Monday, January 03, 2011

Normal is Not Required

Sermon preached on the 4th Sunday of Advent at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene: Matthew 1:(1-17)18-24

If you’ve ever decided to read the New Testament from the beginning, then you have opened your Bible to Matthew 1:1 and immediately run into trouble. It’s not a very exciting way to begin a story. “The begats” they’re sometimes called, from the way the old King James version of the Bible reads:

Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Juda[h] and his brethren; and Juda[h] begat Phares and Zara of Thamar; and Phares begat Esrom…

And on and on. You would probably get about that far and skip ahead and find where the story really began.

But you would miss a couple interesting things. There are 42 generations between Abraham and Jesus; in four of them, oddly, women are mentioned. They all occur between Abraham and David—the first fourteen generations. They are Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba, whom the text calls the “wife of Uriah.” What is that about? There are many genealogies in the Bible. They very rarely include any women.

Matthew does. And not just any women. These are four women with “colorful” stories. Tamar was a Canaanite woman who Judah, one of the sons of the patriarch Jacob, promised to three of his sons, who all died childless. In desperation for a child, Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute and offered herself to her father-in-law. She bore him twins (Genesis 38).

Rahab was herself a prostitute who gave shelter to Joshua’s men when they came to spy on Jericho. She aided their escape against the direct orders of the king of Jericho, and she and her family were spared when Jericho was destroyed. Jewish legend holds that she married Joshua (Joshua 2:6).

Ruth was a Moabite woman who married a Jew who died. She then abandoned her family and country to accompany her mother-in-law Naomi. Eventually she, through some clever initiative of her own, she remarried Boaz, and was the grandmother of King David (Ruth).

Bathsheba was the wife of Uriah the Hittite, an officer in King David’s army. David coveted her and successfully seduced her and arranged for her husband to be killed in battle. He took her immediately as one of his wives and she became the mother of Solomon, his successor as king (2 Samuel 11).

Besides a colorful history, each of these women also has in common that they were a foreigner. (Bathsheba may or may not have been; we are uncertain). Martin Luther and many others since him have believed that their inclusion in this genealogy was to show that Jesus, although the Jewish Messiah, was related also to the Gentiles.

The more popular interpretation of their inclusion, however, is that the story of each is of an irregular marital union and that each of them showed initiative, played an important role in God’s plan. They were all examples in this regard of the union between Mary and Joseph. Theirs was another example of God’s using irregular circumstances to do a new thing, which was also, ironically, continuing an old one. That is a major theme not only of the birth story in Matthew, but of Matthew’s entire Gospel. Jesus will say in chapter thirteen (13:52):

Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.

That is precisely what Matthew says God is doing in this genealogy and in the birth story.

Now I said that if you skipped the genealogy you would miss a couple interesting things. The other is at the end, which reads:

…and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.

The genealogy ends with Joseph! So it’s all for nothing, isn’t it? Joseph wasn’t Jesus’ father, so that means that Jesus wasn’t really the Son of David.

That’s where the story we heard this morning comes in. The drama in the story is whether or not Joseph will choose to be Jesus’ father or not. Joseph has a choice to make. Will he, in essence, adopt this child who is not his own (although it would be a secret adoption—everyone else would have to believe that the baby was Joseph’s “natural” child)?

Joseph says “yes,” and, in doing so, provides the connection that makes Jesus a true Son of David.

Joseph has gotten short shrift over time. We don’t know much about him, really. He disappears from the Bible after the birth stories, appears to be gone from the scene by the time of Jesus’ baptism. Of course, even if Joseph had been relatively young at Jesus’ birth, he would have been in at least his late forties by the time of Jesus’ baptism (which happened when Jesus was about 30) and it would not have been unusual for him to have been dead by then. He would have lived out a normal lifespan for the time.

But, of course, we have received the tradition that Joseph was old when he married Mary, even that this was his second marriage and that Jesus’ so-called “brothers and sisters” were really half-brothers and sisters. These were stories that appeared in various apocryphal gospels whose agenda was to keep Mary a virgin for ever. Poor Joseph.

All of this seeks to conceal the truth. Joseph was Jesus’ Abba. As he learned to call God his Abba, it was Joseph he had as his model. It was Joseph who lifted him up and tossed him into the air so that he would squeal with joy. What a wonderful icon that would make!

And perhaps it was Joseph who passed on the wisdom he learned from Jesus’ birth, that with God both what is old and what is new is required to save and to liberate and to empower. “My son,” I can hear him say, “normal is not always what is required for life. God seems to work best with irregularity.”

Isn’t it odd that this time of year has become the time when we crave normality, when we expect that things should go the way they should go, and that we practically worship the god of the perfect family? Yet we celebrate this season because of the birth of Jesus, a birth that was anything but normal, the way things were supposed to go, or perfect.

In the birth of Jesus God took into his own life all in our life that is strange, irregular and out of place, as if to say, “I have come to save it all.” “Emmanuel” does not mean, “God with those who have perfect lives.” It means simply “God with us,” and God knows perfectly well the mess “us” is.

No comments: