December 6, 2020

Advent Practices for the Shortest Days and Darkest Nights, III:
Sleep and Dreams

Passage: Matthew 1:18–25

The Story of Joseph

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”

which means, “God is with us.”  When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.


So we’re talking about Advent Practices from the Nativity Narratives for the Shortest Days and Darkest Nights. First, find a friend. Second, sing a song. Third, get a good night’s sleep and give yourself up to your dreams.

That was Carpenter Joseph’s main contribution to the Christmas story. He just went to bed. Matthew is a remarkably efficient storyteller. He tells us everything we need to know about Joseph in that second verse of the story: “Joseph, being a righteous man but unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.”

His plan is just to walk away—secretly, quietly, without anger or bombast—to protect what’s left of Mary’s already tarnished reputation. Joseph is at once both conscientious and kind. He is at once both scrupulous and charitable, a rare combination.

Joseph builds furniture for a living. Measure twice, cut once. Excellence and beauty are in the details. He is careful and meticulous.  And not just at his craft. Also in his life as a neighbor, citizen, and fiancé. Joseph learned the Ten Commandments—in Hebrew, which he does not speak—in third-grade synagogue shul. He knows exactly what’s the right thing to do. He knows exactly what he has to do.

Imagine his surprise then when he innocently falls asleep one night and has this dream of an angel telling him to go ahead and break all his rules and risk public scandal by taking Mary as his wife anyway.

You see what’s happening, right? God has concocted this careful, complicated plan for the salvation of all humankind. God’s been working on this plan for something like a billion years, but there is this towering, terrifying glitch in the middle of it. What if Jesus’ guardian refuses to cooperate and there is no one to get this helpless infant from birth to adulthood? Sleep and a dream to the rescue.

Sleep and dreams are good Advent practices. Are you dedicating yourself to these healthy practices during this Pandemic Advent? Because even before the Pandemic, Americans were experiencing a sleep famine; one third of us claim we don’t get the requisite seven hours a night. Even before March.

Now it’s even more complicated. I have a young friend who lives alone in a studio apartment in Wrigleyville. It’s tiny, about 500 square feet. It was fine before this social isolation; he was never there; he was always at work, at the pub with his friends, working out at the gym or running in the park; he’d only go home to sleep. Now he’s working from home. Sometimes on his bed. There’s nowhere else to work. When it’s time to sleep, he converts his desk bed into his sleeping bed. This does not serve him well. If he falls asleep at all, there he his, already at his desk bed. Blursday.

There is no way to calculate what this is doing to our collective mental and physical health. Sleep is one the Big Five—the sine qua nons of human existence—Air, water, food, sex, and sleep. After air, sleep is the staple of human existence we can do without for the shortest duration. You can go 40 days without food and seven days without water and a whole lifetime without sex but after 30 straight sleepless hours, you’d better hit the sack or you’re going to be in big trouble.

But here’s the funny thing. We spend a third of our lives doing it, but nobody knows exactly why we do it. What purpose does it serve?

Some scientists think sleep is for memory consolidation. Sleep gives your mind a chance to sort out the day’s clamorous cacophony of external stimuli. While you sleep, your brain files what’s important and discards the minutiae, like your computer does when you’re not using it. Sleep is like defragging your computer. Sleep is like placing blocks of information in your brain, on your hard drive, into a cleaner, more efficient arrangement so that the next morning when you wake up, your brain, your computer, will compute faster and more efficiently.

Change the metaphor. Sleep is for flushing out the toxins. When you sleep, your brain takes a shower and rinses off all the unnecessary detritus of the day.

Change the metaphor yet again. Someone said that when you sleep, you move out of your house so the workmen can come in to renovate. You don’t want to live in your house while the construction’s going on because it’s a mess.[1]

But here’s why this discourse on sleep belongs in a sermon. Here is the theological meaning of sleep. When you sleep, your prefrontal cortex is virtually dormant. The prefrontal cortex is the region of the brain which handles logic and planning. Someone called the prefrontal cortex your Puppeteer. It’s what’s pulling your strings. Choose your image: the prefrontal cortex is your Traffic Cop, your Drill Sergeant, your CEO, the Director of Logistics in the Amazon warehouse.

When you sleep, the Traffic Cop is off-duty, and when the Traffic Cop is off-duty, other voices can be heard, voices from outside your wakeful conscious, the voice of the SUBconscious maybe, the Ghost of Christmas Past, the voice of God. When Carpenter Joseph surrendered to sleep, he heard the Voice of God telling him the right thing to do.

