After last year's highly appreciated Advent series about angels (RW 37), we have become much more aware of God's messengers and our guardians both in Scripture and in our lives. But that series also started us wondering about what other means God uses to communicate his message to people.
So we looked at the Scriptures. And we discovered that more often than not, God comes to his people in visions and dreams, and that he did so often at the time of Jesus' birth. Luke, who records the visions of Ananias, Cornelius, Peter, and Paul (Acts 9:10; 10; 18:9), informs us that the people "realized [Zechariah] had seen a vision in the temple" (Luke 1:22). Matthew tells us that the announcement of Christ's birth, the warning to flee to Egypt, and the invitation to return to Israel came to Joseph in three dreams; and that the wise men returned home by a different route "having been warned in a dream."
This year we invite you to encourage your congregations to become more aware of the number of times the Word of the Lord comes through visions and dreams in the Bible. The list of Jews favored by such dreams includes Abram, Jacob, Joseph, Samuel, Nathan, Solomon, Daniel, Zechariah, Joseph, Peter, Paul, and Ananias. God also appeared in dreams to Gentiles, most notably to Abimelech, the imprisoned cupbearer and baker in Egypt; Pharaoh; an unnamed Midianite soldier during the days of Gideon; Nebuchadnezzar; the wise men; and Cornelius. Seven books of the Bible are expressly identified as visions: Isaiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Obadiah, Nahum, Habakkuk, and the book of Revelation.
You are especially challenged to search out the Advent character of some of the most memorable and dramatic dream stories in the Bible. This year's Advent series focuses on four biblical characters whose dreams pointed to Jesus and whose lives foreshadowed the coming Messiah. God gave each of them a dream or dreams that had both a fulfillment in immediate history and an ultimate fulfillment in the birth of Jesus. Adding to the excitement is the fact that each dream is encased in a rattling good story that has the potential to capture our imagination and fuel our anticipation!
Perhaps, along the way, we will also be opened to the possibility of hearing God in our own dreams and visions. After all, God promised us as much: "I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions" (Joel 2:28).
This largely untapped aspect of the Spirit-filled life came home to us in three current events involving our congregation. We will tell you the stories and let you be the judge.
Last year our young people led a candlelight service on the Sunday before Christmas that featured the lighting, snuffing, and relighting of numerous candles to various Bible readings highlighting the history of redemption. We sat under long bolts of sky-blue fabric suspended in billowing waves from the ceiling, featuring huge angels at the entrance and the pulpit area of our sanctuary. A mother and her teenaged daughter who were visiting from another town attended the service. Several weeks later the mother wrote this: "On the way home my daughter asked me if I had seen the angels. I said yes, someone had been extremely creative in decorating the church. She rather impatiently said, 'Not those angels—the real ones.' I asked her what they looked like. She said they were very big, very beautiful, and very radiant. How many? Lots and lots. Where were they? A double row down the center aisle and two single rows to either side around the perimeter of the seated area.
"Do we believe her? Yes. She's not the type to make up a story like this; she doesn't even like to talk about it. The answers are the same every time, and she's actually very matter-of-fact about it. She doesn't care if people don't believe it. She knows what she saw and she believes it. Isn't that amazing!"
Four weeks later a young mother shared the following story with a few persons after a morning service. She had woken up from a vivid dream that very morning. In her dream she was at worship in our church. She was able to identify the person who was leading the worship service; she clearly heard a particular hymn being sung, and she saw something happen involving movement of people. On the way to church she shared these details with her husband.
Imagine her amazement when she walked into church only to find the very person she dreamed about leading the service. Not only that, the congregation was singing the very song she heard in her dream. But nothing topped the surprise she felt when she heard our pastor invite all the young people to stand in front of the congregation and then ask all the officebearers to form a circle around them so that our leaders could lay hands on these young people and pray for them during the first-semester exams they were all writing that week. "Imagine," she exclaimed. "I first saw it all in my dream! Just as it happened in church! What do you make of that?"
Then, in the week that Emily Brink called to ask us to prepare an Advent series for Reformed Worship, the pastor got a call from a man in his fifties who had recently professed his faith in our church. This individual, a retired long-haul tmcker, came to us through a referral from the church's radio ministry, the Back to God Hour. Tragically, he had just found out he had a terminal illness.
When he called, his voice was shaking. He had just woken up and seen a vision of the Lord Jesus. "He was standing at the foot of my bed. He was dressed in bright, white clothes. I couldn't make out his face, but I know it was either the Lord or an angel of the Lord." Fearfully he asked what it meant. Is this the day? Is the Lord taking me home? Our pastor asked him how he felt, whether there were any physical symptoms warning him that the time was near. He said no, and the pastor suggested that the Lord was reassuring him of his nearness. Many weeks later this man is still with us, and in pastoral visits he praises God for this reassuring sign of Christ's presence in his life.
The moral of these stories? Pay attention to your dreams. More importantly, pay attention to the dreams and visions in the Bible. They occur more often than we realize. They are recorded in God's Word to point us to the kingdom and the coming Christ.
FIRST SUNDAY IN ADVENT
"STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN"
Old Testament Reading: Genesis 28:10-22
New Testament Reading: John 1:51
It has been said that every religion has to do with humanity's effort to reach God, to connect with heaven. Every religion except one, that is. In contrast to every other world faith, Christianity celebrates a God who takes the initiative and reaches down to humanity.
We see this clearly in the first of our four messianic dreams. Jacob, the deceiver, is on his way to visit his uncle. As a type of Christ we see him leaving home empty-handed and returning twenty years later, his hands full with family and possessions. As a type of Christ we see him receiving God's promise and responding with a vow to submit to the Lord and live sacrificially. As a type of Christ he bears within himself the seed of God's chosen people. And he embodies Christ's teaching that in this new community the last shall be first, the least shall be the greatest, the elder shall serve the younger, and the King of kings shall be a baby and a servant.
But it's the dream that demands our focus. As you examine and interpret it, highlight two significant things:
First, this dream clearly shows God making the first move, taking the initiative. Jacob is passive; he's sound asleep. God is active; he gives the dream, reveals himself, and extends the promise and the blessing.
Second, this dream has a central feature that Jesus applies to himself. It is the stairway that rests on the earth and reaches heaven. There lies Jacob. There stands God. And in between the angels of God ascend and descend continuously on this stairway, representing God's constant communication with us.
Now sharpen your focus and zero in on the stairway itself. Compare it to a bridge which, in order to be effective, must be strong enough to carry the weight of the traffic and be firmly attached to both sides. Who is that stairway? Jesus provides the answer in our text: "You shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending "on the Son of Man" (John 1:51).
Now focus on the coming birth of Christ. Conceived by the Holy Spirit. Rooted in heaven! Born of the virgin Mary. Grounded on earth! As Son of God and Son of Man he is the perfect mediator, the perfect bridge, the stairway to heaven provided by God himself.
Just a dream? We know better. Just an obscure symbol with any number of meanings? Again, we know better. In a place called Bethel, Jacob the sinner had a dream about the coming Savior. And in a place called Bethlehem, his dream became reality. For through Christ's birth the human longing for connection with the divine was fulfilled.
Grace and peace to us all, from God the Father who loves us; from Jesus Christ who came to earth to save us; and from the Holy Spirit who prepares our hearts to receive the Messiah.
Opening Hymn: "O Come, O Come, Immanuel," PsH 328, PH 9, RL 184, SFL 123, TH 194
Hymn of Preparation: "Holy, Holy, Holy," PsH 626, PH 138, RL 611, SFL 66, TH 100
Offertory Hymn: "I Love the Lord," PsH 116
Songs by Children's Choir
"We Are Climbing Jacob's Ladder" (see RW 34:28)
"All Night, All Day," SFL 199
Hymn of Application: "E 4, 7 (see p. 11)
Go in peace, knowing that heaven is open and the Son of Man came down to be our stairway to the Father and his never-ending love.
SECOND SUNDAY IN ADVENT
"EVERY KNEE SHALL BOW"
Old Testament Reading: Genesis 37:1-11
New Testament Reading: Matthew 2:9-12; Philippians 2:6-11
"You gotta serve somebody. It may be the devil, it may be the Lord, But you gotta serve somebody." If Joseph's brothers had heard this Bob Dylan song, they would have been quick to say: "If I have to serve somebody, it sure isn't going to be that spoiled brat of a brother." How, then, are we to interpret Joseph's two dreams?
