Did you know that five of the top twenty all-time, world-wide best-selling music singles are Christmas songs? They include: Do They Know it’s Christmas? Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer. All I Want for Christmas is You and Silent Night is in there. Then by far the best selling music single of all time is I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas. It could be the nostalgia, it could be Bing Crosby’s voice, but it also could be the connections we all make to dreams around Christmas. So we are going to discuss dreams this morning.
Today is often called the shortest, darkest day of the year. The longest night. It’s the beginning of winter. The solstice. Many believe Christmas was moved to December 25 during the reign of Constantine to line up with and assume pagan festivals of lights around the solstice.
Too often we divide life between the light we like and the dark we try to avoid. We have talked throughout Advent about how we learn to be afraid of the dark, movies like Star Wars tell us to be wary of the dark side, and darkness often represents all we don’t want. Yet, recall in the Bible God created the night as well as the day. We should not be too quick to dismiss the dark. Most of our dreams come in the dark when we are no longer running around out in the sunshine.
Historians often look upon the Enlightenment, the European intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries emphasizing reason and individualism rather than tradition, as a time when religion was undermined. It’s also been said that times of darkness strengthen faith. Carl Jung exclaimed, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”[i]
The time of consciousness within the darkness of daily life is often when we are asleep and dreaming. In his critique of the Enlightenment, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “The dream may lead us deeper into the secret of nature than a hundred concerted experiments.” For the dreams we have in the darkness often contain visions of the divine in them. Especially at Christmas. Let us pray. Startle us o God with the light of your truth, the dream of your peace and the reality of your love for each of us. Amen.
Last week we heard the story of Mary the mother of Jesus told through music and scripture. Matthew tells the story from Joseph’s point of view. All that Joseph had planned was for a normal life. He wanted to be a carpenter, marry his fiancée Mary, and have a quiet life in Galilee. But all of those plans were shattered when Mary was found to be with child. Matthew tells us Joseph was an honorable man but was stunned, no doubt, at the news that his fiancé was pregnant in an unexpected way. Joseph was asleep and an angel came to him at night and upended his life with the news through a dream.
In the Christmas story, God enters many lives and brings them to the manger where they find their hope. The one who would grow to explain that to enter the kingdom of heaven one must become like a child. For children dream. Even during the day. My kids spend huge amounts of time dreaming. I have one builder, one cook, one basketball player and one fairy princess. Interestingly they told me this week they all want to move to Florida when they grow up. Adults are too busy most of the time to dream. We have lots of responsibilities, commitments and intentions. Not a lot of dreams.
This is where the darkness can help. For typically our dreams happen at night. When the subconscious, the deeper self, our child-like self, enters in. Then the darkness is our shield. It shields us from busying ourselves to the point of not being in touch with our dreams.
Anything can happen in a dream. Reindeer fly and chimneys reveal toys made by elves. No wonder children enjoy Christmas so much. We adults are too encumbered by our intentions. We think no one is coming in the sky for us. We are too busy. The only things in our stockings of life are what we intend to put there. If we are committed to such an attitude than we close ourselves to the gift, indeed the miracle, of Christmas. Christmas is then just like any other time, another responsibility to attend to. An event to be explained.
I love the story of the woman who woke up from a dream Christmas Eve morning and remarked to her husband, “I just had a dream in which you gave me the most beautiful diamond necklace, what do you think it means?” “You’ll find out tomorrow,” replied her husband. The women could hardly think of anything else all day. The next morning when they awoke the man gave his wife a small wrapped package. She opened it with great anticipation to find a book inside entitled, The Meaning of Dreams. Don’t try that at home guys.
The thing about understanding the meaning of dreams is that dreams aren’t planned. The thoughts Joseph had when he went to bed were not the dreams he received. What a dream he received. I went to bed a couple of nights ago thinking about the meaning of Christmas and all I dreamt about was the new Hobbit movie.
There is more going on when we dream than we may realize. A September article in the Washington Post referenced a recent study in the periodical, Current Biology, in which subjects were given words or sounds to respond to while asleep, and it was clear that even while asleep, the subjects’ brains actively responded to the words and sounds in the same biological way as an awake person would if they were making decisions, as if the people were making decisions while asleep.[ii] As if making decisions while dreaming.
Theologian Barbara Brown Taylor points out that in Biblical times, before humans had tamed the darkness with artificial light and condensed sleep to seven or eight hour blocks, people this time of year used to be in the dark fourteen or more hours a day. Around prolonged times of darkness, studies have found, people often stay in bed and hover between sleep and rest, in a state of semi consciousness that “supplies rich resources for myth and fantasy”[iii] and visions.
Perhaps that’s why dreams were so important in Biblical times. It’s not just our New Testament Joseph. When Jacob had fled his family and, exhausted, lay down in the middle of nowhere and fell asleep, he had a dream of a ladder reaching towards heaven, with bright angels climbing up and down on it, and God says “Behold, I am with you,” as God does at Christmas.
