The Dark Night, the Big Dream
The Rev. Charles Hoffacker
Today I’d like to talk with you about that young man Joseph, what happens to him, and what happens to us. In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
We have come to the darkest time of year. The velvet black curtain of night falls in the late afternoon, and remains in all its deep jet beauty until after we arise the next day from sleep. Daytime appears as a short interlude between one majestic night and the next. The deep winter night feels spacious, at times almost overwhelming, an uneasy place, yet one we inhabit as a refuge. We have come to the darkest time of all the year.
We have come as well to a dark time for that young man Joseph. He does everything he needs to do in preparation for his wedding. Then what he never imagined would happen, happens. His fiancee is pregnant. He knows he is not the father. Suddenly his world shatters, as when a stone hurled by a child shatters ice on a pond.
This is the deep winter night of young Joseph’s life. In his twenty years, he has never encountered something that has left him so out of control. A decent man with an open, gentle face, he grasps for the least destructive solution that his world allows. The engagement, broken beyond repair by this infidelity, will be declared dead. The girl will be sent back home in quiet shame, where she and her child will live out their days beyond the circle of respectability.
It’s not a solution that leaves Joseph satisfied; it does little to dissolve his anger, shame, and hurt. However, just as once he could not imagine his engagement shattering in this way, so now he cannot picture any better resolution.
In this deep winter night of young Joseph’s life, he takes to his bed. In this season of sorrow and shattered dreams, he hibernates. He sleeps the sleep of the exhausted, the vanquished, and it is a fitful sleep.
To Joseph in that slumber there comes a dream. It is not some small dream, the result of a bit of undigested potato or a daylight triviality demanding his attention. What comes to Joseph is a BIG DREAM. As spacious as the deep winter night, and far more overwhelming. This dream is an uneasy place for him to be, for yet again he feels out of control as never before.
The dream speaks with the voice of command. He’s told to take Mary, pregnant Mary, as his wife. He’s told not to be afraid. He’s reminded that he’s more than just a young guy trying to get started in life, who earns his keep one day at a time. His family tree includes King David, and others of Israel’s best and brightest. Though Joseph now feels like a pauper, underneath he knows he’s a prince.
The dream does more than just pump him up, however. He finds out strange things about this unborn child, whose face or name or sex he had not begun to imagine. The father is not some lout from the village who would dare take advantage of Joseph’s fiancee. This child was conceived by the Holy Spirit. God’s the father! Not Joseph, not any man in Nazareth.
The dream gives this baby, yet to be born, both a name and a mission. He’s to be named Jesus, a name that means savior, healer, the one who rescues. He’ll have the same name as Moses’ sidekick Joshua, who brought Israel into the promised land. He’ll have a similar mission to perform. Not to deliver God’s people from slavery in Egypt, but out of slavery to their sins.
A line from an old prophecy of Isaiah rolls around inside this vast, majestic dream. Something about a virgin who has a baby, a baby named Emmanuel, in other words, “God with us.” Joseph learned that verse in childhood. He had no idea then what it would come to mean to him.
When Joseph awakens from the dream, and lies in his bed in a cold sweat, and wonders if he’s losing his mind, one thing’s for certain: his troubles are not yet over. He’s still got a pregnant fiancee, his relationship with her about to collapse. It’s still a darker night than he has ever known before in his young life. But there’s a difference now: a torch is blazing against this winter blackness.
It takes a while for the dream to settle into Joseph’s heart and will. At breakfast that morning, he acts like a zombie. Later at the work site, he bends nails rather than hammer them straight, splinters wood rather than sawing it cleanly. Finally he comes to see that this big dream, still echoing in his head, is nothing less than God’s message to him, an angel speaking a word even more startling than the news that Mary’s pregnant.
Much to his surprise, against his will, contrary to his better judgment, he recognizes the dream as the revelation of a larger purpose than his own comfort or discomfort. The problem is still in place, but now Joseph recognizes that there is power in that problem. What looks for all the world like a burden is there to offer all the world a blessing.
Joseph retains his right to be perplexed, but he no longer feels afraid. He will follow through on his intention to marry, the child in Mary’s womb he will raise as his own, and God will be the one to put together the pieces, make sense of this puzzle.
Joseph’s task is to be Joseph. Nothing more, nothing less. God’s task, on the other hand, is to make this child a savior, an Emmanuel, as he promised in the dream. And that will be enough to do, even for God.
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During this dark time of year, I mark the anniversary of my baptism: forty-eight years ago last Thursday since, a baby in arms, I was brought to the font in St. Mary’s Church, Wayne, Pennsylvania.
This dark time of year is indeed an opportunity for each of us to remember our baptism. For our baptism is our plunging into a dark time with Jesus, not the season of winter, but rather the time of his death. In baptism we die along with Jesus. We descend with him into that cold night.
To live in fidelity to our baptism means to listen to the big dream and heed the call not to be afraid. In our baptism, our burial, and all the deaths in between, there is a larger purpose that waits to be revealed.
Whether or not any particular death is what we deserve, there is power in our problem. There in that moment when, like young Joseph, we seem to lie dead to all hope, there is power in our problem. The burden waits to reveal the blessing.
That purpose and that power and that blessing exist beyond our control. Our choice is whether we will harken to the dream, obey the angel, be attentive and take action. Will we send the mother away as someone impure, dismiss the angel of the dream as a fantasy, or will we hearken, though God speaks in strange ways: through the woman’s womb and the angel’s words? As always, the choice is ours.
So there is new life beyond each subsequent darkness. In the problem there shines the power. What hangs as the heavy burden has hidden within it the blessing.
However life is for us, the odds are we are not yet through with dark winter nights. We cannot wish away these experiences any more than we can skip the solstice.
But what you and I can do when caught deep down in some dark winter night, what you and I can do is dare to listen to the dream, to heed the good angel sent to us. This is what it means to have faith: we cannot dismiss what is fearful, but we can choose not to be afraid.
The dark night can become for us yet another baptism. We can find that Jesus is not absent. He is already there, down in those black depths. He wants us to experience our dilemma as an occasion when power will be released. He knows our burden can be a blessing even as his birth and his cross are rich with blessing.
Your dark time or mine can be the road to a larger purpose. What poor young Joseph first sees as a disaster, and the ruin of all his hopes, turns out to be Emmanuel, God with us, the one who calls to us during winter nights that we may share with him in resurrection.
I have spoken to you in the name of the One who sends us big dreams, even in the darkest season: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
— Copyright 2001, the Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.