Joseph the dreamer (first Sunday after Christmas)

Good morning, Friends! Merry Christmas!

I know Christmas was a couple of days ago, but I think it’s still OK to say “Merry Christmas” to each other. Christmas isn’t just a day, it’s a season. And I don’t think we should stop wishing each other the joy of Jesus’ birth.

This morning I want to talk with you just a little bit about Joseph. Joseph was Jesus’ earthly father, the one who helped to raise and protect and provide for Jesus while he was growing up.

We actually don’t know too much about Joseph. When I was a kid, we used to ask why there were all these pictures of Mary and Jesus, but not so many picture of the Holy Family all together. My grandfather used to say, “That’s cause Joseph was holding the camera.”

I’ve known a lot of people who swear that the reason they were able to sell their house is that they buried a statue of Joseph upside down in their front lawn. When I was little, there was a kind of aspirin for children with his name on it. It had an orange flavor. That’s all I knew about St. Joseph

But Joseph was an interesting character, and I think he deserves a little time of his own. Let’s read together, one of the few places where the Bible actually says anything about Joseph.

This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi[e] from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.”

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

“A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”

After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”

So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.

– Matthew 1:18-2:23

For somebody with such an important role in the life of Jesus, we know next to nothing about Joseph.

People used to ask how a boy like Jesus, the carpenter’s kid, could have grown up into the Messiah of Israel, the Savior of the world.

Actually, if you look at the Bible closely, it doesn’t say that Joseph was a carpenter. In a different passage it says that Joseph was a teknon, which is a Greek word that can mean “carpenter,” but it can also mean “handyman,” “jack-of-all-trades” or “craftsman.” It can mean “blacksmith,”, or “mason” or “contractor.”

So what it boils down to is that Jesus came from a working-class background. Maybe that explains why Jesus got on so well with fishermen and poor people later in life. But we can’t really get too much more out of the Scriptures. Anything else, all of our pictures of the Holy Family, are all pure imagination.

So, what do we really know about Joseph? Joseph is only mentioned a few times in the gospels, mostly around the Nativity. Since Joseph isn’t on the scene during Jesus’ ministry, and Mary is, people tend to assume that Joseph died young.

In fact, some writers, especially in the Roman Catholic tradition, take their speculation a step farther. They want to keep Mary from having more than one child, even though there are references to Jesus’ brothers in the Bible.

So people say that Joseph must have been an older man, a widower with children from a first marriage, who married Mary and then died when Jesus was still in his teens. That way, Jesus can still be Mary’s only child. It’s a nice idea, and maybe it’s true, but really, it’s just speculation.

What does stand out from the Christmas story is something we often overlook. And that’s that Joseph, whatever else he might have been, was a dreamer. Did you notice that? In this morning’s gospel, Joseph is a person who dreamed.

The first time we see this, is when Joseph discovered that Mary was pregnant. They were engaged, but they weren’t married yet. And it says that “Joseph, who was a faithful man, was unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, and planned to divorce Mary quietly . . .”

That’s our first indication of what kind of person Joseph is. Honorable, conventional, but kind. Joseph was unwilling to put his fiancé to shame, even though he thought she had betrayed their engagement.

But then, Joseph had a dream. An angel appeared to him in a dream, and told him that it was all right for him and Mary to be married, because the child was from God. That sort of thing happened back then about as often as it does now.

But when Joseph woke up, he did what he’d been told. He took Mary to be his wife, in the face of all the public criticism which I’m sure would have been present, and gave the child the name which had been told to him in the dream.

Then we read about the wise men. They came and brought all these presents.

But after the wise men left, do you remember what happened? Joseph had another dream. This time, the angel warned Joseph to take his young family and run away to Egypt. The anger and paranoia of King Herod was a threat to their lives.

So Joseph got up in the middle of the night, and they were well on the road by daybreak. They stayed in Egypt, in a place where they were refugees and strangers, for a year or two until it was safe to come back.

Because Joseph was obedient to his dream, because he acted on what the angel told him, Jesus’ life was saved. And possibly Mary and Joseph’s lives as well.

Then Joseph has a third dream: “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead. . .”

And so they return, but then Joseph has a fourth dream, which said that it was too dangerous to live close by to Jerusalem, because Herod’s son was in power. So they moved again, this time to Nazareth, a little town way off in the sticks. And there Joseph settled down, worked, and raised his family, and is hardly heard from again.

If we want to look at Joseph, strictly from the point of view of what is actually said in the Bible, we would have to say that on the record, there is a lot more evidence that Joseph was a dreamer, than that he was a carpenter.

Joseph might have been a carpenter, just as a way to put bread on the table. The Jews required every man to know a trade. Even the greatest rabbis were trained that way. The apostle Paul, who was trained in the Law, was also a tentmaker. Joseph’s carpentry might have been kind of a sideline, a sort of a fall-back skill that he used when times were tough.

But from the evidence, on four widely-separated occasions, Joseph had important dreams – and he acted on them. Joseph wasn’t a daydreamer. He wasn’t imagining things to himself. He recognized those few important times when his dreams came straight from God, and he acted on them.

People talk about Joseph the carpenter, and I’ve heard all sorts of sermons about how he must have taught Jesus honesty and craftsmanship and stuff like that.

I’m sure that many of us have heard about how Jesus’ famous line about “take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me”, must have come from his childhood experience making ox yokes with his father, Joseph, in the carpentry shop. But you almost never hear people talk about Joseph the dreamer, or about how Joseph might have influenced Jesus in that way.

I want to be careful not to speculate too far in a different direction. But it seems fair to me that Joseph the dreamer might have had more of an impact on Jesus than Joseph the carpenter ever managed to have.

First, I want you to notice that Joseph’s dreams weren’t selfish dreams. They didn’t express his personal ambition. All of the instructions in Joseph’s dreams were on behalf of others – on behalf of Mary, or on behalf of the child, Jesus.

It’s normal enough for us to have personal dreams of wealth and power and ambition. But it takes a kind of integrity to have dreams of greatness for others.

Second, I want you to notice how Joseph’s dreams were rooted and woven in history. Joseph had to have known that there were echoes and parallels in what he was being told in his dreams.

To flee to Egypt had to have reminded Joseph of the story of the Exodus. It had to have reminded him of Moses, the great deliverer of the people of Israel. Joseph had to have looked down at the little baby in his arms, and wondered if this baby would be a second Moses, who would bring freedom and purpose to people.

Third, Joseph probably taught Jesus something about obedience to the leading of God. He must have taught Jesus something about following the Spirit, about walking through fear, about finding God’s presence in the midst of confusing events. Because, on the record, that’s the kind of life that Joseph himself actually led.

We’re used to saying that Joseph must have had an influence on Jesus’ later life. But we may not realize just how great that influence might have been.

It says in the gospels that “Jesus spoke as one in authority, and not as ordinary people.” Part of that authority he found on his own. But part of that authority he must have learned from Mary and Joseph, who each in their own day had listened to angels and dreams, who had trusted in God’s power, and obeyed.

I’m not sure that I want to come right out and say that we should blindly follow whatever dreams come to us, starting tonight when we lay our heads down on our pillows. But I guess I want to say that Joseph was on the right track.

I think that dreams come to people who are ready to receive them. I think that if we can learn to dream – if we can receive the dreams that God plants in us, and ponder them, and act on them – then I think we may come closer to following God.

God speaks to us through the Scriptures. And God speaks to us through the Holy Spirit, and through the examples of people who have followed in faith where God led them. But the story of Joseph reminds us that God also sometimes speaks in dreams, as well.

Most of us get up in the morning, and we say, “Hey, it was just a dream.” And then we forget about it and go on about our business. Joseph got up from his dream and he said, “Lead, and I follow. . .”

We could all do a lot worse than imitate Joseph, the dreamer.

Copyright © 2015 by Joshua Brown

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