What is it with Matthew and dreams and prophecies?
A few weeks ago, we heard the story of Joseph finding out that his betrothed, Mary, was pregnant. An angel came to him in a dream, telling him that God wanted him to stay with Mary, and that the child was indeed conceived of the Holy Spirit and was the son of God. He did what was told to him in the dream, because it was a fulfillment of what was told by the ancient prophets of the Old Testament.
Now, once again, the story is told from Joseph’s point of view, and once again, we have a dream, fulfilling a prophecy, and a second dream, fulfilling a prophecy, and a third dream, fulfilling a prophecy.
Why might that be?
We know the story. Joseph bundles up Mary and Jesus and hotfoots it out of Bethlehem to Egypt, because Herod is searching for this child, and will do anything to destroy him, even if it means killing every Jewish boy child within a hundred miles to guarantee it. After a while, Joseph has another dream saying it is alright to return to Israel, because Herod is dead. But fearing Herod’s successor Archelaus, he goes to Nazareth in the Galilee.
Each of these journeys occurs because of a dream.
Is Joseph just such a literal sort of guy that God needs to speak to him through angels in dreams? We talked a few weeks ago about how Joseph was a “follow the rules” kind of man, and how he was challenged by God to break the old rules in favor of something much more important. Maybe this is another example of God having to prod Joseph a bit, to get him out of his comfort zone, and certainly a trip to Egypt, a place with very unhappy memories for the Hebrew people, is out of Joseph’s comfort zone.
Or maybe it is something else.
Remember that these dreams, just like Joseph’s first dream, are followed by the words that say “this happened to fulfill an earlier prophecy.”
And this dream language is unique to Matthew’s version of the story of Jesus’ earliest days.
Matthew has a point to make in how he tells the story. In the words of the biblical scholar Susan Hedashi, Matthew is less concerned with “how it happened” than with “why it happened.” Matthew wants his audience to know that this is about more than the history, it’s about why God has acted in a particular way.
First of all, God’s actions initiate human actions. God, through the Holy Spirit, makes Mary pregnant with Jesus, God’s son. God sends angels to talk to Mary and particularly to Joseph. Mary and Joseph accept the honor and the burden of this. The Magi respond to the miracle by an incredibly long journey. Herod responds to God’s actions in ways that are reflective of his own twisted soul.
Second, in this telling of the tale, the people who were Matthew’s first listeners – Jewish Christians who were dispersed from Jerusalem into Syria – would hear both echoes of the past and their own present. Those echoes link Jesus to Moses, a hallowed figure who led the Hebrews out of Egypt, and shows Jesus as both the redeemer (he fulfills all the prophecies) and the redeemed (he escapes early death in the flight to and return from Egypt). And they show that even though human beings want to cause harm to the divine one, God overcomes human plotting to block that work.
What did Matthew want his listeners to hear?
Not just an adventure story or a tale of terror. Not just an action line that reinforces that Jesus is indeed the promised one, the messiah.
No, there is more to the story than that.
Matthew’s audience, aliens in Syria after the fall of the temple, disliked by traditional Jews, despised by the Romans, accused of every bad thing that ever happened while they lived there, hear some very interesting and comforting things, and I daresay that these things are just as comforting to us today.
God is present and actively involved. This is not a God who is far off in the clouds, watching from a distance as humanity goes through its trials and tribulations. This is a God who is aware and involved. He has Mary, a young woman from an obscure town with very little special about her, become pregnant with God’s son, so that God is now going to be among humanity as a human being – Jesus – himself. God keeps letting the players in the story know what is supposed to happen next, by sending angels to prompt human response, as a way of protecting Jesus from some of the evils in the world.
For Matthew’s audience and for us, it is good to know that God is aware and actively involved in our lives. That is one of the reasons why we pray, to ask for God’s involvement. God may not always respond to our prayers in exactly the way that we ask, but God does respond…and is ever present in our lives, in good times and in not-so-good times. If we are struggling, as the Jews in Jesus’ time did, as the Jewish Christians for whom Matthew wrote did, the very fact that God is aware and with us is incredibly comforting.
God is nonpolitical. This God does not much care about the wranglings between the Roman Empire and Herod and the Jewish religious leadership. This God cares about God’s people, and their troubles. This God provides tools for God’s people, not to conquer oppressive forces, but to survive them. It may be angels whispering in dreams. It may be strength for the journey. It may be the gift of wisdom to keep oneself beneath the radar. But God gives us tools…and when we pay attention to those tools and use them wisely, we survive, regardless of the political climate. It was dangerous to directly attack the political system in Jesus’ time, and in Matthew’s time. It is less dangerous today, certainly in this nation although not in others, but Matthew’s message is quite clear – human politics are petty, often terrible and violent, and have little to do with our lives as the people of God. God’s focus is entirely different…do not use God to try and make a political point.
God keeps retelling the story to remind us to pay attention. That is why that phrase keeps reappearing: this happened to fulfill a prophecy. Mary became pregnant with Jesus: this fulfilled a prophecy of Isaiah. The innocent boy children around Bethlehem were murdered by Herod; this fulfilled a prophecy of Jeremiah. After returning from Egypt, Joseph resettled his family not in Judea but in Nazareth; this fulfilled a prophecy that brings together prophecies of Isaiah and Judges. God’s story is a long one, with many ups and downs in the lives of God’s people. God’s people tend to forget the big picture of that story. So God has key players repeat the story periodically, to remind them how it all fits together, and how it will unfold not in a year or a decade or even a millennium, but over a much longer arc. If Matthew’s people were feeling oppressed, they heard that this was another chapter in those ups and downs, and that God was aware and with them, and was giving them what they needed to survive, just as the Hebrew people had done through the centuries and millennia. If we are feeling lost and are struggling with our lives, if we hear the word of God once again, we know that we are treading on a well-worn path, that God’s people have suffered and have been redeemed, that God is aware and with us, too. We need only listen to God’s words, once again, to find comfort, to regain strength, to have a sense of perspective of what is truly important.
The gift of the Gospel, and of this particular Gospel, is that God tells us the story on many levels, in ways that can respond to the situation in which we find ourselves. The challenge of the Gospel is that we have to work at it. One of the most beautiful of the collects, the prayers that are a part of our liturgy, calls us to “read, reflect and inwardly digest.” Those are good instructions for today’s Gospel, and for all of God’s word.