Journey – What Brings You Here?: Joseph
Are you the kind of person who can remember your dreams? Some people seem to be able to recall them easily, and some people never remember their dreams. I usually fall into that latter category, not remembering anything other than blurry images from my dreams. Do you wonder what our dreams mean, if anything? Are they just leftover thoughts from our day, thoughts our full and busy minds could no longer hold? Some dreams seem pretty straightforward in meaning. When I first became a pastor, I prepared my sermons much earlier in the week than I do now. This wasn’t because I was so much more diligent or because I was so much less a procrastinator. No, this was because like clockwork, I would have nightmares about forgetting to write a sermon and being caught unprepared on Sunday morning, unless, in real life, I had already finished my work early in the week. Pretty easy to figure out what those dreams meant! Other times, I just have no clue. I once had a very elaborate, multi-part dream, that involved train tracks, coins falling, and chasing after a seminary friend. I was curious about it, since it was so vivid and I actually remembered it, so for fun I looked up in a “dream interpretation” book what each of the items in my dream might mean. Every single thing in my dream meant: money. Money, money, money. So much for that!
Still though, dreams can be powerful. Shortly after my grandfather died, back in 1998, my mother had a clear dream, where my grandfather, no longer frail from illness, but healthy and happy, visited her at work, and assured her that he was ok. This dream gave my mom an incredible sense of peace, in the midst of the pain and grief. She felt like God was reminding her that her father was ok – more than ok – and she trusted the message she received and was comforted. What have your dreams been telling you?
The scriptures are full of stories of God communicating through dreams. In Genesis, we encounter Jacob dreaming a vision of a ladder ascending into heaven, Pharaoh, dreaming of feast and famine in Egypt, Joseph, Jacob’s son, dreaming of his role that will set him apart from his eleven brothers. And the dreams continue through the prophets, and into the New Testament, where we encountered Peter, back in October, who experienced in a trance a vision of God opening the table to Jew and Gentile alike. Dreams can be powerful. And dreams play a significant role in the story of Jesus’ birth, as today, we turn our journey’s focus to Joseph.
Now, you might think Joseph is a pretty significant figure in the New Testament, in the story of Jesus, and of course, he is: He is the husband of Mary, Jesus’s mother, and he is Jesus’ earthly father, the parent who raises him. But if you think about what we read about Joseph in the scriptures, you might be surprised to realize that other than passing mentions, like, “Hey, isn’t that Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph?”, and the scene where Jesus is twelve and stays behind in the temple while his parents, not even named separately, are searching for him, Joseph is only mentioned, only appears in relation to the birth and surrounding events of Jesus. That’s it. So, it is significant, too, for us to note that every scene in the birth story where Joseph appears, we hear about a dream he’s had that contains a message for him about God’s plan, how God will use Joseph to help usher in the birth of Jesus, the savior.
We first encounter Joseph in the gospel of Matthew. Luke’s gospel tells the birth story mostly from Mary’s point of view, but Matthew focuses on Joseph. Matthew tells us that Mary has been found to be with child, from the Holy Spirit, and then tells us how Joseph responds. Joseph, we read, is a righteous man. We don’t know what Mary has told Joseph about her pregnancy – whether she told him the child was God’s, and Joseph doubted, or whether Mary even had a chance to explain at all – we don’t know how Joseph learned the news. But Joseph, preparing to divorce Mary, a legal step that would have to be taken even after an engagement, chooses to do so discreetly, wishing to shield Mary from the full punishment she could have received – death by stoning. Just as he is planning the divorce, he has a dream. A messenger from God tells him in a dream that indeed, the child Mary carries is from the Holy Spirit. They’re to name the child Jesus – which means savior – and he will be God-with-us – Immanuel. When Joseph wakes up, we read that “he did as the angel of the Lord commanded, and wed Mary, who eventually gives birth to Jesus. After Jesus is born, we encounter Joseph in Chapter 2, as twice more, a messenger appears in Joseph’s dreams, and directs Joseph where to flee, where to move to so that Jesus is safe from those, like King Herod, who would do him harm.
