“I’m dreaming of a white Christmas / Just like the ones I used to know. . . .” Irving Berlin’s song of 1942 struck a chord with those serving in distant locations during WW2. But Matthew 1:20-23 tells you of a more serious, much more real dream.
God reveals his message in a dream. Joseph’s situation resembled a nightmare. Engagement in 1st century Jewish culture was a much more binding relationship than in ours. Although it was not marriage, and the couple were involved in neither a domestic nor a sexual relationship, its violation was virtually equivalent to adultery. Joseph’s situation seems to be a nightmare. He discovers that Mary, this quiet woman who seemed so godly, this woman whom he loved so deeply, his Mary was pregnant.
One choice was to charge Mary with unfaithfulness, with adultery, though the shame and public humiliation would have been great. Joseph made another choice. God’s Word informs us that because he was a righteous man, Joseph was inclined to quietly divorce her.
An angel of the Lord appears in a dream. Matthew begins his Gospel with the genealogy of Jesus. The humble carpenter could reflect on his ancestral line. God had made a gracious promise to David that his descendants would rule forever, 2 Samuel 7:5-16. That had seemed to have been fulfilled in the reign of Solomon. But then the line descended through kings, many of whom were wicked. And after the exile, the line of David retreated into obscurity. Now this carpenter was a representative of the royal line. But God had not neglected his promise. He was going to do great things. And those spectacular events would involve Joseph and his fiancée, Mary. Teh late Ned B. Stonehouse wrote: “Matthew’s portrayal seems concerned to accredit Christ by dwelling upon his illustrious ancestry and telling of the extraordinary origin of his life as the son of the virgin Mary.” (The Witness of Matthew and Mark to Christ, pp. 123f.).
Matthew does not describe the angels appearing directly. Instead, he describes a series of dreams, and related fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. God’s revelation in the Old Testament had come in diverse ways, Hebrews 1:1,2. One important means had been through dreams, Joel 2:28; Jeremiah 23:25; Deuteronomy 13:1. Now, after 400 years of silence, God is again revealing himself, appropriately, in a dream. God graciously sends an angel to explain the situation to Joseph. Joseph would become the adoptive father, the one through whom Jesus would legally be the son of David. Joseph’s role would be that of earthly father to the One who would be his Savior. The graciousness of God is evident, not just in the explanation to Joseph, but in the fact that God has reached down into our painful, sin-cursed world, and has touched it with his own saving presence.
The Word of the Lord through the prophet is fulfilled. The revelation through the dream ties in with what God has already said. Matthew quotes Isaiah 7:14. He emphasizes that God is fulfilling what he had said he would do. (We’ll see the connection between dreams and prophecy repeated in Matthew’s birth narrative.) The One who is Son of David and Son of Abraham is also God himself. And he is not a God who exists only in some distant, unapproachable place–he has come to you. He is Emmanuel, God with us. In the person of Jesus Christ, all that makes God who he is is there, and all that is essential to our humanity is there. He is like us in every way, except without sin. “Matthew surely intends his readers to understand that ‘Emmanuel’ was his name in the sense that all that was involved in that name found its fulfillment in him. The quotation and the translation of the Hebrew name underline the fact that in Jesus none less than God came right where we are. And at the end of this Gospel there is the promise that Jesus will be with his people to the end of the age (28:20) – God with us indeed.” (Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, p. 31).
Remember that Matthew wrote originally for his Jewish readers. He is concerned to make clear that the Messiah is indeed the One God had promised. The events he describes are not random. They are the working out of God’s plan for the salvation of his people.
There’s a lesson for us here. Do what God says! Joseph awoke, and rather than dismissing the dream, rather than looking for excuses to avoid involving himself in this complicated situation, rather than being put off by the anticipated gossip of neighbors, he simply obeyed. “He did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him…” v. 24. He took Mary as his wife. He assumed the role of (adoptive) father to this Child.
The Gospel records Joseph’s obedience, in part, because God summons you to an obedient faith response. You too face a choice. You can be put off by the scandal of the gospel, by the miracle that transcends our ability to comprehend. You can dismiss Matthew 1 as myth, as fable, as an important belief (which never happened in our real world). Or you can recognize that in the lives of that insignificant appearing couple, God was entering this world to be the Savior. That Child, for whom Joseph would do the things that a father does for his sons, would one day suffer and die in the place of his people, and then gloriously rise again. With Joseph, you can simply take God at his word. You can turn to and trust in Jesus as your Savior. It is not enough to dream about Christmas. It is not enough to have warm fuzzy feelings about good will, family time, giving, and the Christmas spirit. God summons you to recognize his Son for who he is and to trust him as your Savior. And, when you do that, you find that he has not just filled a compartment in your life, but he controls it. He rules it.
Dream about a white Christmas if you want to. But don’t just dream about the coming of Christ. Trust the One God has sent into the world to be your Savior.