An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid…” (Matthew 1:20)
There’s a story about an ongoing conversation between a wife and husband just a few days before Christmas. She woke up that morning and told him, “I just dreamed that you gave me a pearl necklace for Christmas. What do you think this dream means?” “Oh,” her husband replied, “you’ll know the day after tomorrow.”
The next morning, she turned to her husband again and said the same thing, “I just dreamed that you gave me a pearl necklace for Christmas. What do you think this dream means?” And her husband said, “You’ll know tomorrow.”
On the third morning, the woman woke up and smiled at her husband, “It’s amazing, but I just dreamed again that you gave me a pearl necklace for Christmas. What do you think this dream means?” And he smiled back, “You’ll know tonight.”
That evening, the man came home with a small package and presented it to his wife. She was delighted. She opened it gently. And when she did, she found-a book entitled The Meaning of Dreams!
I suppose that Joseph, betrothed to Mary in today’s gospel lesson, would have appreciated having that book, for today’s gospel lesson is about one whopper of a dream—the dream of Joseph. Not Mary’s dream, but Joseph’s dream. In fact, the story of the angel Gabriel appearing to the Virgin Mary appears in only one gospel, the gospel of Luke. In two of the gospels, Mark and John, there is no account whatsoever of the physical birth of Jesus. We have four gospels, and they differ dramatically in how they tell the story of the birth of Jesus. In Matthew’s gospel, the angel appears not to Mary at all, but to Joseph. It is Matthew’s gospel that we read this liturgical year, thus it is Joseph we hear of today. And of all the great men and women of faith in the Bible, one of my favorite heroes is Joseph. Joseph is a real man’s man, a practical man—a real “salt of the earth” kind of guy. He’s a tekton, a Greek word for one who works with his hands for a living, not one who trucks in the world of fanciful ideas and mysterious visitations by creatures from some other world. So if you think you have trouble swallowing the idea of the virgin birth this season, try putting yourself in his shoes!
Here you are, an honorable and decent man. You’re overjoyed in having found a young woman with an excellent reputation, someone who will not only be a good wife, but will bring honor and respect to your home. And let there be no mistake: Mary was as honorable and respected as Joseph. God would not have chosen any other to be the mother of the Son of God. Already engaged, which is one step short of being fully married in this strict Jewish society, you’re looking forward to the wedding and the right to live together openly and fully as husband and wife.
Here comes Mary. You see her lovely face and know at once that something is wrong. You ask her what’s bothering her. She replies, “Joseph, honey…” and then utters the four words that every man dreads hearing from his wife, “…we need to talk.”
She continues, “Please don’t be upset…I’m pregnant. But guess what—I haven’t been unfaithful to you, I haven’t betrayed your trust and love. This is what happened to me…” She proceeds to tell you a bizarre story about having talked with an angel, about the Holy Spirit overcoming her, and now being very pregnant with God’s Son. And you’re thinking, “As if being unfaithful to me isn’t bad enough, my wife-to-be apparently has lost her mind!” You chose this woman because she was gracious, kind, loving and circumspect with all her marbles intact…how could you have been so wrong about her? For you know beyond a shadow of doubt that this child of Mary’s is not yours.
Even in our modern day, with the culture’s looser and permissive attitudes towards sex before marriage and pregnancy, this episode would still constitute a major betrayal of trust and commitment. But for Joseph, living in a far stricter society, this is an utterly incredible and irreparable disaster. How could she?
Marriage to this woman is suddenly impossible. It will be a disgrace. He will be the laughingstock of his village. How can he possibly go through with it? Although Matthew’s gospel is completely silent about Joseph’s inner feelings, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to picture the pain and disappointment that must have gone through Joseph’s soul. And what a sensitive and noble soul he has! Despite having been personally deeply wounded and publicly disgraced, Joseph nevertheless wants to protect Mary. She will suffer public scorn, but he will minimize the impact as much as possible. Yes, there must be an end to the marriage plans, but the reason need not be made public. He’ll do it as quietly as possible. Thus with his mind made up on how best to handle the situation, he goes to bed to get a good night’s sleep; he’ll need all of it to be prepared to do what he has to do tomorrow. But then the real trouble begins…he himself has a dream, and he himself gets touched by an angel in the dream! The angel says to him, “Do not fear, Joseph…God really is in control of this situation. Mary has not betrayed you, trust me on this one. Do not let go of her, do not let go of your dreams to live the rest of your life with her. Stay with her…everything’s going to be alright.” So, going against everything that the practical side of his brain is telling him to do, Joseph decides to go with his dream.
