This fall I have been taking a course on dream interpretation, so I’ve been excited about the opportunity this week to dive into the story of Joseph in which he is visited by an angel of the Lord in a dream.
Dreams, of course, are full of symbolic meaning. That recurring nightmare so many of us have had in which we show up for an exam but the door is locked was never meant to be a predictor that the door actually would be locked when we showed up.
But not only is Joseph’s dream full of symbolism in our scripture reading today, the entire first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel is full of symbolism. Did you notice the way that long account of Jesus’ genealogy was broken up into 3 sets of 14 generations? The number 3 in the bible usually represents the Trinity, God who is Creator, Son, and Holy Spirit. The number 14 represents salvation or deliverance. Each 14 year period mentioned represents a time in the history of Israel when God delivered the people out of one era into the next.
Of course the number 14 is also a multiple of the number 7 indicating wholeness or spiritual perfection.
Matthew is signalling to us that there’s something about this moment in time in which Jesus is about to be born that links us to the past, present and future activity of God. God who has been with us in past struggles, is with us in our present struggle and will lead us into the future bringing greater freedom and greater wholeness.
But the most important sign or symbol in this first chapter of Matthew’s gospel is found in Joseph’s dream, the sign of a child, a son who will be called Emmanuel, meaning God is with us.
I don’t know if you have had times in your life in which you have asked God to give you a sign. Those times in my own life have come when I have been wrestling with a decision in which I just didn’t know which way was the best way forward. In my desperation I call out in prayer “just give me a sign!” I remember a couple years ago, Anne Ellis our children and family minister (who lit the Advent Wreath today) was wrestling with whether or not she should go to Israel and Palestine. That year her star gift that we hand out every year at Epiphany said “travel.” Talk about a clear and certain sign.
Sometimes we ask for a sign from God and a clear sign is given. Sometimes we aren’t necessarily looking for a sign but something catches our attention in a way that we can’t help but receive it as a sign. And sometimes, the sign is more subtle.
I think that’s how it is with the sign that Joseph is given, the sign of a child who will save his people. For how could it be that a people who had dwelled in darkness for a very long time and who were waiting for a leader, a mighty ruler to set them free, could be set free by the coming of a child? How can it be that we who are waiting for clever scientists and medical professionals to set us free of the virus that has plagued us this year can be set free by the coming of a child? How can it be that we can be saved from our grief and struggle, our hurt and pain by a child? How can a child bring to us and our world, lasting peace?
If there’s one thing I know about children and babies in particular it’s that you can’t leave them to fend for themselves. So if nothing else, this message Joseph receives from the angel, is indicating that whatever new thing God is doing and however God is going to do that, Joseph is not going to get to sit on the side lines. If there is one thing a child brings into our lives, it is active engagement. Someone has to feed the child, nurture and care for the child, protect it and cherish and keep it safe. At least if we want the child to flourish and to grow they have to do that. So if this child is bringing peace and freedom for all people, it isn’t going to happen unless you and I get off the sidelines and get involved.
And this new thing God is doing, because birthing dreams are always about new things, means that Joseph’s life and our lives through our association with him, the life of our world will be changed in ways we can’t fully anticipate. Some of those changes will be hard for us to make. We will have to give up some things if we want to say yes to this child, if our world is to be saved. It’s why the angel says to Joseph “Don’t be afraid” because the angel knows it’s going to take courage to bring forth this child, to bring forth the peace and wellbeing we want for our world. And some of those things will be easy. If we fall in love with this child, this way of peace then we might actually be willing to allow ourselves to be changed for the sake of what we desire. Children can do that to us, make us actually want to change our lives.
Someone in our zoom coffee group reminded us last week, that a child represents a different kind of power dynamic than we are used to in many of our world leaders. They tend to wield power over people, children tend to offer a more equitable and alluring kind of power. Children know how to disarm us and they aren’t prejudiced until we teach them to be so.
And a child brings comfort and peace, not necessarily the kind of peace that is the absence of war but the kind of peace that allows us to forget about our struggles for a while and simply drink in the miracle of life. No wonder the sign God sent to the aching world in a dream was a child.
The other night before I went to sleep I set an intention. I asked the dream maker, that’s how we refer to God in my dream interpretation course, to give me a dream. I wanted a dream or at least a symbol that would help me know how to speak to you today about Joseph’s dream. I woke up several times that night and each time there wasn’t a thing I could remember about my dreams. Finally, right before dawn, I woke up again and I had an image. I was standing in my kitchen at the counter. In front of me there was a big bowl filled with flour. That seemed very strange to me until I realized that I was measuring out the flour in order to make a loaf of bread.
Suddenly, I realized that the dream was about the one we call the bread of life, the one whose body was broken and blessed and shared, the one who once in a dream, Joseph was asked to bring into the world. And I knew that we are being asked to make room for and to birth this same one into our world, Emmanuel, God who is with us.
It’s said that our dreams tell us only what we don’t already know. If we get the message of the dream the first time, the dream maker will not send another dream about that particular issue again. Which is interesting isn’t it? Because this time of year, we gather around the same dream we have every year: a dream of peace, a dream of healing, a dream of true happiness, deep joy and goodwill for all people.
I don’t think the dream comes to us again and again each year because we just don’t get it or we fail to heed the message the angel brings. I think we do it because each year we are different and each year we need a particular kind of message of peace and goodwill. The message we need this year is different than the one we needed last year. Perhaps in some ways it is the same but it comes to us in a new and different way.
So may we like Joseph, pay attention to our deepest dreams in this season of peace, may we be active participants in the life God is bringing to birth in us and in our world and may we come to the stable like a child, in wonder and awe watching for signs that God is still with us. Amen.