When he came to his hometown, he taught the people in their synagogue. They were surprised and said, “Where did he get this wisdom? Where did he get the power to work miracles? Isn’t he the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother named Mary? Aren’t James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas his brothers? And his sisters, aren’t they here with us? Where did this man get all this?” (Matthew 13: 54-56 CEB)
For our Adult Sunday School Advent study this year, we’re working through Adam Hamilton’s new book, “Faithful: Christmas Through the Eyes of Joseph.” When we Christians think about the Christmas story, obviously we first think of Jesus. After that we probably think of Mary, especially our brothers and sisters in the Roman Catholic Church. Then we probably think about shepherds, angels, wise men and such, but what about Joseph? Where does he fit into all of this?
Admittedly the New Testament doesn’t give us much to go on at all. There is not a single line of Holy Scripture attributed to Joseph! Luke mentions that Joseph is still around when Jesus is separated from his parents at age 12, staying in the temple in Jerusalem (Luke 2: 41-51), but again it is Mary that asks the young Jesus why he stayed behind and worried his parents half to death.
After that, Joseph pretty much disappears. The Synoptic Gospels all have some version of the scene which I quoted above, though only Luke mentions Joseph by name in this scene (Luke 4) and Mark just says that Jesus is “Mary’s Son” (Mark 6). The Gospel of John mentions Joseph by name in a similar incident in John 6: 41-51. That’s it! Everything else is either church tradition or apocryphal in nature.
What the Bible does tell us is that Joseph was a carpenter. As a skilled worker, it’s likely that Joseph would have had some means. However, as Adam Hamilton points out in his book, the Greek word that is used to refer to Joseph is tekton, not the word architekton which would have designated him as master carpenter or master builder. In all likelihood Joseph was just simple carpenter building things like doors and furniture, not someone in charge of a large shop or other workers.
Which brings us back to the scripture I quoted above. In this scene Jesus is teaching in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. The people are impressed with his wisdom, but they’re not sure how he came by it. The question is asked, “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?” Can you hear the slight intended there, the incredulity of the people? “Who is this guy anyway?”
But I want to ask you, can you blame them? I don’t think I can. I kind of thought about what it might be like if somebody that I went to high school with ended up being President. With a very few exceptions, I think I’d probably look on them with same kind of incredulity: “Really? HIM, or HER?” There might even be a hint of jealousy there! At any rate, I would certainly forgive anyone who asked the question “Can anything good come of out of Northridge High in Layton, Utah?”
And that is the same question that is asked about Jesus. It is the question posed in John 1 by Nathanael to Philip when Philip tells him that he has found the one spoken of by the prophets. Philip says that this special man is Jesus of Nazareth, son of Joseph. Nathanael (who is likely the apostle Bartholomew mentioned in the synoptics) asks Philip point blank: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Think of it this way. If you ruled the universe and formed it with your very words, if you had that kind of power at your disposal, and you decided to come to Earth and walk around in human skin for a bit, how would you go about it? If you wanted to have a quick impact and have everybody notice you, you’d probably want to show up as the child of a king or emperor. Or you’d want to be born to a noble family, maybe even as a relation to a mighty warrior!
Do I think any of you who read this would choose to be born to a teenage girl and her simple carpenter of a husband in a manger, in the middle of some poor animal’s dinner? Nope. Fat chance.
Yet that’s how it happened. Try to wrap your mind around it. The incarnation-God himself becoming human-takes place in an animal stall to two people of no note or significance, to a woman who was shown to be with child before she was properly married.
It still blows my mind to think about it, and to me, that’s what makes the story ring true. I would never have expected it to go down like that.
Then I stop and think about so many Christians in our world today, particularly in the USA. If Jesus were to show up in those kind of circumstances today, would any of us even notice? I doubt it. What if Jesus’ parents looked like this:
If you can’t picture that happening, then I respectfully ask that you go back and read the Christmas story, because I’m not sure you get it. This is entirely possible, and this would be just as scandalous in our world today as Mary and Joseph were back then, maybe even more so. Heck, I can imagine that if Joseph and Mary (or Jose y Maria) looked like that today, a lot of American Christians would want them run out on the rails. What does that say about us?
Yes, it would be scandalous, but Jesus is scandalous. He showed up in an unexpected way, did unexpected things, and turned society on it’s head, elevating the poor over the rich and the last over the first. As someone on Twitter recently said: “Jesus said it was extremely difficult, near impossible, for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God, and the Church has spent the last 2,000 years trying to explain why he didn’t mean it.”
What if he did? What if we’re just as bad at missing God in the poor and humble as people were 2,000 years ago? They missed him then, and I think we are in danger of missing him now.
The first Sunday of Advent, and the candle we light, traditionally represents Hope. You know what else is scandalous? In this day and age when hate abounds, when the night seems as dark as it’s ever been for many of us, the scriptures, our identity story, ask us to place our hope, all of our hope and all of our dreams, in the baby born in that manger 2,000 years ago. We are asked to wait patiently, but to wait ACTIVELY for him to return, and we hope that when he does, he will restore God’s Shalom on Earth as it is heaven. In the meantime, we’re supposed to help make that happen by serving God in the form of the poor, the sick, the diseased, the dying, the orphan, the widow, the homeless, the people without health insurance, the immigrants, and even our enemies.
As scandalous as that might be, it is what I believe, and it is where I place my hope.
In the Carpenter’s son from Nazareth.