Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A of the Lectionary

Matthew 1:18-25

18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah* took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do 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 as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’ 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son;* and he named him Jesus.

One week to go until Christmas. One more week of preparations. For many people that means last minute gift-buying. For others it means getting ready to travel. Giving gifts and traveling are ways in which we replicate the Nativity stories in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. In Matthew the magi from the East bring gifts to the Christ-child. In Luke, Mary and Joseph have to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem for a Roman census-taking. Matthew doesn’t say anything about that. You would assume from Matthew’s Gospel that Mary and Joseph lived in Bethlehem and settled in Nazareth later on. The travel story in Matthew’s Gospel is the journey of the wise men following a star, not Mary and Joseph going home for the census. The story of the journey of the magi we hear on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6.

What’s behind all our Christmas traveling? Family. We’re either preparing our home to receive family members who are traveling to us or we’re packing up what we’ll need to visit family members somewhere else. Last year Mary and I decided it would not be much of a holiday for us to be home for Christmas because none of our children were able to come home.  So we went on a Christmas cruise—but on the cruise ship on which Emily worked as an entertainer so that we could be with her. This year Emily visits us.

When I was a youth in the 1950s Christmas Day was all about family. At Christmas dinner we hosted Grandpa and Grandma Lichtenberger and my mother’s in-town brother’s family, which provided me with three cousins.  At night we usually hosted the Senn family reunion with Grandpa Senn. (Grandma Senn died when I was about five.) If all the Senns had gathered there would have been seven other families since my father had three brothers and four sisters, which netted me about 20 cousins.

During Christmas week we visited aunts and uncles and cousins to see their Christmas trees and exchange gifts. So there were more gifts to give and receive over the twelve days of Christmas. My mother’s extended family was a little confusing because Grandpa Lichtenberger was married four times. So my mother had a half-brother from his first wife and a step-brother from his third wife as well as two brothers from his second wife, my material grandmother who died when my mother was five. Great Grandfather Lichtenberger had been married twice. So my mother also had aunts and uncles who were about her age. That was very confusing for a child.

But as my wife Mary’s and my siblings, cousins, and nieces and nephews grew up and went their various ways in life and geography, things got even more complicated. Some married and divorced and remarried and produced children who had different parents or adopted children. Some cohabitated but still produced children. Our two sons married their same-sex spouses and advise us that being foster parents or adopting children is not totally out of the picture in the future.

So as I look over all of our extended families, I see that they have contributed to the statistical changes in marriage and family life over the last fifty years. In the 1970 census, 40% of American households were constituted by married couples with children. By the time of the 2010 census that figure had fallen to less than 20%. Meanwhile, “other” households grew. Among them are many empty-nesters, widows or widowers, as well as single men and women. As for families, no-fault divorce, cohabitation, single parents, and same-sex parents contributed to the cultural revolution that has been dismantling what we took to be the traditional family.

More ominously, marriage seems to be out of reach for many lower income persons, both black and white, along with whatever economic advantages and stability marriage might bring.  Is marriage in our society available only to college-educated middle class or upper class persons? This is a social reality that isn’t receiving a lot of attention, perhaps because government can’t do much about it.

If our present reality seems like a mess in comparison with our images of what family should look like, well…human relationships, marriage, and family have been a mess from the very beginning, according to the Bible. It’s also there in the Christmas story, especially in the way the Gospel of Matthew tells it from Joseph’s point of view rather than Mary’s.  Joseph discovers that the girl he is engaged to is already pregnant and he knows that he is not the father. What is Joseph to think about this situation? What should he do?

As we begin reading through the Gospel of Matthew during this church year, it’s too bad we don’t begin at the very beginning—at the genesis of the gospel with the genealogy of Jesus. There’s a lot of interesting stuff in genealogies, as I’m sure many of you have discovered when you search out your own on ancestry.com. I wonder if Joseph pondered his family history and looked for examples in his ancestry that might help him decide what to do.

