Christmas Dreams: Embarrassment
He is, I think, the forgotten figure of the Christmas story. I refer to Joseph, the carpenter of Nazareth…
Our Christmas cards portray the Babe in Bethlehem, the mother and the manger, the herdsmen on the hillsides, the Wise Men and the Angels—but where is Joseph? In our Christmas carols, we sing of “Virgin mother and child”, “Angels from the realms of glory”, “shepherds in the fields abiding”, “we three kings of Orient are”, and even “O little town of Bethlehem”—but what of Joseph? Not a single word he uttered is recorded on the pages of the Gospels. He is mentioned only in the first two chapters of Matthew and of Luke, and then he fades from the scene, never to appear again.
This Christmas I want us to remember him. For while he may not be acclaimed in our cards and in our carols, nevertheless, he is vitally important to the Christmas story because of what God said to him and did through him. You see, God spoke to Joseph four different times, each time in a dream, and each time Joseph responded to the word God spoke. The four dreams are recorded in Matthew’s Gospel, and over these next four weeks, I want us to look at each dream in turn and in order, that we might deepen our understanding of the message of Christmas. Today we look at the first dream. I call this dream, “Embarrassment.” Its message is: God comes in unexpected ways to unexpected people with unexpected results. Let me explain…
God comes in unexpected ways…
I looked up the word “dream” in the dictionary. It is defined as “an illusory experience accepted when it occurs in our sleep, but determined to be unreal as soon as we awake.” In fact, the word “dream” comes from the German word which means “to deceive.” Little wonder that William Shakespeare calls dreams “the children of an idle brain, begot of nothing but vain fantasy.” Such are our human dreams. They arise out of the depths of our own subconscious minds. They are inflamed reflections of our own desires. They are subjective, self-serving and detached from reality. Even the Bible is critical of our human dreams. Jeremiah, for example, says “Speak prophecy, speak truth, speak reality, but leave your dreams at home, for they are like the chaff when compared with the wheat.”
Yet strangely, surprisingly, unexpectedly, the Bible says that God occasionally speaks to His people through dreams. Underscore the word “occasionally.” These divine dreams which come from God do not appear often in the Bible. Actually, they are clustered in just three places. God used dreams to speak to the patriarchs, especially Joseph, as they were building a new life for God’s chosen people. God used dreams to speak to Daniel as he envisioned a new world coming. And then in the Christmas story, God used dreams to speak especially to Joseph. Now when you look carefully at those three clusters of divine dreams in Scripture, you discover that whenever God gets ready to do a new thing in the world, He speaks to His people through dreams. Therefore, when He got ready to do the newest and grandest thing of all—the sending of His Son into the world—God spoke to Joseph through a veritable explosion of dreams. Here is the point.
God’s dreams are not like our human dreams. His dreams are not illusory. They are not fantasy. They are rooted in reality.
We see that clearly in this first dream of Joseph. He and Mary had become engaged (betrothed is what the Bible calls it). In those days, engagement between a man and a woman was binding. Today couples engage and disengage with sometimes flippant ease. I heard about a fellow who purchased a very expensive engagement ring and he asked the jeweler to engrave on the inside of the ring the words: “From Henry to Clara.” The jeweler said: “Take my advice, son, have it engraved simply: ‘From Henry.'” Obviously the jeweler had suffered the consequences of many broken engagements. But in Joseph’s day, engagement was as binding as marriage is today. An engagement could be broken only by divorce. That is why Joseph is called “Mary’s husband” even before their marriage.
So Joseph has made this deep, binding commitment to Mary, and suddenly she tells him that she is going to have a baby. What a shock! What a terrible embarrassment! At that point, Joseph felt that he had no choice but to divorce Mary. But while he was struggling with what to do about this embarrassing situation, an angel of the Lord spoke to him in a dream. The angel said: “Do not be afraid to take Mary to be your wife, for it is by the Holy Spirit that she has conceived.”
Of all the things Joseph might have expected to hear at that point, “Take Mary to be your wife” was not one of them. In fact, it is exactly the opposite of what he was thinking. He was trying to find out how to put Mary away, and the dream told him to take her in. He was trying to break off the relationship because of her unholiness, but the dream told him that what was happening was the holiest thing in all the world. It was not fantasy. It did not flow out of his own subconscious and his own desires. It was a clear and specific word from God: “Take Mary to be your wife.” It was an unexpected turn of events that made a shambles out of common sense and his best thinking. But then, that is the way God always works in our lives. He comes to us in unexpected ways.
I must tell you in all honesty that for years in my ministry, I did not hesitate to say to anyone who asked that Florida was the last place on God’s green earth I ever wanted to live. Yet it was an unexpected turn of events that made a shambles out of common sense and out of my own best thinking that landed me here and look at what God has done since in your life and mine. Yes, God does come to us in unexpected ways.
And He comes to unexpected people.
Let us be clear at this point. What was so unexpected at that first Christmas was not the announcement that the Messiah was coming. The Jews had been looking anxiously for a Saviour for years and years. To learn that the Messiah was on the way—there was nothing shocking or unexpected about that. Nor was there anything shocking or unexpected about the way He would come. The Jewish believers of that day expected the Messiah to come on clouds of glory surrounded by legions of attending angels. Now clearly, people who could conceive of God arranging that kind of thing, would not have been shocked by something as comparatively simple as a virgin birth.
