Pastor Lisa Horst Clark
December 8, 2019
Matthew 1: 18-24
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.
I was working as a camp counselor when I was in school, and we were in the midst of a big complicated problem, the details of which are now lost to me. Suffice it to say, there was something that felt like a crisis, and lots of conversation that hadn’t found a solution. I went to bed that night and had a dream. I was there at the camp, looking out over the lake, and there was a storm out in the middle of the water. In the dream, I suddenly knew with certainty, deep in my bones, that the storm would not come to the shore.
It was going to be ok. And I hopped up feeling like a load had been lifted from me. The storm was going to stay over the water – we didn’t need to be afraid. I walked to breakfast in the morning with a little spring in my step. Sat down at the table over oatmeal with other staff , and when talk made it around to this issue, and I started, without really considering it, saying “Oh don’t worry folks it is all going to be ok, I just had this dream…” And as I began to tell it I saw in the faces around me that they were not nearly as reassured by my inspired dream as I had been. They even seemed, dare I say it, slightly uncomfortable. And it was only then that I realized I was trying to bring a nighttime vision into the clear light of day, and it seemed a little ephemeral. Unbelievable. Flimsy, even, to rest my hopes on. As the years have passed, I for the life of me cannot remember what I was worried about, and yet the dream has remained. A vision in the dark of night that somehow spoke in the language of my soul: do not be afraid.
We are looking at darkness in advent, not as something to be opposed by the light – a thing to fear, hate, and battle – instead we are invited into the darkness to seek out its treasures, to find the gifts that come in the dark. In particular we are looking at the gospel of Matthew and the preparations for the coming of Jesus. God appears in the darkness – it is here that God is known. Instead of following the story of Mary, the gospel of Matthew focuses primarily on Joseph who hears from angels in a dream. Both here as he is preparing to divorce Mary as his wife, and later when the child has been born but is under threat by Herod; it is in a dream that Joseph receives the warning that will leave the holy family fleeing as refugees to Egypt to escape the violence in their home.
“Dream” in English has two meanings. It can mean those visions and stories behind your eyes while you are sleeping. Waking up and saying “It was only a dream!” It can also mean an aspiration- something you hope for, like “I dream of one day singing showtunes on Broadway!’ And we know the difference between the two. So when folks say “Never let go of your dreams,” we know they don’t mean to never forget the anxiety dream where you need to take a test for a class you’ve never attended. In scriptures, dreams can also mean something else. Dreams can be a way that God speaks a voice of the holy. One of the most famous dreamers in scripture is Joseph—the namesake of the main character in today’s story. Joseph the patriarch with the fancy coat, who had dreams of how he would outshine his brothers, and when they had had enough of that, his ability to interpret dreams is what got him from the depths of a pit all the way to the high courts of Pharoah.
There are some traditions of dreams in scriptures where it is a direct way that the holy communicated. This has me thinking about dreams and how we know them in the dark. Even before our eyes have closed, there is a sense that the potential is more present in the darkness. When you are sitting in the shadows in the dim hours of the night
that the unknowable and the possible might be lurking. In the night and in dreams we stand in the dwelling of what might be. We know that this can go in the direction of the negative; our fears can take over these possibilities, turning the night into specters of our own fears of the looming of what could be waiting in the dark. When I was a kid, one Christmas Eve, some combination of the movie “Home Alone” fears and being hyped up on holiday adrenalin, I had gotten it into my head that there were burglars in the house. In the middle of the night I was completely certain they were there. Every moment held a new sign that they were moving closer to my door, as doom and fear made every creak in the night not just a clue, but confirmation that my guess had been correct. I spent the night at the ready, threatened by the haunting specters of my own imagining. I could laugh at myself, or wish to calm my childhood fears, if it wasn’t for the fact that I know my fears can morph into certainties as the night hours creep forward, as the night reveals the negative image of what I care about through the nightmares that wake me from slumber. In the darkness uncertainty they become more tangible and real than the fears in the light of day.
And yet, if darkness can be a place of unknowing, of potential and uncertainty, then along with the negative comes the positive as well. In the midst of the night we can have a vision of what might become that might be too insubstantial to arrive in the light of day. Possibilities, potentials, ideas, solutions, visions can arrive in the dead of night free from the press and pull of ordinary life. The Spirit can call on our imagination for its generation; a vision of what might yet be.
We know that sleep and dreams are crucial to our functioning. We need REM sleep for processing events, problem solving, and creativity. Night time can be the time when creativity strikes. Undistracted, now you know the answer, or the next line of the poem, or a completely new way to make the invention. In the positive sense, the uncertainty of night, the stillness and the quiet, is a place where potential and anticipation can blossom away from the filters of day. You keep a notebook on your bed for both: the night time gasps of fear to write down the thing you forgot and the night time inspirations you write down because you don’t want to forget before morning.
