A young farmer was standing in his field one day when he observed a peculiar cloud formation. The clouds formed the letters G, P, C. Being a good Christian, he concluded that it must be a message from God. He thought to himself, “God is calling me to Go Preach Christ!” So, the young farmer rushed to find his pastor and the leaders of the church and insisted that he had been called by God to Go Preach Christ. Respectful of his enthusiasm and not wanting to discount the ways in which God might work in people’s lives, the pastor and church leaders invited the young farmer to preach the very next Sunday. That morning, the sermon was long, tedious, and virtually incoherent. When it was finally over, one of the leaders leaned over to the pastor and said . . . “Ya know, on the other hand, maybe he’s being called to Go Plant Corn.”
Today’s readings all have a common theme—the theme of being called. Whether it’s the prophet called before he was born, named by the Lord in the womb; or Paul, called to be an Apostle, writing to the people of the church in Corinth who were called to be saints; or Andrew and Simon Peter, called to follow Jesus, everyone in today’s readings experiences God reaching out to them and calling them into service for God’s greater purpose.
Our first reading, from the prophet Isaiah, comes from a part of the book of Isaiah written during the Exile—the period when the Jewish people were exiled from the Kingdom of Judah. It’s the time in Jewish history when Jerusalem had been conquered by the Babylonian Empire, the Temple had been destroyed, and the Israelites had been deported and taken into captivity in Babylon.
The Israelites in exile yearned for their homeland; they dreamed of the day when they could return. And at this point, after seventy years in exile, the people felt that they had labored in vain, and spent their strength all for nothing.
So now, listen to what God says to them in this context. Speaking through the prophet Isaiah, God says “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
Now, isn’t that curious? God is saying to the Israelites: the heights of your ambitions, the deepest dreams of your hearts, that which you think is impossible but for which you continue to hope and dream, those are just small potatoes. Because you see, I, your God, am telling you that you’re not dreaming big enough. Returning from exile is too little a thing to be worthy of you and me together. It is not a goal worthy of God’s people. And so God says, essentially, “I will do more. I will make you a light to the nations and the salvation of the whole earth!”
If we look ahead to the Christian Scriptures, passages like this one in Isaiah are the passages that Jesus used to describe his mission, and they’re the passages that the Apostles preached from to Jewish audiences after Jesus’ death and resurrection. So we know how God fulfilled the pledge to make Israel a light to the nations and the salvation of the earth. God’s fulfillment of that promise was to be found in the person of Jesus Christ. And that salvation was to be preached to the whole world.
But the Israelites in exile in Babylon, five hundred years before Jesus, could not possibly have expected that. They could not possibly have imagined that God would become one of us. They could not possibly have dreamed of Christ’s Passion—his crucifixion, death, and resurrection. They could not possibly have expected this because God always does the unexpected; and it is always greater than we can imagine, dream, or even hope for.
And so we come to today.
This weekend we are remembering and celebrating the life of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and we are celebrating his dream. Dr. King’s dream for all God’s children. But as we do that, I can’t help but take note of the fact that, although the Civil Rights movement made great progress, we still have a long way to go to achieve Dr. King’s dream.
Today, we still struggle to make sense of the deaths of young, unarmed, black men in so many of our cities. We still struggle to make sense of politicians who intentionally use race and racial tensions to divide people rather than putting forward ways to bring people together. For these and many other reasons related to Dr. King’s dream, like the Israelites, I don’t think anyone would blame us if we sat down by the waters of Babylon and wept for a while. No matter how many successes we can point to over the past 50 years, it so often still feels as though we have labored in vain, and spent our strength on nothing and vanity. We dream of a world of justice. We dream, with Dr. King, of a world where everyone will be judged, not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. We dream of a world where little girls can say, “Yes, I could grow up to be President of the United States.” And in the face of our failures in achieving those dreams we feel like failures. But the surprising and foundation-shattering thing is that to that feeling of failure, God says to us: “No. Dream bigger.”
God says, “This dream of yours, this dream of a world of justice and peace, this dream where hatred and bigotry are no longer in our experience, this dream that seems impossibly far away — this dream is too light a thing to be worthy of what you and I can do together.”
God says: “I will do more.”
What will God do? We have no way of knowing. But we do know that it will be something unexpected, certainly. God always does the unexpected. And it will happen in God’s time, not ours. What we can say with confidence is that when God moves, it will be something greater than we could have imagined, and better than we could have dared to hope for. It may be in our children’s lifetime or in our children’s children’s lifetime, but God’s dreams for us will not be limited by our dreams for us.
So, the question is, what do we do in the meantime? Like Andrew, like Peter, like Paul and the prophets — we do what we have been called to do. We feed the hungry. We clothe the naked. We comfort the sick; We visit the prisoner. And we love the Lord our God with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind, and we love our neighbor as ourself.
And perhaps, when we do feel defeated, when we do feel hopeless, when we do feel like the dream of someone like Dr. King will never be fully realized, perhaps we should find ways to love our neighbors a little harder — especially the ones with whom we disagree. Perhaps we should find ways to be even more generous – especially to those who don’t seem to show any gratitude. Because while God’s dreams will never be limited by our dreams, it is just as true that God’s dreams always, in some way, rely on our participation in them.
And through it all, we should have faith that God is moving, and will do an unexpected, and wonderful thing. Amen.