Text: Matthew 2:13-23 Revised Standard Version (RSV)
The Escape to Egypt
13 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there ’til I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 And he rose and took the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt have I called my son.”
The Massacre of the Infants
16 Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:
18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled,
because they were no more.”
The Return from Egypt
19 But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, 20 “Rise, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” 21 And he rose and took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archela′us reigned over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. 23 And he went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, “He shall be called a Nazarene.”
In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen
Throughout human history, dreams have played an important role in the fate of individuals and even nations. Ancient cultures throughout the world have looked for signs and guidance from the interpretations of dreams. The Magi themselves were astrologers and seers, a word for those who interpreted dreams and other signs. The ancient Celts believed that dreams were a portal to another dimension, and that when we dream, we enter into a deeper and truer reality that is inaccessible to us in our waking lives; we gain insights and wisdom that we otherwise would not have. In that state it was even possible to foresee the future. In the Old Testament, of course, we read of another Joseph – the one of the “Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” – who achieved a high position in Egypt by his ability to interpret the dreams that tormented the Pharaoh. Dreams were very important.
Joseph had a dream.
That’s what I kept coming back to as I read and reread today’s lesson.
Joseph had a dream. We don’t usually think of Joseph as a dreamer – at least, I never did until now. I usually think of Joseph as the brave man who bucked tradition and married Mary, despite what the neighbors thought; the man who raised Jesus as his own, taught him his trade, provided for him, protected him, and loved him. Joseph usually is considered a supporting actor in this drama of God’s salvation of the world. But Joseph was, in fact, a major player.
So here we read about Joseph having a dream. More even than that: As it turns out, this isn’t the first time Joseph had a dream. Remember back when the angel told Mary that she was going to have God’s own Son? When Mary told Joseph that news, he was anything but happy. In fact, as we read in Matthew 1:19, Joseph, being a “righteous man” who didn’t want to expose Mary to public disgrace, started thinking that he would simply put her aside on the q.t. But then, we read that “an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream,” and told him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, because “what is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:20, NIV). So, Joseph had not just one dream, but two, that changed the course of human history. In fact, Joseph had four dreams – we read at the end of the lesson that he was told in a dream that it was safe to go back into Israel, and then yet another dream told him to take Mary and Jesus to Nazareth.
Of course, those dreams by themselves didn’t do the trick – they had their earth-shattering effect because Joseph acted on them. First, he chose to marry Mary; second, he tells Mary to pack up because they’re leaving for Egypt right now. Third, he brings his family back home. And fourth, he moves his family to Nazareth.
Dreams are important today, too. Even in this modern world, we hear from time to time about people who have premonitions, or dreams that seem to predict the future.
Then there’s our more common understanding of dreams – dreams are hopes or as-yet-unfulfilled plans. The poet Langston Hughes has this advice for us regarding dreams:
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
Just outside the doors of our church is a place called “the world.” The world does not understand who we are or what we are about as followers of Jesus Christ. To its inhabitants, we live in a “dream world.”
And they’re right.
We are still in the throes of Christmas Day, I would imagine. I know I am. I don’t want it to end. The joy is still in our hearts, we’re singing those wonderful old hymns that we all learned as children; we’ve still got the trees up in our homes; we’re enjoying the gifts we have received; we’re entertaining friends and loved ones…we want to hang on to Christmas as long as we can. Good thing that Christmas lasts until Epiphany on January 6th!
This is the season in which we dare to dream – we dream of a better world, a fairer world, a world in which justice prevails, where children can grow up without fear, in which that “goodwill toward all people” is the daily reality instead of a dream. And we can take solace from the fact that that Great Day is coming.
For…God is working his purposes out!
God works his purposes out, sometimes through what people do, and sometimes through what they don’t do. Joseph does God’s will by paying attention to that dream and not casting Mary aside. The Emperor Caesar Augustus does God’s will by making everybody go to their ancestral homes to be enrolled for tax purposes. As Paul Simon sings in his song “Slip Slidin’ Away”:
“God only knows, God makes his plan
The information’s unavailable to the mortal man.”
Even a tyrant like Herod cannot thwart God’s plan. When he hears that he’s been outwitted by the Magi – well, we know that he’s actually been outwitted by God and the Magi were God’s agents – he flies into a characteristic rage and orders one of the most heinous crimes of the ancient world: The slaughter of the little baby boys.
Herod was a deeply insecure ruler, owing to the fact that he had absolutely no rightful claim to his throne. He was so paranoid about his position that he had his wife, his mother, and several of his sons murdered because he suspected them of plotting against him. He was, you might say, the Stalin of his day. He was so depraved that, at his death, he ordered that several of the leading citizens of Jerusalem be rounded up and murdered, not for committing any crimes but because, he said, he knew no one would mourn for him, and he was not going to die without tears being shed. This is exactly the sort of man to be so petrified of even rumors of a real king being born that he would viciously murder innocent babies.
But he doesn’t win. Joseph has his second miraculous dream, and he flees with his family into Egypt to wait it out.
The heirs of Herod’s evil legacy are still with us even today. But their plans can still be brought to nothing as completely as Herod’s was.
We can legitimately ask: Has the world made any progress since then? Technologically, yes. Socially, too, in many ways. But we all know that there’s still a lot of injustice, still a lot of pain, still a lot of strife in the world. But today we say: Pain and strife do not have the last word!
I’ve shared this true story with you before, but I find it deeply moving and quite apropos to today:
The priest of a Christian church in Iraq tells the true story of a woman whose son and husband were killed by a police officer. When the police officer was caught, he was placed on trial and he was convicted of the crime. As the judge considered his sentence, this is what the woman said: “He took my family away from me, and I still have a lot of love to give, and he needs to know what love and grace feel like—so I think he should have to come to visit my home in the slums, twice a month, and spend time with me, so that I can be a mother to him, so that I can embrace him, and he can know that my forgiveness is real.”
How is it that an individual disciple of Jesus Christ comes to love like this? I think it is because this woman, at least in part, dares to dream that the world as God envisions it is not just possible, not just probable, but a fact – that this world is here, however partially, however imperfectly, however many backward steps are made that slow its progress.
Herod’s insane, paranoid violence could not then, and that Iraqi murder, and all the horrible things we see happening in the world today, may disrupt, but cannot destroy, the beauty or the promise of Christmas. That unnamed mother shows the Herods of today that their cruelties and threats, their posturing and strutting, cannot touch, or even get close to, the Christmas dream, the spirit of God, that lives in her. The dream of the fulfillment of God’s plan for the world remains intact.
God works his purposes out!
In the next days, we will close the books on 2019. I think it’s significant that, when we do close out a year and start a new one, we do so while it’s still Christmas – Epiphany always happens at the start of the year.
As we end 2019, and start 2020, let us remember Joseph and Mary – even in the midst of a terrifying situation, God worked out his purpose for them and for the world.
And then let us remind ourselves that God is doing the same for us, each and every one of us!
My friends, let us dare to dream!
In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.