(Matthew 1: 18-25)
You ever had one of those dreams where you woke up and the dream felt so real that you couldn’t tell if you were still dreaming or not?
I’ve heard of people who dreamt about walking in a field of flowers and still smelling them when morning comes. Or dreaming of a deceased loved one whose presence feels as real to them as the living when they wake. It’s almost as if the line between dreams and reality isn’t as defined as we think it is.
I’m thinking about all this because I just woke up from one of those dreams. And I honestly don’t know if it was just my brain doing weird things or if there was something else going on. Call me crazy if you want – it wouldn’t be the first time – but after the twists and turns my life has taken in recent days, I kinda have to keep an open mind.
Cause it all goes back to her, really. It all begins with her. I had known her for most of my life, grown up with her in our small town. Mary was that sweet, unassuming girl who often went unnoticed in the crowd. There was an inner beauty to her, a tremendous strength of spirit and resolve like I’d never seen. It took a while to admit it to myself, but I knew I was falling for her.
So I did what all good first century Jewish boys do – I spoke with her father, a kind and honest man. I told him I was a carpenter and could provide for his daughter and the family we would have. I know this sounds strange to your 21st century ears – the formality of things in my male-oriented society. But this was the way it worked back then – father and prospective husband working out terms. We bonded quickly, her dad and me. I think he liked the fact that I made a good living and that my personality matched well with his only daughter. Suffice to say I was elated and certainly relieved to get his blessing.
Our engagement was a typical affair; everyone was excited! Mary’s family was well-respected in our town, so this was a big deal. I was doing my best to keep things moving along as we made our plans and preparations. I wanted this to be the perfect wedding for Mary, because with each passing day I grew to love her more and more.
And I thought often about our life together – the love we’d share as husband and wife, the children that would come and how we’d raise them to love God and love everyone. Times would be tough for us – the Romans ruled with an iron fist and taxed us heavily. Our lives would have their challenges. But our lives would also have love, and love would see us through whatever happened. Whatever came our way. I was sure of that.
I had no idea……
I remember exactly where I was when I first heard it. At the marketplace picking up some wood for a project in my shop. I had my back to a couple of ladies around a produce cart, and above the din of the market crowd I heard one say to the other, “Well at least they’re not dealing with what Mary’s parents are. Can you believe, pregnant? And not even married yet, what a disgrace.”
It was like all the air got sucked out of my lungs. I stopped dead in my tracks as my mind began racing. Could they be talking about another Mary? Sure – but I knew these people walked in the same circles as her parents. Could this be nothing more than small-town gossip; the kind that happens when nothing else is going on and people just get bored? Of course it could – and yet, as I went through the motions of paying for my wood, something inside of me knew, somehow, that this was for real: that my beloved fiancé Mary was carrying a child inside her that did not belong to me.
How quickly one’s world can completely fall apart.
The worst part of the whole thing was having that dreaded conversation with her and her parents. She told me it was true, and my body went numb. Her father stormed out of the room in disgust. Her mother just sat down and started crying.
And to her credit, looking back on it, Mary tried to tell me – she tried to explain that this child was a special child, like no other child; and that we could still get married and raise the child together. She tried to tell me this was God’s will. But in that moment, I couldn’t hear her. I so wanted to answer back, scream at her, NO. No, this is not God’s will! God’s will was for us to get married and live happy lives and grow old together and raise children – our children! No way is this God’s will. That’s what I wanted to tell her.
What had I done to deserve this? Why did this have to happen?? That’s what I wanted to ask her. But I didn’t. I was just so numb to it all. To this nightmare.
It was clear what was within my right to do. In first-century Palestinian culture, as the offended party, it was my prerogative under Jewish law to subject Mary to public ridicule and scorn – even to have her stoned, if I wanted. Our laws are straightforward and unambiguous about this sort of thing, harsh and archaic as they may be.
So do you know why I chose differently? Why I elected to just end the engagement without all the fuss? It wasn’t just because I still loved her – which I did, madly. It wasn’t because I was just trying to be the good guy, the “gentleman.” I made the decision to part ways with her quietly because I believe – have always believed – that God does some of God’s greatest work when things are in the process of falling completely apart.
