Isaiah 60:1-7, Matthew 1:18-25
December 12, 2010
“Angels and Dreams.” You’re probably asking yourself, “Is the title of this sermon possibly a play on Dan Brown’s Novel ‘Angels and Demons’?” What do you think? (You know me well enough by now! Of course it is!) Does that have anything to do with Advent or the Christmas story? Well, yes and no. There are angels here. There are dreams. There is certainly an element of fear and danger in this story. But no, this is not quite the same kind of story. But it is an attention getter! It’s what I thought about when I was considering this story in Matthew. And maybe it’s enough to start your thoughts.
We’re thinking today about the story of Joseph. The reason I’m having us do that is that several weeks ago, you may remember, I focused on Mary. At one point I was torn between looking a little further into her story, or thinking about Joseph. And finally, in the interest in fairness and “gender equality,” I decided to take on Joseph. My dilemma is that there isn’t as much to say about Joseph! (I don’t know, maybe you’re looking at your watches and you’re thinking you’re happy about that!)
When we look at this story, we find that Joseph doesn’t have very much dialogue. Maybe he’s the quintessential “quiet Jewish father.” That is the stereotype, you know. The joke is told about the little Jewish boy who came home from Synagogue one day and told his mother he was in a play. And when she asked what part he had, he said he was playing the part of the Jewish father. And the mother insisted he go back and ask for a speaking part!
It’s funny to think of Joseph that way. But really, he doesn’t say much in the scriptures. I remember one night last year, about this time. I couldn’t sleep, for some reason, and I was “channel surfing.” (Yes, we men do that!) And I happened on a TV station that’s sponsored by our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters. And I was intrigued that there were a number of people on the program discussing the role of Joseph. And God bless them, I loved their passion. They spoke highly of this man and his part in this story. But I had to smile. Because after a while, I noticed that one person after another came on the screen and said how Joseph was a “quiet man,” who didn’t object to what he was called to do, and who was “quietly submissive” to the word of God. It was funny to me that they were building a case for the personality traits of Joseph, based on the fact that, in the scriptures, he said nothing at all!
I don’t think we can know that! In fact, I think it’s very difficult to know what Joseph’s personality was like at all! That’s what makes his story difficult. It’s simply not good reasoning to say that a person was a “quiet man” based on the fact that nothing he said was recorded! Don’t get me wrong, though. I too have a great deal of admiration for Joseph! I think he was an integral part of this story. And it’s an amazing story! But I don’t think we can make assumptions about his personality from what we don’t see in the scriptures. What we can do is to ask what it would be like if we were in his shoes. (Or his sandals!) What we can do is see the obedience in his actions as he “Did what the angel of the Lord commanded him.” (verse 24)
I want you to notice that his is the first part of the story of Jesus, according to Matthew. The other writers begin at different points in the story, but Matthew starts with Joseph. In fact, in the opening verses of chapter one, Matthew gives us Joseph’s genealogy, tracing his lineage back through the Babylonian exile, back through King David, all the way back to Abraham. (And aren’t you glad you weren’t a lay reader for all those names?!) Then, he starts in telling the story of Jesus, by saying “his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph.” (verse 18) His became the first story recorded on the entire New Testament! That’s a pretty prominent position!
Well, one of the first things that happens in this story is that “an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream.” (verse 20) We’re told that Joseph had “resolved to divorce Mary” when she was “found to be with child.” Don’t you love the way they said things like that? He decided this because he was “unwilling to put her to shame.” (verse 19) Actually, I’ve never really heard a good explanation as to how that would help her not be put to shame! It’s always seemed to me that was a way for him not to be put to shame! I’m sure there was some cultural reason for that. But it didn’t happen, because we’re told “as he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream.”
Now, sometimes I get asked what I think about people who “interpret dreams.” Some people are concerned because they think that sounds kind of “far-fetched.” And I know there are some who would want to interpret every aspect of every dream every person has.” And that does seem a bit extreme. I think sometimes – and I emphasize “sometimes” –dreams are just a mish-mash of our thoughts that have been running around in our heads throughout the day – thoughts our minds haven’t had a chance to “let go.” But at the same time, some dreams are significant. And God appearing to people in dreams is a recurring theme throughout the Bible. It happened in the story of Joseph in the Old Testament. It happened in the story of Daniel. It happened to Peter and Paul. And here in the Christmas story it happened to this Joseph.
So, we can’t discount dreams. And I think it’s pretty amazing that God chose to communicate to this man in this way! And there seems to be little doubt in Joseph’s mind that this was real, and that he needed to obey what the angel told him. (Despite what he may or may not have “said” about it!) And so he did. And as I said when we looked at the story of Mary, this man who was least likely to be the father in the family of our Lord, this man whose only qualification was that he had the proper lineage, this man became an integral part of this most important story. He listened to, and obeyed God’s instructions. He took Mary as his wife.
Then next, we have this whole story of Herod and the wise men. Now, those were big players historically – Herod in the Roman culture, the Magi in theirs! But in this clash of three different cultures – Jewish, Roman, and Middle Eastern, it was Joseph who prevailed. And he did so because he trusted God. In another dream, God told him to “Rise, 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.” (verse 13) I know this is a part of this story we don’t like to read about, and we don’t really understand fully. But Joseph is right in the middle of it – trusting God! And I wonder if he was thinking of another Joseph who brought his family to Egypt, to save them!
So, after a while, Herod died, and “behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt…” (verse 19) and I have to think if we were to hear any dialogue on Joseph’s part, it might have been, “Not you again!” “What do you want me to do now?” But again, there’s nothing. All we know from this story is that he was obedient. He packed up his family, and started down the road.
Finally, this long journey for Joseph and his family ends in Nazareth. And that sets the stage for the opening days of Jesus’ ministry on earth. It’s been a wild journey, a flight from danger in many places. It’s been a hard journey. Joseph didn’t just put his family on a bus, and sit back and watch the countryside! Travel in those days was tough. Those of you who have taken car trips with infants know how difficult that can be! We can only imagine what it was like for this family!! But again, Joseph was obedient. He “did what the angel of the Lord commanded him.”
As I said with Mary, when God works in the world, it’s usually not in a powerful, autocratic way, with people passively watching. It’s usually God “partnering with” people, people who are willing to do his will, and to follow his lead – no matter how difficult that might be. And usually it’s the most unlikely of people! Again, God doesn’t simply do extraordinary things in the lives of great people. He does great things through the lives of un-extraordinary people! And such was the case with this man, (this quiet man!) Joseph. And so it is with us!
So, as I said in the case of Mary, next time you walk by your manger scene, take a good look at Joseph. Think of his obedience. Think of his long journey. Think of how God chose him, and ordinary man, a quiet man, to be an important part of his extraordinary story! And through his part, we are brought into the same story.
Eternal God, we are amazed at this story. We are amazed that the seemingly most unimportant characters are given important things to do. Help us to know that means us, too! Help us to see our part in your kingdom, what ever that might be. And give us the strength to follow where you lead. For we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.