“I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining,” the poet wrote. “And I believe in love, even when there’s no one there.” We don’t often think about “love” as something we “believe in.” It’s something we experience, it’s something we do, it’s something we feel. But something we believe in?
You’ve heard me say many times that when we think about “belief” as it pertains to Jesus, we need to think not about giving mental agreement to the idea of Jesus, but rather that we should understand “belief” to mean trust in Jesus. Does the same hold true for “love?” Should we mentally agree with love, or trust in love? Or, does the poet suggest something else here?
Does the phrase, “even when there’s no one there” change what or how we think about love? Does love require an object to love or a subject of our love? Deep questions for a Sunday morning, huh? And what does any of this have to do with our scripture readings?
Well, our scripture reading comes in two very distinct packages today - one, the genealogy, and two, the Joseph story. You can be forgiven if, when you read Matthew’s gospel you “slide” over the genealogy; all of those “begats,” as the King James Version puts it, can get pretty boring pretty quickly. But bear with me if we don’t skip over them today. Hidden in these first 17 verses of Matthew are some gems.
One of the dominant themes in the Bible is this idea of messianic hope - the hope that God would send a messiah to save the people. Based in the promise given to Abraham and passed on through the generations, the hope of a messiah has become palpable by the time of Jesus’ birth. Israel had been held captive in Egypt for hundreds of years before being led out in the Exodus. Later they were conquered by imperial powers, first by the Assyrian Empire, then by the Babylonians, the Persians, and now by the Romans. They’re REALLY hoping for a messiah to come sooner rather than later at this point.
So in light of that hope, the writer of Matthew makes a big, bold, hairy, audacious theological statement in this gospel - Jesus of Nazareth IS that messiah, the one promised and hoped for throughout Israel’s history.
Even as most “messiah watchers” were certain that the coming messiah would be a military leader who would raise up an army to overthrow imperial rule, and even despite the fact that this Jesus that Matthew promoted had actually died at the hands of this very same Roman empire, Matthew stands firm. And in support of that declaration, he begins to make his case by providing a genealogy. But more than a mere list, Matthew provides a link to Israel’s history, and God’s promise, by laying the groundwork for how he will continue to tell the Jesus story going forward.
The first step in this story is simple, as he writes,
“A record of the ancestors of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham.”
So in the very first sentence Matthew tells us where he’s going with this: Jesus Christ (Christ is the Greek word for Messiah - it’s not Jesus’ last name) son of David (Israel’s greatest King, to whom God promised that his heir would always sit on the throne), son of Abraham (a direct line all the way back to the very beginning of the covenant, the promise God made to Israel.) So this opening line tells us where Matthew is headed, the next 16 verses shows us how he gets there. So he begins this listing of descendants, starting with Abraham and progressing through the generations.
And here’s the first hitch. Matthew is not being totally literal here, he’s being largely symbolic, and a close reading will bear that out. Matthew lays out this genealogy in three groups of fourteen generations, saying that there are fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile,
and fourteen from the exile to Jesus. And that’s very convenient, but it’s not accurate. In Matthew’s gospel there only thirteen in the last group, not fourteen. So that being the case, let’s consider for a moment the possible symbolism here. Do you remember in the series on Revelation how we talked about the symbolism of numbers and names that were used in that book? Do you remember what I told you was considered the “perfect” number? Seven, right? Because God created everything in seven days, so seven represented wholeness, completeness, perfection. So what is fourteen compared to seven?
It’s double - twice as good. The number fourteen here is symbolic of double perfection, double sacredness. Matthew is giving us a clue as to how to understand these genealogical lists given in double-sacred-number size. How can we be sure? Well, there’s a couple of ways. One simple way is to count the generations as listed in the passage. The first two have fourteen, but the last one doesn’t. It’s one generation short of a trifecta. So one way is to simply count the generations. The other way of concluding that Matthew is going for symbolism here rather than historical accuracy is by comparing the genealogy here, specifically in verse 8, with the royal genealogy given in 1 Chronicles 3.
As bible scholar David Jacobsen points out, “Just when you think that the indispensable chain of male succession is going to guarantee the promised pedigree of Jesus, something interrupts the flow. Sometimes someone other than the firstborn male carries the line forward. Sometimes a known king or three are left out of the succession to ensure numerical symmetry (cf. 1:8 and 1 Chr 3:11-12).”
To be clear, three generations of descendants that are listed in Chronicles, compiled centuries earlier, are left out of Matthew’s genealogy. Matthew is using religious symbolism to show a continuous and sacred line from Jesus to Abraham, in order to further his point that Jesus is the messiah, the promised one.
