A Carpenter’s Christmas
December 1998 | First Presbyterian Church Orlando
Scene 1: Joseph in the workshop
This is very awkward for me because I’m not accustomed to standing in front of people and speaking. I am a man who has been known more for my brawn than for my brain. I do not mean by that that I am not intelligent; it’s just that I have no experience whatsoever in standing in front of people to speak. You see, I am a carpenter by trade. In fact, I am the carpenter of Nazareth. I don’t mind saying to you, in all modesty, that I’m quite proud of the work that I do.
The hammer that I hold in my hand is vital to my trade. I know you may be thinking to yourself: “Of course a hammer is vital to a carpenter.” But this is not the usual hammer. No, this hammer is not for building things, it is for marking things. You know how it is when an artist creates a painting—the artist signs that painting to mark it as his or her own. The same thing is true in the carpenter’s trade. When I create something of which I am pleased, I sign my name to it using this hammer. If you look closely at the head of the hammer you can see that the head is engraved with a mark—a symbol. It is the symbol for my name—Joseph, the son of Jacob. That’s my full name. Today you would call me Joseph Jacobson. So when I create something of value, I use this hammer to mark that object with my name. I should show you how that’s done. The hammer is used just as a normal hammer would be. I strike the wooden object which I have created and, as a result, the mark is indelibly etched into the wood. So I am a carpenter and I am proud of the work that I do.
But that is not what creates such awkwardness for me tonight. The awkwardness is created first by my discomfort with speaking in public, but secondly by the role that I played in the first Christmas. Actually, my role was, well … let me put it this way … The woman whom I was to marry gave birth to the Son of God.
Now let me just say right here that when I learned that Mary was expecting the birth of a child, the news fell on me like a hammer blow. I couldn’t believe it. I was plunged into despair. I had no idea how to handle what I saw to be a terrible tragedy. However, the very night after receiving this shocking news, while I was sleeping, I dreamed, and in the dream I heard an angel of the Lord say to me: “Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary to be your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She shall bring forth a son, and you shall call His name Jesus for He shall save His people from their sins.” Well, I didn’t understand all that the angel meant by that, I did find reassurance in knowing that somehow, by the power of my God, Mary and I would be all right. What the angel had to say to me triggered the most astonishing sequence of events you could ever imagine.
(“Hark the Herald Angels Sing”)
Scene II: The Journey to Bethlehem
After hearing the message of the angel, immediately I rushed to Mary and told her about the dream and the angel and what the angel had said. I told her everything and then I told her how much I loved her. Amazingly enough, she shared with me that she too had had a visit from an angel. The angel had said to her: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for the Lord is with you. You have found favor with God.” Imagine that! The two of us, of all people, having been visited by the angels. The two of us mingled our tears, our laughter, and our prayers and began to anticipate the birth of the child. Things progressed smoothly until not long before the baby was due to arrive—we were jolted with the news that we would be required to travel from Nazareth to our ancestral home, the little town of Bethlehem, in order to participate in the Roman census. The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem was never easy in those days, but given our particular circumstances, the journey was excruciating. The ninety-mile trip took us south along the flatlands beside the Jordan River, then west over the hills surrounding Jerusalem and then on into Bethlehem. It was a grueling journey under any circumstance. Under normal conditions we could have made perhaps twenty miles a day. But given Mary’s situation, we were lucky if we made ten miles a day. Besides, the last stretch of the journey through the Judean wilderness was especially tough. The Judean desert is a harsh place in winter, with temperature in the daytime in the 30s and 40s, frequent rains, bitingly cold winds. Not only that, but that stretch of the journey is one which you take with a constant threat of being attacked by outlaws. Combine together the hardness of the journey, the harshness of the weather conditions, and the hazards created by the circumstances around us and, to be perfectly frank, I wondered if we would ever make it to Bethlehem. Of course, my mind was also swirling with other thoughts as well. Why me? Why Mary? Why us? I’m just an ordinary carpenter. Why would God choose me?
