Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25
Did you dream last night?
Last week, with Jane’s excellent sermon on The Magnificat, we got Mary’s side of the journey to the birth of Christ the lens of the gospel of Luke. In Luke’s version of things, the angel Gabriel appears first to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, and then to Mary. Here in Matthew we get Joseph’s story, when an unnamed Angel of the Lord appears to him in a dream.
Now, we have just experienced the winter solstice with the shortest day and longest night of the year. And of course, it is no accident that Christmas occurs at this time of darkness in the Western Hemisphere; In fact, on the Roman calendar, December 25 corresponds to the date of the winter solstice.
As with many dates of significance on the church calendar, early Christians replaced an existing day of celebration with a sacred observance. In the early fourth century the ancient midwinter festivals honoring the Roman God Saturn and the Pagan God Mithra were exchanged for the festival commemorating the birth of Jesus. These days when there is more darkness than light made, and still make, an appropriate moment to remember the inbreaking of God in the flesh into the human world. And I think these days of long nights are also a great time to think about dreams.
Dreams are a fascinating window into the hopes and fears that lie upon our souls. There is both art and science relating to the interpretation of dreams. It is no wonder, then, that dreams are understood in the Bible as moments of visitation by God. There are at least twenty instances of dreamers in scripture. Jacob dreams in the desert, seeing angels ascending and descending a ladder between earth and heaven. Later his son Joseph becomes an interpreter of dreams, both his own and the Pharaoh’s. Solomon, Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel—all of them have dreams that foretell how God will deal with them and their world.
Theologian Walter Brueggemann says that the dreams in scripture “represent the intrusion of God into a settled world—an unbidden communication in the dark of night that opens sleepers to a world different from the one they inhabit during the day—an intrusion that generates a restless uneasiness with the way things are until the vision and the dream come to fruition.”[i]
Matthew clearly understands the power of dreams: his nativity story includes five of them! After this dream of Joseph’s that we just heard, we read that God warns the Magi in a dream not to return to Herod; Joseph is warned in a dream to flee to Egypt with his wife and newborn son; a dream then lets Joseph know when it is safe to return to Israel; and finally Joseph is warned in a dream to steer clear of Judea, where Herod’s son is ruling, and so the Holy Family plans a different route home to Galilee.
There will be time in the weeks to come to consider all of those other dreams. Today’s reading challenges us to try to step into Joseph’s shoes—to try to understand what he might be thinking and feeling and dreaming through these momentous events. Too often Joseph gets short shrift in the Christmas story. He stands quietly in our creches, gazing down at the infant, with few lines to say. His role of father has been usurped in a very real way. How did he find the strength and clarity of vision to stay the course in the face of the rather embarrassing turn of events that take over his young life? “To Joseph, [Mary’s] pregnancy is a violation of social convention and ethics for an unmarried woman…. Mary has simply violated the important moral rule that she should not be pregnant when they were married.”[ii]
Mary’s mysterious pregnancy is a BIG problem in that culture, and Joseph has a big decision to make. Social convention would have called for him to denounce her publicly for having violated his trust so deeply. But that is not what he chooses to do. Instead, the scriptures say he dismisses Mary quietly. That was the humane thing to do – it was a kind gesture.
Commentator Aaron Klink has said, “In light of this story it is helpful to think about the ways that the faithful thing to do and the faithful way to be are sometimes at odds with social convention. … Joseph did not violate convention to be politically rebellious, or even to know his own goodness.
“He violated convention and remained faithful to Mary because God, as God often does, intervened in an unexpected way. God sent an angel to appear to Joseph in a dream. The angel basically said, ‘I know this is not what you expected, Joseph, but it is going to be OK. God is about to do something wonderful, despite the fact that according to Jewish custom and law you are in a rather socially unacceptable situation.”[iii]
Has God ever called you to do something strange and unexpected? And how did you respond? My work in the larger church has me thinking about the call of God quite a lot. As you may be aware, I chair the Commission on Ministry for our Diocese of Western Massachusetts, so I spend a lot of time working with people who hear a call specifically to ordained ministry. An important part of the Commission’s work is making recommendation to the Bishop about those calls—asking if we, as representatives of the Church, hear the same call those aspiring to ministry hear.
And I also think about each of you—about the claims that God is making on your lives. I sincerely believe that God calls each of us to work that God has identified as ours. Sometimes we agree and answer that call; other times we simply can’t, or we choose not to answer. I believe an important part of my work is to help you discern God’s call for you and to help you answer faithfully.
Often God calls us to work that may surprise us. God is so much bigger than we are; God has dreams for us that are also bigger than our own imaginations. And God may reveal that call in an unexpected way or through an unexpected encounter.
For my family, our move to the Midwest in 1999 was probably just such a moment of call, one I’ve told you about before. As most of you know, I was an arts administrator, working for opera companies. At that time we lived in Washington, D.C., and I worked for the international trade association for opera. It was a very interesting place to work, but I always felt removed from opera: We talked about it all the time, but we weren’t directly involved in production and performance. So I was becoming a bit frustrated.
A job arose in Indiana to oversee marketing and fundraising for the Indianapolis Opera. It was a great opportunity for me, and not completely an unknown, as I had gone to graduate school at Indiana University just 15 years before. The long and short of this story is that I got the job, and we prepared to move to Indiana.
And while I was excited about new work, and a new learning opportunity, I wasn’t completely sure it was a smart move. And Don told me years later that he was absolutely dismayed about leaving Washington.
Nonetheless, we moved to Indianapolis. And interestingly, that move led to a change of career for both of us. After a few years at the opera, I changed jobs and became the Director of Communications at a large Episcopal Church there in Indy, eventually entering the process to become a priest. And Don became a very successful and smart fundraiser.
I am not sure those very fulfilling career changes for both of us would have happened if we had not moved to Indianapolis. I am completely convinced that God called us to that place to find the work God meant us to do. It has been an interesting and twisting route from there to here; but I believe it has led to God’s intended destination.
“That is the message part of this text brings—that unexpected things, things outside of convention can often be wonderful signs that God is at work.”[iv] Amid things that are not quite perfect, God can and does do amazing things. Today’s text calls us to rise and follow God’s call, not knowing where the journey will take us, or the path that God has set before us.”[v]
What dreams does God have for you? On these cold, long nights of winter, what is God whispering in your ear? And how will you answer? As Christmas approaches, I pray that God might take up residence in your heart just as he took up residence in our world almost 2,000 years ago, and give you the courage and the grace to say yes to God. Amen.
[i] Andrews, Susan R., Feasting on the Gospels, Matthew, Volume 1, Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), p. 10.
[ii] Klink, Arron, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p. 94.
[v] Ibid, p. 96.