I’ve always been fascinated by dreams. Like most people, I’ve had scary dreams and embarrassing dreams and flying dreams which are far too rare. On the flip side, I’d be fine if I never had another dream about showing up on Sunday morning without a sermon. I don’t seem to remember my dreams as much as I used to, which is a little disappointing because there have been times in my life when my dreams provided answers to my searching, explanations for my struggles, direction when I was feeling stuck.
At another time in my life, I was on a prescription medication that caused such vivid dreams, I started getting confused. There were times I couldn’t tell the difference between dreams and reality, which was terrifying. I went off the medication really quickly!
Still, sometimes, when I’m struggling, I long for a good restorative dream. When I feel weighed down, I long for those flying dreams when, with a single push off from the ground, I can rise above it all and soar with my wings open wide. I long for dreams with answers instead of worries, focus instead of fears. I think my dreams were freer before I was a parent, before my heart was opened to such love and therefore risk.
I can’t help but wonder about Joseph’s experience with dreams. Was he a vivid dreamer? Did he often wake up with stories to tell, or did he wake with odd images that faded away as soon as he tried to focus on them? And what about that night? Did he go to sleep resigned to the path before him, or was he still searching for another way?
In Joseph’s time and culture, the engagement was a social contract. Theirs was a society of arranged marriages, and the betrothal or engagement period was the period of time between the contract being made and when the couple moved in together. The engaged couple was considered married enough that it took a divorce decree to end the relationship. If the girl or woman became pregnant, and if the man knew the child wasn’t his, he could publicly accuse her of infidelity, which could result in something as dramatic as her being stoned, or something almost as bad in their culture, which was being shamed, for life. It would ruin her family’s reputation and her chances for a future. When Joseph learned that Mary was pregnant, of course he assumed she had committed adultery, one of the grounds for divorce in Jewish law. “The law and the culture of the day would virtually say that Joseph had no alternative but to divorce Mary.” Many men would have publicly accused her of adultery, but Joseph chose a better way. He was righteous so he knew the law, but he also had mercy and compassion, and he didn’t want to shame Mary or risk her life or ruin her family’s reputation.
But there is another factor I discovered in a fascinating book called The Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. (It sounds boring, but it’s just the kind of thing we preaching-nerds love!) The authors write, “Joseph was a ‘righteous man,’ that is, a person who knew how to behave honorably in interpersonal relationships….Since the child Mary was carrying was not his, he would not usurp the right of another by taking it. By divorcing Mary, Joseph offered the real father of her child the opportunity of retrieving his child by marrying the mother.” Perhaps Mary was in love with another, and her father pledged her to Joseph anyway. By divorcing Mary, Joseph was allowing the man who fathered her child to step forward and claim the child. He had the right to have her punished, but he chose a better way.
And then in his dream he was shown still another way. We are told that an angel came to him in his dream and said, “Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child she carries is of the Holy Spirit,” or even “the child she carries comes from a spirit of holiness,” which could apply regardless of the form of conception. But whatever your view on the virgin birth, the point is that Joseph apparently thought he had found a better way than publicly shaming her; and instead his dream showed him a better way, still. His solution was good; God’s was great.
I wonder how many times we settle for good instead of great. I wonder how often you—or I should say, I—settle for good because it’s relatively easy or at least close at hand, and nothing’s wrong with the idea, it’s good . . .but God’s idea is so much better. As a preacher, I struggle with this question regularly. In sermon preparation: is this my idea of what you need to hear or is it God’s? Is this as good as it’s gonna get this week, or do I keep wrestling, keep asking, and God will show a better way? You probably face the same questions in your life, though maybe not weekly.
Is this job where I should be, or is there something better out there?
Is this what I should be doing with my life, or does God have a better idea?
Is this relationship where I’m supposed to be, and if so, how can I fix it?
Am I called to play it safe or take the risk?
What could you do if you were brave?
Could you be brave enough to risk ridicule, like Joseph did? Could you be brave enough to take on something or someone that wasn’t yours but could be? Could you be brave enough to go against what everyone around you tells you is right if your heart tells you something else? Could you be brave enough to follow a dream? Or do you need an angel to tell you not to be afraid?
During Advent I’ve been preaching on the angel encounters in Jesus’ birth narrative. I have called these angels “messengers of surprise,” and I think that description fits them. But I learned a new way to describe angels this week, from the same book I mentioned earlier they write, “From beginning to end, the story of Jesus tells of the impact of sky events and sky personages on the people inhabiting the land below. One of God’s sky servants, described in terms of the Israelite tradition as ‘the angel of the Lord’ descends from the sky . . . and repeatedly carries out God’s bidding.” The authors go on to tell about all the sky events in the story of Jesus, from the star that led the magi to the sky splitting open at the crucifixion. But I am captured by the way they refer to angels—as sky servants. It certainly gets us away from the cherub images— chubby little winged babies who frequent Renaissance art. More importantly, it makes sense. We do envision these messengers coming from the heavens, whether metaphorical or otherwise, and they are the ones, after all, who go around delivering messages for God, who “carry out God’s bidding,” who do God’s will. Sky servants.
So if angels are sky servants, are we earth servants? Is this what it means to be followers of Christ? As Christians, we’re supposed to do God’s will, to carry out Christ’s mission. Does that also mean we’re God’s messengers? As individuals, and as the church? Maybe we are earth servants, like angels only tied to earth instead of heaven. If so, we could be like the angel who spoke to Zechariah, promising new life that is to come. We could be like the angel who spoke to Mary, telling people they have found favor with God. We could be like the angel who spoke to Joseph, pronouncing the liberation that is to come, and a different way, a better way, than we can imagine. If we are earth servants, God’s messengers, we need to be proclaiming, as the angels always do, “Do not be afraid!”
To those who fear for the future of our country, our world: You don’t have to be afraid . . . because we’ll work together.
To those who fear an unknown future: You don’t have to be afraid . . . because you won’t be alone.
To those who have been taught to fear God: You don’t have to be afraid . . . for we bring you good news of great joy.
If we are God’s messengers of surprise, God’s earth servants, then we need to get proclaiming. There is work to be done, and we are the ones to do it.
But here’s the kicker, the twist: We are both messengers and receivers of the message. We are the dreamers who receive the sky servant’s message, calling us to bigger, better, bolder steps. And we are the ones who do the same for others. So dream. Dream big. Dream bold. Allow yourself to be surprised. And if you can’t tell the difference between dreams and reality, then you’ll just know your dreams have come true.
Thanks be to God.
 Malina and Rorhbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, pages 25-26.
 Malina and Rorhbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, page 25.