September 22, 2019 Exodus 3-4:17; Luke 1:5-22
Our congregation spent some time together at P&M Pumpkin Ranch Sunday afternoon. Seven years ago, that place was uninhabited, by people anyway. Just trees, crop ground, a little creek. As we walked the grounds, we looked at all the rock that’s been brought in – really heavy rock. The landscaping, the gentle partnering with the land to shape place. The pathways and pedal tracks. The buildings constructed, many on site by Tim Kaminkow (owner) with help from family and young adults who have worked there over the years. That place is an evolving vision. The dictionary defines vision as “the ability to think about or plan the future with imagination and wisdom.” On P&M’s website, they describe their place as a God-sized dream. That’s a really good way to define a vision, a God-sized dream. Tim and Jamie, the owners of the pumpkin ranch, had a vision years ago and in the intervening years they have partnered with God to make this vision a reality. But God keeps whispering in their ears and urging them on. The God-sized dream continues to grow and so each year people get to go and see in what new ways it is taking shape.
I did some scripture reading on the word “vision” this last week. The Hebrew word for vision is “chazon” (khaw-zone) and means, a revelation, an oracle or a dream. We first find the word “vision” used in the book of Genesis a few different times and it continues to keep making its appearance throughout the Old Testament. It appears only a few times in the gospels before really making a resurgence in the book of Acts as we learn about Peter’s vision and discover Paul had multiple visions. And fittingly, the last time vision is used in scripture is in the book of Revelation.
The Greek word for vision is “optasia” and means an appearing or spiritual seeing. I like that last idea too, that a vision is seeing spiritually. I’ll take that even a step further, because as I read through all these scripture texts that included the word “vision” this last week, I almost got the sense that vision, as the Bible speaks to the topic, is more about catching just a glimpse of time and space, or possibility from God’s perspective – seeing a sliver of reality with God’s eyes.
So I want to share with you five kind of interesting things to know about visions as written about in scripture. First of all, they’re real. Visions really do happen. Several of the prophetic books in the Old Testament, the book of Isaiah, for example, right off the bat in the very first verse say basically, “So here is a vision I had from God that I need to share with all of you.” Ezekiel describes his vision as the heavens opening to communicate. Samuel has his vision in the form of a dream as does Peter. Sometimes the vision, ironically, isn’t something we see, but words we hear, God speaking as we do our best to listen. This is how it worked for Ananias in the book of Acts when God called to him in a vision to get up and go minister to the fearsome Saul who had been blinded on the Damascus Road. Visions may come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, but they’re real. They happen.
With that said, secondly, not all visions are from God. Here are wise words from the prophet Jeremiah, 23:16 when he speaks to the issue of false prophets in their midst – “This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Do not listen to what the prophets are prophesying to you; they fill you with false hopes. They speak visions from their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD.’”
I watched a really disturbing video the other day. It was a table talk between two enormously wealthy televangelists. One of these pastors was telling the other pastor about the vision from God he had received, calling him to buy a second and bigger private jet. And his pastor friend was nodding in affirmation, because he too had heeded this call sometime earlier to buy his own private jet. Not all our visions, not all our crazy ideas are gifts from God. Sometimes our own naked desires cry out so loudly we think it must be from God. And often times, our longing will align with God’s will when we wish and pray for healing, for wisdom, for strength. But when we entertain visions of ourselves growing in wealth and influence and power, there’s a good chance it’s not God’s voice we’re listening to or for.
Third, God’s visions are often unexpected. We’re going around, minding our own business, toodling along and BAM! God drops this plan, this idea, this monstrosity in our way and our jaws drop. A God-sized dream lands in our lap. What are we going to do?
I think of Paul on his second missionary trip, taking this second lap through territory he’s already covered, feeling good about himself and his plans. He goes to bed one night and he has a vision. A strange man from Macedonia is telling him to come his way. Now Macedonia lies across the Aegean Sea, a place Paul has never been to before. This is unexpected! But Paul goes and because he goes, he meets people in Philippi, in Thessalonica and in Corinth. The gospel spreads. God lets Paul catch just a glimpse of what He has in mind and it’s entirely unexpected, but it’s all kinds of wonderful too. And Paul is off.
Can you think of times in your own life when God has given you an unexpected vision? A new job opportunity? A move to a new community, a new state? An open door to a surprising ministry? The Kaminkow’s will tell you they were surprised at the idea of a Pumpkin Ranch. Really God, we don’t know anything about pumpkins! I know of a gentleman who in his later years was called to make patchwork denim blankets for relief. Word spread and people began donating scrap denim material to him so he could keep sewing up more blankets. Even though he passed away a few years ago, a few of his denim blankets are still auctioned off at the MCC quilt auction each year. I’m guessing this ministry was a surprise, that he had not anticipated finding a passion for sewing, for making denim comforters in the later season of his life.
