It’s said that we all dream - but of course most of us, most of the time, forget our dreams as soon as we wake. I read recently that people who expect to dream are more likely to remember their dreams, and if you believe your dreams might be significant you are more likely to trust them and act on them. Even modern history is full of men and women who solved problems and discovered inventions in their dreams - from the mechanism of the sewing machine to the structure of the benzene molecule. The great psychiatrist Sigmund Freud believed we problem-solve situations and relationships in our dreams; his pupil Carl Jung suggested the figures in our dreams are all too often aspects of our own self that we need to integrate. Our dreams connect us with the depth dimension of our own unconscious, perhaps with a level of truth that eludes our waking minds. And in the Bible, dreaming is a way of paying attention to the leading of God’s Holy Spirit.
Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus is big on dreams, and the person most sensitive to what his dreams might be telling him is Joseph. In Matthew’s Gospel Joseph is portrayed as a figure a bit like Moses, who leads his people out of Egypt at the prompting of a dream. He is an important figure in the story of Jesus, but remains in the background. I’ve always thought it a shame that even when the lectionary has us reading Matthew’s vision of the nativity, our Christmas celebrations often drift off into Luke’s more picturesque story. We tend to focus more on Mary’s ‘yes’ than on Joseph’s.
We really only know a couple of things about Joseph – we know his name, and we know he was righteous. We also know the way he handles a pretty major dilemma - that his fiancee Mary is pregnant and he knows he isn’t the father. Matthew has been careful to tell us that even though the first step in the complicated Jewish marriage process has already been taken, Mary is not yet living in Joseph’s house. That makes Mary’s virginity a valuable economic commodity, because the whole system of inheritance and family obligation in the ancient world depends on knowing who is the father of who. At worst, women were regarded as little more than possessions, and a bride whose virginity couldn’t be guaranteed was damaged goods. For Joseph there is really only one practical option – modern ideas like reconciliation and family therapy weren’t alternatives, the issue was as simple as protecting the property rights and the network of obligations within an extended family. And so Joseph’s only real course of action is to divorce his betrothed wife.
Of course, the gospel writer is careful to protect Mary against the implication that she has committed adultery – when he says she is pregnant by the Holy Spirit, that is actually something like a footnote or an aside for us, something the writer of the Gospel is making sure that we, the readers, understand – that Mary’s pregnancy has come about through God’s initiative rather than in the usual way – but at this stage, nobody else in the story knows that. One speculative theory that emerged way back in the second century - in anti-Christian propaganda actually - is that Mary may have been a victim of rape, that the biological father of Jesus may even have been a Roman soldier. Well it’s possible of course, and for modern readers it can even be tempting to think that maybe Mary could have been the violated and powerless one, from whom by God’s grace comes hope. All we really know for sure is that Joseph insists he isn’t the father, and the Gospel writer – who doesn’t share our pragmatic modern point of view – insists on Mary’s innocence and virginity, and says that her pregnancy was entirely God’s initiative.
Well I don’t think we need to get stuck on what we believe about that. I think the point that’s important in the story of Jesus’ birth is that the value of Mary in God’s eyes has got nothing to do with her social or economic potential; the fact that Mary is vulnerable and powerless does not make her of any less value to God. But the future doesn’t look too rosy for Mary as an unmarried mother.
The story doesn’t end there, however, because Matthew tells us Joseph is a man of compassion, and he is also a dreamer. It means he is sensitive to the cues of the spirit, he notices the connections and the hints that others don't recognise. Maybe his name itself is meant to give us a clue about what Joseph was like, because Joseph the father of Jesus shares his name with another famous dreamer, the Joseph in the Old Testament who was even sold into slavery by his own family because he was such a good-for-nothing dreamer. Joseph the patriarch not only dreams dreams, but protects and guides his people as he interprets dreams for the Pharaoh of Egypt. In the parallel story of Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph the husband of Mary is warned in dreams to steer clear of Herod, who like Pharaoh would also oppose God’s plans - and like his ancient namesake Joseph the father of Jesus also leads his family into refuge in Egypt. The ancient world saw dreams as a vital conduit to the spiritual world and a reliable source of divine guidance. The real point though is not so much about how God communicates with Joseph, but that Joseph listens, and that Joseph acts on what he hears.
This has got something to do with who we think is in control, and whose perspective is most likely to be true. In this morning’s reading from the Old Testament we read of another dreamer, this time Isaiah the prophet who offers king Ahaz some advice – Isaiah has received the word of God but Ahaz isn’t listening because he has worked it out for himself. Ahaz is betting on diplomacy and cutting a deal with a foreign power to help against the foreign armies threatening both Judah and the northern kingdom of Israel, and he hasn’t got any patience with this oracle stuff. It’s a fairly modern attitude, isn’t it? Prayer is OK, listening to dreams and the intuition of the spirit is OK, listening to holy people is OK if there’s not too much at stake. Just don’t ask me to bet my shirt on it. But, says Isaiah, your deals are worthless because God’s got other plans. In the time it takes for a young woman to have a baby and wean it, the armies that are at your doorstep will be gone. In terms of this reading from Isaiah, who the woman is and who her baby is doesn’t really matter – it’s only centuries later that the Jewish people would come to interpret this verse as saying to them that what God is really promising is to come among them in flesh and blood, as the messiah.
Isaiah trusts dreams more than he trusts political treaties, more than he trusts diplomatic agreements. Joseph also trusts dreams, and he is prepared to believe that the reality we call God is more substantial and more reliable than his own calculations about social acceptability and scandal. Joseph is prepared to trust God’s vision of the future over his own observations and his own fears, and that makes him both a prophet and a man of courage.
In our own hyper-rational society most of us don’t trust too much in dreams. Those who do trust in dreams are routinely dismissed as flaky because they follow a reality that nobody else can see. But even today, God continues to come among us, to be born among us. The issue is whether or not we are going to notice, whether or not we can learn to listen to the subliminal message of God’s leading in our own lives, and in our life as a community. What sort of dreams might be messages from God? If Isaiah and Joseph are anything to go by, daring dreams, audacious, life-changing and life-giving dreams, the sort of dreams that throw your life in a different direction, give it a whole new purpose, allow you to see a different meaning for who you are and what it means to be a Church. What might it mean for us to be a parish community that dreams dreams? What is leading us forward into the future, and what hunches or intuitions may yet turn out to be the leading of the Holy Spirit?
We do need to discern where our dreams come from. Are they the products of our own fantasies and fears? Or they from God? If so, maybe some of God’s other people are dreaming the same dream. And so as God’s people we learn to listen to one another, to discern God’s leading in community. And as we listen together we learn to trust one another, and to trust what God is telling us, and we become people who not only listen with discernment but who also step out in faith.