Dreaming with Jesus

How many of you have been to Yume Wo Katare? It’s the ramen shop of dreams over in Porter Square. If you go there, you can eat a big bowl of ramen and announce to everyone else the big dream of your life. I know for some folks, homemade ramen is the best. It’s not my favorite food ever, but I was thinking this week that I really wanted to go over to lunch at Yume Wo Katare, because talking about our dreams was on my mind.

I’ve been working a theory of mine that after we grow up, it’s easy to dream poorly, if at all, and hard to keep dreaming well. (I know – poorly/well, bad/good – sounds a little judgey maybe, but I’ll get back to that.) Anyway, I’ve been thinking about how we do or don’t dream for the future, and I thought this week, it’s about time I think about this over a big bowl of ramen.

I had plans to take someone out to lunch, but then I found out that the ramen shop was closed for lunch most of this week. So I had to go somewhere else and figured I’d go back by myself for lunch on Friday, when I had the day off.

But Friday came along and my day started with this really irritating fail of a customer service experience. And then you know those days when one bad thing happens, and then it’s like somehow the thread starts to unravel. Well, it was turning into one of those kind of days. Plus, we had this fall monsoon going on, and I thought: you know, the last thing I want to do right now is bike over to Porter Square in the wind and rain to put down money for a little field experiment on dreams.

So instead, I do what we all do when we don’t the energy to show up for real life. I just went on the internet.

I started searching “what is your dream” and after wading through a lot of self-help advice about accomplishing anything in the world you might want to do, I found some interesting video projects where people are asked just this question – what is your dream?

Unsurprisingly, the kids are great at this. They talk about that amazing careers they want to have, the good they want to do in the world, the puppies they’re going to own. My favorite was the kid,  maybe 5 years old, who said: My dream is to be a babysitter.

The adults have it tougher – a lot of adults when asked the question pause, they laugh sometimes because it’s a hard question. What do you dream? A lot of us can only think of having a little more time off, maybe a little more money, or a job we like a little more.

It’s hard to dream. It’s hard to dream that our lives can get better, that things can change, that the world can get better and change for the good.

This is why in this season of Light in the Darkness, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, we’ve been looking at the dreams of the Christmas story. How the hope and the news of Jesus’ birth interrupts the dreary status quo and the challenges of Jesus’ father Joseph, his mother Mary, our own disappointments, and dreariness, and even out nightmares as well.  

And today, we’re going to come alongside the grown-up Jesus himself, and listen to Jesus’ dreams, and see if we can dream with him his big dreams for us all.

Listen to the words of Jesus:

Mark 4:26-32 (CEB)

26 Then Jesus said, “This is what God’s kingdom is like. It’s as though someone scatters seed on the ground, 27  then sleeps and wakes night and day. The seed sprouts and grows, but the farmer doesn’t know how. 28  The earth produces crops all by itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full head of grain. 29  Whenever the crop is ready, the farmer goes out to cut the grain because it’s harvesttime.”

30 He continued, “What’s a good image for God’s kingdom? What parable can I use to explain it? 31  Consider a mustard seed. When scattered on the ground, it’s the smallest of all the seeds on the earth; 32  but when it’s planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all vegetable plants. It produces such large branches that the birds in the sky are able to nest in its shade.”

You can learn a lot about someone when you ask them about their dreams. A friend of mine told me of this odd job interview once. His prospective employer asked him about his big dreams. He was like, I don’t know if my dreams are actually that big. And my friend described his kind of modest but really important dreams of doing good work in his profession – benefiting the local company and its customers. And then he talked about a couple of particular innovations in his field that he thought would serve people now and maybe even for a generation or two to come. And the interviewer sort of nodded, OK – good enough answer.

And then the interesting part was that my friend said, you know out of curiosity, would you mind if I asked as well, since this question is on your mind. What are your big dreams? And then this prospective boss, was like sure, I can share. My big dream is: and then he proceeded to describe running this whole other kind of company and getting impossibly rich and famous in the process.

And my friend wasn’t quite sure what to say. He was pretty sure this prospective boss of his wasn’t joking, but he wanted to check, so he asked: really, I’m interviewing to work with you in this industry, but you hope that somehow you’ll break into this other industry entirely, one you have no experience in, and not only that, but that you’ll rise to the top of the food chain and become rich and powerful in the process?

And the guy was like: well, I wouldn’t put it that way, but sure, more or less.

My friend’s one takeaway from this big dream of his prospective boss was to make sure to find another job with a different boss. One a little more grounded, one – how do I say this politely – a little less full of himself.

Jesus’ Big Dream

I love that when Jesus grew up and talked about his dreams, not only did he not have these grandiose, self-centered notions of what his life would become. Jesus actually didn’t talk much about himself at all. He told stories about people growing things. Farmers scatter seeds, women knead yeast into bread, investors make loans, and they all smile as things grow and grow and grow.

Jesus said this is his dream, that people will grow and grow something good, something Jesus called The Kingdom of God.

The Kingdom of God. This is Jesus’ name for his biggest dream.

It’s the biggest topic of his teaching, in the stories we’ve read today and in many, many others. In contrast to a kingdom like the Roman Empire Jesus and all who knew him lived under, the Kingdom of God isn’t a single place with borders and armies. It’s more like anywhere on earth where things are going God’s way, it’s the spaces where people and maybe all of creation is saying yes to God’s good freedom and life.

As I’ve taught before, some modern scholars have noticed that this kingdom language is kind of archaic and patriarchal – we don’t live in a feudal age anymore. And they’ve suggested that a world like kindom – dropping the “g” and emphasizing the family of God – might capture the spirit of Jesus’ original teaching better. So I’ve taken to writing kingdom with little brackets around the (g) to remind me of both meanings.

I’ve taken a stab at defining this kin(g)dom along these lines – it’s the places and spaces and community where the life of God is flourishing. And Jesus tells us that his role (still now), the role of baby Jesus all grown up, died, resurrected, and present to us and all the world now by his spirit is to keep inviting us forward into growing with Jesus the places and spaces and community where the life of God is flourishing.

