Sermon, December 15: The Carpenter’s Choice

The gospel of Matthew is very insistent about this: Joseph named Jesus. When today’s theologians consider this, they start, of course, by knowing the Easter story. And so, they think back from the resurrection and try to explain how life before it must have been. The gospels tell the story of Jesus the Christ – not the simple story of any carpenter’s son.

In doing so, they weave the way life was in the first century with biblical prophecies. But just as close to home was another tradition of the first century –  a birth tradition that was followed by emperors and centurions and other important people. When a baby was born to a ruling family, the midwife would place the infant on the ground for the head of the household to raise up and name. Only then would the child be allowed to live. You could say that naming was what gave the child the right to life.      So when Matthew points out that Joseph named the child, he’s making an important claim that we could miss because it’s a custom we’ve mercifully forgotten. Tradition says Joseph was a carpenter, a man who spent his life making things fit together – tables and chairs and boats and even houses. He probably wasn’t much different from us – ordinary people who do our best, most of the time. And who feel, most of the time, that God’s great plans are carried out by powerful or important people – by someone else, that is.

The story suggests that Joseph was a righteous and a kind man. His first reaction to Mary’s unlikely story must have felt like fierce betrayal. Not even he could make this fit together so that it made human sense. And that left Joseph with a terrible choice.

The law regarding his marriage is precise. The book of Deuteronomy says very clearly that if a man lies with another man’s wife, “you shall stone them both to death and purge the evil from Israel.”

If he set aside the law and didn’t have Mary killed, Joseph’s other legal option was to give up trying to make sense of it and to divorce her quietly. Joseph chose kindness and, hoping perhaps for a little escape, he chose sleep. But he dreamed instead, dreamed of an angel with a message of mystery past human understanding. “Here,” whispered the angel, “here’s the key to the crisis. Believe her – never mind the story is humanly unbelievable. Marry her.

Why? Ah – that’s the real question. How about because the boy will need a father? This boy will need, not just any father, but a father to teach him what to do in times like this, when hope seems lost and pain is all that’s left. If you do not walk the road to Bethlehem, who will teach him to climb the hill to Calvary?[i]

It was a message that surely couldn’t be fit together with life as Joseph had known it. Or, maybe it could be that the point of the message was that the point of the miracle was not about the mother – it was about the baby.

Having this baby, of course, was an act of extraordinary faith and extraordinary importance. After all, this was Jesus, who would grow up to speak of God’s presence in everyday life, often doing so by drawing stories from the time he’d spent with Joseph.

Aren’t these words learned from a man who knew about making things fit together: “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them will be like the wise man who built his house upon the rock, and the rain fell, and the floods came and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall because it had been founded upon the rock.” That is the wisdom of a builder.

And remember how Jesus spoke of God’s love, saying:

“What man of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?  If you…know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him?” That is the wisdom of a beloved son.

So Joseph did what he had always done to piece things together, that carpenter who faced that terrible choice years ago. If he had done what common sense suggested and the law required, Mary’s child would have died within her. And God’s great plan for salvation, would have died along with them. But instead, Joseph trusted and he named the infant Jesus, because, as the angel said, “he will save his people from their sins.”

Amazing isn’t it, how the highest desires of heaven are fragile as newborns in the hands of ordinary people who spend their time doing their best to make life fit together somehow.    Amen.

The gospel of Matthew is very insistent about this: Joseph named Jesus. When today’s theologians consider this, they start, of course, by knowing the Easter story. And so, they think back from the resurrection and try to explain how life before it must have been. The gospels tell the story of Jesus the Christ – not the simple story of any carpenter’s son.

In doing so, they weave the way life was in the first century with biblical prophecies. But just as close to home was another tradition of the first century –  a birth tradition that was followed by emperors and centurions and other important people. When a baby was born to a ruling family, the midwife would place the infant on the ground for the head of the household to raise up and name. Only then would the child be allowed to live. You could say that naming was what gave the child the right to life.      So when Matthew points out that Joseph named the child, he’s making an important claim that we could miss because it’s a custom we’ve mercifully forgotten. Tradition says Joseph was a carpenter, a man who spent his life making things fit together – tables and chairs and boats and even houses. He probably wasn’t much different from us – ordinary people who do our best, most of the time. And who feel, most of the time, that God’s great plans are carried out by powerful or important people – by someone else, that is.

The story suggests that Joseph was a righteous and a kind man. His first reaction to Mary’s unlikely story must have felt like fierce betrayal. Not even he could make this fit together so that it made human sense. And that left Joseph with a terrible choice.

The law regarding his marriage is precise. The book of Deuteronomy says very clearly that if a man lies with another man’s wife, “you shall stone them both to death and purge the evil from Israel.”

If he set aside the law and didn’t have Mary killed, Joseph’s other legal option was to give up trying to make sense of it and to divorce her quietly. Joseph chose kindness and, hoping perhaps for a little escape, he chose sleep. But he dreamed instead, dreamed of an angel with a message of mystery past human understanding. “Here,” whispered the angel, “here’s the key to the crisis. Believe her – never mind the story is humanly unbelievable. Marry her.

Why? Ah – that’s the real question. How about because the boy will need a father? This boy will need, not just any father, but a father to teach him what to do in times like this, when hope seems lost and pain is all that’s left. If you do not walk the road to Bethlehem, who will teach him to climb the hill to Calvary?

It was a message that surely couldn’t be fit together with life as Joseph had known it. Or, maybe it could be that the point of the message was that the point of the miracle was not about the mother – it was about the baby.

Having this baby, of course, was an act of extraordinary faith and extraordinary importance. After all, this was Jesus, who would grow up to speak of God’s presence in everyday life, often doing so by drawing stories from the time he’d spent with Joseph.

Aren’t these words learned from a man who knew about making things fit together: “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them will be like the wise man who built his house upon the rock, and the rain fell, and the floods came and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall because it had been founded upon the rock.” That is the wisdom of a builder.

And remember how Jesus spoke of God’s love, saying:

“What man of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?  If you…know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him?” That is the wisdom of a beloved son.

So Joseph did what he had always done to piece things together, that carpenter who faced that terrible choice years ago. If he had done what common sense suggested and the law required, Mary’s child would have died within her. And God’s great plan for salvation, would have died along with them. But instead, Joseph trusted and he named the infant Jesus, because, as the angel said, “he will save his people from their sins.”

Amazing isn’t it, how the highest desires of heaven are fragile as newborns in the hands of ordinary people who spend their time doing their best to make life fit together somehow.    Amen.

Posted by Rev. Barbara Ewton

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