A New Dream
A Sermon on Matthew 1:18-25 and Isaiah 43:16-21
For Joseph, the Christmas story began in a place of pain. At its beginning, he was hurting. Joseph had looked forward to a life with Mary! The wedding was near. And then there would be children. Joseph would support this family by the work of his hands, building and crafting with wood. This family would be founded on the central commitment of Joseph’s heart: to live as people of God’s covenant, serving and honoring God by keeping the commandments.
But now Joseph’s hopes and dreams lay in pieces. “I am pregnant,” Mary said. Unfaithfulness had to be the only explanation. Word would soon spread all over town and he and Mary would both be shamed in the eyes of the neighbors.
This good man now had a dilemma. How should a son of the covenant handle this? These were the options that the law offered: one option would be to charge Mary publicly, with the result that she could be stoned to death for immorality, which of course meant the child died, too.
Divorce was the other option, but it wasn’t much more palatable. Mary still might be disowned by her family, condemning her and the child to a life of misery.
Divorce seemed to be the only way, but it had to be done as carefully and quietly as possible. Joseph didn’t want to be punitive. Joseph didn’t want Mary held up to public ridicule. Perhaps he was hoping to work out a way for Mary to make a new start somewhere else.
With all of this going around and around in his head, Joseph fell asleep. In his film Jesus of Nazareth, Franco Zeffirelli pictures Joseph tossing and turning. In a horrible nightmare, Joseph sees the people of the town chasing Mary down and crushing her with stones.
The exile in Babylon was a national nightmare for God’s people. The whole nation of God’s people had been shamed and broken in the eyes of all the world. The Babylonian army had defiled and destroyed the holy city, carried off Judah’s last kings and marched a large number of the citizens into exile hundreds and hundreds of miles from home. What had happened to the dream? Hadn’t God said there would always be a son of David on the throne? Hadn’t God chosen the Temple in Jerusalem for God’s permanent home? What now?
Here are two ways in which the exiles responded to the shattered dream. Some grew apathetic. They gave up. They let go of who they had been as the people of God, and let themselves become Babylonian.
Others continued to mourn. Their homesickness didn’t go away, and their Babylonian neighbors made fun of them. “Sing us some of your songs of Zion,” they teased. “Let’s hear some of that good music from Jerusalem!”
At their lowest, the exiles felt that God had forgotten them, that God had abandoned them, and that they deserved it. “We didn’t keep the covenant,” they admitted. “We didn’t do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with our God.”
The exile was a bad dream that the people couldn’t wake up from.
Hopes and dreams can be so fragile. They can break so quickly, and suddenly we find ourselves in a place we never expected to be and never wanted to be. That’s an exile if there ever was one.
Our hearts have been so full lately with hurts and sorrows and hopes that haven’t been fulfilled yet. Brokenness can happen so fast. Here comes a sickness that completely turns life upside down. Here comes horrible news of a friend’s child’s murder. Here comes unexpected, uncalled for, unnecessary hurt. Bad dreams all! When are we going to wake up?
An exhausted, sorrowful Joseph fell asleep. The first dreams of the night probably were frightful nightmares.
Think about what happens when we go to sleep. When we fall asleep, we let go of controlling our thoughts. Sleep is a letting go. And this letting go creates an opportunity for God to get some words in.
Which is exactly what God did with Joseph. Sleep allowed God to interrupt the circle of Joseph’s thoughts, and God spoke. Through the voice of an angel, God called Joseph by name. “Don’t be afraid, Joseph. Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife because the child in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son. And you, Joseph, are to name him Jesus, which means ‘the Lord saves.’ You will give him this name because he is going to save people from their sins.” By instructing Joseph to name the child, the angel was instructing Joseph to adopt the child as his own.
In his sleep, God took hold of Joseph and showed him that this child in Mary was the long dreamed of, long hoped for Emmanuel, which means God himself is with us.
This meant that God was in the painful mess that Joseph found himself in through no fault of his own. God was at work even there. God was dreaming up something new, making a new initiative to save a hurting world.
Through the prophet Isaiah God interrupted captive Israel’s grief. God spoke to the exiles. God said, “Remember the Exodus, when I brought you out of slavery in Egypt, and when I made a way for you through the Red Sea? Well, don’t dwell on that! You ain’t seen nothing yet! I’m getting ready to do something new. In fact, it’s already underway. Can’t you see the hints of it already? I am making a new way for you, a road through the wasteland, and I’m going to provide all the water you need there. I am going to remake you as my people.”
Once again God was getting ready to make a way where there wasn’t any way. God built that road for the exiles both literally and figuratively. The literal road led home to Jerusalem. Amazingly, some of the exiles were able to go home and reestablish the community there, rebuilding the city wall and the temple.
For others it was a figurative road into the future. God showed people like Daniel and his friends how to be covenant people even if they couldn’t literally be home in Jerusalem. They formed a covenant community in Babylon. It was the beginning of faith families gathering in synagogues all around the empire. First, the Babylonian empire. Then the Persian empire. Then the Greek empire. Then the Roman empire. There were covenant people even in Rome by the time Jesus came along. The apostle Paul himself was both a son of the covenant and a citizen of Rome.
“Look!” God said to the grieving exiles. “I’m dreaming a new dream here. I’m doing a new thing here. I’m making a road into the future.”
“Joseph, son of David, don’t be afraid,” the angel of the Lord said. “God is doing a new work of salvation here. Don’t be afraid.”
Joseph woke up knowing what he would do. This happens to me sometimes. I wake up, and there it is. There is the answer to the question. There is the ending of that sermon. There is the way forward. Have you had that experience? There it was for Joseph! Joseph would not take option A or option B under the law. God showed him a new way. Joseph would go beyond the law and obey God’s new word to him. He would seek the greater righteousness that Jesus himself would later teach, such as when Jesus said, “You have heard it said love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Joseph got up and did just what the angel had told him, without fear of how people might talk. Joseph went into action. He took Mary’s hand in marriage. He adopted her child. He named the child Jesus.
It is to be expected: we find ourselves in a place we never expected to be, a place we didn’t plan to be, a place we don’t want to be, a place of pain, sometimes great pain. In the exile, here comes God. In the nightmare God speaks. “Don’t be afraid,” God invites. “I am here. I am doing something new, enacting a new dream, making a new life. Will you trust me on this? Emmanuel is going to be born into this mess. Emmanuel is going to be born here!”
O come, o come, Emmanuel. Come ransom us. Come save us. Come make a way for us. Come help us and heal us.
Joseph awoke. He knew what he would do. He took God’s hand, and as our nativity stained glass window shows, Joseph took Mary’s hand.
Art: St. Joseph and the Christ Child, 1634-40 Guido Reni