Matthew 1: 18-25
My text today is this: “An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.’” [Matthew 1:20] There have been times when people have come to my office and asked, “May I speak with you a minute?” We go in, sit down, and they proceed to ask me, in a hushed tone, “Do people ever come here and tell you their dreams?” I’ve whispered back, “Yes!” Then they feel comfortable enough to share a recent dream, and together we think about what it might have meant. Sometimes they believe the dream is just them trying to work out a conflict they had the day before or the week before. Sometimes they have a kind of a nightmare, perhaps caused by a frightening or disturbing event. But other times it seems like the dream is a message from God, or from an angel; words of guidance that sink into their psyche. For example, do you remember hearing this?
One night I dreamed a dream.
As I was walking along the beach with my Lord.
Across the dark sky flashed scenes from my life.
For each scene, I noticed two sets of footprints in the sand,
One belonging to me and one to my Lord.
After the last scene of my life flashed before me,
I looked back at the footprints in the sand.
I noticed that at many times along the path of my life,
especially at the very lowest and saddest times,
there was only one set of footprints.
This really troubled me, so I asked the Lord about it.
“Lord, you said once I decided to follow you,
You’d walk with me all the way.
But I noticed that during the saddest and most troublesome times of my life,
there was only one set of footprints.
I don’t understand why, when I needed You the most, You would leave me.”
He whispered, “My precious child, I love you and will never leave you
Never, ever, during your trials and testings.
When you saw only one set of footprints,
It was then that I carried you.”
I was taught that Danish Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote it. Perhaps that is one of the most famous of dreams. Through the years, others have been noted for their meaningful dreams too. James W. Goll, on his blog called “God Encounters Ministries,” offers this research:
Justin Martyr, the first Christian philosopher, believed that dreams were sent by spirits.
Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, thought dreams revealed the spiritual world.
Clement of Alexandria believe that true dreams arise from the “depth of the soul,” and that they reveal spiritual reality, [a connection with] the soul of God.
A dream changed John Newton from a slave trader to become a churchman in England, the one who wrote the hymn, “Amazing Grace.” We have that hymn because of a dream.
In addition, biblical figures had dreams. Joseph, the second youngest son of Jacob, had a dream that he foolishly shared with his older brothers. In Genesis 37, it says:
5 Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. 6 He said to them, “Listen to this dream that I dreamed. 7 There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.” 8 His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?” So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words.
9 He had another dream, and told it to his brothers, saying, “Look, I have had another dream: the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” 10 But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him, and said to him, “What kind of dream is this that you have had? Shall we indeed come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow to the ground before you?” 11 So his brothers were jealous of him.
That dream led to his brothers selling him to a band of Ishmaelites and it completely changed Joseph’s life. There are 33 times dreams are mentioned in Genesis alone and 27 times in Daniel. The Bible only records Joseph as an interpreter of dreams in Genesis, and Daniel in the book by the same name. But there is one other Joseph in the Bible who had a dream of instruction from God: This Joseph was engaged to Mary, who had an angel visit her with a most extraordinary proposition: that she would bear the son of God. She was engaged to Joseph when that happened. This kind of news would cause quite a controversy in a dusty village like Nazareth. Before Mary could tell Joseph what the angel Gabriel had told her, Gabriel appeared to Joseph, in a dream and spoke to him. In the dream, Joseph got such clear instructions from the angel that he changed his mind about breaking off his engagement to her. Remember? The angel said in the dream: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Mary had a visit from an angel; but Joseph also had a visit from the angel Gabriel in a dream. Joseph must have been more spiritually insightful than we typically realize. He listened to his dream: the dream that brought Mary and Joseph together as the Holy Family. He also had another dream that I’ll address next week.
We are told that everyone dreams. Do you remember your dreams? Do you listen to your dreams? I have been told by several of our Presbyterian Counseling Center therapists that we should try to recall our dreams, to even awaken and write them down immediately and examine them later. Sometimes people can discern the voice of God in their dreams. Sometimes they can figure out a plan to resolve a conflict.
Where would we be if Joseph just rolled over and ignored God’s revelation?
I recently learned of the writings of a woman named River Jordan. Yep, just like the water in Israel! In her 2019 book Confessions of a Christian Mystic, she wrote:
I once had a message that I would have a visitation from God. This came to me in the innermost place of me, that same tone announcing holy visitation in the way that a thought about an item you must pick up from the store comes to remind you: don’t forget the milk. The same way that Anne Lamotte describes Jesus following her around like an invisible stray cat in [her book] Traveling Mercies. So I had received this word, visitation, along with a sense that indeed I had something coming….The promise of a visitation weighed on me more like a threat of a haunting. I slept with the light on, which means I slept very little. I kept telling God not to just show up and shock me. Not to suddenly appear at the foot of the bed. Not to walk out of the closet. The list of not-tos went on and on as I dozed fitfully until after dawn, when I felt this sneaky-in-the-night-visitation thing had been laid to rest. Thinking that surely God, like a vampire, would dare not show up after sunrise. [Faithwords, Kindle book 28%, 2019]
Here was a woman, like many men in the Bible, who tried to avoid having a God encounter! But, we learn in her book, God did show up. In the glow of a candle, before River’s eyes there was an image of gold; the same Triangle of the Trinity that she had doodled for years as a faithful Episcopalian girl. And from that event, she came away with a deep abiding peace, saying it was “a peace so deep there is no space, no inch, no molecule of room for the tiniest of worry, the fretful thought.” [28%] That’s what a visit from Go—in in a dream or in a vision—can be like. Just ask mother Mary; or father Joseph; or a woman named River Jordan.
Maybe there can still be peace on earth, or at least in our hearts, if we are receptive to a visitation from God.
Jeffrey A. Sumner December 22, 2019