December 29, 2013 – First Sunday after Christmas

Matthew 2:7-23

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly 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 seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

***

Dec 29, 2013   Ex 1:8,15-22 (reading below),  Matthew 2: 7-23   Dreams for the journey

********************************************************

Jesus comes into the world,  proclaimed by prophets, revealed by a star, and wrapped in dreams.

The story, so very familiar, yet still ever mysterious – of Magi from the East, following the star, bowing in worship before the infant king, presenting their gifts….

And the probably not-quite-so-familiar-story of the holy family’s flight into Egypt, then back again to Israel. With King Herod infamously reminding us of Pharaoh of old, murdering Israel’s children. Herod was called “king of the Jews” by the Romans who put him in power – and – ‘who can this be,’ he wonders, ‘claiming my job?’

And we could follow these themes all the way to the cross, where “king of the Jews” will be the sign nailed above Jesus’ head. And even at Christmas there is a foretaste of Good Friday in the scriptures.

But what sticks with me most, this week, in our gospel reading – is the way God directs the flow of the Christ-child-story onward, in spite of all obstacles… navigating many a difficult, dangerous passage, through an intricate series of dreams.

Starting back before the birth of Jesus, where, we remember, Joseph hears the angel speaking to him in dream, saying, ‘don’t worry, the child is from God. Marry her and name the boy Jesus.’ And Joseph obeys, and the holy birth happens, fulfilling the words of the prophet Isaiah, who said “the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and… name him Immanuel…(God-with-us)…”

After the holy birth, the visiting Magi come to pay homage to the new-born king. Then, warned in a dream, they skip their planned-return-visit with King Herod, and head for home by the back roads instead.

Probably about the same time, the angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream a gain, telling him now – go down to Egypt to escape Herod’s death squads. And Joseph obeys again and the family escapes…

Egypt, remember, was where Israel was enslaved 400 years, where genocide threatened survival… till God led Israel out by a mighty hand in the dream-like night of Passover… Yet now Egypt becomes a place of refuge.  As it had been long before, in Genesis, when Israel went down to Egypt to escape famine in the land…

Time passes. Herod dies. An angel of the Lord comes again to Joseph; again in dream, directing now the family back to Israel. Joseph again obeys…The family returns…

But upon their return they find Herod’s son, Archelaus, like his father, notoriously wicked, ruling now in Judea. And now Joseph receives yet another message in dream; and the family heads north now, to the village of Nazareth in Galilee… as Joseph again obeys the angels’ word given in dream, and the family again relocates.

Our just-after-Christmas-story is tied-together by five dreams… that change destinations and destinies… and preview Jesus as fulfillment of Israel’s heritage and legacy.

Matthew’s gospel portrays Jesus as the Promised One whom Moses foretold, who fulfills all the prophets and most of all Moses.

The first five books of the bible are called the Five Books of Moses, and Jesus in Matthew’s gospel, gives five major teaching sermons, recalling and fulfilling the legacy of Moses and Israel… a nation of dreamers and visionaries.

Way-back-in-Genesis the patriarch Jacob dreams of God’s angels going up-and-down-a-ladder, and God bestowing unearned blessings on infamously deceitful Jacob… Later Jacob wrestles an angel in a dream-like state-of-being, till he gets another blessing and the new name, Israel (God-wrestler).

Jacob’s son, Joseph, then becomes the most famous of all biblical dreamers – til we get to his namesake, Joseph here in Matthew’s gospel, who at least matches him as a dreamer. (Maybe there’s something in the name Joseph?)

The psalmist says of God “he gives to his beloved in sleep (Ps 126).” A prerequisite for dreamers is being able to sleep. (Something my family tells me I’m actually pretty good at. They tell me I can often be heard snoring heartily, while others are wide awake, trying to sleep…) We need to be able to sleep to dream… and I’ve enjoyed practicing the spiritual discipline of sleep over the past week…

But not all sleep brings dreams – we know the song – above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by…

And not all dreams are from God… And probably the vast majority of  dreams are not from God…at least not very directly. Certainly not enough to rely on for navigation…

So I’ve been wondering – why God resorts to dreams – to communicate such crucial instructions?  Isn’t this a rather risky strategy, Lord, communicating through such a subjective, uncertain means of communication?

