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“Seven Scenes from the Advent-Christmas Story: Joseph Dreaming”
Matthew 1:18-25


Pastor Kevin Vogts
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Dakota Dunes, South Dakota
Third Sunday in Advent—December 11, 2011

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

The theme for our services during Advent this year is, “Seven Scenes from the Advent-Christmas Story,” including, “John Preaching,” “Shepherds Watching,” “Angels Singing,” “Mary Praising.” “Herod Fearing,” and “Wise Men Worshipping.”  We continue this morning with today’s Gospel Reading, and the story of “Joseph Dreaming”: “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, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.’”

Actually, it seemed Joseph’s dream had turned into a nightmare.  A very important difference between the marriage customs in first-century Palestine and our marriage customs today was their custom of the betrothal.  A betrothal was similar to an engagement, yet much more than an engagement.  At the betrothal ceremony the groom would declare, “She is my wife and I her husband, from today and forever.”  That is why today’s Gospel Reading describes Joseph as Mary’s “husband,” and says that “he had in mind to divorce her.”  Because, during the betrothal period they were already legally husband and wife.

However, after the betrothal ceremony bride and groom would go their separate ways, and for nine months they lived apart, they did not have any contact, and they did not have marital relations.  Of course, there’s an obvious reason why the betrothal was usually nine months long.  Because the point was to prove that the bride was not pregnant.  At the end of nine months the bride would be brought into the groom’s home, and only then would they live together as husband and wife.

Matthew writes, “Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.”  So, it was during the period of betrothal that Jesus was miraculously conceived.  For Mary and Joseph it couldn’t have come at a worse time.  The whole purpose of the betrothal was to prove that Mary was not pregnant, and then Joseph learns that she is pregnant, but he knows the child can not be his. 

Joseph’s dream had turned into a nightmare.  The ancient punishment for adultery was stoning to death.  Joseph could have made Mary’s situation public and demanded that she be punished.  But, Matthew says, “Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.”  Joseph’s sad solution, the only way he could see out of the nightmare, was to break the betrothal quietly in hopes that Mary would escape punishment.

“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, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.’ . . .  When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son.”  Instead of breaking the betrothal, Joseph brought the betrothal period to a quicker than normal conclusion, immediately taking Mary home as his wife.  This would legitimize her condition in the eyes of the community and give her protection from punishment.  But, Joseph and Mary had no marital relations until after Jesus was born.

All of us have times in our lives, like Joseph, when our dream turns into a nightmare.  A marriage entered into with dreams of hope and happiness becomes a nightmare of quarreling and conflict.  A new job taken with dreams of success and satisfaction becomes a nightmare of drudgery and disappointment.  An investment made with dreams of rapid returns becomes a nightmare of large losses.  And quite a few people this year experienced their having their exciting dream of moving to a new house and community turn into the terrible nightmare of flooding and evacuation.

Why do our dreams so often turn into nightmares?  Satan was actually telling the truth when he told Eve about the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, “When you eat of it . . . you will . . . know good and evil.”  The Hebrew word for “knowing” in that verse means not only discerning but also experiencing.  You see, God’s dream of paradise became the nightmare of the fallen world in which we must now live.  That is why, as a consequence of humanity’s fall into sin, we all now know, we all now experience in our lives, both good and evil, both dreams and nightmares.

“Do not be afraid . . . for the child conceived . . . is from the Holy Spirit. . .  and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”  God did not leave us trapped in the nightmare.  He sent his own Son into the world to restore the dream, to put an end to the nightmare, and bring back paradise.

In Bible times it was common for people’s names to have a significant meaning based upon what they did, just as the English names Miller, Baker, Taylor, and Smith were originally given to those who milled grain, baked bread, tailored clothes, and worked as blacksmiths.  The angel explains to Joseph why the holy child to be born of Mary will be given the name Jesus: “Because he will save his people from their sins.”

“Jesus” is the Greek form of the Hebrew “Yeshua” or “Joshua.”  Yeshua means in Hebrew, “The Lord Saves.”  He is to be called “Jesus” because that is who he is, and what he will do: He is the Lord, coming into the world to “save his people from their sins.”

“All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’”—which means, “God with us.”  For us men and our salvation God himself came down from heaven and was made man, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.  As Martin Luther says in the Small Catechism:

“I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with his holy, precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death, that I may be his own, and live under him in his kingdom, and serve him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.”

Jesus came to end the nightmare and restore for you the dream of paradise.  Because he atoned for your sins by his life, death, and resurrection, your sins are all forgiven.  When you leave this world he will take you to be with him in paradise, where you will live under him in his kingdom, and serve him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.  This is most certainly true. 

And, while you remain in this world, the Apostle Paul assures us in Romans that even now, “God works all things together for the good of those who love him.”  “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him.”  Even though it seemed like his dream had turned into a nightmare, Joseph trusted that God was working all things together for the good. 

Are you too sometimes afraid, like Joseph?  Afraid because God’s timing couldn’t seem to be worse?  Afraid because God’s plan for you doesn’t seem to make any sense?  Afraid because you cannot see how events in your life all fit into God’s plan?  Afraid because it seems your dream is turning into a nightmare?

Be not afraid; the God who planned and prophesied the Virgin Birth and then miraculously brought it to pass is still in charge of our world and your life.  He is working all things together for your good.  Even if it seems to be poorly timed, even if it doesn’t make sense to you, even if you don’t see how it all fits into God’s plan, like Joseph, trust in the Lord and his plans and promises, and be not afraid.

Amen.

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