The Second Sunday after Christmas

The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23

Today, we continue the Christmas story through our gospel reading, which reminds us of two things: 1) that the Christmas season is still with us; and, 2) that either Joseph or Matthew had a thing about dreams.

Actually, these few verses from the Gospel according to Matthew cover a lot of territory and time in the life of the Holy Family: from the time they left Bethlehem, through their time of exile in Egypt, to the establishment of their new family home in Nazareth of Galilee.

And all of this is brought about through Joseph’s dreams. There are three of them in today’s passage, and if you’ll remember, in the Gospel of Matthew, it was through another of Joseph’s dreams that the Annunciation took place. The angel of the Lord came to Joseph, not Mary, to announce that the child in Mary’s womb was God’s son and that he would be the Savior of Israel.

The dreams, the itinerary for the Holy Family, the focus on Joseph by Matthew were all to make a point—or several points—concerning the identity of Jesus as the Messiah and the fulfillment of Scripture through the events surrounding his birth.

In other words, Matthew has an agenda: to prove Jesus is the Messiah by proving he is the fulfillment of Scripture. And Matthew carries this theme throughout his Gospel, from beginning to end. He tells of an event in Jesus’ life and then says, “This was to fulfill the Scripture that said . . .” or, “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet . . .”

You see, Matthew was writing his gospel to answer critics of the first Christians. People didn’t understand the new movement or were, at least, skeptical of it. They questioned whether Jesus could be the Messiah as his followers held. They wondered about Jesus’ lineage, how he could be the Son of David, much less the Son of God. There were all kinds of questions about Jesus’ origins, rumors about his illegitimacy, criticisms of his poverty and powerlessness and the shame of his death,–questions about the ways in which Jesus of Nazareth was different—so different—from the expected Christ. –How to explain Jesus coming from Nazareth when Scripture located the birthplace of the Messiah in Bethlehem? All these questions Matthew sought to answer in his Gospel. And Matthew sometimes resorted to an explanation that would make sense to his readers.

And one of the things that made sense to his readers was dreams. The people to whom Matthew wrote believed and understood that God spoke to people through dreams. For them, the strange world of sleep was full of important truths. For them, many things were still meaningful which could not be explained by human reason.

Our modern era generally insists on weighing and measuring everything, insisting that only the things we can understand or hold or explain can possibly be meaningful.

But we do a radical thing when we turn our backs on our dreams. And it is a sad thing, I think, to limit and constrain our world by not allowing anything to enter it that is larger or more mysterious than the limits of our rational minds, as admirable as our minds might be. Sometimes we are just too practical and sensible—intellectual—at the expense of our imaginations and spirits.

Think of what we would miss if we were successful in shutting out everything that isn’t rational and sensible.

We wouldn’t know about love, for one thing. There is no logical reason why we love one person and not another, but we do. And there is no more powerful force in most of our lives than love: receiving love, giving love, longing for love, mourning lost love. We are moved by love at the very deepest level of our being. And though it works through our rational minds, it seldom begins there, or ends there for that matter.

For instance, we wouldn’t know about beauty. Music to us would be just a mathematical series of sounds. Painting would be a chemical formula. Sculpture would be nothing but a pile of rocks.

Worship in churches would be confined to sermons, which would be more like lectures. There would be no need for singing. Flowers would be an unnecessary frill. So would candles. There wouldn’t be much call for prayer, either. What would be the logic in that?

We would have a hard time celebrating the Eucharist if all we had were rational minds (& rational thoughts). How would we explain the mystery of Christ’s presence in the bread and wine? Not very clearly. We’d have to give it up. (Or see it simply as a memorial service as, in fact, some churches do.)

But we’re not likely going to do that. We’re probably not going to stop falling in love, or listening to or making music, or going to art galleries. We’ll probably continue to worship with music and flowers and candles and banners with symbols. We’re not likely going to abandon the mystery of Christ’s presence in the bread and wine just because we can’t accurately define it.

The truth is, whether we care to admit it or not, we’re not really such rational creatures as we like to tell ourselves we are. Most of the things that really matter to us are rooted in things we can’t explain: love, beauty, faith.

So why should it seem strange to us that there is truth in the world of dreams? Or that God might speak to Joseph in dreams, or that God might speak to us in dreams?

Psychology has known for some time that dreams are important in understanding the hidden hopes and fears of the human heart. And if we can know more about ourselves by looking at our dreams, who is to say we can’t also know more about God in that way? Who is to say that a gracious God won’t use our sleep time to help us sift through things a bit and help us come to terms with our wake time concerns and problems and the decisions we need to make?

“Maybe I’ll just sleep on it,” we say. And when we do sleep on it, we usually awaken the next morning and things seem a lot clearer, don’t they? That’s certainly the case with me. Is that God’s doing? God’s work? Who is to say that God hasn’t used our dreams—our sleep—to help us walk the path we have been given to walk, to help us figure things out? Not me.

In fact, I believe God is active in our sleeping and our waking, that dreams are of the spiritual realm—spiritual in nature—and that we should be alert to the possibility of God speaking to us in our dreams.

Did Joseph ask himself the next morning if God really spoke to him in his dream? Matthew doesn’t say. He doesn’t tell us exactly what kind of dream it was or how Joseph knew for sure it was God who gave him the warning (although he does say an angel was involved). All we know is that he got up and did what he was told and things worked out according to God’s plan.

We know it was God because of what happened later. That is what Matthew would say. “This was to fulfill what had been spoken,” he would say. “I am telling you all this,” he would say, “so that you will know who this Jesus is; so that you will know that the puzzling and contradictory things you may have heard about his life and death actually all point toward the truth about him as the Son of God; so that you will know about the ways in which the events of Jesus’ life and ministry bear witness to the Hebrew Scriptures.”

Matthew faced—head on—the hard questions about Jesus’ birth and lineage, about his powerlessness, about the shame and glory of his death, about his witness to the radical humility of God’s kingdom—a witness that the martyrs of the early church were going to need very soon.

And the witness that Matthew and the other evangelists provided for the first Christians can be our witness, as well, in a time when it is sorely needed. We are Christians in an age that calls itself “post-Christian.” We are a minority witness in the world.

We will need the gospel to witness if we are to survive and be faithful in the ways God would have us go.

We will need Christians willing to be witnesses to the gospel and the love of God that God so wants to give his people, all his people, if they will only accept it.

Today, we are celebrating God’s love through baptism and giving thanks for three more witnesses of the faith. May we welcome them as true sisters—Iona and Debi—and as a brother—Wyatt— into the household of God. May we be witnesses to them, and them to us and, together, witness to others the love and grace and truth of God in Jesus.

To be faithful ministers, faithful in our witness, faithful in our work and service, we will need to listen for and discern God’s call. And we’ll need all our faculties to do that. We’ll need our eyes to see, our ears to hear, our hearts to feel. We’ll need our rational minds, of course. But we will also need the part of the mind that dreams. We’ll need to pay attention to our dreams, too. For our dreams—some say the whispers of angels—are at the very heart of the soul that prays and sings and loves and believes.

In our witness to the world in Christ,
May we all be dreamers
And prayers and singers
And lovers and believers.
In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.