Letter from a Sonless Father

I am indebted and no doubt significantly influenced by Pastor Skip Ryan’s sermon on the same theme.

20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

Matthew 1:20-21

Benjamin ben Heli,

My brother Benjamin, shalom from God. I apologize for writing such a terse note about the changes in our plans. So very much has happened, that I scarce know where to start. Mary and I have arrived and settled in with the community in Alexandria, and we and the baby are doing well. The greatness of this city will afford us the anonymity Mary and the child need to go unnoticed, and it promises the opportunity for me to work as well.

Yes, the news of what happened at Bethlehem reached us a week ago. The Fox, Herod, has again been plundering among the defenseless, and as the prophet has said – “A voice was heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more (Jeremiah 31:15).” I wrote quickly before we left to inform you of our plans to come here and to assure you that we weren’t in Judea because I knew that you would be concerned for our safety when news reached the North of what that Edomite was planning and ultimately did. I could not tell you more as I was afraid any communication would be intercepted. The fox has his spies.

My life has changed so much this past year. I’m sure the family had not expected as much. It was not surprising that I was betrothed to Miriam at such a young age — our family had plans.

I cannot tell you how the news of her pregnancy shook me. Angry for the betrayal, afraid for the scandal, despairing for the shame, and my little dove, what of her? My heart was broken. I knew two things to be true: I loved Mary as myself, and I was not the father of the child she was carrying. I did not have the stomach for what many may have expected of me, but rather I intended to break ties quietly to allow her family to deal with the situation as they saw fit. I know you’re asking why then, if I knew before the wedding and had in mind to divorce her quietly, did I take Mary to be my wife? It is quite simple. One of the many restless nights, it became clear that instead of the plan I intended, I would do the opposite.

Benjamin, I was visited by a messenger. I must have been dreaming, but I was so aware that I felt I must have been awake. In my dream, an angel of God appeared to me and told me, that the baby she carried was a boy, of the Holy Spirit, and that I should not be afraid, but take Mary as my wife and name the boy Joshua, because he would save his people from their sins. The Lord has chosen me and the house of my fathers to bring forth the promised Messiah.

Even so, I was afraid. The potential scandal and shame together with the responsibility of rearing the child-messiah was too heavy. Though of humble means, my family’s name and house is noteworthy. Would I bring dishonor to it? Though we do bear a kings heritage, Benjamin, after all, what am I? Merely a handyman. And what of our family? There has not been much honor in it, and it seems to have long-since past that the Lord had plans to re-establish it –especially since the Roman, Pompey the Mangus, established Roman rule over us and conferred the kingdom to an Edomite. And so, what is the matter, an insignificant, displaced descendent of a once honored house takes a wife under unusual circumstances – if that were anything unusual for the house of David.

Apparently words travel more quickly than feet, and by the time we reached Bethlehem news of our coming and delay in our arrival was all the excuse needed by the cousins. There was no room. Indeed there was not. Mary’s time had come, and we had to find shelter for her, and so we did at the inn in which afforded no shelter except for the stable where — attended by the stable animals: ox, donkey, goat, and sheep — the Son of David was delivered into this world — to deliver the world.

As if this story were already too strange to believe, the most amazing visitors called upon us to see and honor this baby. Shepherds, driving their herds back from good pasture spoke of an angelic host proclaiming news of his birth and directing them to where they might find us. Several days later, three Chaldeans among a caravan traveling from the East came bearing gifts to honor the King. What does it mean? Learned magi and lowly shepherd – will both have a place in his kingdom? Will master and servant stand side by side to honor this king?

We remained in Bethlehem until the time for purification was complete. We gathered our belongings to return to Nazareth with the intent to stop first in Jerusalem to present Joshua at the Temple that he might by consecrated. Though I know my way around, I am still surprised by looks of suspicion in response to my Galilean accent. Granted, there are people from all over the world, but our dress and the meagerness of our means was like carrying a sign identifying us as refugees and outsiders. We were more conspicuous because it was not nearly as busy as it is during the great feasts. Nevertheless, the size of Jerusalem in comparison with Nazareth? And now Alexandria? I feel so very small.

