Dreams and Promises


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church, Middletown, NJ

December 15, 2019


Texts: Isaiah 43: 1-21; Matthew 1:18-25

       Most of us have had the experience. It's almost morning and you are suddenly startled by your dream. Sometimes it is pleasant, even exhilarating and half-way between sleep and wakefulness, you try to hold onto the dream by almost consciously adding the rest of the story line. Many of us have also had the oppo-site experience, being shaken awake by a terrible nightmare. 

       I only have a vague memory of the story my father used to tell me, after being told the story of Little Red Riding Hood, of running to my father's bed and shaking him awake because there was a wolf at my window. I must have been no more than four years old at the time but the wolf's nightmarish image is still in my mind. Somehow, that really palpable fear has not translated into my conscious life because as a member of Defenders of Wildlife, I have adopted several wolves and work to oppose the aerial killing of wolves. They really are magnificent creatures although I would not like to meet one on a dark night, or even in an early sunny morning, like Peter or his duck. 

      Our English word “nightmare derives from the Old Norse word “mara” referring to a spirit or goblin that were supposed to sit on people's chests as they slept and trouble them. Not so far a cry from an age when people really believed that dreams somehow con-nected them to God; in that time nightmares could prove to be frightening. They could be ladders to heaven, as for Jacob or the promise of destruction as for Nebuchadnezzar. The Talmud, compiled between 200 and 500 CE contains more than 200 references to dreams. And our human belief in the power of dreams cuts across cultures and religions. The ancient Vedas as well as the super-rational Confucians all believed in the power of dreams.

       In our own way today we also believe in the power of dreams. In fact, we use the word dream not just in reference to what we experience at night but in reference to our national culture, as in our phrase “the American Dream,” a term coined by James Truslow Adams in 1931. He defined it as "that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. . . . too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position." It is a dream of more than money; it is a dream of equality.

      Dreams have a habit of becoming corrupted. The corruption of our goals, our dreams can begin early in our lives or later. Sometimes we enter our higher education and professional lives with dreams of what we hope to accomplish. Sometimes the corruption is seemingly mundane with each loss seemingly small. These small losses in our dreams, however, add up to a larger loss of a dream and we wonder what hap-pened to us and to the dreams of what we could have been or done. 

       Sometimes the corruption is so overwhelming that it ends up with terrible consequences for all. Imagine the dream of young boys to be in the company of their heroes, whether in a church or sports setting and to be horribly abused. Dreams can become nightmares very easily and we have seen it happen all too often.

       We want to transform our dreams into reality, but before we ask how to do that, we should ask the first, basic question: What kinds of dreams do we have? Are they dreams that are based on the values that are essential to our faith: love, mercy, peace, justice—dreams that look beyond ourselves. Or are they dreams that are only focused inward on our own lives, what we hope to accomplish only for ourselves. Our lives often reflect our dreams in more ways than you can imagine. 

       Scholars believe that the reading from Isaiah we heard this morning was composed at a time when the Babylonian captivity had just ended in 538 BCE, about two hundred years after the first thirty–nine chapters. Those are attributed to the original prophet Isaiah who warned of calamity if Israel did not stay to the true path of God's law. The dream of this Second Isaiah is seen as God's promise of return to Jerusalem and to begin the building of a second temple which would serve as a focal point for worship of God. 

       The dream also included the promise of God to establish justice and equity. The return was really of the religious and political leadership, descendants of those who had been taken into exile by Babylon. The kingdom became a client state of Cyrus' Persian Empire, one that was permitted a certain degree of autonomy. But, if we look at Isaiah's poem, the dream contains a promise.

       By the time Joseph has his dream, the promise of restoration has become a nightmare, one of brutal Roman occupation, with little hope for a future of justice and equity. The temple leadership, more con-cerned with self-preservation than anything else, was in full collaboration with the Roman authorities, claim-ing, of course, that they at least were able to preserve the sanctity of the Temple for the worship of God. 

       As we know from other parts of the Gospels, they were corrupt, always exacting what they considered their “fair share” from the people who lived in abject poverty and misery. They want no promises of God's new reign, only their own power. The baby we see as Sweet this time of year grows up to be a challenge to their power and authority. As so well sung in Jesus Christ Superstar, “This Jesus, this Jesus, this Jesus must die.”

       But before we get to that part of our story, let's focus on the dreams and promises given us this special season for, indeed, they are dreams and promises of great joy, as in the song of the angels recorded in Luke's Gospel. They are dreams and promises of a new way of relating to each other and to God. They offer us a new vision of God, one that is not just the God in a temple but the Godin our hearts, who enables us to turn our dreams into reality, sometimes not quite what we expected, but still a reality to move us into a new way of thinking and being. 

       The essential part of the Matthew text this morn-ing tells us to trust our dreams of what can be, what we could be, not just to look at what could be wrong with us, our church, our community, even the world. The crux of Joseph's dream is not just to accept a young peasant woman as his wife even though she is pregnant, but to trust in our instincts of kindness and goodness, in that spark of the divine and holy each of us carries within us. 

         The culture that, quite frankly, we have helped to create, tells us to ignore that part of ourselves, to be fearful, self-centered, focused on money and power above all else, but we have another option. That op-tion is to trust in the dream that encompasses more than our own selves. In that way, we will dream those dreams that transform into the reality offered us by God's promise to be with us no matter what. That was the promise God gave those Jews returning from Babylon, to Joseph as he took Mary as his wife, and to us as we work to create a world that reflects God's promise of justice and love.

       Let us pray: God of our dreams, enter into our hearts and imaginations enabling us to live your promise given us through the One we follow, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.