Advent 4A – Matthew 1:18-25
God doesn’t do perfect families.
Right from Adam and Eve, to their kids, and their kids. From Joseph, to David, to Mary and Joseph; and all of us. It is the time of year for perfect families, when we scrub our houses, put on our best smiles for Christmas card photos, write glowing letters about all the good things that happened this year. We might stuff the skeletons deep into the closet and pinch the kids every time they wiggle. And hope that this year, we’ll be that picture perfect, post card family. I’m guessing your family, like mine, fails to be perfect every single year. Someone, invariably, brings the illusion all crashing down and there’s another perfect Christmas ruined.
How high a pressure cooker is your life right now? Is the house decorated? Is your shopping done? How about the meal planning, grocery shopping (have you been to HEB this weekend? it isn’t pretty), the pre-baking. Are the guest rooms all ready for the family that is about to descend, or maybe the route is planned for the grueling road trip to visit the family that would make your life miserable, if you didn’t make it miserable trying to keep them happy. The angst I went through this week trying to figure out just the right gift to get everyone in my family this year, oh, and trying to decide just how big that list should be. Cousins, uncles, friends? It seems like there is no way to avoid the land mines that come with this perfect time of year. Even in church, parents stress as their kids, too warm in their dress up clothes, and not used to the loooong services we’re about to embark on wiggle in their pews, maybe, they even talk, or ask a question. They’ll get shushed, and if prior experience holds, those of you who are parents might be embarrassed enough you’ll wonder why you came at all.
How did we get here? How did Christmas turn into such a headache?
I rather suspect Joseph would get it. We’re so familiar with this story some of the shock as gone out of it. As Paul Harvey might have said, we know the “rest of the story” so the start of it isn’t nearly so scandalous, uncomfortable or shocking anymore. In our nativities, the “holy family” looks perfect… But Jesus’ family was no more perfect than we are, some of us might have been pretty embarrassed to have been related to them, really, if we didn’t know the rest of the story. A young woman, not yet married, finds herself pregnant. It isn’t an uncommon story, it happens all the time. And a good upstanding man does the “right” thing, the “merciful” thing at the time. See, Joseph could have had Mary stoned, to death. That was the punishment for adultery, which he could have accused her of, and that swelling belly would have been pretty damning evidence. The merciful option was to give her back to her father, used and shamed and unfit for anything ever again. To let her languish away, untouchable, her child just as scorned, tainted by her scandal.
That’s what human beings wrought, perfection or disgrace. Either we are the perfect family that conforms to all the rules or we are not worthy of so much as a second glance and there is nothing for it but to hide ourselves away and save as much face as we can. Unless God has anything to say about it.
While we are putting up trees, and hanging tinsel, baking hams and fruit cake, and cookies, scrambling for last minute presents to express our love: the preparation for that first Christmas was different. It involved Joseph’s wounded pride and quiet meetings with Mary’s father, with the Temple lawyer. I picture Mary, tossing and turning in her bed, she can’t sleep wondering what will happen to her, wanting her old life back, watching her future crumble away. I hear her singing her Magnificat into her pillow, very quietly, trying to comfort herself.
Joseph tosses and turns to, angry and disillusioned, feeling betrayed and embarrassed. He can’t walk into the local tavern without the jokes starting; and into all that imperfection God wades. I imagine Joseph’s dream might have been a little more complicated, a little more messy then that simple proclamation. I imagine Joseph airing his grievances, rehearsing again all the ways he had been wronged, as he’d mumbled into his pillow for the last week. And God, hearing him out, listening as all the hurt cried out at the injustice, the unfairness; and him such a righteous man. And then God proves once again that my Mom stole parenting tips from the Bible and says, in so many words: life isn’t perfect, Joseph; get over it, because I’m still here.
Emmanuel: God with us, maybe better yet: God still with us.
God isn’t with the perfect people, because there aren’t any. I imagine that Mary and Joseph’s life didn’t get easier after that dream, theirs was a messy family; formed out of disappointment and damaged trust and public shame and scandal. If you are looking for the perfection of a TV Christmas special, or a sparkling advertisement this is not the place for it. Matthew can’t even decide who Jesus’ father might be; it is Joseph through whom Jesus traces his lineage to David, and Joseph who is ready to set Mary aside. Some of us cross our fingers this time of year, unsure as modern people what to do with the virgin birth, and the awkwardly hovering Joseph, and the whole messy business.
In the midst of our skepticism, frantic preparation, of the worry, and the pressure, I wonder that God doesn’t show up in our own dreams, hands on hips, wading through the mess and saying “really? That’s what you’re worried about? Didn’t you pay attention to his name?”
Mary, and Joseph are living proof: what matters, my friends, is not that we are the perfect church, or the perfect family, or the perfect mother/father/sister/son or spouse; what matters is that God is with us.
Despite, or I suspect, because we are not perfect, God is with us. In the messiness of life. In the real stuff that falls far short of our vision, that doesn’t look how we hoped, that is painful and hard; that’s where you will find God. Hip deep in embarrassing relatives, and fighting children, and gales of sudden tears.
As the days grow dark, and the pressure builds, despite our triumphant hymns, and our beautiful, perfect manger scenes God is not remote to us. God is in the kitchen in an apron, covered in flour, bent over some project in the garage, should to shoulder as we struggle, in the dark and quiet rubbing a back and wiping the tears that inevitably come. Because Matthew might not have been sure about many things, but he knew one thing for certain: our God is not Zeus, play acting at being like us. Matthew could say for certain: God was us, imperfect and messy; right here in our midst.
God is with Mary, uncomfortable, frightened, and waiting.
God is with Joseph, confused, and uncertain, and waiting.
God is with us, whoever and whatever we are today, and tomorrow, and the next. In our disappointments, and sorrow, our joy and our triumphs. In the midst of our complicated, imperfect lives, as close as our own hearts; and infinitely more patient and forgiving.