They usually mean one of three things to people.
“Dreams” are things that we hope for, or they’re messages that we get when we sleep, maybe even sent from God, or, most commonly, they’re the strange, strange leftovers of our subconscious mind.
You know, like when you dream about your friend saving your life from a wild puma. But right after that you notice your friend has teeth on their feet. And has to go to the dentist to get them removed. But before you get there, you’re sideswiped by Bill Gates riding a zebra and you find yourself thinking, right there in your dream, “I don’t even like Bill Gates.”
What does it all mean???
Honestly, probably nothing. Or maybe that you like Bill Gates more than you thought you did. Or maybe you just saw him on TV last night. Either way, most dreams are pretty inconsequential.
Luckily, or maybe unluckily, for us, those inconsequential dreams don’t get recorded in the Bible. Because you know Joseph probably had some weird dreams before this, about Mary turning into a talking camel or something, but this dream in the Gospel reading? It was perhaps less bizarre, but more unexpected, than your average dream. I mean, it’s not every night that the Creator of the universe decides to speak to you about your fiancé being pregnant with, well, the creator of the universe.
But Joseph’s dream is not where it starts. So let’s go back to the beginning.
Joseph is, to say the least, surprised.
He could’ve publicly shamed her; it was his right under the rules of the day. He was likely hurt, as any of us would be. Instead of enacting any sort of vicious revenge for her perceived infidelity, though, Matthew tells us that he just decided to “dismiss her quietly.”
This likely still would’ve been very bad for Mary; single moms have always had a hard time, but it was even worse back then. Women couldn’t really go get a job, exactly, and caring for a newborn, as many of you know is a full time job in itself. Add on top of that the shame and stigma of being dismissed by your fiancé out of perceived infidelity, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for disaster.
We don’t know what Joseph planned to do, but what we do know is that it very likely would’ve been pretty bad for Mary and for the child she was carrying.
Joseph has decided to do this, however — to dismiss her. And that is where we pick up the story.
I imagine Joseph, sleepless, wondering what he’s going to do. He’s going to look foolish. His fiancé has cheated on him and now she’s pregnant. This isn’t a problem we’d wish on anyone. What does he do?
Finally, he decides to send her away, quietly, and not make a thing of it. Maybe he plans to give her a little money, because he still cares for her. Maybe he rehearses what he’s going to tell his mother and his neighbors about where Mary went. Once he thinks it all through, still stressed but somewhat relieved to have come to a decision, he falls into a restless sleep. And that’s when it happens.
In a dream, before his cloudy eyes, appears “an angel of the Lord.” We know nothing about Joseph’s dream other than what the angel says to him: “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.”
We’ve all heard this passage a bunch of times before, so let’s be clear about one thing: the name that the angel gives Joseph for what he’ll name the child is a really common name. It’s as if one of us is given the name for a child by an angel in a dream and the angel says, in an angelic voice, “And you shall name him Josh.”
Yes, Jesus. Because Jesus, and Joshua, actually, mean, essentially, “God saves.”
Let me tell you something: we sell ourselves far short when we just accept these stories as holy and “how it happened” and “those stories we had to memorize in Sunday school as kids” without stopping to think about how crazy all of this is. It’s not our fault for not noticing, really: it was presented to most of us that way. The adults who taught us these stories as kids had probably never stopped to think about how crazy it all was either, but really —
“You mean God chose to be born to an unwed, poor mother who belonged to a religious minority in a disputed land occupied by the most powerful empire on earth at the time, and just, as the weird cherry on top of this bizarre ice cream sundae of a story, God also happened to choose a really common name?” Wild.
Because let’s be clear: I’m not suggesting that you realize how crazy this whole story is just for crazy’s sake. It’s because when you realize that, your whole faith life changes. You realize some things about God and about your own life, namely, that God might be a little crazy, and that is the best news imaginable.
Because — what a year we’ve had this. week. The news has us all spinning backwards six ways to Sunday, with uncertainty and fear and division just about everywhere you look. It’s three days before Christmas and you’re probably not ready and even if you are, chances are you’re not looking forward to all of the family dynamics you might have to navigate, whether those dynamics are small potatoes, like whether Uncle Jim will say something horrible, or very very large potatoes, like whether you’ll even be able to gather everyone for another year, or navigating an illness or an injury or an arrest record. And then there’s church and our life together: we’re a tiny congregation in a culture that increasingly quite frankly isn’t all that interested in church, and we’re about to continue a journey in a little over a week to figure out what the heck God is trying to do with us, here, together.
Given all of that, I for one am quite glad that we worship the kind of God who takes the long way home, who appears in strange dreams, and who chooses to be born into a terrible situation with a very common name. Because you see, it seems to me that God usually appears when things are getting crazy.
Joseph falls asleep planning to dismiss his fiancé because she’s pregnant, he thinks, with another man’s baby.
He wakes up believing that the impossible is real: that God is coming, in the midst of all of this mess, and all he needs to do is to get out of the way. Oh yeah, and maybe rock the baby and change a few diapers.
“Stay in this,” God says, and history is about to change beyond your wildest dreams.
The world is about to turn.
The closing hymn for the day is “The Canticle of the Turning,” which is really just Mary’s magnificat — the song she sings when she’s pregnant with Jesus — rewritten in modern language. Over and over when we sing it, we sing, “the world is about to turn.” That is the message of Advent 4: everything stinks right now, but also, everything is about to change, and it’s gonna be wild.
So good luck on your last minute Christmas preparations — both the physical ones and the emotional and spiritual ones. If you’re about to go into something hard, know that you do not go alone. And whatever you’re going through, believe this: God is a little bizarre, kind beyond your wildest dreams, actually.
It’s Advent Four. The world is about to turn, in all kinds of ways. And it’s gonna be wild. Amen.