Transcript—Get Your Spirit In Shape: Christmas through Joseph’s Eyes
Listen to this episode of Get Your Spirit in Shape here, where you will also find links to learn more about Adam Hamilton, Joseph, and some great Christmas resources.
Joe Iovino: Welcome to the Advent and Christmas episode of Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications and UMC.org’s podcast to help keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino.
My guest today is the Reverend Adam Hamilton, Pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas and the author of a new book for Advent and Christmas called Faithful: Christmas Through the Eyes of Joseph.
The Rev. Adam Hamilton: His is a beautiful, moving story that I think inspires us. Often we go right to Mary, or we go right to the Christ child, and we mi
ss out on this man who likely formed and shaped much of Jesus’s self-understanding, his understanding of God and what God is like.
Joe: We talk about Joseph as an example for dads and an example for all men.
Adam: Not every man is a father, but every man has the opportunity to affect other children.
Joe: We talk about Joseph as an ordinary guy, but with an extraordinary faith.
Adam: God chose somebody who was like the rest of us, and yet also someone who was a man of character.
Joe: And how Adam talked to a refugee family to understand better what it might have been like for Joseph.
Adam: The father didn’t want to leave his hometown—he started weeping when he told me the day they left Syria. Yet he had these children that he wanted to protect. I thought, Here’s a picture of Joseph who wanted to do whatever it takes to protect his child and to protect the child’s mother.
Joe: What a joy to be strengthened by the story of Joseph this Christmas.
Conversation on the phone
Joe: I’m on the phone today with the Reverend Adam Hamilton, the Pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas and the author of many books that help keep our spirits in shape, help us grow in our relationship with God in Jesus Christ. Adam, welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape.
Adam: Hey, Joe. It’s great to be with you today. Thank you.
Joe: While there’s a bunch of things that we could talk about, today I want to focus on your recent book, released for Advent and Christmas called Faithful: Christmas through the Eyes of Joseph. So why did you choose to come at the Christmas story through Joseph’s eyes?
Adam: Most of the time in Advent and at Christmastime, we focus on the story through Mary’s eyes. She has the words in the story. We get to hear from her. We hear her voice. The Lukan account of Christmas is dramatic and beautiful and touches our hearts. So we tend to focus there.
Several years ago, I wrote a book on Mary’s account of Christmas called Not a Silent Night, but I really had this longing to find out more about Joseph and to really think about what this felt like from Joseph’s side as a kind of counterpart to that first book, Not a Silent Night.
So last year I thought, I’m gonna try this out and explore it in a sermon series first. If this feels like it could be helpful we’ll turn it into a book. So I preached the Advent series of sermons on Joseph and Joseph’s perspective on Christmas, and I found personally I was really touched by it, and moved by it and inspired by it. And our congregation was. That’s when I talked to Abingdon [the publisher]. I said, I think we’re onto something and there’s not very many books out there about Joseph. So what do you think about us doing that for next Advent? They were very excited about it.
Joe: So, let’s talk about Joseph. What do we know about him?
Adam: This is part of the challenge. There is not a lot directly said about him in the New Testament. We know that he was a carpenter. We know his name. We know from Matthew’s account of the genealogy, his father’s name. Beyond that, in direct information in the Gospels, not a lot.
The early church starts to fill in the gaps in the second century. So there’s all kinds of stories that begin to develop, gospels related to the story of Joseph. Of course, much of it’s legendary, but I do recount some of that in the book to be able to tell us a little bit about how the early church thought about Joseph. You know, how he sent Jesus to school. He tried to discipline Jesus. And in one of the stories he pulls Jesus’s ear—Jesus wasn’t very happy about that, as a little boy. How he’s constantly fretting because Jesus in those early apocryphal accounts is misusing his power, not being careful, or whatever. He’s defending Jesus. So I recount some of that in the book just because I think it’s interesting and worth noting. But when we really try to find out what can we see in the Gospels about Jesus, there’s a couple of things.
One, we know he was a carpenter. In the book, I tease out what carpenters were in the first century. The Greek word is “tekton.” They probably weren’t building houses because in the Holy Land there weren’t a lot of houses built of wood. They were built primarily of stone or mud brick. And there’s another word for stone mason in the Greek. So he was probably a wood worker.
Those wood workers, made yokes for oxen. They made tools. They made doors. They made furniture. Because there was a word for a master carpenter of this kind “architekton”—from which we have our word architect—but the Gospels tell us that Joseph was just a tekton. That means he was just a man who worked with his hands with no one else working for him, a very humble person. A very working class, very humble person. We know that about Joseph.