Sometimes these external voices we hear when we’re sleeping come to us in the form of dreams. Now, it’s important to remember that not all dreams come to us while we’re sleeping. Martin Luther King had a magnificent, vivid, compelling, waking dream.

Not all dreams come to us when we’re sleeping, but some do, and no one knows how or why what dreams may come. Dreaming, waking or sleeping, is good Advent practice. They must be important, because most of us have three to five dreams a night. Most of us spend two hours a night dreaming, which means that we spend six years of our lives dreaming; 30 years sleeping and six years dreaming. Wow! Dreams must be important.

I’m not telling you to give undue credence to your dreams like Sigmund Freud did. Sometimes your waking, conscious mind, your Traffic Cop, is a lot smarter than your SUBconscious or your UNconscious, which can be a moron and full of malarkey.

On the other hand, Carl Jung says that if you keep having the same dream over and over again, it’s possible that SomeONE or SomeTHING is trying to tell you something important.

Maybe I’ve told you before about my commonest recurring dream. I think most preachers experience this. It’s a charming little twist on that recurring nightmare most students have had about showing up in the classroom for an examination they haven’t studied for.

In my case, I’m in the chancel for divine worship about to get up in the pulpit to preach a sermon I forgot to prepare. Other times, in my dream, I am invited to be the guest preacher for an important occasion in a prominent church with a huge congregation, and I can’t find the church. Sometimes I walk into a church and introduce myself as the guest preacher and the usher tells me I’ve got the wrong church. This dream is so much fun.

But here’s the thing. SomeONE or SomeTHING—my subconscious, or the Spirit World, or God, is trying to tell me to pay closer attention to my calendar, my Google maps, and my responsibilities. This recurring dream is very effective. It works. It hasn’t happened in real life. Yet. Knock wood.

The wonder and wisdom of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol is that we get to see up close and personal what will happen to Scrooge and all those around him if he fails to pay attention to his dreams.

Maybe you’ve been following the story of The World’s Loneliest Elephant. His name is Kaavan, and he has spent the last 35 years, since he was a year old, shackled in captivity in a shabby zoo in Islamabad. He lived with his partner until the partner died eight years ago, and Kaavan has been slowly deteriorating ever since—mentally, emotionally, and physically.

The singer Cher heard about his plight and arranged for him to be liberated. She flew him to Cambodia where a wildlife sanctuary will be his forever home: I’ve got you, Babe. Before Kaavan flew to Cambodia, Cher flew to Pakistan to meet Kaavan. He loves music, so when Cher met him, she sang from the Cinderella lullaby: “A dream is a wish you make in your heart.”[2] Yes? A dream is a wish you make in your heart.

Some dreams you should pay attention to, says Carl Jung. Like Joseph did that night in May of the Year 0 A.D., seven months before the first Christmas, when he went to bed and he laid himself down, literally and figuratively. He laid himself down. He surrendered his waking conscious so that he could hear other voices than his own. He silenced his prefrontal cortex. His Puppeteer, his Traffic Cop, his School Marm, his Church Lady, was done for the day.

Frederick Buechner says, “When we sleep, it’s a surrender, a laying down of arms. Whatever plans you’re making, whatever work you’re up to your ears in, whatever pleasures you’re enjoying, whatever sorrows or anxieties or problems you’re in the midst of, you set them aside, find a place to stretch out somewhere, close your eyes, and wait for sleep...If some faint thought stirs somewhere in the depths of you, it’s converted into a dream so you can go on sleeping and not have to wake up to think it through before it’s time...You have given up being in charge of your life. You have put yourself into the hands of the night.”[3]

Good thing for us that Joseph gave up being in charge of his life and put himself into the hands of the night. Carpenter Joseph—at once both conscientious and kind; hopelessly, helplessly in love with the Law, but just as hopelessly, helplessly in love with his fiancée. As Garrison Keillor puts it, “There comes a time when you have to put your principles aside, and just do the right thing.”

[1] Terry Sejnowski, quoted by Christine Gorman, “Why We Sleep,” Time, December 20, 2004, p. 51.

[2] Jennifer Haasan and Susannah George, “‘I’ve Got You Babe’: How Cher Helped Save the World’s Loneliest Elephant,” The Washington Post, November 30, 2020.

[3] Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), p. 102.