Matthew begins with family.
That’s why I included verse seventeen at the beginning of today’s reading. If you’ll indulge me and flip to the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, I’ll tell you why. Family is important to Matthew. Matthew knows his readers. They are, Tom Long writes, Jewish by heritage, Christian by conviction. They are in-between synagogue and church, seeking identity.1 Where have we come from? It’s something we all want to know. This genealogy – all of these names – may seem tough to access, but imagine cleaning out a loved one’s home and finding an old family Bible. You dust it off and sit, flipping back through worn pages, an old photograph falls out. “Is that great-grandmother’s wedding dress?” You see a commendation from the war he never spoke about. You see a death notice of a baby no one ever mentioned.
Matthew’s readers would have seen this list and known family. It begins with Abraham, the father of Isaac, and someone would think of the long journey that starts in Genesis 12. Others would think of the call to sacrifice his own son Isaac, and of God providing a ram at the last moment in his place. The stories blur for us a bit, but we recognize bits and pieces. Salmon, the father of Boaz by Rahab, the woman who let Joshua’s spies into Jericho, then Ruth, the grandmother of the great King David. Stories flashed before Matthew’s readers, of their great lineage – not all in a straight line, mind you, and not always the traditional notation of fathers and sons. Women played key roles. Ruth was a gentile from Moab – a foreigner – Moabites were specifically excluded from the Israelite community.2 We see Josiah, we read of the painful exile to Babylon, then return, to the end of verse sixteen, Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary – and note different language here – of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.
Because Joseph wasn’t Jesus father, Matthew’s readers would already know. We are drawn into a story much larger than any of us. And, as my friend Shannon writes, this genealogy, this list, this old dusty family Bible, might also tell us something about Joseph and, “why he reacted to Mary’s pregnancy the way he did. Perhaps the tombstones in his family cemetery reminded him that God had often worked in his own family’s history in ways that were unexpected – [Joseph’s] family tree was full of people who never got what they deserved – (Abraham, Hagar. Jacob, Esau. David, Bathsheba). Plenty of scoundrels…Plenty of human beings who made mistakes, but who kept being forgiven and brought back in by God.”3
All of these stories are essential for getting a sense of what must be with us as we begin this holy story in today’s text. Verse seventeen reaches back in providential symmetry – 14 generations to David, 14 to Babylon, fourteen to Jesus. Then Matthew matter-of-factly brings us into the present day: The birth of Jesus the Messiah, took place in this way. When his mother, Jesus’ mother, had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. This tame language doesn’t get at the scandal this would have been. Betrothal was the first step of marriage and it took place before the actual wedding. In the eyes of the law, though, they were already considered husband and wife – even though they were still living apart, papers were signed. The only way to get out of the marriage now was through death or the court system.4 Mary is… “found to be with child,” which is an odd way of saying this. By the Holy Spirit, Matthew says. All everyone else knows is that it isn’t by Joseph. We don’t know who finds what, how the word gets out. But it does. And it’s scandalous.
Joseph wouldn’t have to expel her from his home as the adulterer everyone assumed she was, wouldn’t have to make a big fuss as her family came to get her things, as she walked her walk of shame back to the home from which she had come. The law was on his side – he prided himself on being righteous, on living a life in tune with the law of Moses. He could cast her aside. Deuteronomy says he could have her put to death, though the rabbis ended this practice before Matthew’s time.5 But no need to humiliate her. Do it quietly. The arrangements would be made, plans cancelled. He would move on.
But JUST WHEN he had resolved to do this, Matthew says. JUST THEN, as God had intervened with Jacob and Hezekiah and Eleazar – that night he fell asleep. In a dream he was visited by an angel. Joseph, son of David – the angel reminds him of his family tree – do not be afraid to take her as your wife. Do not be afraid of what she says. Do not be afraid of the awkward glances of your neighbors as her belly grows. God is in this.
Here’s how this is going to work, the angel says. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus – Joseph would know the name, from Jeshua, Joshua, meaning “God saves.” You will take this son, and by the naming he will be brought into that magnificent line of beautiful and broken people God has claimed before. He will save the people from their sins. And this new thing, the angel is more than clear, is part of a very old thing, from the God of all creation whose story continues to enfold, fulfilling what had been spoken by the prophet Isaiah long ago: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.” The angel adds a note onto Isaiah, in case Joseph wasn’t sure. This means, the angel says, “God is with us.” We don’t know if Joseph said anything, or how he wrestled that long night. I’d love to know more about that night. He woke up and did as the angel said. He took her as his wife, she soon bore a son, and he named him Jesus.
Emmanuel. God IS with us. That might be the word I need to hear as much as any this Advent. That we, all of us, are drawn into this old familiar story, of the God who was with us long before, who is with us now, and will be with us through that day when all is wrapped up in grace. That we, like Joseph, are drawn into a story that is not of our own doing. Whether you had the faith of Abraham, are a trickster like Jacob, as manipulative as David. There’s someone as crazy and wonderful and broken as you in this story. And you, like Joseph, are called to play a part, though even he doesn’t get a speaking role. He does his best to bear this news, this story, this baby, this God, into the world. This God that, no matter what, breaks in among us, even when everything feels so unstable, bringing redemption, ushering in hope. So that we might know the truth of what the prophet said – “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’ – which we know means, “God is with us.”
This may not seem like a profound or especially creative point this fourth Sunday in Advent, but I tend to believe it’s always good to be reminded that you are not alone. That we are not alone. That this world, this life, the relationships we have, the ways we serve, matter. In the violence and suffering in the world. In the sadness we see. In whatever mixture of exhaustion and joy and hope and weariness you bring to this season, this text unequivocally proclaims what you must know. That God is with you. That God is with us. That God, despite it all, will be God, and that love is about to born into the world once again.
May it be so. May it be so. Alleluia. Amen.
1. Tom Long, WBC: Matthew, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1997), pages 7-8 are really helpful.
2. Deut. 23:3, from The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VIII, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), p 130.
3. From the Rev. Shannon Kershner’s paper on this text at The Well, Baltimore, 2013.
4. Deuteronomy 22:13-30, from WBC: Matthew, by Tom Long, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1997), page 13.
5. From Shannon’s paper, and Long, 12, and NIB, 134.