Then much of what else we know about Joseph has to with how he responds to the story of Mary finding out that she’s with child, and also of what we read in Jesus. So much of what Jesus says and does, I suggest in the book, was influenced by his father, just like our lives are influenced by our fathers.
Joe: Let’s take a few minutes and talk about Joseph the carpenter. One of the things I find interesting about your work—and I know that you do this in sermons as well—is that you find experts in the field to help you. So you visited a furniture-making factory locally so that you could learn about furniture building. What did you learn from them, and what did you learn about what it might have been for Joseph as a carpenter?
Adam: It was really fun. Actually, a couple of different things.
One, going to this furniture manufacturing company here in Kansas City, it’s all hand-built furniture. The guys and gals are all in their…most of them at least were in their 20s. Some were in their 30s. I had fun just sitting down with these guys, some of whom go to church, some of whom don’t, and just saying, ‘The term that we find in the New Testament for carpenter likely meant furniture builder. And that’s what you guys do. Why God would choose a furniture builder to be the earthly father of Jesus? I’m just wondering, What is it about being a furniture builder that you can tell me that might shed light on why God chose someone like this? What does it take to be a good furniture builder?’
It was really quite fun to sit down with them in the shop and listen to them talk about what they saw in the dads in their own shop and what they knew it took to build quality furniture. Some of them described the perseverance and patience and the desire to do the job right and to make sure that you didn’t cut any corners. Somebody who was a very strong person, yet probably quiet. And as they described all of this and then described the dads that they knew who worked there, I just found it to be a really interesting chance to think about whether Joseph might not have been like that, too, whether first century furniture builders and woodworkers were not so different from the folks that we see today.
A few years ago, I was preaching on Joseph… (It’s probably been 10 years ago now.) …I went to a job site where they were building a house. The owner of the construction company is a member of our church. I said, ‘Do you have any guys out there working a rough-in crew here in November?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I’ve got a crew working. Do you want to talk to them?’ I said, ‘Yes. I’d like to ask them about this. So he told them in advance I was going show up with a film crew and ask questions about what Joseph might have been like. It was such a rich experience. A couple of the guys started crying as they were imagining what Joseph was like based upon their experience, and the thought that God would—you know, these were all kinda rough-around-the-edges carpenters—the fact that God would choose somebody like them to be the earthly father of Jesus. Not some heroic figure who was wealthy and powerful, but instead a common carpenter.
Get Your Spirit in Shape
Joe: That’s one of the things I gleaned from the book, that in some sense Joseph was this extraordinary character, but in other ways he’s like the rest of us.
Adam: Yes, that’s exactly right. I think that was the point. God chose somebody who was like the rest of us, and yet also someone who was a man of character.
His responses in the Christmas story are the kinds of things that we would expect, that we might feel if we were walking through this story. And at the same time. he represents some of the highest ideals. So, for instance, Joseph finds out that Mary with child. In this part of the story, this isn’t good news for him. He feels disappointed, hurt, angry. In the book I try to play out, What would you feel like if you were engaged and your fiancée came and said, ‘I’m pregnant, and it was the Holy Spirit. An angel told me.’ Nobody would believe that. And Joseph doesn’t believe it, which is another thing I love about Joseph.
As I mention, he’s the patron saint of doubters. There are a whole lot of people who will say to me, ‘You know, I really like Jesus and the things he says, but it’s really hard for me to swallow the whole virgin birth thing’—among several other things they struggle with. I always tell them, ‘Hey, look, you’re in good company. Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus couldn’t swallow it at first either. It’s okay if you question it. It’s okay if you have doubts.’
A lot of times we feel like we have to have everything settled and figured out when we’re beginning to follow Jesus. But, you know, actually if we look in Scripture we find a lot of people have doubts and struggles with faith. And Joseph, this righteous man, doubted the story of the virgin birth when he was told it by Mary herself at the time. and he still doesn’t believe it. So why would it surprise us that it’s hard for people today sometimes to believe that story? And yet after the messenger of the Lord appears to him in a dream, he goes ahead and takes her as his wife.
What was interesting is that even before…even while he’s stewing on this, thinking that Mary has betrayed him, has had an adulterous affair because they were legally married in a sense. The arrangements were a legally binding agreement that they were engaged to be married. Despite the fact that he believes that she has done this, he has compassionate empathy for her and tries to find a way to call off the engagement and take the blame himself. So you see both his everyday-ness—he doesn’t believe the story—yet he’s remarkable because he has compassion. He’s willing to take the fall for this as opposed to blaming her and seeing her seriously hurt.
Joe: And there was a cost to him of taking on that responsibility.
Adam: There were multiple costs, actually. When you broke off an engagement if you were the man and you broke off the engagement, generally was the same as a divorce. You know, you’d already provided funds and your family had provided funds to the bride’s family and to the bride. And if the bridegroom called this off, then all of those funds stayed with the bride. It was considered his fault that this happened.
Then on top of that is the fact that she’s going to show up pregnant 9 months later, or 8 months after the wedding is called off and people are going to believe that he had slept with her and decided he didn’t want to be with her after he got her pregnant. Well, that’s a blow to his status in the society., and he’s willing to take that blow, even though he has not impregnated her. He’s willing to take that blow rather than have her be seen as adulterous and, from that point on, ruin the rest of her life. Or if the Torah was literally applied, she could be stoned to death for that. He has too much compassion and he’s willing to pay the price for her to be safe.
Joe: But that idea of becoming the earthly father of Jesus also has this cost to it as well.
Adam: Absolutely. He is going to start raising a child that’s not his own. I actually have known several people whose fiancé’s… or people who married a woman who was pregnant who either had been raped or had been hurt in some way or some man rejected them, married that woman either right after the baby was born or even before she gave birth, knowing this child was not theirs. Choosing to do that, and then having this child who now becomes their responsibility.
Anybody who’s had a little baby, you know, the idea of having a child sounds really romantic and wonderful. Then the reality of having a child who’s waking up at 3 in the morning with colic and who is messing themselves, and who requires constant attention and care, now costs something. In those early years, the first couple of years of a child, there’s a lot of hard work. And in this case Joseph also is paying a price for a child that isn’t his. But he’s treating that child as his own.
In the book,one of the things that I really focus on, an idea that I carry through, is this idea of the role of a father, but also the role of step-father, the role of foster father, of an adopted father, because that’s, in a sense, Joseph is the patron saint of all those folks as well. He is the patron saint of everyone who raised a child that wasn’t theirs. He’s the patron saint of fathers who care for little children.
So you have this picture of Joseph who is willing to do something that’s hard and difficult, knowing this child isn’t his. And again, a sign of character in his life.
Joe: I found myself reflecting on my own relationship with my dad, and then my relationship with my kids as a father. And it sounds like that’s part of what you’re going for here, to really think about what Joseph can teach us about being a good father.
Adam: Exactly. Whereas my book Not a Silent Night had a major emphasis on moms and mothers, in this book there’s a bit more of an emphasis on fathers and dads. Not every man is a father, but every man has an opportunity to affect other children. It might be in Sunday school. It might be nieces or nephews or, neighborhood kids or whatever.
But it also is true that every one of us had a father. Some of us had really great dads, and some of us not so much. Some people had dads that were not present or abusive or…. So when we look at Joseph we have an opportunity to see, regardless of our vantage point, the role that fathers play in shaping our lives. For those who had painful childhoods and painful dads, put in God’s providential care, that pain has a way of being transformed into something beautiful in our lives.
I think of a kid in our congregation, not a kid, he’s a young man. He’s 30-something now, but I’ve known his for his whole life. His dad was totally absent. There was a lot of pain and hurt as he was growing up. But I watched as he became this most remarkable dad. Part of what happened, was based upon his pain and what was missing in his life as a child. He was determined that he was going to love his children differently. They are the beneficiaries of that. They have a great dad. They have a great dad in part because their dad didn’t have a great dad. So God has a way of taking even the painful things and using them to bring something good and beautiful
I can’t remember if I mention this story in the book, but my son-is-law was in foster care, in the foster care system. He ended up being raised by his teacher from…I think it was his fifth grade teacher. Here’s this man who one night looks out on the front porch and he sees my son-in-law Jonathan as an 11-year-old kid, 10 or 11 years old, sleeping on the front porch because he had nowhere to go that night. Roger, my daughter’s father-in-law, raises this boy, and who Jonathan is today—and he’s a remarkable young man, my son-in-law’s a really remarkable guy—but who he is today is in large part because of the man who took him in and raised him even though he was not his own son. Again, this is a picture, I think, of what Joseph does with Jesus.
Joe: What a great analogy. What a great way to look at the love that comes through in those kinds of stories and seeing Joseph in the modern day.
One of the other themes in the book seems to be life taking an unexpected turns, or going on journeys that we would not have planned for ourselves, but feel called to by God. One of those obviously is the journey to Bethlehem that Mary and Joseph have to make when Mary is 9 months pregnant. One of the things that really just made me smile in the book is you interviewed a mom who was 9 months pregnant asking her how would it feel to go on this journey. It sounds like she was a really good sport about it.
