Genesis 22:1-14; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42
James V. Stockton
Does God dream? It’s a different question from asking, ‘Does God sleep?’ People have dreams of their futures, dreams of their legacies, dreams for the happiness of their loved ones, dreams for the society of which they are a part, and dreams for the world in which they live. Do people wonder if God had dreams? Do they wonder, ‘What dreams does God dream for people?’ Do they ever wonder, ‘What dreams does God dream for me?’I read a story about a priest and his sermon one Sunday. “In the ancient times” he begins, “the people believed that God spoke to them in dreams and visions. If they wondered where God wanted them to go, or what God wanted them to do when they got there, they would seek a direct word from God in their dreams.” What do God’s people dream for themselves? And what about people beyond the border of the fellowship of God’s people? What dreams do people dream outside the Church looking in? And what does God dream for us and for all?
Long, long ago, Abraham had a dream. His own dream has been to have a son who will carry forward his lineage. And with the birth of his son, Isaac, his dream, his vision, his fondest hope has been fulfilled. But one day Abraham has a dream of another sort. It is a vision, and it originates far beyond Abraham’s aspirations. Neither comforting not inspiring, it is a dream, a vision, by which God tests Abraham. “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love,….” God knows of Abraham’s deep attachment to the boy. God knows the test that this is for Abraham.
In Hebrew it is the aqedah, the binding. It means Abraham’s binding of his son Isaac in preparation for his killing him and offering him up as burnt sacrifice to God. In the entire story of God’s people, this is a unique episode. I’ve seen people brought to tears when reading it aloud. So disturbing is this bit of Abraham’s story that virtually nothing is said of it, no attempt to make sense of it, in all the rest of the books of the Old Testament. Scholar Jon Levenson, in his book The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son, notes that there is an “utter absence of direct references” to the aqedah “anywhere else in the Hebrew Bible.” It isn’t until the Hebrew people are invaded, defeated, and taken captive that the rabbis and scholars of their day in their commentary or midrash begin to give the story more attention. As Levenson notes, it “becomes a theme of enormous import in Judaism of the Roman period, including the forms of Judaism that served as the matrix of Christianity.”
And thus the question remains alive through generations down to our own: the question being, as Levenson puts it, “the righteous father’s willingness to sacrifice his beloved son… together with the son’s glad and unqualified acceptance of his own divinely mandated death.” Question indeed! For the unspeakable command of God to Abraham causes the question to become far more urgent, “What truly does God dream for God’s people? What is God’s truly dream for me?”
Back in church, the priest continues explaining: “If the people weren’t getting any messages from God while dreaming in bed at home, they would build an altar of stone and sleep beside it, or go sleep in the Temple, where they believed all this would work better.” From beginning to end, the story of Abraham is rich with dreams that bring him messages through an angel from heaven. At the last possible moment, the angel calls out again, and Abraham answers. It is an important dynamic that I believe we do well to notice. From the start of this strange episode, through the three days of Abraham’s pondering of the message, to the climactic rescue of the child, a crucial element is Abraham’s attentiveness to God.
The angel calls out, Abraham answers, and God shows him a ram nearby which substitutes for Isaac as sacrifice to God. Then the angel speaks to Abraham again. In the verses that immediately follow our Old Testament reading for this morning we read: “The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, ‘I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.’”
In trying to find meaning in this story, then, some of the early rabbis went on to suggest, as some people suggest still today, that God grants favor to Abraham not when God first calls him to special blessing and responsibility, but when Abraham offers the sacrifice of his own son. For some of us, this will recall Jesus’ words in the Gospel for last week: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;…” “All nations on earth will be blessed,” says God through the angel, “because you have obeyed me,” obeyed even to the point of be willing to kill his own child.
If this is true, then it raises the stakes immeasurably when we ask the question about what God might dream. We can put the question socially and anthropologically, so that we ask collectively: What is God’s dream for us or for humanity? What does God require of us or of humanity? We can put the question personally and individually, so that a person asks himself, herself, you ask yourself, I ask myself: What does God dream for me? What does God require of me to make God’s dream real? However we ask it, though, if the question really is not just what am I willing to sacrifice, but whom, then the proportions of the question become huge. More important, the question becomes dark, ominous, even, dare I say, unholy.
Which may be why the Old Testament is completely silent on the aqedah, and the New Testament mention Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac only twice, and only as evidence of the faith of one who has already received the promise of God. Which is why, I think, that if the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac is a call to God’s people to sacrifice anything, it is God’s call to sacrifice the notion that a dream of God is sadistically to test the faith of God’s people to the point of absurdity and obscenity. It is God’s call to us, and through us, to all whose lives we share, to reject with all our heart and soul and mind and being the idea that God would call Abraham or anyone else to kill their dreams.
The question is, then, very important: What does God dream for God’s people? In church, the priest is concluding his explanation to the parish. “So, the people would seek from God a message in their dreams. Thus began,” he says, tongue in cheek, “the time-honored tradition of sleeping in Church. I want to point this out,” he continues: “though I’m fairly certain that they will not actually hear it who would appreciate it most of all.”
You and I know that we need not be asleep in church to dream. So, don’t sleep in church, but by all means, dream. Let’s receive from God dreams for our future, for the legacies that we’ll leave behind, for the happiness of our loved ones; for the society of which we are a part, and for the world in which we live. We know that dreams that can be gifts of God. So dream this week, by all means, dream.
We know also that beyond the border of ECR people have dreams as well. Beyond the boundaries of the Episcopal Church, beyond the wider fellowship of all God’s people, people outside looking in have dreams. And as you and I do, they also in their own way, wonder, ‘What does God dream for people?’ ‘What dreams does God dream for me?’ After confronting our nightmares about the cost of obeying and following Jesus being more than we can bear, Jesus hints, I think, at the real dream of God. ‘Be welcomed,’ he says ‘by those who welcome you. And in you, let them welcome me.’ ‘Welcome those who come to you.’ he says. ‘And in them, you will welcome me.’ ‘Welcome one another. That’s all the sacrifice I really ask; just welcome one another.’ It’s as though God says, ‘Let my welcome live in you; let my Love live in you; let my dream be alive in you, and together, let us see our dreams come true.’
And so may Almighty God, who has poured into our hearts the greatest gift, grant us faithfulness in our witness to the power of that Love, which burns in the heart of God’s own Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, One God, now and for ever. Amen.