In today’s Gospel reading we heard the words, “An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream,” three times. The first time those words occurred was while Joseph was still in Bethlehem soon after the wise men from the East had left to return to their own country by another road than that by which they had come. (Mt. 2:13) They did that so that they might evade King Herod, about whom they themselves had been warned in a dream not to return. (Mt. 2:12) This story has in it all of the elements of a spy story with intrigue, and vengeful slaughtering of innocents.
Those words occurred the second time in Egypt at the time of Herod’s death. (v. 19) This time it said that an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph. The third time was after the return of the Holy Family to Israel when they heard that Archelaus was ruling in Judea in place of his father Herod. (v. 22)
When Joseph heard that Archelaus was reigning in place of Herod he was afraid tofind a home in Judea . Presumably he would have settled in Bethlehem , the hometown of Joseph’s ancestor David. But Joseph’s fears were confirmed by the third dream, in which reference was made to the messianic prophecy that the Messiah would be called a Nazorean. (v. 23)
With all of those references to dreams one might be led to think about the teachings of Carl Jung. I must admit, however, I have not really studied Jung, as I suppose I should have in this modern age. It is very likely that Jung did write about the way in which dreams figure into so many of the stories in the Bible, but I think that there is more to the references to dreams than just a study of psychology.
Throughout the O.T. dreams figured significantly for many of the principal patriarchs and prophets. It seems that sometimes God spoke directly to those leaders of the Hebrew people, or through his angels. At other times God spoke in dreams. Dreams seem to appear less frequently as in influencing factor in the N.T., except in such a book as the Revelation to John, which is made up primarily of visions. In later Church History visions and dreams played significant roles, too. One example would be the book called Revelations of Divine Love, by Dame Julian of Norwich in 14 th Century England . I didn’t have time to do research on the many other examples of this in preparation of this sermon, but it would be a worthwhile project for someone, if such a book has not already been written.
I can speak from my own experience that there have been times when I was faced with a difficult decision, or a problem to be solved, the solution, or the right decision came to me during the night in the form of a dream. I am sure that some of you may have had the same experience. This has varied from the simple working out of problems in homework during school days to matters related to vocation laterr on. I remember times when I was I frustrated by some problem and would give up and go to bed. In the middle of the night suddenly the answer would come to me. When the problem has been one of where I might have mislaid, or lost something I have also gone to bed hoping that I might remember where the lost item might be. But awaiting the answer in a dream is not really a consistent guide for recovering lost articles. We should be thankful when it does work on occasion.
There is one great danger in regard to depending upon revelations coming in dreams for the solution to life’s problems. That is the danger of becoming unreasonably dependent upon dreams, and failing to make a distinction between those dreams that are truly revelations of the truth, and those that are fanciful products of the subconscious mind and the imagination.
As someone has put it, sometimes a dream that is very realistic and vivid may be just the product of an overly rich meal.
All of you are probably aware of the traditional Anglican test for spiritual truth, the three legged stool of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. This test may be very useful in determining whether or not a dream is a divine communication. In the light of modern scholarship though there are some cautions in regard to how and where we apply that test. Biblical studies have shown us that Holy Scripture has to be tested by the other two factors, and by a sociological study of the times in which various parts of the Bible were formulated, written, and translated.
Tradition has also come to be open to question. Just to say, “That is the way we have always understood it” is often not enough. Similarly to say, “that is the way in which we have always done it” is not a good way of defending the status quo. To stick rigidly by the way we have always believed, or have always done things can be stultifying and can impede progress. I recently read somewhere that Experience is a fourth measuring rod, which might be substituted for Tradition. By comparing the image, or message, that we felt that we had received in a dream with our experience of life, so far, can be a test to see whether that dream or vision rings true.
Reason is the final leg of our three-legged stool. It is the application of reason to experience that can usually provide the test of truth.
Having said all of this, I can go on to say that in normal circumstances we ought not to discount the possibility that God can speak to us in dreams, as he did to Joseph, in today’s Gospel reading, and to the Wise Men in those verses just before today’s reading, to Jacob traveling from Beer Sheba to Haran to find a wife, when he slept and dreamed at Bethel of a ladder reaching up to heaven, and also to numerous saints of old time, and of more recent time. We have to use our instincts, tested for truth by a careful, reasoned understanding of Scripture, checked against our experience, balanced by what we have learned from tradition, and prayerfully entrusted to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. By these means we may find God speaking to us sometimes in our dreams.
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