In the Old Testament, a man named Joseph had a dream of greatness. Yet his dream turned into a nightmare as he was captured, sold into slavery, framed and thrown into prison. His dream had become a nightmare. Until God’s faithfulness used Joseph to interpret a pharaoh’s dreams, save a people and fulfill the dream God had given him.[iv] God’s will is done in judgment of Pharaoh. Angels speak to New Testament Joseph in a dream later on telling him to flee to Egypt.
As a preacher and leader, Martin Luther King asked for a dream. He said “I have a dream.” Not a plan, but a dream. A dream for racial justice. I have held that thought in my imagination these past weeks as more protests calling for deeper conversations about racial justice line city streets. As the cry of “I can’t breathe” has graced sports jerseys and been lifted up with such force that leaders on all sides have called for investigation of the justice system. What would Dr. King say about his dream?
Many of us dream of peace. I look this week at significant violence in Pakistan, Australia and here in America. I think about careers, governments, offices, even churches. We have lots of agendas. We need more dreams. God has dreams for us here at Bradley Hills if we are willing to receive them. If we allow it Christmas can help us to dream again, for that is what children teach us.
Joseph was visited by an angel when he had fallen asleep. Arianna Huffington’s new book, Thrive, argues that one of the keys to success in life is getting more sleep.[v] She writes that after making a commitment to get more sleep each night she has experienced an intensity in her dreams. She describes it as like “reuniting with an old flame….where far from shutting us off from ‘the real world’ dreams open us to a timeless place where we listen to our souls.”[vi]
When we are in the light we are busy acting out our responsibilities and commitments. When we are quiet and asleep in the dark, we come back to where we are rooted. To the dreams that have been with us since childhood.
Now we move towards the dream that is Christmas. We have gone through the darkness of Advent and learned to love the darkness. God in the darkness. Darkness connects us to our deeper self. Darkness is where we most often dream. As Joseph’s example demonstrates, the dream of God for God’s people, includes God’s hope, God’s saving love and God’s presence, Emmanuel, God with us.
The thing about dreams is we typically receive them in the dark. Even day dreams tend to transport us to someplace outside whatever we are looking at. Night dreams are literally in the dark. Darkness helps magnify the mystery of it all. When we are in the darkness of life we have to trust. To walk in the darkness we have to go forward on faith. That is why angels sometimes help us to not be afraid to go forward into a dream. Yet we try so hard to stamp out the darkness of our lives through the brightness of activity that we don’t have room for the dreams.
Joseph said yes to an angel’s dream; to the idea of God being with us. There might be an angel visiting you this Christmas. Will we say yes to the angels who tell us to give thanks and say yes to our dreams? Maybe saying yes to a dream about someone you care about through whom God works. Or perhaps you will be the angel for someone in the darkness of their life.
It all depends on our view of God. Is God Emmanuel? Is God with us? If so, much as we are accompanied in the darkness, we don’t go alone into our dreams.
“It came upon a midnight clear, that glorious song of old; from angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold. ‘Peace on the earth, goodwill to all, from heaven’s all-glorious King.’ The world in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels sing.” God brought the hosts of heaven to sing in the midst of the darkest times. For God’s dream for you and for me and for the world is coming closer.
This is the final Sunday before Christmas. We have now moved through the darkness of Advent into the blue of the night sky just before dawn. Religious organizer Edwin Cole once said, “Expectancy is the atmosphere for miracles.” Like Mary and Joseph we are expecting something. On Christmas Eve the light of dawn will break through with the birth and light of the Christ child and we will never be the same.
I love the way Peter Gomes wrote of the Christmas dream, “We have seen God…. and move about…bearing the mark of the encounter forever, and marveling in the darkest night of the soul at that wondrous star-filled night.”
For the dream that is Christmas came upon a midnight clear. It came in the dark streets of Bethlehem where shiniest the everlasting light. It comes after dark this Wednesday. It comes into the darkest time of the year. It comes to give us faith. Because faith is required to walk in the midst of darkness. In it, dreams are born. Childlike wonder is renewed. A dreamer can reappear.
At Christmas we see a vision of hope in Christ’s birth that emerges in the deepest darkness of the night, a hope that connects our lives with God’s great dream for all the earth. From that dream comes a child who can change us and the world if we let it. May it be so. Amen.
[i] Barbara Brown Taylor. Leaning to Walk in the Darkness. Pp. 44-47. P. 86. This book has been such an inspiration for me this Advent and for this sermon series.
[iii] Taylor. P. 152.
[iv] Taylor. Pp. 44-47.
[v] Arianna Huffington. Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder. Harmony Books, New York. 2014. Pp. 84-86.