I Believe in Love: Daring Right Relationship, Matthew 1:18-25
Plymouth First United Methodist Church, December 6, 2020
Pastor Toni Carmer
I remember his hands. They were big, they were rough, they were calloused. And somehow, they were always warm.
I remember going ice fishing with him on a small private lake on one of the neighbor’s farms. While grandpa was fishing, I was running around on the ice, sliding and having a good time. My feet were cold and at some point I couldn’t feel them, and I ended up just taking my boots off. My grandpa saw what I’d done, and I don’t remember him scolding me, but what I remember is that he took those big warm hands of his, and held my feet and warmed them up again.
I’m not sure what happened next. I’m guessing he took me home and grandma never let him take me ice-fishing again. But what I do remember were those hands: those warm, rough, calloused hands that warmed my feet, that warmed my hands whenever I was cold.
I imagine that Joseph’s hands were strong and calloused and scarred. As rough as the wood they worked with, yet capable of the most delicate touch when softly gliding over a freshly-planed surface, checking for smoothness. Hands that could almost crush yours without meaning to in a handshake, but that could hold a child’s awkwardly constructed first carving with such delicacy that there wouldn’t be any damage to the fragile glue and tape that hold it breathlessly together.
His hands were workers hands, capable hands, hands that cut and shaped and sanded and fit together furniture or door frames or window moldings. Perhaps he repaired the roofs of people’s homes; he may have made or repaired tools for farming. The Greek word that we translate as “carpenter” could mean that he was a woodworker, a craftsman, or possibly a stone-mason.
We know he worked with his hands, but we don’t really know much of anything else about Joseph. Legend has it that he was much older than Mary, possibly widowed with several children. We do know that he and Mary were betrothed, which was a relationship as binding as marriage. According to practice, upon their betrothal, Mary would typically have become a part of Joseph’s household and there would be the same legal obligations of marriage, though the marriage itself would not have been consummated.
I don’t know, maybe we can imagine his response when Mary tells him that she is going to have a baby and he knows the child isn’t his. Maybe we can imagine how hurt he is. “How can this happen?” “How can this be?” He thought he knew her; how could she have deceived him so?
He listens to her words and his whole body responds. His heart starts to pound and suddenly it doesn’t feel as though there’s enough air in the room. His face flushes and his knees feel a little wobbly. He has to get out of there before he embarrasses himself any further. Before she sees how deeply her words have cut through him. Before she knows that his heart is broken. There’s nothing to say. What can he say? It doesn’t even make sense. He simply turns away and goes to his shop. He picks up his saw and begins pushing it through the hard wood and pulling it back again. The familiarity of the movement holds him together, as his practiced, knowing hands do their work.
He falls into bed that night a changed man. Everything looks the same all around him, but the plans he had made are all gone. There was an easy way out, of course. If he simply claimed the child as his, there would be no shame. “Sex before marriage” was technically impossible in this situation: sex became marriage. All would be perfectly legal—no scandal, no shame.
Except for one inconvenient truth: he isn’t the father. How could he ever look at Mary in the same way? How could he pretend the child is his? What is an honorable man to do? He makes the decision to quietly divorce her…until the angel comes in his dream. “Don’t be afraid,” the angel tells him. We’ve read how the angel Gabriel announced good news to Mary in the gospel of Luke, but to Joseph, the angel gives instruction, active direction: first telling him to proceed with the marriage, and then giving Joseph the child’s name.
Joseph has a choice. He can choose to listen to his broken heart and to simply step away from the whole mess, or he can choose to believe and to listen, even when it doesn’t make any sense…even when it seems as though his world is caving in…even when there is no logical explanation…even though it all feels pretty uncomfortable.
Joseph chooses to believe…even when…even in the midst of all these things. Joseph chooses to believe the angel’s words. He chooses to believe and to listen to God. He chooses to believe in love: in God’s love for him, and in his love for Mary. He chooses to believe in love.
