On Tuesday night we’ll hear the story once again – the familiar words from the Gospel of Luke. Angels, a Roman census, worried parents, a young mother, a manger, shepherds, and a star. It’s a beautiful and compelling story. There is something magical in it that makes us want to tell it over and over again. We even help our children to act it out, helping them to embody this ancient and sacred story. We will gather on Christmas Eve to hear it once again – and let the peace of the night and this holy space fall over us.
But it’s probably not a surprise to most of you that the gospels tell the story in a slightly different way. In fact, only two of them tell the story about Jesus’ birth – Mark and John don’t mention it at all. The Matthew scripture we heard this morning is different than what we will hear on Tuesday. In Matthew, Joseph is visited by the angel, not Mary. Joseph is told that Mary will bear a son and he will be the Messiah. I don’t want to worry today about the differences between the Gospels. I don’t want to parse out those differences and try to figure out what really happened. That’s not really important. The stories are different, but the truth remains. And there is tremendous truth that can be found in today’s scripture. So, I want us to consider Joseph – someone, it seems to me, who does not get a lot of attention.
But, in order for us to do that properly, we need to go back a few verses to the very beginning of the book of Matthew. The writer of Matthew wanted to set the stage for the life of Jesus by pointing out the family lineage he was adopted into. So, the first 17 verses of the Gospel are a list of names – beginning with Abraham. Now, I was going to have Barb read this as well, but I decided asking someone to read 17 verses of foreign and unpronounceable names would be cruel and unusual. And I also worried that you all would revolt if I made you sit and listen to a recitation of names that trace back to the beginnings of our religious history. So, I didn’t do that. Instead you will find in your bulletin that genealogy as recorded in Matthew printed out. Why I want us to think about this list of names is because this time of year we are considering the birth of Jesus. In order to do that, we need to consider Joseph. And in order to consider Joseph, we must contend with this list of names. Because, it’s an odd one. And in this list of tongue-twisting names we will find the essential theology of the Old and New Testament for the whole Church, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant alike. So, take a look at the list and I will point a few names to consider.
The story of the origin of Jesus Christ begins with Abraham fathering Isaac; but notice, no mention is made of that deserving elder son, poor unfairly banished Ishmael. Then Isaac fathers Jacob; but not a word about his elder brother Esau whose birthright, or status, Jacob stole. Jacob fathers Judah and his brothers; but why is Judah chosen and not the good and extraordinary Joseph and his beautiful coat of many colors?
What is going on here? Why are some names chosen to be recorded in Jesus’ lineage, but not all of them? According to Matthew, who is being faithful to the theology of his tradition, what we call the Old Testament, God does not necessarily select the noblest or most deserving people to carry out divine plans. For reasons that we cannot possibly understand, God may in fact select the Judahs who sell their brothers into slavery, the Jacobs who cheat their way to first place, and the Davids who steal wives and murder rivals.
And what about those five women Matthew chooses to include – also highlighted in your insert? Not a mention of Sarah or Rebekah or Rachel, the upstanding, noble, and brave patriarchal wives of Israel. Instead, Tamar, a Canaanite, an outsider, who disguised herself as a prostitute and seduced her father-in-law Judah to have a son. And Rahab, another Canaanite and a real prostitute this time. And Ruth the Moabite, another outsider. And Bathsheba, mother of Solomon, is named only as the wife of Uriah, who King David had killed so he could marry her himself. Every one of these women used as God’s instrument had scandal or aspersion attached to her – as does the fifth and final woman named in the genealogy: Mary, the mother of Jesus, with her mysterious pregnancy.
Now, people today who know even a little bit about the life of Jesus, know that this will all fit with his coming ministry that is outlined in the rest of the Gospel. We know that Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners and prostitutes and lepers, and spends his time with those who are in need of grace, not those who others already consider righteous. What’s amazing, is this genealogy is showing us how the story of Jesus Christ contained – and could continue to contain – from beginning to end, the flawed and inflicted and insulted, the cunning and the weak-willed and the misunderstood.
