Sunday, December 28, 2003

Following God's Lead
Matthew 2:13-18

(shared with the people of Friendship Church, December 28, 2003)

Makenzie Snyder was seven years old and she had a big dream. It all started after she entered an essay contest that found her as one of ten children representing the United States at the Children’s World Summit in Paris. While there, she got to know two boys who were foster children. She learned that often, foster children are separated from their brothers and sisters and that frequently, when these children are picked up by their foster parents, they’re given only a trash bag in which to carry what they will take to their next home. Makenzie was horrified by this. As she puts it, “Trash bags are for trash, not for kids to carry their belongings in.”

On returning to America, this little girl asked her mother to go to garage sales and buy suitcases and duffel bags that foster children could use. She also suggested that each bag should contain a stuffed animal, something to bring comfort to a child being thrust into a new situation away from the people and places with which they were familiar. Makenzie was so perseverant in her project that soon, some senators and congresspeople learned of what she was doing and told people in the media. The Washington Post told the story of the little girl who was collecting thousands of suitcases and stuffed animals to give to foster children. President Clinton read that and invited Makenzie and her family to the White House. He also sent along some bags of Beanie Babies from his own personal collection. Her story was featured in an edition of the Chicken Soup for the Soul books. She’s been on the Rosie O’Donnell Show and just this past week, was featured on Peter Jennings’ newscast on ABC television. The organization formed around Makenzie’s dream, Children to Children, continues to provide bags and stuffed figures for foster children. Now twelve years old, she says that her dream is provide all 530,000 foster children in the US with duffel bags and stuffed dolls.

Dreams come in different forms. Sometimes, they come to us in the middle of the night. Sometimes, they come as an idea or a passion that will not go away. But however, they come to us, our dreams are precious things.

Dreams play a pivotal role in our Bible lesson for this morning. Just before it begins, the baby Jesus has been visited by wise men—magi—from the east. On the evening of their visit, God uses a dream to warn them not to go back to see King Herod as they had promised to do. Herod, they were told, wanted to kill the baby, who he understood was a threat to his reign. So, they took a different route to their home lands. Then, there was a dream that came to Joseph, the man to whom the young virgin Mary was married and who was to act as Jesus’ earthly father. In this dream, God told Joseph to take the child and his mother to Egypt, a country where there were many Jewish emigres anyway, and to wait to bring them back to Judea only after Herod had died.

The reason for these instructions from God become clear when we see what happened in the town of Bethlehem after Herod had learned that the wise men had eluded him. Herod, uncertain of the exact time of Jesus’ birth, had the male children two years of age and under killed. This is consistent with all that we know about Herod who once had three of his sons murdered and who left behind a standing order that when he died, a member of every family in Judea was to be killed, an order that was followed. The dreams that God gave to the wise men and to Joseph insured that the Savior of the world would live to fulfill His mission of dying and rising for the whole human race.

Do you have any dreams? Or, did you stop dreaming years ago? This past week, Philip gave me a copy of the American Heritage History of the United States by Douglas Brinkley as a Christmas present. It begins with a quote from the painter Grant Wood:

"Almost all of us have some dream power in our childhood but without encouragement it leaves us and then we become bored and tired and ordinary...We are carefully coached in the most modern and efficient ways of making our bodies comfortable and we become so busy about getting ourselves all nicely placed that we are apt to forget the dream spirit that is born in all of us."

Because human beings are made in the image of God, we are the only ones of God’s creatures who have the capacity for imagination, to see a future that is different from our past or present. Often, we misuse this power by worrying.

We also can use it to imagine our way toward committing sin. The late Reverend Norman Vincent Peale, founder of the positive thinking movement and Guideposts magazine wrote in one of his books about a Hollywood producer he once knew who had created a world of hurt for himself and others because he so consistently imagined or fantasized an affair with a particular young star until it came about.

But if our dreams come from God, as was true for the wise men and for Joseph, good things happen. We see how to discern whether our dreams, both the ones we see in our sleep and those we entertain while we’re awake, are from God in today’s Bible lesson.

First: A dream is from God when it’s consistent with God’s witness about Himself in the Bible. From the Old Testament, Joseph and the wise men knew that God was planning on sending a Savior. From the same place, Joseph knew that throughout the centuries, Egypt had often been a place of exile for God’s people. Their dreams of sparing the life of this child and of how to do that and how long to do it were consistent with what they knew about God. You know that a dream can’t be from God if it asks us to do something that is directly contrary to God’s will.

I’ve told you many times about the dream for a new church that I carried here to Clermont County thirteen years ago. I dreamed of a church that was welcoming and caring, a church where people could experience God’s grace and presence and love, a church that was relaxed in its atmosphere while being reverent for God. I felt certain that this was the kind of church God wanted me to plant here not just for all the rational, sensible reasons I might mention, but most importantly because when I looked at the accounts of the early church in the New Testament book of Acts or at how the Old Testament people worshiped together in their synagogues, this was precisely the atmosphere and style that pervaded their life with God. In spite of numerous predictions from people who supposedly knew what they were talking about, God has helped and is helping us to be the church of my dream...and now it’s your dream, too!

Second: A dream is from God when, even if it offers personal rewards, is mainly about the Kingdom of God. Neither the wise men or Joseph had much immediately to gain by protecting the baby Jesus. Any of them might have been murdered for harboring and keeping safe this rival king to Herod.

People who stubbornly cling to the pursuit of God-given dreams have higher priorities than self-preservation. One of the songs we sing often here at Friendship is a simple one based on Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:33, a part of his Sermon on the Mount. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God,” we say. A dream is from God when it calls us to pursue God’s highest purposes for Jesus-followers: to love God and to love neighbor in our own unique ways.

Third: A dream from God almost always entails risk of one kind or another. Joseph and the wise men knew that their dream of seeing the Savior of the world to adulthood involved risk. They could have been killed or imprisoned. If our dreams aren’t too big for us to handle on our own, God probably isn’t involved with our dreams. God wants us to tackle things that are so big that we can only pursue them with His power and help and protection. It’s only when we go out on a limb that we learn to truly trust the One Who tells us, “I am the vine, you are the branches” and “Apart from Me, you can do nothing” and you “can do all things through Christ Who strengthens” you.

Often the risk you take involves having others thing you’re crazy. I read recently about a young follower of Jesus Christ who dreamed of becoming a Hollywood film-maker. His parents’ friends were appalled. How could they let their son go to such an evil place?, they wondered. But the young man’s parents explained that first of all, their son was old enough to make his own decisions. Besides, they pointed out that if the early church had decided not to have any contact with people they might consider evil, then the good news of Jesus would never have been passed on or changed people’s lives. What better place, in spite of the risks, these parents wondered, could their son go to have a positive impact on the world?

Do you have a dream? If it’s consistent with what we know about God’s will from the pages of Scripture, and if it puts the God we know through Jesus Christ first in our priorities, and if it entails risk then, by all means, your should pursue it. When we follow God’s lead for our lives, the road won’t be easy. It certainly wasn’t for Joseph. But our faithfulness can produce wonderful results. I wish that for all of us in 2004.

[The story of Makenzie Snyder is told compellingly in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living Your Dreams.]