Mark Batterson - Dream, Return to Me
"Take this kiss upon the brow. And in parting from you now, thus much let me avow. You are not wrong, who deem that my days have been a dream Yet if hope has flown away in a night, or in a day, in a vision, or in none, is it therefore less gone? All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream. I stand amid the roar of a surf-tormented shore, and I hold within my hand grains of golden sand. How few, yet how they creep through my fingers to the deep, while I weep, while I weep. Oh God, can I not grasp them with a tighter clasp? Oh God, can I not save one from the pitiless wave? Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream"? I am neither a poet nor the son of a poet, but I do have a few favorites. You just heard one of them. "Is all that we see or seem, but a dream within a dream"?
Edgar Allen Poe, 1849. I love Emily Dickinson. "I dwell in possibility, a fairer house than prose". And then there's T.S. Eliot. Took eight years for him to compose "Four Quartets". These lines from "Little Gidding" are so good, poetic and prophetic. "We shall not cease from exploration and the end of our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time". I want you to hold that thought. Grab your Bible. You can meet me in ancient Israel. Joel is one of 12 minor prophets. Minor doesn't mean less important, just means shorter. Those 12 minor prophets written on one scroll, so they were considered one book in the overarching message. The top line, the through line, the bottom line is an ancient invitation that encapsulates the heart of God, "Return to me". There is a God who never gives up. There is a God who always goes after.
There is a God who is watching and waiting with arms wide open. "Return to me". It is the subplot of so many stories in Scripture, the most famous of which may be the prodigal son, but it's also the metanarrative. "Return to me" is Ariadne's thread and it's woven from Genesis to Revelation. We're gonna pull that thread and when we cease from our exploring, the end of our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know that place for the first time. Ready or not, here we go, Joel 2:12, "'Even now,' declares the Lord, 'return to me with all your heart, with fasting, weeping and mourning.' Rend your heart, not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and He relents". God's word is getting me today. "And He relents from sending calamity. Who knows? He may turn and have pity and leave behind a blessing".
Last week we talked about those first two words, "Even now". It is never too little, it is never too late. You can't feed 5,000 with five loaves and two fish. It doesn't add up. But if you put what you have in your hands into the hands of God, it doesn't add up anymore. Now it multiplies. Now five plus two equals 5,000. Remainder 12. You have more left over than you started with. If God created ex nihilo, out of nothing, it stands to follow that it is never too little. To the infinite, all finites are equal. There is no degree of difficulty with God. There is no possible or impossible. All things are possible, nothing is impossible. Lazarus was four days dead. The nail was in the coffin, but it's not over until God says it's over. Don't put a period where God puts a comma. Why? Add God to the equation and it's never too late to be who you might have been.
"'Even now,' declares the Lord, 'return to me.'" Now when I study Scripture, I try to zoom in and I try to zoom out and I'll use a microscope and a telescope maybe to illustrate what I'm talking about. When you put Scripture under the microscope, be careful because the end goal is not to dissect Scripture. The end game is for Scripture to dissect me. My thoughts, my desires, my motives. "Study to show yourself approved". Rightly dividing the word of truth. It's a conversation I quoted last week. In his book, "Eat This Book," Eugene Peterson talks about a conversation with the Jewish rabbi. Rabbi said, "For us Jews, studying the Bible is more important than obeying it". Sounds wrong until you hear the rest of it. "If you don't understand it rightly, you will obey it wrongly and your obedience will be disobedience". Drop the mic. Right?
So sometimes you put it under the microscope and sometimes you'll look at it through the telescope, why? So that you don't miss the forest through the trees. I want to do both this weekend, but we're gonna start with the telescope. To fully appreciate the layer cake that is this passage of Scripture, it requires a crash course in the theology of time. We live at the intersection of two theologies, two realities. The faithfulness of God is pursuing us from the past. "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life". The way we say that at NCC as we look back over our shoulder, "Oh, so far so God". And then the sovereignty of God is setting us up for the future. "He who began a good work will carry it to completion".
In other words, the best is yet to come and we live where these two theologies and realities intercept. What a place to live, right? Between the faithfulness and sovereignty, He hems you in behind and before. God's got this. God's got you. We read the Bible through western eyes, but it is a Middle Eastern book. Very different perspectives on time. 2 Peter 3:8 is one of the most mind-blowing, mind-bending verses in Scripture. Now, Peter is actually quoting Psalm 90 when he says, "Do not forget this one thing, dear friends. With the Lord, a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like a day". Reminds me of the man who said, "Lord, how long is a million years to you"? God said, "A million years is like a second". "Oh, God, how much is a million dollars to you"? "A million dollars like a penny". Man said, "Can you spare a penny"? God said, "Sure, just wait a second".
The Bible has a very different perspective on time and it's evidenced by two words in the Greek language. One is chronos, which is where we get the word chronology. We live by the clock, by the calendar, certainly believe in Lombardi time. If you aren't 15 minutes early, you're late. That said, chronos is measured in minutes. Kairos is measured in moments. Kairos can be interpreted one of two ways. Redeem the time or seize the opportunity. And it requires more than a clock, it requires the infilling of the Holy Spirit. If chronos is reading the big hand and little hand on the clock, then kairos is reading the hand of God. Where is God at work and how can I join him? It is discerning the good, pleasing, perfect will of God. It is discerning the still small voice of the Spirit. And it's exercising spiritual gifts, especially prophecy.
Now for the sake of time, one more observation. In the western world, we tend to see time as linear. In the eastern mindset, time is seen as circular. Read the first few chapters of Genesis, the last couple of chapters of Revelation and the end of your exploring will be to arrive where you started and know that place for the first time. History is full circle. I'll show you a chart. You can take a picture. Thanks to our team for helping put this together. In the beginning, God creates the heavens and the earth. Bereshit Elohim bara. You get to the end of the book and God says, "Behold I make all things new". In other words, it's Genesis all over again. You've got the tree of life in the Book of Genesis and then it disappears and then it reappears and there is a river coming out from the throne of God and the tree of life is on either side of the river and the leaves of that tree are for the healing of the nations.
In Genesis, the curse is pronounced. In Revelation, the curse is broken. No more death or mourning or crying or pain. In a sense, by reading the Bible forward, we are actually reading it backwards. You have to start with the end. The technical term is teleology. One of the biggest mistakes we make in thinking about God is thinking about God in four dimensional terms. And it's hard 'cause that's all we've ever known. We get stuck at a moment, we can't get out of it, right? God is Alpha and Omega. The beginning and the end. For us, the arrow of time points in one direction, past, present, future. God exists outside of the four dimensions of space time He created.
So we live our lives forward, but God is working backward. You are God's workmanship created in Christ Jesus to do good works prepared for you in advance. You don't have to manufacture the miracle, the pressure's off of you, God is setting you up. God is ordering your footstep. God is working all things together for good. All we have to do is step into it. See, I don't know what the future holds. Ah, but I know who holds the future. Yeah, yeah, that's great. When the disciples were gathered in the upper room, they were counting up. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten days. Oh, I think God was counting down. Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, and pours out His Spirit. I think the Israelites at Jericho were counting up. One, two, three, four, five, six. I think God was counting down. Seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, and the walls come tumbling down.
Before the Israelites even started circling, in Joshua 6, God says, "I have delivered Jericho into your hands". If you're gonna understand a theology of time, you've gotta grasp this verse, this concept, because it's in the wrong tense. It's the wrong verb tense. It should be future tense, it hasn't happened yet, so we put it in the future tense 'cause we have boxes called past, present, future. God is the eternal now, and so God says, "I have delivered". It's already done. This is huge. If you're taking notes, jot this down. Everything is created twice. The second creation is the physical manifestation. The first creation always happens in the spirit. It happens in the imagination, which is part of the image of God. It happens by faith through prayer. Prayer is the way we write history before it happens.
Now, according to the Talmud, and we will land this time plane, if you will, according to the Talmud, along with everything God spoke into existence during the first six days of creation, God made seven provisions. One, God commanded the Red Sea to split apart for Israel. Two, God commanded the sun and moon to stand still for Joshua. Three, God commanded the Baltimore Ravens to feed Elijah. I'm just making sure you're with me, okay? All right. Four, God commanded the fish to spit out Jonah. Dr. Thomas Matthew calls this Whale University. Like that. Five, God commanded the fire not to burn Shadrock, Meshach, and Abednego. Six, God commanded the lions not to harm Daniel. And seven, God created the ram and commanded it to get caught in the thicket on Mount Moriah at the very moment Abraham put Isaac on the altar.
It is God who predestined those moments. You don't have to manufacture the miracle. Having said that, let me say this. If you want God to make a sidewalk through the sea, you gotta step into the river. If you want to walk on water- You gotta get out of the boat. We put down the telescope, pick up the microscope. Joel 2:12. "'Even now,' declares the Lord, 'return to me.'" Stick with me. "We read the Bible as foreigners," says Gary Burge, "as visitors who have traveled not only to a new geography, but to a new century".
