The challenges of God

Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :-  Ever since the work of Freud we have come to think about dreams in a certain way, as revealing of early trauma in the lives of the dreamer who was subsequently considered ‘helped’ or ‘cured’ by their exploration. In other words, it is all about the self, gaining greater understanding and hopefully more control of ourselves and our environment. In principle then the interpretation of dreams in modern times is introspective, personal and self serving.

Yet for the ancient world dreams, or as they can be described, visions, were messages from the divine, whether pagan, Jewish or Christian. The gods in pagan thought were known to be dangerous and fickle beings, best not approached directly for fear of serious damage. The gods were believed to communicate with mortals through events like dreams, at a safe distance; and healing shrines frequently had large dream chambers where people would spend the night awaiting contact with the divine. The story of Judaism has numerous incidents of dreams (Jacob) or visions       (Ezekiel) and here First Isaiah (7:10-14) in which prophets communicated with God. What is significant about these Biblical encounters is that their content was not limited to the personalised and on the whole rarely helpful to the recipient, often quite the opposite. They were messages for the Hebrew nation, frequently full of values which contradicted those of the king and court ,and which usually meant a severe telling off for the leader whose religious policies had led the nation astray.

The context for today’s reading from Isaiah is the vision of First Isaiah who criticised the Judean King Ahaz. Now Ahaz was a young and inexperienced ruler at the time of the increasing power of Assyria. He was also facing threats from Israel and the Syrians to his north. As part of his policy to placate the gods on behalf of Judah he had just burned his son to death in the Valley of Hinnom outside Jerusalem. Isaiah was incandescent with rage, foretelling the collapse of the nation because of its desertion of Yahweh, and the vengeance God would take upon the king and his people. It is in this context that he speaks of a true king, of reliable worship of the God of Israel and a return to right thinking.

When Matthew wrote his gospel some 700 years later, he refers to this vision of Isaiah in speaking of Jesus as Emmanuel. But what a very different understanding he has of the child to be born and the meaning of God-is-with-us. Matthew (1:18-24) presents us with a portrait of Joseph, the adoptive father of Jesus, and one also in the Davidic clan line with Ahaz, but with a very different future mapped out both for himself and for Israel. In Matthew’s Gospel Joseph is presented as a regular dreamer of dreams, but in each case these dreams will be focused on the welfare of others often at great personal inconvenience and risk to Joseph himself. Unlike Isaiah, Joseph’s dreams will never involve power, or the retribution of God on a faithless nation, but rather of the self-sacrificial life involved in his taking care of Mary and the child born of her. They will involve flight and becoming refugees and stateless as well as the loss of home and livelihood. It will also involve becoming a social outcast, as he should have given Mary up to be stoned; and even years later on their return to Galilee, that was presumably the stigma that attached to cuckold’s and their illegitimate offspring. Even when as we must presume, he adopted Jesus, we cannot assume that all ran smoothly. Joseph’s dreams cost him dear, and he and his family must have been marked out as different, strange and worrying. Indeed in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life, we will find Emmanuel, God-is-with-us taking faith in Jesus out and away from Judaism to the Gentiles amidst frequent scenes of bitter acrimony and struggle. Matthew, writing in the aftermath of the devastating Jewish War, and reflecting back on the story of Jesus and Christianity, would probably not have looked on Joseph the dreamer in sentimental or sepia colours, but with anguish and heartbreak. It is etched out on every page of his Gospel, which is precisely Matthew’s point; his and the Christian understanding of the Incarnation is meant to be thoroughly troubling, as we are invited to take on board the enormity of what it means for Almighty God to be born in time and live out a human life alongside us.

In the Letter to the Romans (1:1-7) Paul wrote to a Christian community or communities, not of his making but with whom he was in close contact. Although some 20 odd years earlier than Matthew’s Gospel, he gives us a picture of the spread of the faith even as far as the capital city of the Roman Empire, and we should not forget the power of his visionary, Damascus road experience, as he writes of the new relationship between God and humanity forged by the death and resurrection of Jesus. To God’s beloved in Rome… these are words which just roll off our tongues, but when we consider their original context in the late 50’s CE, we begin to appreciate the enormity of the shift in thinking and belief the Jesus event caused. Rome, like other ancient cities, was literally stuffed with statues to the pagan gods and opportunities for sacrifice to them. They were in the theatres, at the courts, in the amphitheatres and theatres, at street corners, in family homes, in the markets and the baths. One writer has stated that ‘demons were as common as microbes’. Into this fervid atmosphere Paul and his colleagues introduced the worship of the One, true God, and not just one more in the huge pantheon, but one, sole and unique. One who had been born in time and lived among ordinary human beings, enabling us all to have a completely different understanding of God and his relationship to his creation. And all hinged for a moment on Joseph the dreamer……