The Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A, 2016 – Isaiah 7:10-16; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25
As we meet Joseph, he’s angry, confused, afraid. And who can blame him? The marriage he had been anticipating is ruined. Not only that, now he is stuck figuring out what to do. The law is clear that Mary should be stoned, yet unable to stomach this or the prospect of staying with Mary, Joseph chooses to dismiss her quietly. Yet he knows that Mary’s future still hangs in jeopardy. The child within her will continually be a sign of her disrepute, a stain that will cut her off from her community and likely lead to poverty. Law abiding Jews will have nothing to do with her; she will only remind them of Israel’s persistent unfaithfulness and their continued Exile. Joseph regrets all of this, but can he really take her as his wife? Why should he risk a marriage already blighted by the pain of infidelity and mistrust? Mary’s situation looks absolutely horrible.
But then, the Angel appears to Joseph, “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.”
With these words Joseph suddenly finds himself within a much, much larger story than he thought. He’s found himself within the very heart of Israel’s story with God.
And Matthew—today’s gospel writer and a consummate storyteller—wastes no time in making sure we are also immersed within this larger story. Just before today’s passage, he opens his gospel with the powerful yet simple phrase, “The book of the genesis of Jesus Christ.” With this phrase he conjures up the moment when God created the heavens and the earth. Matthew wants us to be clear that the same power that breathed forth life where there was none is at work in Jesus Christ. Building on this, Matthew parallels Genesis’ account of the generations of the heavens and the earth – the seven days – with the account of Jesus’ genealogy that shows him to be the promised King from David’s line.
But this genealogy isn’t just a proof for Jesus as Messiah. It’s the story of God’s history with Israel
Its creation in Abraham, its establishment in Canaan under David, and the Exile which continued to hang over Israel’s existence. Listening again to this story, Matthew’s Jewish audience would have longed for the Messiah to come to re-establish God’s rule in Israel, to drive out the foreign powers. Many wondered what it would take for God to come back and re-establish His rule. Many thought that if Israel could just be faithful to God’s law—if they could just allow God to rule in their own lives—God would return in all His glory to re-establish His rule.
Matthew’s genealogy would have shocked them. It’s cast of characters airs Israel’s dirty laundry and runs against their desires for self-made purity. Admittedly, some of the names may not have been avoidable, for example Aziah who was a sadistic mass murderer and Rehoboam who allowed Israel to fall apart due to his arrogance and greed. But good Jews had to cringe at how Matthew unnecessarily included people and details that they would have preferred to forget. Tamar claimed offspring for herself by intoxicating and sleeping with her father-in-law. Rahab was a prostitute. Matthew even mentions Uriah—who isn’t part of the bloodline at all—to remind us that Solomon was only born because of David’s murderous affair. Matthew’s merciless review of Israel’s unfaithfulness confronts with Israel’s persistent shortcomings and many would have heard them and wondered again whether the exile would ever end.
Exiled and persistently unfaithful, Israel’s situation—like Mary’s—seems hopeless.
But into this very darkness, the angel’s announcement breaks and Joseph finds himself within a much, much larger story. The story of God’s long-awaited redemption of Israel and the fulfillment of all creation. God has suddenly entered the field and within his creation – within Mary – and he has begun something altogether new. Mary – whose outlook seemed absolutely horrible – actually bears the hope of the world.
Through the miracle of the virgin birth, God emphasizes that what is taking shape within Mary; humanity’s history makers, those who dominated Matthew’s genealogy, are to contribute nothing by their own action and initiative. The only response that humanity and creation can have before God’s unexpected in-breaking is that first expressed by Mary and then exemplified again by Joseph as he took Mary as his wife: “be it unto me according to thy word.“
I was particularly struck with the power of this hope during my first Advent after college. I was living in a Christian community that had three large old homes where those struggling with homelessness or fleeing abusive situations came to live alongside the staff. The homes are run family-style complete with dinner together every night, shared chores, and birthday celebrations. As you might expect, it wasn’t the easiest place to live. Not only is it just hard to live with thirty others between two houses, but the community was constantly bearing the burdens of each others’ addictions, sin, mental illness, and poverty. And frankly, I was struggling to be vulnerable to it. At the time of course I wouldn’t have described it like that. I would have put forward some list of how the community was falling short or should have been doing X, Y, or Z. But the bottom line was that I wanted to serve people who would promptly straighten out their lives. I didn’t want it to cost me much. I didn’t want to get hurt. And I really didn’t want to be vulnerable enough that my own patterns and sinfulness could be challenged.
Each month our extended community—the staff, guests, volunteers, donors—all gathered for a Communion service at the community’s drop-in center. That Advent, as I looked around the room, it suddenly hit me how powerful and absolutely unexpected God’s redemption of Israel through Mary really was. Those worshiping beside me came from every corner of our community: privileged university students next to guests from the house; progressives who dodged the war tax next to conservatives who ran the university’s multi-billion dollar endowment; kids next to street-hardened seniors. Not only were we a strange bunch, but across the board our unfaithfulness also rivaled Israel – liars, cheats, adulterers, addicts, hypocrites, and thieves. Despite our best efforts our situation often seemed hopeless. Yet at the same time, God was working among all of us—cultural Christians, crack addicts, and estranged children – He was reconciling us to Himself and each other. Somewhere in the midst of the cooking and dishes, the late night conversations and game watches, the prayer and smoke breaks, God was breaking down the walls that divided us and teaching us to love Him and each other.
While we still had so far to go, by His grace, completely unmerited grace, God had gathered us together as the church and we – like Mary – bore the hope of the world. Christ was taking shape among us.
Sitting here today we might be tempted to nod in sentimental appreciation of the struggles and beauty of a church quite distant from our own. But we don’t have the luxury of such distance. It doesn’t take long in any church to realize that there is a great disparity between our collective call as the church and what we see around us. And our shortcomings and sins don’t just frustrate our ideals. They have and will hurt each of us. In their wake, it is tempting to hide from the uncomfortable moral claim that the struggling brother or sister has on us—let alone that of the stranger and the poor to which the church is called. Sometimes we withdraw from this vulnerability because there have been offenses that leave deep wounds that shattered our trust. Sometimes we have just endured hundreds of little paper-cuts over the years and have slowly learned to keep our distance. Terrified of our vulnerability, we learn to leave at the first sign of trouble or maybe we hide behind forced smiles each Sunday, holding back our real joys and fears, avoiding the hard work of rebuilding trust and loving each other.
We know both of these options are flawed yet what are we do to? Can we really risk the vulnerability to which we are called? Like Joseph we are met with a seemingly hopeless situation. But can we risk the pain? Can we risk the pain of faithfulness?
To this the child in Mary’s belly shouts, “Yes!”God is with us and He has come into history to suffer with His people that He might save us. The church is a motley crew, but it bears the hope of the world. Here God places us within a much, much larger story. Here in our life together and at the Communion table—week after week—God reconciles us to Himself and each other. Here we see that despite all of our flaws, Christ is graciously taking shape among us. Let us joyfully come to the table today, anticipating the heavenly wedding feast where we will all finally be reconciled and celebrate our Groom’s utter faithfulness.
Thanks be to God!