Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, December 18, 2016
As I was mulling over this dream, I sat down to write today’s sermon. I pulled out my notes and they reminded me that my theme was dreams. You could call it coincidence or you could call it Spirit-led. I took it as a sign that these stories of dreams need to be told today.
This is, indeed, a season of dreams. Visions of sugarplums may dance through our heads, or nightmares of family squabbles may send us into a cold sweat. We dream about our hopes and our fears.
In today’s gospel lesson, we heard about Joseph’s dream. He had been struggling with his own living nightmare of Mary’s pregnancy. How could this have happened? What did he do to cause Mary to turn from him? Why was she unfaithful? And then, he had a strange dream in which an angel told him that her pregnancy was of God. The angel then told him not to be afraid to accept her and her child as his own.
Unless we are dedicated Jungian analysts, most of us don’t give much heed to dreams. They often express our deepest fears, but we usually dismiss them with a shake of the head. Dreams weren’t so easily dismissed in biblical times, nor are they dismissed within traditional Indigenous teachings today. In both traditions, dreams have been understood not only as an expression of our fears and hopes, but also as a means of divine communication. Dreams have been taken seriously.
Joseph’s namesake in the book of Genesis was an interpreter of dreams. Joseph, son of Jacob, gathered a reputation for the accuracy of dream interpretations and predictions. Both Joseph, son of Jacob, and Joseph, husband-to-be of Mary, received divine guidance through their dreams. Both Josephs are also noted as being devout and observant of Torah law.
The tension in today’s gospel lesson arises between observance of the religious traditions and a willingness to set aside tradition for the sake of God’s compassion and love. To marry a woman who was pregnant with someone else’s child was considered, at a minimum, grounds for ending their betrothal. And yet, Joseph was kind and compassionate. He did not wish ill treatment of Mary. In his confusion and distress, he sought God’s will. One biblical scholar wrote, “In his sleeping state, Joseph allows God to speak to the depths of his heart and to propose a resolution to the dilemma that his human reason had failed to discern.”
There is something to the old adage, “Sleep on it.” If we can pause in the intensity of a difficult decision and let the subconscious work on it while we rest, clarity often comes in the morning. I do believe that God works through our subconscious, if we are open to receiving God’s guidance. There, in the dreams of our night, we are open to fantasies and possibilities that could only be dreamt. And in that openness, we often find another way. My spiritual guide has suggested that, if I’m struggling with a question, I set it before me as I go to sleep, welcoming God’s guidance through the night.
I’m not sure how much comfort Joseph’s dream was to him. When he awoke with a distinct, divine directive to go against the teachings of the Torah, I’ll bet that his distress was not diminished. Perhaps that’s why he dreamt of the angel telling him not to be afraid. It took a tremendous amount of faith and courage to go against religious tradition.
Life is complex. Seldom are decisions straightforward. It becomes particularly complicated when what we think we should do contradicts what we sense is the right thing to do. Joseph’s story ultimately tells us that God’s mercy and grace take precedence over judgement and legalism. Story after story in the gospels suggest that we should focus on the spirit of the law, not the letter.
Joseph’s dream convinced him that God was leading him towards a graceful acceptance of Mary, regardless of what his religious community thought. He also was beginning to realize that there was something special about her child through the name that he was given for him.
There are actually two names given for the baby in this gospel lesson. The first name is Jesus, which is a Greek translation of the Hebrew name Joshua which means “he saves”. “You are to name him Jesus,” the angel tells Joseph, “for he will save his people from their sins.” Matthew then quotes Isaiah, saying, “Look, the young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’ These two names—Jesus and Emmanuel—go very well together.Thank goodness Joseph chose to follow his dream of love. He realized that, in the end, we will be judged not on how well we followed religious traditions, but on how well we loved. His story prepares the way for Jesus; for our salvation is based not on following the letter of the law, but on God’s mercy, grace and forgiveness through Christ. The incarnation of God through a tiny baby assures us that we are not alone in our walk of faith. The angels tell us not to be afraid; they proclaim to the world “Emmanuel”, God is with us always, even to the end of times.
 Alyce M. McKenzie, Matthew, Interpretation Bible Studies as quoted in Sermon Seeds, http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_december_18_2016