He began laying down these tracks just two weeks after she died. You can hear it under the music: the only woman he had ever really loved, who dragged him out of the pit of Hell, who was always faithful to him even when he wasn’t faithful to himself, had gone home—and he can’t wait to join her.
It’s a remarkable mixtape of faith, passion, hope and pain, with great songs like Sheryl Crow’s Redemption Day, Tom Paxton’s Can’t Help Wonder Where I’m Bound, and The Sons of the Pioneers’ Cool Water. Johnny’s voice is long gone, but his love for June Carter burns through every breathless phrasing. My favorite cut on Johnny Cash’s Ain’t No Grave is Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream, his gravelly cover of Ed McCurdy’s lilting old anti-war song from 1950.
Last night I had the strangest dream
I’d ever dreamed before
I dreamed the world had all agreed
To put an end to war
I dreamed I saw a mighty room
Filled with women and men
And the paper they were signing said
They’d never fight again
And when the paper was all signed
And a million copies made
They all joined hands and bowed their heads
And grateful pray’rs were prayed
And the people in the streets below
Were dancing ’round and ’round
While swords and guns and uniforms
Were scattered on the ground
A strange and hopeful dream, indeed—as divine signs always are. They come unbidden to the unseeking, bright promises with dark edges of hope and warning. Like the one that came to Ahaz, King of Judah at the end of the 8th century before Christ.
The tiny kingdom of Judah was in deep trouble, as it mostly always was. The ascending power of the Assyrians, a breakaway province of Mesopotamia, stretching across parts of what is now modern Turkey, Georgia, Iraq and Iran, was pushing southwest, through Syria and the northern Kingdom of Israel. The rulers of Syria and Israel have formed a coalition to fight back and they have been trying unsuccessfully for months to get Ahaz to join them. Finally, they send in an elite force of saboteurs across the land and try to stage a coup d’état , scheming that, in regime change, they can force Judah to become their ally. But Ahaz has schemes of his own: figuring that the Assyrians were likely to win against the puny forces of Syria and Israel, he has been toying with the idea of an alliance with the Assyrians. Still he can’t help but remember that he is Judah’s King, the descendant of David, and he is supposed to trust in Yahweh for his help. One day faithful, one day faithless, Ahaz can’t stand the uncertainty anymore and goes out for a walk along the lake on Fuller’s Field Highway. That’s when he sees the priest-prophet Isaiah and his little boy.
Ahaz’ heart sinks. Nothing good ever comes out of meetings between prophets and kings. Isaiah bows as he approaches the troubled king.
“Your majesty, greetings. You look troubled, sir. Is there a problem? You are the King of Judah, after all, son of David. What have you to be afraid of? The Lord will give you a sign, if you ask for it. Whether it’s as high as heaven or as deep as the world of the dead, just ask.”
Ahaz does not want a sign from Yahweh, or from anyone else. He wants to have his throne secured. He wants to send the Syrian and Israelite meddlers back into their home countries with their tails between their legs. He wants peace with Assyria. He wants Isaiah to go away. “Prophet, you know what the Good Book says: ‘You should not put the Lord to the test by asking for signs all the time.”
Isaiah smiles his sardonic, prophet smile. “You know, you people tire both God and me. So whether or not you want a sign, the Lord will give you one. You know that young mother-to-be? She’s going to have a son, and she’s going to call him Immanuel, God is with us. Because before he even gets weaned off curds and honey, those ridiculous excuses for kings up north in Syria and Israel will be consigned to the dustbin of history. Your throne is safe, Ahaz, but, it’s too bad you wouldn’t trust in Yahweh instead of trying to out-scheme the schemers. Because Assyria is coming, and they are going to roll over this whole land and devastate it.”
From nearly three thousand years later, we have no idea who the young mom-to-be was in Isaiah’s prophesy. She might have been Ahaz’ wife, Queen of Judah, the mother of the boy-king Hezekiah who would preserve his nation under the crushing weight of the Assyrian invasion. She might have been the Isaiah’s quirky prophetess wife, who was always calling their children by names both wondrous and terrible: Mahershalalhashbaz, (“Quick to the plunder, swift to the spoil”) or Shearyashub, (“a remnant shall return”). A little God-with-us would, no doubt, have made a great forward on the family soccer squad. Whoever she is, and whoever the little boy was, his birth would provide a sign to the wavering, doubting people of Judah: God was with them and God’s incoming presence would bring both promise and peril, hope and warning.
That’s probably why Matthew uses the encounter of Isaiah and Ahaz to tell us about the strangest dream of Joseph. Joseph is engaged to be married to a young woman named Mary. Like every couple in the tension-fraught pre-nuptial eternity between the popped question and the quivering vows, there arose a problem between Joseph and Mary. It seems that Mary was pregnant. Pregnancy before marriage was not, in itself, so unusual in that day. In fact, there was no actual prohibition against pre-marital sex, as long as it led to marriage. But Mary wasn’t pregnant because she and Joseph couldn’t wait for the huppa. In fact, Joseph hadn’t touched her, at least not in that way. But apparently somebody else had.
