The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Nothing seems to be working. “I have labored in vain,” says the prophet Isaiah. “I have spent my strength for nothing.” That is a terrible feeling. Investment with no return. Effort without progress. I have labored in vain.
The prophet has a word from God, but no one is listening. The prophet is called to bring the people hope, but they are hopeless. The prophet is a dreamer in the land where dreams go to die. It is a frustrating place to be. And so he cries out to God in holy protest: “I have labored in vain. I have spent my strength for nothing.”
The prophet's task was an unenviable task. The line between platitudes and a word of hope is often uncomfortably thin – made even more uncomfortable because the wrong words in this situation would sting, would add insult to injury. Let's be clear, the prophet was not sent to turn some frowns upside down. Deep gloom enshrouds this people, this nation. This was not a case of the Mondays; they weren't just kinda bummed. The people of Israel were devastated, broken-hearted; they were living a nightmare. Their holy city was destroyed before their very eyes. The temple: still in ruins. The people were strangers in a strange land, exiles, defeated, despairing. They were wounded.
Now exiles do not have many options, but they have do have one choice: they can dream dreams; they can hold on to hope. Or they can downsize their expectations to minimize their disappointment. Accept the defeat, give in to the nightmare, and just survive.
And that is what they chose. But God wanted more; God wanted more for them. And so God sent the prophet with a word – a word of hope. The promise of a future, that same impossible dream that sustained the ancestors in the Ark and in Egypt and in the wilderness, the promise of a God who heard their cries, who would never leave them, who walked them through the Red Sea. That same God suffered with them in exile. That same God would carry them home. That was the message from God's mouth to the prophet's ear; from the prophet's mouth to the people. And it sounded good, no doubt, it sounded good. But good news is hard to hear over the wailing. Hope is hard to see through the tears. It is hard to dream dreams in a land of nightmares.
And so here we are: the messenger of hope is losing hope. The voice of the one who is supposed to bring good news is raising his voice instead in lamentation: “I have labored in vain. I have spent my strength for nothing.”
The prophet found what I think we all know deep down, it is hard to be the last dreamer. Isaiah was so sure this was it. He was so sure he was called to bring his people hope, to raise up the tribes, to restore the survivors, to pave the way home with words of edification. And he tried, but he failed. I have labored in vain.
Let's be clear about what this is: this is the resignation speech, this the “you've got the wrong guy” speech, this is Moses at the burning bush looking for an out. And it makes sense. If God called the prophet to this mission, if he was the right choice for the job, it should work, right? The labor should not be in vain. The prophet should not feel like a failure. And the people, his people, should not be exiled without hope.
But it was and he does and they were. And God responds. Now not in a way that makes sense, but God does respond. God says to this dejected prophet, this prophet who has failed, who has labored in vain, who is giving up: you are dreaming too small; dream bigger.
The prophet is speaking hope to his nation; God wants that message to find a larger audience. The prophet has packaged the salvation story for folks who look, act, believe like him; God's salvation overflows the banks, violates the boundaries. God is not content until the good news reaches every ear, every heart, every soul. Isaiah was struggling to reach the local market. God wants him to find a bigger platform. God's message is universal. God's dream is bigger.
He was dreaming too small. And of course he was. The small dreams were too big to come true. God says to the prophet, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel.” But it didn't feel light. Actually it felt like he was being crushed under the weight.
When I look around – especially on social media – I see a world weighed down by despair. I see hopelessness. I see a people who are pessimistic about the future. I see a nation broken by violence and poverty, by racism and division, by anger and disappointment. And when folks are weighed down by despair, they forget to dream dreams. Because dreams seems foolish when all of the headlines are nightmares.
But I will remind you, that when things seemed hopeless, God told the prophet to dream bigger. Walter Brueggemann says that God's people are called “to dream the impossible dream; to speak the impossible word; to act the impossible act.”1 It is too light a thing to just be optimistic; you are called to dream impossible dreams. It is too light a thing to offer this world some empty platitudes; you are called to speak the impossible word. It is too light a thing to smiply act politely; you are called to act the impossible act. Dream, speak, act the Kingdom of God into this world. Do not let the nightmare have the last word.
This weekend we remember a man who dreamed impossible dreams. A prophet who dared to speak those impossible dreams into a situation that felt hopeless, to a nation held captive by the nightmares of racism and hatred. Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed big; he dreamed impossible dreams. And he kept dreaming even when it seemed his labor was in vain, even when the valleys seemed too deep and the odds too long.
Because he knew that impossible dreams don't come easily. And that why he said, “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends. [E]ven though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.” He knew that impossible dreams don't come easily. And that why he said, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”
Impossible dreams don't come easily. But you, you are called to dream impossible dreams, to speak impossible words, to act impossible acts. To live this world into the Kingdom of God, to bring hope to the hopeless, to be light in the darkness, to drive out hate with love.
And when it feels as if your labor has been in vain, and it will, sometimes it will: Don't stop dreaming. Dream bigger.