A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on December 19, 2010.
Isaiah 7:10-16; Matthew 1:18-25
Signs and dreams.
They’ve always been staples of Christmas. And I suppose they always will.
Because of the advertising industry, the first signs of Christmas we see are the yuletide television commercials that appear earlier ever year. Eventually, I figure we’ll be seeing Christmas commercials on television around the 4th of July!
The more pleasant signs of Christmas abound after Thanksgiving—Christmas trees strapped down on the tops of cars; Salvation Army ringers outside stores; Christmas lattes at our favorite coffee shops; and the hanging of the green here at FBC.
Signs of Christmas have a strong precedent in scripture. 2700 years ago God describes through the prophet Isaiah the sign of an impending birth that would eventually capture the imagination of Christians of all generations: “The Lord himself will give you a sign,” God says to a faithless king of Judah named Ahaz. “Look, the young woman (or virgin) is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”
Now most commentators agree that Isaiah almost certainly was writing about a young woman giving birth in the immediate future, a birth designed to reassure a panic-stricken King Ahaz who is scrambling to prevent a military takeover of Judah. But the immediacy of that prophecy did not prevent Matthew from drawing upon Isaiah 7 700 years later to explain the miraculous birth of a son to a young virgin named Mary, a son whose titles would include the name, “Emmanuel.” As for dreams, who can imagine Christmas without them?
“T’was the night before Christmas and all through the house.
not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
while visions of sugarplums danced in their heads.”
Dreams have always been at the heart of Christmas. You see dreams spinning their way through our Christmas poetry, music, stories, and even our movies. I can’t imagine Christmas without hearing at least one time Bing Crosby singing,
“I’m dreaming of a white Christmas,
just like the ones I used to know.
Where the treetops glisten, and children listen,
to hear sleighbells in the snow.”
My personal favorite Christmas dream song is sung by Karen Carpenter who stirs up lots of nostaligia inside me when she sings,
I”ll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams.”
Who can forget Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Story which features a dream that transforms a character named Scrooge? And then there’s the beloved Christmas movie, It’s A Wonderful Life, in which George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, is about to end his life. But thanks to a timely intervention from an angel George is granted a vision of how diminished his hometown would be without the benefit of his wonderful life, and that dream saves his life.
But none of these dreams compare to a Christmas dream that occurred months before Jesus was born. Almost everybody in the original Christmas story—Mary, Jesus, the shepherds, the wise men, King Herod—gets more press than Joseph. This is terribly ironic, because without the help of Joseph and his Christmas dreams, there might not have been a first Christmas.
More than any other version of the Christmas story, Matthew casts the spotlight on Joseph. Matthew mentions Joseph first at the conclusion of a long genealogy recorded in the first 17 verses of his gospel. This genealogy is very important because it records the 28 generations that connect Joseph and Jesus to Abraham and David, the key figures in Israel’s history. And not coincidentally, Old Testament prophets like Isaiah were consistent in their prediction that the long-awaited Messiah would be the descendant, or the distant Son of David.
Despite this fine pedigree, we learn later that Joseph is not a mover and shaker. Instead, he is a blue-collar carpenter, probably a teenager, who lives in Nazareth. Like most teenage Jewish boys, Joseph is trying to establish a trade and a family. Once he’s clear about his trade, it’s time to take a wife.
We don’t know if Joseph’s parents prearranged his marriage to Mary, or if they simply met and fell in love. We do know they became engaged. And we know that in those days engagement was more serious than it is now.
During a Jewish engagement, you didn’t live together, and you certainly had no sexual relations. Even so, the only way to end an engagement was through death or divorce. If your fiancé died, you were considered a widow or widower. If your fiancé was unfaithful, he or she was considered an adulterer. And according to Deuteronomy 22, an unfaithful fiancé was subject to death by stoning.
That’s why Joseph was shocked when his bride-to-be told him she was pregnant. In 21st century America this kind of news no longer surprises us. But a baby born out of wedlock in a small village in ancient Israel was a shocking scandal, and Joseph is understandably beside himself, particularly when he hears Mary’s so-called “explanation” that God was the father of the baby.
Most men in Joseph’s position would have let Mary have it privately and publicly. Most men would have openly mocked her and questioned her sanity. Most men would have done everything in their power to save their own reputation by ruining Mary’s. Some Jewish men would have even asked for the ultimate payback—stoning.
You can tell a lot about most people when they are under the most pressure. And we find out in this moment that Joseph was not most men. He decides to take the high road. Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose (Mary) to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.
It’s tempting to rush on to the dramatic dream that follows this decision. But before we do, let’s notice something remarkable about Joseph. To be called a “righteous man” in Joseph’s day normally meant you followed the Jewish Law to the letter. In this case that would have meant publicly humiliating and punishing Mary.
