Sermon for the First Sunday of Christmas

January 1, 2023.

Texts: Isaiah 63:7-9; Hebrews 2:10-18; Matthew 2:13-23.

There’s a place down in Tukwila, south of Seattle where a bit of scraggly grass and some large old cottonwood trees remain from when this was fertile farmland well supplied with river water. Time and commerce have overtaken much of the valley. Busy arterials carry vehicle traffic past at alarming speeds. Strip malls teem with call centers, coffee shops, service departments and delis.

This little green strip is not entirely overlooked, even though it lies tucked behind a Costco and a Home Depot. Hundreds of cars go by it on their way to the Costco gas pumps. Perhaps you have even been one of these passersby at some point.

This is the place where day laborers come. They arrive beginning in the early morning. Some arrive later after finishing night work. It’s all men. They’re dressed for hard work, holding giant to-go coffee cups. Weathered men, of all sizes and ages.

They wait and watch as contractors in large pickup trucks come by sporadically to select a man or two, or six. There’s always someone who acts as a translator when necessary to help facilitate communication between laborer and boss. It’s a deal usually sealed with a nod rather than a handshake.

There are places like this in every city and in most towns. Truth be told, if they didn’t exist the labor shortage in our land would be far worse than it is. And we would feel it one way or another. Not just because of the men’s work, but because also of the many jobs performed by women in the family. Work in hair and nail salons, preparing food, cleaning businesses or houses, child care, elder care, and so much more.

The lucky ones at these unofficial labor recruitment centers are those who get to spend the next ten hours digging, hammering, sawing, shoveling. But usually it’s an improvement over what they left behind. They aspire to learn, to a better life, just like anyone. The building trades are an entry into a future that exists, for now, only in their dreams.

What was it like for Joseph to leave in the night with Mary and Jesus? What was it like to arrive in Egypt with nothing much in the way of resources except for the strength of his body? He was in the building trades himself. A carpenter. So says Matthew’s gospel, in the 13th chapter.

The timing of this gospel story, often called the “Flight to Egypt” is uncertain. Although artworks often depict Jesus as an infant, small details in the story suggest this happened later. The journey of the magi toward the child, took time. Perhaps as much as two years.

And so Joseph and Mary may well have crossed the desert wilderness with a toddler in tow. A child too big to be hidden easily, or quickly silenced in the presence of Herod’s patrols. A child who might lay down in a tantrum and need to be picked up and carried for hours and days. Leaving must have been a nightmare. This child would know human suffering all too well. And it all came about because of dreams.

There was the first dream…the angel’s instruction to fear not and to take Mary as his wife. Then to claim Jesus for his son. Life was normal for a while. But then the travelers came, dressed in the fine robes of foreign courts, bearing gifts far beyond what any child should receive. This was unexpected. And dangerous. A reminder that Joseph’s responsibility was very great.

Then came the second dream. Another angel, this time with a personal warning. Get out of here. Stay away until I tell you. And Joseph followed this dream too. What else could he do?

So they went to Egypt. Joseph cobbled together a life. He learned the places where a job might be found. Places where men like him might go to protect a child, and a dream. Where his lack of language or his accent would not hold him back or cause him trouble.

Carpenters can get work wherever they go. It’s hard work. Ten hours a day and a pail of water for your thirst. It’s honest work. Building things. Creating things. A blessing.

Time passed. Matthew does not say how much. Another dream. Was Joseph weary and wary of these dreams by now? This angel brought good news. Time to return home. Israel. God’s land.

And with no fanfare, Joseph and Mary took their son Jesus and left Egypt. Crossed the border from one dream into another. But did not return to the place of Jesus’s birth in Judea where kinfolk might help him begin again. It was not safe yet.

They journeyed on, north into the hills near Galilee. A place called Nazareth. Weary with travel they arrived. But the most important thing in Joseph’s life was accomplished. He had kept his promise to God to be the protector of Jesus, God’s own Son. So that the child might grow up to be the fulfiller of the truest and best of all human dreams. The dream of being free, secure, home, loved. Of being saved, and safe in spite of all the suffering life can deal out.

Joseph turned in his sleep. Dreaming again. Of finding the place in Nazareth where the laborers gather and wait in hope. Where someone with skill in the building trades might find work. Where no one would need to know where he’d been or why. And in that dream was a vision too, of a carpentry shop where he’d teach his own son the trade that kept body and soul together. For, who knows what good things Jesus might one day achieve?

Questions to Ponder

What would have happened if Joseph had not listened to his dreams?

What gift has God given you to protect and nurture for the sake of the world?

How could you be more like Joseph in your faith?