The Fourth Sunday of Advent (YrA) Dec 18, 2016


Old Testament: Isaiah (7:10-16)


Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.”




The Response: Psalm (80:1-7, 16-18)


1  Hear, O Shepherd of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock; *

   shine forth, you that are enthroned upon the cherubim.

2  In the presence of Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh, *

    stir up your strength and come to help us.

3  Restore us, O God of hosts; *

    show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

4  O Lord God of hosts, *

    how long will you be angered despite the prayers of your people?

5  You have fed them with the bread of tears; *

   you have given them bowls of tears to drink.

6  You have made us the derision of our neighbors, *

    and our enemies laugh us to scorn.

7  Restore us, O God of hosts; *

    show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

16  Let your hand be upon the man of your right hand, *

     the son of man you have made so strong for yourself.

17  And so will we never turn away from you; *

      give us life, that we may call upon your Name.

18  Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; *

      show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.




The Epistle: Romans (1:1-7)


Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, to all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.




The Gospel: Matthew (1:18-25)


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. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 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. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.





by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer


According to Matthew’s version of the gospel, Joseph was a dreamer.


Maybe it had to do with his namesake: the patriarch Joseph, the son of Jacob and Rachel.  As a boy or young man, that Joseph had dreams of grandeur, of rising to power over the rest of his family, at least until his brothers got so fed up with him and his dreams that they sold him into slavery in Egypt.  Years later, it was his ability to interpret dreams that led Pharaoh, first, to release him from prison and, then, to make him his own second-in-command.


Now a different Joseph, the husband of Mary, began having his own series of dreams: dreams that would shape, not only his life, but the life of a yet-to-be-born son; and, through that son, they would help to reshape the world.  First there was the dream about which we heard today: “Do not fear to take Mary as your wife.”  Future dreams would lead him to take his young family to Egypt, then begin to return home with them to Bethlehem, and finally to take them north, to Nazareth in Galilee.


Yes, Joseph was a dreamer; but, to one degree or another, we all are.  But it’s important to remember that there are two ways to respond to dreams.


Some people use dreams as an escape from reality.  They allow their imaginations to create situations or relationships or whole other worlds as a diversion from life as it really exists, sometimes simply for the entertainment value.  Poems and novels, songs and plays, paintings and movies, and our own, private daydreams have the ability to give us a temporary break from reality.  They refresh us, as we imagine things that never were and that, in all likelihood, never will be – but it’s fun to imagine them anyway!  Indulging ourselves at times in these kinds of dreams can play an important part in our mental and emotional health.


The problem comes when we allow our dreams to shield us, on an ongoing basis, from reality, when they become for us an alternate reality, mere fantasies that serve as a buffer from life as it is and from engaging life as it is: from dealing with it responsibly.  That’s one way of responding to dreams.


But Joseph, as he is portrayed in the gospel according to Matthew, models for us another, very different approach.  He uses his dreams, not as a means to escape from reality, but as another way of dealing with reality: as a way of sorting out and coming to understand what’s going on in his life and in the life of the world around him and in taking the responsibility to act on that new understanding.


Joseph seems to find that approach to be especially helpful in grappling with situations and events that he finds hard to understand: his espoused wife is pregnant; a local ruler poses a credible threat to his young son’s life, forcing his family to flee into Egypt; he receives a summons to return home, but not to the same place that he had always called home.  In each of these unexpected and confusing situations, Joseph responded to his dreams, not by using them as a fanciful escape from taking action, but by drawing upon them for insight into a changing, unforeseen reality and for the incentive and impetus to take decisive action.


What sort of dreams do you have in your life, and what do you do about them?  I’m not talking about fantasies about relatively small and transient things, like what you might like to receive as a Christmas gift, but about significant dreams.  They might have to do with healing old divisions and making a fresh start in your relationship with members of your family or with friends.  They might have to do with getting the education that you need in order to prepare yourself for a particular job or career that you would like to pursue.  They might have to do with taking a more active role in the life of your community or your church or with committing yourself to some regular form of service to people in need.  They might even have to do with tackling head-on some form of injustice or dedicating some of your time and attention to working on issues pertaining to care for our world or for some of those who live in it.


Whatever form these significant dreams take, the critical question is: “What are you going to do about them?”  Are you going to allow them to become just a nice, escapist fantasy; or are you going to respond the way that Joseph did to his dreams: by taking action in order to help turn those dreams into reality?


Old Testament scholar Paul Hanson has described these two different responses to dreams, or to what he calls “religious imagination” in the bible.  He examines them as they relate specifically to “shalom.”  “Shalom” is a Hebrew term that encompasses not only what we usually think of as “peace,” but also all other facets of a full, enriched and enriching life for everyone.  He writes (Isaiah 40-66, pages 245-6) of “a clear distinction between two exercises of religious imagination.  One dreams of shalom as an avenue of escape from real life with the effect of disabling people by breaking their will to act with courage and determination on behalf of God’s order of justice.  The other envisions shalom as an act of defiant affirmation that no power will thwart the fulfillment of God’s righteous purpose.  The former leads to resignation and despair.  The latter engenders hope.  The former undermines social reform.  The latter gives reform a clear purpose by refusing to sacrifice justice to the logic of expediency.


“The vision of the new heaven and the new earth fosters hope even as it elicits incisive action…  No goal short of the restoration of all God’s creation to its intended wholeness will satisfy the yearning of the Servant of the Lord.”


As we prepare this week to celebrate the birth of the ultimate Servant of the Lord and seek to become fellow servants of the Lord, maybe it’s time for us to take another look at the example of Joseph: to dream again, to dream of the world as he and the ancient prophets and Jesus came to envision it, and then to rededicate ourselves to making that dream a reality, both at Christmas and throughout the coming year.