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Sermon – December 26, 2010: Dream

 

Sermon for Sunday, December 26, 2010 First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Dream

Isaiah 63: 7-9; Hebrews 2: 10-18; Matthew 2: 13 – 23

“The children were nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sugarplums danced

in their heads.” Clement Moore’s poem “The Night Before Christmas” almost immediately

alludes to the visionary experiences which belong to sleep. One may read the rest of the

poem as a vivid dream of the narrator. his experience of being roused in the middle of the

night to witness remarkable events is not unlike a type of dream we sometimes have, when

we are both the observer of events and a character in what happens.

The continuation of the Christmas story which we have in this morning’s gospel also

deals in dreams. The great dreamer-servant of God in the Old Testament was Joseph,

and his namesake in the gospel is Jesus’ father. The new Joseph is guided by dreams,

and God employs the dreams to resolve questions. First was what to do about his fiancee.

A dream decided Joseph on sticking with Mary.

Now, after Jesus’ birth, other uncertainties arise. Should they stay where they are?

Joseph discovers the answers in dreams. While he sleeps God signals the progress of

the Holy Family from Bethlehem to Egypt to Nazareth.

The dreams themselves may seem supernatural or perhaps heightened forms of

consciousness. That depends on whether you think of dreams, as the ancients certainly did,

as messages from beyond oneself, or whether you think, as most people now do, of

dreams as products of human awareness, experience, and intuition.

Joseph certainly may have been astute enough to comprehend, once he was told

by the Wise Men that they’d announced to King Herod the birth of a new king of the Jews,

that Herod wouldn’t welcome the news. His anxiety about what to do resolved itself in a

message within a dream, but his sense that he had to hide his family somewhere was

simply being realistic.

That’s the other element of Matthew’s account of Jesus’ origins. There is a

mysterious component of dreaming and a horrible ingredient of power politics. Herod’s

ordering the slaughter of all the youngest boys of Bethlehem is an awful intrusion into a

sweet and hopeful story. Our custom of reenacting the birth of Jesus with our own children

makes this sequel of fruitless suffering and victimization all the more grim.

We are reminded, despite ourselves, that the coming of the Messiah wasn’t just a

matter of heavenly messengers, whether we cast those as angels, as in Luke’s gospel, or

in terms of a star and dreams, as in Matthew’s. It was also a matter of human motivations,

and human actions.

We don’t always notice the angry rhetoric of the Magnificat, Mary’s outspoken

 

reaction to expecting the Messiah. That seems out of place with what we’ve made of

 

 

 

Christmas. But it also has to do with what we might call the sad facts of life. That enrollment

in the time of Caesar Augustus, which brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, wasn’t just

one of those census jobs designed to apportion seats in the legislature or resources among

the needy. It was Rome’s way of taking the measure of its captive population, in order to

assess how much taxes could be squeezed out of them. It was levying a new and more

systematic level of expense on the peasantry of Judea, and it wasn’t a democracy. This

wasn’t their money to be spent on the priorities that their representatives had identified.

They had no representatives. This was their money to go to support the Empire.

This time of year, if we don’t have them already, we’ll soon get the annual reminder

from the IRS that we have calculations to make and contributions to send in, to do our part

as citizens. There is a saying that there is nothing certain but death and taxes, and the birth

of Jesus is framed by just those two things. He is born in Bethlehem in connection with

foreign oppressors raising taxes, and he escapes Bethlehem before its young boys are

put to death, to prevent there being a rival to the king on the throne in Jerusalem.

Some people like to call themselves dreamers, and other people like to call

themselves realists. What I am telling you today is that both those groups of people are

oversimplifying life. I know why they do it; they think they have to make a choice. Some

of them feel they can’t believe in dreams, and the others feel they can’t accept reality. It

allows people to be more decisive, to be more focused, to free themselves from doubts

and doublemindedness, either to insist on dreaming or to insist on seeing only what the

world puts in view before them.

Christmas, however, requires us to be both dreamers and realists. We have to find

a way to comprehend otherworldly messengers and heavenly meanings, while at the same

time recognizing the symptoms of selfishness and cruelty with which Jesus’ birth is

surrounded. If God isn’t really entering the world in Jesus Christ to renew and remake

creation, then the story we tell ourselves about it comes across as a fairy tale. If the world

into which Jesus comes is not one of uncaring manipulation, greed, and casual murders to

support the tyranny of the strong, then it’s not our world.

This intervention in human history by God is the promise delivered by Isaiah. It is

not some messenger from God, not some intermediary, which is sent to sort things out, and

restore hope to God’s people. It’s no angel, not some being deputized, not a

subordinate entrusted with the task. It is God who comes. It is God who comes to save, to

secure people against the ills of the world.

If you think this is hard for you to understand, remember that it was hard for the

authors of the New Testament to understand, too. They were forced to find ways to figure it

out by Easter, by their experience of a Christ risen from the grave. That wasn’t something

anyone expected or knew how to even talk about, until by the grace of God they learned

to discern in the tradition of the scriptures the possibility of just this salvation.

 

The Book of Hebrews attempts to understand Christ in terms of the high priest of

 

 

 

the older Jewish temple cult. For this model of comprehending Christ to work, Jesus has to

enter into the world of human religion, and so must be entirely human. High priests have a

representative function, so it can’t do for some other kind of creature– a more heavenly

creature–to try to fulfill the office. If the business at hand is dealing with human sin, the high

priest must be human.

This is why Hebrews emphasizes Jesus becoming like other humans in every

respect. Even suffering and temptation, which seem like things heavenly beings would

have the power to ignore, have to be part of who Jesus is. It is not just a matter of

sympathy, but it includes sympathy. It offers the assurance that the sacrifice presided over

by the priest be one effective for every human life, that nobody could imagine that Christ is

disqualified by lack of human experience to represent him or her.

It is important, in this instance and in other places in the New Testament, for Jesus to

know the pain of impending death, and of death itself. No immortal knows the dread of

one’s own dissolution–that’s an experience which we understand and angels do not.

What Jesus delivers, because of this intimate knowledge of our lives, and this

complete identity with our strengths and weakness, is a way out of the problem of being

human. His resurrection–which is where all this begins, such meditations begin with

resurrection even though they are posed like they expect it–his resurrection becomes as

representative as his mortality.

This is what led the early theologian to sum up Christianity in this phrase: “God

became man, that man might become God.”

I began with dreams and reality and the need to give each their due, because

religion requires a vision beyond the ordinary, and religion requires a complete acceptance

of the world as it really is. God is real, and the record of our faith records what happened,

and we are the heirs of its meanings. It is not because the world is bright with glad tidings

and touching miracles that we trust in God. It is because God is faithful, and God present in

a world of unjust reversals and undeserved suffering.

The Jesus of the New Testament, both in his manger, menaced by a jealous king,

and hung on a cross, murdered by fearful authorities, always is both the possibilities of

heaven and the realities of the earth. Jesus always represents incredible powers and

promise, and incarnates the vulnerability and temporary nature of life. What the Book of

Hebrews believes is that what Christ has done, by entering our midst and experiencing

fully what it is to be us, is to conquer death, and that the great gift of Christmas therefore is

being able, all our lives, to refuse to be slaves to the fear of death, but instead to live with

courage and peace.

 

 

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