Preached at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension, Lafayette, Louisiana, December 4, 2022.
Have you ever experienced a dream come true? Perhaps you have longed for years for a child, and either of your own body, or through adoption, or through another means, your desire for a child to love and to be in your life is finally, one day, fulfilled.
Maybe you spent years, or decades, moving toward your vocation, whether as a doctor or lawyer, as a priest or a journalist, as a parent, or a spouse, or perhaps one of the most challenging vocations of all: truly believing that you are a beloved child of God.
Our collecting prayer this morning affirms that the prophets tell us the truth and share with us the dreams of God. We ask in that same prayer to have the humility to accept and live those dreams, which are the way of life and joy. And today, Isaiah preaches to us of a dream coming true. In the beginning the wolf did lay down with the lamb, the nursing child could have played over the hole of the asp with no danger, and on all God’s holy mountain, in the beginning, there was no evil or darkness or destruction, there was no division or waste or abuse or aggression.
This is a lovely picture, exactly what one might call “a dream.” But I might mean that in a pejorative sense, rather than a sincere one. We might scoff at such a dream. We might wheedle our way around a different interpretation in order to avoid the discomfort of claiming such a dream. Isn’t it just fairy-language to think of such a thing? Isn’t it just ignoring all of reality to consider such a thing to even be desired? Isn’t that what children think is possible? Not us grown ups, surely. We know. We know the ways of the world and the harsh realities of life and the awful truth of existence. What a dream.
There’s a book I love called, “Learning to Dream Again,” by the Rev. Dr. Sam Wells, out of St. Martin in the Fields, Trafalgar Square, and he talks in that book about how so much of our hurt and grief ends up making it just too painful to dream. We even lose our ability to dream because our hurts and disappointments are so plenteous and powerful that we can’t use our spiritual imaginations in the way we are made to, since the scar tissue holds us captive.
This is a way in which I find that children are often more free. Just as their bodies don’t carry the scars of living for a long time, their spirits and souls are less affected by wounds, too. They just haven’t been as battered by the evil of the world and by disappointed expectations. They, like the children in the Chronicles of Narnia, have the temerity to hope. They have the courage or naivete to consider enemies lying peaceably together to be a possible dream.
And that brings us back to the passage from Isaiah this morning, for what does Isaiah declare about this promised coming leader: “He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear.” This longed-for shoot of hope finds truth not in what his eyes behold in a broken earth, or what his ears hear in a war-torn world, or what his body touches in a dark and lonely place. His delight is in God, his attention is focused on the power of the Lord, his righteousness is from the truth of God’s Word, based not on anything tangible or of this world, but on the God who is known in Jesus Christ.
Isaiah did not know that God would arrive as Jesus, a baby in Bethlehem, but Isaiah was told, and did share the dream of God that peace would reign and that all things broken or destroyed or cast aside would be brought back and made whole and set together again.
I wonder if there’s a situation in your life that feels irretrievably broken. I wonder if there’s a relationship you’ve lost hope in. I wonder if there’s a person you love who has been so given up to evil that you cannot imagine what redemption might look like for them. I wonder if there’s a piece of yourself that feels unforgivable, or just gone forever. I wonder what the God in Jesus Christ might have to say about that relationship, or person, or you, when all is gathered to his holy mountain.
There’s another way in which children reveal something important to us about what it means to have faith in God. They tend to have a great spiritual imagination because they haven’t seen as much or heard as much, so they haven’t been so bombarded by the messages of darkness and brokenness that can so easily fill our vision and make our lives noisy here and now. They also haven’t been in as much schooling as we have, they haven’t read and learned as much with their knowledge-brains as we have, so their minds and hearts are easily attuned to a different sort of knowledge, what Isaiah calls “knowledge and fear of the Lord” (11:2). Children tend, because they don’t have as many facts and figures filling up their heads, to have a better sense of awe, of humility, of curiosity and imagination, than adults often do.
And I wonder if that’s part of why the Christmas season is something that’s often thought of as a season for children. The make believe of Santa Clause and the Miracle on 34th Street, and the dream of George Bailey, and the magic of snow, these all reach at and poke around the sense of awe and joyful possibility that is so natural to children.
Could it be that this is what the God in Jesus Christ calls us to through Isaiah today? God shares the dream which he has had since the beginning of creation, the dream which he, by his might and power, and by his mercy and love, will bring to fruition in the day of Christ Jesus (Php 1:6). By coming to be with us, Emmanuel, God makes good on his promise to do the impossible, and he finishes that work on the cross, when the powers of darkness intensify and the greatest bad thing ever threatens to tear God apart from the inside, and still Jesus stays. Jesus stays right through death and into resurrection. Who could have imagined such an outcome? How could anyone think up such a dream except God himself?
We know God’s dreams because he caused them to be written for our learning (Rom 15:4), and not just our book-learning, though that is how we often hide God’s Word in our hearts (Ps 119:11), but also for our soul-learning, for being formed in the awe and fear of the Lord.
One thing that children often do not comprehend is what it takes to get to a dream come true. I used to pray for faithfulness or for gentleness, or for patience. I used to expect that these virtues would tumble out of heaven on a waterslide of clouds, and fill my heart up like it was an empty bowl, transforming me into a vessel of fluffy spiritual gifts.
Now, I pray for such gifts only when I’m very, very desperate. Because I have found that patience is not something that pops up in my heart like a bubble of gum, but something that is gained inch by painful inch when my children won’t go to sleep, or when the traffic, and the grocery store line, and the doctor’s office voicemail, and the household chores all conspire against me on the same day.
Dreams are not easily won, so far as I have found. And so we live in a paradox. We live being called to not judge by what our eyes see or our ears hear, but by the truth which God tells us and the dreams which he has set out in his Word for us to believe. We also find that sanctity is a life-long pursuit and sometimes a slog, it is always more than we bargained for, but as Peter says, it is the way of eternal life, what else could we do? (John 6:68)
And so we are called to live with the awe and the imagination of children, to live with the unguarded hope which they show us. We are called to apply that hope to the dreams which God reveals in his word, clinging to the truth which is made flesh in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.