Kingdom Come - Week 3: "The Dream"

Next Monday we will celebrate an important national holiday---the only one instituted in my lifetime: Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Birthday. MLK Day was officially recognized as a national holiday during the tenure of President Ronald Reagan, which I am sure might surprise more than a few people.

I remember that in the early days of it's institution there was a great deal of controversy regarding MLK Day--remnants of old enmities that were difficult to shed.  My children will never know such things.  To them it is simply a national day of remembrance for a man who gave his life in the struggle for freedom and equality.

The speech that Martin Luther King, Jr delivered in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC on August 28, 1963 is commonly known as the "I Have A Dream Speech."  It's more than a speech, though.  It's a sermon.  And I think it's a sermon that changed the world, which may seem like a pretty bold statement... but there you go.  It did.

If you've never heard this speech in it's entirety, here it is below:

This past summer I took my oldest son on a trip to Washington DC and we stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial exactly where Martin Luther King Jr stood.  We looked out over the reflecting pool below, both of us imagining what it would have looked like on that hot August day, surrounded by throngs of people, black and white together, taking in that historic moment, perhaps not realizing at first just how historic it was.

"I have a dream today..."  Martin Luther King repeated as his refrain in a classic and time honored preaching tradition repeated every Sunday in black churches across America.  King didn't invent this technique, but he may have perfected it on that August day.

"I have a dream..."

What if the Dreamer had not dared to dream then?  What if King's dream had been to simply pastor his church, and remain on the sidelines of history?  What if he had shrunk from the moment when he was called upon to lead, and to share his dream for the kingdom of God here on earth?

Would the cause of civil rights for all Americans regardless of the color of their skin have been furthered or would it have fallen by the wayside?  I believe it would have been furthered.  There were others who would have taken up the mantle, I am sure.

But still...  it makes you wonder, doesn't it?

The ancient mystic Teresa of Avila is credited with this prayer:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

Beautiful prayer, isn't it?  But there's something about this notion that can be taken a bit too far sometimes by very well meaning Christian types, like you and me.  A pastor I know once had lunch with one of his elders, who sat listening to him talk about all of the difficulties he was having in the church.  Finally she said to him, "Listen, the Messiah has come!"  He nodded, "Yes, I know..." To which replied, "And you're not Him."

This is a fact.  We often find ourselves paralyzed by our own frailty as we contemplate the limitless power of God--especially in contrast with our own very limited to non-existent power.   And in those moments of paralysis, we often catch ourselves wondering, "What's the point?  What good can I do?  What could God possibly want with me?"

So what is our purpose, our calling?  What can we do to change anything at all?  What does it take to become the kind of person who is willing to put themselves in the crosshairs--both figuratively and even literally--in pursuit of the dream of a better world?

It takes willingness.  And it takes holy imagination.  When we beseech God to let his kingdom come--to bring his kingdom to bear on earth as it is in heaven, do we really mean it?  Do we want to see a world made right, or are we completely fine with the way it is right now?

It takes dreamers who are willing to dream in order to realize the kingdom of God here on earth.  Because only dreamers are willing to look past the obstacles and see the light of a city on a hill that cannot be hidden.

God's kingdom come is a dream that still needs dreamers.  

This week we'll be studying John 1:29-42, a passage that offers the testimony of one of God's great dreamers, John the Baptist.  John's dream was to see the kingdom of God on earth, to witness the arrival of the Messiah.  John was able to see some of his dream become a reality, but not all of it...  He also saw many of his followers leave him and begin to follow Jesus.  In the end, he had to trust that the dream God had given him would be realized one day... and that he may never see it happen.

