“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.”
Today, on this fourth Sunday of Advent, we hear the story of the birth of Jesus as Matthew tells the story. And I’ll bet that as you listened, you may have found it a bit strange, perhaps even unfamiliar. For it’s a very different story than the familiar one from Luke that we hear on Christmas Eve, with Bethlehem, the manger, shepherds, swaddling clothes, and all of that.
Matthew’s story seems to focus on Joseph. Mary and her pregnancy seem to be problems that need solving, and the birth itself is recounted in the sparest of terms. The focus on Joseph is odd in a way, if you think about it. It’s even odder when you put the reading we just heard back into the context of Matthew’s gospel, for these verses appear after a lengthy genealogy that relates Joseph’s ancestry back to Abraham. Thereby Matthew links Joseph not just to the ancient patriarchs and matriarchs—Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel, but also to the Kings—David and Solomon.
What’s odd about this is that of course Joseph is not biologically the father of Jesus.
I’ll grant you, genealogies are fascinating, and with the rise of DNA testing, you can find out a bit about your ethnic makeup and determine whether you are in fact related to certain famous people. There’s a popular PBS show, hosted by Henry Louis Gates, the Harvard professor, that explores the genealogical background of A-list, and often not A-list celebrities. There’s also the genealogy road show, that does the same thing for genealogy that the Antiques Roadshow does for the stuff your great-aunt gave or you bought at a garage sale. We want to know where we came from, who we are, and there’s a temptation to see in genealogy, or genetics, a key to understanding ourselves.
So Matthew gives us a genealogy for Jesus, and it’s worth considering why he thought it was appropriate, or important, to do so. There’s even something more interesting in all of this, because the words he uses to introduce the genealogy at the very beginning of his gospel, and the first words we heard in today’s reading, are very similar—both make use of the Greek word genesis—and it’s likely that Matthew intends his reader to think of the first book of the Hebrew Bible, Genesis.
So it’s curious, isn’t it, that Matthew, after providing all of that background to the birth of Jesus, taking the time to carefully construct a genealogy that links Joseph back to Abraham, then tells the story of what basically constitutes an illegitimate birth.
The story that we heard is familiar. Joseph and Mary are engaged, or to use the traditional language, they are betrothed. It’s not just that he’s given her a ring, and they’ve begun to plan for the big day, scheduled the date and the venue, hired the caterer and the like. No, in Jewish law, the betrothal meant they were legally married, even though the marriage had not been consummated and they were not living together.
Because they were legally married, Mary’s pregnancy was not just an inconvenience. It indicated to Joseph that she had been unfaithful to him. Legally, because, as the text says, Joseph was a righteous man (in other words, he kept the law), he was obligated to divorce her publicly—something that might result in her execution for adultery. But Matthew tells us that he wanted to spare her the indignity, and perhaps himself as well, and divorce her privately.
So he’s got a huge problem on his hands, what to do. It’s likely, though Matthew doesn’t tell us, that Mary is feeling considerable anxiety and fear as well. After all, it’s in Luke’s version of the nativity that Mary is told by an angel that her pregnancy is miraculous, that she’s carrying the Son of God.
In Matthew’s story, the angel comes to Joseph to explain things to him. He does as he’s told, and almost as an afterthought, Matthew tells us that the child is born and Joseph names him Jesus. Again, to use contemporary language, Joseph adopts Jesus as his son.
Christmas, which the songs tells is the “most wonderful time of the year,” can also be a time of great sadness and struggle. We are presented with images of the perfect family or the perfect holiday celebration but so often, our own experiences of Christmas are very different. We live in a messy world, we lead messy lives. Our families can be complicated; there can be ruptures or conflicts with family members; there are all the complications of modern family life, divorce and remarriage, blended families. We want everything to be perfect, just so, and so often the reality is very different.
I think there’s something reassuring for us in the twenty-first century in the way Matthew tells this story. He wants everything to be perfect, too. He fashions a genealogy that links Joseph to Abraham, carefully constructing 14 generations from Abraham to David and 14 generations from David to the exile, 14 generations from the exile to Joseph. To put it language from American history, it would be as if Joseph were descended from the Daughters of the Revolution and the descendants of the Mayflower. But it’s not just that the link from Joseph to Jesus is tenuous—it’s that in the midst of that genealogy are prostitutes, victims of rape and incest, and foreigners like Ruth.
And in the embarrassment of Mary’s unwed pregnancy, in the embarrassment of that genealogy, is an important lesson for us today. Just as we want our celebrations to be perfect, we assume that there’s something wrong with us if things don’t live up to those expectations and we wonder whether in the midst of our struggles, we can hope for God to come to us, for God to be with us.
The story of the birth of Jesus as told by Matthew is a reminder to us that God didn’t choose the wealthy, or powerful, or the Norman Rockwell family in the Norman Rockwell New England town. God came to Mary and Joseph, to a peasant woman and her fiancé, in the outmost corner of the Roman Empire. God came to people in the midst of enormous struggle and great heartache.
The message of this story is that God is with us—here and now—no matter what our situation is, no matter what our lives are like, no matter what struggles we have, or worries, no matter what shame or guilt we might be experiencing. God comes to us. God is with us. That’s the point of this story. That’s the point of Christmas. God is with us. Here. Now. Emmanuel. God with us. Thanks be to God.