Adam: She was. She was one of our pastors at the time. She now is a senior pastor of another church nearby. But she, Katherine Ebling Frazier, was great. Her husband is also a pastor. So I sat down with both of them and just said, ‘Imagine this, knowing how you feel right now…”
She described how uncomfortable she was and how she just couldn’t wait for this baby to come, how unpleasant an experience it was at this moment in the pregnancy, 9 months pregnant. She said, ‘There’s no way Joseph was getting me on a donkey, if that was me.’ At the same time walking the journey was as long as 9 or 10 days from the Galilee to Bethlehem.
Sometimes it’s good to immerse yourself in the story and to look and go, Okay, what would it literally feel like to have been here? And how does that help us understand? Because in the case of Matthew, he tells this story so quickly that you’ve got to pause and just open the story up a little bit and go, Okay, what really was going on there? What did it feel like?
But I love that idea of taking journeys that we don’t want to take because throughout the Bible that’s pretty typical of God’s people. They end up taking journeys they weren’t expecting, they didn’t really want to take. You go all the way back to Adam and Eve leaving the Garden of Eden or Noah getting on a boat, or Abraham traveling from his settled home as an old man to the land of Canaan. These are all journeys that nobody really wants to take. And yet when you take them…when God calls you and you take them, you find yourself in the middle of God’s work.
So, for Joseph almost every step along this journey was a journey he didn’t want to take, whether it was finding out that his betrothed was pregnant and still taking her as his wife, to having to leave…. I suggest in the book that Joseph’s hometown was Bethlehem. So they get married. They end up in the Galilee, where Mary’s from because there’s jobs up there. And then having to come back because the emperor commands the census, having to go back and then finding there’s no room in the guest room at the house, so they have to give birth in a stable. All of that…nobody would want that. And yet somehow that story and the way we find it in Scripture points to a whole host of things about God and about ourselves. It’s a beautiful story that happens just exactly the right way, but it was hard to see that at the time. And that’s, I think, true in our lives. We take journeys we don’t want to take. Then when we look back, we go, Wow, look how God used that. Look what God did there in this journey.
Joe: In the book you also point to as a pre-teen, having to go through a difficult journey of your own.
Adam: Yeah, so as a kid… My mom and dad got married right out of…well, actually during their senior year of high school because I was on the way. They ended up struggling financially early on, struggling with the marriage. In third, fourth, fifth, sixth grade my parents separated, got back together again, ended up getting divorced. Alcohol was a part of our family life as well. Then my mom remarried and we moved.
All of those things that as a child seemed so traumatic: leaving all your friends, moving to a new place, your mom getting married to somebody new that you don’t know, your dad not being there anymore. As a child that just felt so hard. It felt so unfair. That’s how we think of it when we’re children.
Then you look back. I moved here and then I moved there. I moved 10 times between my seventh grade year and my senior year in high school. Throughout high school I lived in the same community—we moved multiple times within the same community. It was there that I found Christ, or Christ found me, I should say. It was there that I met my future wife. It was there my faith was shaped in profound ways. The person I am today I would not have been were it not for those journeys that happened. The divorce and the separation, and even just the impact that that had on my life. Mom ended up divorcing again after that. So watching the hardship and the pain and things, some of which I describe in the book. But all of that shaped the pastor I am today. I don’t believe, as a Methodist, that God made all those happen so that I could become the pastor I am today. I believe that God took all of those things that were painful and hard and said, I can do something beautiful with this if you’ll just trust me.
Joe: There’s one more journey that Mary and Joseph go on in the book, er, go on in Scripture. They have to travel to Egypt with the infant Jesus. You, again, have this interesting conversation. You interviewed a Syrian refugee family with an Iraqi refugee serving as an interpreter. It sounds like that really opened your eyes to the struggle of refugees even today.
Adam: Absolutely. It’s such a timely story because Jesus, the infant Christ, along with Joseph and Mary, become a refugee family. They have to flee because they’ve got a political leader in Herod who is threatened by the possibility that there would be a child king. He slaughters the innocents, the children in Bethlehem. So they have to flee.
In so many ways, it reminded me of Syria where you’ve got a leader who has been willing to use force to destroy villages and people, and how many thousands and thousands of people have died there. Folks have had to flee just to protect their children.
The Syrian refugee family that I interviewed here in Kansas City, the father didn’t want to leave his hometown. He started weeping when he told me about the day they left Syria and his wife. Yet he had these children that he wanted to protect. I thought, Here’s a picture of Joseph who’s willing to do whatever it takes to protect his children and to protect the child’s mother. So it was really a powerful thing.
