THIRD SUNDAY IN ADVENT
Readings; Psalm 24:1-5, Matthew 1:18-25
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, December 13th, 2015
A famous musical, a big hit on Broadway, was 'Man of La Mancha'. The highlight of the show was when the central character, Don Quixote, stood center stage and sang 'To dream the impossible dream'.
In our scripture reading today an angel brings to Joseph what seemed like an impossible dream; a dream that he would play a key role in the coming of God's redeeming love to the world.
For Joseph this is a rather surprising development that came about as he was struggling with a very different problem. Mary, the young lady to whom he was betrothed, was pregnant and he could not figure out how it had all happened. Being betrothed, was a state of affairs that was far more than being engaged. For during one year to eighteen months of betrothal, the bride was usually kept in seclusion at her parents house. So to find out she was having a baby was a major shock!
Thing was, Joesph really loved Mary and, despite this pregnancy, had a high degree of trust in her. She had said that this was no normal child or pregnancy... but how do you deal with that? It didn't make any sense.
The right thing to do would have been to break off the relationship, bring accusations of unfaithfulness before the village elders and have Mary publicly disgraced. But, as we've already said, Joseph wasn't that sort of person. Not towards his Mary.
The bible says he was a 'just' man. He was 'just' in the sense being a kind man, a gentle man, whose heart was compassionate and merciful like the heart of God. Joseph wasn't rushing into any decisions. He was considering things first. He took the time to think things over rather than jumping in feet first and doing something he may have lived to have regretted.
Well... relationships. Dang! Where do you start? If this was all there was to the story then it would still have a message for us. How quick we are to make judgments and apportion blame... particularly if it comes to teenage pregnancies or marriage breakups or when our own relationships do not work out. Of course we all learn from our mistakes, but wouldn't it be better not to make them in the first place?
Joseph was one of those rare characters who had the wisdom to think first, to not take things at face value, but consider the deeper implications. This business with Mary, it must have played on his mind all day long. During the night it became the subject of his dreams. It was during one particular troubling dream that God intervened, an angel spoke to him, and he found the way though his dilemma. The problem didn't go away. It wasn't solved or sorted. But he did find a way to handle it.
We know some other things about Joseph. We know he was by trade a carpenter. The Greek word for carpenter is 'tekton'. (The root of the English word 'architect'.) The word is used only twice in the New Testament, once of Joseph in Mathew 15:15 and once of Jesus in Mark 6:3, where we are told that He had taken up Joseph's trade. 'Tekton' literally meant 'To join together or make a frame out of wood or some other material'... the irony being that it was upon a frame of crude wood that Jesus would die.
We also know Joseph was a dreamer. The Old Testament patriarch, after whom Joseph was named, was also a dreamer. You know I'm sure the story of Joseph and his amazing technicolor dream-coat. Joseph's ancestor Joseph dreamed dreams that led to him having a position of greatness in Egyptian society.
There is something appropriate about a carpenter being a dreamer. They have to visualize plans in their mind, as they make whatever it is they are working on. I confess to not being well gifted in that area, but I'm told that when a sculptor looks at a hunk of wood or a rock, they see something in it that the rest of us can't see. 'That looks like a statue of a goddess or an excellent table top' (but probably never both at the same time!) Having seen in their minds eye what the possibilities are, then they set about making it a reality.
Joseph, as a carpenter pictured the plans in his head as he worked. It seems natural that he would continue to visualize things in his sleep. But on this occasion it wasn't a plan for a table or chair that came to mind, it was the answer to his dilemma with Mary, his loved one.
I'm sure many of us carry our problems over into our sleep time and into our dreams. There are those who tell us to listen to our dreams, as they are a subconscious way of sorting things out.
There have been occasions when I have had dreams that were tremendously helpful in granting me a sense of peace about important decisions that needed to be made. I remember a particularly vivid one that occurred when I was praying about leaving my homelands and moving to the USA. It was so real it seemed like it had really happened.
