Saturday, December 28, 2013

Dream World, Real World

Matthew 2:13-23
Christmas 1 (A)
December 29, 2013
William G. Carter

Now after they (the magi) had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod.

When I was a seminary student, my home pastor invited me to preach on the Sunday after Christmas. I opened up the Bible and discovered why. The shepherds have returned to their fields. The angel choir has flown back to heaven. The wise men have gone home by another way. Now we have a story right out of our own headlines.

Somewhere today it is reported that people in positions of power are heartless, that children are lost, the cruelty trumps charity, that life is cheap. It’s not what we want to hear on the fifth day of Christmas; we prefer to sing of five golden rings. But this is the Real World, we are told. It is heartless, cruel, and cheap.

The news outlets barely let us celebrate Christmas before they released disturbing details about the Sandy Hook shootings, and all the innocents slaughtered up there. Yesterday 1.3 million innocent people and their children lost their unemployment benefits. You have stories of your own, I'm sure.

Then there are massacres like this Bible story which never make it into the secular history books. The Gospel of Matthew reports the fury of Herod because it is provoked by the birth of Jesus. The infant king is born, the established king is furious. All of it confirms what the prophet Jeremiah knew centuries before: this old world is full of wailing and weeping. The Real World is no friend of children.

How fortunate that Joseph should be warned in time! Like his Old Testament namesake, Joseph is a dreamer. That is how God gets through to him. Sometimes after dark, when his eyes are shut and his defenses are down, a wise Voice speaks to him. The first time he heard it, the Voice said, “Take Mary as your wife and the child as your own.” Now the Voice comes again to say, “Take the child and his mother and get out of town.” He gets them up and they go.

We do not know why the Voice does not speak to all the other parents whose children were in danger. That question does not get answered by this story. Neither do we know why the Voice does not haunt Herod and get him to stop. By all accounts, Herod was a nightmare of king who probably had some nightmares of his own. We know from earlier in this story, he was afraid. And when people act out of fear, their judgment is clouded, they do short-sighted things, and other people get hurt.

The stories about him are nasty. Herod married to a woman named Doris. She produced a son, but when he fell in love with his niece and decided to marry her, he got rid of Doris and their son. It went downhill from there. In all, he married ten different women, and eliminated a few of them. Those women bore children who plotted against their father and were suspicious of one another, so Herod got rid of at least three of them. Back in Rome, Caesar Augustus was heard to joke, “It would be better to be Herod’s pig than his son.”

This is the Real World, we are told. When Herod feels his throne wobble, he does whatever he thinks it will take to stabilize it. When a few foreigners from the East come looking for a new king, old Herod decides he won’t take any chances. In fear, in paranoia, he will do whatever he can to preserve his own power. People get hurt.

It’s the children, the most vulnerable, who suffer the greatest. This world is not friendly to children. Even when they are born into privilege, the world is not friendly to them. That’s one of the reasons why I don’t go into shopping malls around Christmas: I hate what the season can do to kids. The most beautiful season of the year has a dark side.

I remember seeing a little girl have a melt-down in a store a few days after the holiday. It got so bad that her mother grabbed her by the hair and said, “I told you that you can’t have another toy. You got a pile of toys on Christmas. I’m here for me, and I should have locked you in the car.” “But Mommy,” screamed the little girl, “I want something more.”  There I was, looking to cash in a gift card, thinking long and hard about what it is that the Real World does to our children.

But today’s scripture text reminds us that there is something more than that. Apart from all our maneuverings, apart from all our power plays, there is another Voice, another script, another world. Call it the Dream World, because Joseph encounters it in his dreams. When Joseph falls asleep, he hears of deep concern for himself and his family. In a Real World of contempt, there is care and protection in the Dream World.

Later on, far off in Egypt, the Voice speaks again: back in Israel, Herod is gone, the threat is over. Bring the child home. In the Dream World, there is wider perspective and deeper knowledge. Beyond a local circumstance, there is a grand plan. It’s curious to note that Joseph does not get the whole picture, but only enough to get through the night and take care of his family. But somewhere in his spirit, he knows there is something about the Dream World that is more real than the Real World.

Christmas offers an annual reminder for us. The story is chock full of supernatural moments in the middle of the mundane. A pregnant girl has her birth interpreted by angels and old people who hang around the temple. Mary and Joseph are required by law to take Caesar’s census, and it takes them the ancestral city of the king; that’s part of the hidden plan. Shepherds are minding their own business at night when suddenly interrupted by angels. In the thick of the Real World as we know it, there is deeper wisdom and an elusive holiness.

I think that’s why so many people like Christmas: it points to something larger, to something grander, to a plan perpetually unfolding yet moving somewhere. Above all the distress we assign to the “Real World,” to the way things normally work, there are glimpses of God’s fingerprints and echoes of angel song. Then just as suddenly, it’s back to business as usual, back to dog-eat-dog, back to daily work and weekly ritual.

So before this Christmas totally recedes, I want to stop and pause and ask, “How has God gotten through to you?” Is there any way that God’s Dream World has invaded your Real World? Is there a moment when you were lifted up, or opened up, and heaven touched down on your patch of earth?

For me, it came Christmas morning. Fortunately in our house, as our kids get older, the morning starts later. I am glad for that, although I confess some impatience when there are some packages in front of me waiting to be opened. We were ready to rip off the wrapping paper, but then my wife had this idea. “Before we get caught up in the rest of the day,” she said, “I want to remind us why we are doing all this.” Then she began to read the Christmas story: “In those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus…” Suddenly the greed in my soul was interrupted by gratitude. Such a simple thing she did, such a holy interruption.

Sometimes when we realize that heaven has come down here, it disturbs and disrupts in the best of ways, and we affirm that we cannot go about our bad habits as we did before. Ebenezer Scrooge wakes up with his life intact, but three ghosts have made him a different man.

Or there is that poem by T.S. Eliot, getting into the head of one of the three wise men. He says:

Were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death. (The Journey of the Magi)

Do you hear what he is saying? He wants to move from the Real World into God’s Dream World. He has had this Heavenly Disturbance where he is no longer content with the ways of kings like Herod.

So the Light of Christmas can be translated into our ethics. If we are sufficiently disturbed by cruelty, we can work to overcome it. If we are awakened by beauty, we can make more of it through our God-given creativity. God sends Christmas to interrupt the so-called Real World with something far more real. There is an unseen dominion of God which Jesus comes to reveal. Making God’s dreams real will be his life’s work. It continues to be his resurrection work. And for those of us awakened by grace, it is given to us by God to be our work.

At Dave Brubeck’s memorial service last May, his wife Iola read a poem about the Dream World that God desires. It’s a poem that guided Dave in his work, just as it guided Dave and his wife in their family life. Here is the poem by Langston Hughes:
I dream a world where man
No other man will scorn,
Where love will bless the earth
And peace its paths adorn
I dream a world where all
Will know sweet freedom's way,
Where greed no longer saps the soul
Nor avarice blights our day.
A world I dream where black or white,
Whatever race you be,
Will share the bounties of the earth
And every man is free,
Where wretchedness will hang its head
And joy, like a pearl,
Attends the needs of all mankind -
Of such I dream, my world!  ("I Dream a World")

You know what I want to do when I hear that poem? I want to make sure that all children are loved and protected.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

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