Dreams are remarkable things. They can be so vivid – it can be like watching a movie or like you are actually in the midst of what is happening – like it is actually happening to you.
The thing that never ceases to amaze me is the fact that in dreams my mind can create a story and scenes that I could never make up if I was trying. I don’t consider myself to be a particularly creative person. If I tried to create the kinds of things that I see in my dreams, I would fail miserably. But when I am asleep and my mind goes to work on its own, it can create things that are amazing to watch.
The dreams that I remember always seem to take place in the early morning. It often happens that I wake up not long after the dream is done. Or sometimes, my alarm goes off and wakes me up in the midst of a dream. It is frustrating to be in the midst of a really interesting dream, and then not get to find out how it ends. And that fact illustrates the fascinating character of dreams – they are something that our mind creates on its own.
Dreams were considered to be very important in the ancient world. It was believed that they revealed the future and also provided information about the present. In the second century A.D. a Greek author names Artimedorus wrote a very popular book about the interpretation of dreams. The book drew upon a well developed tradition about interpreting dreams as he classified dreams types and provided guidance in their interpretation.
When we listen to the account of the angel’s announcement to Joseph about the incarnation, it’s easy to miss the fact that this occurs in a dream. In fact, all of the messages delivered by an angel in the Gospel of Matthew occur in dreams: the message to the Magi not to return to Herod; the message to Joseph to flee with Jesus and Mary to Egypt; the message to Joseph to bring them back from Egypt; the warning to settle in Galilee and not Judea – all occur in dreams.
This would not have surprised a first century reader. But it does raise a question that we can never answer: How did Joseph know that this was God actually revealing something to him? I have had some pretty vivid dreams. But whenever I wake up, I know that it was just a dream. Joseph wakes up from sleep and immediately acts on what he has been told in the dream. He knows that God is revealing something to him, and has given him something to do.
Joseph’s world had been rocked. He was betrothed to a nice girl, Mary. Like all marriages at that time – and for that matter, like most marriages in the history of the world – it was certainly arranged. It was a legal transaction. A dowry – a sum of money – had been given to Joseph by Mary’s family. Joseph may have paid a bride price to Mary’s family for the privilege of marrying her. Mary and Joseph were now betrothed. This was state in which they would live in for up to a year. They were not married and had not come together as husband and wife, but they had entered into a legally binding commitment. To break the betrothal was divorce.
We don’t know how Joseph learned that Mary was pregnant. But we do learn two things about him in our text. First, Joseph is a righteous man. He wants to live according to God’s Word which he had provided in the Torah. He is not going to marry an adulterous woman. But we also learn that Joseph is compassionate. He is going to break the betrothal and divorce Mary quietly. Legally, as the innocent party, Joseph could have impounded the dowry and regained the money paid as the bride price. But this would not have been quiet. To divorce Mary quietly was not the financially smart move. Yet that is what Joseph is going to do anyway because divorce would not only humiliate Mary – it might even leave her open to death through stoning.
We learn in our text that while Joseph was considering these thing an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
These two sentences are packed with information. They are packed with Gospel. Joseph is addressed as “son of David.” Matthew has just demonstrated this in the genealogy he provides. Joseph descends from King David. By taking this boy has his own child, he makes the infant part of David’s line.
The angel tells Joseph not to give into fear about what had happened with Mary. There is an explanation that will lead him not to divorce her. The child she carries is not the product of sinful fornication. Quite the opposite – he is the holy result of the Holy Spirit’s work.
This child is a miracle – a son conceived by a virgin. And he is a miracle who will carry out God’s saving will. The angel tells Joseph that the name for the child has already been chosen by God. His name describes his divinely given work. He will be named Jesus, which means “Yahweh saves” for he will save his people from their sins.
Matthew’s Gospel says that sin is something from which you must be saved. Naturally this means forgiveness – and we find this language in the gospel on a number of occasions, most notably in the Words of Institution at the Last Supper. But here, in the first word about Jesus, the angel describes Jesus’ mission as one of saving from sin.
Sin, is of course, every way that we break God’s law in thought, word and deed. The word and deed part are hard enough. But the thought part means that we often sin, even when we are saying or doing the right thing. We say and do things with motives that are not pure. We say and do the right thing in grudging ways, simply because we have to.
Sin weaves itself into everything we do. And sin wraps itself around our life itself as it brings pain and suffering until finally it brings its final payoff – death.
In the incarnation, God sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to save us from sin. He came to drink the cup of God’s wrath against our sin – to be damned in our place. He came to bring freedom from death – to redeem us.
In order to do this, God’s Son was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and born of the virgin Mary. Carried in the womb of the virgin he was born in Bethlehem – the city of David. This was the fulfillment of all of God’s promises in the Old Testament. And Matthew highlights a promise that this action of the Holy Spirit fulfilled in a very specific way. He says in our text, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’(which means, God with us).”
God came to be with us as he was incarnate through the work of the Holy Spirit and was born of a virgin Mary. He was God with us – the One in whom all the fullness of the Deity dwelt in bodily form. He came in a body, as true God and true man, to die in your place. He entered to the tomb so that by his resurrection on Easter, he could defeat death.
Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus you have been saved from sin. You are forgiven. In Holy Absolution you hear the verdict of the Last Day spoken to you now. This forgiveness from sin extends to all of your life. It extends beyond death itself. Jesus has saved you from all that sin has caused. He will give you the fullness of this salvation on the Last Day when he raises and transforms your body to be like his.
In our text we learn about Joseph’s reaction. We hear, “When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.” Joseph awakes and is certain that he has heard from God. He listens to God’s word and acts. He acts in faith. All he had was the word of the angel in a dream. He trusts God’s word and so acts in a righteous way – in a way that cared for Mary and Jesus.
The baby in the womb of the virgin is indeed Immanuel – God with us. Through his ministry he has saved you from your sins. He has given you the living hope of the resurrection which will overcome death itself. His word – the word of the Gospel – makes you righteous, so that now you too can live in righteous ways. He sends you forth to do humble things that now have divine importance because you do them in Christ – things like caring for a mother and her baby.