But, it doesn’t stop there. What about those final fourteen generations of unknown, or unremarkable, names listed there? Who was Azor or Achim? Who was Eliud? Who was Elizar? Or even this Mathan, who was according to Matthew, Jesus’ great grandfather? What did they do? What kind of people were they? We don’t know. You won’t find their names recorded anywhere else. They were unremarkable, except for one thing – the Gospel of Matthew highlights them as a part of the family of Jesus, a part of who he is and who he will become. And I think this is where we need to pay particular attention, because this is where the message settles directly on us. If so much powerful stuff can have been accomplished down through the millennia by rascals, betrayers, and outcasts, and through people who were such complex mixtures of sinner and saint, and through so many obscure and undistinguished others – isn’t that a pretty hopeful testament to the likelihood that God is using us, with our individual flaws and gifts, in all manner of peculiar and unexpected ways? Doesn’t that mean that God can, and will use anyone, to create a miracle? Doesn’t that mean that the imperfect are beloved by God?
This family into which Jesus was adopted was so very much like our families – whether they are our families of origin and birth, families of adoption, or families that we choose along the way. Jesus’ family was just as flawed and complex as ours are. But, in that family, God worked a miracle. In that family, the one that Jesus was adopted into when Joseph listened to the angel, God worked a miracle. And if God can work a miracle with that family – God can do anything.
I sometimes wonder, when Joseph woke from his dream after the visit from the angel, if he hesitated. I sometimes wonder, did he think he was worthy of caring for the Messiah? Was his family one that was worthy of being recognized as Jesus’ family? Did he look back through the generations, remembering old stories told at family gatherings, and think “I am not sure that God picked the right bunch of people to be the Messiah’s family and ancestors.” Of course, we don’t know, but I think it’s possible. And that makes Joseph all the braver. Not only did he listen to the angel and marry a woman who was pregnant before marriage, a sin at that time that was punishable by death. But, he listened to the angel and accepted that in his family God could work a miracle. He looked back through the generations, saw the imperfect – and saw God.
So often this time of year we like to highlight the lovely and beautiful. The flawless and perfect. We put on our best. We spend hours baking cookies and writing cards and hunting for the right gifts. We work so hard to make things look perfect. But, you know what? The true beauty lies in the imperfect. God worked the greatest miracle in the imperfect family that Jesus holds as his lineage. God took on human flesh and claimed for God’s own a family filled with flawed people. God saw in that ramshackle gathering of people the potential to provide the world with the greatest gift that God could give us – Jesus Christ. So, in fact during this time of year, we are not worshipping the perfect, we are worshipping the imperfect. That’s why I asked you all to bring these ridiculous, gaudy, unsophisticated, imperfect decorations – that despite their lack of elegance, you find irresistible. Because, I believe, it is the imperfect that is so compelling.
I imagine many of you are like me – each year we pull out the Christmas decorations and the memories come flooding back. Some happy, some sad, some mundane, and some dramatic. We remember people we have loved and people we have lost. We remember people we met and people we chose to leave behind. We pull out a Christmas decoration that has been somewhere in our home since we were children, place it gently on a shelf because it is falling apart, and remember doing the same thing every year back as far as we can remember. Nobody else may notice it – or if they do it may be with a raised eyebrow and a question. Sometimes those decorations come with a laugh and a story. Sometimes with tears. But we put them out year after year because their imperfect history is a piece of our story and in it we find a piece of ourselves.
And, the same can be said of what we have here around the church. To light the garland in the back, first the plug must be wiggled in the socket. And the garland behind me is wired in such a way that it may take an electrical engineer to undo it. Our Advent candles don’t burn right and there are more than a few figures in our nativity set that are missing a limb. But when I walked in here with Bob Pavek’s family earlier in the week, his sons – having grown up in this church – all of the sudden were filled with stories of Christmas’ past and tears were in their eyes as they remembered their father and felt his love. On Tuesday evening our sanctuary will fill with people, many for whom this will be their only visit of the year, and they will find a space filled with the presence of God – and not care a bit that our banners are crinkled and the pews need to be dusted. Because it is in this imperfect gathering that we find the beautiful. And God will work a miracle here too.
Each of these decorations that you brought have a story. Some are silly. Some are poignant. Some are nostalgic. And some, I’m sure, are sad. But in this collection of stories, we find the presence of God. In this collection of the imperfect, we find the presence of God. After worship, I invite everyone to gather around the table, listen to the stories and share your own. Because, I know, that in this gathering of family – we will find that God is doing miraculous things. And on Tuesday evening, when we welcome old friends and see new faces – God’s light will shine over this imperfect space and we will experience the miracle once again – because, it is in the imperfect that God’s light shines the brightest. Amen.