Dear Ones, grace to you and peace from God, who nurtures each one of us into being, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
There is nothing like holiday gatherings to get us thinking about family. As one wise pastor put it this past week, there’s a lot of forced family togetherness this time of year. Those obligatory gatherings may be something you relish, something you dread, or a mixed bag. I have yet to meet a family that agrees on absolutely everything or that always exists in perfect harmony. If you have, let me know; I’d love to meet and study that family! The reality is family is messy. Human beings are messy. We fall short of our own ideals and expectations all the time; never mind the ideals and expectations others have for us. Being family, especially at this time of year, a time governed by the pressures of traditions, rituals, hopes, and expectations, is hard work.
If, in this Christmastime, you find yourself wondering about the complexities of life together with your nuclear family or your larger human family, know that you’re not alone. The Gospel of Matthew meets us in that place today and invites us to take some time to consider just what God has in mind for us as members of families of all kinds. In particular, we are invited to see family through the eyes of Joseph, the man whom some might say is “almost” Jesus’ father.
Before we dive in fully, let’s take a moment to set the scene. We’ve been walking with the characters of Luke’s gospel throughout Advent and right into Christmas. There, we met the shepherds and angels, Mary, Elizabeth and Zechariah. We heard hopeful songs of praise that point to God’s justice and care for the marginalized. We witnessed Jesus’ birth amongst the animals gathered to eat at the manger. What an amazing journey it has been!
Now, we’re jumping into Matthew’s account. It’s written in the form of a biography, but not in the sense of a modern-day biography. It’s meant to give an accurate overall impression of who Jesus is, not a moment-by-moment, chronological account of his life. I think of it like a docudrama or biopic; it’s honest, but it takes some liberties with the details in order to emphasize certain important points. The opening verses, for example, walk us through a long genealogical thread meant to link Jesus to David. It leaves out a few kings along the way, and it makes the link through Joseph, rather than Mary – an interesting choice since we are told that Joseph isn’t Jesus’ biological father.
As I wrestled with this text anew, that’s the detail that kept calling me back, over and over. Why is it so important to Matthew to tie Jesus’ royal lineage to Joseph? Joseph, we’re told, is a righteous man – a just man. He learns of Mary’s pregnancy, and in line with the religious laws that he has followed his whole life, he decides that the best thing to do is to break off the engagement. To do otherwise would be to throw away a lifetime of righteousness. He also shows kindness and mercy; he intends to send Mary away quietly, so she isn’t disgraced publicly. Admittedly, in our modern context, this doesn’t sound very merciful, but it’s a pretty big deal for Joseph, and it’s a glimpse into his gentle nature. Certainly, he imparts some of that gentle kindness and love of righteousness to Jesus over the years.
When he’s visited by an angel in his dream, the messenger appeals to his kindness and convinces him that Mary’s child is from the Holy Spirit. God is up to something. This is no ordinary pregnancy or child, and God wants Joseph to be a part of their lives. In fact, Joseph is invited to be the one who names Jesus, stepping fully into the role of father and sharing fully his connection to David. Joseph is ALL IN! He wakes from his dream with a new vision for the way forward. He will step up and marry the woman he was prepared to divorce. He will fully embrace his role as the father and husband of an “illegal” family – a family that wasn’t supposed to exist according to the letter of the law.
Joseph doesn’t know all that he’s in for – that Zoroastrian stargazers will come from the east to worship Jesus, that he’ll be visited by the angel in another dream and told to flee to Egypt with his young family to seek asylum from Herod, that, eventually, they’ll find refuge in Nazareth having left everything behind… He’ll discover all of that soon enough, and when he does, he’s still ALL IN. You see, in telling Joseph to fulfill his commitment to Mary, the door is opened. The angel is saying, “Joseph, marry the woman you love. There is no such thing as an illegal family. There is no such thing as an illegal person. There is no such thing as illegal love.” He is called to let go of the desire to keep the law and, instead, to live into the life-giving nature of it.
Friends, the angel and Joseph are already beginning to reveal what Jesus will state unequivocally when he boils the entirety of God’s commandments down to love God and love thy neighbor. The entire law hangs on love. God’s law is meant to give life, to protect it, and nurture it, never to restrict it or take it. With this blessing, Joseph steps in fully as Jesus’ father, raising him as his own, because Jesus’ is his own.
As I watched PBS Newshour on Friday evening, they shared a story about several programs unfolding in Dallas, Texas, to help teenagers who have been caught up in a broken juvenile justice system find their way after being released. One of those is a restaurant called Café Momentum. The young people who work there “rotate through all aspects of the restaurant, focusing on life and social skills, coaching and development.” Led by Chad Houser, who serves as a mentor and father-figure for the interns, each night, they sit down for a family dinner, enjoying the food they will serve to patrons and building bonds with each other. It may not be the typical definition of family, but it is absolutely family.
Closer to home, you have been hosting Families Moving Forward here at the Minnetonka campus for years; thanks to your leadership, the Minneapolis campus is hosting families right now. I had the opportunity to spend the night as a host on Christmas Day, and it got me thinking about all of the opportunities we have to join Joseph in his dreaming and to heed the angel’s call to expand our understanding of family. All of our Families Moving Forward guests are part of our family. All of the people who were living in the Drake Hotel downtown and are now pushed into new temporary housing are part of our family. All of the people detained at our national border are part of our family.
No family is illegal. No person is illegal. No love is illegal. This radical love that God calls Joseph to share with Mary and Jesus is the same love that enfolds each one of you today. The law of love sometimes contradicts the rigidity of the letter of the law; it always upholds the spirit of the law, opening it into the lifegiving good news God has always intended. A dear friend and father-figure of mine died earlier this year. Whenever Duane faced a difficult relational decision, he asked, “what is the loving thing to do?” This is the question Joseph had to answer.
Imagine if Joseph had followed through with his original, righteous plan and sent Mary off to fend for herself… There’s no way of knowing how her life, or Jesus’ life, would have unfolded without his love and influence.
The poet Ann Weems wrote:
“When the Holy Child is born into our hearts
There is a rain of stars
a rushing of angels
a blaze of candles
this God burst into our lives.
Love is running through the streets.”
God burst into Joseph’s life in countless ways, and he joined love in running all the way to Egypt, then back to Nazareth, his heart bursting with love the whole way.
Friends, the Christmas story matters more today than it ever has. This is your time. God is bursting into your life. Join Joseph in his dreaming and listen to what God is calling you to do. The promise is certain. You are fully God’s beloved child just as Jesus, the Son of God, was fully Joseph’s beloved child, and God will be with you every step of your journey. You are called to share God’s love, enfolding all whom you meet into God’s unending lineage of love as you join, and become, that fully-embodied love running through the streets of this world.
Thanks be to God! Amen.