"Imagine all the people, living life in peace. You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will be as one." – John Lennon
How many of you knew those words were from a song by John Lennon, once one of the Beatles? Here’s another flash from the past for the Boomer generation. Khalil Gibran, who wrote The Prophet, said: "I prefer to be a dreamer among the humblest, with visions to be realized, than lord among those without dreams or desires." And Jim Valvano, a winning coach of NC State basketball back in the 1970’s, said, "Be a dreamer. If you don’t know how to dream, you’re dead."
Many sources refer to Joseph of the Bible as a dreamer. And he was, as we saw in the passage last week. He dreamed of sheaves and the sun and moon and eleven stars, or in other words, his family, bowing down to him. This angered his 11 brothers so much that they sold him into slavery and told their father he was dead.
But Joseph was also an interpreter of dreams. Do you remember the story? While in slavery in Egypt, Joseph, who had grown to be a handsome young man, caught the eye of the Pharaoh’s wife. Joseph resisted her advances, and she had him thrown into jail. Later, the Pharaoh became angry with his cupbearer and baker for some reason, and threw them into jail as well, for a short time. While there, they had dreams that troubled them. Joseph interpreted the dreams for them. So when Pharaoh had a dream that troubled him, the cupbearer remembered the young man in the jail who had interpreted his dream. The king sent for Joseph, and Joseph interpreted the dream in such a way that the Pharaoh seemed to accept. Joseph gave all the credit for the gift of interpretation to God, and he never promoted himself to fill the position of making sure that the kingdom prepared for the famine to come. But Pharaoh saw wisdom and discernment in Joseph and appointed him to take command. "Only in regard to the throne will I be greater than you," he said to Joseph; "See, I have set you over all the land of Egypt." (Genesis 41:40, 41).
Thus God entered into the land of Egypt and set the scene for Joseph’s reunion with his brothers. At the end of this wonderful story, at the end of the book of Genesis, Joseph said to his brother words that perhaps sum up much of the biblical message: "Do not be afraid!" he said (as the angels and Jesus also often said). He continued: "Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today." (Genesis 50:19-20) God is present in and works through all circumstances in life. Though we may not always acknowledge it, God is ever present and working, even in the darkest and hardest moments of our lives. "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose," the letter to the Romans tells us (Romans 8:28).
Joseph attributed his ability to interpret dreams totally to God. "It is not I," he told Pharaoh, "God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer." (Gen. 41:16) "God has revealed to Pharaoh what God is about to do" he said (v.25). "And the doubling of Pharaoh’s dream means that the thing is fixed by God, and God will shortly bring it about" (v.32). Joseph gave all the credit to God.
After interpreting the dream, Joseph simply said that the Pharaoh would need to select someone "wise and discerning" to take charge, one who could appoint overseers to handle the crop production, saving enough to work through the famine. The Pharaoh, this mighty man who ruled Egypt, never questioned Joseph’s interpretation. The Pharaoh, who was not a believer in Joseph’s God, miraculously responded by asking, "Can we find anyone else like this – one in whom is the spirit of God?" Pharaoh saw no one else like Joseph and immediately appointed this young Israelite man who had been in jail to rule over Egypt, under no one except the Pharaoh himself. (God works in mysterious ways, and through the most unlikely of people, the Bible shows us, time and time again!) And Joseph lived up to the task. Joseph successfully led Egypt to survive the famine so well that Joseph’s brothers, starving in Israel, would travel to Egypt to ask for food many years later, reuniting the family. But that part of the story will come in the weeks ahead, as we continue this preaching series on the story of Joseph during the month of August. Even our guest preacher, Barbara Fletcher’s son Tully, will preach on the Joseph story next week when we welcome him home and to our pulpit.
But what do we think of this dream interpretation? People still seek to interpret dreams today, although we often approach them from a more scientific and psychological angle than from a spiritual sense. Dr. Milton Kramer, a clinical professor of psychiatry at The University of Illinois in Chicago supplies a Dream Decoder. He says that Dreams of Powerlessness, like trying to run from something yet unable to move, or trying to scream at something or someone frightening yet unable to make a noise, mean that the one dreaming is facing a difficult decision. He says that Dreams of Natural Disasters, like tornadoes or tidal waves, destroying everything we hold dear, mean that we are worried about losing something. He says that Dreams of Unpreparedness, of rushing to make a flight yet unable to find the ticket, or a new mother unable to find her baby, are dreams of the fear of performing well. There are Christian interpretation of dreams available as well, books and websites that guide us in our interpretations.
