Blessings on your Advent journey! We are almost there, almost to Bethlehem, almost to the baby lying in the manger. We’ve heard from the prophet Isaiah. We’ve heeded John the Baptist’s warnings, and Mary’s song magnifying the Lord. This week, we turn to Joseph.
We don’t know much about Joseph, but like his Old Testament namesake, he has some pretty intense dreams. You might remember that Jacob’s son Joseph made his brothers angry whenever he told them about the dreams he dreamed. He was good at interpreting other people’s dreams, too. That’s how he got on Pharaoh’s good side. This Joseph never rises to power the way Old Testament Joe did, but his dreams are just as powerful, and even more direct.
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. – Matthew 1:18-25
Walter Brueggemann writes in Praying the Psalms that we often find ourselves in one of three places: orientation, where everything makes sense to us and we are comfortable; disorientation, where nothing makes sense and we are extremely uncomfortable; and reorientation, where we find God directing us into a new reality, and a new sense of peace.
Joseph experiences each of these perspectives through his dream, and the reality that follows it. We might want to pay attention to the lessons Joseph learns. The first lesson is the most painful.
You have to abandon your old dream.
Joseph had a dream for marriage with Mary. We don’t know how long they had been officially engaged, but we do know that the common practice in that time was for a couple to sign a contract for marriage, then wait about a year before the bridegroom brought the bride home to live with him and start a new family. This was the orientation Joseph had every right to expect. It was comforting in its predictability.
This legally binding contract was not just a social arrangement. The only way to get out of it was through death or divorce. Joseph’s dream probably included having children, and raising a family with Mary, but that dream was shattered when she became pregnant, and he knew he wasn’t the father.
Joseph also had a dream of what righteousness looked like – adherence to the Law of Moses. In that view of righteousness, Mary had obviously committed adultery – how else could she explain the bulge in her belly? This is where the conflict arises for Joseph. By Law, she should be publicly humiliated, stoned to death. That would preserve Joseph’s own righteousness under the Law.
But Joseph also loved Mary enough to not wish her any shame or death. He solved his dilemma by deciding to divorce her (to maintain his own righteousness) but to do it secretly, with only a couple of witnesses, instead of publicly. She might have experienced some embarrassment when the baby was born, but people would probably blame Joseph, not Mary, for her predicament.
Joseph had to abandon his old dream for a family with Mary, and his dream of maintaining a righteous reputation for both of them. He wasn’t happy about it. Joseph thought divorce was the only option available to him under the circumstances. Any way he looked at the situation, it was disorienting to him.
What dreams have you, personally, seen dashed? What dreams have you had to abandon, because it was the only option you saw available? Maybe it was a dream of what you wanted to be when you grew up. Maybe it was a dream to live happily ever after with a particular person. Whatever your dream, something happened and you had to abandon it. When things got real, you realized your dream would never come true. At least not the way you dreamed it would.
Like Joseph, you experienced disappointment and disorientation. Like Joseph, you wondered what you should do next, and you maybe even came up with some sort of makeshift plan to save your dignity and not cause too much harm to anyone else. Abandoning a dream can be difficult, but it’s a necessary step if we are to learn Joseph’s second lesson:
Abandoning the old dream makes it possible
to embrace a new dream.
This is where Joseph began to experience re-orientation. He didn’t argue with the angel who appeared to him in a dream. In fact, Joseph doesn’t say a single word anywhere in the whole New Testament. He simply does what he is told. He is obedient. When given a new dream, one that he could never have anticipated, he embraces it immediately. Joseph responds to the angel’s message by taking Mary to be his wife, so that the dream can be fulfilled.
Mary (passively) says, “Let it be with me according to your word.” But Joseph isn’t passive; he acts. He does what the messenger tells him to do. He embraces a new dream.
This new dream includes a new name, and a new meaning for that name: Yeshua, short for Joshua, means “the Lord saves.” This was always the dream for Messiah, that the Lord would save his people from their oppressors. But the angel gives this name a new twist, explaining that it means God will save people from their sins.
