The Rev. Josephine Robertson
All Saints, Bellevue
Advent 4A, Matthew 1:18-25
I have good news for you today: 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, and perfect holidays 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. I’m guessing your family, like mine, falls far short of perfect. Someone, invariably, brings the illusion all crashing down and there’s another perfect Christmas ruined.
I, thankfully, don’t really watch TV. But I’ve been around the sun enough times to know right now the airwaves are full of images of perfect Christmases with perfect (usually expensive) gifts, and perfect families, around perfect tables and perfect Christmas trees.
And into all that pressure, and those pictures of perfect families comes our Gospel lesson.
The preparations for the first Christmas were… less than perfect.
We’re so familiar with this story of Jesus’ birth, and we so often collapse the various accounts together that 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.
It begins with a long and complicated genealogy, tracing the lineage of Joseph all the way back to David. And then, like a record scratch we hear that Mary is pregnant, and Joseph doesn’t seem to be the father and it all comes crashing down.
Suddenly this perfect picture of a promised anointed one, descended from King David becomes an embarrassing story about a young woman pregnant at the wrong time. It isn’t an uncommon story, it happens all the time.
And Joseph, because he’s a decent bloke tries to do the right thing, the acceptable thing, even the merciful thing. He could have had her stoned to death. He could have renounced her publicly as unfaithful and immoral. Instead he choses a quiet divorce. He choses the the merciful option (instead of stoning); to give her back to her father, used and shamed and unfit for anything ever again. To let her languish away, untouchable, her child tainted by her scandal.
It is an all too human story. Either we are the perfect family that conforms to all the rules or there is only shame and hiding and attempts to 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 fruit cake, 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.
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 like so many of the patriarchs, haggling with God, rehearsing again all the ways he had been wronged. And God, hears him out, listens as all the hurt. 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.
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 our disappointments and heartache.
Here’s the secret: the days are growing longer, even if we can’t see it yet. The darkness is giving way to light. God is not remote to us. God is in the kitchen in an apron, covered in flour, bent over some project in the garage, shoulder to shoulder as we struggle, wiping the tears that inevitably come. Matthew knew for certain: God is with 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.