I had to play this interview in our worship services to show people. I thought, we hear this talk about refugees and then we’re afraid of them. We want to keep them out of our country. It’s easy to have those kind of conversations when they’re somebody you don’t know. But I wanted them to meet a refugee family, and then to think about that in the light of our own Christmas story… that our Savior was a child refugee in Egypt and lived there for a year, 2 years, some say longer than that. And just how similar our world is today to the world in which Jesus grew up where there were horrible rulers who were willing to kill even children. They displaced families who had to go and hope for the mercy of people in another country just to provide for them. My invitation for our folks was to see this part of the story in the light of what’s happening in our world today. It was very powerful.
Joe: One of the things happening this year during Advent, is our bishops have asked us to recognize a global migration Sunday on the first Sunday of Advent. We’re going to be talking about some of these issues as a denomination, to bring awareness to all of the things that are happening in our world as we remember those who are driven from their countries and driven from their homes.
Adam: I’m really glad that they’re doing that, too. I think that’s wonderful.
Joe: Yeah, me, too. It’s something that we need to know more and more about.
What great lessons have you learned from studying Joseph? What’s been the take-away for you?
Adam: I think the main take-away was the importance of this man even though he had no lines in Scripture. We don’t hear a single word from him, and he only shows up in 16 verses in the New Testament. Yet his impact on our faith, on Christ, is profound. He paints a picture for us of what we might be like—our natural responses to things, but also the highest ideals of what character and love and mercy and sacrifice look like, we see in Joseph. His is a beautiful and moving story that I think inspires us. Often we go right to Mary, we go right to the Christ child, but we miss out on this man who likely formed and shaped much of Jesus’s self-understanding, his understanding of God and what God is like.
Joe: Kind of a completely different topic, but I ask every guest on Get Your Spirit in Shape to recommend a practice that they use to help keep their own spirits in shape. What’s a practice that you are fond of that you might recommend for someone to try out?
Adam: Well, every morning I start off on my knees. I lay before God and offer my life to God. I say, Here I am, Lord. First, I begin thanking God. So I get to my knees and I thank God for the day. I pray through the things that are going to be happening in my day. So, my schedule, I pray, Lord, in this situation please use me. I pray for this person I’m going to be meeting here. So I sometimes even have my phone there where I can look through my calendar and pray through my calendar. Then, I pray some variation of Wesley’s covenant prayer. It may be a really short version of it, but on my knees to simply say, ‘Here I am, Lord, please use me today. Send me out on your mission today. Help me to have eyes to see what you need me to see; use me however you want to use me. Make me a blessing to every person that I meet.’ I find that that sort of starts my day off on the right track.
A second practice that I’ve begun doing…. We’re right now in a series of sermons on gratitude. And we gave out little Moleskines to all of our members as a gratitude journal. We said, ‘For the next 30 days, we want you to take the gratitude challenge. Before you go to bed at night write a prayer. Just have it start off, Dear Lord, thank you for…. And then write down the things you’re thankful for that day.’ I’ve been doing this now for a couple of weeks, and I’ve found it to be…. I mean, I always pray before I go to bed, but I’ve found it to be a really rich experience to write a letter to God thanking God for the things in my day. I think I sleep better because of it. I think it’s changed how I’m facing each day, and I feel my heart uplifted by it. So those are a couple of things that I do that I find helpful.
Joe: Things that we can all try. Thank you. I appreciate that.
And thank you so much for your time today and for this book Faithful: Seeing Christmas Through the Eyes of Joseph, that I know is gonna be a blessing to so many people.
Adam: Thanks so much, Joe. It’s been a joy to be with you today. God bless you.
Joe: That was the Reverend Adam Hamilton, Pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas and the author of a new book for Advent and Christmas called Faithful: Christmas Through the Eyes of Joseph.
To order Faithful, to learn more about Adam and to find other great resources for Advent and Christmas, go to UMC.org/podcasts. Look for episode 27 of Get Your Spirit in Shape where we’ve posted a bunch of helpful links. And while you’re on the page click on the link to my email address, and let me know your thoughts about Get Your Spirit in Shape. Also, if you haven’t already done so take a minute to review us on iTunes. Good reviews help more people find us.
Well, this is our last episode for 2017. It’s been a great year of conversations that I have thoroughly enjoyed bringing you. We’ll be back in January with more chats with authors, bishops, and other leaders, to help keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. Thanks for listening. Have a Merry Christmas and a blessed New Year. And look for us in 2018 as we seek to get and keep our spirits in shape.
My name is Joe Iovino. Peace.