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The Dreamer

A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock on 18 December 2022 [Advent 4/Year A]: Isaiah 7:1-16; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25 The Dreamer

Do you remember your dreams? I have a really hard time remembering mine. I remember that I dream, and I know that dreams matter. We may fill our lives up with distractions, “to do” lists, and worries to the point that our minds are stuffed-full with no room for anything else. But dreams still sneak in; don’t they? With all our efforts to organize our lives (and frequently to try to control them), dreams elude all our regulation. We have no defense against what we dream. We can’t control whether we dream or not. Dreams belong to the deep reality beyond our choosing.

In the last thirty years or so, I have done a bit of dream work, even worked on how I might remember my dreams more readily. Nonetheless, as hard as it is for me to remember my dreams, I do find it curious that one specific dream still holds a place in my memory. It was a dream from over forty years ago.

In that dream I was driving to a campsite I had reserved that was deep in the woods. Finding it, I parked my car, opened the door, and began to take a step out onto the ground, when in mid-stride I spied the world’s biggest, poisonous snake directly under my foot. Helpless in mid-air stride, I watched myself step on the snake, which most predictably recoiled at my intrusion and bit me in the leg. The result of which was that I died in my dream. In reality and to my breathless relief, I simply awakened, but shaken, and confused to begin a day in such a fashion.

It has been said that if one has a dream in which one dies, one can actually die as a result. Given that I remain alive, that diagnosis may not be true; but I can tell you that at that time in my life, a big and familiar part of me was in fact dying. So, there you have it. I remember that dream!

In seminary, I remember a young, Dutch, Roman Catholic priest cutting his professorial teeth among us. In terms of dreams and dreaming, Henri Nouwen once said that with all that we jam into our awareness, often there is no room for God to get through to us. So, God enters our dreams, uncontrollable and mysterious as they are. In this morning’s gospel for Advent last week, we hear a story about Joseph and a dream he once had about his life with Mary and her pregnancy. Evidently, it is safe to say that Joseph remembered his dream!

I find Joseph to be a strikingly compelling biblical figure. In many ways he personifies the punchline of comedian, Rod Dangerfield: “Joseph don’t get no respect”. Of course, this is not precisely true. Joseph is a well-recognized saintly figure of the church, and everyone who has heard the Christmas story knows his name and his role in the birth of Jesus. But the fact is, for being such an essential player in this Incarnational drama, the figure of Joseph remains very quiet. For instance, St. Joseph speaks no words in any gospel account; and truth to tell he only appears in a few narratival sentences in all of the New Testament. More specifically, without any notice, in the middle of Jesus’ public ministry, Joseph disappears from the Jesus story. You would think that at least his death would be mentioned. It is not.

Most of what is recorded about Joseph is contained in Matthew’s gospel, today’s lesson being the first instance. As we heard in the reading, Joseph and Mary are described as being engaged, living separately (“before they came to the marriage bed”[1] is how one version goes), and that Mary is pregnant – “by the Holy Spirit”. Well, right there we have a very understandable problem. Mary is pregnant, unmarried, and Joseph, betrothed to Mary, is not the father. (Wait until the folks on twitter get a hold of this!) But hidden beneath the scandal (and there was scandal), there is more to the story and, therefore, much more about Joseph.

In telling this tabloid-sounding information, Matthew describes Joseph as being a “righteous man”: a quality of his trustworthy character that is expressed by how Joseph responds to this inconceivable situation. Again, with the simplest of terms, Matthew relates that Joseph, being a “righteous man”, was (to use new words[2]) “chagrined but noble, determined to take care of things quietly so Mary would not be disgraced.”

Another thing Matthew tells us about Joseph is that he had a dream – presumably the night he learned of the news from Mary, which begs a most pressing question: With all that was swirling in Joseph’s heart and mind, how did he manage to fall asleep so deeply that a dream emerged? But dream he did and not an ordinary dream at that.

As we know, Joseph dreamed that an angel of the Lord appeared to him and announced that Mary’s condition and his situation were a God-thing; and as such, he (Joseph) was neither to fret about nor hesitate to follow through on what God was doing in and through Mary and himself. As if to tie this dramatic crescendo into a neat bow, Matthew writes mater of factly that “Joseph woke up.” But Joseph being Joseph did exactly what God’s angel commanded in the dream: “He married Mary. But he did not consummate the marriage until she had the baby.” Matthew then concludes this part of the story with a simple yet crucial information. “[Joseph] named the baby Jesus.”[3]

Joseph was a “righteous man”, and that God-connection was expressed and demonstrated in two, large ways. First, Joseph was a man who was open to God’s presence in his life. Under the circumstances of the status of his engagement, one can easily give Joseph a pass on being deeply distracted by the sudden wreckage of his life. Yet, Joseph not only dreamed of the God-life overlapping with his own life; he remembered the dream. He trusted the dream. He obeyed the dream in spite of its terrifying inconvenience.

The second insight we glean about Joseph as a “righteous man” stems from the last, brief sentence in what is an “Annunciation” scene for Joseph. He named the baby, and in naming the child who was not his biological off-spring, Joseph took responsibility for the child as his own.

As many of us know first-hand, naming a child is a great honor and commitment; and this was especially so in the Hebrew culture of the time. Names in that context were regarded as providing an insight into the nature and purpose of the child. In Hebrew, the name “Jesus” is “Yeshua”; and this name means “physician, healer, deliverer”. In naming this child, born of Mary and the Holy Spirit (that is, of God’s life-giving love), Joseph responds once more in obedience to what God’s messenger commanded; and in naming Jesus gave the child the heritage of his own family, making Jesus a descendent of David. As Mary did in response to her “Annunciation”, Joseph also said “yes” to God’s presence and purpose for his life.

“Follow your dreams!” It is often something we say rather benignly as a low-cost encouragement. It sounds like something that is offered as guiding wisdom at a school’s graduation or in a commencement speech; but in Joseph’s case, following his dreams meant remembering them and trusting them by living them and being guided by them.

What little we know about Joseph is contained in several sentences, within two very short chapters of Matthew’s gospel. Joseph’s gospel footprint rests in the fact that he had four dreams. One shaped today’s gospel: Joseph’s “Annunciation”. The second dream warned Joseph to take his family and flee to Egypt (2:13) because King Herod wanted to kill this “newborn king” (a new exodus story). The third dream called the Holy Family to return to Israel (2:19) because Herod had died, and the way was again safe for the child. Joseph’s fourth dream directed him not to return to the haunts of Herod’ son, but to lead his small family to Galilee, to a small town named “Nazareth”.

The rest, as they say, is history – salvation history, our history.

“Joseph, Son of David, do not be afraid…”[4] That’s what the angels of the Lord always say by way of introduction to the likes of us. Thanks be to God and to you, Joseph, for living your dreams – no matter what. Amen.

[1]The Message: 1:18 [2]The Message: 1:19. [3]The Message: 1:25 [4] Matthew 1:20b,

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