Grace Presbyterian Church
December 25, 2016, Christmas 1A
It is both an amusing and enlightening exercise to compare the four gospels and note how differently each one begins, how each gospel chooses to introduce its central character, Jesus, or to provide what in modern superhero comic books or movies would be called his “origin story” – the account of “where Jesus came from”.
Mark, the earliest gospel, doesn’t provide an “origin story” – that gospel jumps in directly to the account of Jesus’s baptism. Luke provides an “origin story” that almost overshadows the entire rest of the gospel, with its elaborate account of the events leading up to not only the birth of Jesus, but also of his forerunner, John the Baptizer. The gospel of John, on the other hand, goes cosmic; its poetic and mystical prologue explores the eternal significance of the one who “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
From there it can then seem deflating to turn to the Gospel of Matthew and find that it begins with a family tree. A genealogy, as it typically called in more formal scholarly terms; or in more informal lingo, “the begats.” You know, so-and-so “begat” so-and-so as it was translated in the King James Version. It’s not a word we really use anymore, and the NRSV’s choice of “was the father of” is much more communicative and understandable for a modern reader. But…yeah, “the begats.”
So, why the family tree? For one thing Matthew wants you to see the three fourteens in the genealogy (not only is three a big deal in this tradition, but so is seven, and three double-sevens has to mean something. For anohter, a geneaolgy (interestingly, the word here translated as ‘genealogy’ could also be translated ‘genesis’) was not uncommon in those times as a way of establishing the royal lineage of a new king – showing that the king had ‘good bloodlines,’ so to speak. You can see why Matthew would find it worthwhile to include such a genealogy if the whole point here were to portray Christ as King.
But this is a strange genealogy, though. For one thing, while some of the figures included in this geneaolgy were regarded as among the great heroes of the Hebrew faith – Abraham for certain, and also David – there are some serious bad apples in this genealogy. Manasseh, for example? A bad king. A horrible king. If anybody its making a list of all-time worst kings in history, Manasseh is a contender.
Additionally, though, some of the extra details that Matthew includes would, according to the usual usage of these genealogies, diminish rather than enhance the ‘new king.’ Tamar, for example, was Judah’s daughter-in-law; that story is in Genesis 38, and it’s ugly. Rahab was the prostitute in Jericho who hid Joshua’s spies, aiding the Hebrew people’s conquest of that city. Ruth was a Moabite – another foreigner. And ‘the wife of Uriah’ was none other than Bathsheba, the woman who David took by force (that is, raped) despite her being married to one of Israel’s front-line soldiers who was off in battle.
These don’t look good in a royal bloodline, to say the least.
Yet Matthew presents it to us, ugly stories and all, as evidence of nothing less than God’s hand in the birth of this child to be called Jesus – what else could it be? It also works well as preparation for the messiness of the story as it relates to the man named Joseph, who Matthew calls ‘the husband of Mary’, the one charged with being the human father of the Son of God.
Joseph is called a ‘righteous’ man, though we might initially be more inclined to call him ‘upright.’ When he finds out that his contracted wife, Mary, was pregnant without any involvement from him, his first thought was not to have her put to death – acceptable under the law at that time – but to ‘dismiss her quietly,’ which was certainly less fatal but would nonetheless have condemned Mary to a lifetime of humiliation and likely inescapable poverty as well. Fortunately, the Lord was in the business of sending angels at that time, and one of those invaded one of Joseph’s dreams to set him straight on the origin of Mary’s child ‘conceived in her of the Holy Spirit.’ Once he was set straight Joseph turned out to be a good guy after all, capable of empathy and even compassion, being a father and husband in a situation where many lesser men fail, and listening for the guidance of God to keep this family safe (but more on that next week).
All of this messiness and seeming lack of purity of line and conception and delivery might be difficult for some to swallow. Let’s face it, that’s not the impression you get from this lovely Nativity scene up here. It is rather pristine. Let us be blunt; Mary there doesn’t look like a woman who just gave birth. Joseph is awfully calm. The animals are awfully clean, and the shepherds...oh, the shepherds. They’re not even in Matthew’s gospel, of course; they are part of Luke’s more elaborate story. Suffice to say they wouldn’t look this clean. The wise men are part of Matthew’s story, but technically they aren’t here yet. If we were going to get the time line right, they wouldn’t show up until Epiphany. And the child? I don’t care what the second vere of ‘Away in a Manger’ says, a newborn infant is going to cry at some point.
The scene is lovely, but somehow lacks chaos. I wouldn’t make a big deal of it except for the tendency we Christians have to act as if our lives need to be as pristine and pure as this Nativity scene in order for Jesus to be born in us, in order for the Christ child to grow up into the Messiah who saves us. And that’s a real problem, and that hurts us.
First all we will never be that pure. We will never be ‘good enough’ without the Christ for whom we’re trying to be ‘good enough.’ When Matthew singles out Isaiah’s prophecy of a child called Emmanuel, and points out that the name really does translate as ‘God-with-us,’ it’s not because Jesus was born into a pristine family tree or because Joseph and Mary had been such spectacularly good people that they somehow earned the honor of becoming the Holy Family. Remember, Joseph was ready to put Mary away; it took angelic intervention to talk him down from that tree. And as we noted before, that family tree was pretty messy and difficult.
Christ is not waiting for us to be good enough. We never will be.
Second, we need Jesus if we are ever to move towards that goodness. We don’t make ourselves good; to the degree we are ever good it is God working in us, enabling us to live the life a disciple of Jesus lives. Even the act of confession and repentance only comes from the Spirit’s working in us because of Christ’s love for us. We don’t get there on our own.
Finally, even if we do manage to move towards that goodness, we won’t be led to a blissful little paradise of sweetness and light, and our lives won’t be as pure and pristine as this manger scene. This child in the manger does grow up, after all, and that grown-up Jesus was anything but a go-along, get-along guy. He made trouble. He challenged authorities, religious authorities in particular. He wasn’t a family-values guy as we would define him; later in Matthew’s gospel, when his family comes looking for him, his own words were that ‘whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’ (Matthew 12). He also says, in this gospel, ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword’ (Matthew 10:34). If we really follow the Messiah that this child grows up to be, our lives are only going to get messier and more challenging, not less.
In short, while we celebrate the birth of this child, nothing less than the Incarnation of God in human flesh, we need to avoid getting distracted by the sweet music and pretty scenes. It’s in the messiness and clutter, the chaos and the despair, the grief and sorrow that God is with us. It’s in the struggle and confusion that God is with us. It’s in the rejection and pain that God is with us. It’s in the loneliness and terror that God is with us.
If Matthew’s troublesome ‘begats’ and messy Nativity story have anything to offer us, it virtually has to be that ‘God-with-us’ is not a far-off fantasy achieved only by favored heroes. It is the here and now, for all of us, no matter how much our lives don’t look pretty. Even the most broken of us. Even the most sorrowful of us. Even the most messed-up of us.
For ‘God-with-us,’ even us, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#132 Good Christian Friends, Rejoice
#112 On Christmas Night All Christians Sing
#125 Before the Marvel of This Night
#127 Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
#110 Love Has Come
#136 Go, Tell It On the Mountain
Credit: Cerezo Barredo, via workingpreacher.com