Today we are getting a little ahead of ourselves. Next week, we'll read the first part of this chapter for Epiphany, in which we celebrate the visit of the magi. But I didn't want us to forget the second part of the story, so we're reading it today. It is a very dark part of the Christmas story, a part we don't often care to remember, but also one that has deep resonances in our own violent time. Hear now these words:
Scripture: Matthew 2:13-23 (NRSV)
Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”
Sermon: Dreaming God is With Us1
Let us pray:
Patient teacher, we give you thanks for all the ways you speak to us and try to get our attention--- from the beauty of nature to the nagging of loved ones, from the words of scripture to even dreams. Speak to us again this morning through the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts. Help us pay attention to you again this day and every day. Amen.
I have not been able to get Joseph out of my head this week. This is strange for me--- when I think of the Christmas story I want to talk about how awesome Mary is. I don't really think much about Joseph. But from now into the spring, we will be focusing on the Gospel of Matthew, and Matthew focuses more on Joseph in the Christmas story than he does on Mary. Now, no offense to the dads here in our congregation today, but you don't really do much when it comes to giving birth, which is perhaps why the Gospel of Luke doesn't mention Joseph much. But in Matthew's gospel, Joseph is active in one small but very interesting way. Joseph dreams.
Dreaming is a common activity in scripture, and when we think of dreaming in the bible, we are more likely to turn to another Joseph, the Joseph of the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. That Joseph got in trouble for his dreams at first. He dreamed of his older brothers bowing down to him, and then, instead of keeping such dreams to himself he went about telling people. His brothers are livid. I have described them in the past as classic bullies. They are obviously hurting, but instead of trying to break out of the cycle of hurt, they choose to hurt someone else instead. Joseph. They throw him into a pit, speak of killing him, but then decide to sell him into slavery. Afterward, they soak Joseph's fancy coat in blood and go to their father, allowing him to believe his beloved son was dead. This is a horrible, heart-wrenching story. And poor Joseph, as though his life wasn't bad enough, he tries to live as ethically as he can as a slave and still finds himself wrongly imprisoned! That's when his dreaming comes back into the story. When in prison, God gives him gifts to interpret dreams, and he eventually makes it all the way up to Pharaoh because of this gift, even becoming rising from the status of a slave and a prisoner to second-in-command over Egypt.
But here's the thing about Joseph—- he does not lose sight of God. When Pharaoh asks him to interpret his dream, Joseph replies that the interpretation is not his own but God's; however, the text itself never says, “And God spoke through Joseph” or “And God gave Joseph the gift of dream interpretation” or anything like that. Rather Joseph, despite all he goes through, is able to interpret drams and dream himself because he does not shut himself away from God. He pays attention to the situation around him and listens for God.
Which is what I think Joseph in the Christmas story does as well. You see, why else would Joseph have paid any attention to dreams if he was not naturally opening himself up to God? But he not only heeded God in one dream, but in two: first as a young man preparing to quietly divorce Mary, he changed his path and took Mary as his wife because of a dream; then, God told him to move far away to Egypt in a dream, and he did as he was asked. He listened, not to the clamor and chaos of the world around him, but through it, to find that God was with him, as his ancestor of the same name did before him.
Now, when we read this scripture from Matthew this morning, I'm sure that your first thought was not, “Wow, what a great listener Joseph was to pay attention to the warnings in his dreams.” Your first thought was probably, “Wait a minute, I thought this Christmas story was supposed to be warm and fuzzy--- I didn't remember that part about the babies dying!” This verse is discordant with the picture of the happy family in the stable receiving extravagant gifts from the wise me: When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. I don't want to gloss over the horror in this story by talking about dreaming. Just a few weeks ago, my friend in San Francisco preached on this scripture and spoke about Ferguson and the violence in the hands of the powerful in our own nation. She said, “There are too many weeping Rachels, not only across America, but in this very room. And not only in America, but in Gaza, in Nigeria, in Ukraine.” And she said, there are too many Herods as well: “Herod killed the babies of Bethlehem because he was afraid, afraid of Jesus’ power. So he killed innocent ones to keep himself feeling safe. When we refuse to hear the truth of the lived experiences of others, we become Herods, exercising power [and control] over others as a way to keep ourselves safe.”2 And of course then it becomes a vicious cycle in which police officers are killed, breeding more fear, which breeds even more violence...Herod's world and our world are hurting, broken places in need of a new dream.
