God is with us

Matthew 1:18-25 New International Version (NIV)
18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

There once was a Viking known as Rudolph the Red. Rudolph the Red served as the meteorologist for his crew, so it was his job to know a thing or two about the weather. One December day while sitting at home, Rudolph looked outside and noticed that it was raining. When he mentioned this to his wife, she said, “It is too cold outside to be raining. It must be sleet.”

Her husband replied, “I am the foremost meteorologist in this city, and Rudolph the Red knows rain, dear!”

Christmas is right around the corner. I hope that everyone will be able to connect with friends and family, either by phone or face-to-face at some point over the next couple of days. But Christmas is challenging for many people because getting together with family brings back a lot of difficult memories. Many people come from dysfunctional families. Families of abuse, both verbal and physical. Every family has secrets, skeletons in the closest, that we would rather not have revealed. And sometimes when we are forced to think about those difficult times, we begin to wonder just where God was during our suffering and painful experiences.

Our text for today begins immediately after the passage that nobody really takes the time to read. Let’s be honest, when we read Matthew, we skim the first 17 verses. This is the genealogy of Jesus. We skim this because everybody knows that Hezekiah was the father of Manasseh. No, we skim because this isn’t interesting. And what is to be gained by learning the family history of Jesus?

A lot, that’s what.

The first thing that we notice is that Matthew’s gospel gives us the names of five women in Jesus’ genealogy. This wasn’t the normal practice when tracing a person’s ancestry in the 1st century. If I was alive in Jesus’ day, you might say that I am Kevin, son of Edward, son of Joseph. There wouldn’t be mention of any women. So for Matthew to mention these women by name is notable.

All of these women were known for having experienced, either by their own actions or the actions of others, some less than ideal situation. Tamar pretended to be a prostitute so that she might become pregnant with her father-in-law’s child. Rahab was a prostitute who turned her back on her own people. Ruth likely exchanged sexual favors to win Boaz’s affection (“laid at his feet was likely a euphemism). Bathsheba cheated on her husband with the king. Prostitution and fornication seem to be common themes in this genealogy of Jesus. Even the final woman mentioned, Mary, mother of Jesus, is pregnant and the father is not the man to whom she is betrothed.

Makes your family seem a lot more normal, doesn’t it.

And yet this is recorded by Matthew. He wouldn’t have needed to name these women. The other genealogies don’t. So why does Matthew go out of his way to name women who are best known for being prostitutes and fornicators in the genealogy of Jesus?

Let’s consider Matthew’s audience. As you read through Matthew you may notice that he makes a lot of references to the Old Testament. He says time and time again about how some event in the life of Jesus fulfills a prophesy in the Old Testament, such as the reference that is made in our text in verses 22-23, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).”

All good Jews would have known their scripture and wouldn’t need to be reminded of this text from Isaiah. The major prophets would have been among the first texts for a Jewish person to have memorized growing up. Matthew isn’t writing for the Jews. He is writing to the Gentiles. Matthew is sometimes called a missionary text.

So Matthew’s including these women, and plenty of men, who have a bit of a checkered past seems to suggest something powerful to the Gentile readers. It is like he is saying, “I know you have done some things that you are not proud of. Perhaps it is because society or relatives have forced you into a particular situation. But today is a new day.”

Just look at this family and all that they have been through and done to one another. The actions of the women is nothing compared to the things that some of these men have done! Yet God chooses to work through these people, these fallen individuals. And God comes into the world as one of them.

In the middle of all of this mess, God is there.

Yesterday was the Saturday before Christmas, so ESPN was focusing on the top ten inspirational stories of the year. Some of these stories just seem to repeat themselves. Every year we hear about teams making exceptions to the normal rule of playing the best players and allowing a person with a disability or illness to get some time on the court or field. A couple of years ago we saw a young, autistic, high school student who served as the team’s equipment manager, get the chance to play in the last game of the year. He scored several points and the crowd went wild! Then we saw a very similar story played out the next year with another boy given the chance to play the last few minutes of a game that was already decided. The twist in this game was that the other team intentionally turned the ball over and allowed the young man to score. Last year a boy with terminal cancer was given the opportunity to play in a practice game with his favorite college football team, the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Surprise! He scored a touchdown! These are all very beautiful stories about making a person’s dream come true.

When I settled in yesterday to watch ESPN, I wasn’t surprised to see yet another “feel good” story come on. Tis the season, after all. But I thought, “This story has been done before. Come on!”

I made the decision, the conscious choice, to not get emotional over the story.
But these stories always get the best of me. This time it was a middle school student with Downs Syndrome. He was the water boy on the basketball team and he was never given the opportunity to dress with the team. Until one game when the coach allowed him to suit up. He didn’t play much, but he was given the opportunity to go out on the floor and scored six points.

The thing that made this story different from all of the other ones that I have seen is that this was not the last game of the year. This young man was going to dress again for the next game. And after word was received that he might play again, the game sold out. The gymnasium was packed.

I was doing pretty well at keeping my emotions in until they showed the mom and dad, watching their son with Downs Syndrome take the court. He shot the ball every time he touched it, and only scored four points. But the look of pride on mom and dad’s face just to see their son out playing with other children his age just hit me like a ton of bricks. And to top it all off, they interviewed the young man after the game. The only words I can remember him saying were, “They liked me.”

Our scripture for today is Matthew’s version of the birth narrative of Jesus. We are told that Mary and Joseph are to be wed. Some versions say “engaged,” while others prefer “betrothed.” I think the new NIV probably gets to the point as well as any other when it says that Mary was “pledged to be married to Joseph.” But even this doesn’t quite capture the context.

In the 1st century, men paid a price to the father of a woman in order to be able to marry her. Essentially, the man bought her. The word for this is “chattel,” which is easy to remember because women were bought and sold like cattle. It seems as if Joseph has paid the price for Mary. She is legally his possession. They just have not actually been married and have not done what married people do on their wedding night.

So when word gets around that Mary is pregnant, Joseph decides to be a good guy and divorce her quietly. This doesn’t sound like a very forgiving thing to most of us today, but remember that according to the Law in Deuteronomy 22, Joseph could have had her stoned to death. So to dismiss her, to send her back to her family, is more compassionate than to have her killed.

So here is Joseph. A young man. A day laborer, working as a builder. He doesn’t have two pennies to rub together. He comes from this long line of very famous screw-ups. The women in his genealogy tend to be deceitful; the men tend to be unfaithful. And now history is repeating itself for Joseph.

Joseph has to be wondering, where is God in all of this?

But Joseph is visited by an angel. And that angel tells him that Mary is not carrying the seed of a man, but the very offspring of God. And they are to name him Yohoshua, Jesus, which means “God saves.”

Furthermore, Matthew tells us that this pregnancy is the fulfillment of the prophesy of Isaiah, that a virgin would bear a child, and they will call him Immanuel. God with us. Not only does God save, as in some far off, distant future. God is with us right now.

So for Joseph, as he considers the difficult years before him, raising a child that is not his, withstanding the mockery and slander of others who believe that his betrothed was not faithful, he comes to understand the answer to the question, “Where is God in all of this?” to be, God is with us.

Where is God when a child is born with a disorder that prevents him from doing the things that he loves and alienates him from his peers? God is with us.

Where is God when we gather with family and friends and remember all of the struggles and pain that we and our families have had to live through? God is with us.

Through the birth of a baby boy to an unmarried virgin and a single carpenter with a checkered family history, we see that God bursts into our lives at exactly the point in time when we least expect it. May we not be quick to dismiss our problems, as Joseph originally planned to do with Mary. Instead, let us look for messengers from God who will remind us that God is with us, even in the pain. For they shall call his name Immanuel.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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