Psalm 80:1-8, 18-20
One hundred and seventy years ago Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was published: a story of a visionary dream leading to a change of heart.
The tale features Ebenezer Scrooge, who seven years after the death of his business partner Joseph Marley, has become cruel and mean. Scrooge is visited in a dream by the ghost of Marley and warned to change his ways. Marley’s ghostly visitation is followed by three more ghosts who hope to transform his life to one of generous loving.
The Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge back to his childhood, reminding him of innocent times. Next, the Ghost of Christmas Present portrays contemporary scenes, from a joy-filled market with people buying provisions for Christmas dinner to the family of Scrooge’s impoverished employee Bob Cratchit. The message being that Scrooge has responsibilities for others. Finally, The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come presents Scrooge with the spectre of his own neglected grave, for no one loved him.
The visits transform Scrooge, who wakes on Christmas morning with joy in his heart. He sends the Cratchit family a prize turkey and changes his ways for good, living his life with kindness, generosity, and compassion.
Joseph, betrothed to Mary, also had a visitation in a dream. While Scrooge’s character is painted for all to see, we don’t know much about Joseph. He barely gets a mention in the Bible. The greater focus is on Mary, and, of course, Jesus. We might discern some embarrassment, even in the twenty-first century, about Joseph’s role in the story. Teaching on the virgin birth neatly sidesteps any allegations of impropriety, but Joseph is effectively marginalised.
Such marginalisation continues in our carols and cards. Mary features, even if she is sentimentalised as gentle Mary, meek and mild. And yet, it is Joseph which the Biblical genealogical charts reveal is the bridge between Jesus and David, between Jesus and Abraham, between Jesus and those who were central in the story of God’s people Israel.There is something about Joseph.
We don’t know much about Joseph. He’s is a carpenter, probably a rather higher level than a building site chippy – a craftsman, and probably doing very well thank you.His family hails from Bethlehem, but Luke places him in Nazareth. He met Mary, and did a deal with her family to engage her in marriage. Mary may have been a youngish teenager, Joseph rather older.
A small-town engagement. Nothing to set the world alight. Then Mary drops a bomb-shell. She’s expecting. She tells him that it was through the Holy Spirit. He says it’s not down to him.
Joseph decides to do what seems right in a religious and cultural way, to break the engagement without public fuss. While seeking to minimise her loss of reputation, he puts his on the line in a very gentlemanly way. He didn’t act immediately. He slept on it. And at night, Joseph had a dream in which an angel visited him.
An angel visited him, and told him, Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.
As Joseph dreamt on, did a vision of the past seep into his mind? Did he go back to his childhood, to table talk of the hoped for Messiah? Did he remember his parents telling him of his grand ancestry, of the power and influence of his many ‘greats’ grandfather, David, ruling a united kingdom? Did his folks use the psalms at prayers, their family psalms of peace and hope? Did Joseph look back in his dream to a golden age and wonder if it could ever be eclipsed?
How did Joseph dream on? Did he have a perspective on the present, his heart sinking as he took in what Mary was saying?Holy Spirit she said, was she the fool, or was he? Did he see the spectre of the neighbours gossiping? Couldn’t Joseph have waited?Did he re-live the family encounters, the look of disbelief and barely-concealed rage in the eyes of Mary’s father? Or his own family’s questioning? Sweet, they first thought; not so sweet now her starry eyes had been twinkling at another?
I wonder how Joseph dreamed on? Did Joseph’s dream allow space in the future for Mary to be right? What if she really is pregnant by the Holy Spirit? And if so, what will this Jesus mean to me? To others? Did Joseph picture what Jesus would do? And how he would do it? What would saving people from their sins mean? What would God being with us be like in reality? Did Joseph dream of new glory for Israel? Joseph counted himself as son of David. Would this new ruler be known as son of Joseph?
Then Joseph woke. And in the cold light of the morning, he’d have reflected on his dream. Ebenezer Scrooge’s dream changed his life, he sent that prize goose to the Cratchit family, shed his burden of meanness and embraced kindness, generosity, and thoughtfulness.
What about Joseph’s dream? Well, it changed him too. It changed his mind. No more doing the sort of right thing, the conventional act with kindness, instead the engagement would stand, whatever the neighbours, his family or her family said.Decision made.
He took Mary as his wife, cared for her as his wife, especially given her condition. Luke tells of Mary saying yes. Matthew tells of Joseph saying yes. The angel changed his heart. Against the ways of the world he kept Mary by his side, setting the scene for the manger in which God with us would first lay his head.
Or is this truth? That before he was born, Jesus changed lives, replacing doing what seems proper with doing God’s will, replacing self-service with self-sacrifice, replacing hardened heart with love. For Joseph had said yes to the Christ-child.
As we prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birth anew, may we be open to him changing our lives, shining light in the dark corners of our hearts, chasing out the meanness, and filling us with love. A visionary dream leading to a change of heart. As we lay down our heads tonight, may we sense that there may be something about our lives, because of the infant Jesus, and may others see that in us.