Dreaming is a major theme that flows through Matthew’s version of the coming of the Savior in human flesh. In the first two chapters, Joseph discovers what God wants him to do only in dreams. No less than four times, a new course of action, a new direction, comes to Joseph solely in the form of a dream. In a literary sense, it is the dreams (which we interpret as messages from God) that keep the Christmas plot moving, and guide the characters to their destiny.
This is also true in popular stories about Christmas in modern times as well. Dreams in literature and film often guide the character ’s inner world and thereby directs his or her outer behavior. Think of Clara’s dream in the Nutcracker, and George Bailey in the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life. Dreams are often the catalyst for life-changing decisions or inner transformation. Sometimes, as with Joseph and the Magi, dreams force one into confrontation with sinister forces that are at work against them. These dreams warn us and give us choices that could mean life or death. Scrooge, in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, had dreams of this sort, only the warning was not for his physical protection but for his inner redemption. Often dreams empower the dreamer; they inspire action, choices, creativity, and courage.
Before he acted on his well thought-out plans, Joseph decided to sleep on it. When he rested from his own thoughts, God was able to communicate with him in the form of a dream. And so it is with us. We know from several scientific studies that everybody dreams, only many people do not remember their dreams. Dreams bring all of us a level of receptivity to the Holy, beyond the everyday reasoning processes by which we try to remain in control of all the events of our lives. And yet, if we live only on the pragmatic level of consciousness, it becomes very difficult for us to trust mystery, insight, intuition and serendipity. On his own Joseph would have done the prudent and decent thing by following the accepted wisdom of his culture. However, he did not act immediately on his practical assessment of the situation, even after he had seemingly made up his mind what to do. He waited. In order to be open to a new possibility in our lives, we also have to wait…waiting for God. Sometimes, we just need to sleep on it, and see what new insights come to us in the morning.
What have you been dreaming about lately? Do you dare to follow your dreams? My father did! Fifty six years ago he and my mother moved from the South to Washington, DC to fulfill a dream, a dream of making a living and raising a family through faith and hard work, against many odds. He, like Joseph, is a tekton, a man who works with his hands. He didn’t have a lot of schooling, but he sure had a lot of vision. And part of his dream was this: to own his own business. It didn ’t make much sense, that dream of his, given the economic realities of being a blue collar black man in a racially segregated world. He faced many obstacles, but sure enough a few years ago he finally retired from 37 years as the proud owner of his own auto repair business. It’s people like my father who taught me never to underestimate the power of a dream.
Forty five years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and announced to this nation, “I have a dream.” A dream of justice, of equality, of love and community…a dream of a great nation becoming all that it could be. We are all here today because he not only had the audacity to dream a dream of a society that was not yet what it professed to be, but he also acted on his dream. He did just as one of the finest dreamers in our world ,Vincent van Gogh, who once said, “I dream of painting, and then I paint my dreams.” MLK “painted” his dream for us on the canvass of history.
What is your dream? What are painting on the canvass of your life?
Do you remember the popular film Field of Dreams starring Kevin Costner? In the story, a corn farmer hears a small but persistent voice, “If you build it, they will come.” The man interprets the voice to mean build a baseball field. The voice asks him to do the unusual, the unheard of , and if he does it there will be a positive result. He does, in face, build the ball field, and after doing so, they do come: Shoeless Joe Jackson and his teammates. The voice also hells him to do other things. He does them, and it leads him on a journey to find out more about himself and his destiny.
I believe that Joseph must have had a similar kind of experience. We can almost hear the angel voice saying, “If you go ahead with her, the Savior will come.” Joseph, like in Field of Dreams, is trusting in something beyond himself to guide him through social ridicule and pain. Joseph is putting his faith in God, hoping that God will guide him to his destiny.
Followers of Jesus Christ are also called to do curious and unheard of things. Although we often want to resist, there is still that voice that catches us when we are vulnerable; when we are asleep. It says, “If you build it, they will come. If you go ahead and marry her, the Savior will come.”
“If you call for me, if you open the door, if you let me in…I will come.” Amen.