Thursday, December 24, 2020

Christmas Eve

 Matthew 1

18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do 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 as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

Do you wish you could wake up to discover that 2020 was just a bad dream?

It worked for Pam and Bobby. An entire season suddenly became moot, the ultimate TV do-over. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you need to find someone over 50—quick. And not to outdone, the show Newhart ended the series with Bob and Emily discussing the strange dream Bob just had—in this case, he dreamt an entire series. Again, over 50, you know the drill.

Dreams are strange things. Freud said that dreams constitute “wish fulfillment,” which is a fancy way of saying you wish you could work out the vexing thing that’s troubling you. I dropped first-year psychology, so I can’t really say if Freud’s right. If you’re like me, however, and you’re working out vexing things in the middle of the night, the last thing that’s happening is sleep.

The Bible makes pretty strong case for dreams as a means to receive divine messages. Jacob dreams of a ladder, with angels descending and ascending, and receives an affirmation of the covenant with Israel. Joseph dreamed of a future, when famine would ravage the land and he would have an opportunity to help his family. And Joseph also had the power to interpret dreams, something that came in handy in the court of Pharaoh. Leaping over today’s dream, we learn of Peter’s dream, a blanket from heaven covered in all kinds of creatures. The Lord blesses them in the dream and commands Peter to eat.

And then there is the story of Jesus’ birth. It begins with a vision, where Zacharias learns that Elizabeth will bear a child—the one who will one day baptize Jesus. And then there is the passage Bunny read, where Joseph is seeking a way to save Mary the hardship of ending their betrothal, when an angel appears in a dream, saying:

“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

At this point, Matthew breaks in and reminds his readers that all this was also the subject of a prophecy, when Isaiah said a young woman would bear a son, and he would be named Emmanuel, God-with-us. I think you can already see the problem with dreams: Is it Jesus, ‘for he will save the people from their sins,’ or is it Emmanuel, God-with us?

Well, it appears this child will have many names, with Isaiah suggesting Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace—just to name four. And this list is helpful, because it shows us that (in fact) Jesus has one name, but many titles. And that’s just on the night of his birth.

Why so many titles? I would argue that when we “put on Christ” (as Paul tells us) we also put on something we need. Dwelling in shadow? You need the Light of the World. Hungry for the food that truly nourishes? You need the Bread of Heaven. Feeling lost? You need the Good Shepherd. Jesus is ever near, to find us, feed us, illuminate us—and save us.

The dream is clear: “You are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” There’s more here, though, since Jesus is literally a Joshua, which the translation from Hebrew, to Greek, and to English, gives us Jesus. Now Joshua was a common name in the time of Jesus, but the reason was clear: it means “God is salvation,” or “God will save us.” Jesus’ name is both a prayer and an answer to prayer. Add Emmanuel—God-with-us—and it becomes even more fervent. God will save us and God is with us—Jesus is the hope and the answer.

And it begins with a dream. It begins with the dream of a world-made-new, where God enters the world to be our salvation. From that moment, and for all time, we can trust that God will save us and God-is-with-us. Whatever peril we face, we are not alone. Whatever circumstance confounds us, we are not alone. Whenever we are shadowed, hungry, or lost, we are not alone, for God will save us and God-is-with-us. Amen.


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