A number of years ago, I wanted to learn about how God speaks to people. I figured that the Bible would be a good source of information on the subject, and that the beginning of the New Testament would be as good a place as any to start. So, I opened the beginning of Matthew and began reading with particular attention to times that God would communicate something to someone. I read through the first two chapters of Matthew, then paused my study (which I never did get around to continuing again in that way), because of my disappointment that I had never been spoken to in a dream as was apparently so common in the Bible.
Indeed, if the first two chapters of Matthew were the entirety of our Bible, we might appropriately expect that if God wanted to say something to us, doing so through a dream would be his favorite means of doing so. It happens five times in these two chapters. What I missed by pausing my study when I did was that those are the only five occurrences in the New Testament of God communicating to people specifically through dreams.
Realizing this helps us to notice the particular way in which Matthew is telling the Christmas story. Whereas the first two chapters of Luke emphasized Mary’s experience, Matthew highlights both the urgency of those messages communicated through those five dreams, and the character of the person who received four of them: Joseph. None of those dreams carried easy messages, nor was any of Joseph’s experience as Matthew tells it the kind of thing that gets printed in images on our Christmas cards. In other words, it’s for good reason that wise Linus went to Luke’s second chapter rather than Matthew’s to tell Charlie Brown what Christmas is all about.
The first dream came when, after learning that his wife-to-be was pregnant, an angel told Joseph it was okay to wed Mary and that the child from God was to be named Jesus, “for he will save his people from their sins.” Perhaps a year or two later, the family was living in Bethlehem when they received shocking visitors–astrologers from the east–who traveled a great distance to find Joseph and Mary’s young son and pay homage to him as the new king of Israel. After the magi left, Joseph received his second dream, a warning to flee with Mary and Jesus to Egypt, because King Herod was “about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then, while fugitives in Egypt, Herod died and Joseph was addressed in a dream for the third time, being instructed to return the family to Israel. But as Herod’s son came to power in Judea, Joseph–fearing for his family’s safety–went instead to Galilee in the north, to the village of Nazareth, after being warned in a fourth dream.
Four dreams–four critical messages from God to one honorable man who never asked to be involved in any of this yet continually did what was asked of him.
That series of events would make some very poor-selling Christmas cards. As N.T. Wright comments, “Banish all thoughts of peaceful Christmas scenes. Before the Prince of Peace had learned to walk and talk, he was a homeless refugee with a price on his head.”* And Joseph was there, paying attention to his extraordinary dreams, obeying what he was told, and protecting the mysterious possibilities prophesied about his child-to-be-king.
Now, years after being discouraged by the number of times Joseph was addressed by God in dreams, I’m a bit taken back by it. Later in Jesus’ life, he will have developed his own close communication with the one he would call “my Father in the heavens,” but in these early years, he needed Joseph’s attentiveness and obedience to those dreams. The incarnate Christ was at terrible risk, and he needed a loving father to do hard things for him.
I previously described the limits of my ability to grasp the motherly adoration of Mary for her newborn son, but I can imagine myself a bit more fully in Joseph’s experience. I too have gazed at my children in wonder and awe, and doing so leaves me more than willing to take on the world for them on a moment’s notice. In comparison to Joseph and so many other loving fathers in the world, my family and I have had remarkably easy lives. I’ve never had to flee as a refugee–to go start over in another town, or even another culture–to protect my family. But, in a heartbeat, I would. Those young eyes that have captivated me, the little hands that have held mine so many times, the giggles that have brought joy to my core–there simply is no limit to what I would do for them. And as I sit here reflecting on it, I’m deeply grateful to God for the fact that Joseph was there to do so for Jesus and Mary.
After each of the dreams, Matthew describes that Joseph got up and did as he was instructed. Surely, this wasn’t the life that Joseph had hoped for himself and Mary. Rather than an ordinary, quiet home, they quickly became parents of a child, mysteriously to be king, knowing that this would involve tremendous sacrifices of their own. We don’t know at what point Joseph died–just that he isn’t in the story during Jesus’ life as an adult. It makes me wonder if Joseph came to Jesus’ mind later when, on his last night with his disciples, he said that the greatest love anyone could have for others is to lay down one’s own life for them. That was the story of his own memories of his childhood, plus the stories his mother would have told him of those early years–including Joseph’s dreams and consistent faithfulness. Joseph lived in constant sacrifice for his family, and therefore the incarnate-son-to-be-king he raised would go and become the ultimate sacrifice for all the world.
Almighty God, you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word: Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
* N.T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone, (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 14.