The Perfect Family

A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church

December 1, 2013

Matthew 1:18-25

Have you ever looked at the families in Christmas advertisements and commercials? Or ads for the perfect Thanksgiving?

christmas_family460They are all beautiful. They wear outfits that are coordinating, but not too matchy matchy. They are uniformly happy and joyful. They are gathered together around a perfectly decorated tree in a gorgeous home. They have 10 people around a perfectly set table, in front a perfectly prepared feast. extended-family

I don’t know about you, but that’s not what our holidays look like. On Christmas, we sit around the tree in our pajamas with our hair a mess. And when the boys were younger, it was always a good time until someone got shot in the face with the new nerf gun.

Those ads with the perfect families don’t show the anxiety of the parents who just spent too much money on Christmas in an effort to keep up with the Joneses. They don’t show the people who are alone on Christmas because they don’t have family near by.

They don’t show is that cousin Jimmy didn’t show up for the meal because he is in a fight with his dad.

Those ads don’t show how the mom has a migraine because she just cooked for 24 hours straight to prepare the perfect meal.

They don’t show that the conversation is about the weather, because if they started talking about religion or politics, some people would get up and leave.

They don’t show the sadness at the table because it is the first holiday since a loved one died.

My point is that we’ve bought into a false image of what the holidays should be. We look at these ads and wonder, “why isn’t my life like that?

When, in reality, we should be looking at these ads and wondering, “who are these people?

Because, for as wonderful as our families may be, they aren’t perfect.

I know you already know that.

But I encourage you this week, as you recover from Thanksgiving and prepare to head toward Christmas, to give yourself permission to take a deep breath and believe that.

And when you start to doubt it, and start getting sucked back in to the illusion of those elusive perfect families, read this text from Matthew’s gospel.

Because if God wanted to enforce and perpetuate the efforts to worship perfect families, we wouldn’t be reading this story.

Mary and Joseph would have been high school sweethearts and would have safely have already walked down the aisle before news of the pregnancy leaked out. Not to mention that they would have lived in Rome or Athens, and not in a back woods town under occupation. And they wouldn’t have had to have angels intervene for their relationship to successfully proceed.

The story we have from Matthew’s story today shows us that God walked right into imperfect lives, just like ours, and became flesh and lived among us.

Right before this text, Matthew gives us his account of Jesus’ genealogy and I encourage you to look through it in your free time before Christmas. (ha!) Mixed in with all of the begats are some interesting names.

There are women mentioned—Rahab who seduced her father in law because he wouldn’t give her in marriage to one of his other sons after her husband had died.

There’s Ruth, who was a foreigner, and the grandmother of David.

There’s another woman, Bathsheba, who was basically raped by King David after he saw her bathing on a roof, leading David to have her husband killed in battle.

From the beginning of his gospel, Matthew makes it clear that Jesus is the Messiah, AND that his “pedigree” is perfect and wonderful in its imperfection.

And Matthew’s genealogy ends like this: and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.”

What do you notice there?

His lineage goes back to Abraham through Joseph’s side of the family. Not Mary’s. But the only way for that to happen, according to what the text tells us, is through adoption. Jesus the Messiah, the son of God, is adopted by a carpenter from Nazareth named Joseph.

But it almost didn’t turn out that way.

Joseph found out that Mary was pregnant and he made plans to quietly dismiss her. What he should have done, according to religious and social customs,  was to publicly shame her and have her stoned. Dismissing her quietly wasn’t really an option for a righteous man. But that’s what he decided to do.

And then the angel came to him.

by Anton Raphael Mengs

by Anton Raphael Mengs

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.  She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.

Personally, I feel it isn’t a good thing when someone has to tell me “do not be afraid” before they finish their sentence.

But using the greeting of angels throughout scripture, the angel tells Joseph to take Mary as wife and to claim the son she will bear by naming him.

And Joseph agrees to go along with this plan. We don’t often hear about Joseph’s call. But he was called. By an angel. To adopt the son of God and to tie his complicated and messy story into the very narrative of God’s salvation for the world.

And Joseph answered the call.

It would have, perhaps, have been easier to decide it had all been a bad dream and then just divorced Mary. He would have had a lot less explaining to do.

You and I know what the angel said to him. And we know Mary will get her own visit from an angel.  But Mary and Joseph’s families didn’t get a visit from the angel.

What do you think Joseph’s mother thought about the plan? He’s a son of David. He can trace his lineage back to Abraham, for goodness sake. How do you think she reacted to the news?

Yet Joseph stood up to social convention and, presumably, his mother, and answered God’s call.
For Joseph, the faithful response was at odds with social conventions.

Has that ever happened in your life?

Have you ever felt that the best way for you to be true to yourself and true to who God was calling you to be required you to be at odds with the culture around you?

I suspect many of you could tell your own story of the time you had to stick up for your child, or when someone stood up for you, when you knew doing the right thing was not the easy thing.

This week, the United Methodist Church suspended a pastor because he presided at the wedding of his own son, who married a man. Since same gender marriage is not recognized in the Methodist  (or Presbyterian church polity) at this moment, if this pastor doesn’t recant his action, of being present for his own child in the act of Christian marriage, he will lose his credentials as a pastor.

This pastor, like Joseph, stood on the side of love, at great cost.

This story of Joseph cuts very close to my own life. Many of you know some of my story about adoption. (There’s a sermon about it here if you want to know more.)

But when I was a kid, suffice to say, having a baby when I was in college and then placing him for adoption was not what I planned to do, when dreaming about the perfect life. It certainly wasn’t how I pictured living out my life in faith either.

Yet, when I ended up in that situation, the best way I could figure out to be true to who I was and true to who I thought God was calling me to be, was to place my son for adoption.

The public nature of my situation brought about some comments. There were people who didn’t think that a pregnant teen could call herself a Christian and felt a need to share God’s “love” with me that way.

Thankfully, however, most of the people I encountered through that year must have been visited by angels as they slept. Because I met a lot of people like Joseph. People who were righteous and could have easily shunned me.

But didn’t.

They welcomed me at church and at school. They took care of me. They took me out to lunch. They protected me.

I can’t tell you how thankful I am for all of those Josephs.

Their love for me through the difficult hours of my life showed me God’s love in ways that words never could have.

When are the times in your lives when you’ve encountered a Joseph?

When your life was so far from perfect that you didn’t know what was going to happen next?

We’ll hear Mary’s Magnificat, her song of praise, in a few weeks. I understand it in new ways in light of this story, thinking about what a relief Joseph’s decision must have been for her.

And how open are we to being Joseph?

When we are we willing to set aside what society, or even church, tells us is the “right” thing to do so that we can do the faithful act?

Who in your life needs to encounter a Joseph right now?

How can our church be Joseph in this community?

How thankful are we that Mary was engaged to Joseph?

Because the other alternatives for her were bad. Even if he had just dismissed her quietly, which was the better of the options, she would have lived a quiet and secluded life, cut off from all society, hidden away in her parents’ home. Mary wouldn’t have been able to place the baby for adoption and then finish college and go on to marry the love of her life as I did.

Mary’s life would have been over. And what would have happened to her son, the son of God, born to save his people?

When God came to earth, he picked the perfect family for his son.

Their perfection wasn’t in their coordinating Christmas outfits or the large number of gifts under the tree. It wasn’t in the amount of money or political clout they possessed. There was nothing, by earthly standards, to recommend them to a divine adoption agency.

But here’s what they did have.

They both said “yes” to the angel.

And they were willing to humble themselves in front of the world in order to do their part to save the world.

And there was compassion and grace ready to supplant judgment, offering a chance at life to the young girl bearing the child
God with us,
born to save us all.

Our very salvation was born, in part, because of human compassion.

As we begin our Advent preparations, let us remember Joseph, willing to answer God’s call.

Here’s a poem from David Whyte that sums up our call to be Joseph.

and how we are all
preparing for that
abrupt waking,
and that calling,
and that moment
we have to say yes,
except it will
not come so grandly,
so Biblically,
but more subtly
and intimately in the face
of the one you know
you have to love.

May it be so. Amen.


6 thoughts on “The Perfect Family

  1. Really great — I thought this was going to be a variation on the “Mary was an unwed mother” trope — but the exhortation to think about Joseph is really moving. Way to go.

  2. What a great sermon! FYI: One of the things I’m most thankful for is the technology that allows me to hook up with you and your work.

  3. Marci, I feel like I should know you, though somehow I don’t, but I do need to tell you that this is beautiful. Thank you.

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