My pride, my ego, my love had all been crushed. But even so, I knew that God was still in the mix somewhere, still watching over me, still standing beside me in the chaos of the swirling storm. I had no idea what was on the other side of this; I had no idea how it would all turn out. But no matter what everyone else would say – and they would say plenty, let me tell you – no matter what they’d say, it just didn’t seem right to cave into the chaos of it all, to go deeper into the madness, even if our customs allowed it. I would choose to respond differently.
So that’s what I was thinking as I lay down in bed last night. And I felt good about it, you know; like when you come to terms with a decision that’s been gnawing on you for too long. I planned it out in my mind: wake up in the morning, go down to the synagogue, make everything official. I’d do it quietly so Mary wouldn’t have to suffer any more. And then I’d get on with the rest of my life, knowing God would be with me wherever it would take me. That’s what I was thinking as I drifted off into sleep.
And then came the dream.
You know, trying to explain a dream is like trying to grasp hold of air – elusive and terribly ineffective. My dream that night happened as most dreams do; kind of out of a fog, with no real beginning or end to it. It was a voice that spoke to me, although I can’t remember now what it sounded like. But I remember what it said. It said that my well-thought out plans about ending my engagement with Mary were not what God wanted.
And then the voice spoke into being a vision of sorts, an image with broad, bold strokes. And in it I am working away in my carpenter’s shop, and there is this wonderful energy about my working, as if my wooden creations have some purpose beyond just their future owners. And then it is the end of the work day and I leave my shop and walk through the door of my home. And there I am greeted by the embrace of a woman, my wife – Mary. My Mary! We are together in this dream, we are husband and wife, and it is marvelous!
And then a tug at my leg; and I look down to see a young boy, his wide smile capturing my heart all over again. It was Mary’s child; the one she’d been pregnant with. And now he is mine too. He is mine. But he is also someone else’s. His name will be Jesus, the voice tells me. Jesus, the Greek name for the Hebrew “Joshua,” which means salvation.
And then another voice I hear; the voice of the prophet Isaiah speaking thousands of years before:
Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
And they shall call him Emmanuel,
Which means “God-with-us.”
And as quickly as the dream came to me, it left, like a fog that burns away with the heat of the morning sun.
And so here I am now. Awake. I know I’m awake because there is no more voice, no more vision. And yet the dream hasn’t fully left me. I can still smell the wood from my carpenter’s shop. I can still feel her embrace; the look of pure joy in the boy’s eyes. And I can still hear the angel’s voice saying over and over again: His name will be Jesus. His name will be Jesus. His name will be Jesus……
So I know what I must do now.
And even with this sudden moment of clarity, I realize full well how the others just won’t understand. They will call me crazy. They will question my inner resolve, my very manhood. Taking Mary as my bride. Raising Mary’s child as my own, loving him as my son. Naming him Salvation. They’ll never understand.
And you know what? I’m so okay with that! Right? I’m perfectly fine with whatever “they” want to think. Because it isn’t about “them.” It never was. That’s the thing. It isn’t about them or our customs or what is acceptable to do as a man in a male-dominated society. It isn’t even about Mary or me; not even about our son.
If there’s one thing my dream last night revealed to me, it’s that it’s always been about God – God coming to us in the swirl of the storm, in our most chaotic moments, and doing some of God’s greatest work – even and especially when it looks like anything but. I have no idea what God is up to in all of this – I cannot wrap my mind around it. Why such a wonderful child, a child who will save us from our sins, had to be born like this. Why God would chose a teenaged unwed mother and a run-of-the-mill carpenter to bring into the world the joy of our salvation.
But then again, dreams rarely make sense, right? They float in and out of our consciousness, unannounced, uninvited. That’s just the way they are. Last night I had my dream; last night I heard the voice. And in the weeks to come I will get to see God do God’s greatest work. Not in spite of the chaos, but right in the very thick of it. I’ll get to see it. And I’m hoping – I’m dreaming – that you will come see it with me.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN.
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.