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.” 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.
 Hamilton, The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem, 49