Pastor's Blog
John McLarty

Sweet Dreams

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists for Sabbath, July 15, 2017

 Texts: Jeremiah 31:15-26; Luke 15:1-6.Â
 Maurice was worried about his youngest son. His oldest son, in his early thirties, had a major position with Sprint. He was in charge of bringing on line some new technology that I didn’t quite understand. The minister’s daughter was an architect and in her first year in her firm won a national design award. She was doing very well, thank you.
But it was the youngest son, Maurice was worried about. He had started out at Oakwood University in Huntsville, Alabama, then enrolled in aeronautical engineering at the University of Alabama with the plan of completing both degrees. This younger son had finished his degree at Oakwood but was still four classes short of completing his degree in engineering at the University of Alabama. Part of the reason he had not yet finished his engineering degree is that he was already working as an engineer going to school only part time.
Our conversation happened while we were at a conference last week. Over a couple of different meals, Maurice described his efforts to talk sense to his son. The son had been offered a job by another firm there in Huntsville. It offered $17,000 more a year. The son wanted to take the new job. Maurice and his wife were trying to persuade their son to decline the offer and finish his degree. Remember he was only four classes short. If people were trying to recruit him now, without the degree, there would be more offers after he finished his degree. And it would never be easier to finish his education than now.
After awhile, Maurice’s wife joined us. The kids get their brains from Mom, Maurice says. She’s an IT genius. The three of us shook our heads together as we commiserated about the short-sightedness of young people. We understood the allure of $17,000. But we were sure that this younger son would some day be very glad he had buckled down and finished that degree. And together we hoped he would be willing to stay in his current job long enough to graduate.
An abiding characteristic of parents is a hunger to see our children succeed.
When our little one starts to pull herself up and stands on rocking legs, we eagerly watch for her first steps. We listen for first words. We brag about first songs.
We take pictures of kids holding books pretending they are reading. And if our kid is one of those early readers, we take soul-filling pride in their accomplishment.
And if our kid is preparing for his comprehensives or getting ready to go on stage for her masters recital, we hold our breath, hoping they will wow their professors and the rest of the world. (And we laugh at ourselves for thinking of them as “kids” when they have so far surpassed us. Still, we cannot completely forget that we changed their diapers and cleaned their vomit out of the carpet.)
It is the very essence of being a parent to dream of our kids’ success. At some point in our lives, our highest ambitions transfer from anything we might imagine for ourselves to what we imagine for our children. And no matter what they achieve, we dream of something higher and brighter.
This hunger for the success of our children never goes away. No matter how successful they are. No matter how messed up they are.
I visited with another denominational executive. Jack also has three kids. His daughter, the middle kid, is making him proud. She’s married working for the church. Doing well. The youngest, well, he’s an artist, and therefore “starving” well, between jobs. Just got laid off from the nonprofit he was working for, saving the world, because that’s what dreamy artistic kids do. The nonprofit figured out they could get unpaid interns to do the work they had been paying Jack’s son to do. He’s a good kid. Dad just holds his breath, hoping he’ll land well. The conversation went elsewhere, but I brought it back. Jack had mentioned his eldest earlier in the conversation, and I noticed the current evasion. I had to ask. “Your eldest, is he doing okay?” I saw the pain on Jack’s face. I felt the hesitation. “We’re praying,” he said. And waiting, I added in my head. Waiting and hoping and aching.
There were no details. That was left to my imagination. Drugs? Unemployment? Mental illness? Crime? Relational messes. There are a thousand ways children can break our hearts. There are only a couple of ways we can respond. We hurt and we long for something better.
And if some night in our dreams, our son gets a job or our daughter goes to rehab or our kid is released from prison, it is the sweetest dream. And when we wake, we say “My sleep was very sweet.”
With this background, let’s consider our Old Testament reading from the prophet Jeremiah.
A cry is heard in Ramah–deep anguish and bitter weeping. Rachel weeps for her children, refusing to be comforted–for her children are gone.”
The setting for these words is the failure of Israel. The nation of Israel had been conquered by the kingdom of Babylon. The initial military defeat turned into complete obliteration. The Babylonians deported the entire population en masse. Huge numbers of people, especially young men, warriors, were slaughtered.
The nation, personified as the mothers, wept. Inconsolably. How do you find tears enough to grieve the loss of an entire generation?
The prophet Jeremiah had predicted this disaster. More than that, he had tried to avert the disaster. He had begged and cajoled and scolded the people trying to persuade them to take the necessary actions to avoid this calamity.
He had preached against idolatry and its immoral sequel. He had railed against the oppression of the poor, the failure to provide for the widows and orphans, the perversion of justice which turned the courts into agencies for the protection of the privileged. He denounced the use of religion as a ritual of national self-affirmation. He thundered. He implored. And watched helplessly as the nation failed.
A cry is heard in Ramah–deep anguish and bitter weeping. Rachel weeps for her children, refusing to be comforted–for her children are gone.”
This lament, this awareness of doom, dominates the book of Jeremiah, but here in the vision of chapter 31, this doom is background. It is not the last word. After recording this lamentation, Jeremiah writes,
But now this is what the LORD says: “Do not weep any longer, for I will reward you,” says the LORD. “Your children will come back to you from the distant land of the enemy.
There is hope for your future,” says the LORD. “Your children will come again to their own land.
You children will come home. They screwed up. Disaster happened. But that is not the final chapter. They will come home.
In the vision, Jeremiah hears this command:
Set up road signs; put up guideposts. Mark well the path because your children are coming home. I will bring them back. They will live together in peace and happiness. I will give rest to the weary and joy to the sorrowing.”
Jeremiah ends the passage with these words:
I woke up and looked around. My sleep had been very sweet. Jeremiah 31:15-26
Sweet, indeed.
Jeremiah’s sweet dream is a picture of God. God’s dream for humanity is success. Plan A is a straight line from birth to success. Plan B is a straight line from wherever we are to success. The vision of God is the triumph of his children. And that vision always begins at the point where God’s children currently are. There is no place any human can reach that does not have a path from there to triumph, from there to joy. This is the central conviction of theism. God has good plans that include us and every other human being.
And when we help one another toward wholeness, toward holiness and health, toward happiness and nobility, we are participating in the happiness of God.
Our New Testament reading is the story of the Good Shepherd. One sheep from his flock of a hundred gets lost. After securing the 99 in the sheep pen, the shepherd goes looking and keeps looking until he finds the lost sheep and brings it home.
And when he returns with the sheep on his shoulders, there is great rejoicing.
I shared lunch on Tuesday with Brianna, a friend of one of my daughters. She taught this last year at a small Adventist high school in New England. She told me stories of heart breaking human dysfunction and her sense of inadequacy as she gave a listening ear to these kids who came from places of domestic chaos. She talked of her hunger to see them succeed, to transcend the messes of their childhood and go on to lives of happiness and doing good.
Listening to her, I saw a vision of God. Affection for her kids. Ambition for her kids. Devotion to her kids. I imagined God watching her at work and telling himself, now that is a woman after my own heart. That’s my idea of a perfect human being. And God smiles. And if God takes a nap in the afternoon after watching Brianna at work, his sleep is very sweet.
The world offers many reasons to lament. We ache for the failure that haunts the human condition. But we can also participate in the sweet dreams of God. We can be shepherds finding lost sheep. We can be teachers cooperating in the work of God, helping his children succeed. This is our highest calling.
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