This Christmas, I want us to dream with Jesus of this Kingdom of his. I want us to imagine and welcome with Jesus this kindom he’s growing among us. I’d love for us to dream again, and dream the dreams of Jesus.

I want to share just three things we learn about Jesus’ big dream in the hope that we can come alongside and dream with Jesus about this same Kin(g)dom flourishing in our lives and our times.

The first thing, maybe the most obvious thing we can see about Jesus’ Kingdom is that it’s the littlest smallest thing that has within it the capacity to become so very big. Jesus thinks aloud – what’s a good way to describe this dream of mine?

And he says, Oh, it’s like a seed, the most common and most tiniest of seeds where Jesus lived. The mustard seed.

Jesus’ big dream is a tiny, dead looking thing you bury in the earth and then… wait for it… nothing. And the next day more nothing, and more nothing after that. Until eventually the tiniest sprout pops out of the ground, and then the tiniest leaf, and then week after week until it’s that giant shrub of a mustard plant.

All good flourishing that we grow with Jesus is like this, small, sometimes even dead-looking things that slowly burst into abundant life.

I’m reminded of a conversation with a friend of mine recently who was wondering when she’d be able to pursue big dreams again, and how she can participate in the big work of God that needs to be done in the world. She works part-time, and she’s got real little kids at home too. And she was saying she spends so much of her week trying to make sure these kids eat, and sleep, and use the potty. And she’s like there’s important work for justice to be done out there. When do I get to be part of it?

But even as she was saying it, another friend asked – what about your work? What about all you’re growing with these kids right now? And this is a parent who isn’t just trying to help her kids be happy and successful, but is doing what she can to raise kind, resilient, courageous, just, generous kids. This may seem small, but it is beautiful work. Vitally important work of God.

Anything adults do with youth is like this. It rarely feels big and glamorous. But it’s the mustard seed growth of Jesus. Did you know that about forty percent of the world’s population is under 25? Over a quarter of the world’s people are under 15 – we’re a young world! So if we’re not tending to kids and youth, loving and nurturing them like the human gardeners we are meant to be, than there will be no good, strong adults very soon. No trees. Anything we do on behalf of the welfare of youth is mustard seed, God’s work of flourishing.

And I’m going to warn you, I’m going to make a gendered comment here, only because as progressive as Cambridge or Massachusetts may be, so often it’s still women and moms doing the lion’s share of love and presence and work for kids and youth.

So dads, and not just dads, but all men, dads or not, our kids and youth need us too. Just as the work of loving and growing kids is not just for parents, but for all of us, it is also not just for women, but for all of us. When we are present with kids and youth on their turf, when we listen and nurture, and love and care and hold and teach, we are doing some of the holiest and most important work we’ll ever do in our lives. All of us.

Much of the best and most beautiful things that make Jesus smile, that are at the center of the renewal God is doing today in the world are small and humble things done with great care and love and purpose. The prophet Zechariah in the Bible once asked: Who dares despise the day of small beginnings? Jesus thinks of his big dreams for the way of God flourishing on earth and says, it’s like a mustard seed. Small, humble, sometimes looking like it’s got no potential, no future. Oh, but don’t you dare despise this day of small beginnings. Because when God grows it, what big good it will do and be!

Dreaming Beyond Ourselves

This is the second thing Jesus says about his dreams of the family and Kingdom of God. Not just that it starts small and grows, but that it grows to produce tremendous flourishing for life beyond itself.

Jesus’ dreams are never about himself. And so dreaming with Jesus means getting outside ourselves as well.

That’s why my friend at the job interview with the potential boss who seemed all caught up in his outsized version of himself didn’t wait around for an opportunity to work there, but just moved on. Because good dreams, solid, bankable dreams aren’t ever just about us, but about the flourishing of others and the flourishing of the world around us. Good dreams find our joy and purpose and success tied to the joy and purpose and success of our environment and our communities.

Jesus said, this is what the mustard seed does. It doesn’t just grow up and make mustard, and mustard greens, great as they are. It also contributes in a significant way to its whole interconnected ecosystem. “It grows and becomes the largest of all vegetable plants. It produces such large branches that the birds in the sky are able to nest in its shade.”

I mentioned that I’ve noticed that when we grow up, it’s harder to keep dreaming. Because life gives us struggle and disappointment. And then when we dream, it’s easier for our dreams to become just about getting by, a little more money or free time, a little less discomfort for ourselves.

This is why I so admire people who stay the course as grown-ups using our time and talents for flourishing beyond ourselves.

I think of a friend of mine whose business has grown beyond what he saw coming. So he could cash out now, make a ton of money, and let someone else pull apart and do what they want with this company he’s built. Win for him. But he’s not doing that now, because this business is doing some great things for his employees and his suppliers and his customers. The whole human and environmental ecosystem around the business is better for its growth.

And I know that brings him joy, to be part of mustard-plant flourishing, for this bigger and bigger tree to make space for the birds of the air to nest in its shade. Life is real God-dreamed life not when it sucks up the oxygen just for itself, but when it makes space for more and more life.

So these are the dreams of Jesus in our world. For small beginnings, small things that look more like death than life, to be tended to and nurtured, and so to flourish into great life that makes more life. For God to grow the good and true and the beautiful that leads to justice and mercy and health for other humans and all creation.

In a holiday week that’s become so much about me and mine, at a time of the year where the pressures of nostalgia for personal happiness are so high, I can think of a worse Christmas word. Dream with Jesus, friends, have hope in God today, to grow what flourishes out of the small things and small people and small dreams you have access to. Make it not only about your own happiness, but about a whole flourishing system around you. And God will be with you in that.

But there’s one more aspect of Jesus’ big dream, the most radical and subversive part of it, actually, and the part that has the most to do with the original Christmas story, that I have to mention as well.

This last aspect of Jesus’ big dream is that Jesus’ dream is radically different. Jesus contrasts his dreams with imperial corporate dreams of market share or dominance. They’re really entirely different from anything like an American dream too. Jesus’ dreams are humbler and healthier and better and ultimately way more robust than all that.

