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Sermon: The Other Joseph Who Dreams

Sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA January 5, 2014.

2 Christmas; Year A (RCL): Jeremiah 31:7-14; Ps. 84; Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a; Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23

Alleluia. To us a child is born: Come let us adore him. Alleluia!

          How many of you thought that Joseph in the Old Testament, one of the twelve sons of Jacob, who was despised by his eleven brothers and eventually sold into slavery to Pharaoh, was the dreamer of the Bible? I would’ve counted myself among you. Of course, we all know the story of the young dreamer and his coat of many colors. But these days, especially in Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary, we get to hear about Joseph of the New Testament, the earthly father of Jesus and husband to Mary, who is subject to many dreams himself.

     If you remember the lessons from two weeks ago – although that’s a stretch with Christmas and New Year’s in-between, we heard that when Joseph saw his expectant wife return from a visit to her cousin Elizabeth, he quietly planned to dismiss her. But an angel of the Lord came to Joseph in a dream to explain what had happened and to give direction at what he must do. Devoutly faithful and obedient to God, Joseph kept Mary as his intended, named Jesus, and then fathered him as his own.

      Now we hear of the tyranny of Herod, who having been told of the Christ child, is threatened by Jesus’ kingship as the long-awaited Messiah. Joseph receives a message from God, through a dream instructing him to take the child and His mother and flee to Egypt. Again, this Joseph of the New Testament is someone open to mystical encounters and divine guidance. The instruction is very explicit that Herod would seek to take the child’s life and that the family was to stay in Egypt until God gave them the next word of direction.

This is a really hard account to read so soon after the glorious joys of Christmas and the bright promise of a New Year. We could have played it safe by staying close to the lovely images of exotic adoring magi presenting the baby Jesus with gifts on bended knee. But that just isn’t Matthew. Matthew offers us a gritty, unsettling story, a picture of the world as it was – and even still is -- that is more realistic. Perhaps that’s the point of reading and preaching this story so close to Christmas.

The fact of the matter is that Jesus’ birth upset the common order. He comes as God’s chosen king, the One who is to bring about the peace, justice, and equity of the kingdom of God. Consequently, all earthly rulers who put their own power and privilege first are terrified. Herod is a prime, but by no means, lone example. So frightened is Herod of the promise that God will, in this child, restore peace and justice that he is willing to slaughter all the male infants of a whole region. So Joseph, warned by an angel through another dream, flees this carnage and takes his family to Egypt.

The flight to Egypt was not especially unusual for a Jewish family. Through the history of Israel, in numerous times of human or natural oppression or famine, Jewish people sought refuge in Egypt. In almost every Egyptian city there were colonies of Jews. As a consequence, Joseph and Mary likely had no problem finding associations amidst their own people for the brief time they dwelt there.

Such a grim account of wholesale massacre and night flights to safety would seem far-fetched were it not for similar atrocities and tragedies happening right now. The power struggle between warring factions in South Sudan the past several weeks has resulted in hundreds of people, if not several thousand, having been killed, with more than 190,000 displaced, according to U.N. officials. How many families are being dislocated in Syria even as we gather for worship? Too many children are starving to death around the world as we finish up or throw away our holiday leftovers. Closer to home, how many of our families, perhaps some here at Immanuel, are still contending with their own private sorrows and hardships only exacerbated by expectations for the perfect Christmas?

So while the story Matthew tells may be dark and difficult, it isn’t even a little bit far-fetched. Which is why, of course, he tells it. To let us know that in Jesus, Emmanuel, God did indeed draw near to us, to take on our lot and our life, to experience and endure all that we do -- disappointment, fear, violence, even death. This was all so that we would know we are not alone -- that we do not suffer alone, fear alone, or live and die alone. If anything, this is Matthew’s version of the Incarnation, Part Deux.

Matthew ties the new covenant with the Old Testament Scripture: “Out of Egypt I called my Son" (Hosea 11:1). In the original statement, Hosea was referring to God’s act of delivering the nation Israel from their bondage in the land of Egypt. God’s salvation history moves from the people of Israel to faithful Israel, to the remnant and to the servant of God in Jesus of Nazareth; thus Matthew applies this reference to Jesus himself. The full text says, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” Matthew projects this passage forward to the birth of God’s Son rather than backward to the exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt.

Later, further divine instructions lead Joseph, and he took Jesus and His mother, Mary, and they returned to Israel. Instructed in this latest dream not to stay in Judea, Joseph had them journey on to Galilee.

Upon Herod’s death, the kingdom he had ruled was divided into three parts. The Romans did not allow the power that Herod had held to go on unbroken. Herod anticipated this and divided the kingdom, leaving a part to each of his three sons. Judea was left to Archelaus, Galilee was left to Herod Antipas, and the northeast region beyond Jordan was left to Philip. Archelaus attempted to continue the pattern of his father and began his rule with the slaughter of three thousand influential people. The emperor Augustus had granted Archelaus only the rank of ethnarch rather than king; he was eventually removed and banished. It was the pattern of violence in Judea that led Joseph to go on to Galilee. There Herod Antipas reigned with a more tolerant and peaceful pattern -- a better place to raise a child.

Now we all know sometimes life is beautiful and wonderful and filled with goodness and grace. And God is a part of that, giving blessing and celebrating with us and for us. And sometimes we also know life is hard, tenacious, disappointing, and filled with heartache. And God is part of that as well, holding on to us, comforting us, blessing us with promise that God will stay with us through the good and the bad, drawing us ever more deeply into God’s loving embrace and promising that nothing -- not even death -- will separate us from God.

So we hear Matthew’s story. We see the gifts given by the magi and their sudden departure.   We learn of the warning of the angel and the slaughter of the innocents. We are told about a displaced family and the fear and insecurity that attended them. But we are reminded that God is not only with the characters of this story, but also working through their triumphs and tragedies in order to work salvation in and for the world.

Joseph and Mary return to their home community of Nazareth, Matthew says, “so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.” The curious thing here is that Matthew presents an insoluble problem because there is no such text in the Old Testament. There are references to Nazarites like Samson, those who by way of vows refrain from certain things for a longer or shorter time, but my concordance could find no Nazorean entry there.

Still, Nazareth is in Galilee of the Gentiles, a designation which supports the thesis that Matthew shows God’s salvation history as moving through Judaic history to become a gospel for the world, a gospel of the Kingdom which is open to all peoples. This theme runs throughout the Gospel of Matthew to its culmination in the words of the risen Christ, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.”

Jesus’ boyhood days must have exposed him to cultures and philosophies from people of all the nations. This could have enhanced his own conviction that the Kingdom of God was for all the people of the earth. It may have been that Galilee was the one place in Palestine where a new teacher could be readily heard. This setting may have helped focus Jesus’ message, not on a revival of Judaistic observance and practice as it was known in Jerusalem, but on God’s grace for all people; from a base in Capernaum the gospel could be heard by the people of all lands. Matthew quotes the striking prophetic statement, “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death, light has dawned (Matt 4:16).

This is the promise, my friends. Here is the good news of God’s grace, the gospel of the world. God is with us, holding us through our joys and sorrows, working through the triumphs and tragedies that attend our lives -- all to share the news of the salvation God has wrought in and through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

The Christmas story begins with the birth of an infant – God’s Son. He was raised by a man of great reverence and devotion, who meditated and prayed, to receive and discern the will of God. But the Christmas story doesn’t end until this child is grown, preaches God’s mercy, is crucified and dies and then is raised again. God acted as much through Joseph and his dreams as in the rest of Israel’s history. Actually, the story doesn’t end until Jesus draws all of us into that same story, raising us up to new life even amid the very real challenges that face each of us here and now.

This story matters because it tells us the truth: the sometimes difficult truth of unjust rulers and violence, of private grief and personal pain, and all the rest. But there is also the hopeful truth that God has not stood back at a distance, but in Jesus has joined God’s own self to our story and is working -- even now, even here. Though we know God works through dreams, this is not a dream. This is new life so that we may not just endure but flourish. Let us be like Joseph, reverent and devoted and open to God, experiencing resurrection joy and courage in our daily lives, and sharing our hope with others.