READING: Isaiah 7:10-16; Luke 1:26-38; and Matthew 1:18-25
SERMON : "A Rough Ride For The Righteous"
Rev. Dr. Ross Bartlett
The following is a more or less complete liturgy and sermon
for the upcoming Sunday. Hymn numbers, designated as VU are
found in the United Church of Canada Hymnal "Voices United".
SFPG is "Songs For A Gospel People", also available from the UCC.
Our thanks to Rev. Ross Bartlett for sharing this sermon on the
TELOS Online Community for Sunday, December 24, 1995. Ross is an
United Church of Canada clergyperson with a number of sermons
posted to this site. This particular sermon was also preached
by R. Haddon Robinson. Professor of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell
Theological Seminary, South Hamilton Mass, US around the same
time period. Our attribution is therefore not certian and Dr.
Bartlett may have shared Dr. Robinson's material or vice-versa.
Any errors in this matter may be assigned to me and to the
uncertainty of providing sources on the Internet in 1995.
SERMON: "A Rough Ride For The Righteous"
Most gracious God, bless we pray the thoughts of our hearts
and the words of lips. Help us to consider the meaning
of this day - and to grow in faith - as we celebrate your many
blessings. We ask it in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
I should introduce myself. My name is Joseph. Joseph Davidson. I've been
hanging around your celebration of Christmas for quite a while but I
suspect you don't know me too well. I feel sort of like the father of the
bride at a wedding. Nobody pays much attention to him but he gets to pay
the bills. I know how much you enjoy celebrating Christmas but I want to
tell you, your Christmas cost me a great deal!
My family is an old and honourable one - probably with more emphasis on the
old than the honourable! My ancestor was King David. But that isn't much
to boast about. He lived a thousand years before I was born, so by my time
there were hundreds and thousands of Davidsons. But I was proud of it.
Some of you trace your heritage back to United Empire Loyalists or back to
the old country. Well, it's like that with me.
Where to start? I grew up in Bethlehem. It's only a few miles from
Jerusalem and making a living was difficult. So as a young man I moved to
Nazareth. Nazareth was so small I'm always amazed when I meet people in
the 1990s who know about it. It was a hamlet, the butt of jokes. "Can
anything good come out of Nazareth?" people used to joke. But I didn't go
to Nazareth for the night life. I went there to find work.
I'm a wood worker. I do things like build furniture, frame houses, make
tools and yoke for oxen. If it's made out of wood, I'm your man. But wood
workers are practical people. I like things you can handle and see, that
you can measure, cut and saw. I'm not much for ideas. Oh, I enjoy
listening to the teachers when they come to our synagogue, but I prefer
more practical things. Wood is honest. I understand that some of you have
doors that are hollow in the middle - is that true? Now, I'm a guest and I
don't want to insult you, but that sounds dishonest to me. No, I like
things that are wood clear through. Wood has integrity. I like that - I
like that in people too.
Another thing that you should know about me is that my neighbours call me a
"righteous man". In my day that meant something very specific. You see,
way back when, hundreds and hundreds of years before my birth, God gave
Moses the Law for our people. The Law tells us how we should live for God,
the things we should do, the way we should eat, the people we should
associate with and so on. Now, keeping the Law is not always easy. It
makes demands on us. But if we're going to be God's people we have to do
what God tells us. People in my day called a man who kept the Law a
"righteous man". That's me. I don't go around preaching to people or
looking down my nose at others. I just think if a person believes
something they should live it.
Of course, the other thing that shaped my life was Mary. Life was good for
me in Nazareth. There was plenty of work and I was able to save some money
and just when I was thinking about getting married I met Mary. She was
about 15 years old then, just the right age for becoming engaged.
Wonderful girl, wonderful woman. We were betrothed. That's something like
your engagement only it's much more permanent. It lasts a year, sometimes
longer. During that time the families get to know one another. They work
out a dowry. They search the records in the temple in Jerusalem because in
a little country like ours it's really easy for close relative to get
married and never know that they're relatives. Our engagements can only be
broken by divorce. And getting a divorce isn't easy. You have to show
real cause. It's pretty disgraceful.
That period of our betrothal was a time when I dreamed. About building a
home for Mary and myself and the kids we'd have. About the wonderful life
we'd have. I dreamt about how wonderful life would be. It's strange isn't
it, how quickly life can go sour. How quickly dreams can turn into
nightmares. How easily your fondest plans can be shattered. Perhaps
you've had that experience.
I noticed that Mary became quiet, withdrawn. I wondered if something was
wrong, but when I asked her she said she couldn't tell me about it. I had
to go out of town to do some work and all the time I was away I hardly
slept for worrying and wondering. Had I done something to displease her or
her family? Maybe they'd found something in the Temple records to prevent
us from being married! So, by the time I came back to Nazareth I was
beside myself. I begged her not to shut me out of her life, to tell me
what was going on, but I was totally unprepared for her answer. "I'm
She began to weep. I felt like I'd been kicked in the stomach. Of all
the things, I'd never dreamt that! Pregnant! I knew I wasn't the father,
but who? We had love, we had respect, we had a future. How could this
happen, without her parents knowing, without my knowing? What about our
That's when she told me her story. About how an angel had appeared to her
- a teenaged girl in a fifth-rate village, and told her she was going to be
the mother of Israel's Messiah. The Spirit of God had come upon her and
planted a baby in her womb. I was furious! It was one thing for her to
betray our love like that and quite another to treat me to a story that
bordered on blasphemy. Do I look like an idiot? I would not believe it.