See, Jesus in his little story about mustard seeds and the Kingdom of God is actually riffing off of some other, very different stories about big trees in the scriptures.

The ancient prophet Ezekiel, for instance, has this to say about the once mighty Mediterranean super-power of Assyria:


Ezekiel 31:3-6, 12-14 (CEB)

3 Consider Assyria, a cedar of Lebanon:

   beautiful branches, dense shade, towering height;

   indeed, its top went up between the clouds.

4 Waters nourished it; the deep raised it up,

   because its streams flowed around the place where it was planted.

From there, water trickled down to all the other trees of the field.

5     And so it became higher than all the trees of the field.

Its branches became abundant; its boughs grew long.

   Because of the plentiful water, it grew freely.

6 All the birds in the sky made nests in its branches;

   all the beasts of the field gave birth under its boughs,

       and in its shade, every great nation lived.

Does this sound familiar so far? It should, because it’s the exact language Jesus used to describe his dream of the mustard seed.

Assyria, though, is a little different, and its end is different as well.

12 Foreigners, the worst of the nations, cut it down

   and left it to lie among the hills.

All its branches fell among the valleys,

   and its boughs were broken off in the earth’s deep ravines.

All the earth’s peoples departed from its shade and abandoned it.

13 On its trunk roost all the birds in the sky,

   and on its boughs lie all the beasts of the field.

14 All this has happened so that no other well-watered tree would tower high or allow its branches to reach among the clouds. Nor would their leaders achieve the towering stature of such well-watered trees. Certainly, all of them are consigned to death, to the world below, among human beings who go down to the pit.

So, that’s kind of a different outcome than we get in Jesus’ story. An ironic one – it’s good poetry – the birds that used to nest in this great tree’s shade now roost on its blackened stump, while beasts take naps around its moldering branches. The beasts and the birds have found a way to press on – the tree, not so much.

Ezekiel is telling us how history works. Proud, greedy empires that reach and overreach to dominate and extract from others will think they are the biggest, baddest, greatest force on earth, the best in the world, blessed by God, but in the end they will lose their power and fade from history. People and institutions and nations that seek to win at others’ expense, rather than collaborate in a mutually beneficial dream of flourishing, will fall and die.

Ezekiel can speak in the past tense of Assyria, and he’s sending a not so coded message in the present to the empire of his day, Babylonia.

Centuries later, in the book of Daniel, the exact same language about trees is used, this time about the Babylonia and their even bigger successor superpower Persia. And like Ezekiel, Daniel is probably speaking in not-so-coded language to the contemporary Greek Ptolemaic and Seleucid empires that followed the Persian defeat by the Greeks.

In Jesus’ prophetic tradition, the big tree with the birds nesting in its shade is an image of people and institutions and nations so full of themselves and their own aspirations that they fail to love or serve anyone but themselves.

Here’s what I think Jesus is up to in quoting all this. Jesus is saying: I’m dreaming of something different than all that.

Permission to Dream

Jesus was not some pie-in-sky country dreamer. Jesus was born into a hard time and hard place that was reeling from a century of hard, scary, violent times.

Some eighty years before Jesus’ birth, the high priest and king of Jerusalem, crucified as many as 800 Judean men, slaughtering their wives and children as well, while he and his concubines got drunk and watched for sport. Some 35 years before Jesus’ birth, the Hasmonean king Herod, in allegiance with the growing Roman empire, solidified his rule over Judea by laying siege to Jerusalem, starving the whole city, for four months. After gaining power, he murdered all his enemies and taxed the region heavily to pay for his opulent lifestyle and his endless building projects that only benefited the ruling elite.

Hard times. Jesus’ contemporaries, Jesus own mother we heard last week, longed for a break from all this, for a break from the violence, corruption, and rich-get-richer while poor-get-poorer policies and practices of this age. They wanted safety, relief from the chaos of bad governance, the freedom to flourish in their communities.

Sound familiar? We may not know the stories of the Babylonian, and Assyrian, and Seleucid and Ptolemaic and Hasmonean empires. But we know what this old full-of-its own dreams tree looks like. We know the marketing claims of our own times’ imperial and corporate giants that their growth will be for our benefit. You know, after they sell all of our data and impoverish our workforce. We know the narcissists in our lives that only care about themselves.

Even our church, in our early days, could get caught up in dreaming that we were the most important thing in our city, like we were the center of all that God was doing.  

But Jesus, with his dreams of the family and kingdom of God, says it’s not going to be this way.  We’ll honor the small people and small things and small beginnings, and we’ll insist on true flourishing. On life and growth that leads to benefits for a whole system and community, not just for the dreamer.

Jesus says, my family, my kingdom will be built around generous people. People who devote themselves to their own inner growth and health and maturity, while refusing to judge and insult others. People who trust God with our own anxieties rather than working them out on other people. Jesus says, the big thing I do on earth is going to be through people and institutions who do justice by always including others in their own success, rather than walling off from others in fear.

Jesus’ Kingdom looks nothing like the national powers that he or we have known. His kin-dom looks nothing like the profit-driven businesses or the shallow narcissists that grab our attention. It’s deep, it’s expansive, it’s just, it’s generous – the plant so large that the birds of the air can nest in its shades, the dreamers so generous that new life can flourish in our growth.

Friends, it’s alright to dream again. Whatever is hard in your life or your times is not the whole of your story. Our faith tells us that Jesus is a dreamer of good and flourishing things, and that Jesus is a gardener, growing what’s good and abundant, life that begets more life, even out of the smallest, hardest, dried up looking seeds.

There’s room for each of us and our dreams in the dreams of Jesus.

An Invitation to Whole Life Flourishing

Look for the mustard seeds among you this Christmas. Notice and celebrate and invest in the small people and moments and ideas and organizations that have promise to lead to real flourishing.

Spiritual Practice of the Week

Say to yourself, and to Jesus, I am the mustard seed, we are the mustard seed. Grow in me, grow in us, your flourishing new life.

