Does God speak to us in dreams?
At Christmas time we hear a huge amount about Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Christians have venerated her for centuries, but what of Joseph? He trusted in God in the most difficult of circumstances. His fiancée had become pregnant out of wedlock and instead of rejecting both her and the child, he decided to marry her and make the child his own. His decision impacted the lives of Mary, Jesus, and all of us forever. What a guy!
Sometimes society, including the church, can promote masculinity as a need to be in charge, take the lead, and be in control, however masculinity can take many forms and Joseph’s quiet and humble acceptance of Mary’s calling is a healthy corrective that many of us, in today’s still-male-dominated culture, need to hear.
We read in Matthew’s gospel that Joseph had planned to quietly dismiss Mary, and just as he had resolved to do so he encountered an angel in a dream. The angel said, “Joseph, son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She’ll bear a son, and you’re to name him Jesus, for he’ll save his people from their sins.”
Now, I do not know about you, but if I have a vivid dream, I usually think it is because I had too much cheese before going to bed. So what was it about this dream that led Joseph to change his mind?
Dreams are powerful and, contrary to popular opinion, we dream in all the phases of our sleep. Dreams in the early part of the night tend to be more stressful or threatening, and dreams later in the night seem to be more positive. Despite most dreams being bland, occasionally we have dreams that disturb us, challenge us, or inspire us, and Joseph’s dream was one of those.
Researchers do not know why we dream but there are three prevailing schools of thought and all three may be true. Firstly, that we are replaying memories, typically from the day — subconsciously strengthening, protecting, and integrating them into our consciousness. Secondly, that we are reliving minor or major traumas under controlled or safe circumstances to better enable us to deal with the painful emotions. And thirdly, that we are solving problems by thinking about events in our lives and subconsciously coming up with creative solutions — solutions that often spill over into our consciousness as we remember the dream upon waking. However, Christians assert that there is a fourth category of dream, and that is a dream that is also a message from God. I do not know why God speaks to us in dreams — whether visions as we are awake or night dreams as we sleep. Part of me thinks that we fill our days with so much busyness that speaking through dreams is the only time God can get a word in edgeways! However, I also wonder if everyone is different and God speaks to us all in different ways, therefore, for some of us, occasionally, it will be through a dream.
We may never know what it was about the dream that led Joseph to change his mind, however there are a couple of interesting and notable things in the message from the angel.
In first century Palestine, Jewish men were known as the son of their father, therefore, for example, I would be Gavin, son of Alan. We know that Joseph’s father was called Heli, and so Joseph would have been known as Joseph, son of Heli, however, the angel called Joseph, “son of David.” This phrase has massive symbolic ramifications because the prophecies about the coming Anointed One or Messiah would be through the line of King David, one of the ancient kings of Israel. Was the angel reminding Joseph of his lineage and his importance in adopting the unborn baby as his own? Perhaps.
Also, in first century Palestine it was the custom for the father to name their own child using a family name, however, the angel asked Joseph to name the child Jesus. Firstly, being asked to name the child meant that God was endorsing Joseph as the unborn child’s father, and the use of a non-family name conveyed the importance of Joseph recognising that the child was more than special.
Whatever it was about this strange dream, Joseph listened and obeyed, and we know he and Mary went on to have other children, and that he protected his family, and that his children grew up healthy and strong — a testament to his duty to fatherhood.
At Christmas time we do not often mention Joseph, this quiet, humble man that exhibited remarkable resolve and commitment, but we give thanks for him, and when us fathers are tempted to abuse, disengage, or give-up on our families, we remember his example, and pray that, like Joseph, God will speak to us and guide us too.