Tag Archives: Emmanuel

When Dreams Become Reality – Sermon on Matthew 1:18-25 Advent 4A

December 18, 2016
Watch a video of this sermon here. 

We’ve been reading Adam Hamilton’s book The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem in our Wednesday Family Night adult groups. It’s a five part study of the events leading up to Jesus’ birth, and it explores those events from the perspective of different participants in the story. Chapter Two is about Joseph.

We don’t know much about Joseph – he never says a single word in the entire Bible. 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


Author Suzanne Guthrie writes,

“How do you know when to listen to your dreams? When are your dreams truthful and when are they simply ridiculous? When does the trickster or the devil or your own malformed desires undermine your journey toward the good and lovely? How soon after falling through a trapdoor into a wider consciousness can you scramble to your feet, find your balance and head in the right direction? 
How did Joseph know to turn aside from righteousness as he knew it, to follow a dark, non-rational, alternative righteousness? Something in his life must have prepared him to pay attention to that particular dream that night: do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.
Such a statement can make perfect sense in the context of a dream. But not upon waking. … But the messenger in the dream sweetens the message with a scripture passage familiar to the dreamer: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”
A poor man working as an artisan (probably building for the Roman oppressors) Joseph drew hope from … this promise, this dream of all dreams. What righteous dreamer upon waking would not lay down his prejudices for such a dream?”

And that brings us to the first lesson Joseph has to teach us about dreams that become reality:

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 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, when he learned that Mary was pregnant. It wasn’t something he wanted to do. He wasn’t happy about it. But he thought divorce was the only option available to him under the circumstances.

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 become rich and famous. 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. Reality checked in, and you realized your dream would never come true. At least not the way you dreamed it would.

Like Joseph, you experienced disappointment. 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.

Joseph 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.

When I came here, you were eager for something new and fresh. You wanted change, but you weren’t sure what kind of change, or what it might look like. You were given a pastor with no experience in leading change, but a willingness to learn, and a deep desire to answer God’s call into ministry. Like Joseph, I wanted to be obedient. Like Joseph, none of us knew what to expect when we put ourselves at God’s disposal.

We have started the process of becoming a healthy and missional congregation. Part of that process is to imagine how we see our church thriving. We have dreamed dreams of welcoming new families into styles of worship that we already find comfortable and familiar. We have dreamed dreams of finding more able-bodied people to do the hard work of keeping this 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 living into a new reality, one that others might scoff at, or find objectionable, a way of being the people of God that isn’t neat and tidy and familiar?

What new dreams have you begun to embrace about the life and purpose of this church? 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.

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.”[1] We are called to show Christ’s love.

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 people 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? You can be a physical reminder of God’s presence and love, but only when you are willing to abandon your old dreams, embrace God’s dream for you, and allow yourself to be transformed into Christ-likeness.

Then, and only then, will God’s dream for your life become reality.
Let us pray.

Almighty God, help us to discern your dreams for us, and make us willing to obey you. 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.

[1] Hamilton, The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem, 49

Packing Up Christmas

Christmas Eve 2012

Christmas Eve 2012

We finally took down the tree and put away all the Christmas decorations today. Don’t worry. It isn’t a live tree, so we weren’t creating a fire hazard by leaving the tree up so long. In fact, it’s the flame retardant quality of a fake tree that we like so much, since we burn real candles on our tree every year. Yes, we do. Maybe only a couple of times, unless we have guests during the Christmas season, but we never fail to light the tree the first night it is up, and Christmas Eve is the other non-negotiable candle-lighting event. Other than that, we usually only light the tree for company. And that is why we waited until now to take everything down – we had company that couldn’t come until well after Epiphany. What a great excuse to leave the tree up another week or two, right? I’ll take any excuse I can get.

To tell the truth, I would leave the house decorated for Christmas right up to Lent, if I thought I could get away with it. (One year, we almost did!) The place always looks so stark and empty after the decorations are put away. It looks …. colder.  Even when the tree isn’t lit, it adds warmth to the room. When it’s gone, I miss more than the candle glow. I miss the tiny sparkle of glass icicles, the memory attached to each ornament that hangs there. I miss the expectation, the hopefulness, the anticipation of joy.

That is why there are two items that remain in place, while everything else is packed away for another eleven months (okay, ten and a half months). One is the wreath at the front door. The first year we lived in Minnesota, we were amused to see Christmas yard decorations and light displays still evident through February. We chalked it up to the fact that no one wants to get out in the snow in sub-freezing weather to take down lights or the reindeer from the front lawn. But the wreaths hanging on everyone’s door, sometimes right into March, completely befuddled us. What’s so hard about taking down a wreath, after all?

Not a thing. That’s the point. It isn’t laziness; it’s defiance. That wreath will keep looking fresh all through the winter, if you just leave it alone. It’s a beautiful paradox: frozen greenery. Think about it. Leaving the wreath on the door says, “You can’t beat me, Winter. I will stay green no matter what.” And we do. We may be frozen, but underneath the ice, we are still green.
Still alive.

The other thing that stays in place is the Christ candle from the Advent wreath. The candle burns on Sunday nights, if we remember to light it, and stays in place until it’s time to get a new one for the next Advent wreath. This Christ candle carries us through Lent, into Easter, through Pentecost and the long season of Ordinary Time. It is a reminder that the Light of the World has broken into our lives, and will not be extinguished, no matter what. The expectation, the hopefulness, the anticipation of joy is still present every day of the year, for God is with us. We are still green.

Getting ready to get ready…

Getting ready to get ready…

The O Antiphons are a set of medieval refrains originally used before and after the singing of the Magnificat (Mary’s song).  Each invokes the Messiah under a different title derived from the Old Testament.  This title is then amplified and followed by an appeal to “come” and save us in a particular way. Around the 12th century the antiphons were collected into a Latin verse hymn, which was later translated by John Mason Neale into the hymn we know as “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”  As you prepare your heart for the first Sunday in Advent, I invite you to ponder these verses:

O come, thou Wisdom from oh high, embracing all things far and nigh;
in strength and beauty come and stay;
teach us your will and guide our way.
Rejoice!  Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel.

How have you seen God’s wisdom at work in your life?

O Come, O come O Lord of might, As to your tribes on Sinai’s height
In ancient times you gave the law
In cloud, and majesty, and awe.
Rejoice!  Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel.

 How is God’s power evident in your life?

O Come, O Branch of Jesse, free your own from Satan’s tyranny;
From depths of hell your people save,
And give them vict’ry o’er the grave.
Rejoice!  Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel.

 Has death threatened you, or someone you love?

O Come, O Key of David, come, and open wide our heav’nly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice!  Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel.

When has heaven come near to you? How did you know?

 O Come, O Dayspring, come and cheer our presence by thine advent here.
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadow put to flight.
Rejoice!  Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel.

 Where do you find joy?

 O Come, O King of Nations, come, O Cornerstone that binds in one:
Refresh the hearts that long for you;
Restore the broken, make us new.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel.

 How has the diverse beauty of God’s Kingdom become evident to you?

O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel.

 As Advent approaches, how will you worship the Son of God?