Dreaming of Mercy

One of my I can’t believe this is happening in my life experiences is that somehow Grace and I have a child who is old enough to be looking at colleges and wondering where to apply next year. She’s an amazing kid, and she’ll end up somewhere great we know, but it’s kind of a scary process for a teenager to begin to imagine life out in the big world. And it’s kind of a scary process for a parent to be releasing your child into the big world, hoping things go well for them, hoping they are met with kindness and generosity and support, dreaming of mercy for them.

Getting a child ready for college also brings back for me the many years I helped other people’s teenage children prepare to leave secondary school and leave home. They too were dreaming of a good launch into a kind and just world, but it wasn’t always easy. One student I taught for multiple years had strong grades, a great track record of character and resilience and leadership, had a whole team of mentors like me ready to sing their praises, and had overcome almost impossible odds on a variety of fronts for all that to be so. But they had really, really low standardized test scores.

And when it came time for this young person to apply for higher education, college after college sent their rejections. I tried calling a few schools’ admissions officers, and one of those schools this remarkable kid applied to – just one – took my call. They asked me: what are we supposed to make of these test scores? How will this person make it in college? And I explained some things from an educator’s perspective – about time and tests and ability and disability – that I thought made a strong case for this applicant. But in the end, I remember thinking, I might have said this too. Do you want to live in a world where a young person this extraordinary can’t go to college because of a single set of exams? Is that the kind of world you want make today? Or do you want to make a more just and merciful world than that? I remember dreaming, longing for mercy for this young person. I’ll come back to that in a minute.

Last week, we had an extraordinary service together, didn’t we? It was our annual participatory liturgy in this Advent season of Light in the Darkness. Our pastor Ivy and friends created and led an extraordinary time of worship where we could respond to the dreams and the nightmares of the Christmas story, the dreams and the nightmares of our age, even the dreams and the nightmares of our own lives.

Our question of the day on our welcome cards we asked early in the service was What are you longing for? A lot of you wrote something down, more than normal. And as I read through them on Tuesday, and prayed for them, my heart broke with your longings.

Longings for companionship and friendship and acceptance and partnership.

Longings for the people who are closest to you to be kinder or gentler with you.

Longings for the world to be kinder and fairer to the people you care about.

Longings for healing, longings for restored relationship, longings for opportunity.

There was some comic relief here and there. One of you last week about this time was longing to be playing FIFA soccer on a PS4 video game console. I feel that longing.

But a lot of longing for justice and kindness in your worlds. So much dreaming of mercy.

This Advent, this season of Light in the Darkness, we’re looking at the dreams of Christmas. The week before last, I talked about Joseph’s dream of God with us. Next week, we’ll talk about Jesus’ big dream of the Kingdom of God. And today, we’ll look at Mary’s experience in the Christmas story, Mary’s calling to be the teenage mother of God, and Mary’s leading us in dreaming of mercy.

We’ll take her story in two parts. Here’s the first part, from Luke’s account of Jesus’ life, that picks up just after we heard about an unexpected pregnancy elsewhere in Mary’s family, with her older cousin Elizabeth.

Luke 1:26-38 (CEB)

26 When Elizabeth was six months pregnant, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a city in Galilee, 27to a virgin who was engaged to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David’s house. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28When the angel came to her, he said, “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!” 29She was confused by these words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you. 31Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. 33He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.”

34Then Mary said to the angel, “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?”

35The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son. 36Look, even in her old age, your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son. This woman who was labeled ‘unable to conceive’ is now six months pregnant. 37Nothing is impossible for God.”

38Then Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.” Then the angel left her.

Wow – what an experience for a teenage girl! Now I know that male people over the centuries have obsessed about one thing in this story — what has or hasn’t to do with sex. You can imagine that in our household with preteen and teenage children, this aspect of the story comes up as well there around Christmas time. Interesting things have been said!

But this is not the only place in a Jesus-centered faith where you’ve got to come to terms with modern science and claims of the miraculous, or the super-natural, beyond natural. And there are different ways to do that, but that’s a whole other sermon, which I’d be happy to give someday. But today, I want to focus on Mary’s experience as a teenager.

Now I know that there really weren’t such things as teenagers two thousand years ago, not the way we think of that phase of life today. But still, Mary would have been somewhere in that age bracket, we think, and after this messenger of some kind says, Rejoice, you’re the favorite, God’s with you, she’s so confused. Like what?!? God’s favorite? I’m a teenager, and kind of a nobody, at that.

But the messenger says – you’re wrong! God’s chosen you for something extraordinary, for this big, big thing!

All of this sounds so scary, but God is not scared. And all of this first section of Mary’s story really emphasizes the power of God.

Greatness, the son of the most high, the throne of David, ruling over Jacob’s house forever, no end to his kingdom – all these words and phrases clustered together speak to the power of God. All this royal language spoken to a teenage girl, born in a small village, to a working class family, living on the outskirts of a tiny nation, ruled with an iron fist by a huge empire – this speaks to power of the God of the impossible.

This speaks to the capacity of God to at any time and place, to a new and wonderful work of justice and mercy. To the hope that Jesus is present with us growing a new family, a new way of being with God and with one another on this earth.

Nothing is impossible with God.

When I got off the phone with that admissions officer I told you about, it was with no assurance that they would accept my student. And I was so afraid – what if this was the end of the line for the big dream we had pumped into his head about all that could come with education and hard work.

But a couple of weeks later, he got their acceptance letter. And a month or so later, their really great financial aid package. And off he went to college. And then to honors at that college. And into employment, and graduate school, and then a part time teaching position at that graduate school, along with professional honors, civic influence. The impossible made possible.

My old student talks about this a lot, about all he’s done and all he’s gonna do in the future. And I used to find this annoying. This boasting from a person who I otherwise have so much affection for. But Grace pointed out to me once, this isn’t really bragging, it’s just the joy of overcoming. He’s got the joy of having seen the impossible become possible so many times in his life. Who wouldn’t want to celebrate that?

The Advent season affirms that life is desperately hard, that we are imprisoned by forces within and without, that so much is not as it should be in our lives and in our world, and yet the advent season also asks us to hear the words of God into that experience, to hear God say to us: Do not be afraid. Nothing is impossible for God.

