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Sunday, October 23, 2016 | 8:00 a.m.

They Shall Dream Dreams

Matt Helms
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 84
Joel 2:19–29
Isaiah 40:1–11

Hold fast to dreams,
For if dreams die
Life is like a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Langston Hughes

Comfort, O comfort my people, says God. Speak tenderly
to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term.
O Zion, herald of good tidings, lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear.

These famous words from the fortieth chapter of Isaiah are thought by scholars to mark the beginning of a new chapter in Israel’s history: the return of a people in exile and the return of a people to hope. The book of Isaiah seems to cover ground from at least two distinct periods of Israelite history and probably even three. The first thirty-nine chapters have a dark tone—a prophetic witness to the impending demise of the Kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians in the latter stages of the eighth century BCE and, later, the Kingdom of Judah by the Babylonians in the sixth century—that inhabits the language of many of the prophetic books we have in our Bibles today. They were speaking out in the midst of troubled times, trying to make sense of the world around them and trying to find God’s message for the people amidst a world that seemed oblivious to it.

But the visions that Isaiah held were not totally dystopian or apocalyptic; instead, the prophet punctuates these heavy visions with a message of hope. There would be a new leader—in the words of Isaiah’s ninth chapter, “A child who is born for us, authority rests on his shoulders . . . named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”—and this new leader would usher in a new era of God’s kingdom. It is that idea that the second portion of Isaiah picks up on, beginning in the fortieth chapter that we just read and continuing on through the end of the book. The prophet proclaims that God is ushering in a new era for not just the Israelite people, but for all people.

We see this same idea from our first lesson from the prophetic book of Joel as well. Joel is something of a deep cut in our three-year lectionary cycle. In fact, some folks on staff were surprised that I wanted to preach on it, but the overarching movement of the book is similar to that of Isaiah. Unlike many of the prophets, Joel does not reference any specific historical events or personalities, which in turn has made the book notoriously difficult to place in Israel’s history, but in some ways that makes the message even more compelling. Specific contexts and leaders may come and go, but the stage remains the same, and the stage for Joel’s book is a troubled world crying out for justice, prosperity, and peace. Both Joel and Isaiah, like many of the prophets, are deeply concerned with those three things—justice for the oppressed; prosperity for the poor, widows, and orphans; and a peace that will allow these things to come about—and they are anxiously looking ahead to a day when they might be so.

This desire isn’t foreign to us, obviously, because our own context both globally and nationally is crying out for almost those exact same things today. While we haven’t quite hit the proto-apocalyptic dialogue that Isaiah and Joel did in our own political discourse, we’re not all that far off of it. And the reason for the angst and unrest and passion that is being brought to this election, I think, is that we as a country are collectively proclaiming that things are not as we’d like them to be. The numbers bear out that there are deep flaws within our justice system, as we have the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world and one-sixth of our prisoners are in for-profit prisons. We still deeply desire to be a country where any person regardless of gender or race can work hard and find prosperity, but income inequality has been growing for thirty years while showing no signs of slowing down. And peace remains elusive in an era of terrorism, to say nothing of the armed conflict going on right now in many areas of the globe or the sharp divisions between ideologies that many U.S. citizens hold. It’s not hard to imagine what the prophets Isaiah and Joel would say about justice, prosperity, and peace today, because many of their critiques hold just as true today as they did in the eighth century BCE. That, in and of itself, is a challenge.

I expect many of you, like I, alternate between periods of pessimism and optimism about where our country and world are going. There are frustrations at being largely out of control in an era when we are accustomed to being able to customize and be in control. We are but one vote, one voice, one verse amidst the powerful play of life that Whitman spoke of, but there is also much that we can do with the incredible gift of that vote, voice, and verse that we’ve been given. I have always believed in the power of ordinary people to do extraordinary things—to change the world around them for the better and to be able to dream and envision something better for not just themselves but for those around them. In my dark moments of cynicism and pessimism, I turn to words and poems that have inspired me. I turn to examples of faith, hope, and love being lived out every day around me, and I turn back to biblical texts, like those of the prophets. Interestingly enough, the same writers who see the world in a bleak light are nonetheless brimming over with hope in a brighter future.

