Christmas Dreams: Postponement
December 18, 1988 | First Presbyterian Church Orlando | Matthew 2:19-21
Think with me about Joseph, the carpenter of Nazareth, the man most often forgotten at the manger…
Just north of Chicago, there is a town called Oak Brook. In that town, there is a church called Christ Church. In that church, there is a chapel called “The Chapel of the Carpenter.” What is so unusual about that chapel, is that it is built around an actual carpenter shop which was purchased by that church in Nazareth. The shop was carefully and completely disassembled, shipped over here, and then just as carefully reassembled in its original form. Once that was done, the chapel was built around it. When you stand in that chapel and look at that carpenter’s shop from Nazareth, you are struck with its simplicity, its poverty, its earthiness. There is nothing about it that is extraordinary. But I suppose that is why it seems such an apt memorial to Joseph. For Joseph, the carpenter of Nazareth, was simple and poor and earthy and not at all extraordinary.
However, what happened to Joseph was extraordinary. You see, during that First Christmas, God spoke to Joseph in four dreams. And frankly, I do not believe that we can fully understand Christmas until we understand those four dreams. Today, then, we come to Joseph’s third Christmas dream. I call this dream, “Postponement.” The message of the dream is simply this: Christmas is a time for some bad news and for some Good News. Here is what I mean…
Christmas is a time for some bad news.
We see that here in Matthew 2:19 when we read: “When Herod died, behold an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Take the child and go to Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.”
Focus, please, on the words “Herod died.” We need to remember what it means for Herod to die as part of the Christmas story. We tend to think of Christmas as being about birth, the beginning of life. Of course, it is. But it is also about death, the end of life. The Bible says, “Herod died.” The evil king was finished. And it also says, “Those who sought the child’s life are dead.” I call that the plural of influence. Not only Herod, but the whole system he inspired and all the people who jumped to do his bidding—that whole web of evil was gone. The angel was saying that God’s judgment had prevailed. What does the Bible say? “The wages of sin is death.” Herod’s dying was living proof of that truth!
You see, Herod was a man who let evil take control of his life. He put down all opposition with ruthless severity. He even dealt harshly with his own family. His insecurity and his lust for power consumed him. Once, to please his wife Mariamne, he appointed her brother high priest. But when her brother achieved some popularity, Herod had him put to death. Mariamne never forgave him for that, and so finally in a fit of rage, Herod ordered her execution. That was the real turning point in Herod’s life. While he was no paragon of virtue before he murdered his wife, afterwards, his character disintegrated completely. Formerly, like Shakespeare’s Macbeth, he had killed for the sake of expediency, but now he killed just for the sake of killing. Formerly, he distrusted his enemies, but now he distrusted everyone. With no pangs of conscience at all, he actually executed two of his sons. The Romans even had a joke about that. In Latin it was a pun. Remember that the Jewish dietary laws prohibited them from eating pork, so the Romans said, “It was better to be Herod’s ‘Huios’ than to be Herod’s ‘Hios’.” That is, it was better to be Herod’s pig than to be Herod’s son.
Of course, in the failed attempt to snuff out the life of Jesus, Herod committed the most infamous of all his hideous deeds. He slaughtered those innocent children in Bethlehem. Once more death reared its ugly head in the Christmas story. Surely those children were the first Christian martyrs, the first ones to die for the sake of Jesus—and surely God gave them a special place in heaven.
But for Herod there was only the inevitable judgment of God. He died a lonely and horrible death, wracked with violent pain. We know the details from ancient historians, and they are too gruesome to discuss in polite company. And when at last, this vile and loathsome creature stopped breathing, at that moment, his whole kingdom breathed a sigh of relief. As one historian wrote: “For all the official pomp at Herod’s funeral, there was not a trace of sorrow.” The judgment of God had prevailed. But then the judgment of God always prevails. Sooner or later, God will shiver a sinful life into ruins. God may not balance His books at the end of the week or the month or the year, but God does always balance His books.
I wish I did not have to mention this bad news in the Christmas story, but it is there and we need to be aware of it. You see, the sins of Herod are in us all—not as extreme perhaps, but they are there. Sin is a reality, even at Christmas. We do not like to think about that, but then it is always hard for us to face the reality of sin in our own lives, so we joke about our sins. Someone reported this bit of graffiti on the New York subway: “We didn’t invent sin. We’re just trying to perfect it!” Or like the billboard that appeared one—day and had upon it this message in big block letters: “Tired of sin? Call 876-1952!” Well, some clever soul had taken a can of spray painted under it this line: “If you’re not, call 971-3582!”
Well, we can joke about our sins, but they will not go away. Martin of Tours said: “The ultimate proof of the sinner is that he will not admit his own sin.” Thomas Carlyle said: “The greatest fault is to be conscious of none.” Isaiah said: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way.” So like it or not, Christmas confronts us with the reality of our sins and with the reality of God’s judgment upon evil. “Herod died…those who sought the child’s life are dead.” That is the bad news of Christmas.
But Christmas is also a time of Good News.
We see that here in Matthew 2:19 where we read: “An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said ‘Take the child and go to the land of Israel.'”
Focus, please, on the words “go to the land of Israel.” How interesting that the angel used the name “Israel.” Understand, please, that “Israel” was not the geographical name of that place in the time of Jesus—then it was known as “Palestine.” “Israel” was not even its political name—it was part of the Roman Empire and thus known as the province of “Aelia Capitolina.” No, the name “Israel” which the angel used referred back to the Old Testament idea of a land of promise. The angel meant not so much a geographical location as a state of mind. In other words, the angel was saying: “Joseph, Herod is dead, but the ultimate victory is still a long way off. It is postponed, delayed, deferred. It will come, but not yet. There is still much to be done and it will not be easy. This child still has a long way to go and a long way to grow. So take the child and go where there is hope, where there is promise, where there is great expectation about the coming of the Kingdom of God. Be patient, but be hopeful. For ultimately, God’s promise of salvation will be fulfilled. In time, your hope will be rewarded with victory.”
A thousand years before that happened to Joseph, a young Pharaoh named Tutankhamen died. (We know him as “King Tut.”) He was buried in the Valley of the Kings, together with some things they thought he would need in the next life. Among those things was a basket of wheat seeds. Back in the 1920’s that tomb was found and opened by archaeologists. They took some of those wheat seeds from the tomb and planted them and watered them. The warmth of the sun fell upon them and they sprouted. Think of it, after being in a tomb for 3,000 years—30 centuries of dust and darkness—they sprouted. The germ of life was in them. But notice that they did not sprout themselves. It was not until an outside agency brought them earth, water, and sun that they could begin to flourish.
So it is with us. We do not have the power in and of ourselves to do what we ought to do. But God comes to us in Jesus Christ, His Son, and He fills us with hope which ultimately blossoms forth into salvation and eternal life. You see, when God came down at Christmas and laid a baby on the world’s doorstep, He gave us the way to let go of evil and to claim good, the way to rid ourselves of fear and tension and guilt and anxiety, the way to live triumphantly and victoriously even in the midst of the uncertainties of this world. He gave us salvation from our sins and the promise of eternal life. Therefore, Christ is our hope—even in the darkest of times.
Temp Sparkman wrote a beautiful little book called To Live With Hope in which he recalls a trip back home to Louisville, Kentucky. He and his family had moved to Kansas City, and this was the first time back in Louisville since their daughter, Laura Susannah, had died of leukemia. While there, he visited her grave. This is what he wrote: “It was October, but even Autumn’s painting, inspiring in its beauty, could not hold back the melancholy. Kneeling at Laura Susannah’s grave, I rubbed my fingers across the etchings on the gravestone, perhaps unconsciously searching for some brail led cosmic words to heal the pain. I cried and waited in silence. Suddenly, my ears were tuned to the October breeze. I tell you, in the hush, that wind carried Easter stirrings.”
Easter stirrings! I love that. And I think that is what this third dream was for Joseph—the stirrings of a hope deep within him. The angel said: “Take the child, and head for the land of hope and promise. The victory will come. God will save you. That is His promise.” And, my friends, that is why this dream is so important to the Christmas story. It holds within it the promise of Easter. You see, the same God who brought Jesus safely out of Bethlehem, brought Him safely out of Egypt. And the same God who brought Him safely out of Egypt would bring Him safely out of Calvary. The message of Christmas is the message of Easter. The final victory of God—Hallelujah!—the final victory of God over sin and evil and death is assured. That is the great Good News of Christmas.
I have a friend in the ministry who received a phone call one day, and the man on the line said, “My name is Jim. You don’t know me, but I need to see you today if possible.” My friend said, “Come in this afternoon.” When Jim arrived, he said: “I am having major surgery tomorrow. I am on my way to the hospital now. The doctors have told me that my chances are not very good. I do not go to church much, but I need some prayers. Will you pray for me?” My friend said: “Yes, I will pray for you.” He put his hand on Jim’s shoulder and began to pray. As he did, he felt this man start to tremble all over. So my friend stopped praying and he said: “Jim, I sense that there is more on your heart and conscience than just the surgery. Is there anything else you would like to tell me?” The man proceeded to pour out a lot of things he had carried for far too long. Then my friend said: “Why don’t you right now accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour?” Jim said: “You’re right. I’ll do it.” He got down on his knees in my friend’s office and he prayed this prayer: “Lord, please forgive me for all that I have done, and forgive me for all that I have not done. If you will, spare my life. If not, then take me to eternity.” Well, the operation was successful; Jim and his wife went on to become active members in my friend’s church. Last year my friend took a group from his church to the Holy Land. Jim was a part of that group. One day, they were standing on a low ridge looking over at the little town of Bethlehem, across the fields where the shepherds were then, and where shepherds are now, for they still tend their sheep there. And looking over toward Bethlehem, suddenly Jim said: “Whatever would have happened to me if He had not been born over there?”
My friends, that is the ultimate question of Christmas. That is the question I want us to ponder this Christmas. “Whatever would have happened to you and to me if He had not been born over there?” For remember
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him,
Still the dear Christ enters in.
If you will receive Him, He will enter into your home and into your heart…today.