Joseph’s dreams

December 7th, 2019

Matthew 1:18-25

Saint Joseph is the patron saint of cabinetmakers, confectioners, engineers, immigrants, house hunters, travelers, pioneers, pregnant women, fathers, and married people, as well as Manchester, New Hampshire; San Jose, California; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Nashville, Tennessee; Austria; Belgium; Bohemia; Canada; China; Korea; and Vietnam. It’s an impressive list, but Joseph’s connection to Nashville, for instance, seems tenuous at best. Joseph should be the patron saint of visionaries, romantics, and dreamers.

We might imagine that after several months of pretending to be interested in china patterns and bridesmaids dresses, Joseph figured out that the role of the husband-to-be is to say, “Yes, dear.” The rabbi and organist are lined up. The flowers are ordered. Planning for the bachelor party has surreptitiously begun.

Things are going according to schedule until Joseph learns the unthinkable. His life is suddenly in shambles, his trust betrayed, his future undone, and his insides torn up. He isn’t responsible for Mary’s unplanned, unforgivable, indefensible, inexcusable pregnancy. Joseph’s dreams have been destroyed. He wants to ask Mary, “How did this happen?” but he doesn’t really want to know how this happened. Nor does he want to hear his buddies at work laugh and say, “Joseph, you sly dog.” Joseph decides to break off the engagement quietly.

When people ask he will say nothing more than, “The marriage just wasn’t going to work.” The right thing to do is to put all this behind him quickly, get on with his life, and let Mary get on with hers. Joseph will find a safer, more manageable, predictable wife.

Then he has a dream in which an angel says, “Joseph, don’t be afraid. Go ahead and marry her. The child belongs to God. It’s a boy and it’s God with us.” Without an ultrasound, Joseph knows it’s a boy—or maybe it was just a dream. When he wakes up, he is more confused than ever.

In some ways, Joseph stays in the background in the Christmas story. Luke hardly mentions him. Joseph is in a supporting role. He doesn’t get a single line of dialogue in all of the New Testament.

In manger scenes, Mary and Jesus are center stage and Joseph is in the shadows. He’s often hard to distinguish from the shepherds. In the crèche on the coffee table, if Joseph’s head gets knocked off—as often happens to ceramic Josephs—you can always promote a shepherd. In paintings, Joseph looks worn with fatigue, his face lined with anxiety. He seems like he would be more comfortable at a funeral than a birth.

It’s easy to imagine Joseph as cautious and careful. Carpenters aren’t usually considered thrill seekers. “Measure twice, cut once” is the rule. When Matthew describes Joseph as just and righteous, we picture an earnest, meticulous craftsman whose carpentry business is all the excitement he wants.

This long-expected Jesus is coming pretty fast for Joseph. He’s being asked to assume responsibility for a girl and her baby with only a voice in a dream to go on.

Leaving Mary is the reasonable thing to do. It’s not hard to ignore an angel’s whisper. Even if Joseph could convince himself to believe Mary, no one else will. He should shake it off and call his lawyer. Acting honorably is easy—dismiss the dream as just a dream and walk away. Haven’t you forgotten dreams with more details than this one?

Against all odds, Joseph pushes aside the arguments and follows the dream. He’ll marry this pregnant teenager and be the adopted father of her child. He’ll take this huge risk on the basis of nothing more substantive than a dream.

This curious, astounding roll of the dice puts me in mind of Noah building the ark when there’s no rain in the forecast; Peter, James, and John dropping their nets to follow; Frodo Baggins hanging the ring around his neck; and Neo taking the red pill from Morpheus. Joseph doesn’t sound safe, careful, or cautious. When faced with the choice of doing what’s reasonable or taking a big chance, Joseph embraces the unexpected. Behind his worried face there must be a big grin waiting to burst out.

He knows he’ll have to learn to deal with whatever lingering doubts he has about Mary. He’ll have to learn not to hear the snickers. The embarrassment is his too now. When the baby is born and people count the months, they won’t think of Joseph as quite so honorable. He knows that he’ll gaze into the face of a baby and be unable to see the reflection of his own.

Joseph is a wonderful visionary who desperately wants the dream to be true. When Joseph marries her, he secretly thinks, Whether it’s true or not, this is what I want to believe.

What kind of person pays attention to a dream and listens to angels? God’s angels speak this word to all of us: “Don’t be afraid to believe, to walk a different path, to follow dreams.” We’re tempted to live a careful life, a careful faith, keep six of the Ten Commandments, go to church three out of four Sundays, give money we don’t need and time we can spare, try to do more good than bad, offer some grace and some judgment, believe the parts of the Bible with which we already agree.

God invites us to wish for what’s true. God’s people long for God, even if they sometimes wonder what that means. The yearning itself is following God’s dreams for us. Whenever we’re dissatisfied with a cautious faith, it’s because God wants more for us.

God invites us to stop being so cautious. Dream of yourself loving God with all your heart—caring not at all about the expectations of those who have forgotten how to dream. Dream of the people you love letting go of jealousy and cynicism, offering only words of kindness to one another. Dream of the church as a family where male and female, black and white, rich and poor, liberal and conservative, straight and gay, old and young, saints and sinners gather to give thanks to God. Dream of a world where people take chances to help others and discover that God is not only our hope, but that God has placed that hope within us. Dream of God waiting for us to take one step in the direction of grace and discover the love that’s always with us.

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