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Not Sure Yet

Thomas J Parlette

“Not Sure Yet”

Matthew 1: 18-25

12/18/16

 

John Buchannan, the former pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, tells one of my favorite stories about the workings of church offices. He tells of the time he put together the service plans for Sunday worship – the liturgical, the prayers, the scripture passages and the hymns – but he couldn’t think of a good title. So under “Sermon”, he penciled in “I’ll tell you later.” But then he got caught up in some other business and he forgot all about it – until he read the Saturday paper, which carried the church advertisement, and saw the services advertised with the sermon title, “I’ll tell you later.” The newspaper deadline had come and gone, so his secretary went ahead with what he had penciled in.

 

That sort of happened to me this week. I planned this service last week, before Lessons and Carols, and I wasn’t sure yet what I was going to call it. So I penciled in :”Not Sure Yet”. But Carol, being the efficient person that she is, poked her head in my office on Monday and asked, “Is not sure yet really the title for Sunday – or are you not sure yet.” I had to think for a moment and in light of this story from Matthew, “Not sure yet” actually seemed like a pretty good title. There’s a lot of uncertainty swirling around here. Mary is not sure yet how she feels about her sudden pregnancy. She is probably not sure yet how she feels about being a mother, or how this all happened. I’m sure Joseph is not sure yet either. Not sure if he should go through with this wedding at all, not sure what he should do next. There’s lots of uncertainty here in this passage. So, “not sure yet” seems an oddly fitting title. So I kept it.

 

This story from Matthew is Joseph’s story. Luke tells the story of Jesus birth from Mary’s perspective, but in Matthew, Joseph is the major player. And yet, we know very little about Joseph. He is very mysterious. He doesn’t speak a word in the New Testament and he is only mentioned a handful of times. In fact, we know so little about Joseph that the early church began developing traditions about him. We can’t be sure they are true, but they exist.

 

One tradition held that Joseph was an elderly widower when he married Mary. Some sources say he was 93 at the time of this story and he lived to 111. This tradition seems to have developed as a way to justify the belief that Mary remained a virgin throughout her life. This would also allow for the possibility that Jesus’ brothers and sisters were Joseph’s children from a previous marriage.(1) Last year in our Advent study, we learned that Joseph is often depicted in art from the Orthodox or Roman Catholic traditions as being elderly. Whereas, in art from Protestant sources, Joseph tends to be depicted as a younger boy, possibly around 14 or 15, which would have been the age young men got married in that time.

 

We do know from the Gospel of Mark that Joseph was a carpenter – a “tekton” – which could refer to a woodworker, a craftsman, or possibly a stone mason. In Israel, very few homes were made entirely of wood. Most homes in Joseph’s time were made of stone, but they had doors and roofs that were often made of wood. “Tektons” like Joseph would have made those, along with a variety of farming tools.(2) In fact, there is another ancient legend that Joseph was renowned for his well-fitting yokes worn by teams of oxen. Hence the origin of Jesus’ phrase “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.” He would have been well acquainted with yokes, especially of that was his father’s specialty.

 

Author Adam Hamilton writes about the time he went to visit a team of carpenter on a construction site to get their take on what kind of guy Joseph was. He writes, “Their responses were quite moving. They thought Joseph would have been a man who liked to work with his hands, one who put in a hard day’s work and took pride in what he had done. They imagined him as someone who enjoyed working outdoors or in his shop and who understood the importance of doing something right the first time. Those ho had sons could also picture Joseph teaching his trade to Jesus as his son grew up.”(3)

 

That’s a good picture of Joseph – humble, hard-working, honest, a craftsman, an honorable man who took pride in his work. A simple man, filled with integrity.

 

So when we first meet Joseph, he has just learned that his young wife-to-be is pregnant. Their marriage was most likely arranged by their families. They had probably never even met since Joseph lived in Bethlehem, according to Matthew, and Mary lived in Nazareth, about a 9 day journey apart. But since Mary had made the trek south to stay with her cousin Elizabeth in the tiny village of Ein Karem, Joseph had walked the hour and a half from Bethlehem to come see her. I’m sure he was pretty excited to meet his bride-to-be. I’m sure his steps were lively and his heart was light as walked the trail.

 

But then his heart must have sunk when he heard the news. Mary was pregnant. This is one of those places in scripture where there just seems to be a huge hole. We hear no reaction from Joseph. We don’t who told him the news – did Mary tell him, maybe Elizabeth – maybe one of the men of the family in a guy to guy talk? We don’t know. How long did Joseph stay? It couldn’t have been long, who would want to stay in that uncomfortable situation any longer than they had to. It seems that Joseph walked back home to go to bed that night – but we don’t know that for sure.

 

I wonder what that walk was like.  Ninety minutes alternating between anger and embarrassment, frustration then uncertainty. It must have been a plodding, heavy footed walk home as Joseph struggled with what to do next. This was one of the darkest moments of his life and he was just not sure yet what to do. Somewhere in those ninety minutes though, because he was a righteous and good hearted man, he decided that he would dismiss Mary as quietly as possible to save her from shame and move on with his life.

 

But that night in his dreams, an Angel appears. “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife…” And when he woke up, his uncertainty was gone. Joseph knew what he was going to do. Now he was sure. He would do what the Angel had said. He would go through with the wedding and raise the baby as his own.

 

This morning we have taken some time to acknowledge that there are many people who struggle in this holiday season. For some, Christmas is not all laughter and warmth and joy. For some, this season can be a dark time that brings the realization that their family situations are not what they would like, a time that reminds them of loved ones no longer present, a time when they are not sure yet about how to move forward with life. What we see in Joseph’s story is that God is at work. God comes into our darkest moments of uncertainty and grief and whispers to us in our dreams, “Don’t be afraid.” God is at work in every situation of life, working to bring new life. God is at work like a candle shining in the darkness – and the darkness will not overcome God.

 

So into this dark and uncertain world, we can be sure of this. While we are waiting, Jesus, our Lord, Emmanuel will surely, quickly come.

 

May God be praised. Amen.

 

1.    Adam Hamilton, The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem, Abingdon Press, 2011, p. 41.

2.    Ibid…p. 42.

3.    Ibid…p.42-43.