Joseph, his youthful lack of tact notwithstanding, makes a wonderful type of Christ. From the pit and the prison he is exalted to the highest position of leadership. Under the most tempting and oppressive circumstances he faithfully serves his God and resists sin. During the time of drought and famine, all the world comes to him for bread. And when at last even his brothers arrive for help, he forgives them and reconciles with them in a way that breaks our hearts. Surely he foreshadows Jesus when he reveals his identity to his brothers and tells them, "Do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.... God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance" (Gen. 45:5, 7).
Once again, however, it's the dream that draws our attention. Two similar dreams actually. Two dreams with the same theme—others bowing down to Joseph. And not just any others. His own family.
Sheaves of wheat bowing to his sheaf, which rises up. Sun, moon, and stars bowing down to young Joseph.
Two features about these dreams are worth noting. The first is the lordship of Joseph, which foreshadows the lordship of Jesus Christ. Everything on earth (the sheaves) and everything in heaven (the sun, moon, and stars) will bow down to the Lord. And while we see this dream fulfilled in the miraculous way God delivers the Israelites and settles them in Goshen, we especially find its fulfillment in the lordship of Christ. This lordship is acknowledged immediately by wise men led by a heavenly sign. And as they bow to the Christ child, we think of every knee bowing likewise.
The second feature is the reaction of Joseph's family. His brothers hated him. They despised him, they plotted to kill him, and eventually they got rid of him. Motivated by jealousy, they put him into the ground and out of their sight.
But his sheaf rose again, and they had no choice but to bow.
The brothers' hostile response reminds us of Herod's murderous reaction to the birth of Christ and of all the violence in store for the Christ child. But Jesus' sheaf "rose and stood upright" after all; many knees have bowed, and ultimately everything and everyone on heaven and on earth will bend the knee.
Just a dream? We know better. Just some obscure symbols with any number of meanings? Again, we know better. For from the bowing sheaves and astral hosts we receive our cue: "You gotta serve somebody." That somebody is Jesus. So bend the knee to him who will lift you to your feet and give you the bread of life.
Greeting: Same as week 1
Opening Hymn: "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus" PsH 329, PH 1, 2, RL 183, SFL 122, TH 196
Songs by Children's Choir
"Child So Lovely" SFL 140
"Song of Joseph" SFL 101
Hymn of Preparation: "Christ, Who Is in the Form of God" PsH 227
Offertory Hymn: "He Is Lord" PsH 633, SFL 178
Applicatoiy Hymn: "Be Now My Vision," stanzas 1, 5, 7 (seep. 11)
Go in peace, knowing that Jesus is Lord. Bow your knees before him and give him your hearts. Then he will make you shine like stars to the glorification of our Father in Heaven.
THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT
"THE WAY OF WISDOM"
Old Testament Reading: 1 Kings 3:4-15; 4:29-34
New Testament Reading: Luke 1:11-17
Here's a dream with a timeless theme that brings to mind legendary tales of genies and other generous benefactors: Make a wish. Ask for anything. I'll give it to you. Except in this dream it is God who comes to King Solomon.
Despite his unhappy end, sadly ironic in light of his answer to God's offer, Solomon also functions as a type of Christ. He symbolizes peace. His very name means shalom. His reputation is one of deep insight and learning. He draws scholarly people to himself, just as Jesus at age twelve drew rabbis and at age thirty drew Nicodemus and the best of the Herodeans, Pharisees, and Sadducees. During Solomon's reign no wars were fought, and the temple was built. The memory of this peaceful reign stirred the people's longing for the Messiah, who would restore peace and reestablish God's dwelling among people. Solomon foreshadows Immanuel.
Unlike the previous two dreams, this one features no visual images like a stairway or sheaves of wheat. Instead the dream is a conversation initiated by God. The conversation revolves around Wisdom, which Proverbs pictures as a junction from which two paths go forth: the path that leads to death and the path that leads to life (Prov. 2:9, 13, 18-19). When the angel of the Lord announces the birth of John the Baptist, he says that John will turn the "disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous." And here is the connection between Solomon's dream and Zechariah's vision. Wisdom is choosing the path forged by Jesus. John's purpose is to direct us to the small gate and narrow road that leads to life (Matt. 7:14).
Three significant features in this dream are God's offer, Solomon's answer, and God's generous gift. The offer is significant in that God offers anything. He respects our choice.He takes the chance of having us choose something foolish and selfish. He risks us setting the wrong priorities.
Throughout the Old and New Testaments, God comes to his people with a choice. Choose life or death, blessing or curse; serve me or idols; embrace Jesus or reject my Son. The birth of Jesus confronts all humanity with God's offer. Ask. Choose. What will you do? How will you respond to my offer?
