Sunday, January 10, 2016
Joseph’s calloused hands gingerly remove the apron. He picks up his hammer and heads for the one-room hut he shares with Mary and the baby – Yeshua.
Everything was so spectacular. First, he was the nervous suitor, filled with joy when her father said, “Yes.” He was found acceptable for Mary. Then he was the enraged fiancé whose betrothed fooled around and got herself pregnant. Compassion was being crowded out by something new and unwelcome – anger.
Then it got weird. How did she get pregnant? God did it, she said. Right. How desperate could she be? Then he had a dream. God did do it! Don’t even tell anyone. They would only ask, how desperate could he be?
Then the census: with a pregnant wife carrying not his baby, but God’s, he had to travel the miles to his birthplace, Bethlehem. There, the child was born in a barn. OK he tells himself, ‘Joseph, you can handle this.’ Then in the middle of the night, a bunch of crazy shepherds show up. How did they know she was pregnant? There are strange lights in the sky. They hear angel-song.
That pep talk turned into self-evaluation. He asks himself, ‘Joseph, can you handle this?’ When they have the baby dedicated at the temple, people prophesy, like prophets of old, and it is all about this baby. ‘Really, Joseph, can you handle this?’
Finally, things settle down. He has work and living quarters in Bethlehem. It is modest, but a suitable roof over their heads. The baby is healthy. Mary is a wonderful mother. With this job, he will make enough to feed them for a month.
Twilight falls and he heads for the hut. He’s tired and glad to be headed home. But around the bend, he sees that the weirdness has come back. Strangers on camels – rich men, foreign men – are outside the house. What is this??
These stargazers have followed a star that has led them to his house. Time for another pep talk. ‘Joseph,’ he asks, knees trembling, ‘How do you talk to royalty?’ No answer comes.
He looks at the exotic visitors. “Um, Shalom. Hello. Come on in. Don’t know if you’ll all fit.” It turns out, all he has to do is smile, nod, and stay out of the way as they parade in and drop gifts at Mary’s feet. They worship – the baby. Who is this child God has entrusted to Joseph’s care?
He latches the windows so no one can see in. The last thing this poor man needs is for his poor neighbors to find out he’s suddenly gotten rich.
The next day they leave. He tells Mary not to let anyone in. He goes to work, but is constantly looking around, glancing back over his shoulder. ‘Joseph, what’s gotten into you? You’re not yourself today.’ It is a long day.
Finally, he comes home. Mary and the baby are still there. They are well. All the gold and the spices are still there.
“Mary did anyone come today?”
“Did you talk to anyone from the village?”
“I talked to Sarah and Hannah.”
“Joseph, I had to draw to water. Would you relax! We are protected.”
Joseph nods. He barely eats. Then, he lays awake, staring out the window at the stars, listening to the normal night sounds of the village. Occasionally he jumps up, looks out, and then lays back down.
Finally, he nods off. It gets weirder and it gets worse. Someone is in the house, but Joseph does not feel the adrenalin infused fear as if there were an intruder. He doesn’t fear this person.
He fears the message. “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you: for Herod is about to search for the child to kill him.”
Suddenly he’s awake. Joseph sits straight up, sweating despite the chill in the night air. Mary and Jesus are sound asleep. He dresses quickly and goes to the home of Benaiah, the guy who raises horses.
He vigorously knocks Benaiah, frazzled, opens the door. “Ok, ok. Joseph, for heaven’s sake. You’ll wake my whole family. What do you want?”
“You were going to sell that cart to Abner today.”
“The new cart?” Benaiah is confused and suspicious. “What of it?”
“I’ll buy it. Right now.”
“You can’t afford it, Joseph. You’ve been drinking. Go home and go to bed.”
“How much will he pay you?”
“More than you can afford.”
“More than this is worth?” Joseph opens the box with the myrrh.
Benaiah’s eyes grow wide. “Where did you get that?”
“Never mind. You give that cart right now, and this is yours.”
For a minute, Benaiah just stares. “Why are you coming in the middle of the night?”
“That’s my business.”
“Will the temple police or the Romans come looking for this box of stolen spices?”
“No. Now, do we have deal?” Again, Benaiah stares. Finally he agrees. “And,” Joseph continues, “I’ll need a strong pack mule, and a horse.” Benaiah’s stares again. Joseph shows a gold.
By sunrise, Joseph, Mary, the baby, and everything they own are 10 miles down the road headed toward Egypt. Bethlehem does not notice their absence until they are long gone.
When Herod, the puppet King, the ruler who sat on a throne in Jerusalem but ruled at Rome’s pleasure, realized that the wise men would not be coming back, he was infuriated. Throughout this story, everyone was seeing angels, following stars, and hearing from God in dreams. Zechariah (the Father of John the Baptist), Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the wise men – they all had direct encounters with the divine. But not Herod.
He was hot with anger, boiling over. He did not need God, he thought. He had his power and wealth by his cunning and ruthlessness, he thought. He would kill his own family members to protect his throne. In fact he did just that. He killed one of his own sons. He had no problem killing God’s son. And if he wasn’t sure which child in Bethlehem was the one, he’d kill them all. Matthew writes that Herod had his soldiers kill all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or younger.