I'm not going to go into detail, but simply say that I accept those things as genuine insights from God, because I can't explain them in any other way, any more than I can explain God sometimes guides us through words of Scripture that seem to jump off the page or through the random comments of friends or family... or even through that mysterious thing called intuition.
Sometimes you just have to open up to God and say, 'Lord, I don't know why or how or where or when... all I know is that You are guiding me a little further along this particular road... and for the rest, I have no option but to leave it in Your loving hands'.
In a dream an angel tells Joseph not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife because the child in her womb was due to the action of the Holy Spirit. This is no normal child, but the One envisioned by the prophets, Jesus, God with us, who will be our savior.
It must have been an incredibly vivid dream. It convinces Joseph that God is at work in the midst of these unbelievable events. When he awakes he does as the angel has directed.
This is not the end of Joseph's dreaming. If you read further in Matthew you will find him being warned to escape from the murderous plans of Herod and flee to Egypt as well as being directed, in a dream, to return to Israel and settle in Nazareth. For Joseph, listening to his dreams is literally a matter of life and death.
Christmas is a bit of a dream, isn't it? Peace on earth. Goodwill to all people. Every year we proclaim the same hopes. Every year we hear songs on the radio like 'Do they know it's Christmastime at all' and 'Happy Christmas – War is over'. The dreams of Christmas.
It's easy to become cynical and conclude that dreams are only make believe. It's easy to dismiss the whole thing with a Scrooge-like 'bah humbug'. It's easy to suggest that Christmas is the ultimate impossible dream.
But then I get back to considering this encounter between an angel and a dreaming carpenter. I like where it begins. It begins with a love story between a good man and a young lady who are side-swiped by events that are in the hands of God. The call of God can really mess with your relationships.
Ask anybody who has ever had to choose between what they felt was the best plan for their life and what they then believed God was asking of them. The two can be poles apart! But you work through it and take whatever guidance you can find, be it through dreams, scriptures, the advice of friends or the counsel of folk you trust.
I like the way Joseph doesn't rush into his decisions. That he decides to sleep on it and seek God from an answer rather than going with any gut reaction to his loved ones unexpected pregnancy.
I like the way this story ends. Joseph listens to this impossible dream and acts upon it. He is blessed by entering into the most intimate possible family relationship with the Son of God, and becomes the earthly father of Jesus.
That happens because Joseph chooses to do God's will. And, in a peculiar way, what was true for Joseph can be true for us. In Matthew 12:50 Jesus tells us 'Whoever does the will of God is my mother, my sister, and brother' and by implication my uncle, my father, my cousin or a whole host of other relationships. Whoever does God's will is part of the family of God.
Maybe we are all dreaming carpenters. We all try and visualize the kind of life God wants us to live. We all seek to have relationships that are honorable and fulfilling. We all struggle with the problems and dilemmas life brings to our doorstep.
So maybe the most important message to take away from this passage is that we are not alone. Joseph is told Jesus is “'Emmanuel' which means 'God is with us'.” (verse 23). God is there for us, just as God was there for Joseph. God is ready not only to plant impossible dreams in our hearts, but to work with us, in the power of the Holy Spirit to bring them to their unlikely fulfillment.
That is an often repeated theme throughout the 66 books of the Bible. When we travel through 'The Story' program next year, I believe we'll see that sort of pattern emerging.
Who would have dreamed that a wandering tribesman like Abraham would become the Father of a great nation? That dysfunctional Moses would lead his people out of slavery? That David, a young shepherd boy would defeat a giant and become a great King? That a helpless child, born to a peasant, refugee family, in some backwater town in Nowheresville, would turn out to be the King of Kings, Lord of Lords, and our Savior Jesus Christ?
If only we dared to dream what the Savior can do through our lives... just maybe something wonderful could happen to make our world the sort of place that God intended it to be from the first moment of creation. There may be those who suggest we are like Don Quixote in 'Man of La Mancha'... a little crazy and out of touch with reality.
Yet personally I see nothing wrong in being a fool for Christ who dares to believe that with God all things are possible. And I pray that God would plant in all of our hearts the crazy dreams that bring His purposes to pass. To God's name be the glory. Amen.
The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.