Christmas Dreams: Banishment
December 11, 1988 | First Presbyterian Church Orlando | Matthew 2:13-16
It actually happened in a church I know…
A worried mother phoned the church office on the afternoon before the Sunday School Christmas pageant to say that her small son, who was to play the role of Joseph in the pageant, had caught the flu and was confined to the bed. The teacher replied: “Well, it is too late to get another Joseph, so we will just have to write him out of the script.” So they did, and very few of those who watched the play realized that the cast was incomplete.
Joseph, the carpenter of Nazareth, is the silent, forgotten figure of the Christmas story. We could never think of Christmas without singing angels, bright-eyed shepherds, regal Wise Men, a harried innkeeper, and even villainous Herod. We could never have Christmas without them. But Joseph? Too often we write him out of the script. But not this year. This year, we are remembering that God spoke to Joseph in four dreams. Now Joseph obviously knew the vocabulary of God. When God spoke, Joseph not only heard, he listened and he responded. So while Joseph never spoke a word that First Christmas, so far as we know, what he did that First Christmas speaks volumes to us this Christmas.
Today, we come to Joseph’s second Christmas dream. I call it: Banishment. The message of the dream is that Christmas involves rejection, protection and direction. Let us look together…
First, Christmas speaks of rejection.
In other words, Christmas stands for realities which are not very secure in a world like ours. We see that here in Matthew 2 where we are told that after the Wise Men had come and had worshipped the infant King and had offered their gifts to Him and had gone on their way, an angel then appeared to Joseph in a dream saying: “Rise and take the child. Do not worry so much about Mary. Do not worry about the Wise Men. Do not worry about the shepherds. Take the child. Take that precious jewel, that emblem of future hope, and flee to Egypt and remain there until I tell you. For Herod is seeking the child to destroy Him.” And with that instant obedience to God Joseph had demonstrated in his first dream, he rose, took the child and His mother by night, and departed to Egypt, there to remain.
What a contrast! What a topsy-turvy experience that first Christmas was. The Wise Men had come bowing in worship and bearing gifts for the child; then suddenly an angel appears crying out, “Herod is out to kill your baby!” The Magi had sought the infant King to crown Him; now Herod was seeking the infant King to destroy Him. You know it was hard enough to comprehend that the Wise Men would travel months and months across desert wastes to worship and adore the Messiah; but it must have been even harder to comprehend how Herod, without even investigating, would slaughter innocent children in an attempt to destroy a perceived rival. Yes, as great as was the mystery of the visit of the Wise Men, even greater was the mystery of the malignancy in Herod’s heart. But Joseph knew that Herod was capable of such savagery, and so under the cover of darkness, he took his family and headed for the Egyptian border. It was not far. They could make it in a hard night’s traveling. No miracles now. No bands of singing angels. Just fear and hard work. They had to pack up the inventory of a king and flee through the darkness like common criminals. In one moment, they were dazzled by gold, frankincense, and myrrh; in the next moment, they were chilled by the midnight wind and trackless Sinai sands. Christmas. What a topsy-turvy thing; what a muddle of mysteries for Joseph to try to understand.
And so, in his second dream, Joseph discovered a disconcerting truth—that is, no sooner had Jesus Christ entered the world, than efforts were made to banish Him from the face of the earth. Christ drew deadly opposition from the very beginning. The shadow of the cross fell even over His manger. What was true then is just as true now. Christmas had trouble in it then just as it has trouble in it now. That is quite true, you know. The selfish do not like to hear a message about God so loving the world that He gave His only Son. The selfish build their lives on getting, not on giving, so Christmas is an offense to them. The cruel do not want to hear about the kindness and compassion and mercy of God shown at Christmas. They want to dominate, to intimidate, to manipulate people and it infuriates them to hear that at the center of the universe is a loving Christ. Those who have achieved success in the world’s terms, those who have gathered to themselves the things that money can buy, and the power and prestige that go with it all—they are put off by Christmas because the message of Christmas is that none of those things are ultimately important, that the most important things in life are faith and family and friendship and caring and sharing. So when Herod heard about the birth of Jesus, he was enraged. That is what the Bible says. And he set out to destroy Jesus. That is what the Bible says. And there are those today who have let evil take control of their lives and they do not want to hear the Christmas message any more than Herod did.
So Christmas is not just twinkling stars and lovely songs and angelic choirs and lavish gifts. Christmas is also about a midnight flight over Sinai sands into the exile of Egypt. “He came to His own and His own received Him not.” Or as the old carol puts it, “We didn’t know who He was.” That is part of the Christmas story—rejection.
But then the Christmas story also speaks of protection.
In other words, Christmas stands for securities made real by a God like ours. The angel said to Joseph in the dream: “Flee to Egypt for there you will be safe and secure.” Of course, it is not so unusual to find Joseph and Mary and the baby fleeing to Egypt. Egypt had long been a place of refuge for threatened people. Jacob and his sons went there to keep from starving to death during famine in Israel. When Jeroboam was trying to get away from Solomon, he went to Egypt. When Uriah was running away from Jehoiachim, he went to Egypt. Egypt was kind of the Switzerland of that day—once you crossed its borders, you were safe from outside influence. Egypt offered refuge. It offered shelter. It offered security. It offered protection.