Pretty critical that we understand original context. If content is king, context is queen and when I say context, I mean history and geography, I mean culture and literature and language. And so dial in right here. The English language has a vocabulary about 170,000 words. Biblical Hebrew has less than 8,000 words. There are more than 21 English words for every Hebrew word. The significance of that is this. We have more words, but Hebrew words have more meaning. According to Rabbinic tradition, every word of Scripture has 70 faces and 600,000 meanings. "The richness of Hebrew comes from its poverty," says Lois Tverberg. "Because the ancient language has so few words, each one," I love this, "is like an overstuffed suitcase, bulging with extra meanings that it must carry in order for the language to fully describe".
Let's unpack that suitcase. If return to me is the top line, the through line, if return to me is the metanarrative, pretty important that we understand this word. The English word return is the Hebrew word shub, to turn back, to turn around. Turn around. It's the rerouting feature on GPS that gets us back home. Shub is a 180 degree U-turn and that's why return and repentance come from this same root and there is much emotion in this word. It's a deep longing for a loved one who is lost. It's the prodigal father watching and waiting, scanning the horizon. He gets up early, he stays up late. He is watching and ready to run at first sight, and I'm taking a little bit of liberty here, but shub is homesickness. In my head, I hear Hugh Jackman from now on. Shub is the chorus of that song, "And I will come back home again, and I will come back home again". And then they sing it again and again. "Home again. Home again". The most literal translation of shub is allowing yourself to be found and brought home. That is the heart of God. And I hope that is the heart of this church. We help people find their way back to God. Thank you, Jesus. Thank you.
Let me change lanes. There is a concept in science called natal homing. It's an instinct within animals whereby they return to their birthplace, usually to reproduce and then die. Aquatic animals like loggerhead sea turtles will swim 12,000 miles a year and yet somehow, some way, will find their way back to the beach where they were born. Sockeye salmon swim 900 miles upstream, gain 7,000 feet in elevation to return home. This is still a little bit of a mystery to science how animals do this. One theory is geomagnetic imprinting. Another theory is actually the olfactory cues from the smell of the water. But either way, it's amazing. Yeah. Do you think it's possible that we are imprinted? Do you think it's possible that God apple tagged us in the Garden of Eden? "Our hearts are restless," said St. Augustine, "until they rest in Thee".
There is a God shape hole in the human heart. You know it and I know it and we try to fill that hole with this, that, and the other thing. But there is only one thing that scratches that spiritual itch. There is only one thing that resolves that spiritual angst and it is a relationship with our creator. Come one. Pope Francis calls it nostalgia for God. Pastor, how do I return to God? I'm feeling something in my heart. How do I return to God? This is so wonderful. You let yourself be found. You let God love you. Let me zoom back out. We're gonna do this again, okay? Let me kind of look through that telescope, 'cause you have to go all the way back. You kind of have to look back all the way to Genesis.
Before original sin, Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of the Knowledge, of Good and Evil, and they experience shame. What is their ancient instinct? They hide, which is kind of hilarious when there is a God who is omnipresent. And what is God's reaction? Hmm. He seeks them. It's the first recorded question in Scripture. "Where are you"? I would suggest that the rest of Scripture is an answer to that question. That history is a really long game of hide and seek. We talk about seeking God, which is incredibly important. Don't seek opportunity. Seek God. And opportunity will seek you. Jesus said, "Seek first," not second, third, or 10th. Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness and all these things will be added to you.
Most of us get this backwards and we end up with an inverted relationship with God. We want God to do all these things. Then and only then will I seek Him. God, if you do this or that, then I'll seek you. Can I just shoot straight? That's spiritual blackmail. And God doesn't negotiate with terrorists. You don't get God on your terms, and I hope you'll stick with me here. You don't want God on your terms. You get God on his terms and his timeline. Lots of people think they're following Jesus. The reality is they've invited Jesus to follow them. That was me at 19. I didn't wanna go anywhere without Jesus. Oh, I wanted Him, "Come on into the classroom. Help me ace this test. Come on. Oh Lord. Lord, help me. Help me make this free throw. For your glory, of course". Truth be told, it was really more about God serving my purposes than me serving His purposes.
I just want to ask the question this weekend, who's following who? Have you invited Jesus to follow you or have you accepted His invitation to follow Him? Have you gone all in? Have you surrendered your life to His lordship, past, present, future, time, talent, treasure, heart, soul, mind, and strength? The world has yet to see what God can do through one person wholly consecrated to Him. Why not you? Why not now. We talk about seeking God as we should, but it's so important that we flip this script 'cause really this is a book about God seeking us. God who never gives up, a God who always goes after. Let me see if I can't close with this. Psalm 23. Let's put it under the microscope. "Yay, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death".
