Dreaming: Another Joseph
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas! Ok, maybe not. But today, we’re having a little bit of Christmas in May. We’ve been talking about dreams and dreamers in the Bible, and it just seemed wrong to skip over Joseph and his dreams about the birth of the Christ-child, even if it seems a little out of season. I have to admit, when we’re in the midst of the season of Advent, I get annoyed when we’re in the lectionary year that focuses mostly on the gospel of Matthew, because Matthew, unlike Luke, focuses on Joseph in the birth narrative, instead of Mary. The way I figure it, women are featured so rarely in the Bible, compared with men, and after all, Mary is the one who carries and gives birth to Jesus – you’d think it would be obvious that she should be center stage. But no, Matthew’s gospel manages to somehow make even the birth of Jesus about Joseph, not Mary.
Still, for today, talking about Jesus’ birth from Joseph’s point of view makes sense for us, because, for whatever reason, the scriptures recount that Mary learned of God’s plan through a visit from God’s messenger, an angel, with Mary apparently fully awake. But Joseph, although he’s visited by a messenger of God, is dreaming, asleep when all this takes place. And since we’re talking about the stuff of dreams, today, we’re sticking with Joseph. Besides, I find his perspective interesting for our conversations about dreams. Because Joseph’s dreams are about someone else. His dreams are more about what God is doing in someone else’s life than in his own. And we need to think about what that means.
Our text tells us that Joseph and Mary were engaged, but not yet living together, when Mary was discovered to be pregnant – “with child from the Holy Spirit” we read. We’re not sure how Mary shares this news with Joseph, or even if she spoke to him of it directly, and we don’t know if he knows about this “Holy Spirit” piece or not. But presumably, the presence of the Holy Spirit doesn’t make him think there isn’t someone else involved, because Joseph moves to “dismiss” Mary – to divorce her, a formal separation that would be needed in this society even though they weren’t yet married. He does this, we read, because he’s a “righteous man,” a just man, who doesn’t want to expose her to public disgrace, and instead chooses a private, quiet reaction. He could have brought her up on charges, had her tried for adultery, but Joseph seems to want to protect her from that possible end. When he’s planned to do this, he has a dream. A messenger from God tells him “do not be afraid” to take Mary as your wife, because her child is from the Holy Spirit, and her son, who will be named Jesus, will save people from their sins, and fulfill the words of the prophet, saying a child will come who will be God with us.
Joseph as a dreamer in the scriptures stands out to me in a few ways. First of all, we have to presume that this unfolding of events was not the dream that Joseph had for his life. As he imagined wedding Mary and starting a family with her, I imagine he did not anticipate this chain of events. In some ways, his personal dreams are dashed twice – first when he thinks he must divorce Mary, and then when the messenger tells him that Mary’s son will be from God, not Joseph. However Joseph handles things, this can’t be what he imagined. Not only is it probable that Joseph’s personal dreams are suddenly, at best, vastly altered by the angel’s news, but Joseph also becomes a sort of secondary character in his own life story. His dream is replaced, and he’s not a central focus in what happens instead. In the scriptures, we hardly hear a word of Joseph after the birth narrative. Occasionally, Jesus is referred to as the carpenter’s son. But we don’t see him towards the end of the gospels. Only Mary. Still, the messenger tells Joseph “do not be afraid” to take Mary as a wife. Do not be afraid. These words appears hundreds of times in the scriptures. Do not be afraid. What, exactly, would Joseph have been afraid of? I wonder, what exactly would Joseph be risking to listen to the angel and follow God’s new dream for his life?
For the past couple of months, I’ve been taking part in a program where you can complete research surveys online from different universities. Psychology students doing their research coursework use participants to carryout out their studies, test their hypotheses. Some of the surveys are unique and interesting, but some of them are repetitive, and I feel like I’ve done the same survey a million times No doubt, these surveys are from lower class levels, where students are just learning research methods, conducting on their own experiments that already have proven results. One of the surveys I get repeatedly is a variation on a similar scenario, that all boils down to the same question: how much of a risk-taker are you? Most recently, the scenario was: I’m a vineyard grower. If bad weather destroys my vineyard, I lose $30,000. A big storm is predicted to come my way, but usually the storms only hit my region 30% of the time a storm is predicted. Insurance costs $9000. Last year, my vineyard was hit, but I didn’t lose my crops. I’m cash-strapped. Do I buy the insurance, or not?
These surveys make me think about what it means to be a risk-taker. I’ve never considered myself a thrill-seeker. You’re never going to catch me bungee-jumping. I don’t like roller coasters or rides that generally spin you around fast or flip you upside down. I’m not likely to do something that has a strong possible result of physical injury. And so in my head, in my narrative of my self-identity, I’ve always thought: I’m not a big risk-taker. But this past year, I’ve started to change my thinking. I’ve been blessed to have a sabbatical year that turned out differently than I expected it to in some good ways, a year that has brought some clarity and some possibilities for my ministry before me. But when I started out, I was taking a big risk. I had no real plan of how I was going to survive the year financially, and no clear picture of what might be coming next for me. The research grant that I’ve been working on with you and other churches wasn’t even yet on my radar when I requested this sabbatical year. I just knew God was calling me to be doing something different than I had been. I just knew that keeping on the same pattern I was in was not serving God in the way I thought I was meant to be. I don’t think I realized until I was well into that I had taken a big risk in order to try to be faithful to God’s dreams for me. I don’t mean to sounds like I’m telling you how great I am, how bold I am. It’s more that I realized that when I believe the risk is really worth it, really means something, maybe it is worth taking, even if you aren’t usually a thrill-seeker. When it comes to following God, maybe we can all be risk-takers, because when we really give our lives to God, that step of faith is really a step firmly grounded in God’s dreams.
I asked us to think about what Joseph was risking by following God’s dreams. I think Joseph risked being made a fool of, first of all. As a man in his society, he wouldn’t get in trouble for wedding Mary even if she carried someone else’s child, but he would certainly be considered a fool. He might have endured humiliation and ridicule. Perhaps people whispering about him. And more than that, he’d risk always being in a sort of secondary place in Jesus’ life, while raising him as his child. In the only scene we have of Jesus as young boy in the Bible, Jesus says to his parents, “Didn’t you know I would be in my father’s house?” He’s referring to God, not to Joseph, of course. Joseph would have to know that he was and wasn’t Jesus’ father, and live always with that tension. Still, the phrasing of the messenger’s words: “Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife” – these words suggest that Joseph wanted to take the risk, and needed just those words of encouragement to follow through. Joseph trusted in God’s dream, no matter how foolish he might look, no matter how diminished his own role might be. I think of the apostle Paul, who frequently referred to himself as a fool – a fool for the sake of Christ. Following God might involve doing things that other people find astonishing – foolish even – when we choose to be last instead of first, humbled rather than exalted, when we choose poverty over riches, and serving rather than being served. Would you be a fool, for Christ? A risk-taker, to follow God?
Do not be afraid! What would it look like if we weren’t afraid to follow God? If we weren’t afraid to appear foolish to others? If we didn’t mind playing second fiddle to the grand melody that God is writing? Are you a risk-taker? What would it look like, if Apple Valley were a congregation full of risk-takers? Of fools for Christ? For Joseph, it meant a different life than he ever could have imagined. But it also meant having a front-row seat to God becoming flesh and living among us, with us. Worth the risk. Whatever God asks of us, no matter how foolish God’s plans might seem at first glance, don’t be afraid. It’ll be worth it. God promises. Amen.