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It Happened in This Way
December 22, 2013
Isaiah 7:10-16, Matt. 1:1-25
Last week I watched a rerun of The Griswold Family Christmas. Many of you have seen this hilarious movie. It’s pure slapstick, in which one comic mishap is followed by another. Clark Griswold, who is played by Chevy Chase, wants desperately to have a picture-perfect family Christmas. However, everything conspires against him, and Christmas at the Griswold house is anything but picture-perfect. The in-laws don’t get along, the Christmas tree gets incinerated, the family dinner is a disaster, and the troubles only accelerate when Clark’s dimwitted brother and his family arrive, unexpectedly, in their beat up RV. Now, I’m not trying to claim that The Griswold Family Christmas is a religious movie, but it does have at least one thing in common with the Bible. They both portray our human situation as anything but picture-perfect.
Matthew introduces the Christmas story with this sentence: “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.” Interestingly, though, what Matthew goes on to depict is not the birth itself but the scandal surrounding it, and the family history that precedes it. As we read this morning, Matthew sets the episode about Mary and Joseph within the larger context of an ongoing family drama, one that is rife with dirty tricks, disappointment, and failure.
In what some have called the most boring scripture verses in the New Testament, Matthew begins his Gospel with a genealogy that takes in 42 generations. Matthew obviously wants to show how the Messiah is from the royal line of David. It’s also true that Matthew lays out the genealogy leading to Jesus in neat, symmetrical groupings. But start poking around in this family tree, and you’ll uncover a host of unsavory characters, and a family history that is the opposite of neat.
Near the top of Matthew’s family tree is Jacob. He’s the one who cheated his lame-brained brother out of his inheritance. Rahab is included in the genealogy. In addition to being the great-grandmother of King David, she also ran an unpretentious little establishment in the red light district of Jericho. Ruth made the genealogy even though she was a Moabite foreigner. Behind the mention of David, Bathsheba, and Solomon is a sordid tale of adultery, abuse of power and murder.
King Ahaz of Judah is also on the family tree. He’s the main character in the passage we read from Isaiah this morning. In the middle of the 8th Century B.C., Ahaz was the king of Judah, the head of the royal family of David. Yet Jerusalem, his capital city, was under siege. Syria and the northern kingdom of Israel had teamed up to attack Judah and destroy Jerusalem. Ahaz was terrified by impending doom. David’s royal line was in danger of coming to an end, the so-called House of David about to collapse. With hope running out and the prospect for victory anything but bright, the prophet Isaiah gave King Ahaz a sign. He told the desperate king that a young woman was with child and his name is Immanuel, which means “God is with us.” Even though Ahaz’s political and military options were nil, the prophet assured the worried King that the present danger would soon pass.
And so it went, down through the generations, until at last we come to Joseph and the tale of Jesus’ birth. When Matthew writes, “the birth of the Messiah took place in this way,” he means that it took place in the way that life always takes place–a way that is never picture-perfect.
Not surprisingly, then, the events surrounding the birth of Jesus were tainted with the scandal of an unwed mother. As you know, there are two birth narratives in the New Testament: one in Matthew and one in Luke. One of the differences–and there are several–is that, while Luke’s account focuses on Mary and her reactions, Matthew tells the story from Joseph’s point of view. Matthew explains that Mary and Joseph are engaged but not yet living together. In those days, marriage was a two-step process. The first step was an engagement, typically arranged by the parents, which was a legal contract that could only be broken by divorce. The second step followed some months later when there would be a marriage feast, after which the groom took his wife to his home. Mary and Joseph had completed the first step in this process when– in what was surely a very awkward moment–Mary came to her betrothed and confessed, “I guess there’s something you should know. (pause) I’m pregnant.”
Wouldn’t you love to have been a fly on the wall to hear Joseph’s reaction? Yet all we get from Matthew is an unruffled description: “Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” Some have said that this shows that Joseph was both righteous—he respected the law—and kind, because he didn’t want Mary to be publicly humiliated. Others, though, have accused Joseph of lacking creativity and compassion. In any case, his life suddenly took an unexpected and undesirable turn. His hopes and plans were shattered. He must have been beside himself, bewildered and confused. One commentator said that Joseph reminded him of the clueless father in the hospital delivery ward, running around barking orders to the nurses. Finally, one of the nurses tells him just to sit down and let them do their job.
Come to think of it, this is pretty much what God said to Joseph. An angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, in effect, “Joseph, do not be afraid, because there is much more going on than you can possibly imagine.” Joseph was assured by the angel in his dream that the mess he was in was not a hopeless mess. In fact, out of this scandal a child would be born, one who is Immanuel, God with us, to save us.
Friends, if God came to us through ordinary, imperfect people and in circumstances that were less than desirable, then we can be assured that God continues to come to us in just this way. Like Joseph, we sometimes find ourselves in predicaments from which there appears to be no way out. We all carry wounds, suffer loss, endure grief. Let’s face it, there is no such thing as a picture-perfect life or family. But the good news embedded in Matthew’s story of the Messiah’s birth is that the messiness of our lives and world does not turn God away from us. So do not be afraid. All has been forgiven. All will be redeemed. God is with us, Immanuel, now and forever more.