Matthew’s account of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus is loaded with dreams, but not the type of Bing Crosby or Charles Dickens’ ones we’re used to at this time of year. Instead, they are spiritual dreams. Dreams that change the course of history.
Matthew chapter 1 shows Jesus was born into a family of dreamers that includes Jacob, Joseph and Solomon. Jacob dreamed of a ladder between heaven and earth (Gen. 28). His son, Joseph, became a famous dreamer and dream interpreter, and Solomon dreamed of God asking him what he wants.
After the family history lesson of chapter 1, the dreams proliferate. Joseph, who was likely named for the dreamer in the family tree, is told in his sleep not to divorce Mary. The Magi are told in a dream not to visit Herod on the way back home. Joseph later has another dream telling him to flee to Egypt and yet another when it is time to return. If you’re counting, that makes four dreams in the first two chapters of Matthew’s gospel, not including the family backstory.
This week’s lectionary text focuses on the dreams that guided Joseph into exile and back home again. While Luke’s account of the nativity casts him as a supporting actor to the revolutionary hero Mary, Matthew paints the picture of a man attuned to God’s voice. He’s not just a dreamer, he acts on them at the most important stages of life: marriage, exile and homecoming.
In the refrain of the song, “A Series of Dreams,” Bob Dylan writes,
Into the path you are hurled
And the cards are no good that you’re holding
Unless they’re from another world.
I doubt Dylan had Joseph in mind, but the lyric fits our text perfectly. Joseph is hurled into the path of the Christmas story – most likely against his better judgment. His cards are no good. He’s a blue collar man, taxed and oppressed by the empire, and tormented by the local tyrant king. He most likely shares the mark of an outcast with his wife; surely others noticed when she became pregnant in his absence. On top of it all, he’s a refugee. Not exactly a Royal Flush if you ask me.
It seems the only cards Joseph had at his disposal were his dreams from “another world,” as Bob Dylan might say. They were visions that could see good news, holiness, abundance and opportunity where his contemporaries may have only seen a curse, in the eyes of an unwed mother and the arms of a foreign land.
The angel gives Joseph new sight, a heavenly perspective that allows him to see and celebrate good news in hard places. The baby, the very thing Joseph wants to dismiss, is the very embodiment of God entering his situation. Embracing this new perspective literally set the conditions for the birth of salvation, including his own.
Herod, by contrast, seemed to have the best cards at his disposal. And yet, he was an insecure despot, guided by scarcity and trying to hold onto his power. His vision was so warped that a baby was a threat, not a source of hope. He killed all the newborn sons in the village, wielding his worldly power to create a living nightmare for the parents of Bethlehem.
The Advent and Christmas seasons are a time to remember God’s call on our lives is constant, and it comes in many forms, whether we are sleeping or awake. It’s a call to a heavenly perspective that allows us to release our fears and see good news in the least likely places. In the end, this perspective trumps all our other cards, and completely changes the way we play our hand.