Let's read this passage:
29 The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.”
The Gospel of John is much different than the other Gospels.  John has often been called the "Maverick Gospel," because it places some stories out of sequence, or presents them in ways that differ from the other three "Synoptic" Gospels.  Having John the Baptist tell the story of Jesus' baptism is just one example of the way that the author of John's Gospel exhibits master storytelling traits.  
32 Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. 33 And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.”
Not everyone in John's Gospel gets it when it comes to Jesus.  In fact the Gospel of John is full of moments of mistaken identity, flat-out ignorance and denial when it comes to people understanding who Jesus really is.  John the Baptist gets it though--right from the beginning.  John understands the pecking order.  Jesus pre-existed John, which we see in the very first moments of John chapter 1 (in the beginning was the Word).  John baptized with water, but Jesus baptizes with the Spirit of God, which establishes the lesser role that John is to play in God's plan for redemption.  The Scriptures may have prophesied about John, but not as the Messiah.  
35 The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. 36 When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” 37 When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. 38 Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?” They said, “Rabbi” (which means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?” 39 “Come,” he replied, “and you will see.” So they went and saw where he was staying, and they spent that day with him. It was about four in the afternoon.
The scene shifts from John's declaration about Jesus to his followers leaving him.  In another passage of Scripture, John declares to his disciples that "He [Jesus] must increase and I must decrease."  He understands that his time is coming to a close, and so begins the most faith-filled part of his journey.  The Dreamer sees the Dream get passed on to others.  
40 Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who had followed Jesus. 41 The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ). 42 And he brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter).
These new dreamers that are chosen by God are asked to dream as well.  Jesus eventually tells them that they will do even "greater things" than he was able to do during his ministry.  That's hard to believe isn't it?  But yet we see here that Jesus calls these men from all different walks of life, and even singles one out--Peter--and gives him a nickname: "Rocky," "Foundation," "Stone."  The dreams of the kingdom of God will have a new stone floor from which to be built---the Church, led by these rough hewn dreamers.  

Here's the thing.  The world is not as it should be... the dreams of the kingdom of God have not yet been realized.  If the kingdom of God is marked by justice and righteousness, then there is little of it in our world.  We experience the lack of justice and righteousness all around us.

But the problem those of us who call ourselves Christians seem to be facing in the 21st century is that there's a high demand for justice--even from those within the Church---but there is little or no thought of Jesus as the way to achieve that justice.

What John knew was that Jesus embodied the kingdom of God, and that through Jesus the entire world was about to see what the kingdom looked like in the flesh... right here... on earth...

The fact that he was not going to get to see that happen did nothing to deter John from fulfilling his calling, dreaming the dream God had given him... and proclaiming, "Behold!  The Lamb of God!" to anyone who would listen.

What do we long for more than anything?  Is it peace in our world?  Purpose for our lives?  Unity in our society?  Equity for those who are marginalized?  Truth that we can hold on to...?

Whatever the answer to any of these deep longings---it's contained in the dream of the kingdom.  And only through Jesus can the dream of the kingdom become a reality. You and I are given the unique and beautiful opportunity to dream those dreams and cry with strong and unwavering voices: "Behold! The Lamb of God!"  And we do this for as long as we are able, or as long as it takes until the dream is realized--whichever comes first.

It's interesting how preaching from the lectionary works sometimes.  The Psalm for today on the official lectionary calendar for the Church is Psalm 40.  For some reason, the powers that be who compiled this stuff centuries ago decided that John 1:29-42 and Psalm 40 went together.  I understand now how they do...
Twenty seven years ago I stood to my feet in the old Tampa Stadium with sixty thousand other people to watch the band U2 sing their signature concert-ending song, "40."  After nearly three hours of unbelievable music, the fans did not want the show to end.  The song "40" borrows it's lyrics from Psalm 40, and goes something like this:
"I waited patiently on the Lord, He inclined and heard my cry. He lifted me up out of the pit, out of the miry clay. I will sing, sing a new song.  I will sing, sing a new song.  How long to sing this song?  How long to sing this song? How long... How long... How long... How long... to sing this song?"  
U2 sings this at the end of every concert.  At the end of the song, the refrain, "How long... to sing this song?" gets repeated over and over again.  The band slowly drops out, one musician at a time until finally only the lead singer Bono is left.

On that night twenty-seven years ago, shivering in the cool winter air and with thousands upon thousands of lighters waving above our heads... the crowd, the congregation sang with Bono, "How long... to sing this song?"  And even when he quietly left the stage and all went dark except the light from thousands of flames, we kept singing.  "How long... to sing this song?"

Until the very day that he was executed by a mad king at the whim of an evil woman, and her seductive stepdaughter---John the Baptist kept dreaming, kept proclaiming, kept pointing to the kingdom...

Trusting that God would call others to keep the dream alive...

Until the very day that he was gunned down on that Memphis hotel balcony, Martin Luther King kept dreaming, kept proclaiming, kept pointing to the kingdom...

And there have been others who have kept that dream alive... even though it has yet to be fully realized.

So "How long... to sing this song?"  As long as it takes until the dream is a reality.  It's our turn to take up the refrain.  It's our turn to dare to dream of a world where Jesus is Lord and the kingdom of God has come.

God's kingdom come is a dream that still needs dreamers.
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