, Santa Rosa, California: Open and Affirming. “God is Still Speaking.”
Knowing that we shall be hearing about Moses in our regular worship service later this morning, as David begins a Lenten series on encounters with God, I looked rather closely at the first few chapters of the Book of Exodus. It was pretty obvious that, great as Moses was, he was clear about his part in the liberation of his people from Egypt – it was always God, not Moses, leading.
“I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard their outcry against their slave-masters. I have taken heed of their sufferings” – said God to Moses – “and I have come down to rescue them from the power of Egypt. … I am with you … it is I who have sent you. … You must tell the Israelites this, that it is Yahweh the God of their forefathers … who has sent you to them.” God gave Moses the power to teach with great signs and wonders, as a reminder to everyone that salvation was the gift of God.
And then I tackled this morning’s assigned gospel text, Luke 4:1-13, in a whole new way than I’d ever approached it. It’s a familiar story. Jesus, hungry and tired, endures a tryst with a satanic tempter. He feels called like prophets before him to redeem a wayward people. But has he the power to redeem? No. That belongs to God alone. He has not come to make people believe in him, even if so much of Christian tradition has insisted that’s the way it was. The story of Jesus’ sojourn in the desert puts the lie to that. Jesus dreamed about God and about the inner realities of human existence. And he would teach those dreams.
In his dreams he knew he would never magically turn stones into bread for the hungry. He would teach the hungry to imagine fullness and celebrate it. He would tell anyone who thought he was a divine purveyor of entitlements, “It is written, ‘human beings area not to live on bread alone’.” If one has bread for the day, but nothing more, what else is needed? Dreams? Yes, like Moses in Exodus.
Again, moving into an almost superhuman task, how could Jesus – like Moses – not worry about his own ability and his own personal safety? “I am with you,” God had told Moses, who believed it. In Jesus’ dream, he tells the tempter, “It is said, ‘You are not to put the Lord your God to the test’.” Later, as he faced the cross, and told God he didn’t really want to suffer like that, Jesus went ahead and did it. We have no indication elsewhere that Jesus ever asked God to favor him.
Jesus in his pre-ministry dreams is said to have imagined being whisked from the wilds in Galilee straight to the Temple in Jerusalem, far to the south, where he is told he could jump off the very top and land, unhurt, to show his power.
No! Jesus shouts. In the gospel story we can almost hear him raising his voice to the tempter who bedevils so many promising political leaders and those who surround them: “It is written, ‘You are to pay homage to the Lord your God, and you are to revere him alone’.” The gospels and Christian tradition far too often seem to portray Jesus as divine object of worship, when even the Gospel of John with its grand attribution of divinity to Jesus also goes out of its way, often, to have Jesus tell people not to misunderstand him – he is not God. Only God is God.
And God, Godself, is a worker of dreams, instilling in us as in Jesus a vision of what Creation surely was meant to be – the lion lying down with the lamb in a peaceable kingdom. Do most of us act as though it could never really exist?
What is the Realm of God, as Jesus dreamed of it, if not what humanity needs more than bread alone? And what great good ever appeared without a dream?
Most of the very deepest encounters with God in holy writ – ours, and others’ – occur in states of dreaming, or trance. I keep thinking about Jesus’ saying, over and over, that God’s domain already is coming among us, if only we let ourselves see it. “The Father’s rule is spread out upon the earth, and people don’t see it.”
To those whose job it was to make sure people kept to their rituals – the Pharisees – he said, of God’s Realm, “You won’t be able to observe the coming of God’s imperial rule. People are not going to be able to say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘Over there!’ On the contrary, God’s rule is right there in your presence” (Luke 17:20). Dream: it can be true.
Jesus was to follow, as reality, “real” reality, what others call “only dreams.” That, to me, is how he emerged from deep spiritual struggle to open his ministry by re-stating Isaiah’s dream – “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 announce pardon for prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind; to set free the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s amnesty.”
Did all that happen? Only a dreamer could answer yes. But has the dream ever really died? It lives in the hearts of those who, like Jesus, are able to see as God sees. “Today,” Jesus said after he had quoted the great ancient prophet, “this scripture has come true as you listen.” Without the dream the people perish. And as we go deeper into Lent, may our respect for Jesus’ dreams increase. Amen.