Dreams are important in Bible stories. Dreams are mentioned over 100 times in the Bible. Joseph and Daniel interpreted dreams sent from God. Jacob dreamed of a ladder going up to heaven. Solomon dreamed of God asking him what Solomon wanted. And Solomon asked for wisdom to govern the people of God. God was so pleased with the request that he gave Solomon wisdom and riches. An angel appeared in a dream to tell the other Joseph that it was alright to marry the pregnant Mary, mother of Jesus. And the wise men were warned in a dream not to return to King Herod after taking their gifts to the Christ child.
We want to interpret our dreams for our own lives. And that may be helpful. But notice that biblical dreams were not for the sole benefit of the dreamer. Jacob’s dream told him that his offspring would be God’s people. Solomon’s dream led him to rule God’s people wisely and to build the Temple where many people could worship God. In the NT, Joseph’s dream made way for the Son of God to be born, and the wise men’s dream protected the Christ Child from a scrupulous king. In our story today, even the Pharaoh’s dream set the scene for Joseph to be put into a power of position where he would meet his family again and right an old wrong with a powerful message about God’s presence in the world. Walter Brueggeman’s interpretation of this passage says, "God’s plan transcends all else. But it is still tied to concrete historical action"1
Where, then, do we see God in the concrete world of today? What are our dreams for the future? When we lose our jobs and have to spend our savings to pay the rent, when our spouse dies too young and our whole world changes, when we get a dread disease or even the infirmities that come with age attack us, it is hard to dream at all. Our dreams become more like nightmares. Even the Church has trouble with dreaming, as the Body seems so divided these days. We cannot come to a general consensus even on the interpretation of Scripture. Economic woes can threaten our ministry, and our very existence, as we see many smaller churches closing their doors for good. As we look at the world events, with economic turmoil, political divide, civil disorder like the riots in London and the uprisings and wars in the Middle East, we may find it hard to dream of a world of peace, a world where the Bible dreams that "they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks;" where "nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they war anymore" (Isaiah 2:4).
And yet the Bible tells us over and over again, with stories like this one of Joseph, that God has a plan, that God is involved in worldly events, even, and maybe especially, when they seem so dire.
A great dreamer in the 20th century spoke eloquently of his dreams for our country, even for our world: "I have a dream," said Martin Luther King, Jr., in the midst of civil riots in the segregated south. "I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners, will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood." "I have a dream" he said, "that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." "I have a dream today," he said, going to the Scriptures, in the Book of Isaiah, "that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and ‘the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.’" Martin Luther King Jr. understood the dream and vision of God to be of something greater than you or me, but rather something available for all people. He looked for a time when "justice [would] roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream" (Amos 5:24).
Joseph’s interpretation of the Pharaoh’s dream led to salvation for many, many people, including his own family, in a time of famine and death. Jesus too had dreams, of the kingdom of God as like a mustard seed, "the smallest of seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches" (Matt. 13:31-32). "If you want to become my followers, deny yourselves and take up the cross and follow me," he said (Matt.16:24). He had dreams of us taking care of the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the prisoner, the "least" among us. Jesus had dreams of all of us, his disciples, going out to all nations, baptizing and teaching. And Jesus, of course, made those dreams all possible with his sacrifice of himself to save us.
So we see that all of these dreams that we have talked about today are of something greater than us. They look beyond individual lives and families. They look towards the welfare of all peoples. Maybe we as a church could dream of ways to meet the future well, not so much of growing in numbers, but of providing more space for ministries of inreach to our members, and outreach to our community; of sharing our buildings even more with helping organizations; of preparing space and resources to care for people in the event of a natural disaster, war, or destructive riots. At the same time, we should, of course, look to see how we can work to prevent some of those very things from happening as a people – caring for our an environment that human advances tend to erode rather than to protect; finding ways to bring people to the table together in mutual and respectful conversation; working for justice and peace for all peoples and all nations. For in talking of the bread and cup of the communion table,
I Corinthians reminds us "we who are many are one body" (I Cor. 10:17).
Dream, then, as you will, for we all dream. But maybe as we think about Joseph and Jesus and the Bible’s messages about dreams, we can change the way we interpret and use our dreams, whether they be night dreams or day dreams. So, when we dream, let us dare to dream big! Dream for the restoration of our world and of all people, in the one kingdom of God! Dream of wholeness and peace for all people. And then may we work to make it so! All glory be to God! Amen.
1 Brueggeman, Walter, Genesis (John Knox Press, GA, 1992), 332