When I was 9 years old, my brother Don enlisted in the Army. It was the Vietnam era. Men like my brother were at high risk of getting drafted. 58,000 American soldiers died during that war.
Most of the drafted were working-class and rural youth, like my brother. Blacks made up a disproportionate number. Civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. criticized those disparities. Economic class and race definitely played a role in who fought and died in Vietnam, as it does in most wars.
Growing up in a poor family in a small town, my brother had limited choices. So, when Don graduated from high school, he decided to sign up, because the military promised enlistees more control over where they might be placed. And they held to that promise. During his first three years, Don spent most of his time in Germany. But after re-enlisting, Don got sent to Vietnam.
My mother used to worry about my brother. A couple years after he joined the Army, my mom had a strange dream that scared her. She dreamed that something bad had happened to Don. A few days later, she got a phone call. It was my brother. He told her that he had dislocated a kneecap in an accident at his barracks. Thankfully, it wasn’t more serious. Yet, somehow, the dream warned my mother—before she actually knew—that Don was hurt. Some might call it a sign from God, or clairvoyance, or simply a mother’s intuition. But the dream came true.
Our Gospel reading also has a warning dream. This story of the magi in Matthew’s Gospel is framed by four strange dreams—most of which are not included in today’s lesson. Matthew begins the story of the birth of Jesus with a dream. When Joseph finds out his fiancé Mary is pregnant, he decides to cancel the engagement. Because Joseph knows he is not the real father.
Then Joseph has the first of those four dreams. An angel tells him that Mary is pregnant by the Holy Spirit, and the child will be called Jesus. It’s no coincidence that Joseph is a dreamer. Just like his namesake Joseph in the book of Genesis. You probably remember that fact from the musical, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Joseph had many vivid dreams. Dreams foretelling the future of himself and his family in Egypt.
That’s the kind of Joseph our Gospel writer has in mind. After waking from his dream, Joseph’s life changes. Joseph gets married. He names his adopted child “Jesus”—which means “God saves,” or “God rescues.” Joseph believes the promises of God despite the evil around him.
Then the magi enter this curious tale.
You might notice that the Christmas story in Matthew is very different that the one in Luke. For here in Matthew, there are no shepherds, no sheep, no manger, no singing angels. Only in Matthew is Jesus born in the house where his parents live. Only in Matthew do we meet the magi, those wise foreigners with their strange predictions. Only in Matthew do we see the star that guides them. Only in Matthew, do we hear these four dreams. The second dream of the series comes to the magi at the end of today’s lesson—warning them not to return to Herod.
History tells us that Herod the Great was a wicked, paranoid king. For political reasons, he even murdered three of his own sons. The magi had reason to fear he might target them once he found out where Jesus was born. That’s what tyrants do, to maintain power. They kill religious leaders and dissidents—even journalists. For Herod feared that Jesus was God’s candidate for king of the Jews. And King Herod hated anyone who challenged his authority.
But the magi are not just dreamers. They are also subversive resisters. They defy their ruler to save an innocent child’s life, and to obey God. They wake up from their dream and go home another way.
After the Magi leave, Joseph the dreamer has the third dream. An angel warns this father to flee to Egypt because Herod wants to kill his stepson Jesus—a terrifying prophecy. A dream that becomes real. For Herod sends troops to Bethlehem, who kill all the babies under the age of two.
The early Church called this event “the Massacre of the Innocents,” and created a day of remembrance on December 29. Today we would call it a mass killing. Historians argue about the number of deaths. Some say 14,000 babies were murdered. Others multiply that total by ten, to 144,000. The Catholic Encyclopedia suggests those numbers are greatly inflated—that since Bethlehem was just a tiny village, no more than twenty children were killed.
But twenty is still a lot. Compare that to the three people killed on Friday by a shooter at a bowling alley in California. Or the two Guatemalan children who died last month in our detention camps—a boy and a girl who came to this country with their parents, dreaming of a safer and better life for their families.
Felipe, an 8-year-old boy, died just past midnight on Christmas Day morning. The father had to call his wife in Guatemala with the tragic news. The father is still in custody. It’s a living nightmare for that family. Like them, Joseph and Mary and Jesus had to flee their country. They cross the border to Egypt, where they live for a few years. Until Joseph has the fourth and final dream. An angel tells him that King Herod has died. That now it’s safe to return to their homeland.
Not many refugees today have that kind of dream come true. In our modern world, wars often kill as many innocent adults and children as soldiers. For example, during the Vietnam War in which my brother served, at least 1.3 million died, half of them civilians. Wars and their aftermath also cause the mass emigration of individuals and families—such as the two million refugees who fled Southeast Asia to the United States after the fall of Saigon in 1975.
I believe we as Christians are called by God to dream and work for a better world for the refugees and immigrants among us. God calls us to be dreamers like the original Joseph in Egypt. Dreamers like the Joseph in this Gospel story. Dreamers like the foreign-born Magi. Whose dreams reveal a God who loves the outcast, and cares for the weakest among us. Whose dreams show us the love of mothers and fathers for their children, even in the face of danger and fear. Whose dreams speak to us today. Of a God who choses to be born as a child refugee. Of a God whose love transcends all hatred, all xenophobia, all racism embodied in our society.
Of a God who became one with us in Jesus, who proclaims the reign of God in this world now.
Of a God who becomes part of our human story. Who enters our pain and sorrow, our hopes and dreams.
And calls us to do the same for one another. Amen.
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Gospel Lesson: Matthew 2:1-12
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: "And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.' " Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.