In the anchor Bible commentary, W.F. Albright says such an act of cruelty and violence was typical of Herod. It would not raise an eyebrow. He called it a comparatively minor incident. In two years, the kindergarten class at Bethlehem elementary would be all girls. People in neighboring towns, where Herod killed twice as many, might count Bethlehem lucky that they weren’t hit even harder. And no one would think to ask why. This is the world into which Jesus was born.
This part of the story should be told in winter. This is not for the warm, soft glow of Christmas candles. God came as a baby who grew up in a world where it was not uncommon to have father come in and say, “Everyone, we’re leaving because someone wants to kill us.” Herod’s troops. Arab raiders. Romans enforcing order. Doesn’t matter. Someone wants to kill us. God stepped into this in order to deal with sin and the destruction it brings to his good earth.
Surprised? The death of the helpless is not part of our nativity sets. But we put those last week. Are we surprised that this death is a part of the story of salvation?
The only way this can make sense is when we read what Herod did as a part of the grand story of God’s plan to rescue the world from sin. Why did God allow Joseph and Mary and Jesus to escape? Why didn’t God rescue the other children from Herod? These are fair questions. I have no easy answers.
The first part of the answer I do offer is God is committed to human freedom. God is sovereign – all powerful. We see this in God’s absolute authority in creation. Yet the highlight of God’s creative act is the formation of human beings in God’s image. To be in God’ image, we cannot be robots. We cannot live by pre-programming or blind instinct. We cannot merely exist by natural selection.
We have consciences. We have self-awareness. We ask, why are we here? Where are we going? Self-awareness is the sign that we are God’s image bearers. But, inevitably, with free choice each and every one of us at some point chooses our own way instead of God’s. Collective sin is the history of humanity choosing the way opposite of God’s – the way of suffering and death.
Were God to erase all the painful effects of sin, the image of God would be wiped out in the process. God’s salvation comes in the midst of human evil. Maybe God could achieve salvation in other ways. I don’t know. This is how God did it.
Children, murdered by Herod; first-graders, gunned down in Newtown, Connecticut; unarmed young men killed in altercations with the police; my answer about why God allows it all – human freedom – my answer does not feel satisfactory. I bring up the Sandy Hook the plague of deaths across our country, especially of black young men, not to indict police or to lay blame or be overly political. That’s not my point. My point is evil lurks and heartbreak follows. In the days of Jesus, it was seen in the capricious acts of a murderous tyrant. In our day evil speaks through systemic racism and rampant violence.
In the midst of Herod’s evil, God spoke. Matthew quoted the passage of the wailing in Ramah in verse 18 because when children die, there should be widespread, demonstrative grief. It is not enough to say Joseph, Mary, and Jesus got out OK. God had to stop and weep. We do too.
In the midst of today’s evil, God is bringing salvation. God also stops to weep. If we want to be where God is when evil hits, we call it evil. We weep. And we work for justice, comfort, reconciliation, and healing because those things are marks of God’s kingdom.
It’s been a few years since the move. Joseph and family are in Egypt. He is making horse carts in Alexandria. After a long day and a find meal, he plays with the 4-year-old child he’s adopted. Little Jesus is a joy. Joseph’s heart melts when the child calls him “Daddy.” Mary thinks she’s pregnant. If she has a boy, they will name him James. A girl will be Elizabeth.
He lays down to sleep. Someone is in the house. Joseph knows him. It is the same guy who told him Mary was pregnant by the Holy Spirit. It is the same guy who warned him and Mary to move to Egypt. ‘O no,’ Joseph thinks. ‘What now?’
“Yes, Lord?” He says.
“Get up Joseph. Take the child and his mother, and go to land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.”
‘Things are starting to look up for me here in Alexandria.’ That’s what he wants to say. But he doesn’t. He nods in humility.
The next morning, loads that cart he bought from Benaiah. They head back.
The first night back in Bethlehem, that guy shows up in his dream again! “Joseph.”
“Joseph, Herod’s son Archelaus is now king. He is as bad as Herod.”
‘I am not going back to Egypt. The money from the gifts the wise men gave is nearly out. And I don’t want to travel across the desert again. I am a carpenter, not a tradesman.’ That’s what he wants to say to this angel. But he doesn’t.
He exhales. In humility, he says, “What do we do?”
“Go to Galilee. Raise the child there. You won’t see me anymore.”
Joseph mutters, ‘If I did, I’d never go to sleep again.’
The angel squints at Joseph. “I didn’t catch that.”
Joseph catches himself and straightens himself up. “Galilee. Yes Lord. Galilee. We’ll leave in the morning.”
God shows up in the real places of life; sometimes in the darkest places. Search your heart,. That’s where God wants to meet you. Look for God into your own story.
I titled this talk “Joy to Sorrow.” Sin leads everyone to sorrow. That’s why salvation is needed. In Jesus salvation has come and nothing – not Herod or the cross or the evils of today – can stop God’s salvation plan. So, turn to him. Turn to the Lord. From the depths your real life turn to God and embrace his love for you. When we do that, sorrow gives way to hope.