December 8, 2019
Village Chapel Presbyterian Church
Dr. Todd R. Wright
Joseph was a carpenter.
He knew how to make a yoke that would not chafe.
He knew how to build a table that would not wobble.
He could calculate how much wood it would take to build a cart or repair a wheel.
He knew how to select the right wood from local cypress, oak, cedar, sycamore, or olive.
What he didn’t know was what to do about Mary.
They were engaged. All the agreements between the two families negotiated. All the plans made. All the traditions upheld.
But then the whispers started. Mary was with child. It was a scandal!
He could not understand.
Of course they had not lived together. The truth is, there are certain things you only learn about one another when you work and eat and sleep together.
He knew more about his donkey than about Mary – knew that it was stubborn but strong; knew that it could outdrink a camel; knew that it could work though the heat of the day when other beasts faltered.
Mary was still a mystery to him. He knew her family; knew her parents; knew her brothers. She had always been there, he supposed, but he had only noticed her lately.
She seemed quiet but sure of herself. She was a hard worker. Did she have dreams? Did
they include him or was their marriage a threat to what she hoped her life might be?
He didn’t really know. He didn’t actually know her, but this news made him wonder:
Was she wild or just careless?
Was she stubborn or could she be reasoned with?
Was it a bad match after all?
He had been ready to go through life yoked together – hard work, laughter, kids – all of it.
But then the news reached his ears. She had betrayed him. Broken their vows. Known another man. What other explanation could there be?
So now he had to decide what to do.
As he saw it, he had two options:
He could make a big fuss! Turn the rumors into charges. Make her pay for her foolishness. Divorce her.
After all, he was the wronged party, the wounded one, the shamed one!
Except, maybe there was some explanation, something she wasn’t saying, couldn’t say.
Except, if he did, she would be wounded and shamed too … and left to raise the child alone.
Except, he had feelings for her. He didn’t want to see her hurt. Could you be in love with someone you hardly even know?
The other option was to keep things quiet. Spare her the embarrassment. Go their separate ways. Pretend it never happened.
Except, in small towns, everybody knows everything. They might ignore it, but they’d know.
Except, eventually, there would be no keeping a baby quiet.
Except, if he ignored the law, God would know …
as if God’s law could be flaunted without consequences,
as if you could pick and choose which you obeyed,
as if an individual was more important than the community.
He suspected that the key to the choice might be an issue of forgiveness. Was he willing to forgive Mary for what she had done? Or was this something he wanted to cling to – like a tongue returning to the stub of a tooth. He knew that grudges whittled at a person’s soul until all that was left was a pile of splinters, but he wouldn’t be the first to hold onto one.
Joseph struggled all day. He tried to lose himself in the work. But he got distracted and sawed a bunch of boards too short and drilled holes in another for no reason. They were ruined. He’d have to start over.
Was his life ruined? Was Mary’s?
How do you make a decision when it seems like all your options will leave someone hurt; maybe everyone hurt?
Usually he would ask the rabbi for advice on a tricky moral problem, but everyone knew what the scripture had to say about this matter, and the town rabbi wasn’t the creative sort.
He could ask neighbors, but that would risk exposing their shame to more people.
He could pray, but he was not one who heard God’s voice regularly. In fact, no one had heard much from God since the days of the prophets.
At some point Joseph fell asleep, but it was not restful. He tossed and turned. He kept wrestling with the choices. He could shame her or keep things quiet, but neither satisfied.
He had almost decided when an angel of the Lord appeared!
It spoke to him directly with a series of commands and reassurances:
Do not fear.
Take Mary as your wife. (God is behind all this.)
Name the boy that will come, Jesus, (for he will save his people from their sin).
It was a lot to ask.
By taking Mary as his wife, it would cover up the scandal (but not silence the gossips).
By naming the baby, Joseph would adopt him as his own. Jesus would become a Son of David.
By doing both, he would be accepting that neither mother nor child were tainted by sin; that there was nothing left to forgive; and that God was at work in the lives of ordinary people.
It was a lot to ask of a righteous man, a confused believer, a simple carpenter.
When he awoke, Joseph knew what he would do. He was as certain as when he began a project in his workshop. Sometimes he had to explain to others how he could see a bowl in a stump of wood. In a similar way he could see how this child fit in his family tree.
Down through the generations God had called people to do amazing things; had answered prayers and done miracles; had made a way where there was no way; and over and over had transformed scandal into something, that,
if you squinted
and took a deep breath
and listened for the whisper of God in the stillness, was full of the holy.
Not everyone could see it. But when you have Tamar and Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba in your lineage, it helps you affirm that children of God are more common and more varied than some would have you believe. It helped Joseph to trust that God was with him, would be with his growing family, would be with Israel. And it was enough. Amen.