December 18, 2016 “Unexpected Salvation” – Matthew 1:18-25
December 18, 2016 – Fourth Sunday in Advent
I still have a scar on my hand. I did not expect her. When my betrothed’s mother came to me in my workshop, with her head down, not meeting my eyes, my heart began to pound. Thoughts raced through my head. I feared my beloved had taken ill. I wondered if the family had decided to ask a higher bride-price for their oldest daughter. I thought… I… I could imagine no good reason at all why my future mother-in-law would step across that threshold into sawdust and fumes of animal glue and speak to me directly. I feared the worst, but still did not expect what I heard.
“Pregnant!” When the word struck my ears, my hand struck the table top I was planing. All of its own my palm came down with a cracking slap upon that still rough surface, driving a long splinter in at the base of my thumb. You can see right here the white line left when it healed. But I did not feel it then. All I felt was my heart beating, and my head aching, and my voice crying out like it belonged to someone else, “No, I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it…”
There was no warning. It was absolutely, totally unexpected. Not Mary, not the bright-eyed, sweet darling of my soul. Not my Mary, with the shy smile and quiet spirit and gentle hands. Not her. Some of the other girls I saw at the market, yes. Abigail or Dinah, always whispering and sneaking glances at the boys, even winking at them outright, even winking at me though they know I am betrothed. Those young women, but not Mary, not my dear, precious Miriam. I remember how I would watch her across the synagogue, with her head bowed in devotion, mouthing silently the words of Holy Scripture as the rabbi read aloud. No, not her. I never expected Mary to betray my trust. But there it was.
As tears filled the eyes of Mary’s mother, she turned and ran from my shop. The water sprang to my own eyes, and I lashed out again, kicking to bits a fine oak chair on which I’d labored for days. Then I fell face down there among the shavings and wept for the end of all my dreams, wept for the family we might have had, wept for Mary, now to be shamed and humiliated before our whole little community in Nazareth.
Then I slowly came to myself, drew my legs under me and knelt there by my bench. I looked at my hammers and saws and chisels and thought of my work. I am no great scholar or man of business, but I have skill. I not only make solid, sturdy shelves and tables and chairs, I repair them. When a man brings me a wooden chest with a warped lid, I can see how to plane it smooth or how to fashion a new straight cover that will fit perfectly again. I trust myself, I trust my hands to make things right, to fix what’s been broken. So I trusted myself to fix this, the broken pieces of our engagement.
I had to divorce Mary. It is the law. I had no choice. And though I cared for her still, I could not have found enough mercy in me to bring her home with the child of another man in her belly. Yet this much tenderness and mercy arose in me. I would not have her shamed. I would not spit in her face before a whole assembly of smirking men and finger-wagging women. Let it be done quietly, privately. Then let her slip away secretly to relatives in a distant village, have her baby and try to find another life far from Nazareth. She would be gone and I would go on as if she had never been pledged to me. That was my plan, the simple, practical plan of a man who works with his hands.
As you might expect, sleep came slowly that night. I twisted back and forth on my bed, like a table leg that just won’t fit in place. I went over my plan, laying it out in my mind like I would lay out a project in wood, visualizing each step. Convince the rabbi, perform the divorce, get Mary’s family to send her away. I went through it again and again, until my eyes finally grew heavy late in the watches and I slept.
Then the angel arrived. I did not expect Mary to be pregnant, and I truly did not expect an angel. I’m a carpenter. I expect a good price on a fine cedar box. I expect a joint to hold when I’ve chiseled it out with care. I expect the boards in a pine table to shrink a little after it’s built. But I never expect angels. Would you?
There he was, though, in my dream. He addressed me as “Joseph, son of David,” referring to our family’s faded glory as descendants of the great king. But I was far down the line from the magnificent son of Jesse. My father had been a carpenter and his father too. Yes, the blood of the king ran in us, but it was almost ridiculous to say it. We made chairs for village people. We didn’t sit on thrones in great houses. But it didn’t sound so ridiculous when the angel said it.
The day had overwhelmed me with the unexpected, but the rest of the angel’s words in the night were still more surprising. Against the law, against all normal expectation, he told me to take Mary home, to make her my wife. But that was the least surprise. With a voice that rang like my hammer striking a nail, he said, “for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” No unfaithfulness, no other man, no betrayal of my trust and love. Her child came from the Spirit of God. This baby was nothing I had conceived at all, nothing any man had conceived. This child was the conception of the Lord.
He even told me what to name the boy. Not too surprising in itself. I don’t know how many Joshua’s I know. As the Greeks would say it, “Jesus” was a common name. The unexpected thing was that the angel predicted our Jesus would live up to his name. Joshua or Jesus means “God saves.” The angel’s words, “for he will save his people from their sins,” were sounding in my head when I woke blinking in the light of morning.
Mary’s mother was startled when I appeared at their door. It was my turn to be unexpected. Trying to keep tears from my eyes and a catch from of my voice I explained what I wished. Instead of a quiet, private divorce, I asked for a quiet, hurried marriage. Instead of sending the poor girl away, I meant to bring her home. And I did.
To her parent’s astonishment, I paid them the rest of Mary’s bride-price. We found two trusted witnesses and I said the words, “She is my wife, and I am her husband, from this day forever.” That was it. No celebration. No feast. No dancing. I made the vow and took her home. The good folk of Nazareth raised their eyebrows, but no one dared say anything to my face, not if they wanted tables that would not collapse with their dinners on them.
