Text: I Kings 3:3-14
Dreams can awaken within us our most secret fantasies and our deepest, darkest fears. My dreams tend toward the latter, especially on Saturday nights. Many Saturday nights I dream that I arrive at church for Sunday worship and I either don’t have a sermon or I can’t find my sermon. There are variations to this dream. Sometimes I am fully clothed and other times I am not. Sometimes the dream takes place here in this sanctuary and other times the setting is unfamiliar. Sometimes I panic when I realize that I don’t have my manuscript and other times I just start talking, making up story after story. But all my dreams are not about my fears. There are those rare dreams in which I live out my secret fantasies like…well, maybe I’ll hold on to those and share them in another sermon.
Frederick Buechner writes of dreams:
No matter how prosaic, practical, and ploddingly unimaginative we may be, we have dreams like everybody else. All of us do. In them even the most down-to-earth and pedestrian of us leave earth behind and go flying, not walking, through the air like pelicans. Even the most respectable go strolling along crowded pavements naked as truth. Even the confirmed disbelievers in an afterlife hold converse with the dead just as the most dyed-in-the-wool debunkers of the supernatural have adventures to make Madame Blavatsky’s hair stand on end.
The tears of dreams can be real enough to wet the pillow and the passions of them fierce enough to make the flesh burn. There are times we dream our way to a truth or an insight so overwhelming that it startles us awake and haunts us for years to come.
Dreams. The biblical narrative is saturated with stories of God’s people meeting God in their dreams. There is Jacob’s famous dream at Bethel in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God ascending and descending on it. Thus we have the story of Jacob’s ladder. Joseph was also a dreamer. Remember the dream he had in which he dreamed that his sheaf rose and stood upright and his brothers’ sheaves gathered around it and bowed down to it. A dream that led his brothers to hate him. There are some weird and crazy dreams in the bible—the baker’s baskets, Pharaoh’s cows, the runaway barley loaf, Daniel’s four beasts, the magi’s warning, the angel directing Joseph to Egypt, and our story today, God’s offer to Solomon in a dream.
The backdrop to Solomon’s dream is the death of his father, David, the old king. It is now time to pick David’s successor. It seems obvious that his son, Solomon, was the rightful heir. But in a turn of events, the matter of succession to the throne is contested. The two sons of David, Solomon and Adonijah, both desire to succeed their father as king. In the end, Solomon prevails and becomes king. But not before he engages in choreographed deception with the help of some powerful allies.
Walter Brueggemann writes of this story: “…legitimate rule requires a religious affirmation. There is need for some ‘God speak’ to make the new king secure on his contested throne. That act of religious legitimation for the successor king is the subject of [this] text. Solomon participated in the required liturgy to exhibit his piety. That act is then reinforced by a dream…Solomon dreams of God-given, well-grounded authority. There is no reason to doubt the legitimacy of the dream. On the other hand, there is no reason to trust the dream either; it may strike one as remarkably convenient for the new king, so that it may be nothing more than a piece of political propaganda. Maybe it is no more, cast in ancient idiom, than a familiar blatant assertion that, ‘God told me…’.”
Whatever you make of this dream, however you choose to interpret it, it is for certain that Solomon’s response to God has captured the attention of bible readers and non-bible readers. Even those who have had little exposure to the bible or church know the link between Solomon and wisdom. “Ask what I should give you,” God said to Solomon in the dream. And Solomon responds, “Give your servant an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil…”
Here’s something interesting about Solomon’s response. The phrase “understanding mind” is more closely translated, “listening heart.” Of this, Brueggemann writes, “The one thing the new king requires is a capacity for attentiveness to the needs, hopes and expectations of his subjects. Solomon knows that a ‘listening heart’ is the antithesis of a ‘hard heart,’ an inability to care for or notice or take seriously those before him. In using the phrase, he is perhaps aware that he is married to Pharaoh’s daughter, Pharaoh being the quintessential hard-hearted guy. Solomon intends to be a very different kind of king.
But being that different kind of king proved to be difficult for Solomon. “It turns out, in subsequent narrative, that Solomon majored in wealth and honor. His temple is an extravaganza of gold. His trade policies flourish so that money flows in like it always does to a superpower” (Brueggemann). The truth that Solomon teaches us is that sometimes living the dream can prove to be more difficult than dreaming the dream. Solomon’s dream pointed to a different kind of way, a different reality, but the reality of living into his dream, of being a king who listened with his heart, was more times than not, beyond Solomon. In the end, he was unable to live his dream—to lead his people with a listening heart.
Our society places great value on understanding minds. As well we should. As someone with whom I recently met said, “God gave me this mind, and God doesn’t expect me to not use it when it comes to matters of faith.” I agree. AND, it seems that what our world desperately needs right now are more listening hearts—listening hearts that have the capacity for attentiveness to the needs, hopes and expectations of those around us who are struggling to survive in this power-driven, greed-motivated world; listening hearts that are not afraid to live a dream that points to a different way, a different reality—a way that is not defined by power and greed and wealth and prestige.
Here’s the other interesting part of Solomon’s dream that often gets overlooked. Verse 14 begins with an “if” that qualifies all of what has come before. God said to Solomon, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind, no one like you shall arise after you. I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor all your life; no other king shall compare with you. IF you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life.”
If. It is the “if” of the Torah. It is the “if” that specializes in attentive care for the widows, the orphans, and the immigrants. Living the dream defines God-given wisdom in a very different way. This wisdom is not rooted in what the world deems as the most important qualities of a leader: successful management, clever rulings, flourishing economy and smart business decisions. No, a listening-heart kind of wisdom pays attention to the socially and economically vulnerable—the poor, the homeless, the immigrant, the hungry, the one who is different, the ones whom society casts aside as dispensable. The listening heart knows that all are welcome. The listening heart knows that drawing our circle larger is worth it—whatever the risks, whatever the costs.
Here’s another thing that Solomon’s dream teaches us. Knowledge speaks, wisdom listens! It’s not always easy living the dream, this dream that puts us on a different path, this dream that shapes us into a different kind of people, God’s dream. But when we have the courage and the strength and the fortitude to dream with God and then to live the dream, our listening hearts can change the world one person, one experience at a time.
In his writing about dreams, Buechner concludes: “People who tend to write off the validity of the religious experience in general and the experience of God in particular on the grounds that in the Real World they can find no evidence for such things should take note [of dreaming]. Maybe the Real World is not the only reality, and even if it should turn out to be, maybe they are not really looking at it realistically.
So, my friends, keep on dreaming. And as you dream, whenever possible, take Solomon’s lead and ask God for a listening heart. Then, may you have the courage to live the dream.