“Simple Gifts: Love”

19 December 2010

The Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)

December 19, 2010

Matthew 1:18-25

“Simple Gifts: Love”

Prayer:   “May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts and minds here together be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.”

I am such a Bible nerd that I can’t help getting excited about preaching today from Matthew, chapter 1.  It’s a Christmasy kind of excitement – you know, getting to open a new book, the smell of fresh new pages.  Today we begin Matthew again, the gospel focus of this lectionary year A, after 3 years.  If you don’t yet appreciate the drama that is about to unfold before us – trust me, it’s good stuff.  It was the book for the musical “Godspell” – it has great stories to tell.  But if you’re like me, you probably heard the nativity scriptures last Sunday in Lessons and Carols and later at the Christmas pageant with a kind of after-dinner sleepy feeling. They’re like an old familiar bedtime story – perfect with a sweet cup of hot cocoa by the fire.  And yet, it’s really quite the soap opera. 

The lectionary skips over Matthew’s first 17 verses of– that long list of “begats” that you probably think is just a bore.  But for those who were my fellow Bible nerds of the day – the scribes and Pharisees of Matthew’s Jewish community – Jesus’s genealogy reads a lot like those juicy plot summaries that begin the TV show “Glee.” If you’re not a fan, it goes by so fast you don’t get it.  But here it is, Chapter 1 of Matthew; it’s “an account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.”

OK, so just to recap, if you missed in season one, the Old Testament: “Abraham was the father of Isaac, [who was born to Sarah who was way too old to have a baby and then was nearly sliced open at the top of a mountain by his own father] and Isaac the father of Jacob [who tricked his poor blind dad with a bowl of soup into giving away his twin brother Esau’s inheritance], and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers [who sold their spoiled younger brother Joseph, of the Technicolor dreamcoat, into slavery in Egypt], 3and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar [who tricked her own father-in-law Judah into getting her pregnant while she was disguised as a prostitute] …

It goes on like this for 3 times 14 generations – it’s an honor roll of the most notorious sinners of the Hebrew Bible: “Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab [the prostitute], and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth [the illegal immigrant],” and Obed the grandfather of King David, who stole the wife of Uriah to father King Solomon!  One sinner you might not recognize in that lineup was King Ahaz of Judah.  His faithless refusal to ask God for help in a time of national crisis leads the prophet Isaiah (in chapter 7) to speak the famous words quoted in Matthew’s text: “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel,” or “God with us.”

Isaiah tells Ahaz not to trust in what the rulers of this world usually trust to deliver their people – foreign allies and military power – but rather to do as his ancestors had done and place his whole trust in the loving goodness and grace of God.  Isaiah reminds Ahaz that God loves us and is always at work in history, even when it is not evident or obvious.  God is always at work in us, mysteriously creating a better and more fruitful future, and then finally laboring with us to deliver us from our suffering.  Like the young woman with the child growing inside her, God’s miracles often do not appear like magic, but develop in unseen ways and with a sickening and awful slowness, and usually end with painful birth pangs.  But the truth that is so very hard to trust in hard times – that has always been hardest to trust in hard times – is that God is ever with us.  God Immanuel comes in the flesh, into the midst of our suffering, to rule the world with truth and love.

What does all that have to do with Mary and Joseph, or with us? 

I had a wise New Testament teacher in seminary who said you can learn a lot about a story if you just pay close attention to how it begins, how it might have begun, and how that compares to how other stories begin.  Mark’s Gospel begins with a preacher’s proclamation: “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus the Messiah, the son of God” – a claim of divinity that might have shocked and even offended a Jewish audience.  Luke is even more counter-cultural – beginning with the priest Zechariah (waving incense over the altar at the Temple) getting an angel vision of the birth of John the Baptist that he does NOT believe.  As a trained religious leader, he must have known better – but it is instead the young girl Mary – who as a woman, couldn’t legally testify to what she had seen – who is visited by the angel Gabriel, and first believes the Good News of the birth of Jesus.

