Sunday, December 4, 2011

December 4, 2011

Two Builders: Joseph and Herod
Matthew 1.18-25                                                                                                                Advent 2

            One figure in the Christmas story whose contributions and faithfulness have been under-appreciated was Joseph. Joseph is mainly remembered as the man who was definitely not the father of Mary’s child. Then, we expand the insult by recalling how he almost dumped Mary when he learned that she was pregnant before their formal marriage. Oh yes, he was a carpenter. And, it seems that he dreamed a lot and took his dreams pretty seriously. Other than that, he is seen as little more than that guy leading the donkey on front of Christmas cards, or the rather un-resourceful fellow who couldn't even find a fit place for his wife to give birth, or the tall kid wearing his father's bathrobe who doesn't have to do or say anything in children's Christmas pageants.
            This sermon, like all our preaching this Advent is inspired by an Advent Study written by Rev. Adam Hamilton; it is titled, *The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem*. This study invites us to see how the geography and history of the places where Jesus was born shapes the Christmas story and indeed shapes the great gospel message of salvation.

            In any list of our *10 favorite Christmas carols*, we would certainly include “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” It is a dreamy carol which sets out to transport us to an idyllic Bethlehem where a baby as precious as Jesus would certainly be born.
O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by…

That night, of course, was the night of the Baby Jesus’ birth. Beguiled by the carol, we imagine Bethlehem to be a place of unbroken peace and simple beauty, set apart from the dangers of the Romans and their heavy-handed ruler, King Herod.
            In some ways, the magic and beauty of the Christmas season make it hard for us to look at the larger story of the birth of the Christ Child. We want our Christmas to be about “angels and shepherds and starry nights;” any other details get in the way. But, as we turn our attention to Joseph and his birthplace in Bethlehem this morning, we need to see the bigger picture. It is rich with evidence of the hand of God and well worth our attention. This time let’s look at the familiar Christmas story from the viewpoint of Joseph, the intended husband of Mary, and thus the earthly father who raised Jesus as his own child.

I. According to Luke, Joseph was required by King Herod to return to the city of his birth to register for a census. Most people further assume that this census was for the purpose of a taxation. This city was Bethlehem.
            Because of the Christmas Carol, we assume that Bethlehem was a peaceful place, set apart from the dangers of the larger world. Nothing could be further from the truth. Further, talking about Bethlehem will help us better understand the character of Joseph and the wonderful contribution he made to the coming of the Christ Child.
            The first clue that there is more to the story of Bethlehem comes in the verses which follow our scripture reading this morning. If your Bible is still open to our scripture, just continue reading with Matthew 2 beginning with verse 1:
**In the time of King Herod,
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea. . .**

In chapter 1, we began with Joseph; now in chapter 2, we must pay attention to King Herod. Herod was born around 74 BC and died in 4 BC. The year of Herod’s death and this reference in Matthew are the reason that many think that Jesus was actually born in 4 BC. Herod was a Roman client who ruled Judea. He is described as "a madman who murdered his own family including many of his own sons. He is also known for his colossal building projects in Jerusalem and elsewhere, including his expansion of the Great Temple in Jerusalem.
            When Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem, they did not find a sweet town isolated from the politics and oppressions of King Herod and his Roman patrons. Just a short distance south of Bethlehem, King Herod had built a fortress palace for himself. At the site of one of his military victories, Herod took an ordinary hill and built it up until it was one of the highest mountains in the area. Inside that man-made mountain, he built a self-contained fortress and palace where he could defend himself against any attacker. On the outside, it looked like a smallish fortress on top of a hill. Inside it had a water system, barracks for troops, a villa for the King and his court – all reached by narrow steps going up the side. At the base of the mountain he built an artificial lake, gardens and a city for his guests. King Herod was so proud of this fortress built inside a mountain that he named it the “Herodion” – he named it for himself.
            The Herodion was so tall and prominent that you could see it from most places in Bethlehem. Roman soldiers and officials traveling between Jerusalem the capital and the Herodion fortress could have passed through Bethlehem often.
            I have described all of this to prepare you to think about the fact that what we have in Bethlehem at the birth of Jesus is the contrast of two builders. *Joseph the carpenter* and *Herod the great builder*. Mark uses the Greek word, *tekton*, to describe Jesus as the son of a *carpenter*. The word can also mean *builder*. A person who was a *master builder* was called *arch-tekton* which is where our word *architect* comes from. You might imagine that King Herod with all his building projects could be called an *arch-tekton,” but Joseph was only a *tekton* -- a craftsman.