I’m amazed by what we don’t hear in these short passages with Joseph. We don’t hear Joseph ask questions. We don’t hear Joseph say, “Why me?” or, “I don’t think I heard you right,” or “I don’t believe you” or “that’s totally ridiculous, God,” or “that’s just not a practical way to have the savior come. Don’t you have any more sensible ideas?” Joseph dreams, and when he wakes, he acts. Throughout my ministry, a common question I’ve had people ask me is this: “Why doesn’t God speak to us as clearly as God spoke to people in the days of the Bible? Why don’t we hear God or see God in the same ways anymore?”
But let me ask you, if God spoke to you like God spoke to these biblical figures, would you believe it? Even as you are ready to say, “of course I would!,” try to be very honest with yourself. When Aaron and I went through the process to be ordained, we had to take a psychological assessment, with hundreds of questions, and several of them asked the question, “Do you hear voices?” in one way or another. Now, for pastors-to-be, that’s a loaded question! Do you mean the voice of God? But no, we knew that “hearing voices” was something that would be sign of concern, of mental health issues. If we encountered God in the ways folks did in the scriptures, I suspect we, and others, would mostly think we were crazy. I think God speaks to us in ways that we can hear God. And so if it is easier for us to hear God through careful study of the scripture, through prayer, through practices we somehow consider “logical,” God will speak to us that way.
But what if our relationship with God could be so much richer, what if our discipleship could be so much deeper, what if the dreams we could dream with God could be so much more vivid if we could learn to believe what we proclaim: nothing is impossible with God! I recently took my nephew Sam to see a movie, “Rise of the Guardians.” The story is about Jack Frost, who joins Santa Claus, the Sandman, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny as guardians over the children of the world. Deep stuff, right? The conflict comes when children begin, because of a villain, to stop believing in these guardians, causing them to lose their powers, and eventually to disappear altogether. Jack Frost eventually finds a way to help the children believe again, by helping them to use their imagination, have fun, and experience joy.
What kind of imagination, what kind of believing did it take, do you think, to believe that the automobile could exist? The airplane? The television? The computer? The smartphone? Just yesterday, I downloaded an app for my phone where you can hum a tune into the phone, and the app will tell you what song it is. I was just marveling, awe-struck, that such a thing is possible, and it isn’t even new technology anymore! Sure, all of these inventions and innovations have hard science behind them, facts and figures. But without imagination, without believing there must be some way to make it work, we would never have all these things in our world.
Is God speaking to you? Is God trying to find a way to make God’s dreams into your dreams? Our aim is to be more open, more willing to hear and see God in unusual ways, so that we are ready, like Joseph, to acts, when God puts a dream – sleeping or waking – into our mind. There’s a brainstorming exercise that we’re going to try soon with our Visioning Team at Liverpool First, where you imagine all the ways you might build a better bathtub. There’s no restrictions. Every idea you think of gets written down, and no one is allowed to say, “Well, that wouldn’t work because…” A carpeted bathtub? Sure! A bathtub on wheels? Sure! A bathtub where you soak in peanut butter? Sure! No wrong answers! I’ve used this activity before, and you wouldn’t believe how hard it is for sensible adults to let loose and dream about a better bathtub. It is nearly impossible for people to refrain from trying to limit themselves to practical suggestions. Nearly impossible.
Could a baby be the savior of the world? Impossible! …Nearly. Could Mary’s pregnancy be from the Holy Spirit? Impossible! At least you’d think. Could Joseph endure the scandal of staying with Mary anyway? He couldn’t stand it, could he? Could he believe in dreams? God’s dreams? Impossible? Essential. Life-changing. Life-saving. World-transforming.
Let’s dream, friends, and be a bit impractical. Nonsensical. Unbelievable. Occasionally even a little ridiculous. Because God-with-us has a dream to share. Let’s make God’s dreams our reality. Amen.