And the unexpected nature of God’s visions leads me to point number four. God’s visions are also often scary. Sometimes seeing what is possible from God’s perspective is scary because we just don’t feel up to the task. We are being called out of our comfort zone to do something that seems beyond us. I know for some people that might be needing to get up and speak in front of a lot of people. For me, a really scary vision would be if God asked me to go and speak to big, important people with no notes in hand, just relying on God to give me the words, the charisma. I’m not great at thinking on my feet in front of people. But that’s precisely what God tells Moses to do when he speaks from a burning bush. And Moses is so freaked out by this vision, he keeps arguing with God about what God wants him to do. And after he’s brought up every excuse he can think of, he say… “Oh please, please God, have someone else do this.” And so Aaron is sent along with Moses to help him out.
Sometimes visions are scary because of what God wants us to do. But a lot of times they’re scary because of what God wants us to let go of. Maybe God’s vision for us is a life free from addiction but stepping into that freedom, that faith is paradoxically the scariest thing we can possibly imagine. Sometimes the vision means letting go of a toxic relationship, or letting go of old and really comfortable understandings. That’s what happened to Peter when he has his vision of heaven opening and a large sheet descending that holds all kinds of animals, accompanied by a voice telling him to “Kill and eat”. Just like Moses had done centuries before, Peter argues with this vision saying, “Surely not, Lord!” I’ve never eaten anything impure or unclean.” God has to step in and do some scolding and then replay this vision two more times before Peter finally finds the courage to believe, to change, to surrender his old understanding for God’s understanding.
And finally, visions, God-given visions, change us in the best way possible. You see God is so very expansive, so very mind-blowing and all encompassing, really there’s just no way to put words to God. We do our best, knowing anything we can say will fall short. We just can’t totally comprehend or conceive of God, God’s nature. This means that when we are given just a glimpse of life from God’s perspective, when we’re given a vision, we are forever altered. You can’t brush up against the Divine and not be changed.
Elizabeth and Zechariah are a beloved and respected elderly couple in their Jewish community. Their sorrow is that they were never able to have children, but child bearing years are well in the rearview mirror when Zechariah receives a vision from God, a visit from the angel Gabriel when he is by himself in the temple. Gabriel tells him that Elizabeth will yet bear him a son and they are to call their son, John. But this is so preposterous, so outrageous, Zechariah expresses doubt. And because, in that moment of humanness, Zechariah is unable to believe in the vastness of God, he is silenced by the angel until the day John is born. When he comes out of the temple following Gabriel’s visit, he is not able to speak and the people realize he has seen a vision. Zechariah, shaken, humbled and filled with glorious hope has been changed in the best way possible.
There are so many different ways to frame the Bible, God’s unfolding covenant with creation. One of those ways is to see and understand how God’s vision transforms and shapes almost every major Biblical character we encounter. According to the gospel of Luke, even the women visiting Jesus’ tomb see a “vision of angels” that tell them the Good News, Jesus is alive (Luke 24:23)!
God spoke. God appeared to people faithfully throughout scripture. God is alive and well today too, moving within and among us, inspiring our thoughts, enlivening our dreams. A couple of years ago in our church we began a visioning process. Some of our church family members felt like we needed to maybe be a little more intentional about trying to hear God’s voice within the church. What was God saying to us? Who did God want us to be in this present moment? And so we did a lot of discerning and praying together. Hoffnungsau means, “view of hope”. What we discovered was that God’s vision for us hadn’t really changed a lot over the almost 150 years since we began. God is still calling us to be a view of hope, to be Christ’s view of hope. And so that’s what we’re working to do together. This vision is real. We have tested it. That our vision is unaltered was perhaps a little surprising, unexpected. I mean a lot in this world has changed since 1874. But the foundation, Jesus, hasn’t changed at all and hope in God and God’s hopes for our lives, our communities our world, still leads the way.
With that said, I will acknowledge that aspects of this active visioning, this intentional discernment have been scary. Because while Christ’s hope is unchanging…eternal, how we live out that hope looks a little different in 2019 than it did in 1954, or 1976, or 2008. We are needing to loosen our grip and let go of a few old understandings, traditions, ways of being together and make space for God’s voice of hope to speak to our unclenched hearts and minds in new and transformative ways. And so we find ourselves trying out a few new ways of being church, with family and friends, with strangers and neighbors, gathered together as the beautiful body of Christ. And we’re going to keep working at this because that’s what we’re called to do, to be true to our vision. We are sitting here in the middle of our own evolving God-sized dream, looking with hope towards the mind-blowing and preposterous movement of God’s Spirit here among us. Thanks be to God and Amen.