Apocalypse Now, and Then!
Dreams for Christmastide: 2015-16
A Sermon preached at the Zabriske Memorial Church of St. John the Evangelist on the 2nd Sunday of Christmastide, January 3, 2016
by The Rev. Dr. Michael J.R. Tessman
Matthew’s Gospel story of the birth and infancy of Jesus includes five dreams. Joseph has four of them; the Magi have the fifth.
In his first dream (1:20) an angel speaks to Joseph in words that echo down to us: “Don’t be afraid!” Joseph was caught between a rock and hard place: the public disgrace of a pregnancy out of wedlock and the pain of a private divorce of Mary. He did what the angel commanded him and endured whatever public scorn he received for it.
In Joseph’s second dream (2:13) God foretells that King Herod [whom the Magi are warned to avoid in the fifth dream (2:12)] intends to kill Jesus, and instructs him to take his family and flee to Egypt for safety. Why Egypt, you may ask?
The political ironies of the flight to Egypt are truly remarkable, especially at a time in history when our nation and world face horrific issues about refugees, and their resettlement. Imagine, the Son of God flees as a refugee to a foreign country that is Israel’s sworn enemy, having oppressed the Hebrew people for over 400 years (Exodus 12:40). The very place where Pharaoh had once unleashed an infanticide against the Israelite children (Exodus 1:6-22) becomes a refuge for Jesus! Just to put this in perspective, imagine survivors of the Holocaust returning to Nazi Germany to seek asylum? [It is worth noting that an indeterminate number of the refugees flooding into Germany today do, in fact, descend from Holocaust survivors!] Jesus has been down that road!
Back to our “dream sequence” a few years later (2:19), in Joseph’s third dream, God instructs him that since Herod has died, the peripatetic family can now safely return to Judea. Yet, upon learning that Herod’s son Archelaus now reigns in place of his father, Joseph rightly fears for their lives, and in a fourth dream (2:22) God instructs him to move his family, yet again, to Nazareth of Galilee.
Four of these five dreams warn of Herod’s plans to kill Jesus, all before he’s two years old! Why, we may ask, does Jesus’ birth announcement include such overt and ominous political overtones about a clash between a Roman Governor and a harmless peasant baby? Might it have something to do with power becoming vulnerable? It’s one thing for power to “lord it over” others, but how much more threatening is it to the overlords when a new “power” enters the scene as a “vulnerable” child?
A longtime friend of mine has written an authoritative book on dreams. I would love to get his spin on this, not to mention that of Sigmund Freud whose Interpretation of Dreams caused its own revolution when was published in 1900. Freud was, and my friend is, Jewish, so I assume they have some authority on the subject!
Scripture has a way of looping back on itself, so it should be no surprise that Matthew’s (the most Jewish of all the Gospels) introduction of “dream themes” is shockingly interpreted by John the Divine in the final book of the New Testament (though there is reasonable doubt as to whether John had access to, let alone ever read, the Gospel of Matthew).
The 12th chapter of the Revelation to John is a birth narrative that you will never hear read at Christmas services nor see illustrated on a Christmas card. It should be! It graphically illuminates all other narratives of the confrontation between Jesus and the cosmic spiritual/political forces, symbolized by Herod’s effort to kill him off as a child. In contrast with the bucolic imagery of the baby in a manger by Matthew and Luke, John the Divine’s birth announcement explodes with apocalyptic imagery worthy of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. A woman is crying out in labor pains as she gives birth to “a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.” An enormous red dragon stands in front of her, waiting to devour the child the moment he is born. The earliest Christians may well have cast the Roman Empire as the beast, an incarnation of human tyranny rather than divine love.
What had Rome done to deserve this outrageous imagery and opprobrium? Didn’t Rome give us highways and aqueducts, a language and architecture, the rule of law and the Pax Romana? To be sure! Yet, they also martyred Jews and Christians and, even more disturbing, made claims that Caesar, the Roman emperor, was divine, taking titles like “son of God” and “Lord.” Consider this inscription from Asia Minor describing Caesar Augustus:
The most divine Caesar. . . we should consider equal to the Beginning of all things. . . Whereas the Providence which has regulated our whole existence. . . has brought our life to the climax of perfection in giving to us the emperor Augustus. . . who being sent to us as a Savior, has put an end to war. . . The birthday of the god Augustus is for the whole world the beginning of good news [the Greek word here is euangellion, “gospel”].
Joseph’s temporal dreams about Herod and John’s cosmic imagery of a savage dragon provoke the question: Who is the ultimate lord and king? Whose birth, in the words of that ancient inscription, is “the gospel for the whole world?”
Is the Roman Caesar lord and god, or is the babe of Bethlehem? Is the “good news” that of Rome’s political power (Russia’s, Israel’s or Palestine’s, Syria’s, ISIS/L’s or the USA’s)? Or is the “good news” LOVE, incarnate only in Christ and in those who choose his lordship? Marcus Borg has written that Rome “designates all domination systems organized around power, wealth, seduction, intimidation, and violence. In whatever historical form it takes, ancient or modern, empire is the opposite of the kingdom of God as disclosed in Jesus.”
Political power, whether in ancient Rome or present day America, is only one of many false gods offering a “gospel of salvation.” Consumerism promises fulfillment, yet alienates us from one another and ourselves. The propaganda of the market-place, regardless of its products, tries to captivate us into its own narrative. The alternative gods we bow down to are endless – sex without love, wealth without generosity, work without a sense of purpose, and knowledge without wisdom.
50 some years ago, priest and peace activist Daniel Berrigan repudiated false gods in his poem Credo –
I can only tell you what I believe;
I cannot be saved by foreign policies.
I cannot be saved by the sexual revolution.
I cannot be saved by the gross national product.
I cannot be saved by nuclear deterrents.
I cannot be saved by aldermen, priests, artists, plumbers, city planners, social engineers,
nor by the Vatican, nor by the World Buddhist Association, nor by Hitler, nor by Joan of Arc,
nor by angels and archangels, nor by powers and dominions.
I can be saved only by Jesus Christ.
This is a clear and contemporary “statement of faith” for our times. When I substitute my own personal idols for some of Berrigan’s examples, it brings home how much I need this salvation right now, today. The 12th Chapter of Revelation is happening before my eyes!
I’ve been known to “have a dream” or two, so I’m going to be paying much better attention to them in 2016.
© Michael Tessman, DMin