Here are some of the ancestors of “Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” The genealogy in Matthew is very patriarchal, so it leaves out Abraham’s relationship with Hagar and their son Ishmael. In fact, none of the matriarchs are named. So it doesn’t mention Sarah or Rebecca or Jacob’s two wives, Leah and Rachel, who, along with two slave women serving as surrogates, mothered those twelve sons who became the patriarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel. It does, however, include Ruth, the gentile woman who was the mother of Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of King David, and therefore the ancestor of Jesus. One wonders if Matthew is making a point by including only the name of a gentile woman in Jesus’s ancestry, since Jewish society is matrilineal. We hear of Solomon, David’s son by “the wife of Uriah.” Not “wife of David?” Solomon was conceived out of wedlock. Bathsheba is not named; nor are David’s other wives. Nor are any of Solomon’s many wives mentioned. But Joseph would have known these stories and all the family irregularities they entailed from the standpoint of monogamous marriage and children within marriage.

Joseph’s situation was certainly irregular from the standpoint of social norms. As a righteous man—one whose adherence to the Law of Moses is tempered with mercy—Joseph wants to do the decent thing. The situation with which he is confronted is a personal humiliation, but he decides not to press charges against Mary or expose her to public disgrace. He will just send her away quietly and let her fend for herself and raise the child she bears. But how might she survive without the support of her family? Set up some little craft shop? Supplement it with begging or prostitution? The latter profession, of course, would be the most lucrative.

Fortunately, Joseph, like his namesake in the patriarchal stories, is a dreamer. So in a dream, an angel of the Lord convinces Joseph to move forward with his plans and take Mary as his wife and presumably adopt her child—a child, he is given to understand, that was conceived by the Holy Spirit. So he did as he was directed. He took Mary as his wife but had no marital relationships with her until the child was born. He dutifully named the boy Jesus—Joshua in Hebrew—, “for he will save his people from their sins.” The evangelist tells us that this was all done to fulfill prophecy. As we read in Isaiah, but from the Greek Septuagint in the New Testament version, “’Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him, Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God with us.’”

If this was to fulfill prophecy, then it was all according to God’s plan. Now think about this situation. The Lord God of all creation could have chosen to be born within the wholesome confines of stable family life. Maybe he could have inserted the Spirit-conceived son into an already functioning family—Jesus in the middle. The Messiah could have entered the world through what would look like the sexual path of the respectable majority.  Yet he assumes human flesh deliberately and scandalously outside of the majority patterns of human sexuality and traditional family.

This is not to say that those traditional norms of sexuality, marriage and family are to be overturned.  But if Jesus’s purpose is to save his people from their sins, he must enter into situations that are outside the boundaries of sexual, marital, and familial norms— precisely in order to save all, in all circumstances, and not just the righteous sinners. As church fathers like Irenaeus and Athanasius said, “what has not been assumed has not been redeemed.” If God’s birth into human life within a human family as Emmanuel—God with us—blesses all human families, then Jesus’s placement into an irregular family situation includes such situations within the divine blessing.

It’s amazing that the implications of the birth of our Savior into an irregular family situation has eluded so many of our Savior’s followers for so long. These situations are not unknown to us. We see these irregular situations in our own immediate and extended families. Are they beyond the scope of grace? Don’t all families need to be saved? I mean, what family isn’t, to some degree, dysfunctional? But family is what we need. As Pope Francis has said, “Without family, without the warmth of home, life grows empty, there is a weakening of the networks which sustain us in adversity, nurture us in daily living and motivate us to build a better future.”

The pope added that despite the “many difficulties that afflict our families, families are not a problem, they are first and foremost an opportunity. An opportunity which we must care for, protect, and support.” This pope struggles to help his Church—and all churches—see the need to care for, protect, and support all families, regular or irregular.  We must “accompany” all families, both regular and irregular, in their unique situations.

If our divine Savior—Emmanuel—comes to dwell with us in a family, and by his presence makes the family holy, then all families with whom the Savior dwells, no matter how irregular their situations, are holy families. Jesus’s presence in the irregular marital relationship of Joseph and Mary made that family holy. We call it “the holy family.” It was a holy irregular family.

Holiness comes from proximity to holiness. If the Savior is God with us, we partake of his holiness not because of what we do or because society decides to make our situation legal, but because of God’s presence with us and among us. Regularly therefore, and not just during Advent, we should pray:  Come, Lord Jesus. Come dwell with us, full of grace and truth. Amen.

Pastor Frank Senn