And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his Temple.—Malachi 3:1
It was, I think, a mixed blessing which God bestowed upon us when He gave us dreams and taught us to hope. A mixed blessing, and for the dreamer a dream can be a dangerous thing, for we can be injured by our dreams and hope often ends in heartbreak. I look back on myself as a child or as a younger man. How many dreams I had then, how much I was going to do in my life, how much I would accomplish, and how well I would do it. The whole world and all of life was mine for the taking . . . or so it seemed. But time passed, and I came to realize, as we all come to realize, that the world was not mine, and most of the dreams I had as a child would never come to be. We put them aside then and try to forget them. Perhaps, even, we dream less as adults in order to protect ourselves from dreaming, for maturity acquaints us with the reality of life, and reality introduces us to disappointment, and disappointment hurts.
And yet, we continue to dream, and we continue to hope. This surely is part of what it is to be human. Without dreams or hopes – for ourselves, our families, and those we love, for the world around us – without dreams and hopes we would be emotionally and spiritually dead. Indeed, without the dreams and dreamers all human accomplishment would come to a standstill. And so, again, a mixed blessing. Our ability to dream comes to us as a gift from God, even though it sometimes seems and feels like a curse.
And there are times when dreaming seems, again, to be a very cruel gift – this particularly when one is old. It is often a painful thing to dream and hope when most of your life is behind you, and you know there is little time left. As long as years lie ahead, the dreams seem real and hope has a possibility of fulfillment. But when age overtakes us and our end is near enough to think about, then the bright promise of a dream will dull and disappear, and our hopes are there only to mock us. How often do we hear of people who, at the end of life, sink into disappointment and bitterness, because the dreams never came true and hopes remained unfulfilled. It is dangerous, as I said, to dream and hope is a risky business.
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This morning we heard the story of two dreamers, and they were old, very old. Simeon, the devout and righteous man, and Anna, the prophetess. Simeon dreamed and he hoped for the “consolation of Israel” – the time, as he thought, when God would restore Israel to her former glory, overthrow her conquerors and make her once again and most obviously His chosen and favored people. And Simeon hoped that death would come soon, for it had been revealed to him, we are told, by the Holy Spirit that he would see these things before he died. But even so, there must have been a certain bitterness and disappointment for the old man – something perhaps bordering on despair – for all around him were the obvious signs that this was not to be. The Roman soldiers in the streets, his own people split up into castes and parties who fought among themselves, and on the hills outside the city the crucified bodies of those who dared to stand up to the power of imperial Rome. The “consolation of Israel” must have seemed very far off, and he was old. Was it the Holy Spirit? . . . or was it only a dream?
And Anna? She was eighty-four now. For sixty-five years she had lived as a widow alone, and it seems she had made the Temple her virtual home. Day and night she worshipped and prayed there where sacrifice was offered, there where the God of Israel was said to be present in an empty room. Anna, too, had her dreams, because, you see, she lived in a dream. (For what, after all, is a temple or a church but the particular locus of certain of our dreams?) God was present there in that temple, but in a symbolic way – like a dream. And what is the purpose of a temple, but to lead us on and to make us yearn and hope for the fullness of the reality to which it points? Anna lived in the blessed dream world of her religion. Make no mistake, it was a real world – yes – grounded in nothing less than the reality of God, but it was a world which pointed beyond itself to something greater still – to a future reality known only to hope and to dreams. Anna worshipped her God there, but because it was a temple, she looked and she hoped for more.
And Anna . . . and Simeon . . . were not disappointed. Though old, though at the end of their lives when their yearnings may have become bitter and cold, they were not disappointed.
Behold, I send my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.
That was what the prophet Malachi, another dreamer, had predicted, and for Anna and Simeon it came true.
It was not what they expected, of course. At first, it must have seemed less; in fact, it was much more than they had hoped for, because, of course, God’s dreams and God’s promises are always larger than our dreams and our hopes. It was a child, the son of a girl from the country.
This was the consolation of Israel ? A child ? This was the fulfillment of her destiny as the people of God? This was the meaning – a child ? – of the great Temple in Jerusalem and all its sacrifices and all its prayers ? How could it be?
But it was. For the child Jesus was the coming-to-be of another dream, for – don’t you remember? – Israel was born in a dream. That’s how she began. Remember, Jacob the patriarch had two dreams – as Scripture tells us. In one he wrestled with an angel of God, and for his perseverance he was given a new name – Israel – the name passed on to all his descendants and to the nation. And in the other dream, he saw a ladder to heaven – an image of what Israel was called to be – the means by which all humanity might ascend to God – a light to the Gentiles. And so aged Simeon’s dream for his people was realized, and he took up and held in his arms that for which he had hoped – the one who was indeed the “consolation of Israel” and, more than that, the “consolation” of the whole world. That child was the light of God who would rescue the Gentiles from their darkness and gather them into his body, a new Israel. That child – son of David, son of Man, son of Mary, son of God – was the ladder by which man might ascend to Heaven.
And to widowed Anna, who prayed continually in the Temple, to her came the One who was Himself the true Temple – the new focus of the worship and the presence of God. She stood by daily as the priests offered sacrifice and made propitiation for sin. She had for all those years bowed low before the Holy of Holies, that inner, empty room where God was present in His absence. And now before her was the One who would be the perfect sacrifice, the ending of sin, and the presence of God – not in absence or in symbol, but, now alive, in human flesh. What the Temple stood for was fulfilled, and the fulfillment was a child – this child – Jesus. How strange! But then, dreams are strange, and – more than that – God is strange.
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There are, dear brothers and sisters, there are two essential things to be learned in the story we heard for the Gospel today. The first is this: that our dreams must be grounded in God. Without that it is indeed dangerous to dream, for we open ourselves to disappointment. But if our dreams, our hopes are grounded in God – as were those of Simeon and Anna – then their fulfillment is certain. For He who gives us our dreams and plants in us the desire and yearning for Himself is faithful and sure – a rock, a cornerstone, an anchor of our hope.
And the other lesson is this: the realization of our dreams and the fulfillment of our hope will not always be what we expect it to be; it will, however, always be more. God’s dreams are larger than ours. We are not to dictate to God how He shall realize our dreams; we must only dream on and accept His realization. It may not be what we expect, nor may it be even what we want – but it will be more – always infinitely more. It will be God Himself!
Some of us are old now. Most of us will grow old, and come to that time when we know that death is near, and that will be a time when our hopes and dreams may be disappointed – but not, as I said, if they are grounded in God. For if our trust is in God, if our hopes are in God, if our dreams are in God, then we may join with aged Simeon and sing out with joy and confidence that hymn for the evening of the day which is a prayer for the evening of our lives:
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy Word.
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation
which thou hast prepared before the face of all peoples,
a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.