We use the word “dream” in many different ways. Certainly at this time of year we think of this song, “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas.” We might think of a goal or a hope we have for ourselves or our family; perhaps something on our bucket list, perhaps something important and down-to-earth. We all know about Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech about his hope and vision for justice and equality in American society. Maybe we think of our own dreams as being confusing, jumbled, scary bits of our psyche.
But we probably don’t think about dreams the way we hear about them in today’s Gospel, and in many other parts of the Bible – or at least we don’t do so often. Dreams in the Bible are all about receiving information, insight, and wisdom from God – with the intention that the dreamer will take action or make an important decision. Dreams are a sleeping vision, akin to a waking one.
The dream that Joseph has is incredibly important, because it is the way he comes to understand Mary’s pregnancy – which he assumed was someone else’s child. We might call this the Annunciation to Joseph, a parallel to the Annunciation to Mary, and then to the shepherds.
We are probably less familiar with this story; it only appears in Matthew’s Gospel – just like the passages about the Magi, and King Herod searching for the new-born Christ Child are only in Matthew - and we only hear it in worship once every three years. But hearing it reminds us that Joseph had an active and important role to play in Jesus’ birth. If he had angrily and publicly broken off his engagement to Mary, she could have been convicted and stoned to death; it’s what the law allowed. Even divorcing her quietly would have consigned Mary and her child to a life of shame and poverty. Instead, the dream impels Joseph to give them a home, a family, and a name – Jesus; in Hebrew it’s Joshua/Yeshua: God saves.
And Matthew intends us to hear all of this against the backdrop of another dreamer in Scripture – Joseph, way back in the book of Genesis. Joseph, son of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham; the eleventh by in his family, the one his parents favored and pampered (remember that coat of many colors?), the one his elder brothers considered too big for his britches because of his dreams and so beat him up and leave him for dead and then sell him off to be a slave in Egypt. After much time and many twists to his story, Joseph’s ability to understand dreams cause the Pharoah to appoint him prime minister, in charge of preparing Egypt for the famine that is to come. It is that famine that brings Joseph’s long-lost brothers to Egypt, seeking grain and hunger relief, and eventually brings a reconciliation with Joseph, as their extended family moved to Egypt. Joseph, then, becomes the vehicle for the survival and salvation of his family. As he said to his brothers about their treatment of him as a teenager: You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.
So we are to hear in this dream of Joseph the carpenter, fiancé of Mary, traditionally named by the Church foster father of Jesus, the power of God to speak and guide through dreams for the good of the people involved, and for the unfolding of God’s purposes. Hearing this story reminds us, also, that there is rarely one straight line that moves us in God’s direction. We know from Luke’s Gospel all about the angel speaking to Mary, Mary visiting Elizabeth and the birth of John the Baptist, the journey to Bethlehem, Jesus’ birth in a stable, the angels’ message to the shepherds. But from Matthew we learn of how God worked with Joseph, the story of how the Magi were led – including their meeting with Herod and his order to kill innocent children, and then another dream in which Joseph is warned to take Mary and the Baby to Egypt for safety. God was at work in many different ways and through different people to ensure the birth of the One Isaiah called Emmanuel: God with us.
So as we consider Joseph’s dream, consider how God might be speaking to you through your dreams – actual, night-time, sleep-time dreams. Or those day-time visions: sudden flashes of insight, a deep certainty in your gut, and idea that seems to appear out of nowhere and keeps gnawing at your brain. God speaks to us far more often in these ways than I think our modern, skeptical age will acknowledge. Of course, that doesn’t mean every dream we have is an important message from God; or perhaps it is important, but it has more to do with something God wants us to understand or resolve about our inner life, than it has to do with making a decision that affects others, or taking some sort of action.
But God does, indeed, speak to us in our dreams and day-dreams and intuition. And sometimes its very much about the unfolding of God’s purpose for those around you – whether your family or the world at large. Woah, that may feel a little daunting, overwhelming – particularly because dreams are notoriously difficult to sort out and understand. And yet, we need to try.
Making a practice of remembering your dreams – maybe writing down a few words about them, or telling your spouse over breakfast – is a good way to start. If there seem to be puzzling or important images in your dream, use those as an object of meditation in your prayer. Ask God for guidance in understanding. It won’t be that every dream will be important; in fact most dreams probably are not. But do pay attention, listen, leave the door open for what God might be wanting to show you or tell you.
We celebrate Christmas, in part, because Joseph listened to his dreams. There is no telling how God might be nudging, pushing, challenging you to act on his behalf and for the good of others through your dreams – especially when those dreams come in response to sadness, fear, pain or difficulty that you encounter, or that you carry in your heart for God’s world.
As we begin this last week of Advent, let us remember that we are preparing to celebrate the Incarnation – God coming into human life and experience. God is always breaking through into human life – supremely in Jesus, but in our lives as well. Attending to our dreams will help us keep room in our hearts and lives and in the world for God’s presence, and purpose, and action.
Let us pray.
O Lord, you have set before us the great hope that your kingdom shall come on earth, and have taught us to pray for its coming; give us grace to discern the signs of its dawning – in our dreaming and in our waking, and to work for the perfect day when your will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Percy Dearmer, adpt.)