Now I know that there are those people who try to move through life with a false bravado. They say: “Defeat is not in my vocabulary. The word ‘retreat’ has never crossed my lips. I am always upbeat and positive. I always think aggressively. I do not allow anything or anyone to get the best of me.” Well, let me say that I am an active proponent and practitioner of the power of positive thinking. It is one of the secrets of truly significant living. However, the fact of the matter is that there are times of setback in life—times of suffering, times of sorrow, times when you have to flee, times when you have to beat a strategic retreat, times when you cannot win. Joseph understood that, so he sought the protection of God for him and his family. Off they went to Egypt.
Notice that they were not told how long they would have to stay. The angel’s instructions are so interesting. The angel said: “Flee to Egypt and remain there till I tell you.” Do you hear that? God was saying to Joseph: “Look, I am not going to guarantee you any quick, easy answers. I am not even going to tell you how long you will have to stay in Egypt. I am asking you to believe that I will be protecting you. I will be watching. I will be looking after you. I will be your guardian angel. You will be safe and secure in Egypt. And one day there will be a sequel to this mad flight. One day there will be another dream and I will tell you that Herod is no longer a threat and that you can go home. In the meantime, I will be with you.”
Do you see what that means? It means that we never encounter an “Egypt-experience” in our lives, we never encounter the sting of setback but that the Lord is there. It means that there is never a darkened home, never a sore temptation, never a broken heart, never a painful decision, never an open grave but that the Lord is there to guard us and protect us and sustain us.
But He is there not only to sustain us, but also to strengthen us. We know that people come out of exile stronger. Think of modern leaders who have had an “Egypt-experience.” Think of Franklin Roosevelt. His political star was rising and he became the vice-presidential candidate of the Democratic Party. Then suddenly, crippling polio sent him to Campobello for several long years. Egypt. There this pathetic, helpless man who had to drag his withered legs around was strengthened for a Presidency that would leave a lasting mark upon America. Think of Winston Churchill in 1928, First Lord of the Admiralty, heir-apparent to the Prime Ministry—then in 1929, he loses everything, his job, his party, his fortune. There followed ten long wilderness years. Egypt. But he came back stronger than when he left.
That is what God did for the Holy Family in Egypt—He sustained them and He strengthened them. I believe that the exile in Egypt strengthened Mary and Joseph for all they would have to face later. And I believe that the fact that Jesus spent His earliest years in a land not His own, accepted by people not His own, gave Him His consuming passion for all the world’s people—not just His own. And it was all because of God’s protection.
My friends, that is the message of Joseph’s second Christmas dream. Do not let setbacks set you back! Cling to the knowledge that you are kept by God in every situation and in every circumstance. That is what David Redding was trying to say when he told of a little girl named Suzanne, who was being carried by her mother out of their village which had been devastated by the movement of armies across France in the final days of the Second World War. Homes were gone. Places of business were leveled. The town was ruined. It was like a wilderness. There was nothing left. They paused for a moment at the place where once the town hall had stood. There they noted something—a rose reaching up through the rubble and it was in full bloom! “Look, Suzanne,” her mother said, “remember that a rose can grow anywhere.” Hold onto that, my beloved; hold onto it for dear life. Out of life’s rubble, out of life’s setbacks, out of life’s “Egypt-experiences,” because of Jesus Christ, something beautiful can and will emerge. That is part of the Christmas story—protection.
Finally, the Christmas story speaks of direction.
In other words, Christmas stands for the one who directs lives like yours and mine. This second Christmas dream of Joseph reminds us that the people of this world are in one camp or the other. Either they love Jesus or they hate Him. Either they are for Him or they are against Him. Either they live their lives under His direction or not. Oh, I know that some say that there are legions of people who are neutral on the issue. They are indifferent. They do not care one way or another. But, you see, neutrality and indifference are just subtle forms of opposition. Ideally, every knee should bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is the Lord of life and the Lord of the world. But that was not true on the first Christmas, and it is not true even today.
That is why I want you to understand that our earthly power, whether regal or personal, whether political or financial, whether social or psychological—our earthly power is temporary. And in the end it is meaningless. It is worthless. If you do not believe that, then look at King Herod. But the power of Jesus Christ is something very different. For it is the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ that He takes the lives of those who do not seem too prominent in the earthly scheme of things and He transforms them into nothing other than the sons and daughters of Almighty God. He gives to those who get no respect a sense of self-respect. He gives to those who have no life the gift of eternal life. He tells those who in the eyes of the world are worthless, that in the eyes of God they are worth the life of God’s own Son. He takes those who are set running in fear and in defeat and He surrounds them with the protective mantle of His grace. Do you get the point? It is this: Jesus Christ, manger-born, is nothing less than the most powerful, the most uplifting, the most ennobling, the most enabling force ever turned loose in the world.
Did you know that Helen Keller never went to church in her early childhood? She was deaf and she was blind and she could not speak. She had no opportunity to learn the story of God revealed in Jesus Christ. Then she was taken to visit Phillips Brooks, the greatest preacher America has ever produced. He told her in the simplest possible language how God had sent Jesus of Nazareth to show His love, to teach His will, and to make Himself known to us. As he told the story, Helen Keller’s face lighted up and she spelled out into the hands of her interpreter this sentence: “I knew all the time that there must be someone like that; I just didn’t know His name was Jesus.” And you know how that experience changed the direction of her life and how she became a radiant witness to our Lord.
Well, I want to ask you…
Do you know His name? You see Christmas means coming to a decision about Jesus Christ in your life. That decision is the most important decision you will ever make in your life. I want you to know His name. I want you to learn His name. I want you to love His name. I want you to claim His name as your own. I want you to take Him into your home and into your heart…today.