One of the advantages of studying the book of Matthew in the spring is the ability to read about the nativity without the distraction of Christmas carols, presents, cards and other cultural activities.
It enables you to see items in the story you may have overlooked before.
How many times have I read or heard the story of the birth of Jesus in Matthew?
How many times have you?
Do you know how many dreams motivate action in the first two chapters?
Four times to the same man through the agency of an angel.
Many people remember that Joseph was an honorable man, resolved to divorce Mary quietly when she was found to be pregnant. (His other option was to lead the stoning of an adulterous young woman). But he was a thoughtful man and when an angel appeared in a dream, he paid attention and accepted the astonishing words: “that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”
(Would he have known who the Holy Spirit was, 400 years after the last prophecies of Malachi?)
Something about the angel’s words stirred his soul and he accepted what he was told.
When he woke from his dream, Joseph took Mary as his wife.
You’ll remember they traveled to Bethlehem shortly thereafter.
(They may have heard the prophecies from Jewish folks still living near Babylon long after the captivity ended).
They followed the star to Israel, where they appealed to the ruler of the kingdom, certain he would know where this wondrous event would be taking place.
Herod didn’t know anything about it and asked his wise men what was up.
They knew the prophecies and where the Messiah would be born–they just hadn’t noticed a spectacular stellar event. Perhaps they looked from the wrong angle? Maybe they were blinded from seeing it?
The text notes Jerusalem was in an uproar about these wise men from the east. Herod met them secretly and sent them on their way, undoubtedly to not give them or their quest any more publicity.
The wise men–and we don’t know how many there were–kept their eyes on the heavens. The followed that star to the house where Jesus lived with his parents. In a dream they were warned not to return to Herod and returned home by an alternate route.
It would be interesting to know how they were warned in a dream. Did they all get the same dream? Did just their leader?
The text does not mention an angel, so one may not have appeared–but these were men used to responding to wonders and mysteries–acting on faith. They had journeyed across the desert following a star, going home a different waywouldn’t have been a problem.
Soon thereafter, maybe even the same night, Joseph had another vivid dream whereby an angel told him he needed to “rise, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt.”
Having seen wonderous things happen–including the surprise visitors bearing extravagant gifts for Jesus, Joseph didn’t question.
This time, the angel added a promise to return: “remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child to destroy him.”
Joseph packed them up immediately.
Joseph, a fourth and fifth time
Joseph took his family to the fertile lands of the Nile where they lived in peace while Herod’s soldiers rampaged through Bethlehem killing every boy under two.
Rich Mullins wrote a wonderful song about that sojourn: My Deliverer.
They remained in Egypt until Herod died and the dream angel appeared once more: “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.”
The text seems to indicate they were headed to Bethlehem–they may have liked the town after Jesus’s birth.
(My husband contends all the neighboring Jewish mothers would have taken in that baby from the manger as soon as they were alerted to his presence by the excited shepherds. Of course their husbands would have offered a job; they were all related to each other, right? Of course right).
The political news in southern Israel upon their return, however, sounded frightening.
By now, Joseph knew to sleep on it.
Yet again, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and warned him away from Judea.
Joseph, Jesus and Mary turned north and moved to the hills of Galilee in Nazareth–to fulfill a prophecy, “He shall be called a Nazarene.”
And the record of extraordinary dreams in the book of Matthew, ends.
What about your dreams?
I have vivid dreams all the time, but none have motivated me to action other than a humorous recounting.
I once dreamed I was reading a newspaper and one line was brightly lit: “And Father Jabro will speak.”
It haunted me–it haunts me still–and the following Sunday I went to my local church looking for Father Jabro–a priest whom I knew.
What word could possibly have come to me from him?
Father Jabro preached the homily that day. Even then, I didn’t think it memorable and I don’t remember what he spoke of 40 years later.
I just knew the dream beckoned me to action.
So I went.
Sometimes God calls us to do things that make no sense to us, but have consequences to other people. He uses whatever means he needs to get us moving.
Some people respond to Scripture, others to prayer. But how do you know if something prompting you to action is really from God, or merely wishful subconscious yearnings?
You run it by the Bible, of course. Does it line up with the truth of Scripture?
Joseph would have known the prophets foretold a baby born to a virgin.
I doubt he expected to be involved, but when the situation presented itself to him and God sent an angel to explain–he acted.
After that first response, the second dream with an exhortion may have come easier– Joseph knew Herod’s reputation and when the angel spoke, he got up immediately and headed to Egypt.
With the success of two dream responses, Joseph probably relaxed into trusting that angel–particularly when he told Joseph not to move until the angel told him to. Responding to the fourth dream probably was a relief–because it correlated to his own understanding of the times and perhaps he knew the prophecy about the Messiah–the one who was born of a virgin, the one who was called out of Egypt–also being known as a Nazarene.
God’s like that.
We take the steps of faith, then he provides confirmation.
It’s glorious; whether you get an angel to direct or not.
What about you? Have you ever been motivated to do something because of a dream? Has an angel ever spoken to you in a dream?