Welcome to our worship on this 4th Sunday of Advent. And welcome if you’re listening on the radio!
As we prepare for the celebration of Christ’s birth this Christmas, our sermon series in this preparation time of Advent centers on the good news brought by angels to several important people involved in the events of Christmas.
The angel Gabriel came to Zechariah and told him about the coming birth of John the Baptist. Gabriel also came to Mary to tell her of Jesus’ birth. An angel appeared to the shepherds to tell them to go to Bethlehem to see the Christ child and then an angel choir joined in. And today we consider Joseph and the unnamed angel that appeared to him in a dream.
It’s not unusual in the Bible for God to use a dream to get his message across. Jacob and Joseph and Solomon, among others, all had dreams that carried God’s message.
But our dreams often have nothing to do with God’s news. Some research suggests that 95-99% of our dreams we don’t even remember. But some dreams are hard to forget.
One summer while I was in seminary, I worked at a camp as the nature director. And one day I got a panicked message that there was a rattlesnake in one of the campsites. I said—what am I supposed to do about it? ---I guess I didn’t read my job description carefully enough.
I had one of those snake sticks with a loop on the end of it that you were supposed to put around the snake’s head. That’s not an easy thing to do.
But I managed to get the rattlesnake into a cage with a glass front. I thought it would be good for the campers to see what a poisonous snake looked like. But as we were carrying the cage to the nature center, the glass dropped out of the frame. And there is my hand---3 inches from the snake’s head, with no glass in between! Thankfully the glass didn’t break when it fell and we were able to slide it back in place before the snake knew what happened.
I guess all that burned itself on my subconscious because that night I sat straight up in bed and yelled---There’s a snake in our bed! Now Stephanie and I were the only married couple on the camp staff, so we were given the cabin to live in, instead of a tent. But with the condition of the cabin, having a snake in our bed was very possible, even likely.
Stephanie woke up terrified shouting---Where?---Where? It took her a bit to realize that I was sound asleep. So very wisely, she said—I see the snake, it’s going away---down the hole in the floor. And she convinced me that all was safe.
Dreams can seem so real. But in my experience, almost all of them are merely the way our mind randomly brings together things from our conscious and subconscious thoughts. We should be careful about making too much out of them. We can’t assume that dreams are God’s word to us.
But Joseph found out that some dreams really are life-changing messages from God. It’s interesting that when the angel appeared to Zechariah and Mary, they were wide awake. But with Joseph, the angel came in a dream. I guess the Lord knows how each of us will be most open to hearing from him.
Joseph had a lot on his mind as we hear in Matthew 1---
Matthew 1:18 “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.”
That had to be a hard conversation between Mary and Joseph! What could he do? What should he do?
Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, betrothed, engaged. But according to Jewish law that engagement was a legal contract. For Joseph to break that contract would involve either a loud, public divorce or a quiet, private one. Joseph had some decisions to make. Matthew tells us---
Matthew 1:19 “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 was not vengeful, he was righteous. So he wanted to resolve this in the quietest way possible for Mary and himself.
Matthew 1:20-21 “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.”
The Bible doesn’t tell us about the conversation between Mary and Joseph, but this angel appearance in his dream confirmed what Mary must have told Joseph about what the angel told her. And it all fulfilled what the prophet Isaiah had written long ago--
Matthew 1:22-23 “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.”
There are 2 names for the child mentioned in these verses that help us understand the significance of this birth.
Biblical scholar N.T. Wright notes---“Matthew wants to tell us more about who Jesus was and is, in a time-honoured Jewish fashion: by his special names. The name ‘Jesus’ (which means “God saves”) was a popular boys’ name at the time, being in Hebrew the same as ‘Joshua’, who brought the Israelites into the promised land after the death of Moses. Matthew sees Jesus as the one who will now complete what the law of Moses pointed to but could not of itself produce. He will rescue his people, not from slavery in Egypt, but from the slavery of sin, the ‘exile’ they have suffered not just in Babylon but in their own hearts and lives.”
“By contrast, the name ‘Emmanuel’, mentioned in Isaiah 7:14 and 8:8, was not given to anyone else, perhaps because it would say more about a child than anyone would normally dare. It means ‘God with us’. Matthew’s whole gospel is framed by this theme: at the very end, Jesus promises that he will be ‘with’ his people to the close of the age (28:20). The two names together express the meaning of the story. God is present, with his people; he doesn’t ‘intervene’ from a distance, but is always active, sometimes in most unexpected ways. And God’s actions are aimed at rescuing people from a helpless plight, demanding that he take the initiative and do things people had regarded as (so to speak) inconceivable.”
This is what the Jewish people were looking for in a Messiah: A God who would be with them (Immanuel) and a God who would save them (Jesus). The two names together, Jesus and Immanuel, deliver the central meaning of Christ’s birth. God comes to be present with His people. God doesn’t act from a distance, but is always active, up close, sometimes in the most unexpected ways.
Is there something you face this Christmas that needs God to intervene in an unexpected way?
Perhaps you need healing of body, mind or soul---or healing for a broken relationship.
Perhaps you need work, a place to live, or direction for your future.
Maybe you need forgiveness or hope or inner peace.
God knows you and what your circumstances are. He wants you to call on Him, ask, and keep on asking for Him to act in your life. Are you ready for Him to break through your situation?
When He does, he will likely act in a different way than you would expect or choose. That’s what He did with Joseph through the angel and the dream.
God’s actions are aimed at saving people from helpless situations, situations that require that he take the initiative and do things that are inconceivable. God always takes the initiative. It doesn’t depend on us coming up with some great ideas to save ourselves. That never works. That’s how we got into our mess in the first place!
Salvation---being saved from our mess is about us receiving the blessing of our Father in heaven. The blessing of new insight into our need for a savior---new direction out of the wilderness where we are lost---renewed love for the people we are in conflict with. It doesn’t depend on you and me. It comes as a gift from God, whether we recognize that or not.
That is what Isaiah is getting at in his prophecy about the coming Messiah.
Isaiah 9:6 “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given.”
God our loving Father sees our needs and responds to be with us (Immanuel) and to save us (Jesus).
After this amazing dream about our God coming to be with us and to save us, how did Joseph respond?
Matthew 1:24-25 “ 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. And he gave him the name Jesus.”
Joseph responded with immediate obedience. He and Mary got married and began preparations to be earthly parents to the Son of God.
Joseph’s obedience and submission to the Lord is no less extraordinary than Mary’s. Mary is honored for her response to the Lord---
Luke 1:38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.”
Joseph should be honored for his immediate obedience when he woke up from his sleep. He could have said, “It was only a dream.” But instead he woke up and followed the Lord’s command.
God placed his Son into the hands of an earthly mother and father who lived by a heavenly faith.
Later an angel appeared in a dream to Joseph to warn him about the danger from King Herod---and he and Mary and Jesus fled to Egypt. And a third time an angel appeared in a dream and told them the danger was gone---and they returned to live in Nazareth. I guess God knew that Joseph responded well to angels in a dream!
What is it that God is calling you to do this Christmas…immediately?
Is there a habit that needs to be stopped…immediately?
Is there sin that needs to be confessed…immediately?
Is there a relationship that needs renewed effort…immediately?
Is there a person or situation that needs your help…immediately?
Is there a first step toward a different way of life that needs to be made…immediately?
If so---and we all have things that should change immediately in our lives---growth and change are truly possible---because of Immanuel---our God who is with us---and because of Jesus---our God who saves us.