If you ask just about anyone, “What do we know about Jesus’ human father, Joseph?” they’ll probably say, “He was a carpenter.” That’s like the one piece of information we have about him, but it actually may not be completely accurate. It’s possible he was a stone mason or a wagon builder or a construction worker or a day-laboring handyman. The Greek word we’re translating here just isn’t actually all that specific. So, maybe he was a carpenter and maybe he wasn’t. And, I’m wondering, this morning why don’t we answer this question with something we ARE absolutely sure about: Joseph was a dreamer.
We get Joseph’s first dream in our reading this morning. And WOW. Can you imagine what a night that must have been? What Joseph must have gone through? He woke from that dream, not a different person, because he was probably always a faithful and kind person, but he woke up with a completely different life. The life he thought he was going to have for himself, the honor he thought he was going to have, the way his friends and family were going to look at him, the rules he thought he was going to live by, the relationship he thought he was entering into, the safety he thought he was going to enjoy—they’re all out the window.
Can you imagine how hard it must have been to believe that crazy dream? How easy it would have been to wake up and say, “Oh thank goodness, it was just a dream, I shouldn’t have had that leftover Chinese right before bed, nothing serious”? And it makes me wonder, if it’s hard to live our dreams and easy to dismiss them, are there dreams you’ve forgotten or are there dreams I’ve given up on, that we were meant to believe in?
Joseph believed in his dreams. He listened to them. It wasn’t just this one dream either. Joseph had three more dreams. One would tell him to flee with Mary and Jesus to Egypt because Herod wanted to kill the baby. Another dream would tell him it was finally safe for the family to go back home again. And the last one would send them safely to Galilee and Nazareth. Joseph listened to all these dreams, and he lived out their promises and their warnings. Joseph trusted his dreams.
Do we trust dreams? I don’t think we do, really. I don’t think we trust dreams or dreamers very much. Maybe that’s why we say Joseph was a carpenter, even though we can’t really be sure he was. Because almost anything, even if it’s not all that accurate, is probably better than being a dreamer. And when we think of what a father should provide his son, what do we think of? We like to think of his work, his trade, the way he provides for his family. We don’t want to hear too much about his dreams.
And we see precisely why we don’t want to hear much about dreams in Joseph’s story: Dreams can disrupt an otherwise honorable and productive life. In the American version of the dream, the dream is our goal which we apply our hard work to in the land of opportunity until we achieve it. We focus on the dedication and the chance to become a self-made person, rather than on the disruption. But of course every great story of the American dream is also a story of disruption—of immigration, of revolution, of the flight from slavery. Dreams in the Bible, and the dreams we have in our beds at night, don’t shy away from this darkness, this uncertainty.
The Bible is chock full of dreams, and dreamers, and dream interpretations. There are dozens of dreams in the Bible and even more strange visions in the dark and voices in the night which, at the very least, are like dreams. You can’t read the Bible and come away with any other interpretation than this—God is in dreams. And that’s the trouble with them—according to the Bible, unlike our American dreams, we don’t control dreams. Dreams find us in the dark, and our role is to believe in them, to say YES to everything they portend to us, and to attempt to follow them as they change us. Following the American dream is about self-actualization. But following a Biblical dream is about self-surrender. These two things are not mutually exclusive, of course, but they are very different ways of understanding our responsibility to a dream.
If only, if only, God would just make every dream an inspiring source of guidance, giving us insight into our lives and relationships while delighting and refreshing us. I love those dreams! But do you think Joseph got a dream like that? Do you think he woke up saying, “I just had the most wonderful dream?” I imagine he shouted himself awake in a sweaty tangle of sheets and fell out of the bed. And that’s the problem with inviting God into your dreams. There’s not one comforting dream in all of Scripture. They’re all challenges and warnings and upheavals. Joseph dreamed that he would marry a woman everybody thought was unchaste, that he would raise a baby who everybody knew wasn’t his baby, and that he would run for his life from the greatest political and military power of the land into exile in another country.
So why would we say YES? Well, the Bible is unambiguous on this: God is in dreams, that’s why. If dreams were easy, God wouldn’t need to be in them. So, when we say yes to the difficulties of dreams, we’re also saying yes to God. And when we turn away from challenges that seem too dark, that feel too difficult, we might also be turning away from God’s dream for us.
Notice I didn’t say God’s plan for us. It’s much easier to spot God’s plan when we’re looking back on the past in the bright light of day. But in the foggy predawn darkness, just waking up from a dream, it’s hard to see a plan at all. There is so much darkness, so much uncertainty, we don’t know what’s going to happen, we don’t know (ultimately) what is going to be asked of us. We see a direction. We see hope. We don’t necessarily get the whole picture—Joseph certainly didn’t. He had to have three more dreams just to get to him to Nazareth, to the beginning of the story. But you and I can only say that Jesus was God’s plan because Joseph and Mary said yes to a hard dream. If we don’t follow the dreams, we never get to the place where we can see the plan.
Advent is a time for dreams. Dreams like Joseph’s dreams, life-changing dreams that are, by definition, dark dreams. You don’t necessarily have to go to bed to discover these dreams. Dreams come to us all sorts of ways, we know. Reading a book, taking a shower, talking to a friend, slowly over years of planning and prayer, all at once in response to an incredible victory or terrible loss. Advent is not a silly season with visions of sugarplums dancing in our heads. It is a time for closing our eyes in the dark and trusting that the hard dream, the dream that totally upends our lives, the dream that frightens and intimidates us a little, may not be the nightmare we fear it is. It may be the beginning of God’s plan. Would you be willing to abandon your expectations for life in exchange for God’s hope for the future? Would you be willing to be a part of God’s plan, before it looked like anything more than a dream?
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Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations