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.
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
When I think of Christmas, what is most prominent among all the decorations—candles and lights, wreathes and trees, poinsettia plants and ornaments—it is the crèche that makes Christmas for me. One of my former parishioners had a collection of crèches from all over the world; and every Christmas she would select one from her collection and set it up in the sanctuary. In every crèche you find figurines of oxen and cows, with Mary and Joseph taking their places in the midst of the creatures. Off to the side, shepherds gather with their sheep. On Christmas Eve, the baby Jesus appears in his bed of straw; and the shepherds move closer to pay homage and an angel arrives to watch over the scene. As we journey to Epiphany, after Christmas, the Magi and their camels arrive and join the scene. The crèche captures the very essence of Christmas.
So it is always a surprise when we hear how Matthew describes Christmas to us. Matthew begins his account abruptly with, “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.” Where is the introduction to the homeless couple seeking shelter as the woman prepares to give birth? Where is the description of the stable, with cattle lowing and the baby Jesus lying on a bed of hay? Where are the shepherds in the field, the angels announcing the good news and singing God’s praises? Instead, what follows is a sordid tale of an engaged young woman who is apparently cheating on her fiancé. She is carrying someone else’s baby. Joseph’s reaction, when he hears that Mary is pregnant, is to suspect her of adultery, one of the grounds for divorce in Jewish law. Mary and Joseph were engaged to be married and were not yet living together. According to Jewish law, Mary could be tried publicly and then executed. But Matthew describes Joseph as a righteous man, who upon hearing this shocking news contemplates divorcing Mary in her time of need. But Matthew then puts the emphasis on Joseph’s righteous character and writes, “unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to divorce her QUIETLY.”
According to Matthew, Mary was not the only skeleton in Jesus’ family tree. The family tree of Jesus is carefully laid out in the very beginning of Matthew’s Gospel. Chapter One of Matthew begins with these words: An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. As is true of most genealogies, it is just a long list of names, many of which are hard to pronounce and are meaningless and boring because you don’t know who they are most of the time anyway. But in the genealogy of Jesus, there are some very interesting people who we do recognize. Most of the names are men. Only 4 women are identified—3 by name, and the 4th by her husband’s name. Out of the 48 names listed by Matthew, 44 are men and only 4 are women. I suppose I could have us examine the 44 names of the men; but since there are only 4 women (and since this is a homily and not a full length sermon), I think we should take a look at who these 4 women in the genealogy of Jesus are. Tamar is the first. Twice widowed and childless, Tamar seduced her father-in-law and bore a son who carries the bloodline of Jesus. The second woman is Rahab, a prostitute. The third woman is Ruth, a foreigner. And the fourth committed adultery with King David. And finally we come to Mary, the mother of Jesus, an unwed mother. This is the way Matthew begins his Gospel—by hanging out the dirty laundry in Jesus’ family line. No where is the beloved crèche scene to be found.
What kind of a moral value case can you make with such a family tree? One of the reasons I love the Hebrew language is because names carry such meaning. Of the many names that have been given to Jesus, my favorite is Immanuel. In Hebrew, literally the name means With us (is) God! If God chose to be with us in the person whose bloodline, whose family tree, is so full of scandal—can we ever look at anyone and draw a final, definitive conclusion that there is nothing good, nothing redeemable about that person? Can we ever look at an unmarried teenage mother, an opioid addict, a homeless person, a prisoner, a refugee family as having nothing worth saving? Every single one of us lives with secret shames that no one knows about except God. And because of Immanuel, we know that God is no less with us.
As a righteous Jew, Joseph was required by law to dissolve his engagement to Mary for her apparent unfaithfulness. Furthermore, Joseph had every right to shame her publicly. But Joseph heard and obeyed a voice that for him was above the law. By listening to God’s voice, Joseph completed the family tree of Jesus by adopting Mary’s son, Jesus, into the royal family of David. Obeying God is the path to welcome and acceptance. So you see, God’s family tree is quite amazing. Everyone is welcomed and included, really! Jesus died and rose and now abides in you. As you and I obey the voice of God like Joseph did, others will come to know how very true it is that they are welcomed and accepted!