I used to think it was my job to tell people how bad this world can be. I did this some in my teaching. I certainly have done it in my parenting. I think of all the ways when my kids were young that I was like – don’t do this, don’t touch that, watch out for these kind of people and these kind of situations. Be careful, because you never know when this or that awful thing might occur.

And some of that’s OK. Kids need to learn to look before they cross the street, or how to not burn their house down. But now, as we’re in that phase of getting ready to send our kids out into the world without us, more and more I feel God speaking to me that my job is to tell them and to show them that they do not need to be afraid. That I entrust them to God and to this world. That things are going to be OK, and better than OK. That God is with them, and nothing is impossible, so don’t be afraid.

Do you know that God is not scared of our world?

Hard to believe, right, because everyone else is. The right-wingers are destroying our world, and the liberals are ruining it, and Trump’s doing or saying these crazy things again, or the Russians, or big data, or artificial intelligence, or climate change is gonna get us all, and the future is bleak, bleak, but God is not scared of our world.

I’m not saying be naive, or roll over on injustice, or put your fingers in your ears and fall asleep to this age. Be awake, be engaged, do your part. But people have lived through awful things and awful times before, and God is not scared.

In fact, let’s make this more personal. God is not scared of your life. God is not scared of your debt, or your singleness, or your marriage, or your kids, or your barrenness. God is not scared of your illness or your grief. God is not scared of your worst mistakes, and God is not scared of your greatest unknowns.

Because God is a God of love and mercy, and because God retains the capacity to do what we call impossible.

Sometimes we have evidence for this, and sometimes we don’t, but it’s at the heart of an invitation to faith – to trust that God is impossibly good, and that nothing is impossible with God.

Now I’m saying all this, but Mary, what does Mary do with this encounter. She’s like: alright, God, let it be. And then the first thing she does is hightail it to her cousin’s house. She goes to see her older cousin Elizabeth we’ve heard about, the one who’s further along in pregnancy – to help her out, but surely to hide out a bit, and to gain her bearings and get some support from another woman.

You may remember from two weeks ago that her fiancee Joseph does not believe her and plans on dumping her. But when she sees her cousin, Elizabeth doesn’t shame her or take her down but affirms what God is doing in her. Says yes, you have been chosen by God for this extraordinary thing.

And in the confident that her cousin’s trust and affirmation gives her, Mary (like Elizabeth) is filled with Spirit and bursts into poetry. And this is what she says:


Luke 1:46-55 (CEB)

46 Mary said,

“With all my heart I glorify the Lord!

47     In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.

48 He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.

   Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored

49         because the mighty one has done great things for me.

Holy is his name.

50     He shows mercy to everyone,

       from one generation to the next,

       who honors him as God.

51 He has shown strength with his arm.

   He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.

52     He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones

       and lifted up the lowly.

53 He has filled the hungry with good things

   and sent the rich away empty-handed.

54 He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,

       remembering his mercy,

55     just as he promised to our ancestors,

       to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”

Now this poetry has likely been cleaned up over the years. Other than in musicals, people don’t usually burst into verse at big moments of their lives. But I like to think this is a more poetic version of what Mary thought when she was freed from her fear.

Once again, this is not what we’d expect. Christmas is about presents and trees and candles and nostalgia, but the biggest themes of the original Christmas stories are responses to longings for justice and mercy. There’s so much about our longing for good governance, to have human rule and order be done right.  

And there is so much about the reversal of the way things are in our world, so much about God turning around the unjust, unmerciful ways we have with one another and this earth, and God doing mercy.

What gets Mary excited isn’t the inner peace Jesus will give the world or the ways God will work through Jesus to help us all fulfill our potential. No, this teenager who is counted a nobody by the world, in a family and town and nation and people that are treated as nobodied, is excited about how God will work through Jesus to turn the tables. To give the low status and the hungry a winning hand for a change, to make somebodies out of nobodies.

What brings Mary joy is that God hasn’t forgotten her and her kind. God isn’t scared of her life, God isn’t scared of her world, but God has remembered God’s long promised mercy.

I’ve shared that I’m trying to tell my kids that they’re not stepping into a world they need to be afraid of. But I do know they’re entering an unmerciful one.

I can think of that in terms of economics. How the class divide in our country is growing, how social mobility is shrinking, how my kids are likely to have lower incomes and larger debts at my age than I do. All that may be true.

I can think of that in terms of the world’s injustices. How people with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations often are not scattered but get to stick together. How so often the rich get good things, and the hungry go away empty-handed.

I can even think of my kids’ experiences and my own experiences in education. I mean schools haven’t always done right by my kids. The student I told you about, one of the best I taught, was rejected by all but one college he applied to. When I look back on my career as a school administrator, I see in some of my own disciplinary choices, a lack of mercy to students who had screwed up in some way, but needed a wider net of grace, and more second and third chances than we gave them.  

But Mary tells us as we wait for Christmas, that God is pushing forward an age of mercy. That God is interested in right-sizing human ambitions. That a sign that Jesus will be at work, and not just the powers of our age, will be when the over-full are emptied and the over-empty are filled.

This is a weird Christmas thing to name where we live, I’m aware of that. I don’t entirely know what to make of God’s mercy or how to teach the expression of mercy Mary proclaims in a privileged, wealth, powerful region of what still may be the most privileged, wealthy, and powerful nation in the history of the world.

Now I know life’s circumstances are complicated, and we are a diverse congregation. So there is hunger and need and suffering and experience of injustice and an unmerciful world in this congregation too, and in some ways, in all our lives.

Yet on the whole, in Cambridge, and Greater Boston, and yes, even in Reservoir, we are rich, and we are full. So frankly, I wouldn’t bring this up if it wasn’t in Mary’s prayer, because it’s challenging, and it’s awkward, but it’s here, so I’m saying it.

Joining Mary in dreaming of mercy doesn’t necessarily mean dreaming of a bigger footprint for ourselves. It doesn’t necessarily mean dreaming of better and more from God for me and mine. I don’t have a God’s-eye view of government or economics or the big arc of human history, so I’m the last one who can stand here an micro-analyze what dreaming of God’s mercy for all of us does mean, but I’ve got a few guesses I’ll leave you with.