(Song: “Strange Way to Save the World”)
It did seem strange to me. I was just a carpenter. I only knew how to work with wood. How could I be expected to train a child to become the Savior of the world? Surely some mistake had been made. When I shared my fears with Mary, she said to me: “Joseph, God made no mistake. You are a craftsman with wood. You take green trees which are twisted and from them you make beams which are straight and strong. You take rough timbers and cause their roughness to be smoothed into beauty. And you love to fix broken things—you love to make them like new again. Oh, Joseph, God made no mistake when He chose you to raise His Son, for what you have learned to do with wood, the Savior of the world must learn to do with people. When Mary had finished speaking, I discovered that my fear was gone.
Of course you remember the difficulties we then encountered when we made our way into Bethlehem. There were 10,000 other descendants of David who had converged on the town at that time. The place was absolute chaos. There was no room for us anywhere. Finally, we bedded down in the stable. Think of it. Our child would be born there—in, of all places, a stable—in the little town of Bethlehem.
(“O Little Town of Bethlehem”)
Scene III: The Birth of Jesus
There are so many things about that night that I cannot forget. I cannot forget the brightness of the night, created by a star which seemed to me to be as bright as the sun. I cannot forget the angels—more angels. Angels had spoken to me and to Mary, but now those angels were joined by other angels delivering astonishing news about a great joy will be to all people because of the child born in that Bethlehem stable. I cannot forget the shepherds … the shepherds who spent their time out on the hillsides around Bethlehem tending to their flocks, shepherds who heard the message of the angels and who came crowding into that stable to see the child in His mother’s arms. The joy on their faces was almost as bright as the star shining in the sky. No sooner had I recovered from the visit of the shepherds than I heard a commotion of new arrivals outside the stable—the sounds of men’s voices speaking a foreign tongue, the shuffle of camels’ feet. Suddenly, I saw entering through the low door of the stable, men arrayed in a magnificence such as I had never seen in all my years in Nazareth. Amazingly enough, they too came and knelt in honor and homage before the mother and the child. They left tokens of their devotion—gold, frankincense and myrrh. My mind was reeling. I couldn’t begin to tie all the loose ends together. Can God actually have a child born as other children are? I couldn’t begin to grasp it. I couldn’t foresee what it would all mean. I couldn’t foresee that the rough boards which would be His first bed would not be the only rough boards that would bear His weight. I couldn’t see how this baby would be born in Bethlehem, would live in Nazareth, and would then die in Jerusalem. Think of it … born in the city of David, dying in David’s city. Between those two points, all people who would receive Him—a whole world’s worth—would be lifted to glory. That’s what the promise was. I couldn’t begin to understand it all. Not that night at least. Not that night.
(“What Child is This?”)
Scene IV: What Does it All Mean?
I have to confess to you, all of these years later, that the details of that first Christmas Eve would become somewhat fuzzy in my mind. In fact, as I stop to think about it, there is but one memory which stands out in shining clarity. It’s as vivid at this moment as when it first happened. It was the moment when Mary first took the little baby boy and placed Him in my arms and I looked at Him, and through misty eyes, I said what the angel had told me to say: “Your name shall be called Jesus, for You will save Your people from their sin.”
(Song: “Joseph’s Lullaby”)
You know, this may seem a little strange to you, but as I held Him in my arms, it almost seemed to me that He was holding me. I brought Him up to seek the truth, but, you see, He is the truth. I showed Him all the love my heart could hold, but He is love. I gave Him a home, yes, but He gave me heaven. And what I want you to understand tonight is that just as He came into our lives that first Christmas, so He can come into your life this Christmas. And the very moment when you reach out to take Him as your own, you will discover what I discovered—that He takes hold of you. And then you will discover what I discovered—that He will never, ever let you go.
(“Away in a Manger”)