The second feature is Solomon's answer. He answers as a "servant king" (v. 7) and asks for a "discerning heart" (v. 9). He asks for the ability to distinguish right from wrong and the ability to govern with wisdom and justice. He asks for the very qualities we long to see in our rulers. He asks for the qualities only Jesus perfectly possesses. His answer anticipates the Messiah.
The third feature is God's generous response to Solomon's wise choice. We can't help but think of Christ's teaching: "Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well" (Matt. 6:33).
Just a dream? We know better. Just an obscure conversation with little relevance for us? Again, we know better. Solomon's dream is an evangelical dream, a dream through which God asks us what and whom we will choose.
How we choose will affect what we are given. A discerning heart seems like such a small wish. A heart that holds Jesus dear seems like such a small thing. And yet that is all Simeon and Anna longed for, all they hoped to see.
How will you choose? Which path will you take? Will you choose the way of Wisdom?
Greeting: Same as week 1
Opening Hymn: "O Lord, How Shall I Meet You" PsH 331, PH 11, HL 368, TH 156
Offertory: "Seek Ye First" PsH 209, PH 333, RL 263, SFL 155
Hymn of Preparation: "Hail to the Lord's Anointed"
PsH 72, RL 232, SFL 120, TH 311
Songs for Children's Choir
"Emmanuel" TWC l40
"The Wise Man Built His House upon a Rock"
Hymn of Application: "Be Now My Vision," stanzas 1, 2,3, 7 (seep. 11)
Go in peace, welcoming Jesus in your hearts and walking in his way. Go in his wisdom, knowing God's rich blessings and experiencing his favor and peace on the path that leads to life.
FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT
"THE ROCK THAT REALLY ROLLS"
Old Testament Reading: Daniel 2:24-47
New Testament Reading: Ephesians 1:9-10; 3:2-6
Cleveland was awarded the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because a Cleveland deejay first coined the phrase "rock 'n roll" in the fifties. Centuries before Christ's birth, however, God revealed "the Rock that really rolls" before which every kingdom and power, including today's influential music industry, must yield.
Like Jacob, Daniel was confronted with a dream that connected heaven and earth; like Joseph, Daniel was enabled by God to interpret dreams of all kinds; and like Solomon, Daniel was known for his wisdom. But in some significant ways, Daniel's story is unlike that of these predecessors. The dream featured in our passage comes not to him but to a Gentile. Its interpretation comes as a beacon of hope to Daniel and the other exiles during Israel's darkest age. And its purpose foreshadows God's goal of bringing Jew and Gentile together through Christ in a common confession: "Surely your God is the God of gods and the Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries." As a uniquely distinctive type of Christ, Daniel did what Jesus came to do—namely, to make known the Father.
The two central features in the dream are the enormous statue and the rock. You will want to spend some time on the various aspects of the statue. Don't, however, lose your listeners with a too-detailed historical analysis of the Neo-Babylonian, Medo-Persian, Greek and Persian empires. Instead, focus on the rock; because as impressive as the statue was, the rock becomes everything.
How does the rock anticipate the coming Messiah? It is a weapon made and aimed "not by human hands," just as Christ is God's divine offensive against human might. It is a stone that becomes a mountain, just as the infant Christ becomes the Lord of the universe. It is an enduring heavenly kingdom set up by God on earth, whereas other kingdoms are swept away without leaving a trace.
The statue is nothing; the rock is everything! Our kingdoms are nothing; the kingdom of God is everything! And the kingdom inaugurated by Christ welcomes Jewish exiles and heathen kings, shepherds from Bethlehem and wise men from the East, young folks like Mary and Joseph and old folks like Simeon and Anna, gentle seekers like Nicodemus and hardened criminals like the thief on the cross. The falling statue, the rolling rock, and Nebuchadnezzar's surprising confession work together to reveal the Revealer of Mysteries. This dream of a kingdom set up by the God of heaven is "the mystery that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus" (Eph. 3:6).
Just a dream? We know better. Just two obscure symbols that could mean anything? Again, we know better. In a place called Babylon, a pagan king had a dream about the coming King of kings. And in a place called Bethlehem, this mysterious Messiah was revealed. At Christ's birth the rock began to roll on its way to becoming the holy mountain where wolf and lamb, leopard and goat, Gentile and Jew are able to take up residence together.