I think it means getting outside of ourselves. Whatever I might want this time of year for me, or my family and friends, whatever my Christmas list might look like if I had one, Mary presses me to want as much or more for the people who made all the stuff that I want. God’s got a big and just embrace of us all that doesn’t feed my ego or selfishness, but does feed my bigger and deeper desires for justice and mercy.

I also think dream of mercy means that we don’t ever try to privatize the good news of Jesus. We don’t ever say that Jesus is just about my personal connection to God. We don’t ever say that faith has nothing to do with politics. There are bad ways of doing politics, sure, we can all get a little head in the sand about the public issues of the world, or we can get a little pig-headed partisan and stubborn about our view of how to solve those problems. But when Mary dreams of mercy, she’s got very public, in that sense very political, dreams in mind. Mercy isn’t a push for the disempowered to forgive and excuse the bad behavior of the powerful. Mercy is a push that the more powerful you are, the more responsibility you have to live mercifully and generously and kindly. And mercy pushes systems and groups and institutions to think about how we will or won’t align with these dreams of mercy.

And lastly, I think it dreaming of mercy means that as just or fair as God is, God is even more merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment, the scripture says. God’s mercy is wider and deeper than I could possibly imagine. None of us are defined by God by our worst act or our worst quality, or what we think we do or don’t deserve. We all have our being, we all are who we are through God’s love-lensed eyes of mercy.

Let me put this ever so so simply. When God looks at you, God smiles. The deep impulse of God for you isn’t pity, it isn’t disapproval or disappointment. It’s kindness. We dream of mercy, because God is mercy.

And God’s calling us to see ourselves, and see our world, and see one another with God’s eyes of mercy as well.

Can I wrap us up with our two usual invitations?

An Invitation to Whole Life Flourishing

Pray Mary’s prayer each morning for an emptying for the over-full and a filling for the over-empty. If you are prompted to welcome mercy or to extend mercy in some way, please try.

Spiritual Practice of the Week

One night, go out in silence and look at the night sky. Seeing – or not seeing – the stars above and the city lights below – imagine God telling you that God is not scared, but remembering and showing mercy from generation to generation.

Dreaming of God with Us In Our Disappointment

Welcome again to our Christmas season of Light in the Darkness. As our own winter days get darker and colder, and Christmas approaches, we get to dig into some of the story behind the season and look for the hope and light we can find there. This year our team has particularly been intrigued by the dreams we find in the Christmas story and how those dreams of what Jesus might be able to do can inspire us in our own times, whether life feels dreamy to us or whether the world looks more to us like a nightmare.

I was lucky in my teenage years and early 20s to have a lot of mentors in that time of life, and one of them reached out to me again recently with a surprising message. He’d remembered something I said something like 25 years ago and how it had stuck with him.

I remember the conversation well because it’s not often that a mentor opens up to you about their own life’s disappointments. Especially when you’re young. But one day this guy was telling me, essentially, that he thought he was a failure. He had dropped out of graduate school when he was younger and never really put the professional life together that he’d always hoped he would. I think that he was trying to warn me that life can easily become a big disappointment. Wow, that was heavy to hear.

And so maybe just to lighten the mood, I’m not sure, I asked him—what about all this other stuff in your life? What you’ve done as a father, how your kids have turned out? I mean look at them, and look at the stuff you do outside of your work? Can you feel good about that? I don’t remember him answering me, just looking at me kind of wistfully with a forced smile, maybe saying thanks for saying that.

But here we are, some 25 years later, and he’s telling me thanks for trying to help me see myself as something other than a disappointment. To be honest, I couldn’t tell if it had worked—if it was one of those thanks for the help comments, or more like thanks for trying.

Because disappointment is powerful, isn’t it?

My sense is a lot of us greet this Christmas season with some degree of disappointment in our lives. Disappointment in ourselves, and where our life is in one area or another? Disappointment in the way things are going in the world? Maybe we pin that disappointment on someone else? Maybe on God? Maybe we blame it on ourselves? Regardless, it’s a heavy weight.

And today we’ll meet a character central to the Christmas story, wrestling with how to understand his life and times, and whether to see himself or his times or his circumstances as one big disappointment he’s got to extricate himself from?

Or whether there’s something bigger and deeper going on, whether in the middle of what might feel like disappointment, he’s living in a bigger dream he can lean into.

This guy is named Joseph of Nazareth, and it’s his story that begins the New Testament in our Bibles.

Matthew 1:16-25 (CEB)

16Jacob was the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary—of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Christ.

17So there were fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen generations from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen generations from the exile to Babylon to the Christ.

So already, there are two different angles on Joseph’s life here.

I picked things up a few paragraphs into the story because the opening bit, what the editors called verses 1 to 15 in a genealogy. So and so is the father of so and so, this person was born of this or that mother. It’s boring to most readers, but if you know the whole cast of characters, it’s actually kind of gripping. Because it’s telling us that Joseph is in the lineage of some very important people. His family history includes great kings and legendary patriarchs. His life is the stuff of legend, his lineage royal. Joseph could have had high aspirations for where his life would go.

But there’s another thing going on right inside this introduction. In Matthew’s opening genealogy, there’s a flow—there’s a rise, there’s a peak, and there’s a decline. Fourteen generations from Abraham to David—from the father of faith for billions on this earth, to the great king of Israel, from one epic hero to another.

David is the name from the Hebrew Scriptures, the figure in the Old Testament, who is named more in the New Testament, the Christian scriptures than any other. But it’s been a long time – some thousand years, since the time of David.

And Joseph’s backstory says there’s been a long, slow decline from the heroic days of David into exile in Babylon. To tragedy, undoing, deconstruction, disappointment. And since those days of exile, there’s been an equally long era of the dreary status quo.

