I preached this sermon on December 18, 2022, Advent IV, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Matthew 1:18-25.
If you ever wander into my office, you’ll see a whole collection of religious art and objects, each with their own special meaning and story. One of the newer additions is a small statue right on my desk—it’s a pewter figure of St. Joseph, who is depicted laying down on his side, eyes closed, deep in sleep. It caught my eye because it’s a bit unusual as far as saint statutes go; they’re usually upright and alert, like toy soldiers: eyes wide, halos glowing, ready to pray for us.
And maybe I was just feeling extra tired that day, but when I saw sleeping Saint Joseph for the first time, I thought—yes, Lord, at last, here is a saint who really gets me. For I am quite sure that I’m at my holiest and best behaved when I’m sleeping. And I’ll confess that some days the only thing standing between me and a grievous sin is a good long nap! So I was delighted to later receive the statue as a gift, and he continues to remind me, especially in this busy season, to rest.
The tradition of the sleeping St. Joseph figure is found throughout Christian art, but it’s especially popular in Latin America. It has become more widespread in recent years because Pope Francis is fond of it. He told a crowd once that he has an old figurine of sleeping Joseph, and when the Pope is worried about something, he writes it down on a piece of paper and slips it under the statue so that Joseph can dream about it and in so doing, carry those prayers up to God.
The reason, of course, that Joseph is depicted as sleeping and dreaming in these images is because dreams are a key part of his story in Scripture, as we just heard in today’s Gospel. Matthew tells us that it is in a dream that the Angel of the Lord directs Joseph to do his part in the unfolding story of the Incarnation: to take the pregnant Mary as his wife despite the threat of scandal; to protect her and this mysterious unborn child; and then to name the child Jesus and to adopt him as Joseph’s own. And later, it will also be a dream that warns Joseph to flee with his family to Egypt to escape the murderous plotting of King Herod.
Like many of his ancestors before him, Joseph was asked to trust in the power of dreams to reveal God’s presence and purpose. And perhaps this is not all that surprising, because even for us dreams are a potent landscape of possibilities. As our body rests and our mind wanders through many chambers at the edge of consciousness, it is in dreams where reality expands, where hope and memory intertwine, where demons lurk and angels whisper. It is in dreams, often, that we can see the things we’re not yet ready to face in the daylight, or perhaps that we hadn’t even begun to imagine.
And so as Joseph sleeps, he is shown a new possibility: something the social codes and the conventional wisdom of his time would have never allowed. The Angel speaks to him of mercy and courage and fidelity, of trusting in the wild promise of a newborn savior, of journeys long and perilous and good. And then Joseph stirs from sleep, and all of creation waits to see what he will do. The Angel holds its breath. Joseph opens his eyes. And though we never hear him speak, I like to imagine him emulating the response of Mary:
Here am I, the dreamer of the Lord. Let it be done with me according to your word.
I think it is no small thing that Joseph decided to trust in his dream. Who among us, in the light of day, doesn’t tend to forget our dreams or brush them off, even when they seem significant? How easy it would have been for Joseph to do the same—and how different things would have been for all of us if he had. And so we honor him not only as a protector and earthly father figure of Jesus, but as a dreamer–as the one who believed in the dream of God. The one who woke up and said yes, that is possible. I can do that.
In some ways, this story–Joseph’s dream, and his waking, and and his choosing to believe–is the story of the whole church. For in Christ we have all been visited by God’s redemptive dream for creation. We have all been asked to wake up and believe, to let the dream change us, to let it shape our choices and our lives, so that God might continue to be made incarnate in the world through us. We, too, are the dreamers of the Lord, and the world is yearning for us to open our eyes, to remember what has been revealed, and to say, yes, that is possible. I can do that.
But how do we know? How do we know that it is indeed God’s dream welling up in us, and not just some random impulse of our own? How did Joseph know that he should trust the dream rather than dismiss it?
The answer is what the answer always is: love. We will have many of our own fleeting dreams and desires and designs, but the dream of God is love, and the dream of God will always ask of us just one thing: to act out of love. The dream of God speaks of mercy and courage and fidelity, of trusting in love’s wild promises, of journeys long and perilous and good. The dream of God says, just love: love generously, love scandalously, love insistently, and then indeed you will hear the angels sing and you will see the heavens bend down to stand upon the earth and then you will no longer be sleeping. The whole world will at last be awake and the dream will be real. It will be enfleshed. It will be Emmanuel—God with us.
And so I ask you: what is it that you have been dreaming of this Advent? What visions have dazzled you in the darkness? What hopes have stirred within your heart? What new word has God placed upon you in this season?
Whatever it is, hold fast to it. Write it down, and if you happen to find a statue of St. Joseph, slip it beneath him and let him dream with you a bit longer in the cold winter night.
But remember that we are deep into Advent, now, and the light is gathering. The Dayspring approaches.
Are you ready to wake up? Are you ready, not just to dream, but to believe in the dream God has given you, to make it real?
All creation waits. The Angel holds its breath.
And now, dreamer, open your eyes.