Greeting: Same as week 1
Opening Hymn: "Savior of the Nations, Come" PsH 336, PH 14, RL 189
Offertory Hymn: "Our God Reigns" PsH 195
Song for Children's Choir
"King of Kings and Lord of Lords" SFL 16, TWC 110
Hymn of Preparation
"Thou Art Worthy" PsH 242, TWC 116
"Praise the Name of Jesus" TWC 128
Hymn of Application: "B 6, 7 (see p. 11)
Go now, putting your trust in the Rock that endures forever, the Lord of lords who is the Savior of the world, and he will give you joy and everlasting peace.
"LIKE THOSE WHO DREAMED"
Old Testament Reading: Psalm 126
New Testament Reading: Luke 2:1-20
You know the Spirit is moving when old men begin to dream dreams and young men begin to see visions. The birth of Christ, the Spirit's conception, is preceded and followed by intense dream activity. The angel of the Lord travels the dream worlds of Zechariah, Joseph, and the wise men the way information travels on the Internet. Nowhere else in the Bible do we have so many dreams coming to so many persons at the same time.
The central feature of each dream is the angel of the Lord. In these dreams we find no symbols with divine meanings in need of special interpretation. Instead we find a message. Each dream brings good news of great joy that will be for all the people, news of a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
For four weeks we have looked at types of Christs in the Old Testament—Jacob, Joseph, Solomon, and Daniel. Now we encounter the Christ whom they foreshadow. For four weeks we examined the messianic nature of the prophetic dreams these Old Testament figures either had or interpreted. Now we see the dreams fulfilled. Here is the stairway connecting us to God; here is the person to whom every knee shall bow; here is the way of wisdom personified; here is the rock that really rolls in the kingdom of God. Here, in other words, the dreams become reality!
Notice how the angel of the Lord moves freely between dreams and reality. It's all the same to Gabriel. The good news of Jesus comes to an entranced priest, a sleeping carpenter, and a band of wakeful shepherds. Through this angelic activity the boundaries between the dream world and the real world are erased. Similarly, through Christ's mediating activity, the borders between the spiritual world and the physical world are torn down.
Do you need to be pinched? Does the news of Jesus' birth leave you wondering whether you are dreaming a dream that's too good to be true? Wonder no longer. The dreams and the reality are the same. The kind of glorious, terrifying, mind-boggling event that only seems possible in dreams has actually taken place. You are wide awake and Jesus the Savior has been born.
Just some dreams? We know better. Just a coincidence that such radically different persons would be visited by the same angel with such similar announcements? Again, we know better. For from God's messenger we learn that all our dreams find their fulfillment in Jesus. And like the captives brought back to Zion and the shepherds returning to their fields, we are "like those who dream" (Ps. 126). The great fortune-restoring thing God has done for us through the birth of Jesus has "filled our mouths with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy."
SUGGESTIONS FOR CHRISTMAS DAY
Christmas Hymns: Sing lots of them!
Songs by Children's Choir
"He Came Down" SFL 136
"Go, Tell It on the Mountain" PsH 356, PH 29, RL 224, SFL 131, TH 224
Benediction (Psalm 126; see also RW 25:26)
When the Lord brought back the captives to Zion,
we were like people who dreamed.
Our mouths were filled with laughter,
our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
"The Lord has done great things for them.
And the Lord has done great things for us.
Now we are filled with joy!";
Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like streams in the Negev.
Those who sow in tears
will reap with songs of joy.
Those who go out weeping, carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
carrying sheaves with them.
Go forth, glorifying and praising God for filling
you with laughter and joy. May the Christ
child bless you with his peace.
Closing Song: "Glory to God" PsH 214
SUNDAY AFTER CHRISTMAS
Matthew 2, with its three dream appearances by the angel of the Lord, gives us fodder for a postlude to our Advent series. Highlight God's warnings and promises that guarded and directed the Christ child and those with him.
Sing "Be Now My Vision" after the sermon one last time. Sing any Christmas carols yet unsung. Why should the Christmas season end so anticlimactically just because the stores have cleaned up the Christmas decorations? Remember that there are "twelve days of Christmas."
Remind everyone one last time to "pay attention to the dreams." The lives of the wise men, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus himself were spared because they did pay attention. Who knows what warnings and promises God wants us to heed in the dreams and visions that come to the people on whom he pours out his Spirit!