When you buy just about anything, you are being invited to buy into a dream. Just buy a pair of trainers, and you are buying into the dream of being as healthy-looking as the sports person who is in the advertising.
I regularly cycle through a new housing estate called ‘exclusive homes.’ Doesn’t it just set your heart racing to think about living in an exclusive house? I saw a retirement village which promised a ‘lifestyle that you deserve.’
I may be sending up this kind of advertising, but it is so important to our well-being to have a dream. One of the most famous speeches of the last century was by Martin Luther King, who said 'I have a dream.' He raised the hope of African-Americans for a more just and fair society.
All of these dreams are potentially wholesome ones. With the eyes of faith we can see that they are reflections of God’s goodness and what he desires for us, because he is very near and he loves us unconditionally. As the apostle James writes, ‘Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights….’ James 1.16-18.
It is that time of year when we are all being invited again to buy into the Christmas dream. It is a dream of love and hope, a dream of a simpler world, a dream of family life filled with love and joy. Many Australians, even though they have no faith, try to enter into this dream through putting up Christmas decorations, having special meals and giving gifts. The modern Christmas festival is a dream of wholesomeness and well-being.
John the Baptist came preaching a dream, a dream of hope, as he prepared the way for the coming of the messiah. He said,‘Turn away from your sins and be baptised.’ Someone more powerful was coming, who would baptise the people with the Holy Spirit.
John came out of the desert with a dream of a world in which the best values would govern the whole of life. It would be a world of justice and fairness, where all selfishness and corruption would be left behind. To reach this dream John realised that great changes would need to be made. They would come about only through the remaking of the human heart. And so we have his vigorous message about the need for turning around and walking in a new way. For John it is not sufficient that we just think in a different way. The gospel also compels us to act in a new way, with changed lives.
We learn also from the gospels that John did not fully understand the magnitude of the divine dream. John believed the coming messiah would execute immediate judgement. His messiah would be a wrathful messiah, raining down fire from heaven on the bad people. We know John misunderstood the prophecies about Jesus because he would later send his disciples to Jesus to ask if he really was the promised messiah. Jesus would reply, ‘Go tell John what you see: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, and the poor have good news preached to them.’ The messiah had come not with wrath but with mercy, not with judgement but with healing, and full of the love of God.
As we search for the meaning of Christmas amidst all of the hype that goes with it, the nature of the messiah is a question that confronts us again. Do we know the Jesus of the gospels, the loving Son of Mary and Son of God, who reaches out in mercy to his people, who lays down his life for his friends; or do we imagine another Jesus made in a different mould? Is our Jesus someone who will rain down fire and brimstone on the people we can’t stand? As with John the Baptist, our image of Jesus the messiah needs continual renewal.
John also calls us to contemplate the nearness of God rather than his distance. ‘The man coming after me will be so much more powerful,’ he proclaimed. How do we respond to the realisation that God is near, and that he would baptise us with the Holy Spirit? For most of us, most of the time, God probably seems far away.
When pressure is on us to have an ideal Christmas, ideal in the eyes of the world, we are not giving room for the nearness of God. We have instead created an idol. Many will experience difficulty in living an ideal Christmas anyway, because of their life circumstances. Family is absent for whatever reason, there is no money to spend on the trappings of Christmas, or grief and sorrow have taken over. Yet Jesus comes for us all – it is not an exclusive festival reserved for those who have a perfectly organised life. Advent is a time for contemplating the nearness of God, not his distance.
I think it is worth noting that John the Baptist shared his dream not in church but down by the river Jordan, amongst the crowds who came out to him. In the last book of the bible, the book of Revelation, we are given a vision, or dream, of the hope towards which all of humanity is moving. The ultimate goal we look forward to is the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. The completion of humanity and all of history is to be realised in a city. Through the middle of the new heavenly city flows the river of life. It could be a reminder of the river Jordan where John baptised people into new life.
That should make us stop and think again about where we live. Maybe it feels like a dangerous place. If we put on our dark vision spectacles, we are liable to see only negative signs of the coming kingdom of God, especially amongst the hazardous times in which we live. But looked at from a different angle, Christ is here, embedded deep within our culture, reminding the world again of his first coming in Bethlehem through all the many Christmas decorations. The Father is at work, calling the community again to the birth of his Son. He is just not yet recognised by many people.
God is near, he is not far away. The way needs to be prepared for him, just as it was in the beginning, and just as will always be necessary. Faithful disciples are needed for this task, who have given time to cultivate the inner stillness of the heart, and are ready to greet the infant king and to proclaim him here. We need to be where the people gather, down by the river as John the Baptist was, not stuck behind walls of our own making.
In the end it comes down to the challenge of John: what is my dream, what is your dream, what is our hope? Do we dwell in the past about what was and what might have been? Or do we live into the future where God’s kingdom dream is located?
The origin of God’s dream is the community of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The community we are making here grows out of the perfect community that is God: mutual caring, kindness, and speech that builds up and encourages each other. We not only imitate God’s life, we also share it. Let us move into this Advent in the sure confidence of what is coming our way from God, in the hope that God will do a new here thing among us.