One of my favorite movie lines of the last ten years doesn’t get nearly enough recognition. I think it’s because it doesn’t come at a particularly crucial moment in the film, the way many famous lines do: “Toto, I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore,” or “You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” or “You can’t handle the truth!”, for example.
Nor is it a line that embodies the nature of an iconic character, like “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse,” or “You talking to me?”, or even “E.T. phone home.” It comes in the movie Inception, a Best Picture-nominated, mind-bending fantasy thriller about a group of thieves who engage in corporate espionage by infiltrating the subconscious of their targets through shared dreams in order to steal important information.
In one scene, the thieves are inside the shared dream, and they are boxed into a garage by henchmen who are protecting the corporate leader that is their target within the dream. One of the thieves pokes a rifle out of a doorway, lets off a few shots, and then ducks back again before the henchmen return fire. This happens over and over again until finally one of the other thieves steps up. “You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling,” he says smoothly, and raises his arms to reveal a gigantic automatic grenade launcher, which then he fires off, clearing the way for their escape.
“You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.” On one level, obviously, it’s just a cool, understated action movie line to set up an impressive explosion. But there’s also something a little bit profound about it, especially within this movie that is all about the power and possibilities of dreams. Even within this remarkable shared dreamworld that he can control, even when his whole job is doing something that would have always been thought to be impossible, the first character still finds himself trying to solve problems according to what he’s always thought was “normal” or possible. The professional dreamer can’t dream big enough to harness the opportunity or overcome the challenge within this dream he’s entered.
Our Old Testament passage today is one of what’s known as Isaiah’s Servant Songs, four different prophetic poems that center on the plight and purpose of a Servant who is called and sent by God, who suffers in fulfilling that calling, but who is ultimately vindicated and rewarded by God. In this case, the Servant recalls God calling and commissioning them and saying that God will be glorified in them. But the servant’s recent history is one of conflict and defeat: “I have labored in vain,” they lament; “I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” Yet they have not lost hope: “surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with my God.”
Christians have often interpreted the Servant Songs as prophecies about the coming of Jesus as the Messiah, and thus about how the church should live, too, since it is considered the Body of Christ on Earth now. Jews, however, have generally interpreted them as prophecies about Israel, that Israel itself is the suffering servant of God in the world. And while the Christian interpretation is valid, it does not replace the Jewish one; after all, God does name the servant “Israel” right here, in this passage.
Now the reason that’s significant is that Israel, at the time of this prophecy, didn’t really exist, at least as a political entity. As we’ve heard in our Sunday readings in recent weeks, the Babylonian Empire sacked Jerusalem in the 6th century BC and carried off most of the economic, political, and social elites to Babylon in exile. But this whole section of Isaiah’s prophecy is about the restoration of Israel: that the exiles would be able to return home and Jerusalem would be restored.
It is the dream that every Jewish person has had, waking and sleeping, since the fall of Jerusalem, which at this point was over forty years earlier. Whole generations of Jews remaining in Judah have never known a time when they were not a conquered people; whole generations of those who had been taken into exile have never even seen their homeland. And all of them, every single one of them, has dreamed that perhaps God has not forgotten or abandoned them; perhaps God, through some kind of miracle, would bring the exiles home.
That shared dream is at the heart of this passage, because now it seems like it might really happen. Isaiah portrays the servant waiting eagerly for God’s word on the matter, convinced that bringing the people of Israel back together will be his purpose and his legacy. And then the Lord actually speaks, and says: “you mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.”
What God literally says is, “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…” Too light of a thing? Think about that for a minute. The biggest thing that the servant or the people of Israel could imagine happening, the most powerful divine intervention of which they can even conceive, is the release of the exiles and the restoration of Jerusalem from the iron grip of the Babylonian world superpower.
And what God is saying here is that if that was all God was up to with this servant, it wouldn’t even be worth God’s time to do it; it would be too light of a thing to worry about. In other words: “you mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.” Because what God is doing is not only that, but much more: God is giving the servant as a “light unto the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” That’s the point of the servant: to carry the light of God’s gracious love into the world so it may shine everywhere, for everyone.
This is the kind of servant that Christ’s church is called to be, as well: to be a light unto the nations. But throughout its history, the Christian church has had a lot of problems in trying to do that. Sometimes it has confused Christ’s light for its own, as if it was generating the light instead of bearing it. But the church can only be the candle, never the light itself; and when some part of the church gets confused about that, the light tends to go out rather quickly, like a wick whose flame drowns in the molten wax of the very candle to which it was entrusted. Sometimes the church gets confused about who the light is for. But the point of a candle is not so the candle can have the light for itself; that would be “too light of a thing” to bother with. No, the point is to help the light shine out for anyone who needs it, who wants it, who is drawn to it.
When you get right down to it, that is what it means to share the gospel of Christ in the world, whether through words or actions or simply our life together. And when the church really understands whose light it is and whom the light is for; that the light of Christ is not ours to claim or keep, to withhold or bestow, but only to share with anyone who asks for it or comes seeking it; extraordinary things can happen.
Those who are lonely find community; those who are broken find wholeness; those who are anxious find peace; those who are oppressed find solidarity; those who are despondent find hope; those who aren’t sure what this life is all about find meaning and purpose. That, all of that, is the point of all this, of following Christ as the church, as his disciples in community. And the great gift of all this is getting to experience those extraordinary things, in big and small ways, every day in our life together as a congregation.
Toni Morrison, the late Nobel Prize-winning novelist, was once asked by an interviewer about criticism that her characters were often too “big” to be considered realistic when compared to people in real life. She thought for a moment and replied, “The problem is not that my characters are too big.” Then she leaned in slowly and said, “the problem is that we live our lives small.”
As we consider the mission of this part of the church that is called First Presbyterian in this stewardship season, let us commit ourselves to not living our life together small, because we do not live our life together for ourselves, but to love and serve God and our neighbors. And with that as our calling, we must never be afraid to dream a little bigger, darlings.