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Daring to Dream: The Fourth Sunday of Advent

Sunday, December 22, 2019:
Isaiah 7:10-16
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-25

There’s a story I recall from quite a few years ago, about a boy — I imagine him with thick-framed glasses like the kid, Ralphie, from the Christmas Story movie. One cold December night between Christmas and New Year’s, not a creature was stirring, save for Ralphie (or whoever he was). And not only stir, but, in fact, he was sleepwalking.

He lurched and lumbered down the hall and into his parents’ bedroom. He shook the bed and pulled on the sheets and finally he woke one of them. “Mom, mom,” he said. “I need to go to the bathroom.”

“Alright, just go ahead!” She hadn’t yet clued in that she was dealing with an unconscious, zombie-like version of her young son.

“Mom, mom!” he repeated. “I need to go!”

She started to catch on to what was happening, so she humoured him, having heard stories that it was bad to wake and startle a sleepwalker. So she got up, took her son the ten feet to the bathroom, and there at the doorway Ralphie stopped in his tracks.

“I can’t get in!” he despaired.

“Would you please just get in there so I can get back to bed!” Nothing like this had ever happened before.

“But I don’t have any money!” the boy replied. “I can’t get in.”

“What does money have to do with this!” the now exasperated mom shot back.

“I need some coins…” her zombie son droned.

And then she clued in to what was going on. Just a few days earlier they’d given him his most favourite gift of the season: a gum ball machine, just like the ones he loved from the mall and the arcade. And since then he’d filled his days with the shiny red machine, and his mouth with its multicoloured gum balls. And apparently the exercise of stuffing every penny, nickel, dime, and quarter he could find into the slot of that gum ball machine had become so ingrained in her son’s mind that now his subconsciousness was telling him that he now had to pay to enter the bathroom.

And she’d thought that she’d done so well avoiding video games and action figures. But, beyond belief, it was this vintage gum ball machine that had troubled her son’s sleep. To say the least, it expanded her understanding of “visions of sugarplums danced in their heads.”

Maybe this time of year, as you gather with family and feel the sentimental spirit of the season, funny stories like this get remembered and shared. Or maybe the stress of the season (or the stress, I should say, of the secular, materialistic trappings of the season) might lead to some sleepless nights and confusing, jumbled fever dreams. Just the other night, right before waking up and writing I had a dream about an abandoned Cadillac stuffed with luggage and a passport. And there was something about abandoned homes and stores. As I thought about it, it seemed clear that the luggage and passport were hangovers of some of my concerns during my recent trip to China. And the abandoned buildings were probably just allusions to features in the 600-page post-apocalyptic vampire novel I read on airplanes and before bed, while away. I don’t think there’s much of a message for me to decipher in that dream. But it does serve as a reflection of what recently has been occupying my mind.

So — we might ask ourselves — in this season that precedes Christmas — the season of Advent, the season of hoping for the future, hoping for signs from, or even just ‘of’ God: what role do dreams play in this? What do our dreams mean to us? What is our ‘dream’ for ourselves, or our world, for this coming year? Or what nightmares are we hoping to shake off — to leave behind, or, fend off?

A few weeks ago, during the ice storm, we lit the first candle on the Advent wreath, and so began a new year in the Church’s calendar. At that time we moved from what’s dubbed “Year C,” where the third Gospel is the basis of most of the readings, back to “Year A,” where we rely mostly on the Gospel of Matthew. And for that author, something that sets the work apart from the other gospels, there’s an interesting emphasis on dreams. It’s a motif that pops up, like a familiar theme that’s repeated throughout a movie soundtrack. “just when [Joseph] had resolved to [divorce Mary], an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid…”

In a dream the magi will be warned to not trust the unscrupulous King Herod, and so they go home the long way, to avoid being intercepted.

In a dream the new parents will be warned about Herod’s panicked, reptilian response to their baby’s birth, and the magi’s betrayal. And they’ll rush off to safety in another country, where Jesus will spend part of his early life. A dream will bring them back home after King Herod’s death. And another dream confirm for them that, even though that initial threat is gone, they need to be wary of others — perhaps anybody — holding high office in the land, leading them to head northward to Nazareth. (Incidentally, one Anglican theologian was known to have remarked that it’s a mistake to assume that national leaders act virtuously and rationally; for the experience itself is a “dehumanizing ordeal, harmful to both sanity and conscience.”) [William Stringfellow, An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land]

And much later, where in a different context Jesus leaves the relative safety of the north for what is certain danger in the south, the wife of Pontius Pilate will suffer because of her dreams, concerning the persecution of the “innocent man.”

In each of these examples the gospel writer frames God’s direction — God’s nudges and God’s warnings — as dreams. In the first reading, from several hundred years before Jesus’s birth, we find not the explicit wording of ‘dream,’ but of something not so dissimilar: “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” (Let it be as big or small, good or bad, pleasant or troubling as you want.) What’s happening is that King Ahaz has found the experience of leadership to be “harmful to both sanity and conscience.” He’s in a tough spot where he’s seeing one rival empire rising up to one side, while other rivals are joining together in an alliance. If they nothing they risk destruction from all sides. If they align with one side, they risk destruction from the other. It’s a no-win situation. But into this God speaks of a third way: “ask a sign of the Lord your God.” In other words, “trust in me.” Step away from human anxiety, and over-planning, and seeing life as a tit-for-tat game of chess, and instead, enter into the realm of dream: of hope, of our innermost, sometimes confusing yearning, of trusting in a force of love out there that our rational brain resists fathoming (let alone trusting.)

‘Trust in me, ask me for a sign’ God says. But Ahaz dares not. And things go badly. He chooses one side, that gives momentary safety. But in the end this leads to destruction and desecration in their religious centre. In spite of this, there is some hope over the horizon, when a new leader is raised up in the next generation: a promised child that brings reform and rediscovery of their roots. And of course much later, the Christian Church will find resonance in these same words, and apply them to Jesus, as one bringing reform and unity, and new life.

So… for us today, we’re being invited to be people who dream. Some might have experiences not unlike Joseph’s, of experiencing God’s leading in a dream. Others might even have an experience like Mary, in Luke’s gospel, being visited by an angelic figure. We might sometimes ask for signs, or be able to look back on a challenging period, and see them after the fact. Or, we might find that this doesn’t come to us naturally. But the stories today do highlight how our dreams can reveal our fears and our hopes. What’s keeping us awake at night, or the things we’d like to see resolved so that we can finally rest and find peace. Dreams can act as signs, pointing something out, or guiding us one way or other. They show us that often, deep down, we know what we seek, or what to do. In a dream, George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, is reminded that his own feelings of despair and self-loathing aren’t the full story.

To take a leap of faith into the realm of dreams is to dare to align our own hopes with God’s hopes, our vision with God’s vision. It’s no coincidence that Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous address is called the “I Have a Dream” speech. Where he declared that “Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.” And citing the prophet Isaiah, described a vision where “one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”*

May we not ignore, not fear our dreams. And may they bring us into God’s promised future. Amen.

© 2019 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter