The New Testament scriptures begin with this: “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” Matthew began his gospel by hearkening back to the very beginning of God’s covenant with Abraham. The genealogy seems like just a laborious list of unnecessary details: “Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah, and Judah the father of Perez…” and so on and so on for 42 generations.
We have to read it very closely though because we discover that within this list of main characters in God’s salvation drama there are many colorful players. There are actors who were unquestioningly faithful to God. Others were rascals and scoundrels, like Abraham, Isaac, and David–but whom nonetheless remain great heroes of the faith. There are many unknowns. There are also five strong and clever women, Tamar, Rahab, Bathsheba (wife of Uriah not David) and Mary, whose presence in God’s story threw total curve balls into the family blood line; four of the five women were Gentiles.
No matter who the individuals were, or what role they played in the great drama, whether a principal lead or a supporting actor, each person’s part was crucial to God’s gracious story of salvation.
I believe it’s safe to assume that every genealogy has at least one scandal or element of crazy in it. Mine certainly does. If we read aloud the names on our own family trees, I would imagine we’d have some interesting stories that go along with one or two of them. Some sad. Some funny. Some stories you wouldn’t tell in mixed company. Stories some families are still trying to keep secret.
So too in the holiest of families we find an intriguing and dramatic story. The story of Joseph, Mary and Jesus was not sentimental. It was a story of intrigue shot through with fear, danger, horrific murder, divine intervention and a holy joy.
The entire birth narrative in Matthew’s gospel is so brief we could almost miss it. If this were the only account we had for the birth of the Messiah, we wouldn’t be arguing about the right to publicly display nativity scenes today. We would have very dull Christmas pageants.
In Matthew’s gospel, there is no account of Mary’s visit from an angel telling her that she was pregnant with God’s child, and her accepting her call to bear God’s son. No Magnificat sung. No running to her cousin Elizabeth. There is no census, no donkey ride, no birth in a manger, no shepherds, no angels, and no animals around the stable. All of this is from Luke’s gospel.
Matthew’s story began with a scandal.
The scandal of pregnancy outside of the bounds of marriage of a simple teenage girl who was to be married to a man most likely more than twice her age. Mary and Joseph were engaged –or betrothed or espoused –which in that day was the first step in the marrying custom. It meant that they were legally married; the bride price had been paid. But the second step of the arrangement had not taken place, when Joseph would bring Mary into his home. Marital relations were not allowed before step two.
It was between step one and step two that they found Mary was with child.
The ancient patriarchal custom gave Joseph two options: to divorce his young fiancé, or to have her stoned for committing adultery. Because he was a righteous man, the text points out, Joseph was unwilling to expose Mary to such disgrace; so he planned to give her divorce papers discreetly. Joseph was pained by the decision he had resolved to make.
Just like the patriarch Joseph in the book of Genesis, Mary’s fiancé, was no stranger to visits by angels in his dreams.
At the right moment, God’s messenger invaded Joseph’s dream to save him from making the biggest mistake of his life. The angel told Joseph that there was another way to respond to the impossible situation they were in. A way forward that Joseph could not have thought or even imagined. A way that was beyond human reason. It was not the way of strict and rigid obedience to the Law or social convention; It was obedience to God, but through the way of mercy and grace. A way that was to BECOME the way of Jesus.
Joseph set his heart on the angel’s message that Mary would birth God’s son, just as the prophet foretold. Joseph supported her until the baby was born, and in a sign of adoption, named him, Jesus, which means, God saves.
Why did Joseph say yes? What made him respond with a faith that would require so much of him?
Mary’s pregnancy was a gift from the Holy Spirit.
Joseph’s faith was also a gift from the Holy Spirit.
There are times when doing the right thing, the just thing, the merciful thing, appears scandalous.
Mary was a righteous young woman. The child within her was God’s. But she appeared to others as unrighteous. An adulterer, worthy of death or divorce. Divorce would have been equal to death for her because it would have meant living on the margins of society the remainder of her life.
Joseph was a righteous man, schooled in prayer and study of the Law. But by overcoming his fear of losing his own good reputation, Joseph did the scandalous thing by taking Mary as his wife.
Joseph trusted the angel’s message. He knew he was to be part of something much greater than his own imagination or society’s conventions. Joseph responded with an absurd Yes to the message of the Holy Spirit, and opened himself to a life of great risk. He said No to blindly following the religious and societal rules.
Following God and one’s own heart can often bring us into direct opposition with social expectations.
Joseph said Yes to what was asked of him in that moment. It seems God gives us enough information on a need to know basis. Joseph only had to respond to the angel’s message with the information given him. Joseph didn’t need to know their entire future. Joseph had no idea what lay ahead for him and his family. Little did he know that he would be visited by three more angels in the years ahead warning him of danger and directing him to safety.
Like each character in the cast of God’s saving drama, Joseph too was given the choice to respond in trust to a God whom he had grown to know through the years of faithfulness. We all have to respond when a particular call comes that is given to us in the particular situation we find ourselves.
Joseph also had another choice. He was to respond in love to the woman he had committed to marry.
In his poem, The True Love, David Whyte writes,
“…we are all preparing for that abrupt waking
and that calling and that moment
when we have to say yes!
Except it will not come so grandly, so biblically,
but more subtly, and intimately in the face of
the one you know you have to love.”
Joseph’s call was to respond with compassion to the one he knew.
Like so many stories from the bible and from our own lives, what appear as dead-ends actually become new paths. Scandals can be turned into moments for wonder and astonishment.
God’s ways are usually upside down and turn our hearts inside out.
It seems that Joseph’s calling in his life was to be sure that God’s own son would be born to Mary; that the baby would be kept safe, and be raised in Nazareth. Somewhere along the line, Joseph slips quietly out of the story but remains in the genealogy of Jesus as “Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.”
The Wonder of it all can scarcely be conceived.
Through the infant Jesus the whole world was reconciled to God. The whole gracious story of God did not end with the birth of the Messiah. In fact, a new story began. God came to be present with us in our very human lives. In our suffering, our temptations, our family dysfunctions, and in our very ordinary, even boring, lives.
The genealogy of God’s story continues. You and I are now included in it. God called Peter and Paul, and Augustine, Francis and Clare, and Teresa of Avila, and God called Luther and Calvin, and John Knox and Dietrich Bonheoffer, and MLK Jr, and Pope Francis… and so many unknowns. God called…and God called….and God calls you and God calls me. We don’t even know how we are being used right now, at this moment, in God’s unfolding drama.
Our less-than-perfect-lives become the God with-us-life through God’s presence, Immanuel. God the Holy One came to be in the muck and mire of our humanness. God still arrives when we least expect him; God comes to places we would never imagine; God extends a hand up to each of us when we’re just too tired to pull ourselves up. In the end, God’s grace is an offer we can never refuse.
What a wonderful scandal this is. Believe it and receive it anew this holy season.