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“God is With Us… God Works With Us”: Sunday, December 18, 2022

The Fourth Sunday of Advent:
Isaiah 7:10-16
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:1-18

“An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah. (The beginning of the Gospel According to Matthew.

“Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.”

You’ll understand why we tend to gravitate toward Luke’s Christmas story. Where there’s action, and sentimentality, and songs. But let’s stick with it for a bit longer:

“And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.”

We meet Ahaz in there, whom we heard of in today’s first reading. But we’ll come back to him.

“And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.”

This would have been great if I had a voice like Johnny Cash or Orson Welles, so just try and use your imaginations…

“So 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.”

This Gospel that we’re going to hear from until Advent of next year, that will continually refer back to the Old Testament, starts with this family tree, that puts Jesus — by adoption — in the line of the great King David. The more obviously interesting story in Luke follows Mary more closely, but here today the evangelist traces things to Joseph, who will soon disappear. And as dry as those groupings of fourteen generations may have sounded on the surface, I’m pretty sure that there are people here with accounts on, or who have signed up for 23andme or other DNA testing services. There’s a part of us that wants to know about where we come from. One way of getting to know our origins is through stories (like the peculiar story we heard a few minutes ago). But another way is through lists, genealogies, and records, like the big, long list that precedes the story of the annunciation to Joseph.

We’ll recognize a few names in that genealogy: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. David and Solomon. There’s a bunch of royalty mentioned. Most of them, to be honest, were failures — generally unfaithful and unsuccessful. Even Solomon, for all his wisdom and for the building of the Temple, was a tragic story: the kingdom splits after his reign. And David, who’s hugely famous and important, was himself a flawed and sometimes downright bad character. All in all, the royal figures listed here lead, we read, to the deportation to Babylon. Not a great track record. After the deportation, though, we have fourteen generations that are far more obscure and unknown. A bunch of nobodies. And they lead to the Messiah. That’s a pretty good legacy. The last of those nobodies is Joseph, Mary’s husband. Whom I mentioned disappears from the story after the birth stories. But he’s a “righteous” person. An ordinary person, but a good one. An everyday hero. Our lives depend on people like that, when you think about it. (You can trust them more than most kings, the genealogy might be saying.)

Also scattered throughout the list are several women (something that wouldn’t have been common or expected in that culture, two thousand years ago). You might recall Tamar, Judah’s daughter-in-law, and a gentile. Impregnated by her sanctimonious father-in-law, who at one point will urge the community to put her to death, before his hypocrisy is revealed. She is a figure of resilience, standing up against the mobs of men that want to deny women like her a voice. Men that don’t want to take responsibility for their own actions.

Listed, too, is Rahab. Who ingeniously saved the Israelite spies in Jericho. Also: a prostitute. The writer unabashedly includes her in the list of ancestors of the Messiah. Also included is Ruth, a ‘foreigner,’ from Moab.
And also referred to in the list (in a roundabout way) is Bathsheba, a survivor of King David’s assault, whose husband is killed through David’s scheming. A replay, in some ways, of the Tamar story.

And lastly, named here is Mary: whose pregnancy situation is, to put it lightly, unusual. For many: disgraceful. And, had Joseph not been, as we’re told, “righteous,” it could have been dangerous for her.

It’s a story of God working in unexpected ways through unexpected, crooked, complicated lines. A story of the graciousness of God — maybe under the surface for many generations, until the time of Mary and Joseph — being present in the lives of people who were, variously, misfits, outcasts, failures, or in some cases, nobodies (people lost to time).

I wonder if our family trees are a bit like this. The uncle who went to jail. The great aunt whose mind was not well. The side of the family that moved away. The ones that no one seems to know much about; the ones we refuse to talk about. The black sheep. But maybe also the adoptive or step-parents, or young parents, or single parents, who stepped in or stepped up in difficult situations, and proved themselves to be courageous and committed, and righteous. In all of these situations: good, bad, or complicated, the love of God was and is present. Maybe just below the surface, but there and able to bring grace into every kind of situation.

One of the figures we’ve met today is King Ahaz. Not a great king. Threatened by enemies on either side, he has a choice of forging a strategic military alliance, or instead, trusting the word of God that says that if you just wait and have your eyes open, a child will be born that will bring change, and will signal safety for Ahaz, and for his people. The child’s name, Immanuel, meaning nothing less than God with us. Many hundreds of years later the writer of the Gospel of Matthew — so preoccupied with the ancient scriptures — in trying to find words, images, and emotions to convey the difference that Jesus has made in the world, will turn to this passage from Isaiah as a way of communicating words of comfort and hope. Whether one, like Ahaz, is enduring sleepless nights while fearing political and military collapse, or, like Joseph, lost in dreams while struggling on a much more intimate, personal level, the message is that “God is with us.”

Joseph is presented here as a dreamer. He dreams in our story today, and he’ll dream again, about having to find refuge in Egypt, to escape King Herod. (These episodes evoke other, older scriptural stories.) In the genealogy we learned that Joseph’s father was named Jacob. And we’re reminded of the Book of Genesis, where Joseph, the dreamer with the technicolour dreamcoat, had a dad named Jacob, too. Both the Old and New Testament Josephs go off to Egypt.

I heard a local Presbyterian minister recently, commenting on how he likes to read the upcoming Sunday’s readings right before bed, as a way of encouraging his subconscious mind to conjure up a sermon while he sleeps. (This is a great idea, now that I think of it. If only it were that easy!) And while he may have been exaggerating, he went on to talk about the importance of dreams. They have some important function in helping us process the day that is past. Dreams have something to do with our brains moving blocks of data from our short term memory to our long-term memory banks. They have an important function in sifting, sorting, and prioritizing. Dreams can reveal our hopes and our fears.

Joseph is grappling with a fraught situation. He’s initially decided to look out for himself. But being a good person, he’ll send Mary away quietly. He won’t make her a public spectacle, as some would have done.

And yet, in these complicated, crooked human situations, the love of God is there, if under the surface. Urging us to turn toward the good. So it should be no surprise to hear that Joseph is visited by an angel while he sleeps. Is it a divine messenger, an intrusion of the miraculous or supernatural into our normal world? Or is it his subconscious, doing that important work of sifting and sorting; tackling his questions in a way that the purely rational mind is unable?

Surely some of you will veer toward one interpretation, and some to the other. In the plainest sense the story presents it as a supernatural encounter. Though reading it as 21st century people, we may not have had experiences quite like Joseph’s, so we look for a more ordinary explanation. Perhaps it doesn’t matter so much, if the message of Christmas is, after all, about the coming together of the human and the divine.

I suspect that many of us have felt divine guidance or comfort at one time or another. Some have found unexpected courage deep within themselves. Some have found their hearts strangely warmed, in a way that seems to be from God. Some can look back on their lives and identify decisive moments where, in that moment, or in looking back, we see that we took a leap of faith, and followed God’s will, and not ‘just’ ours. Sometimes something remarkable happens and we identify it as God, or an angel. Or maybe others tell us it’s just a coincidence. Maybe we compromise and find middle ground: it was a coincidence… but the eyes of faith show you that God brought it about. Whatever the case, the message for us is “Emmanuel” — “God is with us.”

Whether obviously, or subtly, maybe below the surface (below the surface of our lives, or family trees, or our rational consciousness) there is a power that can do “infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.” It’s a power that wants to “work within us.” A God who chooses to work in our crooked lines and work through fallible, sometimes terribly flawed people. Like you and me. A God who calls, and who collaborates. If only we say ‘yes.’

Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

“When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him…”

“Then the angel departed.”

© 2022 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter