December 18, 2016
Isaiah 7: 10-16, Psalm 80, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-25
In 2006 I would drive twice a week from New Bedford to Chestnut Hill to see a Jungian analyst who had been trained in Switzerland at the institute founded by Dr. Carl Jung in 1948. In the early years of the last century Carl Jung had been a collaborator with Sigmund Freud but he then broke away from Freud to pursue a different vision that didn’t think sex was behind everything. For instance Jung, the son of a Swiss Reform minister, wrote: “I have treated many hundreds of patients. Among those in the second half of life – that is to say, over 35 – there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life.”
Jung was a great believer in the power of dreams to lead a person into deep truths about who they are and how life is calling them into a new wholeness. According to Jung, “The dream is a little hidden door in the innermost and most secret recesses of the soul, opening into that cosmic night….”
The Bible also sees some dreams as communicating God presence and will. We remember Jacob in Genesis 28 sleeping outdoors and dreaming of a stairway to heaven with angels going up and down on it. He says upon waking: “God is in this place and I didn’t even know it.”
Jacob’s son, Joseph, was able to interpret the dreams of his Egyptian captors, thus gaining his freedom.
Dreams play a role in the New Testament as well: remember in Matthew 27 Pontius Pilate’s wife sending a message to her husband saying she had a disturbing dream warning her husband to have nothing to do with this innocent Jesus. St. Paul has a dream in Acts 16 in which a man calls him to bring his gospel mission into Macedonia.
Often these dreams come when a person is in the middle of a crisis that the powers of the logical mind can’t solve. Certainly Joseph this morning is in such a crisis! His fiancé has become pregnant, and not by him. Logic tells him this pregnancy could have only two possible causes: either Mary has been sleeping with another man, or Mary has been raped, possibly by a Roman soldier, which often happens when occupying soldiers are far from home. Whether she was unfaithful or attacked Joseph’s plans for marriage are shipwrecked on Mary’s swelling belly.
Who can’t imagine the depth of his crisis? Joseph must be angry, jealous, afraid, hurt, in short, undone. This isn’t supposed to happen to godly men, so he decides to break the engagement, but in a quiet way so as not to expose Mary, and no doubt himself, to public ridicule and shaming.
Then in a dream an angel of the Lord tells him basically the same thing the angel Gabriel tells Mary: “Do not be afraid”, this is not an act of man but an act of God. Joseph doesn’t respond verbally, but he takes the Mary to be his wife, which means he has, like Mary, said Yes to God.
We love to get all wrapped up in our nostalgia and hear this story at Christmas but during the rest of the year some wish Matthew and Luke had done what Mark does and skip all this drama about a virgin who is having a child. Some who feel this way believe in a god who is either not big enough to do such a thing, or too distant to care about such a thing.
Lately I’ve been thinking that if we believe that the universe didn’t birth itself, but comes from the Creator, and if we believe that the Creator “so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son”, then begetting that son in Mary is a simple thing to do.
N.T. Wright says in writing their stories “Matthew and Luke must have known they were taking a risk. In the ancient pagan world there were plenty of stories of heroes conceived by the intervention of a god, without a human father. Surely Matthew, with his very Jewish perspective on everything, would hardly invent such a thing, or copy it from someone else unless he really believed it?” Matthew for Everyone, p6
Matthew and Luke make the decision to tell these birth stories to counteract the rumors that Jesus was conceived out of wedlock and thus illegitimate. After all, Jews in the first century could count the weeks between wedding and birth just as well as we can. You can see traces of these rumors in Mark 6:3 when Jesus is strangely called “Mary’s son”, as if his real father is unknown. In John 8:41 former disciples who are turning away from Jesus, say to him: “Our ancestry isn’t in question”, as if Jesus’ ancestry is. CEB translation
Of course for those who believe Jesus is just another man with special gifts who died on the cross and stayed dead, then the story is nonsense and the good news a fairy tale, and as Paul says, we are still in our sins.
But that is to let us off the hook too easily: as Stanley Hauerwas reminds us: It is not the miraculous that makes it hard to believe in Jesus. “What makes it hard to believe in [Jesus] is our unwillingness to give up our prideful presumption that we are our own creators.” Brazos Commentary on Matthew by Stanley Hauerwas, p 140
For those of us who believe Jesus is the eternal son of the Triune God in the flesh, that he is Emmanuel “God with us”, then these stories reveal Jesus’ true identity, so that we can know that God’s presence and providence extends from molecules to mountains, from your life to every life.
The angel tells Joseph to name the child Jesus, which was a common boys name at the time because in Hebrew it is the name Joshua, who was Moses’ successor who leads the people in their conquest of the Promised Land. The name also means God saves, because Jesus saves us from the powers of Sin and Death which overwhelm us all.
Matthew tells us his gospel, not to give us a newspaper account of a famous figure, so we can weigh the evidence and make up our mind about him. Rather, he invites us into the story that has captured him, so that we too might be Jesus’ apprentices who are being drawn into the new life of the Kingdom of God. Ibid, p 43
The story of salvation—creation, Israel, incarnation, redemption, New Creation—is so much bigger than our rational conception of things. It drops a boulder into the calm lake of our certitude, calling us to wake up to the fact that life itself is a miracle and to pay more attention to the vastness of each moment where God is with us—whether we are doing or dreaming.
It is the Master Story calling us, like Joseph and Mary, to say yes to the Divine Love being birthed in us and through us.
When the children act out this story on Christmas Eve they are bearing witness to the ONE LIFE that changes all lives. Therefore Stanley Hauerwas is right when he says that to be a disciple “does not mean that we are to change the world, but rather that we must live as witnesses to the world that God has changed.” Ibid, page 25