But then I remember (of all things…) Duke Ellington, one of the greatest  composers of the last century, saying that often his songs came to him in dreams by night – then he’d wake up and write them down in the morning… practice them with his band in the afternoon… play them that night in front of an audience… (One of those songs, Come Sunday, is in our Methodist Hymnal…)

And on a much humbler scale I also remember… the dream I had, twenty years ago, where God showed up as a giant fish, swallowing-up a good-sized trout I had on the end of my line… Then (as I prayed over the dream) here comes the God-fish, swallowing me and my life, like Jonah, swallowed by the whale-fish… That dream, more than anything else I remember, got me headed into seminary… And from there, to being a pastor… That dream changed my life… that dream’s still changing my life…

And far greater things than this have been revealed by God through dreams. In her memoir, Mighty Be Our Power, Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian Lutheran laywoman, tells of falling asleep, exhausted, at her office desk one night… only to be startled by God speaking to her in dream, telling her, “Gather the women to pray for peace.”

Liberia was then in the midst of a prolonged brutal civil war… When she first shared this dream with other women, she thought the dream was for her to pass along, not for herself. But she was persuaded by friends and colleagues that the dream was indeed for her, and to act on…

When she called together other Christian women to begin to pray – the dream became so powerful… that it jumped across great and wide social barriers…. Muslim women began to join with Christian women in prayer, sharing stories, praying together, working together for peace. The grassroots women’s peace movement spread and spread, and led to the end of Liberia’s 14-year-long bloody bitter civil war, in which a quarter-million people died, many of them children.

As the war came to an end, Liberia elected Africa’s first woman President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a United Methodist woman with close ties to the women’s peace movement – who shared the Nobel Peace prize that year with Leymah Gbowee and another leader of Liberia’s women’s peace-building network…

And it all began with a dream from God in the night….

***

And who are we to limit God’s possibilities…? By not receiving whatever dreams and visions God sends…

And yes, there is something inherently risky… in looking for guidance from God in dreams and visions…Though in my view, compared with relying on pre-packaged, pre-formatted, market-driven church programs – all of which have universally failed when applied over time… I’ll go for good-old-fashioned dreams and visions every time…

**

Of course it’s wise to diversify our portfolio of spiritual practices… and of course to be able to reliably download God’s free-grace dreams and visions we probably do have to study God’s word, and practice prayer and good listening… (Just like even Duke Ellington, a natural musician, still practiced piano for many hours a day…)

So also we practice waiting and praying for a word from God… Studying the word of God to know the patterns of God’s word… to help us discern what is from God and what isn’t.

And even if we haven’t really prepared at all yet… we’re invited to prepare in the most basic sense now… by simply making a habit of daily inviting God to inhabit all of our lives… waking and sleeping…

Knowing there will be times when God’s dreams will change our best-laid human plans, and send us, like the Magi, like the holy family, onward on this journey of life by other routes than those we’d carefully planned. Like Mary and Joseph with their infant son, like the Magi, when we navigate by a star, a dream, a vision from God… we too will be led in directions we can’t anticipate or calculate…

So we share whatever dreams and visions we receive with each other. Like the Liberian women of prayer, we need to be there for each other, helping interpret and implement any dreams that may come to us from God…

And we are all invited to dream God’s dreams. No advanced degrees or specialized training is required… Just the basics of preparation – as we ask God, together – What dreams, Lord God, are you calling us to dream with you?

Where are you leading us, dear God, by what route?

And as we continue to look to the holy child born for us… whom we call Lord and Savior and Friend – awaiting his word for us anew in this coming new year…

Let’s continue to sing his songs together, in prayer and praise and expectation…

Giving thanks for all the blessings and guidance given already on this journey… Asking help together, waking or sleeping, for the journey ahead…

Saying together, again –  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

***

Exodus 1:8,15-22

Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph….

The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birth-stool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”