Getting Ready to Receive, Day 3

Today I’m thrilled to share with you some words from my good friend, Mark Williams. Mark graduated from Davidson College before going on to seminary at Duke (Duke football right now – what?!?!), which is where we met. I remember well the night he called me after serving at a soup kitchen in downtown Durham and told me that he had met the woman he was going to marry as they dished green beans onto plates. A few years later, he and Emily were indeed married and have continued their life together just as it began by serving everyone they encounter. Their son, Nolan, celebrated his first birthday in October. 

Joseph and the Change Order

Many often refer to Joseph as the forgotten man of Christmas. Joseph is mentioned in the nativity stories of Matthew and Luke, but material about him is scant. In scripture, Joseph is never quoted directly. In fact, Joseph all but disappears from the gospel story following the holy family’s return from Egypt. But the Bible does tell us of Joseph’s occupation: Joseph was a carpenter. Later in Jesus’ adult life, Jesus was performing miracles in an around the synagogue at Capernaum, and the people in the synagogue asked: “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary?” (Matthew 13:55). Perhaps Joseph’s occupation as a carpenter might be important to understanding who he was. I’ve always wondered why God, in looking for an earthly father for Jesus, didn’t choose a powerful governor, or a wealthy merchant, or a teacher of the Law, or some other respected Jewish leader. Why a carpenter?

As I write this devotion, I look out my office window and watch a crew of carpenters building a new sanctuary where my church will soon worship. To be honest, I know nothing about carpentry. (As my wife will surely attest, I am the least handy person in the world!) But here’s what I’ve learned about carpentry from watching the professionals: Carpenters make things fit. They have a plan. They square off the edges. They follow the plumb line. They measure twice before they cut once. Not only do carpenters like to have a plan, they like to see the plan before they begin. Surprises are not the friend of a carpenter.

I imagine Joseph’s personality as that of a carpenter. He had a plan. Joseph had a plan for his life. What carpenter doesn’t have a plan? Joseph was engaged to young woman named Mary. He was in love. The plan was to get married. The plan was to have a family. The plan was to grow old together. The plan was to be an active, faithful member of the local synagogue. Matthew tells us that Joseph was a “righteous man.” The Hebrew word for a righteous man was a sadeek, which means that Joseph was known by his religious community for his uncompromising obedience to the scripture, to the book of Torah (the book of law). This means Joseph didn’t eat unclean food. He didn’t mix with the wrong kinds of people. He didn’t keep the carpentry shop open on the Sabbath. He was a righteous man. That was his identity. Joseph was who people wanted to be—admired and respected. To be a sadeek in Jewish culture was to be looked up to. That was Joseph. He was a young man with promising plans for the future. Joseph’s life was headed in all the right directions. The carpenter had a plan.

One day, Mary, Joseph’s young fiancée, had a conversation with Joseph that would forever change his plan. “I’m pregnant. And you’re not the Father.” Translated into building/construction terms: CHANGE ORDER FOR THE CARPENTER! The girl Joseph had promised to marry was going to have a baby, and whoever the Father was, Joseph knew it was not him. Nazareth was a small town, and as a general rule, word gets around in a small town. Joseph was now a carpenter without a plan. Thanks to Mary’s revelation, Joseph’s life no longer made sense.

Have you ever stood in Joseph’s shoes? Have you ever had plans for the future, but because of some event or circumstance life stopped making sense. God, I had plans to sit around a full dinner table this Christmas, but this year I’ve lost someone I love. And life no longer makes sense. God, I had plans for the future, but after going to the doctor or taking someone I love to the doctor, life no longer makes sense. God, I had plans for this child or grandchild, but thanks to some event that has happened, those plans are no more and life no longer makes sense. God, I had plans for the future of my career, but it’s not working out quite like I thought it would and now life no longer makes sense. Have you ever stood in Joseph’s shoes? Perhaps you had plans for the future, but recently life handed you change order. What now?

Perhaps the most important lesson we can learn at Christmastime from Joseph is this: Joseph trusted in God, even when his life did not make sense. Joseph’s immediate response to Mary’s pregnancy was what you might expect. Without a plan, Joseph was ready to throw in the towel. He wanted to give up. Scripture says that Joseph had in mind that he would divorce Mary quietly. That’s when an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said: “Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son and you will name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:20-21)

In waking up from that dream, Joseph made a big choice. Joseph swapped his religious reputation for a pregnant fiancé and in so doing made the big choice of discipleship. It’s as if Joseph, the carpenter, says: This time, God, I’m not the builder, am I? This time God, I’m a tool. I’m a hammer in your grip, God. A nail between your fingers. A chisel in your hands. This whole project, is yours, God, not mine. And even though I don’t understand it all yet, I’m going to see it through to the end—because I have been called to be obedient and trust in you even when my life does not make sense.

You may be asking: Why did God make Joseph struggle with all this stuff? Why couldn’t an angel have come to Joseph ahead of time to lay out the plans, explain everything—removing all the anxiety? To be sure, these are tough questions. But I wonder if God had a reason for this odd, painful, lonely, way to start a family. I wonder if God wanted Joseph to be an encouragement for each one of us, who, in the days before Christmas, share a lot in common with Joseph. For there are areas of our lives this Christmas that do not make sense. What will we do in response to life’s sudden change orders? Give up? Or will we follow in Joseph’s footsteps, continuing to be obedient and trusting in God?

Obedience to God is easy when it neatly fits into the plans we have constructed for our lives. But obedience to God is much more difficult when certain areas of our lives are not going as we planned. At Christmastime, Joseph, the obedient carpenter, whispers to us words of encouragement: Keep persevering. Obey. Keep trusting God even when your life does not make sense. It will all be worth it eventually. I promise.

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