“Now the birth of Jesus took place in this way.”
Wait! We still have another Sunday of Advent! We still have two and a half more days before Christmas! Are we at Christmas already? Why are we getting a birth story on this fourth Sunday of Advent?
Well, we aren’t getting the actual birth of Jesus, not yet. We’re getting Matthew’s long and careful setup. And the centuries-long set-up, not just in Matthew but in all of this morning’s readings, that link Jesus to the house of David.
For me—and I’m just a simple parish priest finding my way with all of you—Matthew’s text always brings up the question: If Jesus is conceived by the Holy Spirit, if Joseph had no relations with Mary, then why is his lineage so important? Why not, in this matrilineal Jewish tradition, make Mary descended from the House of David? Joseph is, after all, only the stepfather.
St. John Chrysostom wrote that “even when nature is at work, it is impossible to fully explain the manner of the formation of a person.” We’ve all had that experience, right? Knowing two people who are siblings or parent and child and wondering how they can possibly be related to each other.
What this fourth Sunday of Advent makes me think about is the distinction between biological family and chosen family, or found family, or assigned family. Joseph is not part of Jesus’ biological family, but he is part of Jesus’ found family. And the reverse is true: Jesus becomes Joseph’s found family. I think almost all of us have a biological family and a found family, a
This is especially true of people like me, who grew up in small imperfect families and then moved three thousand miles away. I have my biological family, my family of origin, and then I have what I call my “tribe,”—the group of friends who all raised our kids together. My chosen family includes women who are like sisters to me and like aunts or second mothers to my son.
Which is not to say that Jesus’ found family has that much to do with my particular chosen family. But Jesus’ found family has everything to do with why Matthew’s Gospel begins with Abraham. In the verses immediately preceding this morning’s Gospel, Matthew links the Patriarchs and Matriarchs to the history of Israel right down to Joseph. The genealogy links Jesus to the whole history of God’s people, even if he is not biologically descended from them any more than I am biologically descended from my stepfather or his people. The family tree that Matthew sets out for us is the family that God has chosen for his Son.
So let’s look for a moment at this chosen family. Three sets of fourteen generations. I’ll spare you a lesson in Jewish numerology, but the numbers are significant; it’s all significant. Fourteen generations of patriarchs and matriarchs, fourteen generations of Davidic kings, and fourteen generations that follow the deportation and eventual return from Babylon. If you’ve spent any time in the Old Testament, you know that there are some unsavory characters thrown in there. Kings who succumbed to idolatry or adultery or corruption; kings who understood what it meant to be part of the family of God, and kings who didn’t. It is this sprawling and profoundly imperfect family that God chooses for Jesus.
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I am blessed each week to participate in a little homiletics conversation here at St. Paul’s—to which all of you are invited, any Tuesday morning. We spend most of our time discussing the upcoming Sunday’s lessons. The particular blessing last week was hearing Charissa Bradstreet share about reflection she’d done in a sermon some years ago about the women mentioned by name in Matthew’s genealogy of Joseph. If you’ve been around Charissa at all you know that she has a particular interest and gift in teaching about the women of the Bible. I am in her debt for what I bring about those women into
The women mentioned in Joseph’s ancestry are not just any women. Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. Why are they given a place in Jesus’ family tree? What can we learn from them?
Several things. First, each of the four survives by being bold and creative. (You’ll need to read their stories or chat with Charissa for the details.)
Second, each is a Gentile; they represent outsiders, people not traditionally thought to be included in God’s promises. And yet, here they are, part of the family where God places Jesus. Their role in the holy family tree reminds us, as Paul reminds us today and always, that Christ’s mission was as much to foreigners as to the Jewish people.
The third reason that these women are important is that each one found herself in a vulnerable situation. Any one of these women could have been killed as adulterers, much as Mary could have been killed when she was found pregnant. Jesus’ found family is a family of patriarchs and kings but also a
family of vulnerability and scandal. It has been said that Jesus was born “not for himself but for humanity,” born into this complicated and imperfect family that is no less desperately dependent upon the grace of God than we are.
‘Tis the season for complicated and imperfect family relationships. Some of us will spend time, in the coming week, with family members with whom we struggle. Others will be separated from loved ones by distance. Others may be spending your first or second Christmas without someone
whom you’ve lost recently. Or the season is simply one of sadness and loneliness even when all the outer trappings seem okay.
I, for one, am deeply grateful for the found family of Jesus. When I was in my late teens and early twenties, Christmas was a difficult time for me. I was going through vulnerability and scandals of my own, and probably taking it out on my family more than they deserved. I had a friend who worked in a
hospital and always worked on Christmas. I remember saying: “That’s it! Iwant to have a job that has me working on Christmas!”
It was a few years later that when I became a Christian, baptized at Emmanuel Church in Boston at the age of twenty-four. Since that time, Christmas is a celebration of my found family, the family of God, creator, redeemer, and Spirit, the family that found me.
And so this Gospel for the fourth Sunday of Advent continues our Advent invitation to pull back the curtain on the kingdom of God. This week what we see when we do that is the family into which Jesus is born, with all of its drama. This is the family into which we are adopted as his siblings.