Chairs to Make

Our passage for this Sunday is Matthew 1:18-25, the angel’s annunciation to Joseph. And the sermon makes reference to an old Carol, called the Cherry Tree Carol. Here is a good version of the carol:

Chairs to Make

A pregnant woman is constantly reminded that there is something growing in her. She feels nauseous. It kicks. Her feet swell. Her body is constantly reminding her that there is another body in there. But the same is not true for the father. In fact for the father hardly anything might change at all. He won’t wake up in the morning with an overwhelming need to vomit. He can go to work and focus on his tasks and completely forget about the responsibilities he is about to take on. He might even want to. Especially, if, in the case of Joseph, he isn’t the biological father at all.

The Infancy Gospel of Matthew, written sometime around 600 A.D. has a story about Joseph and Mary that later became an old carol called “The Cherry Tree Carol.” As the story goes, Mary is with child, but Joseph doesn’t know it yet. She and Joseph are walking in a cherry orchard, and she decides to tell him. She hides it in a request, “Joseph gather me some cherries, for I am with child.” Joseph isn’t exactly happy to hear the news. “Let the father of the baby pick cherries for thee,” he snaps back. Then Jesus from the womb commands the tallest tree to bend itself down so that Mary can pluck cherries herself while Joseph stands gaping.

It’s a weird story. But it fleshes out the characters in a real way. After the annunciation, the angel went away, and left Mary to deal with the fallout. The events that happen in our story don’t just happen to perfect saints who have hummingbirds helping them get dressed in the morning. In the midst of this story of magic and miracle and goodwill there were real people, real fights and real hurts, jagged edges and broken things that won’t be fixed.

Of course we don’t know how any of this happened, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine that this wasn’t easy for Joseph. I imagine him waking up in the morning angry and frustrated and wishing that he could just forget Mary and everything else that has happened. And for the first few hours of the morning he’s able to do just that. Just because he’s got problems doesn’t mean that there isn’t work to do. He has orders to fill. There are chairs and tables to be made and sold. He still has to put food on the table; he still has to pay the mortgage. So he throws himself into his work, cutting and shaving and fitting until his arms are screaming at him and his back is slick with sweat.

But when the workday is over, he can no longer hold his thoughts at bay. He’s angry at Mary, but he still cares enough not to want to hurt her. Why did everything get so complicated? Joseph is a carpenter. He puts things together. And he cuts and he shaves and he sands until each joint is fit, flush, and even. But nothing is fit, flush, or even about this situation. It’s jagged edges and uneven corners as far as his eye can see. The whole thing is a mess. He can’t marry her now, but maybe if he can keep this quiet she can still have a good life. And so he drifts off to sleep just the way he he woke up, thoughts racing and wishing that he could just forget it all.

And then he has the most incredible dream. You know the dream, of course. An angel, come to announce that the child in Mary’s womb is from the Holy Spirit. He is the Messiah, and he shall be called Emmanuel, God with us. But if you’ve ever tried to explain a dream you know that telling someone what happened barely scratches the surface of what you’ve experienced. And the same is true for Joseph. Can you imagine what it would be like to be shown God’s plan for the world? To see how God has bent the cosmos to one shape, weaving the threads of time together to bring this particular present to fruition, and then to be shown exactly where you fit? Can you imagine what it was like for Joseph, whose life had cracked along jagged edges, to be shown how those jagged edges fit exactly into this great big puzzle, and to see not only his part in this great plan but the whole plan itself? For the first time ever, Joseph can see how his piece fits with all the others. And he sees that he is part of a much greater work than he ever imagined.

And then he wakes up. And like any dream, this dream begins to fade. He tells it to himself again and again so he won’t forget what happened, but of course there is no way to put those feelings into words, and soon all he has left are the words.

And there are chairs to be made. He remembers the dream, but dreams fade. And the angel that was there last night isn’t here in the morning. And it’s not there during Jesus’s teen years, either. But every once in a while, when he’s putting a piece together, sweat and sawdust in his eyes, he will slowly ease a fitting into place. And the pieces will fit just right, the color will match just right, and the fit will be so snug you might not notice that the joint is there at all. And a tear will roll down the side of Joseph’s face, because he will remember the vision and the way he fits into the great mystery of life.

It can be easy for us to forget that we too are a part of this grand vision of salvation. There are chairs for us to make, cattle to feed, errands to run, and fences to mend. The mortgage doesn’t pay itself, and the bills keep coming whether we want them to or not.

But perhaps that’s why God came into the world this way. Not in some great cosmic explosion of transcendence, but in an ordinary way, to ordinary people, who have the same anxieties and fears that we do, and the same chairs to make. So that we might know that God works with jagged-edged people, people whose lives don’t seem to fit right, people who don’t have all the answers.

The stories in the Bible give us glimpses of the great plan God has for us and for our salvation. And as Max Lucado puts it, “Christmas celebrates God’s most uncommon decision: to come commonly.”[1] Something incredible is coming into our world, and it will come in moonlight and miracle but it will also come in arguments and tragedies and chairs to make.

We who wait for an unbirthed hope can forget, with all of the things we are doing, that we do these things because great joy is coming into our lives. But we would do better not to. Because God has come and God is still coming, in people with jagged edges, and arguments and tragedies and chairs to make.

[1] Lucado, Max. Christmas Stories; Heartwarming Tales of Angels, a Manger, and the Birth of Hope. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 7.


About Drew

I'm the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Pitman, NJ. I love camping, rhetorical criticism, and classic movies. I'm passionate about God's love, and the messy, beautiful ways it shows itself in our communities every day.
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