Ultimately, that’s what this story is about, what this season is about: it’s about God’s love, it’s about God’s presence, it’s about God’s desire and decision to come into the world so that we might know and understand him. And its about the fact that God has not and will not ever give up on us. He came to us once, and he’ll come once again, to reconcile the whole world to himself. That’s the underlying current of who we are as Christians, that’s the purpose of our preparation. But this story tells us as well, about this ordinary man who worked with his hands, who allowed himself to be a vital part of our salvation story when he made the decision to listen and to follow, and to believe. In doing that, Joseph became the earthly father of God’s son. Simply because of who he was, Joseph passively provided the lineage that fulfilled the prophesy that the savior of the world would be descended from the line of David. We can read that lineage in the first chapter of the gospel of Matthew. But his role required more than the passive gift of his genealogy; Joseph’s trust in God positioned him as an active participant in what God was doing (and continues to do) as he became the protector, the guide, the teacher, the role-model for God’s son.
He was an ordinary man who chose to believe…an angel…in God…in Mary…in love. And that changed everything for all of us.
I believe even when…
That could be Joseph’s battle cry as he listens to the angel and steps out on the adventure of taking Mary as his wife, and claiming Jesus as his son.
I believe, even when…life doesn’t make sense.
I believe, even when…because we have come to know God’s love for us.
Anne Lamott is one of my favorite authors, and in her book Traveling Mercies, she describes how she was raised in a family who prided themselves in their intellectual pursuits and social consciousness and who raised their eyebrows in suspicion of anyone who was silly enough to believe in anything related to faith. Their expectations of their children were such that Anne never felt that she could accomplish enough or perform to their expectations: a B+ would invite a response that if she’d worked hard enough for a B+, then couldn’t she have worked just a little bit harder for an A-? In college, she found herself in the awkward predicament of being introduced to God by a tiny Czechoslovakian professor who had her students reading Soren Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling” in class. In his essay on the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac, Lamott met a God of unimaginable goodness and love.
And yet her life had begun a downward spiral as she dealt with depression, poor self-esteem, addictions, and just plain bad decisions. She was intermittently suicidal, taking pills and consuming alcohol in amounts that even she realized were ridiculous… She believed that she would die soon, from a fall or an overdose. She had never stopped believing in God since that philosophy class, but hers was a patchwork god “sewn together from bits of rag and ribbon, Eastern and Western, pagan and Hebrew, everything but the kitchen sink and Jesus.” She knew there was an afterlife, but felt that the odds of her living long enough to get into heaven was almost nil. She figured they wouldn’t take somebody in the kind of shape she was in. She couldn’t imagine how God could love her.
But for some reason, she took a chance and called the new episcopal priest at a church she had gone to a couple of times, and she started to explain to him that she was sure she was losing her mind. He interrupted her, said he was so sorry and asked if she could call him back in the morning. He couldn’t stay and listen right then. But then, he just stopped and said, “Never mind, come on in. I’ll wait for you.” It took her 45 minutes to walk across town to get there, but when she finally arrived, she poured out her whole story to him and he listened, really listened, as she told him every pain, every heart-ache, every bad decision, and admitted that maybe every now and then she also might drink a little too much.
The only thing she could remember later that he said to her came in response to her statement “I don’t think God could love me.” He simply said, “God has to love you. That’s God’s job.”
She had been so busy trying to figure out the “big” life questions and God-questions that she had missed the most important piece of who God is: that God is love. God can’t help but love us…that’s just who God is. No matter what we’ve done. No matter where we’ve been. No matter what we’re facing.
That’s who God is.
God is love.
You and I live in a broken world. There are broken hurting people all around us. People who are angry. People who are sick. People who are tired, depressed, frustrated. This is a difficult time, no doubt. But, God came into the world because of this. Jesus was born into the world to redeem it, to transform it, to bring hope and new life and a new way of looking at things. And God invites us to be a part of it. You and I, ordinary people, willing to take a risk, willing to believe, willing to step out in love. In faith.
Love warms us up when we’re cold.
Gives us hope when we’re lost.
Listens to us when we need to talk
Begins to put us back together when we’re broken.
Love shines light into the shadow places of our lives…when we’re not sure where to go, what we should do, or how in the world we can continue forward.
Joseph’s hands were strong hands. Ordinary hands. Hands like yours and mine. Amen.