Now the 500 years from exile in Babylon to the birth of Jesus in Nazareth is a complicated and interesting history, full of rises and falls for the Jewish people. But that’s not how Matthew sets up this story. He waves his hand in the direction of these fourteen generations, lists a number of grandfathers and great-grandfathers of minimal fame, and says it’s been a long time since exile. It’s been a long time since the age of our disappointment began.

Friends, I don’t know what age of disappointment you’ve settled into, what your dreary status quo looks like today.

I shared last week that it’s been 45 or 50 years since mainstream American culture trusted our public institutions. Most of us look at our government and our banks and our schools and our press and our religious institutions and don’t like what we see. And of course, some of that distrust has rapidly accelerated over the past two years. We’re so disappointed in our public discourse, our public policy, and the mean-spirited antics of our nation’s leadership.

But whatever take you do or don’t have on the broad American story, I’m sure you look at something more particular in our public life and sigh, or clench your fist. We all look at aspects of the world as it is that makes us sad or enraged and wonder: what happened? How long? Will it ever get better?

I know from your conversations with me that some of you look at your personal lives and feel the same way. You look at your careers, or you look at your finances, or your marriages, or your children, or your faith and feel like it has settled into a dreary status quo. How things are don’t seem so great, but they’ve been that way for a long time, and you don’t know if it will get any better.

It’s into this age of exile in the world, into this sleepy night of disappointment in our souls that Jesus arrives.

We hear:

18This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place. When Mary his mother was engaged to Joseph, before they were married, she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. 19Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly.

Ha! Can it get any worse? Within the context of exile, of this hard life in hard times, Joseph perhaps dreamed of a quietly good life. He’d found a marriage match, he had a trade to make a living. But just as his life is getting going, it all falls apart, when Mary tells him: Joseph, I’m pregnant.

Now I’ve got to say that most of my life, I’ve really liked Joseph in the Christmas story. I dreamed of being a dad long before I had kids and having and raising kids —hard as it may be sometimes—is one of the great joys of my life. And so I’ve liked this story of a dad, even a very unusual one, right in the Christmas story. And I’ve read Joseph’s story and shared Matthew’s generous take on the man. He’s a righteous man, a good guy, so when Mary tells him this outlandish story of the Holy Spirit getting her pregnant, he decides to end things quietly. To not make a big stink out of abandoning the woman he’s sure has betrayed his trust. Good guy, right?

Lately, I’ve got to admit, my read of Joseph has been getting less sympathetic. Betrothal, the stage of relationship Joseph shares with Mary, was a little more serious even than what we have with engagement. Mary is promised to Joseph as a wife, the two extended families – and so their whole hometowns know this. Arrangements have been made. They just haven’t had their wedding feast, moved in together, and consummated the relationship. For Joseph to back out of this arrangement and for Mary’s pregnancy to show up just after this would have meant abandoning Mary to a life of shame and destitution. All because Joseph doesn’t trust his near-wife when she tells him what happened. We might say he doesn’t believe the woman. His sense of betrayal or his own shame is too great to imagine the possibility of her admittedly unlikely story. From Mary’s perspective, she must be feeling like: Hey, Joseph, it’s not like I asked for God to choose me for this strange and enormous task of the virgin birth of our Lord. Can you believe me? Can you hang in here with me?

So whether or not Joseph is the good guy Matthew calls him, he’s living in what you might call exile mindset. He’s a realist, not a pessimist, perhaps, but his reality is framed by disappointment and by failure.

I grew up respecting people like this, people who surveyed the landscape of their world and honestly faced up to all that it wasn’t. And then stoically tried to soldier on and do the right thing. To make the best out of a bad situation with the meager resources at their disposal.

The mentor I mentioned at the top was this kind of person – disappointed his state of life, but trying to be an honorable and decent person even with his lack of hope. I’ve been this kind of person sometimes in my life – it’s a mindset I’m familiar with.

Here’s the thing, though: stoic, decent people gripped by disappointment can’t experience or produce joy. Stoic, decent people stuck in exile mindset can’t transform anything. They may be what Matthew would call “righteous people” – good guys, honorable women. But this is not the goal of the good news of Jesus – to produce miserable people who’ve quietly come to terms with our disappointment.

The good news of Jesus is to liberate us from our exile, to surprise us with what the Holy Spirit can do, to make us people who can dream again.

However a grim, disappointed exile mindset has set in for us today, my sense is the Holy Spirit might just want to interrupt that during this Christmas season.

Here’s how it happened for Joseph:

20 As he was thinking about this, an angel from the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled:

23 Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son,

And they will call him, Emmanuel.

(Emmanuel means “God with us.”)

Joseph goes to bed thinking about how to quietly dismiss the woman he no longer trusts, but who so happens to be pregnant with the Son of God and the most influential person who ever lived. But then this dream interrupts Jacob’s dreary status quo.

Angel in Greek means messenger, so when we hear about an angel in these stories, we’re not supposed to worry about what an angel may or may not be. We’re being clued in that someone thinks God is speaking to them – in Joseph’s case, it’s through a dream he remembers. But it could have been through any means. We’re just supposed to pay attention to that message, that sense of interruption.

And here’s the interruption for Joseph.

To dream of the possibility of the Holy Spirit – that God might actually be present and at work for good in the world.

To dream of hope and deliverance – to dream that sin and exile, our failures and disappointments, will not have the last word.

And to dream of God with us, that we are not alone, abandoned, unseen and unknown, but that God is here, so it’s going to be OK.

This is a radical interruption to a life that Joseph would have told you just a day ago had just gotten much worse than it seemed.

What would it mean for you if you knew God was really, profoundly with you, even in your disappointment? And if you knew that your failures and disappointments were not going to get the last word?

I was on the phone with a few pastor friends last week and someone asked us if we had any thoughts on the year we’re about to finish, any observations or themes that stick out. And when it was my turn, I told them about some of the fun things and hard things that have come with our kids getting older and I spent some time talking about our church here – some of the great year we’ve had, people that are growing and developing in their leadership and their experience of God, new people in our community that are so wonderful and fascinating, really good work people are doing in the world. But then when I thought about just me, what’s my theme for the year, it was almost embarrassingly simple.

I told them how I’m learning that God is with me, that when I’m stressed out or discouraged or feel like I’ve kind of lost my moorings, it’s getting a little easier to not just soldier through or panic, but to stop and remember that God is with me, as if there’s a hand on my shoulder saying: Steve, it’s OK. It’s OK. Sort of weird that some of the first-fruits of months of therapy and nearly a year’s worth of this structured program or spiritual practice can be so simple, but there it is.

I’m a child of God. Not in just some theoretical sense, but God loves and likes me, God’s curious about my life and present even in my disappointments, and God’s there to give me presence and joy and encouragement to press forward creatively, courageously. To interrupt that gloomy fog of the exile mindset, and hope in the possibility of renewal and liberation.

One more thing about Joseph, though. It’s interesting to me how the interruption begins for him. The dream that interrupts Joseph’s disappointment, that shakes him out of his exile mindset, doesn’t start with the good news he needs to hear. God is with you – you, Joseph, you, the oppressed people of Israel, you, the people of the earth. That’s really important, but that’s not where things start. It also doesn’t start with a rebuke – like, shut up Joseph with your whole plan to dismiss Mary. Believe her, trust what I’m doing in her, love her. It gets there too, more gently than that, but the interruption gets there.

But where it starts is with who Joseph is. Not with an assertion, not with a command, but with an identity statement.

The interruption to Joseph’s exile mindset, his disappointment-driven bad living begins: Joseph, son of David, don’t be afraid.

I wonder how long it took Joseph to figure out what it meant. He might have started wondering, who you are talking about? My name is Joseph, but my dad is not David. We read that at the beginning. You can look back in your programs to the beginning of the excerpt we’re reading today. In the ancient Near East, someone was known not by first and last name, but by their given name and the name of their father. This is Joseph, son of Jacob. Matthew has given us this genealogy in fact, so we know that Joseph’s dad is Jacob. And his grandfather is Matthan. And his father is Eleazar, and so forth. You have go to back 28 names, 28 generations in the family story to find a David.

But this David’s kind of a big deal – the second king of Israel, the best king of Israel. The person God promised would have a descendant who would forever lead and guide humanity into peace and justice and the presence of God. And in the dream, the genealogy gets compressed, as Joseph first gets to own – I’m that David’s kid. That’s who I am.

So I don’t have to be afraid. I don’t have to be afraid to trust Mary’s encounter with God. I don’t have to be afraid to marry her. I don’t have to be afraid of the scandal that will follow us the rest of my life. I don’t have to be afraid of this impossibly big thing God is asking me to do. Because I’m a child of David. This is who I am.

I wrote on the blog this past week that this is how a lot of good stories in our lives start – with a truer story about ourselves, with a clearer sense of our own identity.

We post each month on our blog a few cool bits of media – podcasts or books or movies or website, sometimes an experience or two you can have – that we think might help some people flourish. And in the one I posted last week, as I was writing, I was noticing that most of my favorite stories recently start this way.

This great movie that Grace and I and our boys watched last month, The Hate U Give, it’s a movie a lot of things. It’s about some of the many disappointing, horrible things about the world as it is in our times – about police shootings of unarmed Black men, about various forms of racism, about generational patterns of brokenness. But at the heart of the film, and the young adult novel it’s based on too, it’s about a young woman named Starr who has the opportunity to in her great disappointment not take on an exile mindset, but interrupt things as the way they are. And it starts for her with a story about who she is. Her dad is always telling her and her siblings why he gave them the names he did, the love and legacy and hope that was placed in their names. And Starr has to embrace that this is true about herself.

We watched another movie, a documentary about this legendary cross country coach in Illinois, who to help boys become impossibly fast runners, has to first help them believe they belong, that they are becoming men, and that they can do hard things. It starts with a better, truer story about identity – about who they are.

So as Christmas comes, I’m wondering about our disappointments, about our dreams turned to nightmare in our world. Or at least to the dreary status quo. And I’m wondering about interruptions to the exile mindset that has set in for us.

But as Christmas comes, I also find myself asking questions about identity. Are we mainly vulnerable and alone in the world, or is God profoundly with us now? Are we free agents, shaping our future, or are we members of God’s family, citizens of God’s kingdom, seeking to find the way of Jesus in our private and public lives? Are we nobodies left to do the best we can with our disappointments, or are children of God invited into joy and courage and hope?

This is where the dream begins again for Joseph – you are David’s son. Don’t be afraid. This is who you are.

Let’s read the end of the story.

24 When Joseph woke up, he did just as an angel from God commanded and took Mary as his wife. 25 But he didn’t have sexual relations with her until she gave birth to a son. Joseph called him Jesus.

Joseph couldn’t stay in the dream. He woke up. He faced the morning.

And then he needed to trust what he knew now. He needed to trust that God did visit Mary. He needed to trust that the Holy Spirit of God is doing new and strange things. He needed to trust in the salvation this child would bring, the liberation from failure and disappointment. He needed to trust that God was with them.

By finding Mary, and saying I believe you, and taking her as his wife. And then by showing he trusted her, and trusted God, by giving her the space to do this thing God was doing in and through her.

And each day, for the remaining months of her pregnancy, he had to wake up and keep trusting her and keep trusting God. Each day of Jesus’ childhood, he had to keep waking up and trusting that God was doing this new and great thing through the little kid he was raising.

Each day, he had to wake up and remember the dream. To doggedly remember who he was – I’m David’s son, destined for a part in this great story, and I don’t need to be afraid. And to doggedly remember and trust the good news. God is with us. Good things are coming. It’s going to be OK.

It’s hard to keep waking up and remembering the dream of God. But that’s our invitation this Advent season, this time before Christmas, this Light in the Darkness.

An Invitation to Whole Life Flourishing

Who or what in your life seems most gripped by disappointment?  Pray for that person or situation to be interrupted by God’s holy shift in perspective, for a waking up to hope and for courage to keep walking and working in hope.

And let’s spend a couple of minutes leaning into the heart of today’s good news.

Spiritual Practice of the Week

Spend a few minutes each morning or evening meditating on the meaning of Emmanuel—God with Us—to you in this season.