Upon our reaching the Temple, I staggered as if I were seeing it for the first time. It is overpowering the smell of charcoal and roasted meat along with the noise of people and worship and animals lowing and bleeting. We stood in line to convert our drachmas into shekels, and then we moved to another line to purchase the two doves for the sacrifice (Lev 12). Again, relegated to the fringes to watch and be watched, pitied, suspected – two doves. To be honest Benjamin, I was ashamed. While we waited for an available priest to make the offering, I was hit in the gut by the sight of my little dove, Mary, holding those two little doves to make atonement and purification for her sin while holding this little boy who is coming to His Father’s house for the first time.

Benjamin, Mary has done so well and born it all so very graciously. Her gentleness and receptiveness to all that has come to her has revealed a loving, soft, and faithful heart. I wish that I could say the same for me.

While we wait, I hear the Kohathite Choir singing one of David’s hymns; they sing: “The LORD is in his holy temple; the LORD is on his heavenly throne. He observes the sons of men; his eyes examine them (Psalm 11:4).” What does our Father see when examines me? I felt a check in my heart. At that very moment I realized that my fear that I am merely an observer of events – a spectator being carried along in this river of God’s Providence — not knowing my part, and not being able to provide more, is compounded by the reality that I am, myself, being watched – and that by the Lord. And what am I doing? Nothing.

Mary could see it in my face and as if she were merely throwing out a disinterested comment, quoted Samuel’s words to David, “The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7).” The Lord examines the heart. And what did He see? Fear? Anger? Shame? Resentment? If those things fill my heart then not even a great offering would be enough. I was in danger of poisoning the little I had. The little I have does not hinder God from saving and neither does my greatness secure it. God deals graciously – he is not respecter of persons. Finally, in all the business of what was going on outside of me and all of what was going on inside of me was quieted in an instant. “The Lord is gracious and righteous; our God is full of compassion. I may be descended from kings who ruled in this city but that does not make me better. I may just be a laborer with calloused hands who works in a small village in a small country, but our Father in Heaven “gives his king great victories; he shows unfailing kindness to his anointed, to David and his descendants forever. (2 Samuel 22:51).” And just at that time, the priest was ready for us. He sacrificed the doves and pronounced peace. The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace (Numbers 6:24-26).”

Upon our leaving courtyard, we happened upon a man named Simeon who, when he saw Joshua, was overcome. He gathered up the boy and prayed aloud as a crowd gathered, “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel (Luke 2:29-32).” As we talked, Simeon told us that he had not planned on coming to the Temple that day, but he felt compelled by the Holy Spirit to stop what he was doing and come immediately. This brother Simeon, has longed for the coming of the Messiah, and the Holy Spirit told him that he would not die before he did see him. “For my eyes have seen your salvation…” he said again and again. While I talked with others Simeon, took Mary aside and told her: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too (Luke 2:34-35).” Benjamin, how do I take this all in? It seems too joyful and too sad – such good news and yet such impending trouble. What does it all mean?

My brother, now that we are safe from the immediate danger, I find myself sitting in Alexandria and overwhelmed with questions. Mary and the child are here with me, and I am both grateful and full of questions. You know how, as a boy, I applied myself to our father, Heli’s, instruction. I took to the apprenticeship and learned all that I could so that I might be more than a hand – that I might be a craftsman. Nothing in all my laboring and practice has prepared me for this. Give me timber, hammer, plumb and level, and I will make a house. But how shall I father this boy? He whom I should serve? When our grandfather Mattthan moved the family to Nazareth to escape the civil war in Judea, I’m sure he had no idea of what would become of his family. Working as a laborer in clay, brick, wood, mortar, thatch, and leather, he found a place for his family and provided for their needs.

But what of me? Of what benefit will my skill be to the boy? Shall I raise a king as a carpenter? Shall the Messiah be schooled by carrying lumber? Shall I teach him, as a rabbi, the mysteries of God? Of what benefit to him and his kingdom are arms and back strengthened by carrying a wooden post and beam? What does a kings hands have to do with hammer and nail? And what of the man Simeon’s words? When the angel first appeared to me, he addressed me as Joseph, son of David. Our father David was a king, but he was a suffering king. Will my Joshua, this son of David, suffer too? How will he save his people from their sins? Will he restore right worship and bring peace — the shalom of God?

It is getting late, my brother. It is my prayer that this finds you well and consoled by our God of comfort. Give my love to Mother, and greet the family for me and tell them we are well. We will remain here until we hear word that it is safe to return. Until then, shalom.

Your faithful brother,

Joseph ben Heli

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