Forty degrees? On Christmas week in northern Indiana? Forty plus degrees? Something ain’t right, folks. Wait, did I say forty? Well, according to my weather app it will be almost fifty on Christmas Eve eve. I know that isn’t an official designation, but still, I’m bummed. That’s just too high!
Mom and I watched White Christmas when I was in Tennessee a week ago. Well, dad was there too, but mostly sleeping. And there was Bing starting and ending the whole movie singing that song we all know. “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know, where the tree tops glisten (sing with me) and children listen to hear sleigh bells in the snow. Sorry kids, Santa can’t make it. No snow!! Grumble, grumble. And I know that snow is a hassle and that our snow removal budget at church was gone by mid February last year and how much better and safer it would be if there weren’t big piles of the frozen white stuff to move around. But still. Me and Bing, we’re dreaming.
Seems to me there are two kinds of dreams. Yeah, OK, Dr. Freud, maybe there are more kinds than just two and if we were spend time unpacking them all we would be ripe for intensive therapy for years to come. But for our purposes in this space, just go with me here. There are two kinds of dreams. The dreaming of white Christmases dream is a dream of what once was. A dream of what we remember, what we long to return to. Just like the ones I used to know. It was better then, safer, friendlier, happier, better then. If only we could go back. This was the dominant dream of many of the Hebrew refugees in the time of the Exodus. Oh, it used to be so much better. Why did you bring us out here to die, they complained to Moses. We had everything back there. It was nice, we weren’t so hungry, so lost, so afraid. Here isn’t so hot, let’s go back. There is always a back to Egypt committee in every organization, in every church. There are those who are convinced that if we only went back and did things like we used to do them, then everything would be just fine. That was a much better way to go, a better way to be. We’re dreaming of the Christmas we used to know.
Then there are the dreams of what is not yet. What might be, what could be. There are dreams of moving forward into an uncertain future. Dreams that break the rules, dreams that change the status quo, dreams that just might get us into trouble. Right Joseph?
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. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 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. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us." 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
I’ll admit it, I’ve always thought that the Christmas story was unfair to Joseph. Mary gets a visitation from an archangel. Joseph gets a dream. A dream that came because of a restless night of worry and frustration, added to anger and despair, I have no doubt. A dream that came with an outlandish request. A dream that said maybe he could set himself aside long enough, maybe he could risk the ridicule and the shame, maybe he could claim what everyone else would see as a horrible mistake and call it his own. Maybe he could. No, he should. He needed to, he was part of the plan.
See, the dream didn’t say just go along with this Joseph. It didn’t say let it play out and see how it goes. Hedge your bets. Wait and see. No, that wasn’t the dream, that wasn’t the angel from God. No, Joseph woke up with a certainty. Whether the certainty was his or was from beyond him we may never know. But it was there. And Joseph did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.
The dream called for action, it called for commitment. And not just a go team, jump aboard the bandwagon kind of commitment. No, this was a swim against the tide, a drive right into the flow of traffic invitation. Everyone is going this way, even the law says go this way, society says go this way, common sense says go this way, but darn it all if God doesn’t say go that way!
This doesn’t mean that everything that goes against the mainstream must be of God. But there does seem to be this disturbing trend of the followers of God being asked to launch off into the unknown, whether anyone comes along or not. And a surprising number of these forays into the undiscovered country are set off by a dream.
Jacob woke from a dream and went off to build a nation, confident that God was with him. The OT Joseph woke from a dream and rescued a nation about to starve to death, confident that God was with him. Daniel woke from a dream and danced with man-eating lions, confident that God was with him. The magi woke from a dream and saved their own necks by going home by another way, confident that something was now different in their understanding of how this world was ordered.
Joseph woke from sleep and claimed a savior who would not just rescue him from the life that was about come crashing down on his own head, but would bring hope to a world where all the lights seem to have gone out all at once, confident that God was with him. Confident? Must have been, because he did what the angel, what the dream told him to do.
So, why don’t we dream such dreams? Why doesn’t God send an angel to us so that when we wake up we can do what the angel of the Lord commanded us? Well, I don’t know. It would be easy to say the there are angels all around we just aren’t listening. But maybe it is more complicated than that. Maybe there is something else we need to hear before we dismiss this story as a once upon a time fairy tale that just doesn’t happen in the “real world” any more.
First the only description we have of Joseph tells us two things, one he is addressed by the angel as “son of David.” The only other human being to carry that title in the Gospel is Jesus. Select company. The second thing we know about Joseph is that he is a righteous man. Righteous means faithful, but faithful to relationships, with God, with community, with neighbor, with loved ones. Joseph was faithful to those he loved, to those with whom he was in relationship. That’s why he was torn the night he had his dream. He was torn between his faithfulness to Mary and his faithfulness to God through the law. So, he had decided to take the least painful steps he could take, and dismiss her quietly. Until he had a dream. And suddenly a new opportunity arose, a new direction, a new possibility. God shows a way where there is no way.
That might explain why he was able to do this incredible thing when he awoke. It was what he wanted to do anyway. It was what his faith told him even though his experience said there is no way. It was what his hopes told him though his fears told him no way. It was what his heart longed for though his social standing would take a blow from which he might never recover. So, he chose the looking back to what has always been path. He chose to believe that “we’ve always done it this way” was what was carved on those stone tablets and made his choice.
Until he had a dream. He dreamed of Christmas. A Christmas that just might be. And chose to follow that dream.