Today’s Christian seldom expects miracles. Oh sure, during Advent we recount the birth of Christ, tell its story, read of how God intervened in human history, but few of us act as if we believe the foolish tales of wise men watching, shepherds praising, and heavenly angels singing. The idea that God’s Holy Spirit would come upon a virgin and inseminate her with his son are at odds with our sense of what we know of science and the realities of nature.
Advent. . . a time of signs, dreams, visions, and the miraculous is best left on the pages of a Christmas book we dust off each year to remind ourselves that once upon a time we believed – or said we did. But what if the wise men, shepherds, a poor priest, and the young couple were telling the truth?
During the time of King Herod, Magi (wise men) from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” Matthew 2:1
A star. One among hundreds in the sky. Why this star? Why now? How did these wise men, these expert astrologers, know this star was for the one who had been born king of the Jews? And why had they left their homes in Mesopotamia to travel for a month or more in order to find this one whose star settled over Jerusalem? Would we? On a Sunday morning after a week of work, we can barely find the energy to drive to church. And yet. . . these wise men risked being robbed, killed by wild beasts, and sleeping under a frigid night sky in order to see if what they sought and saw was in fact God’s miraculous intervention into the lives of men.
Are we waiting for a sign from God? Are we watching? Or are we so settled in our comfortable lives that we no longer look up with expectation? Are we so wise in our own ways that we no longer expect God to intervene in our sickness, finances, families? One star among hundreds. . . but this one is different. And only a few recognize its significance.
Dreamer of dreams. . .
If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder spoken of takes place, and the prophet says, “Let us follow other gods” (gods you have not known) “and let us worship them,” you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. That dreamer must be put to death for inciting rebellion against the Lord your God. Deuteronomy 13:1-4
Death. That is the end of dreamers and prophets and priests who lead others astray. And yet this man Joseph, a man of little significance, is willing to risk his reputation, and possibly his life, in order to lead others to an encounter with God.
What are we willing to risk? Our reputation? Certainly not. Who among us will say with boldness to a stranger that we hear God in our dreams, in our prayers? Better to let those whom we encounter remain lost in darkness than admit that we hear voices.
After Joseph 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.” Matthew 1:20
The punishment for adultery is death. . . and yet Mary was pregnant. Not by Joseph, that much he knew. But by whom? God’s Holy Spirit? Who would believe such nonsense? Would we? If so, based on what evidence? An angel in a dream? Is that how the miraculous comes, how faith begins? By rejecting death and grasping for life?
When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up! Take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” Matthew 2:13
A nighttime departure. No time to pack. No time for goodbyes. Jolted awake from a dream so disturbing that it leaves him shaken with fear, Joseph finds himself visited once more by the God of dreams. His life and that of his wife and son are in danger. The king, the one with legions of Roman soldiers at his disposal, has placed a bounty on Joseph’s head and that of his family.
Suddenly awake, would we turn over, think about what our mind’s eye saw, our mind’s ear heard, and conclude it was all too much to believe? Has God warned us of what’s to come? Do we have a sense of uneasiness regarding someone we love? Do we respond with action? Or do we conclude that God no longer speaks to his people through dreams? Not like before, not like in the old days before we knew better than to believe in such fables?
And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, the wise men returned to their country by another route. Matthew 2:12
Another way. Not the well-traveled path of before. Not with the easy route. No, this time our journey will be different. Harder. Perhaps more painful. For our safety and the safety of others, we must go a different way. And yet. . . here we are still wishing we could take the familiar route. There is comfort on the old road. There are places of rest along the old way. Acquaintances welcome us. But we have been warned. For the sake of others we cannot go back by the way of old. Before us lies a vast landscape filled with dangers we’ve yet to face. So in darkness, alone, scared of what we will find as we travel through this land of death, we follow God’s whisper and take the narrow road.
After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt. Matthew 2:19
We can go home, now. The threat is gone. But we’re not so sure home is where we wish to be. We have made a place for ourselves in this foreign land. We know it is not our home, but it is safe. Who knows what this next journey will bring. In fear we arrived, in fear we return, for we are fearfully made. Fear is our default state of mind. We worry about what is ahead, if we can endure the journey. Though we knew this call would come, we are not ready. And yet. . . we gather our loved ones around us and announce “It’s time to go. Home awaits.” But will home look anything like what we remembered?
When Joseph heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee. – Matthew 2:22
Now every small detail matters. One wrong step and we could lose our life, our soul. No longer is it enough to believe in a vague God. Now we must know him so well that his every whisper reaches our ears. We now see it is not the destination that matters, but our walk, our way of listening and responding to the giver of dreams.
When Zechariah came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple. Luke 1:22
No more dreams. Now visions interrupt our reality. We can discount dreams. Dreams come to all who sleep. Why should our dreams be more significant than those of my neighbor?
But visions? To be suddenly blinded by the light of an angel speaking to us? Hallucinations happen to the heavily medicated. And yet I am sober. This can’t be. . . and yet it is. What of those other visions we saw? We had thought them only our wishful thinking. Now we see that all along those visions were from God.
In these last days, he has spoken to us in such a way that we can no longer deny the truth: God is coming. He wants us to proclaim his arrival. And if we doubt, if we question the authenticity of his voice, silence may be our final word.