Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent, A, December 22, 2013 on Matthew 1:18–25
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. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But 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. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
What Jesus Wants for Christmas
If we want to have a family Christmas, then we have to drive to Hattiesburg, pick up our son, and bring him to Daphne, only to return him the next day. Why? It’s complicated. He has to be at work on Christmas eve and the day after Christmas, but his own car has so many repair issues that he cannot trust it to make the two hour journey. His job doesn’t pay well enough for him to get it fixed or to replace it, and there are no public transportation options, so that is where we are.
But family is family, and we want to be together at Christmas, at least while we are able to manage it. The Christmas story is, after all, a family story. In fact its about a family at its happiest moments. No matter what is to come in the future, the story of the engagement, the wedding, and the birth of the first baby are normally happy times.
Luke tells us the story with Mary as the main character. She is the one who gets to talk to angels and we get to hear her sing her Magnificat song. Matthew, on the other hand, puts Joseph on stage. He is the one who hears from the angel and names the baby Jesus.
The New Family in Early, Happy Days
So here we have a story of the happy times in the life of a new family. Matthew and Luke both show us Mary and Joseph as fiancés, and they tell us about their first baby, but both of them skip right over the wedding.
Usually at our weddings, someone stands and makes a toast to the groom, and tells what a great guy he his – how perfect he is for the new bride. We do not get to hear that toast, but we do get the conclusion. Matthew tells us that Joseph is a “righteous man.”
That information, it turns out, is crucial to the story. The happy-moments family story about being engaged, getting married and having your first baby are all going to get very complicated. Mary is pregnant, but Joseph is not the father. What is he going to do?
What are his options? He is a “righteous man” who grew up in a tradition with strong family values, and clear procedures about what happens to people who do not observe them. Mary and Joseph’s tradition comes from their culture, which, like most ancient cultures, are quite concerned about honor and shame. A pregnant fiancé is a great shame, not just to her and to her father’s family, but to the man as well.
The tradition says (this is from Deuteronomy 22, part of the law of Moses) that such a woman should be subjected to a humiliating public trial, then stoned to death. But this family story has a “righteous man” in it, who is about to do something different. He is going to take into account the one whom he has every right to believe has been unfaithful to him. He takes Mary as a person into account.
Joseph decides he cannot subject Mary to that ordeal. Matthew tells us,
“Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.”
It is interesting that Joseph, the man who later adopted Jesus and raised him, had these particular values. Not only did he have the law of Moses, he also had the compassion to extend mercy for the sake of preventing harm to Mary – way beyond what Moses required.
The family that started with this decision of Joseph is a family that still, to this day, struggles, as he did, with ancient scripture texts, asking if mercy might not lead to new conclusions in our context.
The Twist in the Story
At this point in the story, there is a new twist. An angel comes to Joseph in a dream and informs him that there are complicated “family of origin” issues afoot. God’s Spirit, says the angel, is actually the paternal originator of this baby.
Question: is Jesus Jewish after all? Matthew has been at pains to demonstrate that Joseph is a pure-blooded descendant of Abraham, in fact, of king David, but if Joseph is not the real father, then what ethnic blood does the baby have?
Recall that Matthew was not the first one to tell the story of the life of Jesus. Mark was. Mark has no birth story at all. We first meet Mark’s Jesus as an adult. Matthew used a lot of Mark’s story for his own version, but apparently he felt that Mark’s story was missing something. Matthew wanted to tell the Jesus story as a family story.
Matthew wanted us to see from the start that it was God’s intention to make a new family. He wanted us to see that this new family was not a natural one, but one created by God’s Spirit. This new family was going to be made up of people who knew that they could call God their Father. And if God is their Father, then everyone in the family is kin; sisters and brothers.
Emmanuel, God With Us
So, back to the story: Matthew wants us to see that the story of Jesus’ birth is connected to the story of Israel in a number of ways. One of them is to
show us how it is connected to Israel’s scripture tradition.
Back in the days of the prophet Isaiah, the nation was under serious military threat. It looked bleak. Perhaps they would loose an impending war. If they lost it would be likely that the king’s family like would be eliminated. Those were brutal times.
But Isaiah said no,that was not going to happen. He said God had not abandoned them to that fate. In fact, he said there is a young woman here who will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and by the time she does, the threat of war will have passed. The baby will be sign. Let him be named “Emmanuel” which means God has not abandoned us: God is with us.
So Matthew tells us the family story of Jesus as a baby, born of the Spirit, who is similarly a sign that God has not abandoned his people; in fact, this baby is a sign that “God is with us.” This fills out that old scripture story in an even more wonderful way. “With” is a powerful word.
Matthew makes this point both at the beginning and end of his version of the story of Jesus. The last thing Jesus says to his disciples is that as they go into all the world, making other disciples and baptizing them into the new family, is this:
“And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28)
Who is my Family?
Right in the middle of Matthew’s story of Jesus, there is a peculiar scene that some people have found troubling. It is a time when Jesus is well into his ministry, quite busy teaching, preaching and healing, when his mother and brothers show up outside, asking to speak with him. He replies to the ones who they sent,
“Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matt. 12)
Matthew is telling the story of Jesus as a family story. It is a story of the new family that God is making. God, by his Spirit is the true father. Is it an ethnic family? A Jewish one? Well, yes and no. It is connected to the traditions and the story of Israel, its law of Moses and its prophets like Isaiah, but Jesus’ family has God as its father, not a Jewish man.
A Joseph-style Family
Jesus’ new family is made of people who do for others what Joseph did for Mary, and what he taught Jesus to do: to extend mercy to people who are suffering, people who are in harm’s way. This is the family of those who, as Jesus said, “do the will of my father in heaven” by treating each other as “brother and sister and mother.”
Matthew wrote his gospel story as a family story to a community of Christians who were ethnically mixed: some Jewish and some not. Like Joseph, struggled with what it meant to live together and what it meant to receive the Jewish scripture tradition.
They treasured the story of Jesus as a family story with a divine father and knew it was a story of Emmanuel, God with them in a new way.
Our Place in the Family
We are the descendants of that new family. We have been baptized into this family by God’s Spirit. We know God as Father.
We have come to know the truth that God is with us. This is our hope and our confidence. We know that God is with us in every moment of our lives, the good times and the hard ones.
God is with us when we can gather as whole, intact families and celebrate Christmas together, and when we are separated for any the reasons that families deal with. God is with us when we sing carols and when our hearts are too heavy to sing at all.
And God is with us always, to the end of the age, as Jesus said. God is with us challenging us to look at each other as family, and to treat each other as family.
So the only remaining questions are, how extensive is this family, and what does it mean to be in this family?
As far as I can see, the only limits on this family are the ones we put on it. If Joseph is any model for this family’s perspective, and if Jesus taught us anything, it is that we are not to place any limits at all. This is the family God made, not us. Who are we to deny anyone access?
So what does this family do? We find ways to prevent harm as Joseph did for Mary. We find ways to bring mercy instead of judgment into the discussion. We ask ourselves: how can I be a faithful member of God’s family in a world that has so many hurts, so much suffering, and so little mercy?
And then, like Joseph, we act on the dream. What does Jesus want for Christmas? He wants a family that risks everything, just as Joseph did, on the bet that God really was doing something new and wonderful on Christmas, and we are a part of it.