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ruleBackground

Gospels

John 21:17

The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."

Jesus said, "Feed my sheep."

September 2, 2007

Is a dream a lie if it don't come true?

There's a song by Bruce Springsteen from1980 called The River. It's about a guy in his teens whose life is not working out. He doesn't have big plans—in the short term he just wants a decent job and a girlfriend. But then there's an unplanned pregnancy, the couple rushes into marriage, he finds whatever work he can, the love starts dying and along comes a recession and layoffs. Doors are slamming shut left and right in his life. The guy thinks back to the things he'd hoped for—which haven't happened—and he says, “Is a dream a lie if it don't come true… or is it something worse?” He's has no idea what's going to happen from here on out, and the song ends with this unresolved tension.

Have you ever had a dream, a picture of what your life was going to be like? Something that kept you going, something you made plans around, something you worked and sacrificed for… and then one day you woke up, and you realized not only had it not happened, but also it wasn't going to? How do you recover when that happens?

*****

I don't know about you, but I distinctly remember the points in my life when I realized my future wasn't unlimited—when I ran into a boundary or an impossibility. It was tough to come to grips with the fact that there were many things I would never be able to do because of where I grew up, who I was born to, genetics, my family's economic status and other things I couldn't control. And that there were other closed doors in my life that were linked to choices and mistakes I and those close to me made as we moved through life. You feel both sad and cheated when these things hit you. To quote a different Springsteen song, how do you “learn to live with what you can't rise above”?

One of the biggest dangers for Christians in our culture is that we are so steeped in cultural expectations that we think the role of our faith is help us fulfill them. The ideas of success, health and happiness, wealth here on earth are all expectations of our culture. So is the notion that God wants our lives to be pleasant—that in fact He owes us a pleasant, easy existence for signing on with Him.

But these ideas are not biblical— they are part of American culture. Buying cool stuff; getting ahead socially, materially and financially; and having fun experiences with people we like are what we expect from life in this country. So when things go wrong, or expectations are not met or promises are delayed, we feel cheated out of what we feel we deserve .

When we begin serving in the Christian life we bring our culture with us. Part of the baggage is the idea that when we serve Christ, our efforts should be successful. If they are, we assume God has blessed us and that He is pleased with the way we are following him. If we run into setbacks, we wonder where we have gone wrong. Two more pieces of luggage are that we'll see the end results of our efforts, and that God's promises to us will be fulfilled quickly.

*****

If you're a Christian, have you ever believed with your whole heart that God had a plan for you, or a way he wanted to bless you, and you oriented your life towards it… and you're still waiting on it? Or what you were sure would happen turned out completely differently? Is a dream a lie if it don't come true… or is it something worse?

About 10 years ago, God gave me a dream, a glimpse of something I thought He wanted me to be part of. In my case it literally was a dream—One night I dreamed that my church, and the people I was working with in leadership were all in some huge place where everyone was wholeheartedly worshipping God. There were my pastor and our praise band, in this theater-in-the-round, leading worship. I looked around at the congregation: there were many, many people of all races and ethnicities. I couldn't really tell what my role was in all this, I seemed to be some kind of behind-the-scenes roadie or something. But it was the best worship I had ever been in.

Now the thing about this dream was that something else happened after I woke up. The dream was only the beginning of my experience. I woke up to a rush of God's presence in my life, a nearness to him, a certainty about him and his plans that lasted for six months. I grew tremendously in my faith during this time, and I never looked back. The way I am today is a direct result of that dream and those six months.

I thought I knew what the dream meant: God had something in mind for our church, something I and the people I knew and loved were going to experience. It was something that was going to happen, because it was from God and nothing could derail it. I had complete confidence in God's ability to bring it about, and I was excited to be a part of it. I oriented my life and my work for the church around it.

Even after some pretty horrible things happened at my church I believed in that dream and it kept me going. Later on, when some of us did a church plant, I thought the dream would come true there. But our plant didn't make it either, and I ended up churchless.

I was confused, hurt and disillusioned. What was going through my mind went like this: “Um, God, hello? What was that dream that you gave me all about? Why fill me with all that certainty and make me into a new person, and get me working so hard for you? How could I have totally missed the point?”

Is a dream a lie if it don't come true, or is it something worse?

*****

There's a passage in Hebrews I keep coming back to for encouragement and perspective as I do my best to live a life pleasing to God. This passage reminds me that God does not owe me a successful, easy existence here on earth. Instead, he invites me to participate in something much better.

Chapter 11 of Hebrews starts off with a bold statement: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Right away we learn that God's not in the instant gratification business—faith, which God values highly—requires us to believe what is not yet tangible.

The chapter is sometimes called “the roll call of faith” because it recounts the stories of Old Testament heroes both famous and obscure. The writer tells us we should look to these people as examples of how to persevere in faith and live lives pleasing to God.

Some of these people lived what we would call “successful” lives. Verses 32-35 tell us about people God did mighty things to and through. They participated in awesome miracles and did wild, faith-based things:

…time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection…

But right in the middle of verse 35, the writer switches gears and tells us about other people, equally faithful, to whom some really bad things happened. These people were not successful and seemed to have been punished, rather than rewarded, for their faith:

Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.