Isaiah’s famous words that begin the fortieth chapter—“Comfort, O comfort my people”—have been lifted up throughout much of both Jewish and Christian thought as a reminder that God is present even in the midst of tragedy, loss, and difficulty. Isaiah’s vision in which a “way is prepared in the wilderness for God’s path” and “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed to all people” is often pointed to by scholars as a commentary on the Israelite people’s return from exile, but it has been used time and time again as a source of comfort in many ages. And so too Joel’s promise that “God’s spirit will pour out on all flesh—that sons and daughters will prophesy, that old men shall dream dreams and young men will see visions.”

No matter what their current contexts were, both prophets never lost the ability or desire to hope or imagine a future in which things were different, and they worked to make them a reality through their prophecy. But one aspect of their words in particular jumped out to me as I read through them again this past week: their emphasis on this future taking place for all people, brought about through the efforts of all people. Although English doesn’t make clear distinctions between singular and plural voices in its imperatives, I think it’s important that the command to “comfort, O comfort my people” is not being given to a single individual like Isaiah. Instead, it’s a plural command, a command that suggests this comfort of the people is the responsibility of all of us.

In much the same way, Joel makes clear that God’s spirit will be poured out for all people. There is no question that in the world that Joel was writing to both women and slaves would have been held in lower regard, and yet they are named specifically by the text, as both “sons and daughters” will prophesy and on “male and female slaves” God will pour out his spirit. The world that Joel and others were imagining was one without hierarchy or class—a precursor of our own views surrounding what it means to be baptized or to share in the Communion meal perhaps—and it was one in which all people would have the justice, prosperity, and peace that God so desires for each of us. Bringing that about, though, was going to take the work of all people living according to what they had been taught by God and God’s spirit.

We as Christians read Christ into this statement as well, for as Paul and many of the earliest disciples made clear, Christ’s teaching was meant for all people and all are one in Christ. Isaiah’s earlier writings of a child born to lead the nations and this idea that all peoples are responsible for justice, prosperity, and peace are not in conflict with each other. Instead our efforts to follow Christ as disciples are meant to be enacted from the responsibility that God has placed on each and all of us. Comforting God’s people may seem like too big of a task for any one of us to undertake—out of our control, perhaps—but even if we only take the time to focus on those right in front of us, our efforts can profoundly shape the world around us closer to the visions and dreams that Isaiah and Joel had for their own broken contexts.

There was a story that went viral on Facebook this past week that demonstrated just such a thing. A few months back, a woman from New Mexico named Josette Duran, a mother of a fourteen-year-old boy, received a fairly simple request from her son: he wanted her to start packing him a second lunch. If you’ve ever known a teenage boy, you know that they’re no stranger to eating a lot, and that’s exactly what Josette figured was going on. But later, when she stopped to ask him about whether he was getting enough food, he confessed that the second lunch wasn’t for him. He had noticed another boy across the lunchroom that rarely had more than a fruit cup in front of him during their lunch period—that’s who the second lunch was for. Josette was floored by her son’s generosity, and she committed to make a second lunch for this boy as long as he needed it, along with writing him an encouraging note each day just like she did for her own son.

Eventually, the hungry boy’s family found out about Josette’s kindness and reached out. They had been between jobs but had a steady income now and wanted to pay her back. Josette refused and instead offered to use the money to help pay off other past-due accounts for other kids at their school’s cafeteria. As others read this story on social media and the news, they reached out to their school cafeterias as well. A man in Iowa, impressed by the kindness of this stranger in New Mexico, donated money to pay off over-due lunch accounts at the elementary school that he grew up in. It is, once again, a story witnessing to the power that an act of kindness and generosity can have—an impact that can be felt not just for a family or two but several states away.

I think about stories like that as our church staff begins a food drive to help benefit our Social Service Center as we start heading to our cold, winter months, and I think about the kids in our Children and Family Ministry and Day School programs who help to donate food items as well. I think about the looks on their faces when they learn that for many people getting food isn’t as easy as going to a grocery store and about their sincere desire to help however they can. And I think once again about the cries of the prophets for justice, prosperity, and peace in our world. We may be frustrated by having only one voice and verse to make an impact on this world, but with God’s spirit and living as one of Christ’s disciples, we can do exactly that: make a positive impact on this world that leaves the world better for those who will come after us. So may each of us continue to dream dreams, and with God’s help, may we each work to make them a reality. Amen.