II. Now, contrast these two builders:
            A. Joseph was a modest man; he does not have single word recorded in the Bible. He lived out the role of father-figure in Jesus’ early life. The New Testament assumes that Jesus was trained as a carpenter himself.
+Joseph wanted to marry and proposed marriage to Mary.
+He learned that Mary was with child before they had married – a great shame for both of them.
+He considered divorcing her;
+Matthew describes him as a *righteous man*, but we need to think about what righteousness means in this instance. Usually, *righteousness* means doing the right thing as required by the law. Their law, like ours, required each person to do certain things and not-to-do certain things. The law of that day required that a woman who was engaged to marry but became pregnant by another man should be condemned for adultery and stoned to death. This is what righteousness according to the Law required. In our society, it is still considered grounds for ending an engagement. So, Joseph could have ended the engagement; many would have expected him to condemn her for adultery publicly so that she could be stoned to death. He chose neither of these. Instead, because of a dream, he took her as his wife. Then, when the child was born, Joseph named him Jesus. In that society, it was the father who publicly named a child; it was the traditional way by which the father claimed the child as his own and gave the child his name.
                        Thus, we would have to say that Joseph’s righteousness was really what we would call compassion. He might have done many things to protect his honor and the honor of his family; he chose instead to act with mercy toward Mary and protect her. Remember, at this point in the story of Jesus, only Mary and Joseph have any assurance that this child is of the Holy Spirit. Every other person sees only a scandal.
+Clearly, Joseph was willing to listen to the voice of God. At the point where he was most confused by the events unfolding around him, he listened when God spoke to him in a dream. He accepted the assurance from God, given in the dream that this child was from the Holy Spirit. // How many of us at the point of our greatest confusion and distrust will listen to the still, small voice of God? I fear that it would not be many.
So, here is Joseph:
            +listening for the voice of God.
In my opinion, this Joseph of the Christmas story is a man of quiet integrity, who has something to teach us about character.

            B. Herod the King was a very different sort of man. We have already talked some about him, so I’ll just summarize. Herod was:
            +a master-builder,
            +as a king, he was considered a madman,
            +unrighteous – using his authority to inflict his will on others,
            +unmerciful – killing many of his own sons,
            +untrusting, even paranoid according to some,
            +certainly, not listening or heeding the voice of God.
What a contrast! Two builders, each with a different character. Two fathers – Joseph giving life to the Son that would not be his own; Herod killing his own flesh and blood out of paranoia.
            This is not some far away point; this is a very current point to be made about the American character. In Terry Mattingly’s article on “George Gallup’s Interest in Religion” said on Saturday:
"We revere the Bible, but don't read it." "We believe the Ten Commandments to be valid rules for living, although we can't name them. We believe in God, but this God is a totally affirming one, not a demanding one. He does not command our total allegiance. We have other gods before him" (1).

            [LESSON:] The lesson to learn from Joseph is that often the greatest witness to our faith in God is not the speeches we make or the honors we win for ourselves. Often our greatest witness is measured
            +by our willingness to live inconvenienced by faith in this God;
            +by those who are helped because we passed their way;
            +by the trust we offer when things begin badly -- that they will one day work out well.
            The question we bring to the communion table is morning is just this: “What do we bring to this table? Our trophies and honors? Or our willingness to follow?
Are we coming to this table today as consumers of grace or as those committed to the God of grace – wherever that God may send us? You see, the difference between these two builders and now in these two visions of life is enormous.

1. Mattingly, Terry. "George Gallup's Interest in Religion," Knoxville News-Sentinel, December 3,  2001.