Advent 4A — December 22, 2013

Crazy, Stupid, Love. Actually

For audio version of this sermon, click here:

Matthew  1:1-25

An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, 4and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, 5and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, 6and Jesse the father of King David.
And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, 7and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah t he father of Asaph,8and Asaph* the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, 9and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, 10and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, 11and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.
12 And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, 13and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, 14and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, 15and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, 16and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do 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 as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 
23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
   and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’ 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.           
I decided to begin our reading from Matthew this morning not with Joseph’s story which begins at verse 18 in chapter one.  I thought it might be useful to begin at the beginning with the genealogy of Jesus.  It’s a text that is very often skipped by more rational pastors on the 4th Sunday of Advent.  And you may be wondering why your maybe not so rational pastor decided to include that long list of names in our scripture reading. 

First, I thought it was important to note that Matthew provides the genealogy to position the birth of Jesus as a continuation of a long biblical story.  Jesus doesn’t come out of nowhere; he is, in fact, connected to Israel’s sacred history – a connection to Judaism that we will see over the coming year matters quite a lot to Matthew.   Matthew also gives us this genealogy to confirm that Jesus is the Davidic Messiah that is prophesized in the Hebrew Scriptures by prophets like Isaiah.  And if you happen to be a Gentile, Matthew connects the New Testament church to the ancient promises made to Abraham and David.  All of this makes the tongue-twisting genealogy important to the Christmas story.  We know that this moment in history into which Jesus is born connects to God’s history with God’s people.
One of the more curious features of this genealogy is who appears on it…and who does not appear on it.  We see more than a couple men and women of questionable character are part of Jesus’ family tree.  We might also note that Jesus has some pretty terrible kings as relatives, as well as a whole lot of other obscure people that nobody had ever heard of before or since.  As you gather with your family this week and get to that inevitable moment in which you wonder how in the world you could possibly be related to some of those people, remember that even Jesus had some dubious relatives in his ancient ancestry.  A commentator makes this observation: “…For reasons unknown to us, God may select the Judah’s who sell their brother into slavery, the Jacob’s who cheat their way to first place, the David’s who steal wives and murder rivals, but also compose profound and beautiful psalms of praise.”  You may have a couple of Judah’s and Jacob’s and David’s in your own family history.  The good news is that all of these rascals were good enough for God. 
I am also kind of fascinated by the women Matthew drags out of the Hebrew Scriptures into the New Testament spotlight.  We might expect to see respectable, pious matriarchs like Sarah or Rebekah or Rachel.  But look who’s here instead: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and the wife of Uriah otherwise known as Bathsheeba.  Women with marital histories tainted by scandal or scorn or just plain old hanky panky, yet Matthew includes these women in the sacred line leading to Jesus.
And then there are the names Matthew lists after the Babylonian exile.  Other than the first two, Shealtiel and Zerrubbabel, and the last two, Joseph and Mary, none of these guys are mentioned anywhere else in scripture.  Apparently, none of them every did anything important other than be the great, great, great, great, great something or other of Joseph.  Yet, God can work through the obscure and forgettable.
After taking only a cursory glance at the Jesus’ genealogy, it shouldn’t surprise us that nothing has really changed in the 40-something generations of this family since Abraham.  God is still at work in the lives of extremely unlikely prospects, in this case Mary and Joseph.  The Son of God is about to be born right into the middle of genuine human scandal that is unique but also somewhat familiar.   Jesus is about to become a part of a messy family situation in which his parents have no idea what they are getting into, yet seem determined to stick together to make it all work for the sake of their love of God and what I think is a deep affection for one another.
Okay, men of the congregation, listen up.  I have a question for you.  Yes you!  Listen up, guys — here it is: If you were a righteous Jewish man in 1st century Palestine, what would you have done about Mary? 
I wonder if it is possible for you to put yourself in the shoes of Joseph, that often sullen character, usually played by a adolescent boy who stands next to Mary and the baby in the Christmas pageants, always looking as if he wishes he could be just about anywhere else than in that crowded manager scene.  When you imagine yourself as Joseph, please keep in mind that you are not just casually engaged, but legally responsible for Mary.  At this point of the story in Matthew, the deal has been done and everyone in the family has signed all the necessary paperwork including you, Joseph.  While it’s true that you haven’t begun living with Mary yet, for all intents and purposes you are married.  And although Mary still lives with her family you are her legal husband. 
And then out of the blue, your new wife tells you that she is pregnant.  Imagine yourself having that incredible and painful conversation when Mary gives you a simply crazy explanation about how she got pregnant, and you know and she knows that there is absolutely no way that you can be the father of the baby she is carrying.  What happens next is up to you, Joseph.  While you are trying to regain your composure, take a moment to look at Mary – she looks so small, so young, so vulnerable sitting there, crying, blubbering on and on about angels and God and the Holy Spirit.  What are you gonna do, Joseph?
Here are your options:  you could demand that Mary be stoned to death for committing adultery.  Yes, you could do that, Joseph.  That would be within your rights according to the law.  And goodness knows, when Mary first tells you this cockamamie story about why she is pregnant, you are so outraged that for a moment you think you could kill her for hurting you like this.  On the other hand, maybe death is too good for her.  You could divorce her in a very public way and make sure everyone knows exactly why you are dumping your unfaithful bride.  Nobody would blame you for doing just that.  In fact, the law would say you should do just that.
After a day or two, though, you calm down.  It occurs to you that there is another, kinder option available to you — you could simply divorce Mary quietly and try to forget the whole thing had ever happened.  It seems the least vengeful alternative, but remember that even a quiet divorce would force Mary to rely on her father who would very likely throw her out of the house and into a life of poverty for her and her child.  