Matthew begins in a more conservative way – in a way educated religious Jews of his day would have appreciated – with his genealogy, followed immediately by a simple Jewish carpenter getting an angel visit and believing the Good News.  Matthew lets the man tell the story, because to his audience, he is the best (and only qualified) witness.  Matthew’s genealogy is a respectable Jewish resume, designed to impress a faithful and studious Jew of the times.  Matthew lays out a list of names that is both a Bible history lesson and a mathematical proof, designed to impress thinking men trained in the Law and the Prophets.  That list of 3 times 14 “begats” – 14 generations from Abraham to King David, 14 generations from David to the exile (the deportation of the people to Babylon), and then 14 generations from the exile to Jesus the Messiah – meant a lot to students of numerology.  That 3 times 14 was also 6 times 7 – almost the mystical 7 times 7 that would signal the completion of an age, like the 7 times 7 years the law set out as the time between years of the Lord’s Jubilee, when wealth and land was to be re-distributed to the poor.

Well, that list of “begats” is also there as a reminder that this story that Matthew is beginning is just a continuation, or a mystic culmination, of a much bigger story of sin and sacrifice and grace and deliverance that has been going on for generation after generation of God’s people.  Only now, according to Matthew comes the climax of our faith history – the penultimate moment – finally, as this New Testament season begins, we get Matthew’s dramatic tale of the arrival of Jesus the Messiah – the long-awaited hero of Jewish history, the one promised to come and finally save us. 

And here’s what the story does NOT say:  The baby Jesus is not a traditional king and his birth is not a heroic tale of conquest and power, of triumph and glory.  It’s a love story – and a failed one at that. This carpenter Joseph, a good and righteous man, is done wrong by his cheating fiancé Mary.  She is pregnant and he knows the baby isn’t his.  It could have been a country song if it had happened a few centuries later and in the hill country of Harlan, Kentucky and not Bethehem of Judea.  Because we know the end of the story, we forget how bad that must have been for Joseph – the heartbreak and the public humiliation, the way his friends looked at him, what his relatives might have said behind his back.  If you’ve ever had someone you loved cheat on you, you know that feeling.

But Joseph does a surprising thing: “being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.”  That speaks volumes, I think, about Joseph.  Matthew begins with this remarkable outpouring of forgiving love – offered by Joseph for his unfaithful bride-to-be.  According to Jewish law (Deut. 22:23-24), “If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her, 24you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death.”  To Joseph’s community, stoning Mary to death was not only his legal right, it was his proper civic and religious obligation – in following the letter of the law he would set a public example and make Mary’s death a deterrent to other immoral women. 

So Joseph breaks the law of his ancestors and offers this foolish girl the gift of a second chance at life.  Like the God who made him, and in God’s image, he offers amazing grace in the face of what everyone assumes is a flagrant sin – Mary’s adultery.  His dream where the truth of Isaiah’s prophesy was revealed to him might actually have mattered as little to his people as the vision Mary had from Gabriel.  Neither of them were thought qualified to think for themselves, much less have a direct relationship with “God with us,” Christ Immanuel.  Joseph, this religious nobody, with no priestly pedigree or training and no rabbinical advice – makes a decision that trumps heart over head, love over law, and sets the tone for the entire message of Jesus in Matthew.  Jesus’s Law of Love (the gift of the Holy Spirit) is the one law that fulfills all the other law.

We Christians are called to love God as in the Hebrew Scriptures – with all our heart and soul and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves – but also with our minds, the one word Jesus added to the original Torah text.  With Jesus we are given the simple gift of frankincense, the gift of the high priest, the gift of wise, forgiving and sacrificial love that Zechariah squandered when he had his chance to hear an angel’s prophesy at the Temple.  We are called into direct relationship with our still-speaking God.  Created in God’s image, we are fragile and often sinful flesh, but also children God loves.  Let us respond to our call, especially in this sacred season, to share God’s love with the world.  Amen.

Thanks be to God for this Good News.   

Matthew 1:18-25

18Now 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 fulfill 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.

Matthew 1.1-17

1An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham:  Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, 4and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, 5and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, 6and Jesse the father of King David. And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, 7and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph,  8and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, 9and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, 10and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, 11and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon. 12 And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, 13and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, 14and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, 15and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, 16and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.  17So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.

Deuteronomy 22:23-24

If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her, 24you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death, the young woman because she did not cry for help in the town and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

Isaiah 7:10-17

10Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, 11Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. 12But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. 13Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 14Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. 15He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. 17The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria.”


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