Bible scholar Susan Andrews points out another interesting piece of information that can be found in the opening of Matthew as well. She says that more than a mere genealogy, or listing of descendants, the opening of Matthew provides a genogram. A genogram looks at ancestry more deeply than just lineage, it looks for characteristics and patterns. It examines closeness or distance in relationships. Does your lineage show patterns of illness, of addiction, of abuse or some other characteristic that occurs and reoccurs in multiple generations? Is there a pattern of strained or broken relationships between siblings or between parents and siblings that occurs on one side of your family tree. That’s the type of thing, or kinds of patterns, that a genogram looks at. So Andrews suggests,
“The beginning of Matthew is a genogram of Jesus’ life. Tracing forty-two generations all the way back to Abraham, we travel through triumph and tragedy, exaltation and exile, lostness and foundness.”
And she goes on, after making the point that genealogies in this era, mostly confined to wealthy and powerful families, not the families of carpenters, are exclusively mapped through male descendants, writing,
“In Joseph’s genealogy, the surprises abound. "Four women make the list - all of them Gentiles, three of them [Tamar, Rahab, and Bathsheba] defined by sexual sins - and yet all of them play redemptive roles in God’s unfolding drama of salvation. Are we surprised that God uses what culture abuses to plant life in a broken world? Do we wonder why Jesus is so predisposed to [loving] the [marginalized] and despised among us? Such a surprising compassion is simply part of our Savior’s spiritual DNA.”
Spiritual DNA. We don’t think about “spiritual DNA” when we think of lineage. I don’t remember ever seeing a single episode of Maury Povich where he proclaimed after a televised paternity test, “You’re the daddy, this kid has your spiritual DNA!” Am I right? But Matthew forces us to think differently about this when, at the end of this long presentation linking Jesus to Abraham, he includes Joseph at the end of the family tree. Joseph, who we are to understand is not the biological father of Jesus. But Andrews invites us to think about it this way:
“Why is Joseph listed as a progenitor? By confusing us, God surprises us and encourages us to dig deeper in the complexity and contradictions of the faith.
We are pushed to understand generativity and birth in a spiritual way, not just a physical way.”
That is, to understand what Matthew is trying to convey, we have to think differently; we have to think outside the box of literalism and get to the symbolism that Matthew employs here. Matthew sees in Jesus the result of all that God has been doing over the generations to fulfill the promise that God made beginning with Abraham. Are there bumps and twists and turns along the way? Absolutely! But does that change the nature of the love that God has for Israel and for all of humanity that Matthew is trying to help us understand?
Absolutely not! So, when you read this genealogy, or when you, like most people, skim over it, don’t get so caught up in the factuality of it, rather, consider the message Matthew is trying to convey through this symbolic representation.
Moving, then, to the second part of our passage today, all of this symbolism suddenly becomes very real for us - it takes on flesh and bone. As Andrews put it, “In this text from Matthew we are invited inside the Joseph version of the annunciation story - not a virgin story, but a vision story. We meet Joseph the dreamer - a righteous man who trusts relationships rather than rules - an obedient man who responds to dreams rather than to demands.”
Mary’s story, as told in Luke’s gospel that we shared last week, is a very different kind of story than Joseph’s. Let’s get outside of our Christmas pageant thinking around this story in order to understand the dynamics at play here. These are real people with real emotions, not Hallmark card characters playing a role. And they’re engaged. As David Lose clarifies,
“In the first century world of Joseph and Mary, this is not a romantic declaration of intent. Rather, it is a legal contract, binding in every respect.
To be engaged – or espoused, betrothed, or pledged (some of the other words used in English translations) – was essentially to be married…without having consummated that marriage or as yet living together. Which means that when Joseph learns that Mary is pregnant, he can only conclude that she has been unfaithful to him and so likely experiences the pain, anguish, and sense of betrayal that any of us would have felt at such a devastating revelation.”
And we all know what betrayal feels like - maybe not of this variety or scale, but we’ve all surely, at one time or another, felt the sting of betrayal.
In this time and culture, infidelity, which is what Joseph has to assume is the case, is dealt with in one of two ways usually. Joseph could publicly declare what has happened, in which case Mary could likely have been stoned to death for adultery, or he could divorce her - “– the translation ‘dismiss,’” Lose points out, “softens the reality as “engagement” did earlier – her quietly, and he chooses the latter course.” Why? Because Joseph is, as Andrews described, “a righteous man who trusts relationships rather than rules - an obedient man who responds to dreams rather than to demands.”
And we can imagine that in the days or weeks, whatever amount of time passed between when Mary told Joseph about this pregnancy and when the angel visits Joseph finally in his dream, that Joseph felt not only betrayal, but loss. Real people with real emotions, his life was no longer a dream, but a nightmare.