This is a whole new dream. This is bigger than anything Joseph could have imagined. We aren’t talking about winning a war against some oppressive regime or emperor. We are talking about changing peoples’ lives. We are talking about a totally new way of thinking and living. We are talking about a holy transformation, saved from sin – all our sin, forever. Now that’s reorientation!
When a new pastor arrives, the church anticipates the pastor will bring something new and fresh to ministry. The congregation wants change, but isn’t sure what kind of change to expect, or what it might look like. If we are honest, we really don’t want too much change. Joseph’s story shows us that none of us can know what to expect when we put ourselves completely at God’s disposal.
Part of the process of becoming a healthy and missional congregation requires some imagination, some new ways of dreaming. For example, there may be dreams of welcoming new families into styles of worship we already find comfortable and familiar, but God might ask you to change the way you worship. Perhaps there are dreams of finding more able-bodied people to do the hard work of keeping the church alive and functioning smoothly.
But what if that is not God’s dream for us, any more than settling down to raise a simple family was God’s dream for Joseph? What if God is calling us into something we cannot imagine, something that doesn’t match what our view of the way the world should be? What if God is asking us to be obedient, as Joseph was, in making God’s dreams real? What if God is inviting us into ways of being church that others might scoff at, or find objectionable, a way that isn’t neat and tidy and familiar?
What new dreams is God calling us to embrace? And how will those dreams begin to show others how God is present among us, Emmanuel? This brings us to Joseph’s third, and final, lesson:
When God’s dream for us becomes reality,
we are changed.
This is what Brueggemann calls reorientation. Joseph’s dream transformed him – it changed his mind and his heart. Joseph’s dream changed his view of the world, his idea of how things should be. It shifted from preserving the status quo and upholding existing expectations. Joseph’s thinking expanded to accept something radically different from anything he had known or believed before. Joseph’s transformation set a series of events into motion that changed the world.
Jesus was born, Emmanuel, God with us, just as the angel had told both Mary and Joseph. The dream became reality. It wouldn’t have been possible without the quiet faith and obedience of the man who would teach Jesus how to be human.
This wasn’t the dream Joseph had built for himself. He had to abandon his own disappointment at dreams that had been destroyed when he first learned that Mary was having a baby. But that baby, Emmanuel, would embody the One True God. God With Us.
I wonder what Isaiah’s prophecy about Emmanuel holds for us, two thousand years later. Adam Hamilton writes, “In a sense, as Christ’s followers, we too are called … to be signs of Immanuel – of God’s presence in the world – and to be visible reminders of hope.
“All of us know people who are walking through tough times, who feel besieged in one way or another. How will those people know that God is with them, that they are not alone, if we don’t embody God’s love and presence to them? … We are called to act as a reminder that “God is with you,” to come alongside someone and say, “Listen, I am here to remind you that God has not forgotten you.”
Transformation happens when we trust God enough to say, “Yes,” and God’s vision for us begins to work its way into every aspect of our lives. Some new dreams are waiting for each of you, dreams God has to make you more like his Son Jesus, who came to save us all from sin. Will you take hold of those dreams, and become the person God created you to be?
Will you accept the call to be Emmanuel – God with us – to someone who desperately needs to hear that word of hope? Are you willing to abandon your old dreams, embrace God’s dream for you, and allow yourself to be transformed into Christ-likeness? If so, get ready to be disoriented and reoriented, as God’s dream for you gets real.
Almighty God, help us to discern your dreams for us, and make us willing to obey you, just as Joseph did. Give us courage to abandon our old dreams, dreams that focus on what we want for ourselves, instead of what you want for us.
For we know that what you want for us is far greater than anything we can imagine. Help us to embrace the new dreams you put into our hearts and minds, dreams for peace, for justice, for lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry with good things, dreams for sharing the good news that You are with us, Emmanuel, and you will save us from our sins when we turn to you.
Give us your vision, Lord, so that we can see the people around us who need to hear this good news. Most of all, transform us, Lord. Change us into people who can dream your dreams, and bring them to reality through the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Hamilton, The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem, 49