But that’s not what Joseph does because his love for Mary transcends his loyalty to the Law. As committed to the Law as Joseph is, he is even more committed to love. And in this case love leads Joseph to soften or even sidestep the Law. Joseph’s gracious display of love reminds you of what his adopted son, Jesus, will do 30 years later when he illegally heals people on the Sabbath, and illegally forgives the woman caught in adultery…because he loves them.
So Joseph has a plan, an unusually merciful plan that would lead to a quiet divorce. But God does what God is wont to do. He interrupts Joseph’s plan. Just when Joseph 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.”
Now this is earthshattering, history-making, life-changing news. So why was it communicated through an angel in a dream? Well, if you read the scriptures, you’ll see that angels are frequently used as messengers of God, and dreams are a vital form of communication between God and his people.
In the Old Testament, God spoke many times to another Joseph, the son of Jacob and Rachel, through dreams about all kinds of things, including his family and an impending famine. Jacob and Gideon, Solomon and Daniel had significant encounters with God through dreams, as did the Apostle Peter in the New Testament. In fact, it was through a dream that God broke the news to Peter that the church of Jesus Christ would consist of Gentiles as well as Jews.
Once again God is using a dream to convey a revolutionary, mind-blowing idea—the virgin birth, or more properly speaking, the virginal conception of Jesus Christ. Max Lucado is on target when he observes, “Joseph was trapped between what God says and what makes sense.”
Does the virgin birth of Jesus make sense? Not really. No more than God creating the universe out of nothing. Or God creating Adam out of dust. Or God creating Eve out of the side of Adam. Do you really think a God who is capable of creating all that is incapable of arranging the conception of Jesus through the Holy Spirit?
The virgin birth is admittedly a mind-bending doctrine of Christianity! But before you quietly dismiss it remember that the virgin birth reinforces both Jesus’ divinity and humanity. And remember your God may just be too small.
Almost as stunning to me as the virgin birth is Joseph’s willingness to allow his entire life to be turned upside down on the strength of a dream! Ironically, says Ruth Haley Barton, Joseph wakes up to a new spiritual reality while he’s fast asleep in the middle of a dream. The new reality is God’s plan that will cause Joseph to recalibrate his own plan. God is doing a new thing in the life of Joseph, and Joseph is open to a new reality, a new revelation, and a new direction for his life. Consequently, writes Matthew, When Joseph awoke from his sleep, he did as the angel commanded him; he took Mary as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
David Benner labels Joseph’s response as “living a life of consent.” Joseph is attentive to God, hearing God’s voice in a dream. Joseph is open to God, immediately doing what God asks. Why? Because Joseph accepts God’s right to invade his life and turn it upside down. Later in Matthew 2 Joseph’s life of consent continues as not once but twice more Joseph hears from God in a dream and immediately adjusts his plans to protect Jesus from possible harm. Jesus eventually arrives safely in Nazareth where he will grow up to become our Savior—in part because his adopted father was willing to put God’s plans before his own.
This makes me wonder about us. If someone scrutinized your life, would they find it’s a life of consent or dissent when it comes to discerning and following God’s plan?
This wonderful passage also raises another question on a different front—do we know from our personal experience that Emmanuel is more than just a nice name for Jesus? The name Emmanuel, of course, means “God is with us.” It’s interesting that in his first chapter Matthew says through the naming of Jesus that God will never leave or forsake us. Then, in his last chapter, Matthew quotes Jesus as saying, I am with you always, even to the very end of the age (28:20).
One proof that Joseph’s experience with God was more than a dream is that 2000 years later we still feel the presence of Christ. I recently had an experience that verified that presence for me when I sorely needed it.
Frankly, as I conducted a very long and challenging series of funerals this fall, I was beginning to wonder where God was in the midst of it all. Then, something happened as I was performing Kathleen Sauve’s funeral a couple of weeks ago. After I compose a funeral meditation on my computer, I normally ask my assistant, Jennifer, to locate the meditation on a shared computer drive and print it out on paper that fits a special notebook. Then, 9.9 times out of 10, I insert the meditation into my notebook without checking it and move on to the funeral.
Through a computer glitch that would take too long to explain, Jennifer unknowingly printed out the wrong meditation, but still under the name Kathleen Sauve. I followed my usual custom, quickly inserted the wrong meditation in my notebook without proofing it, and walked briskly to my car to head to the funeral home. Just as I got to my car an inaudible voice in my head said, “Check your notes.” I was irritated because I was running late and didn’t have time check my notes. But for some reason I stopped, checked my notes, discovered they were wrong, and ran back to my office to retrieve an accurate copy of my meditation that I had inexplicably produced on my own printer earlier as a backup.
This kind of thing rarely happens to me. But I assure you it was no dream! I believe it was a sign… that Emmanuel is still living up to his name.