What If the Dream is Real?
APRIL 5, 2023
A friend recently went through a very difficult and dark time. He asked me, “Do you ever have a nightmare, then wake up relieved when you discover and are so glad it was only a dream?”
I allowed that I had experienced that. Then he said, “That’s what I’m going through, only it’s the opposite. When I wake up, it’s a nightmare.”
We’ve all experienced dreams that seemed so real, only to wake up and discover that the dreams (both the pleasant ones and the nightmares) weren’t real. Some believe the Christian faith is a pipe dream born out of wishful thinking. Freud (who was wrong about almost everything) said that we dream about a good father and call him “God.” Atheist Bertrand Russell wrote, “Nothing matters and nothing has meaning. . . . All the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius . . . must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins.” Of course, Russell is dead now, and he knows that was a lie. Russell woke up, as it were, from his silly dream to his worst nightmare. It must have been quite sobering.
Speaking of dreams, everybody dreams of a world where we’re accepted, valued, loved, and forgiven and can live forever. All of us have probably thought at one time or another that our dream was wishful thinking. Sometimes it’s so very dark, and the dream seems so unreal and fleeting.
But what if the dream is real?
What if the hopes and dreams were programmed into our DNA? That’s what Dean Hamer writes in his book, The God Gene: How Faith is Hotwired into Our Genes. He might quibble over my word “programmed” (that presupposes a Programmer), but bottom line, Hamer writes that there has been a belief in God since recorded time. That belief is universally held by billions of people. Hamer suggests that human beings have an “evolutionary advantage,” and because of our faith, we can get through difficulties, depression, and fear of death. It’s in our genes. It’s a good point, even if Hamer avoids or dismisses the reality of a God who made us that way. In other words, even if Hamer doesn’t understand it, his research affirms Augustine’s comment that God created us for himself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in him.
I move the previous question: What if the dream is real?
That’s what Easter is all about! It’s a time when Christians wake up to find that their dreams are real. That’s what Paul means when he writes: “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:12-19).
Paul says that all of the dreams and hopes we have depended on one fact, that a dead man got out of his grave and said we could, too. And that fact chiseled in concrete everything God taught us. It’s all true . . . all of it. I can’t go into the rational arguments for the actual space-time event of Christ’s resurrection here. The truth is that there is far more evidence for Christ’s resurrection than for Julius Caesar or Plato’s teaching. In fact, it takes far more faith to doubt the resurrection than it does to affirm it.
There is an ancient Chinese text about Zhuang Zhou, who dreamed he was a butterfly. When he awoke, he was uncertain if he was Zhuang Zhou dreaming he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuang Zhou. When we say, “Christ is risen!” we affirm that the dream is real and we are awake (in a way that is far more important, exciting, and true than the silly “wokeism” of our culture). We are awake from the bad dream they told us about to the reality of forgiveness, love, joy, and eternal life.
I remember the first Easter when I realized that what I thought was a dream was actually real. As a Boston University School of Theology student, I served a small church on Cape Cod. I was also a theological liberal at that time, just this side of whacko. In those days, I thought I was an intellectual, hanging out with the “cool kids.” I had not discarded Christ’s physical resurrection, but I was close to buying into the idea that it wasn’t a physical resurrection of a physical body. Instead, the disciples’ love for Christ caused them to dream what was only “true in their hearts.” I know, I know. That’s crazy, but crazy people don’t know they’re crazy.
At any rate, I was in my small study going over notes for the Easter sermon . . . when Jesus came. It hit me, “This stuff is true. The ushers need to count one more person in the Easter congregation, and that person is Jesus.” It changed everything. Since then, I have preached thousands of sermons and given almost as many lectures, but none came even close to my Easter sermon and what I felt that morning. My homiletics professor wouldn’t have given me an “A” for that sermon. It was probably a terrible sermon except for that extra congregant, Jesus, who was in the congregation smiling and cheering me on with, “Now you’ve got it! You go!”
Easter isn’t important just because a dead man got up and walked. That, of course, is a big deal, but Easter is when we celebrate the morning after an incredible dream when we woke up to discover the dream was real. Now, we can say with assurance . . . I’m forgiven for everything! I’m valuable beyond anything I ever hoped for! I have a flag to follow and a song to sing! I’m accepted and loved. And on top of that, I’m going to live forever!
Last week someone told me a wonderful story. Billy Graham was struggling with Parkinson’s Disease and was close to death. A month before his 92nd birthday, some leaders in Charlotte wanted to honor him as a Charlotte native. They told Mr. Graham that they didn’t expect him to give an address, but they just wanted to honor him. When the invitation was issued, Mr. Graham was hesitant but finally agreed. Not only was Mr. Graham there, but he also managed to step up to the podium and speak:
“I’m reminded today of Albert Einstein, the great physicist who this month has been honored by Time magazine as the Man of the Century. Einstein was once traveling from Princeton on a train, when the conductor came down the aisle, punching the tickets of every passenger. When he came to Einstein, Einstein reached in his vest pocket. He couldn’t find his ticket, so he reached in his trouser pockets.
“It wasn’t there. He looked in his briefcase but couldn’t find it. Then he looked in the seat beside him. He still couldn’t find it.
“The conductor said, ‘Dr. Einstein, I know who you are. We all know who you are. I’m sure you bought a ticket. Don’t worry about it.’ Einstein nodded appreciatively. The conductor continued down the aisle punching tickets. As he was ready to move to the next car, he turned around and saw the great physicist down on his hands and knees, looking under his seat for his ticket.
“The conductor rushed back and said, ‘Dr. Einstein, Dr. Einstein, don’t worry. I know who you are; no problem. You don’t need a ticket. I’m sure you bought one.’ Einstein looked at him and said, ‘Young man, I, too, know who I am. What I don’t know is where I’m going.’
“See the suit I’m wearing? It’s a brand-new suit. My children and my grandchildren are telling me I’ve gotten a little slovenly in my old age. I used to be a bit more fastidious. So, I went out and bought a new suit for this luncheon and one more occasion. You know what that occasion is? This is the suit in which I’ll be buried. But when you hear I’m dead, I don’t want you to immediately remember the suit I’m wearing. I want you to remember this:
“I not only know who I am. I also know where I’m going.”
He did. And that’s because of the risen Christ.
My friend Tony Campolo (with whom I disagree about almost everything but Jesus) gave me a quote from the Christian social activist Ron Sider (with whom I also disagree about almost everything but Jesus): “If Jesus didn’t come back from the dead, nothing else matters. If Jesus did come back from the dead, nothing else matters.”
I may have told you about the music director who overslept and failed to show up for the church’s Easter sunrise service. The next Easter, the pastor called him very early in the morning and said, “Jesus has risen . . . and this year, you better, too!”
I would say to you that Jesus is risen, and you will, too!
The glorious dream is real, and the nightmare will eventually be dismissed as no consequence.
The risen Christ asked me to remind you!