And she had come up with the most ridiculous story to explain her swelling belly, and the child of someone else who grew within her: she said the Angel Gabriel came to her one night and asked her to become the mother of a King who would reign over the house of Jacob forever, and she had agreed. Joseph had stormed out of Mary’s home, leaving her in a crumpled heap of pain and rejection. He didn’t know who it was that had stolen the heart of his beloved Mary, but there wasn’t a man on the planet stupid enough to believe that story. Joseph slammed doors, and hammered nails, and raged at everyone around him, while he tried to put his broken heart back together. He ws a decent guy, and even though Mary deserved a public trial and stoning, he couldn’t bear to do that. He decided that he would just quietly call off the engagement and let people assume what they wanted about the child. Maybe the guy who stole his girl would man up and take care of the child he had fathered.
Finally he gave up on that horrible day and lay sobbing on his bed, Mary’s beautiful, tear-streaked face burned into the back of his eyelids. He tossed and turned, until finally sleep came, not the sleep of rest, but the sleep laden with dream-signs of promise and peril.
In his dreams, Mary’s angelic face faded into the face of an angel, who spoke in the tongue of thunder and whisper that is the tongue of angels. “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.”
The angel’s voice was so clear and startling that Joseph bolted up and looked around, listening for the rustle of great feathered wings flapping. But it was dark and quiet, and the summer air hardly stirred. He looked out the window at the bright stars of heaven and knew what he had to do. He could hardly wait for the sun to rise.
Divine dreams and signs always bring promise and peril, hope and warning. That’s what it means to hold God in your hands or in your dreams. The little boy Emmanuel would protect Ahaz from his fears—the loss of his throne. But he would usher in a Fear more terrifying than anything Ahaz could have dreamed up: the end of the sovereignty of the Davidic dynasty. From then on, Judah might have kings, but she would never be free of Imperialist boots on her neck. Joseph’s beloved fiancee would bear a son, heir to the throne, but it would be in a poverty-racked backwater, and he would only save his people at the cost of his own life. Promise and peril, hope and warning.
That’s why Christmas is so hard to get. We dream of tinsel and sugar plums, for the sweetness of ginger and cinnamon and the softness of slowly falling snow. But Christmas is not about sweetness, though it is about salvation. It is not about the promise of a manger, it is about the peril of a cross. While it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God, it is far more fearful to hold the living God in your hands. It is far more fearful to dream with God, hope with God, make promises with God. For when we open ourselves to seeing God in our hands, in the everyday signs of everyday lives, of children and love affairs gone sour, we risk our lives. For only in risking our lives can we understand the dream-signs of God-with-us.
Just before the season of Advent began in 1989, a remarkable dream-sign came to the people of Germany: the fearsome beast of the Soviet Empire lay dying and a group of young Germans came to dance on its grave. Tom Brokaw, then the news anchor for NBC, arrived and trained his camera on a crowd of children dancing and singing Ed McCurdy’s old peace anthem: Last Night I had the Strangest Dream. The world rejoiced, the terror was over. God-with-us had finally, at last, brought justice and peace to world that hadn’t slept since its heart was broken at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Even though the world promised two long decades ago to put an end to war and reap a peace dividend, it wasn’t long before Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and the Long War in the old lands once named Assyria began. Because, while the world held God in its hands on that November night in 1989, we were not willing to believe God’s sign. We kept trusting in our own strength, our own schemes, our own power. And something far worse than the Soviet Union befell the world: a war against an invisible stateless enemy, that wins by turning its adversaries against themselves.
Just like it wasn’t too late for Ahaz or Joseph, it isn’t too late for us to grasp what God-with-us really means. Ahaz didn’t listen and Joseph did, but neither of them escaped the peril that comes with the divine in-breaking. In our day, we have been given a series of most remarkable dream-signs to remind us that God is, indeed, with us. It is our choice to believe or to turn away to our own schemes.
Our world is wracked now in fear and disbelief, afraid to trust that God is with us. In fact, it is rival notions of who is God is, and how God is with us that is tearing our world apart. In the wake of fear-soaked dreams, the blood of holy innocents is spilled and we make deals with devils in the hope of defeating an enemy that has arisen because we have refused to trust in something greater than military might. Human rights are sacrificed on the altar of security and security becomes a sad victim of the war for God.
This Christmas, when Emmanuel once again comes into our dreams, will we see him as the Prince of Peace, or the God of War? It’s our dream-sign and we can choose its ending. Whatever choice we make, it will cost us our lives. Amen.