If there were one set of Bible passages you could count on people knowing reasonably well, it would be the Christmas narratives in Matthew and Luke. Most of us have heard these stories since childhood and even likely acted them out at some point when we were children in a pageant.
|Rev. Mark Schaefer
Congregation of St. Thomas the Doubter
December 19, 2021
These stories are so familiar that we sometimes miss their details. We know these stories, and so we forget to actually read them. Because when we do, we discover some surprising things.
II. THE TEXT
Interestingly there is no mention of the annunciation to Mary in Matthew’s version. Matthew’s version focuses primarily on Joseph: Joseph learns of Mary’s pregnancy, and knowing the child is not his, resolves to divorce Mary quietly so as not to disgrace her.
But then Joseph has a dream in which an angel of the Lord tells him that the child she bears is from the Holy Spirit and that he will save people from their sins. Joseph wakes from the dream and does what he was commanded, taking Mary as his wife.
Interestingly, there’s little of the other elements of the story that we’ve come to expect: shepherds, an inn, a manger, animals, and so on. Some of that is in Luke, and some of that isn’t in the Bible at all and only shows up in our Christmas stories because of St. Francis of Assisi.
In fact, the central element of the story isn’t Mary’s pregnancy or the birth of the baby Jesus, which kind of happens off-screen. We’re simply told that Joseph has no marital relations with his wife Mary until after she had borne him a son. The birth itself and the circumstances of it aren’t described.
The central element of the narrative is the dream that Joseph has in which the angel of God explains to Joseph what is happening. That same dream then impels Joseph on a course of action to take Mary as his wife and raise her child as his own.
That’s a pretty powerful dream if you think about it.
I’ve never had a dream where I learned anything momentous. Paul McCartney had a dream wherein he received the melody to “Yesterday.” I’ve certainly never had anything like that.
I’ve had powerful dreams. I’m sure you have, too: the kind of dreams where you wake up and aren’t sure what’s real. I’ve had dreams that have woken me up: sometimes in terror, sometimes in laughter. Those are my favorite. I had a dream like that the other day and scribbled down what had made me laugh before falling back asleep.
But I’ve never had a dream that caused me to make a life decision like the kind of decision Joseph has made. That’s a whole different order of dreaming.
A. The Dreams of Joseph
Matthew likes using dreams in his gospel. Luke likes using angels; Matthew likes dreams. But there’s something else that Matthew likes doing: invoking the Old Testament. See, the church of Matthew’s day was embroiled in a bitter controversy with the Pharisees over which sect—the Pharisees or the Christians—represented the true successors to the religion of Israel. To make his case that Christianity represented a fulfillment of Jewish hopes, Matthew frequently appeals to the Old Testament.
Matthew’s gospel quotes the Old Testament the most, offering proof-texts usually with the formula, “This was to fulfill the words of the prophet that….” We heard such a reference in the passage read earlier tonight.
But there’s something else Matthew likes to do to make a connection to the Old Testament: he draws on archetypes. And there’s an important archetype that he draws on in this lesson: Joseph.
Not the husband of Mary. The son of Jacob. The beloved child, recipient of the special coat that showed his father’s love. And who had dreams that spelled out God’s plan for God’s people. A Joseph who went down to Egypt and brought his family to deliver them from harm. When we read of Mary’s husband having dreams from God and then later taking Mary and the baby Jesus down to Egypt for safety, we are meant to remember the other Joseph. We are meant to see Jesus’ story as Israel’s story in microcosm.
And so, the dreams play an essential role in Matthew’s portrait of Jesus and Christianity as the fulfillment of Jewish hopes and longings.
IV. OUR DREAMS
But there’s something else about dreams. They’re not just a narrative device that helps the character get information they wouldn’t otherwise have. They’re not simply a way to tie the Old Testament to the New. Dreams are a way to communicate with the divine.
Long before Sigmund Freud showed up and told us our dreams were all expressions of repressed desire or neurosis, people believed that dreams were a way for the gods to impart their knowledge to mere mortals.
Dreams are a way to see things that reason or ordinary observation cannot communicate. They are a way of tapping into a world that cannot be seen in one’s waking hours.
Now, to be fair, I think that most of the dreams we have at night are our subconscious working things out. A lot of my dreams are what is called “day residue.”
But there are other dreams that we have that do not require us to be unconscious, and those dreams are no less connected to the divine.
MLK’s dream, for example, is a divine vision of a world in which racial injustice no longer exists. The dream behind the founding of the UN was of a world no longer at war. The dream of a world in which all are included, all are welcomed. In which no one goes hungry, in which no one lacks shelter. A dream in which everyone is free, and no one lives under tyranny or oppression. A dream in which all people are valued for who they are. These dreams, too, are the whispers of God into our souls. They, too, paint a picture of a future that beckons us, no less than the future of Mary’s child that beckoned to Joseph.
Now, it may seem that the dreams we long for are just as unlikely as the dream that Joseph received. And in some ways, you could be forgiven for thinking that a virgin birth is a lot more believable than world peace. But the importance of today’s lesson is not about the vision alone. It’s about Joseph’s willingness to respond to it.
He had already decided to divorce Mary quietly. He was already going above and beyond what was required of a man in his circumstance. But instead, he was given a dream of who this child would be. A dream that saw the child as hope not just for Israel but for all the nations. And in response to this dream, he claimed the child as his own and ensured the child and his mother would be safe from harm.
If there be a lesson for us this Advent and Christmastide, let it be that we have been given a dream: a vision of a world of peace, justice, love, and hope. A world in which the love of God reigns. God’s angel comes to us with this dream and bids us to wake and claim the Christ child as our own.
Matthew 1:18–25 • Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.”