Which brings us to the darkness of the scripture today. Joseph and Mary
are in a tragic and difficult moment in this scripture. They are engaged, but have not yet lived together (Oh, the Bible and its euphemism). At this time, engagement is a legal contract and to break it is something similar to divorce. And yet Mary is pregnant and Joseph knows he is not the biological father. The options he is weighing are to dismiss Mary quietly or publicly – pretty much between relegating Mary to financial and social ruin or ruin with the threat of violence, as stoning is technically an option. And so it is
with these two options that Joseph is going to his sleep. We could imagine where the thoughts and dreams might meet him on the negative side. The words that he might be afraid of being called – a fool, a laughingstock, a loser. The words that the world would use for Mary which are far harsher still, no matter what passion, powerlessness, or violence had led her to this moment. And beneath that still for Joseph we can imagine his anger, and the feelings that anger can only mask of sadness, betrayal, vulnerability, or despair. We can imagine what dreams could feed on these fears amidst the night of restless sleep.
And yet, it is instead a different dream that meets Joseph. An angel of the Lord appears to him in a dream and calls him by name: “ ‘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. You are to name him Jesus, for he shall save the people from their sins,’ and after quoting scripture disappears.” In the midst of the night Joseph has a vision that calls him from his fears and give him a glimpse of a reality he wouldn’t have imagined; that God is breaking the rules he has known for how babies are made. That God is doing something incredible. And that Joseph has been called at this moment not to be a biological father, but to be a parent to a child Jesus, who is promised in scripture. “Jesus,” being the Greek version of the Hebrew “Joshua,” meaning “God saves.” Whew.
In the nighttime, Joseph went to bed trying to decide between Plan A – dismissing Mary quietly, and Plan B – going through the whole public trial. And there in the darkness God reveals to him, I don’t know, Plan Q. Takes his pro-con list and sets it on fire to heat the plan God is cooking up for the transformation of all creation. Joseph may have had a plan, a dream, like many men of his time. He might have had a dream of being great and important, of having his manhood affirmed by the coming of his own children, of being the head of the family, a leader of importance able to provide. And what is God doing here? Saying your contribution to this new reality will not be from biology but relationship – marrying the one who is carrying Christ. Even in our art and cultural understanding Joseph does not emerge as the conquering hero or the center of the scene. Instead Joseph has the crucial part of the supporting cast. Depicted as caring for mother and child, discerning from dreams, leading them to safety. In the darkness, Joseph is free enough to lose his bearing and to reveal how completely different God’s dream is from his own.
So I imagine Joseph gets up in the morning and tells the rest of his family his plan, perhaps over oatmeal, and all is hunky-dory. I wonder how folks
reacted to his revelation that he was going to marry Mary anyway. I wonder if there were smirks or gasps or pointed looks even without including the parts about visiting angels and virgin births. And yet, bringing his nighttime vision into the light of day… it changed the world. Where the options had been dismissing Mary with more or less cruelty, instead he followed God’s vision that was an unexpected and creative love. If immaculate conceptions are a miracle that you struggle with, I commend this one to you: that Joseph married Mary with love, knowing that the child was not biologically his, but was now a part of his family. Breaking all the rules of custom of the time to cast his lot with the unmarried mother to be that would put their fate against the powers of empires.
I have been hearing at times that we live in dark times. This is meant as a reflection of our fears, many of which are justified. Dark with uncertainty; dark with threats and powers; dark where it feels unknown what the next days will bring or what the next steps might be. And yet, in such a place there are gifts as well. For it is also dark with potential; dark with the richness that what has always been are not the rules that govern what will be; dark with the possibility that something new might emerge from the dark earth, the dark dreams, the dark. And if you have a vision in the midst of darkness, you don’t know who would welcome the wild dreams of hope with joy.
Because I am picturing a gathering over oatmeal of those who would yearn to hear the visions of the darkness Who instead of balking or staring, who are hungering to hear. Tell me again how the rules of how it has always been doesn’t need to be how it will always be. Tell me again how we can be surprised by compassion, by possibility, by hope. Tell me again how we can create surprising families of love by claiming one another as kin, whatever the powers of the day may say or do. Tell me again how it is through the witness of the poor young women that our salvation shall become real. Tell me again how we can get to play second fiddle or fourteenth oboe in the opus God is writing of liberation and of justice. Tell me again how we can let go of the dreams that we have firmly held in the light, because I want to choose plan Q, for the dreams that are so much better that God has met us with. Tell me again how into a world like this, into a darkness like this, that Christ might be born – made real in a way I would never expect. Tell me again your vision of the night, for it is almost dark enough for me to believe.