That verse strikes a chord in a week when on Monday night football, a safety for the Buffalo Bills. Damar Hamlin has a heart attack, has to be resuscitated on the field, ends up in ICU. And I dare say more people were praying for one person this week than maybe about anywhere ever, which is kind of unbelievable. But the valley of the shadow of death is not just metaphorical. Yes, all of us, everybody, everybody at each of our campuses, everyone online, newsflash, you're gonna end up in the valley of the shadow of death sooner or later. But given the fact that David was a shepherd and given the fact where David grew up, we have a pretty good hunch at what he's talking about. He's talking about the Wadi Qelt. It's a ravine that ran from Jerusalem to Jericho. Jerusalem was 2,500 feet above sea level, Jericho, 800 feet above sea level. Lowest city on earth, oldest city on earth.
Do you know archeologists have uncovered 20 successive civilizations that predate recorded human history. So shepherds would graze their sheep in this dry riverbed, but it came with a risk. If there were heavy rains in Jerusalem, it could flash flood 20 miles downstream and you're in trouble, in a hurry. Then the psalmist says this, is where we're gonna land, "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life". One of my favorite promises in Scripture, and we'll sing about it in a second. When Parker was a little guy, he said, "I'm gonna run away from home". I said, "That's fine, but I'm going with you". And that threw him off a little bit. "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me," shall run after me. You can run from God, but there is a God who runs after you. The word follow is a weak translation. It's the Hebrew word radaph. It's a hunting term. God is tracking you down. He is on your tail. He is on your trail. Why? Short answer. To show you His goodness, to show you His mercy. I'll be right back.
I mean, if we're really gonna illustrate this, we might as well just walk out of the room 'cause I think a lot of times, walk all the way of the shadow of death. I wanna tell you something today. It's never too little. It's never too late. "Even now, return to me". God wants to show you His goodness, His mercy. The writer of Lamentations. Oh, we're gonna change. Why don't I try it? That's a little dangerous. Can we give it up for Robbie? The writer of Lamentations said, "His mercies are new every morning". So again, God's chasing after us, right? He wants to show us His goodness and mercy. Mercy is hadas and it means new, but not just again and again. It means new as indifferent. The mercy you experience today is unlike the mercy that you experienced yesterday. And is unlike the mercy you will experience tomorrow. It's a mercy you've never experienced before. Take your age in years, multiply it by 365. Add in the number of days since your last birthday. That's how many days God has been seeking you. That's how many different kinds of mercy you have experienced from God. Can we thank him for that right now?
I think I have time to do one more thing. Oh, Lord. Same psalmist, David, wrote Psalm 23 wrote Psalm 139. "Oh Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I stand and when I rise, you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and lying down. You are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is even on my tongue, you know it completely. You hem me in behind and before and you lay your hand on me". The first week of January is a week of tremendous mixed emotions for our family. January 4, 1998, my father-in-law turned 55, been given a clean bill of health by the doctor. Doctor literally said you could drive a Mack truck through your arteries. Two days later, January 6th, died of a heart attack. We flew home. You're in shock, which is a gift from God.
The one thing I remember distinctly was standing at the foot of his casket and asking God for a double portion of his anointing. I didn't know what I was praying. I didn't know what I was thinking or feeling. I just knew that I wanted somehow my life to honor his life and legacy. Planted and pastored Calvary Church in Naperville, Illinois for 31 years. And please hear me when I say, anything, anything that God ever does in and through National Community Church is a dream within a dream. We drink from wells we did not dig. We eat from fields we did not plant. We live in houses we didn't build. It's all a dream within a dream. Somehow that little phrase, "You lay your hand on me" triggered a thought. And it was a flash flood of emotion this week because the most poignant memory that I had this week was as a teenager I started seeking God.
I would come to the altar. You gotta understand, my father was large, larger than life. His hand, you could fit a quarter through his ring. I'm not even kidding. I would come to the alter and occasionally I feel this giant hand on my head. And it just, it felt like there's no way God's not gonna answer this prayer. I felt it this week. I felt that hand. I hope this is okay. I just... We're all in this thing together, right? We're all in. We're all at different places in our spiritual journey. Everyone's fighting a battle no one knows anything about. But I just, I'm really confident of this that just like God did for the psalmist, oh, wants to put His hand on you, wants to put His hand on you. Wants to put His hand on you. Would you allow yourself to be found? Would you just let God love you? Would you let God bless you? Would you let God anoint you? Would you let God heal you? In Jesus' name. Amen.