God gives each of his witnesses a specific part to play in his plan of salvation. To us, some appear to be successful. They participate in miracles, they bring many to Christ, their churches become large and influential. Others don't taste success. They may be mocked or imprisoned, they may toil in obscure churches that never see growth or influence, they may even lose their life for Christ.

But look at the extraordinary statement of verses 39–40:

Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.

God commended all of these people for their faith, both those who had seemed successful on earth and those who had not. Regardless of the visible outcome of their earthly lives, all were commended. But be sure to notice this—none of them saw the culmination of God's promises to them during their lifetimes. This is because they were participating in God's plan, which calls for everyone to receive the promises at the same time—the consumation of history. No one receives until we all receive together.

*****

After explaining the situation of these faithful witnesses, the writer of Hebrews goes on to say:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

We are also called to play a part in God's plan, which will follow the same pattern as that of the OT heroes. That means some of us who are Jesus' witnesses will appear to be successful. It will look like God blesses everything we touch, our families and our personal lives will have few troubles, we will influence many for Christ, and we will be part of churches where the sky seems to be the limit. But others of us will struggle with our health, our jobs and our families. We may be mocked for our faith in Christ and see few results when we speak of him to others. We may have difficulties and fail as we minister to others.

Does this mean something is wrong? Well, that is a possibility, and something we should seriously consider and examine. But it also could be that we are in that second category of Old Testament witness, the kind that does not seem to be blessed with success.

When we fall into this category, we should remember what Hebrews 11:39 says: All these were commended for their faith.

*****

This passage doesn't tell us the role of our faith is to help us fulfill our dreams. It doesn't say God wants to give us a pleasant, easy existence. There is no instant gratification with God; indeed, fulfillment most likely will take place outside of our lifetimes. During this life we do not receive the complete promises—although we may see a glimpse of them. The full promises only come true at the consummation of time.

What this passage does tell us is that as followers of Christ we should look to the examples of people who were faithful to God and emulate them—including and especially Jesus himself during his lifetime here. Just as they did, we are to drop the weight of our expectations . We are to get rid of the sin that holds us back. And like them, we are to accept the struggle and the challenge—the race—that God sets before us, and persevere in this work until we finish. We do not get to choose what our race is, but we are expected to be faithful to what God gives us.

The Christian life will be hard. It is full of struggle and danger. It will be hard for us like it was hard for Jesus. We may die without seeing even part of the reward or the results of our work. But we can trust God's ultimate promises will come true. They always do.

This passage tells us that all those folks who have come before us—in our case, the OT faithful, the NT faithful, and every faithful Christian for the last 2000 years, are encouraging us as we struggle to finish our leg of the race.

And it tells us that someday, all of us together will see the ultimate fulfillment of God's promises. We will receive our full salvation, resurrection from the dead, and the complete, indestructible, eternal inheritance that God has promised us: the new heaven and the new earth.

Because in addition to all the faithful witnesses, Jesus himself has finished and gone ahead of us. He's also standing at our finish line, encouraging and assuring us we will arrive at where he already is. Hear these words from Revelation 21 and 22:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.' And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.'

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light and they will reign forever and ever.

That's the promise fulfilled. That's what, together, all who trust Christ will receive in the end.

*****

We want to be in charge of our lives, to choose how, where, what, who, when, why. And we want Jesus to come along with us as we make our choices and bless them and give us what we want.

But the truth of the Christian faith is that we need to drop what we want and allow God to give us the race He chooses, our part of His plan, every day.

That is hard for us to accept and to do. But it is how God expects us to live out our faith. It is the way we find meaning and purpose for our lives.

When I think my life should look and turn out a certain way, it is very easy to get discouraged when my expectations are not met. That's why I need to remember that my dreams and plans are not the race that God has set before me. God's dreams and plans for me are usually different from my own. And they may well stretch beyond my lifetime. I may not see the promises fulfilled here.

If I remember what Hebrews 11 and 12 are telling me—if you remember it too—it can go a long way to keeping us persevering in the race, even on our worst days.

I've spent a lot of time thinking about that dream I had 10 years ago. The energy and closeness I felt to God during that time took me to a higher level of commitment to Christ. But the dream itself hasn't come true here on earth, at least not yet during my lifetime. I have a new theory about what God was up to all those years ago

What I really think I got was a glimpse of what it's going to be like in the end. You know, The End in Revelation, with God dwelling among us, and all our tears wiped away and the river of life flowing from the throne and everyone, from all nations and times worshipping the Lord. I think that's what I saw in my dream. All my friends who struggled with me in the hard times will be there. And the people I know today who love Christ will be there. I think what God gave me was a glimpse of His ultimate promises. And you know, that can keep you going for a long time.

So that's why (with apologies to Bruce Springsteen) in my case, it might be appropriate to change that lyric from The River a little. Is a dream a lie if it don't come true, or is it something better ?

.

 

Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.

—Hebrews 11:39–40