Dreams can be weird. If I’m not dreaming about running from one place to another, never knowing where I’m going or why, then I’m up against some frustrating situation where the problems are compounded faster than I can deal with them.
To give you an example, I recently dreamt I had gone bowling. The dream began with my search for a 15-pound ball — I soon discovered that the only balls left weighed 100 pounds or more! Meanwhile, the available lanes were filling up with customers and the parking meter on my car was running down!!
Frustrations on top of frustrations.
A few years back, I had a very different dream. I had been wrestling for days with a computer programming problem and just couldn’t find a solution. In the middle of this, I fell asleep one night and dreamt that I was sitting at my computer, typing out code. And in my dream, I worked out the solution to my real-world problem. Realizing what I had done, I immediately woke up and wrote down what I’d coded in my dream. When I tried it out at the office the next day, it worked beautifully.
Was that computer code inspired by God? I had been praying for the clarity of mind to see the solution. Was this an answer to that prayer? Or did sleep simply free my brain to be more creative than it could be during the daylight hours? I don’t know.
Our third supernatural encounter of Christmas concerns a dream. Joseph has discovered that Mary, his fiancé, is pregnant. Though she had promised to live chastely up to their wedding day, she has apparently been unfaithful.
Feeling betrayed, Joseph looks for a way to end his engagement quietly. That, in itself, is interesting. He apparently does not want to humiliate Mary, though culturally and legally, he had every right to expose her to community shaming.
Matthew calls Joseph a “righteous” man — dikaios, in the Greek, a difficult word. At the cross, noting how Jesus died, the Roman executioner remarked, “Surely, this man was innocent (dikaios).” (Luke 23:47) It implies something beyond mere goodness and ordinary decency; something we see at work in this man Joseph, who shows unusual grace towards the woman who has hurt him.
In the middle of his troubles and pain, Joseph falls asleep and begins to dream.
…an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. “Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. And she will have a son, and you are to name Him Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” All of this occurred to fulfill the Lord’s message through His prophet: “Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and they will call Him Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us.'” When Joseph woke up, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded and took Mary as his wife. But he did not have sexual relations with her until her son was born. And Joseph named Him Jesus. — Mat 1:20-25, NLT
Dreams rarely seem like real life. They have an other-worldly character to them. We perform super-human feats. We say strange things. We speak to people we haven’t seen in years.
On the face of it, Joseph’s dream was the sort of surreal and bizarre stuff that dreams are made of.
But the message Joseph received was quite un-dreamlike.
The child within [Mary] was conceived by the Holy Spirit. To Joseph, a rational and godly Jew, this explanation of Mary’s pregnancy would have been quite puzzling. The Holy Spirit is of the same nature and essence as God the Father.
It would have made no sense to Joseph, or to Mary for that matter, that she had become pregnant by this Holy member of the godhead. It isn’t the sort of explanation they would have invented. It would have been blasphemous even to suggest such a thing. But on hearing this, Joseph decides that Mary is innocent.
He put himself at risk. By not breaking off the engagement, people would talk. They might have suggested that Joseph himself had gotten Mary pregnant. They would not have believed any bizarre notions about Mary and the Holy Spirit.
His moral and religious principles against him, Joseph reverses course, marries Mary and brings her into his home, all because of a very unusual dream.
…you are to name Him Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins. Demonstrating again that this was no ordinary dream, Joseph remembers the angel’s instructions, and when the child is born they name him Jesus. It was not a family name, but a name that gave this child’s life a special purpose before God.
But he did not have sexual relations with [Mary] until her son was born. And Joseph named Him Jesus. Why would a young man marry a young woman, bring her home and abstain from sexual intercourse with her? This highly personal and unusual ending to Matthew’s prelude to the birth hints again at Joseph’s devotion to God and respect for his dream.
The most likely explanation for his sexual abstinence is that he believed something holy was taking place inside of Mary’s body, and he did not want to risk defiling what God had done.
All on account of a dream, Joseph set aside his plans to end his engagement, put his reputation and his future at risk, and committed himself to a very unusual marriage with a very remarkable young woman.
That was quite a dream.
Illustration credit: Rembrandt’s “Dream of St. Joseph.” Angels speak to Joseph in several dreams, all recorded in Matthew chapter 2. This painting by Rembrandt is after the birth of Jesus, when an angel warns Joseph to flee to Egypt because of Herod’s plan to murder the young children.