There is much more to the story. Jesus was not born at home, thanks to the whims of the Gentile emperor far away in Italy. To count heads in his empire he sent every man in Israel to be registered in his family’s town of origin.
So Mary and I were traveling when it came time, in Bethlehem, and no lodging to be found but a rough stable. The manger in which we laid the child was poor work. I could have made a much better one, if I had only known, only expected. But everything about Jesus was unexpected. There were mysterious and noble visitors from Persia. Dark warnings of a plot by King Herod. A long journey to Egypt. Nothing, nothing was as I expected when years ago I caught my first glimpse of a pretty girl named Mary.
Now, back in Nazareth I’ve watched him grow up. Even that has had many unexpected moments. He calls me Daddy or Abba in the Aramaic everyone speaks on the street and at home. But I’ve heard him calling out Abba at other times. I’ve come, thinking I was being called, only to find him standing in his room, arms lifted in prayer, speaking to the sky, speaking to another Abba, another Father that he knows as well as he knows me.
When he was twelve, on a Passover journey to Jerusalem, his mother and I were terrified when we thought the boy lost. But we found him in the temple courts, talking to the teachers there, astonishing them with what he knew of the Scriptures. When my poor weeping Mary hugged him and admonished him, he spoke of that place as “his Father’s house,” as if the temple, rather than our little cottage in Nazareth, were home.
How could I have expected any of it? A peasant carpenter living in the country plays foster father to a boy who calls the Master of the Universe “Daddy.” How could that be? How could I have ever been prepared? Surprises have been pressed into my life to bursting, like too large a dowel driven into a joint until it splits. But perhaps the greatest surprise of all, is that all the surprises have not split me. As I have watched Jesus grow into a young man, have talked with him, have felt his love, I have grown whole. I have been healed.
Oh, I don’t mean I have felt no pain. Saw cuts bleed for me like they do for anyone else. And it has not been easy at all to feed this family in a town where people still look at me with guarded thoughts. Scandalous stories about Jesus’ birth keep making the rounds even after all these years. And I feel the years creeping up. My eyes dim, my fingers grow weak. No, my healing is not of the usual pains of life. It is something deeper.
Those words the angel said stay with me, “he will save his people from their sins.” If my foster son is truly the Messiah, as Mary tells me, then those words are unexpected by all. My friends all hope for Messiah, but salvation from their sins is not what they desire. No, they hope for a savior from the yoke of Rome, from the cruelty of Herod. They look for a great son of David who will lead them out in war and victory. They seldom think about their sins. But I think about mine.
Living in this house with Jesus has caused me to be more honest with myself than I would ever have been. His sheer goodness makes me aware of my own failings. I get cross and even raise my voice with the boy, and suddenly realize he’s done nothing to deserve it. I grow weary at the end of the day and leave him alone to clean up the shop. He does it without complaining and I am suddenly aware of my injustice. With every unkind word to the family, every temptation to cheat a customer, every failure to help someone in need, I see myself in Jesus’ eyes. I wonder how such a miserable man as I could possibly be father of any kind to such a son as this.
Yet though the young man’s goodness fills me with guilt for my sins, I am also filled with hope. Every failing of mine is greeted with the tender response of his love. I speak a hard word and Jesus speaks kindly to me. I sell a poorly made lampstand to one of our customers and Jesus quietly repairs it before it is delivered. Whatever I do wrong, he gently makes it right. And he does it with a love which never wounds, but only makes me want to be a better man. He never pretends I have not failed, but always responds with gentle forgiveness. I have no idea how he will save his people, our nation, from their sins, but he is saving me from mine.
Most of all, I think, Jesus has saved me from the sin of despair. Age is close upon me now. I see through clouds that never clear away. My arms are weak and my hands shake. I can no longer saw a board through without stopping to rest and catch my breath in the middle. I cannot guide the chisel and the plane and the drill to their marks with the precision that came so easily when I was younger. I feel years quickly slipping away and I think I will not live to see all that Jesus will accomplish.
Perhaps the most unexpected thing about Jesus is that as death approaches, he gives me hope even now. Just to work beside him at the bench or sit down together at a meal, offers me a peace I cannot explain. It does not matter that I am not truly his father. It does not matter how often I have failed to be a good father. It does not matter that my life is nearly done. All that matters is that he is here.
Last Friday evening, we were at synagogue and the rabbi read, as he frequently does, from the prophet Isaiah. In the text he chose, Isaiah delivers God’s word to one of our many ancient evil kings. Ahaz was told to ask for a sign, but out of pride and foolishness, that conniving ruler thought to curry favor by asking for nothing. So the Lord chose a sign for him and told Isaiah to say this to Ahaz, “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”
As the rabbi explained, this was a strange reading from the prophet. Young women have children all the time. What kind of sign was this given to Ahaz? What was the significance of that name? I had heard it before, but this time it stuck in my head. Immanuel, Immanuel. It means “God with us,” in ancient Hebrew.
Back in my shop, I look at Jesus there, holding the light for me as my old hands struggle to fit together a cross-piece for a chair back. The name from Isaiah again springs to my mind. Immanuel, God with us. Somehow, beyond all expectations and all dreams, I realize that with Jesus here, God is with me, God is with us.
The cross won’t come together in my hands, so I give Jesus the two pieces of wood, and take the candle. His young, strong, sure hands make the joints fit; they lock together perfectly. He holds up the finished piece before the light and the shadow of those crossing bars falls upon his face. He smiles at me and hands back the cross, now holding the light again for me. And I know God is here. And I am filled with peace and hope and love and joy. May God be here for you as well.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2016 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj