4/7/2019: Like Those Who Dream, Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126
Like Those Who Dream
First Lesson: Isaiah 43:16-21
Second Lesson: Psalm 126
We pause in our journey through the Gospel of Luke on this fifth Sunday in Lent to consider this Psalm, which beautiful as it is, is not a particularly well-known psalm within the church.
It’s certainly not in the same pantheon as the 23rd Psalm, or even parts of others: “Be still and know that I am God,” from Psalm 46.
“I lift up my eyes to the hills,” from Psalm 121
“Wait for the Lord; be strong and let your heart take courage, what for the Lord,” from Psalm 27.
In Judaism, however, Psalm 126 is among the most beloved psalms, recited, I’m told, at the end of meals during the sabbath and other regular times. It’s special because it has to do with one of the profound moments in the history of Israel, when the exiles in Babylon returned home, capturing something of the ecstasy and joy and thanksgiving of return:
When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.
It wasn’t real, it was too good to be true.
This psalm is often thought of as a companion to Psalm 137 which describes the feeling of despair the exiles felt in captivity:
By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.
By the willows there we hung our harps…
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
And then ending with probably the harshest, pain-filled words in all of scripture:
O daughter of Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!
It’s brutal and devastating.
And these two, psalm 137 and 126, are thought to form a kind of bookend between exile and return, despair and jubilation, the deepest of darkness and unexpected, radical light—beautiful Biblical themes of deliverance and healing and salvation in the very literal sense, much less the spiritual.
But it’s interesting, there’s actually some disagreement about when, exactly this psalm was written. Was it written after the return from exile looking back in thanksgiving on what God has done, or was it written while the Israelites were still in exile, imagining what it will feel like when they are delivered? And both are possible. You see, verb tenses are fluid in Hebrew and it’s not always clear if something is happening in the past tense or present or future. And so you may have noticed that our translators change the tense mid-psalm, beginning in the past tense and moving to the present:
When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
And then there’s a break, marked by a space between these two stanzas, that almost asks us to catch our breath, to brace ourselves as we return from the warmth of future hopes to the coldness of the present:
Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like the watercourses in the Negeb.
May those who sow in tears
reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves.
It’s almost as if the first stanza, remembering when those in exile returned home and how they felt like they were in a dream, is actually a dream. And that in reality they’re still waiting for God to make things right. It intensifies the hopefulness of this psalm: to speak as if God has already done these things, to allow oneself to fully rest in that feeling of return and wholeness, while still sitting in the uncertain present.
Which makes this a perfect psalm for this fifth Sunday in Lent, as we sit here, still two weeks out from the light of Easter morning, but knowing even now that while we will confess Christ has risen, our world has not. Our lives have not.
Our families, our communities, have not risen. Not yet.
And so in some ways Easter is a version of this psalm, which itself is a version of the gospel. We speak of things we claim have already happened—of resurrection and redemption and God making all things new—while knowing that death, for now, still wins. It wins and has won every time, save for one.
And yet we hold fast to the promise that in the end it will not. We sing of it, we imagine it, we speak of it as if it were already true. You see, we’re the dreamers in this psalm.
To be a person of faith is to be among the dreamers—to be “like those who dream.” To be a person of faith is to commit to dreaming of something different, of something new—and not just any dream, but to dream God’s dream.
We speak often of God’s Kingdom coming to earth, of God’s reign—but what we’re really talking about is God’s dream. What Jesus called God’s Kingdom, a time when God’s love will reign and all people will know their true identity as God’s beloved, this is really a time when God’s dream will finally come true. God’s dream from creation, from the time the water first parted and the sun first rose and God said, “This is good.” From the time God formed humans from the dust of the ground and dropped them there in the garden to watch over things. And then one thing went wrong and then another and another and here we are—God’s dream of how it could be remained, God kept whispering it to different people, anyone who would listen, some of whom had sense to write it down in so many ways, which is how we get this—Don’t remember the former things, God whispers to Isaiah who whispers it to us, for I’m about to do a new thing—do you see it?
Others brought different folks together around it to talk about and share in it and try and do something to live it, which is how we got the church. And of course, years ago this dream came alive in the person of Jesus, then the dream died, and then it rose again. The dream hasn’t come true yet, but it’s still out there, it’s still in here, and it will be so long as there is someone to dream it with God.
It’s interesting, in the Talmud, the commentary Rabbi Charnes mentioned last week that records the history and generations of conversation within Judaism about scripture, there’s a curious story listed under the first verse in this psalm about an ancient sage named Honi the Circle-Drawer, a character who appears many times in the Talmud. It says that all his life Honi wondered what this verse meant: When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion we were like those who dream. And then it tells a story of how one day Honi was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree (a tree native to the Mediterranean that produces pods of peas you can eat). He asked him, How long does it take (for this tree) to bear fruit? The man replied, Seventy years. He then further asked him: Are you certain that you will live another seventy years? The man replied: No. But I’m planting this not for myself, but for the other generations to come after me and the generations to follow those. Honi then shrugged as he walked away from the man. Later that day, he sat down to take a rest. But he had not rested for a usual amount of time. He had rested for seventy years, and rocks had formed a tent-like structure around him. When he woke, he saw a man picking a tree with carobs all over it. He asked, Are you the man that planted this tree? The man replied, No. But my grandfather planted it for me. And my father told me that his father planted this tree for me.
And folks have wondered through the generations what exactly this story has to do with verse 1 of Psalm 126, When the Lord restores the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. We can’t know for sure—the Talmud, like scripture, doesn’t often explain itself. But some have wondered if it’s meant to say that the man who planted the tree is among the dreamers. In his planting he dreams of a future he will not see. “The fruit of redemption,” one rabbi writes, “can ripen only on the vine of exile…to imagine something different [from] exile while still living in it takes dreaming.” Dreaming of this sort isn’t a wasted act of laziness or delusion but a necessary act of preparation. “Without preparation there can be no fruition,” the rabbi writes, “without exile, no redemption.”
And I wonder if we hear this: “Without preparation there can be no fruition; without exile, no redemption.” Does this sound like the story we tell through the year, the climax of which we will tell together in just a week’s time?
The story of supper tables and garden betrayals?
Of foot washing and crosses and last words?
Of tombs with stones rolled in front of them?
Of a Saturday of silence, like lungs exhaling, and then a Sunday morning where they filled back up again.
Of a stone being rolled away, and linens folded neatly in the corner.
Of mysterious encounters and the touching of wounds and tears and disbelief and great, great joy? Does it sound like this story?
And does it sound like your life?
Preparation and then fruition, exile and then joy?
Tombs—tombs— and then rolled away stones?
It’s okay if it doesn’t, or at least if it doesn’t quite yet.
In fact it would make your being here all the more powerful.
Because it means you’re among the dreamers. The ones dreaming with God about how it could be. And so you’re in the right place. Amen.
 Talmud, Ta’anit 23a
 Rabbi Hyim Shafner, “The Dream of Exile: A Rereading of Honi the Circle-Drawer”