You wouldn't believe it. I wanted to lash out, I wanted to hurt her as she
had hurt me.
The Law said that a woman found in adultery should be stoned to death. Now
I could understood that law in a way I never had before. I wanted to get
back at her, for ruining our love, my faith and trust, wrecking my
You see, as a righteous man I tried to live to a certain standard. People
respected me, they counted on me. This would ruin me. Everyone would
assume that I was the father. Just think how far a story about being
visited and made pregnant by the Spirit of God was going to go down in the
market! I had to go public. I had to gather the elders and publicly sever
the relationship. I would tell everyone that I was not responsible. If I
couldn't get anything else out of this mess at least I'd keep my good name
But I couldn't do it. I loved Mary; even though she'd shattered my faith.
I didn't want to make a public example of her. Of course, there was no way
I could marry her, but the Law left it pretty well up to the man what was
to be done. I could get a couple of my friends, give her a private bill of
divorce and that would be that. Of course, the reason would soon be
obvious, but without a complaint from me nothing could legally be done to
Mary had to get away. The caustic gossip down by the village well would be
too much to handle. So she went south, to Hebron. She had relatives
there, who would give her support and a place to stay.
After she left town things were pretty much a blur. I walked around and
worked at my bench. I didn't care about eating. I didn't pay much
attention to life. Then the dreams started. Always the same. Walking
down a dark corridor and suddenly this blinding light and an angel would be
there. How did I know it was an angel? Good question. But there are
times when you just know things. That's the best answer I can give. The
angel told me not to be afraid. "Joseph Davidson", the angel said, "don't
be afraid to take Mary for your wife. The child she bears is from the Holy
Spirit. You will call his name Jesus and he will save his people from
That was my dream. For a carpenter, for someone used to working with
tangible things, that was hard to take on board. I mean, dreams come to
prophets not wood workers. And I couldn't talk about it with anyone
without revealing Mary's terrible secret. Even then I still was thinking
about it as her secret. What was I to do? But the dreams kept repeating,
same dream but each time more forceful.
A wise person has said that we need to recognize what time it is in life.
I knew that it was time for me to make a decision. Nothing would ever be
the same. It would be life without Mary, always wondering if those dreams
were true, if God was somehow doing the most unexpected thing in the most
unusual fashion. Or it could be life with Mary, with all sorts of
unexpected troubles and surprises, but following my faith. I knew right
off the bat that my reputation would be ruined. If I didn't divorce Mary
and she had a child everyone would assume that I was the father. They
might not say anything to me but I knew what they'd think. I'm ashamed to
say I've thought that way about others from time to time.
But I decided to do it. I went down to Hebron. I told Mary about my
dreams and apologized for doubting her. I took her back to Nazareth and as
soon as possible we were married. I figured, it'll be rough, but if God's
in it, it won't be too bad. I told you, I'm a wood worker, not a
theologian. I had no idea how wrong I could be.
I know you've heard about Caesar's decree concerning the census. But I
wonder if you've ever really thought about travelling 90 miles, in the
winter, on a donkey when you're nine months pregnant. The crowds in
Bethlehem! Even my relatives had no place for us. There were people
underfoot wherever you turned. We finally found some shelter in a stable
that someone had hollowed out of the rock. Mary had to be both mother and
midwife. I'm a wood worker. What do I know about delivering babies?
You'd think if God had been planning this for years some better
arrangements might have been in hand.
But still life didn't settle down. Life with Jesus was always a
combination of the strange and the ordinary. Those astrologers from Iraq,
worshipping our toddler. Having to become refugees so Herod's soldiers
wouldn't get him.
There's lots more stories but I've probably overstayed my welcome. I hope
you'll forgive me going on, but not many people seem interested in my
perspective on those strange and wonderful months. I once thought, as a
young man, that if I ever saw an angel I'd never have any doubts. I saw an
angel, it was vivid and real to me. But I always have lots of questions.
Did I make it all up? To be honest, Jesus didn't seem like the Saviour of
the world. You sing "no crying he makes". You should have been in our
house at 3 in the morning when he was cutting teeth! When he fell on
Nazareth's streets and skinned his knee, it bled. I held him in my lap and
told him stories and he fell asleep.
Some of you have a faith like Mary's. It's rich, devout and strong.
You're God's special people. Some of you are more like me. You live in a
world of cause and effect. You believe your doubts, you doubt your
beliefs. I understand. I've been there. All I can tell you is that when
I faced those questions I came down on the side of faith. If you like, I
faithed it through, even when I didn't feel like believing. I trusted,
even when I didn't feel like trusting. That's what God used. I'm not the
main character of the story. But as you celebrate, you might want to
remember in a corner of your mind that God chose me to be part of the
story. Joe Davidson, a carpenter who believed as best he could. Amen
copyright - Rev. Richard J. Fairchild - Spirit Networks, 1998 - 2006
- Rev. Ross Bartlett 1995-2004
please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these sermons.