17th Sunday of the Year, 26 July 2020
Can you guess what I’m thinking of? Here we go: we all do it, even when we’re babies. We tend to do it at night. We don’t remember most of the times. Sometimes it’ll provoke sadness, other times excitement. What is it, I’m thinking of? Dreaming.
In our first reading from the first Book of Kings, God appears to Solomon in a dream and they end up having this significant conversation in which Solomon asks not for riches but wisdom and God grants this because he has asked for the right thing. This is the wisdom that means Solomon can adjudicate the dispute between the two women who argue about whose baby it is (I Kings 3). How can you work out the answer? Well, Solomon decrees that the baby should be chopped in half and then they can half each. One says, “Yes, fine. If I can’t have the child neither of us can.” The woman telling the truth is the one who says, “No, let her keep the child” because that reveals the motherly instinct of sacrificial love. This is the wisdom that the Queen of Sheba, the Queen of the South, comes to consult (I Kings 10).
Does God really speak to us in our dreams? I want to look at a few other biblical examples and then answer that question. St Joseph most significantly has dreams in which the angel of the Lord appeared to him four times to tell him first to stick with Mary who has conceived, secondly that they must flee to Egypt, thirdly that it was safe to go back and fourthly to avoid Judea and so go to Galilee (Matthew 1 - 2). St Matthew, the tax collector-convert records dreams quite often in his Gospel: Pilate’s wife has such an experience and appears to tell Pilate to have nothing to do with Christ (Matthew 27:19).
In the Old Testament, dreams feature more as something others have which God’s chosen ones than interpret. Think of Joseph in Pharoah’s court interpreting the dreams of the chief baker, the chief cupbearer and then of the King Himself (Genesis 40-41). Daniel too earns himself the reputation for interpreting King Nebuchadnezar’s dream of the large statue, which represents the passing of kingdoms and all that seems most powerful in this world getting weaker and weaker (Daniel 2).
The key question for us, it seems, is how do dreams interact with reality? There’s that wonderful line in the Psalms: “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream” (Psalm 126:1). After the exile as the people returned to Jerusalem, their destroyed city from which they had been banished and which they had watched burn, and they couldn’t quite believe it. It was like they were dreaming still but this was no dream.
Those New Testament dreams I mentioned earlier are not about predicting the future but drawing attention to what’s real now: the threat of Herod, the obligation to stick with Mary, the threat our Lord poses to Pilate’s way of doing things. Even in the Old Testament the predictions Joseph and Daniel make are about what’s common sense: Pharaoh needs to be aware that good years of Harvest aren’t to be squandered but preparation should be made for years of famine; King Nebuchadnezar must not think his position unassailable, must not put his trust in princes and human power (Psalm 146:3). Dreams at their least supernatural simply tell us what’s really on our mind, albeit in some distorted or difficult to decipher way.
So, does God speak to us in dreams? Well, when we ask ourselves such questions the first answer is that God has spoken to us supremely in Jesus Christ, when He was born two thousand years ago. That is the high point of revelation and of God telling us how to live our life. We are to trust in that revelation. We’ve been reflecting in our Study Group about why we use male pronouns - He/Him/His - about God even though we know God is neither male nor female. To which the answer is we do that because Jesus told us to: “When you pray, say, “Our Father…”” (Luke 11:2). God has revealed Himself in Jesus and we have two sources for that revelation: the Scriptures and the Church keeping alive the memory of Christ, for the Church is His Body.
So God will speak to us in dreams but the emphasis we should place on them mustn’t be too great. They will probably be most useful surely in telling us what is going on within our minds at any particular moment. One of the things this ought to remind us about ourselves is that we are not logical beings. I remember I had to report a crime when the garden shed was broken into. They criminals smashed open the quite heavy doors and then took a couple of things out and simply left them on the lawn. When I told the police officer this he said, “That doesn’t sound very logical” to which my answer was that human beings aren’t very logical. And this isn’t just true of those who commit crime, we are all illogical in what we choose to do or how we choose to be. And often we should thank God we’re not logical creatures or we would be rather cool and uncaring. To love is to be illogical at one level. Don’t be surprised we do things which are illogical and certainly don’t try to create a rationale for every little whim you have.
If dreams tell us what’s going on in our minds, through them we might have a better sense of what’s important to us, what it is we treasure. Our much-concealed insecurities about what we fear to lose will become apparent. Today’s Gospel has a message for us on what we should treasure: God’s ways and His Kingdom. The kingdom of Heaven is like treasure hidden in a field; the person sells everything they own to buy the field. Wow! Utterly bonkers! We’d all think, I reckon, “Well I’ve got the treasure. It’s hidden safely. Only I know where it is. Great.” But no, the reckless attitudes of God’s kingdom won’t do the bear minimum, won’t play it safe. We’ll go and buy the whole field.
We’ll fear different things. Those who lead churches are so often afraid of irrelevance and so the Gospel ends up being watered down of all the difficult bits. We are all at one level afraid of being forgotten or lonely or isolated or irrelevant, which is why the fears around this pandemic are so great. But popularity or having people around us isn’t our goal in life: the kingdom of Heaven is the treasure, seek this first!
We’re all to dream dreams and to have aspirations in our life, be it about where we live or what job we do or what our life will look like. We don’t have to be imprisoned by other people’s expectations or our past. But what we value will be determined by what is important to God: His ways, His words, His actions, His love. Solomon in his dream articulated what was important: wisdom and that can only come from God and aligning our thoughts to His thoughts. This we do as we feast on the Word of God, Christ our Saviour. Amen.