Sanctuary’s taking a summer break, but here’s a gem from our archives in which Joel reflects on Revelation, dreaming, and God’s vision for the healing of this world.
Today is the start of a new year, a time when we think about the year that has been, and our dreams for tomorrow. And the text for today is from Revelation, John’s book of dreams. So let’s talk about dreams. The dreams of yesterday, and the dreams of tomorrow. I want to go back and consider the dreamers of the Christian tradition. There are many great dreamers in the Christian tradition, stretching in a great line from Jesus himself right down to our own times. But let’s begin our reflections at one particular point in time, with the dreams of Reverend Martin Luther King, a great dreamer of the twentieth century.
In his great “I have a dream” speech, this is what he says,
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
When Reverend King says to us ‘I have a dream’, we all listen, and when he stops speaking, we want to hear more.
When someone says, “I have a dream” it really means something. The opposite to this is those people who are always saying, “I had a dream”. They’ll come to you in the morning and say, “I had a dream last night, and it was really weird. There was this big lion, but instead of a mane he was covered in wool, and he was really fluffy. And then he was going to eat me, and I was really scared, but then he didn’t eat me, because he was actually a sheep, and he just ate some grass. And then I woke up.” That’s if you’re lucky. Sometimes they’ll give you a full “I had a dream speech”. And they’ll describe a series of different dreams, each in great detail, and you look at your watch and think, “Oh my goodness, that’s five minutes of my life that I will never get back.”
And then you’re reading the Bible, and you come to the end, and there’s this book called Revelation. And that’s basically what is it. This guy called John basically says, “It was a Sunday and I was out of my mind, and I saw this big lion, but then it wasn’t a lion, it was actually a sheep, and then, and then, and then…” And you’re reading though it and it keeps going on and on, and you’re thinking, “Oh my goodness, that’s 50 minutes of my life that I will never get back.”
But when John says, “I had a dream”, what he meant was, “I have a dream.” But he writes in such a different time and a different place, that we do not understand his language. We understand Reverend King, who spoke to us just decades years ago, in the English language, in a place like ours that was once a colony of Britain, using metaphors that we can understand.
We understand what Rev King means when he says, “I have a dream, that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
But do we understand what John the Dreamer means when he says, “And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband”?
We understand what Rev King means when he says, “I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.”
But do we understand what John the Dreamer means when he says, “And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day–and there will be no night there”?
We understand what Rev King means when he says, “I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with vicious words; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”
But do we understand what John the Dreamer means when he says, “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb, through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. And the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.”?
Let’s think about those images that John describes in his ‘I had a dream’ speech. John said, “There is a city that comes down to us from heaven.” And he said this in a place where the word “city” could mean “nation” or “community” or “the way society is organised.” In a place where the word “heaven” referred to God, the Spirit of Life, “There is a city that comes down to us from heaven.”
John said, “The gates of the city shall never be shut.” And he said this in a place where cities had walls and gates because they lived in hatred and fear of all the other cities. In a place where cities had walls and gates because they lived by the sword. And those who live by the sword live in fear, but they have faith in their walls and their gates and their missile defence systems.
But while this new city does have walls and gates, and John describes them in extraordinary detail, the image is ironic, because the gates of this city are not for shutting out enemies, but for welcoming enemies as friends. For welcoming enemies as friends.
“The gates of the city shall never be shut.”
John also said, “The river of life flows through the city, and the tree of life grows on its banks, it bears fruit all year round, and its leaves are for the healing of the nations.” Well…perhaps we can understand what John is saying to us.
A river that flows with the water of life. The tree of life, growing on both sides of the river. Always giving fruit. Its leaves are medicine, for the healing of the nations. Perhaps we can understand these images, if we just let them play around in our minds a little.
I spend quite a lot of time trying to figure out how all these visions are meant to work exactly, but in all seriousness I sometimes think that’s not the point. In the words of a great Australian movie…it’s the vibe. It’s all about the vibe. And if we just let these images play around in our minds a little we come close to what John wants us to understand.
Rev King shared his dream, and he judged his present world by the standards of his dream. John the Dreamer judged his present reality by the standards of his dream. We can do the same.
King named the places that represented for him the injustice of the present world: Georgia, Mississipi and Alabama.
John named his places:
Sodom, Babylon and Rome.
We can do the same.
We could speak of Guantanamo Bay, Maralinga and Nauru.
Guantanamo Bay, in Cuba, where the US government has people imprisoned for years on end, tortured and held in solitary confinement, without charge and without trial.
Maralinga, in Australia, where the government of Britain tested nuclear weapons on the home lands of indigenous Australians, leaving them to suffer from radiation poisoning for decades to come.
Nauru, a small pacific island, where the government of Australia still holds innocent people imprisoned with no promise that they will ever be released. In conditions so bad it needs a law to stop doctors and social workers from speaking out.
And all this to convey the message that our gates are shut.
John had a lot to say about these places of crystallised injustice. He judges them against his vision of hope, and he tells us that God also judges these things. This is John’s ‘I had a dream’ speech. But when he says, “I had a dream”, what he means is, “I have a dream. I have a dream and I even saw it come true. As I was filled with the spirit of God I saw this dream before my eyes. And I know that what I saw is just as real as the world around us now, where the power of life and the forces of death continue their struggle. Yes, I saw a world fully imbued with the Spirit of Life. And that world was this world, transformed by the Spirit.”
In the dream, the Tree of Life grows in Guantanamo Bay. Its roots have broken apart the concrete, and its leaves are for the healing of the nations. In the dream, the River of Life runs through Maralinga, and has washed it clean. And on the island of Nauru, the gates of the city are never shut.
Like John, we are dreamers. And so we are often disappointed. We get angry, frustrated, and we get worked up. Because we have seen in a dream a world fully imbued with the spirit of life, and the forces of death are an insult – to us, to the dream, and to our God. But John says this to us, “I have seen it. I have actually seen it. The spirit showed me, and I saw all these things. The dream is real, because it is God’s dream.”
I hope that we too can see this world. We are not all gifted with spiritual experiences quite like those of John the Dreamer, or the prophetic insight of Reverend King, but we can all discover the Spirit, and learn to see the Spirit in the world. We can take our joy in this, and praise God, while we also discern the forces of death that are still at work in the world, and judge them against our vision of God’s future, a world fully imbued with the Spirit of Life.
Many people feel that 2016 was a terrible year for the world, and in many ways I agree. But for me the most significant thing about 2016 was that we came together as a worshipping community, to dream together until the dream is fulfilled for all people. And it will be. Because God’s dream is for all the world. And this is our dream. Amen.
A reflection by Joel Rothman on Revelation 21:1-6 and Revelation 22:1-6, given to Sanctuary on New Year’s Day 2016 © Sanctuary 2020.