I ask you these questions, men of the congregation – husbands, sons, fathers and brothers – because Joseph faced an awful, painful, human question in deciding what to do about Mary.  What would you do?   
Only the gospel of Matthew tells us about this really awful dilemma facing Joseph, how he struggles in his mind about what to do about the highly unwelcome news of Mary’s pregnancy.  Matthew tells us that an angel creeps into Joseph’s dreams and tells him not to be afraid to do what I imagine Joseph really wanted to do all along.  Which is to ignore every rational option, and to simply be what he’s always wanted to be– a husband to Mary, to protect her, take care of her and take care of the baby she carries.
I haven’t heard too many commentators or theologians say or write it out loud, but I think Joseph loves Mary.  That’s the only reasonable explanation, I think, for why he did what he did.  I am convinced that Joseph loved Mary with all his heart.  Enough to believe her story, even if it sounded unbelievable.  Enough to believe the dream, even if he couldn’t be sure if it was an angel who spoke to him, or his own longing to marry this young woman.  I think Joseph loved Mary, loved her enough to trust the call God has placed upon him to not only proceed in marrying her, but to enter into this extremely strange job as the earthly father of God’s earthly son.  I think Joseph loves Mary enough to do what needed to be done including naming the baby, which under the law will bind Joseph to Jesus forever.  And I think God worked within that loving human connection between Mary and Joseph to create a loving family for God’s son.  If Mary is the faithful servant to God in this story, Joseph is the righteous husband to the mother of God whom he loves.
Joseph’s burden will continue throughout his life, until he quietly fades from view when Jesus becomes an adult.  This burden will include, a commentators notes, will two thousand years of sniggering schoolboy jokes all taken on by Joseph because he wants Mary, and God knows, Mary needs Joseph.[1]  Later, Matthew will tell us about Joseph taking Mary and the baby to Egypt for two years to escape Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, then again escaping Herod’s son, Archelaus by taking a different path and going to Galilee instead of Judea.  Joseph took on that burden and that anxiety, the kind so familiar to every human parent in which you do pretty much anything to protect your child.  Joseph did it all for the family he loved and Joseph never looked back.  Is that what you would do, men of the congregation? 
Joseph may be one of the more minor characters in this story, but it seems to me that we can easily imagine ourselves in his position.  As individuals, as members of families, as a church, we can see ourselves in his story.  We receive news we don’t want to receive that messes up everything we had imagined for our future and blows all our old plans to bits.  Like Joseph, we find ourselves backed into a corner, needing to make a decision among a whole lot of bad options.  In the end, the only option that makes any sense to Joseph is the one given to him by God.  Which is to stand on the side of Joseph’s beloved Mary.  To take all the sneering and sniveling by people who take one look at Mary’s swelling belly, do the math in their heads and instantly know that Joseph is either a scoundrel or a fool.
We often, I think, over-romanticize the birth story of Jesus.  We clean up the story of an illegitimate birth happening in a smelly old barn in the middle of nowhere during a vicious and nasty Roman occupation.  Our Christmas hymns have been sanitized to the point of ridiculousness. The little Lord Jesus no crying he makes?  I don’t think so.  All of our nativity displays show a placid, peaceful Mary wearing lipstick and clean blue robes just hours after giving birth.  Yeah, right.  And Joseph…well…he’s in that scene somewhere, hardly distinguishable from the shepherds and the wise guys in the background. I’ll confess that in our family’s nativity set, we lost or broke the statue of Joseph years ago and have had a shepherd filling in for Joseph, standing next to Mary and the baby.  We have made the nativity scene pretty and neat, but Joseph’s dilemma begs us to reconsider how we think about Christmas. We forget that what lurks beneath all the beautiful hymns and the perfect manger scene is both a genuine miracle and an outright scandal.   God came into the world and was raised by an imperfect family, that looks an awful lot like the families we come from.  And what always seems to save us in the end is love.
Jesus was not born into a beautiful stained glass world, but into the real world.  Jesus was not born into a picture perfect scene, but into the genuine mess of a genuine human family.  Jesus was not entrusted to the care of princes in palaces, but to two poor fragile human creatures named Joseph and Mary who did the best they could.  Either one of them could have said no to God’s idea of becoming one of us with them.  Mary could have laughed off the idea of becoming a mother before she became a bride.  Joseph could have done the legal thing, the acceptable thing, the righteous thing and put Mary in her proper place as a divorced, single mother or even had her killed for being illegally with child.  The extraordinarily tough decisions these two people made were scandalous yet entirely formed by love for God and love for each other.  A love that you can bet played a major role in creating the human person Jesus grew up to be.  This is the kind of family chosen by God to raise God’s son.  Real people with real frailities. 
And the good news for us on this Sunday before Christmas is that God continues to call real people with real frailties to bear the light of Christ into the world.  People like us.  People who may have no idea what God is up to, but are willing to take the risk of loving.  Love is something we know deep inside our crazy, stupid, stubborn human hearts.  We know something about love, and can do something beautiful with that love, because God first loved us.
Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Nancy Rockwell.  “The Bite in the Apple.”