First Sunday after Christmas Day | Matthew 2:13-23
Three times in this passage we read that Joseph was warned in a dream. Just as before when Joseph learned that Mary was already pregnant and an angel appeared to guide him, it seems that Joseph’s angels appear to him only in dreams.
Dreams are that space where the walls we build around our innermost thoughts crack and come falling down. In our waking world we keep our fears at bay and we block out our hearts. In dreams, our fears disguise themselves and walk up to us, our desires walk out into the light to be seen. And in dreams, sometimes God speaks.
Maybe God is speaking to us all the time, and it is just that our dreams are the only place where our minds are quiet enough to hear.
The Magi came, strange wise men from the east. We know nearly nothing about them. It is likely Joseph knew nearly nothing. They came to see the child, left astonishing gifts, and departed never to be mentioned again. And after they leave, Joseph begins to dream.
He believes in the message of his dream enough to take his new family and hide them in Egypt, finding safety in what had been the land of Pharaoh. He has yet more dreams, and he believes in these enough to uproot his family again and to return to Nazareth.
Unlikely as it may seem, Joseph believed his dreams were the voice of God and acted on what he heard. Just like that.
A voice in our heads does not mean that God is speaking to us. Still, though the voice is just in our heads, it may be the voice of God. We only hear God when we stop to listen.
If we never act on our dreams, they remain only voices in our minds. When we act on our dreams, we meet God face to face.
Most of us would claim, if pressed, that should an angel appear to us and tell us what the Lord wanted us to do, then we would certainly follow the Lord’s bidding. In the meantime, if we somehow miss the mark, it is that we are unclear on just what it is that we ought to do.
Joseph, according to the story, was visited by an angel, and the angel told Joseph exactly what was going on and what to do. And of course Joseph did it. After all, there is no great difficulty knowing what to do when an angel comes and tells you, and any sensible person would do just as the angel said.
Joseph had learned that Mary, his bride to be, was already pregnant. We don’t know how that conversation went, but we may imagine that it was a bit awkward. We do find Joseph to be a thoughtful and kind fellow: while he was certainly not foolish enough to marry such a woman, neither would he add to her disgrace. He determined to break off the engagement quietly.
One might consider for a moment that the story does not, strictly speaking, say that Joseph saw an angel. In fact, the story says that Joseph dreamed about seeing an angel, which is not quite the same thing. If in broad and waking daylight an angel appears and tells you things, full of light and sound and actual presence, that would be difficult to rationalize away. If you only dream about an angel, well then, one begins to wonder.
If Joseph were very sensible, knowing how the world works and where babies come from, then he would have awakened that morning, shook his head, and muttered to himself that it was only a dream. Then he would have carried out his plan to break his engagement with Mary, gone and married some other woman, and he and what’s-her-name could have made a good life together. That would have been the sensible thing to do.
Following his dream, listening to the words he thought an angel whispered while he was sleeping, that was foolish. Ask any sensible person who knew Joseph.
Oh, that is right: we don’t know any of the people who thought Joseph was foolish. Their names are lost, and their lives are not remembered.
We do remember Joseph. He was brave enough to act on his dream. He was kind enough, loving enough, faithful enough to consider that God was at work in the midst of what appeared to be an untenable situation.
In the end, Joseph simply chose to believe that God was speaking to him. When Joseph made his choice, he did not have lights and trumpets and scrolls handed to him. He did not even have a proper vision, some waking encounter with God that someone else could, at least, observe and confirm in some way, if only to tell Joseph that he did, in fact, sort of blank out there for a few minutes. No, all Joseph had to go on was a dream.
And so Joseph made the best choice he could, despite the fact that well meaning and otherwise intelligent people were telling him he was wrong. He made his choice without certainty, and as he watched his wife’s belly grow, he must occasionally have wondered whether he had done something foolish.
In the end, Joseph knew that he had made the right choice. Just when things were going so badly that his new wife was giving birth in a rented stable, not even in a decent house, and they were so far from home that their nearest family member was a donkey, suddenly there were angels aplenty that everyone could see. And there were wise men coming from who knew where bringing gifts, pretty good ones.
By then, it may be that Joseph did not need angels and wise men to tell him he had made the right choice. Long before Bethlehem, and even if the child were to have been quite normal and unremarkable, he may have looked at Mary and known that he would love her and the child regardless. He had made his choice with what good sense he had, the love in his heart, and faith that God is in our choices and our dreams.
For the third Sunday of Advent this year, the lectionary offers an alternative to the Psalm reading: one may substitute Luke 1:46-55, called the Magnificat from the opening word of the Latin translation.
The Magnificat is a beautiful passage. Many scholars believe that it was an early Christian hymn, worked masterfully into the Gospel of Luke. Few would argue that Mary herself actually spoke these words. Still, the early church accepted not only that these words of praise offer truths about God but also that these words offer genuine insight into the mind and heart of Mary, whether she spoke them or not. It should not worry us. Many of the truest stories never actually happened.
Mary the mother of Jesus is adored in most of Christianity, particularly within Roman Catholicism and Orthodox faith. Sometimes, to the eyes of some other Christians, it appears that she is even worshiped.
It is not so in the plainest traditions of Protestant Christianity. Among Protestants, Mary is seldom discussed. Oh, she has a role in the story of the Christmas Child, but Mary herself is given little role in the Protestant pursuit of Christianity. It would seldom, if ever, enter the mind of a Baptist to call upon Mary, or any of the other saints, for help. Most of these Christians would explain that such a focus upon anyone other than God is unseemly at best, perhaps not even Christian, and that such attention given to Mary borders upon idolatry.
I suggest that the truth may be simpler: we do not like to think about things that unsettle us.
How does that apply to Mary, one might ask?
Well, for one thing, to think about Mary at any length leads one to think about the great portions of the life of Christ about which we know nothing at all. What was he like as a child? Did he get bruises and scrapes? Did he forget things, do his chores, have any chores? What did Mary and Joseph do with the gold, frankincense, and myrrh? Did they set up a trust fund for the child?
There’s more. What was it like, in the first days of what turned out much later to be the first century AD, to be pregnant and unmarried (at least for a while, till Joseph came along)? What did Joseph really think about the whole thing? How long did the neighbors gossip about it and count on their fingers the months from the wedding to the birth? What happened to Joseph, and how long did Mary live after he was gone?
What about the brothers and sisters of Jesus? What were family gatherings like?
What was it like to watch Jesus die? What did she think when she heard the report of the empty tomb? Why did Mary, if the tradition is true, go to stay with the apostle John?
Did Mary write any of it down? What would that story sound like, and would you like to read that Gospel?
How much did Mary understand? And how little do we understand about her?
Here’s an Advent challenge for us, particularly for those unacquainted with meditating on Mary the mother of Jesus: this season, from time to time, pause to think about the Christmas story unfolding through the life of Mary.
We do know that whatever happened in those days, Mary was at the beginning of it, and we are told that she treasured all these things in her heart. (Luke 2:19, 51) Let us also ponder that first Christmas season and treasure it. Remember Mary, and see Christmas through the eyes of the mother of Jesus.
…The wolf also shall lie down with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them…They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.
The words are famous. It is strange how some words affect us, stay with us. Sometimes we have heard words so often that we are unable to hear them any longer because we are sure we know what they mean.
Take the messianic image in verse 4: with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked.
Most of us hear these words and we think of overwhelming power. Yet the prophet is telling us about the power of words themselves, power in the breath of God, in a whisper.
Jesus did not live up to expectations. He taught, he touched, he brought healing to sick people, and he only occasionally became angry. The kingdom of God was ushered in with quiet words and humble grace. No lightning, no hellfire.
I want to change things directly by the use of power. Like most of us, I wish I had more power to apply to the world around me. Yet, the imposition of power only reinforces its object, hardens it, like steel in a forge or diamonds under the crushing weight of the earth.
God waits, watching the world change little by little by the choices of single souls. It is like the power of water to carve rocks, fluid and seemingly soft and ultimately irresistible.
When we want change, the world tells us to scream and to shove, to force our will on those around us.
God does not scream. God is whispering.
This season why not try the way of greater power: a quiet word, a gentle response. We may find that we are acting with the power of God.