No, what was so shocking, so unexpected, so unnerving, so downright embarrassing was that the Lord of the universe, the Saviour of the world, the Messiah of God would be entrusted to the care of a teenage girl and an unknown carpenter from an obscure village nobody ever heard of. That is the scandal, that is the embarrassment, that is the unexpectedness of it all—not that it was going to happen, and not how it was going to happen, but that it was going to happen to nobodies like Mary and Joseph.
You see, that is what God’s Christmas dream is all about—that the most important thing in the world can happen to the least important people in the world—that the King of kings and the Lord of lords can take up residence in the most ordinary of lives—that the greatest somebody who ever lived can come to nobodies like Joseph and like Mary and like you and like me.
I do not often quote theologians to you, because they have a tendency to take red-hot truths and turn them into ice-cold propositions. However, some words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian murdered by the Nazis, seems appropriate here. He said: “Christ is among us as we gather together even with all of our differences. And it is when we are together that we frequently discover Christ through other people.”
Now if the words of a theologian are vanilla and you like chocolate, then let me put that same truth to you in another way. During the last world war, on a desolate battlefield in France where all the houses and the trees were leveled and all about them was nothing but yellow mud and the stench of death—as night fell over the “no man’s land” separating the American lines from the forces of the enemy, there was a silencing of the guns and the sound of an awful calm. Then out of the darkness came the sound of a voice calling, “Help. Help.” The words were in English. It was one of our boys. Evidently, he had been wounded and knocked unconscious, but now the coolness of the evening roused him. He didn’t know where he was or what to do. He could not move. So he called out in agony and in pain: “Help. Help.” For a long moment nothing happened. Then suddenly on the German lines, a bright light was turned on. A German soldier was holding the light and shining it into his own face. In his other hand he was waving a white flag. He then walked out into that “no man’s land,” a perfect target, and he searched until he found the wounded G.I. He bent down, picked the boy up and carried him to the American side. There he put the wounded soldier into the arms of his buddies. The German did not say a word. He simply looked at those American soldiers, then lifted his hand and made the sign of the cross and then he went back to his own lines again. Yes, we need to remember that God does come to the most unexpected people, because that means that God can come to the likes of you and me.
And He comes with unexpected results.
Think about Joseph. He had not done a thing. He had not even married Mary yet. They were just engaged. He had not asked for the Messiah to come to him. He had not even volunteered Mary to be the mother. He had not done anything. But suddenly the angel said: “If you will take Mary you will be getting the Christ as well.”
Let me ask you: How many of you found Christ from your wife? How many of you found Christ from your mother? How many of you found Christ from a humble Sunday School teacher or an obscure pastor whose name is forgotten? How many of you found Christ because He was living so beautifully in some ordinary unexpected person? And because you received that person, you also received the Christ.
I remember visiting with an older couple not long after they had suffered the tragic loss of their 18-year-old granddaughter in an automobile accident. Through their tears, they spoke in terms of faith and hope. I said: “How are you able to hold up under this?” The man said: “I’ll show you.” He reached into a paper bag and handed me a silver picture frame. Pressed beneath the glass of that frame was a lovely little bouquet of flowers. They said: “What do you think of that?” I replied: “It is very beautiful.” They said: “It is weeds.” I said, “What?” They said: “It is nothing but weeds.” Then they handed me a letter from their daughter, the mother of that young woman who had died. The letter began by quoting the dictionary definition of a weed: “A plant in cultivated ground which disfigures the place; it is useless, unsightly, and of slight value.” Then in the letter the daughter went on to say that she had read in Genesis 1:12 that when God saw all that He had created, He called it good. So believing that, she had taken weeds and arranged them into an unexpectedly beautiful bouquet. The daughter ended the letter with these words: “Years ago, with your help, I received Jesus into my home and into my heart. And as a result, I have learned to my surprise, that through Him, even the ugly things, the useless things, the unsightly things, like weeds, can be made into something beautiful.” As I finished the letter, this grief-stricken man said to me: “Now do you understand? Through her faith we have found strength in the midst of this tragic ugliness.”
You see, it is the most amazing, the most surprising, the most unexpected fact of our human experience that those people who know their own weaknesses, their own limitations, their own helplessness, their own powerlessness—those people are the ones who in the end are strong. Those people who know that they cannot go it alone through life and so throw themselves into the arms of the Saviour—they are the ones who in the end are triumphant and victorious. So it does not matter how worthless or insignificant or unimportant we may feel, the message of Joseph’s Christmas dream is that we are of infinite value to God. We are the objects of His seeking, saving love. He comes to us in the form of Jesus. This Jesus who was born to Mary and Joseph and lived and grew only to die in order that you and I might live. Yes, God does come in unexpected ways to unexpected people with unexpected results.
Joseph never spoke a word in the Christmas story. But what he did speak, speaks volumes to us today. God said to him in a dream, “Take Mary to be your wife. Take her into your home and into your heart, not because she needs a husband, but because she has the Christ.” The Bible says that Joseph obeyed the Christmas dream. He took Jesus into his home and into his heart.
I invite you to do the same.