Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Difference

“…Eleazar the father of Matthan, Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.” (Matthew 1:15-16)

“Joseph – you say his name was Joseph. That’s a good name. I mean, it must be, since every other family on our street had a son named Joseph.”

That was Eleazar’s response when I told him about his great-grandson (in my imagination). He was considerably more enthusiastic when I told him what Joseph did for a living. He smiled – beamed, in fact. “A carpenter. Like me. Like his grandfather. Like my father and grandfather. You know, carpentry’s a good trade. Everyone needs things made of wood, and so everyone needs a craftsman who knows how to join and shape and finish wood. Do you know that someone who knows what he’s doing can make a mortise joint so tight that…”

I cut him off there. (It’s my imagination, after all…) Truthfully, I didn’t really want to talk to Eleazar about carpentry. I was really sort of looking for something, to be honest – some kind of insight into what made Joseph the man he turned out to be. Not that Joseph did anything overtly heroic, of course. But he trusted God, and he faithfully took care of the people God gave him. And I wondered if any of that came from Eleazar.

At first, I thought I was going to be disappointed. Eleazar was much more comfortable talking about woodgrain and chisels than he was talking about faith and angels and dreams. When I told him about Joseph’s strange betrothal, and the circumstances of his first son’s birth, he got a very strange look on his face. He shifted in his seat uncomfortably, cleared his throat a couple of times, and opened and closed his mouth as he tried to think of what to say, and how to say it. Finally, he was able to get it out.

“And the dream…what the angel said…was true?”

I nodded, and he shook his head and chuckled nervously. I told him that Joseph did exactly what the angel told him to do: he swallowed his pride, took Mary to be his wife, and named her baby Jesus.

“The Lord saves,” he said, half to himself. “I always liked that name.”

He was quiet for a moment, then he said, “Well, I guess if an angel speaks to you, you really don’t have much choice, do you?”

I asked Eleazar what he’d taught Joseph’s grandfather, Matthan, about God. He thought for a moment. “Well,” he began, “I sort of think I didn’t teach him enough. I mean, there was always work to do. Something to build. Something to repair. Something to plant. Something to cultivate. Something to pick. Most of what I remember telling him had to do with work. But I showed him how to make a mortise joint so tight that…”

I cut him off again. (It’s still my imagination.) I asked if he ever prayed with Matthan. “Oh, yes,” he said. “Every day, we thanked God for our blessings. And we all prayed together when business was bad, or when the rain didn’t come.

“I told him the stories, too. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob. Moses and the Exodus. Joshua. I told him how our family was descended from kings, from David himself. I told him about Goliath’s defiance and his ancestor’s bravery, and how God saved him and defeated the giant through him.”

He went on, gathering steam. “The commandments were big in our house,” he remembered. “We kept the Sabbath and the festivals, and the fast on the Day of Atonement. We went to Jerusalem for the Passover most every year.” He laughed. “There was this one year when Matthan got lost, we thought. But we found him with my cousin and his kids.”

I started to tell him, but he broke in. “I guess, maybe, I taught Matthan more than I thought. Do you think…maybe…I don’t know…maybe he passed on what he learned from me to his son?” I told him I thought that might very well be. “And maybe his son passed that on to Joseph, then? And maybe that had something to do with the man Joseph turned out to be?”

“I’m thinking that too,” I told him.

“And what happened to Joseph’s son? I mean, Mary’s son. Jesus.”

So I told him. I told him about Jesus’ life and death, and he wiped tears from his eyes with his carpenter’s hands. And I told him about Jesus rising from the dead, and he gasped audibly. And then I told him that millions and millions of people had found hope, redemption, and life in his adopted great-great-grandson, that they had lived for him and died for him and spread the word about him through a world that was many times as large as he had ever imagined. He turned his face away for a few moments, stoically trying to compose himself.

When he turned back, he looked at me and, voice quivering, asked if what I’d told him was true. So I pulled out a Bible and read to him: “Eliud the father of Eleazar, Eleazar the father of Matthan, Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.”

He gasped when he heard that last. Christ. Messiah. “The king the prophets promised would come and restore Israel.” And then he laughed out loud. “And I’m his great-great-grandfather.” He laughed, hard, and then it seemed to suddenly turn to sobs. After a long, frankly kind of uncomfortable few minutes (even if it is my imagination), he whispered, “I never imagined.”

Of course he didn’t. How could he? I don’t know what I expected him to be, but what he turned out to be was better. He was just a guy who found it much easier to talk about carpentry than God. But as he taught his son about life, he passed on his faith, too. That’s the way it always is with faith – it’s taught best in the context of life. Faith’s great lessons are learned most memorably in carpentry shops, around dinner tables, and in prayers of thanksgiving and petition.

And we never know what difference those lessons will make in the lives of those who learn them. What difference they’ll make in countless lives. We can’t know. But we can be faithful. We can pass on our faith, tell the stories that have made us who we are, believing that God will do wonderful things with those stories.

So let’s tell our stories. Let’s live our faith with the people who God gives us. There’s no way to know what difference we might make in the lives of the generations that come behind us. No way for us to know, I mean.

God already does.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.

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