But it’s in a dream that an angel tells Joseph not to hesitate to make Mary his wife, and points out to him that Mary’s pregnancy is the work of the Holy Spirit.
And the angels goes on to say that, “She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus,” which means “he will save his people from their sins.” YOU will call him Jesus, the angel says. Not “she will name him,” or “he will be called,” but “You will name him Jesus.” The power of naming in this culture belongs to the father. The angel is telling Joseph that he will be this child’s father, his spiritual DNA will guide this child’s life.
And then Matthew, again tying the birth of Jesus as the messiah to a passage in Isaiah 7 that points to the coming messiah as part of God’s promise, in an aside to the reader writes,“Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled:
Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, And they will call him, Emmanuel.
(Emmanuel means “God with us.”)”
So, first of all - and make of this what you will - Matthew misquotes Isaiah here; the Hebrew word Isaiah uses, almeh, doesn’t mean “virgin,” it means “young woman.” Matthew, on the other hand, uses a Greek word, parthenos, that means “virgin.” The two authors use two different words with two different meanings. The reason for that is an entirely separate sermon.
More importantly for us today is that, in quoting Isaiah’s reference to “Emmanuel” Matthew is telling his readers that Jesus, this child born to Mary and Joseph, is “God with us.” Matthew declares what we call the “Incarnation,” God in the flesh. And needless to say, after all of this, Joseph responded positively to the admonition.
Matthew concludes the chapter,
“When Joseph woke up, he did just as an angel from God commanded and took Mary as his wife. But he didn’t have sexual relations with her until she gave birth to a son. Joseph called him Jesus.”
Renowned Hebrew Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann reminds us “that all the dreams in Scripture have something in common. They represent the intrusion of God into a settled world - an unbidden communication in the dark of the night that opens sleepers to a world different from the one they inhabit during the day - an intrusion that generates a restless uneasiness with the way things are until the vision and the dream come to fruition.”
Joseph is described here by Matthew as being a righteous man. Joseph’s righteousness, however, is based on love, not on law. He loved Mary, he loved God. His righteousness is not a kind of self-righteousness where, feeling he has been wronged, he feels he deserves to be made right. No, it is a righteousness based on being in right relationship both with God and with the dream of God. Remember, Joseph valued relationship over rules. Joseph trusts the message he receives. Where we might write off such a dream as the results of a bad late night snack choice, Joseph embraces it, and in doing so, embraces the heart of God.
Now, with all of that said, it’s probably a safe assumption that, as David Lose phrased it, “the months leading up to Christ’s birth was not one blissful baby-shower after another but were fraught with anxiety and concern and flights of emotion we have all experienced at various times.”
“And that, of course, is the point. We have – each of us – experienced similar upheavals. Indeed [this very morning…] who knows how many of [us here or people we know] are struggling to hold it all together. Families who struggle with discord, couples who feel disconnected, kids wondering what future they may have, elders wondering the same [thing] from a different point of view. Some seek jobs, some relationships, some any sense of acceptance or worth.”
This passage speaks to those concerns though.
Read alongside our poem, it calls us to believe in the sun, even when it’s not shining, to believe in love even when no one’s there, and to believe in God, even when God seems silent. Why? Because in the incarnation of Christ - God in the flesh - God is with us. God is here. God is in us and we are in God. The apostle Paul said that it is in God that we live and move and have our being.
This story reminds us that God works through real people - everyday people - like you and like me. God didn’t choose a fairy tale princess to give birth the Savior, but an unwed peasant girl. God didn’t choose a king or successful business man to name and care for Jesus, but a man with his own doubts, his own very real fears and questions, who wanted to do the right thing but needed a little bit of a push to get there.
And quoting Lose,
“All of this helps flesh out the name “Emmanuel” that Matthew draws from Isaiah to apply to Jesus. God with us.” Or, we might want to say, “God REALLY with us.”
That is, God coming to be with us as we are. Not as we know we should be, or are trying to be, or have promised to be, or will be some day, but with us as we are now…today…in this moment. Perhaps that’s the promise at the heart of this passage – that as God came before to be with, use, accept, and hallow Joseph and Mary at the birth of Christ, so also God comes to us in Christ to be with us, use us for good, accept us as we are, and hallow us by God’s own presence.”
Why do all of this we ask? Because God is love. And the God who is love, loves us so much that God came to us, became one of us, became one with us, and is with us, really with us. And regardless of the how, that is WHY the birth of Jesus Christ took place.
And that is the heart of Matthew’s message for us today. Amen.