Fourth Sunday of Advent | Matthew 1:18-25
In which Joseph dreams about an angel…
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.