That's why we are talking about dreams this morning--- not to avoid the horror of the story but to remind us that in our own stories of horror we need to pay attention. We need to listen. For God is already with us, speaking to us and guiding our steps if only we would open our hearts to realize it!
To return to the dreams of technicolor dreamcoat Joseph, his openness to God's work in his life is what made him able to ultimately forgive his brothers, rather than continuing the cycle of violence and retribution. Joseph's story is a story of hope that we may become the people God calls us to be, a people who make God's dreams for a redeemed and renewed world come to life. Theologically, dreaming is about vision: a vision of that redeemed, restored world.3 That is God's dream. But God's dream gets so mixed up in our own hopes and fears that we lose sight of it and are lost to violence and power struggles. And we are not able to get out of the struggle because we won't look to God, who is beside us all the time coaxing us to do good.
But both Josephs did. Dreamcoat Joseph forgave his brothers for their betrayal and violence. Joseph, Jesus' earthly father, took Mary as his wife despite his own fears and uncertainties, and despite the societal expectations. Joseph, despite his own confusion and sense of powerlessness, took flight in the middle of the night and went to Egypt, far from anywhere he knew. He had seen that vision of a redeemed and restored world, and he trusted God to guide him to it.
Of course, I don't want you to go home and take a nap so you can figure out what God is saying to you. You have to cultivate a listening heart within yourself--- you can't just expect every dream you have to be direct from God. For instance, recently, I had a weird dream about how I really wanted to eat potato chips but I kept checking the ingredients on the bags and every single one had lard in it. I don't think God gave me that dream, as though trying to tell me that lard is important to my salvation or something. But if we can cultivate listening hearts within ourselves, then even in the small things we may hear echoes of God.
My prayer is that in this new year we may make a resolution not just to lose weight or eat more vegetables or stop cursing, but a resolution to listen more for God. Let us pay attention to God's dreams, whether we see that dream reflected in our own dreams, or in the words of great prophets and leaders, or in the kindness of a stranger. Bishop Desmond Tutu in his children's book called God's Dream that I have read to the kids during worship before says this about God's Dream: “God dreams about people sharing. God dreams about people caring. God dreams that we reach out and hold one another's hands and play one another's games and laugh with one another's hearts.”4 Maybe we resolve this new year to reach out and hold one another's hands. What do you think God dreams about? What does God dream for us in this new year--- for us and our families, for our church, for our world?
Remember: God is with us--- that is what Christmas is all about. So let us open our hearts to God.
1I knew I wanted to talk about dreams this Sunday, but this sermon didn't really take shape until after reading this blog post: Adam Phillips, “Dreaming of God With Us,” Advent Reflections, Sojourners, 22 December 2014, http://sojo.net/blogs/2014/12/22/dreaming-god-us.
2Karen Oliveto shared her sermon with me over a direct message on twitter. Fangirl moment! These are quoted from that sermon. Karen Oliveto, “To Comfort Rachel,” 25 November 2014. Also found here: http://karenoliveto.blogspot.com/2014/11/the-cries-of-rachel.html.
3Rolf Jacobson writes, “In terms of theological content, 'those who dream' are prophets--those who receive visions from God (see Joel 2:28-29). The meaning, then, is that the divinely wrought restoration includes the re-opening of the lines of communication between God and people. In terms of the emotional content, 'those who receive visions' often experience and express ecstatic joy--like David dancing beside ark as it was brought into Jerusalem. The picture, then, is of spontaneous and uncontainable joy: 'our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.'” Commentary on Psalm 126, Working Preacher, 14 December 2008, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=193
4Desmond Tutu, God's Dream (2010)