Sermon Text – Matthew 1:18-25
I wonder what would happen if you went out and just started asking people this simple question: “Who was Jesus’s dad?”
Is it A) Joseph of Nazareth, B) the Holy Spirit, C) we don’t know, or D) something else entirely?
You might think, for a religion that has often been very focused on maintaining very specific rules about how families should be structured, that Christianity would have a much clearer answer to the simple question of “Who was Jesus’s dad?”
But we don’t. The fact is, there’s no easy way to answer the question.
Our earliest sources gloss over his missing father figure. Paul – who wrote our earliest Christian scriptures – says nothing about Jesus’s dad. Tellingly, he refers to Jesus as the “son of Mary.” Highly unusual, because in the Ancient Near East, you would have been referred to as the son of your father, not your mother. If Paul had known who Jesus’s dad was, he would have called him “son of Joseph.” Of course, Paul does refer to Jesus as the “son of God” but it’s unclear whether he’s talking about “son of God” as a theological statement or an actual statement of Jesus’s parentage.
Mark is our earliest gospel. As you may recall, it has no birth story. Jesus’s father is not mentioned and, just like Paul, the author of Mark’s gospel refers to Jesus as the “son of Mary.”
It’s not until we get to the gospels of Luke and Matthew, which were written late in the 1st century, that the character of Joseph is introduced. And, even then, we don’t really know much about him.
Matthew’s author goes to great pains to record a genealogy of Jesus, tracing his roots through King David and Abraham. Joseph, son of Jacob, is Jesus’s link to David. But Matthew is careful not to name Joseph as Jesus’s father. Instead, he calls him, “Joseph, husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born.” Did you catch that slight difference? Joseph is Mary’s husband. And Jesus is still the “son of Mary.”
As the stories about Jesus’s birth solidified, Joseph was said to have been there at Jesus’s birth. He claimed him as a son, gave him a name, and raised him as his own. In the Gospel of Luke, Joseph is with Jesus and Mary when Jesus visits the Temple in Jerusalem at the age of 12. But after that, he fades. That’s the last time Joseph is mentioned in the Bible. Joseph is not present during Jesus’s adult ministry. He wasn’t there at the wedding in Cana, when Mary gently pushed her son into a more public role. And he wasn’t there at the cross, when Mary watched her son die an agonizing death. And he wasn’t there when Jesus’s body was taken down from the cross. If Jesus’s father had been around, that would have been his job – to take care of his child’s body – but, instead, a different Joseph, Joseph of Arimathea, takes on that role. In fact, Jesus’s dad doesn’t seem to be around at all. If he had been, Jesus wouldn’t have had any reason to give his mother, Mary, over to the care of his disciple John when he knew he was dying.
Where did Joseph go? Did he die? Did he eventually divorce Mary quietly, as he had initially considered? Or maybe he never existed at all and when people started telling stories about Jesus as a grown up, they forgot to add his dad back into the picture. We just don’t know.
What we do know is that Jesus does not seem to have come from a family that would have received a stamp of approval from Focus on the Family. He didn’t have a mom and a dad who first had love, then had marriage, then had a baby in a baby carriage. In fact, some people might even describe Jesus as having come from a “broken home.”
I put “broken home” in quotes because I just can’t bear to use that phrase without somehow designating it as being completely inaccurate and offensive. Of course, we call come from families that are broken in some way or another, right? Families are made up of people….people who are both wonderfully whole and utterly broken all at the same time. No one has a perfect family.
Some of us come from families that get labeled as “broken,” though, and that’s what really frustrates me. I grew up in a family that many would have labeled as “broken” – but, to me, it was wonderfully whole. I was affirmed, cared for, taught to love, challenged, supported, honored, cherished, kept safe. Sure, I got into arguments with my sister and drove my parents crazy when I forgot to do my chores. But my family was certainly no more broken than those of many of my friends.
My family of origin was unconventional. I grew up with siblings from both of my parents’ previous marriages. My mom and dad divorced when I was about 10. My teenage years were spent as the only child at home with a single mom. Before my parents divorced, I felt happy, secure, and loved. After my parents divorced, I felt happy, secure, and loved.
In college I struggled to reconcile my positive feelings about my family and my upbringing with statistics and studies and anecdotes from classmates who had their opinions about single moms and children of divorce. None of it resonated with me. My life was just my life. My family was just my family. It was all I had known and it had done for me what families are supposed to do….teach, care, protect, connect, show, encourage, challenge, love. It hadn’t done those things perfectly, but I never expected it to.
So when I read today’s passage from the Gospel of Matthew introducing us to this Joseph character, my heart tingles because I see in Jesus a kindred spirit. We don’t really know where Jesus came from – in terms of his family background. But we do know that it was likely considered unsavory by the standards of his time and place.
If we take Matthew’s version of the story at face-value, here’s what we have. We have a woman who was betrothed to a man and found herself pregnant. It’s important to remember that although some translations say Mary and Joseph were engaged, that’s not really an accurate description of their relationship. Marriage was so different in Jesus’s time. An engagement wasn’t something that happened when a starry-eyed young man saved up three months income and bought a perfect diamond ring. When couples got married, it was because their families had come together and made a legally-binding contract to join their families.
After doing so, there was a period of time after the contract was made but before the woman moved in with the man. This was the period of time Mary and Joseph were living in. They were legally married, but not yet living together. So when Mary was “found to be with child from the Holy Spirit” it was kind of a PR nightmare. People back then knew different things about biology than we do, but it’s safe to say they did know where babies came from. They knew that if Mary was pregnant, it meant a serious breech of the marriage contract had occurred.
Joseph knew this. And he knew what was expected of him. He was supposed to figure out who had fathered the child and then have Mary and the father stoned to death. That’s what was expected. So when the text says Joseph was “righteous and unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace” it’s not messing around. Joseph was seriously going out on a limb here to protect Mary in this way. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that Joseph was a jerk for wanting to divorce her. He was taking the high road when he contemplated filing for a divorce. The low road would have led to Mary’s death.
Instead, an angel intervenes, and Joseph is convinced that he has other options. He can choose hope over fear. He can continue in his marriage to Mary and they can make a life together. He can name the child – claiming his role as father. And when Joseph awoke from his dream, he did all of these things. He continued to live out his obligations to Mary, his wife, and he named the child Jesus, claiming him as his own.
I love the messiness of this story. I love that Jesus was not born into a picture-perfect family. There were complications, complexities, things that seemed insurmountable. And yet, at the end of the day, Jesus arrived. And with his arrival he did was all babies do – turned his parents’ lives upside-down.
Jesus has been the great world-upside-down-turner since his arrival. A rule breaker from day one. And the Holy Family, which we have sanitized and Hallmark-card-ized probably didn’t look anything like those millions of picture-perfect Nativity scenes we’ve looked at our whole lives.
They were real people with real lives. Real loves. Real regrets. Real triumphs. Real hopes. Real dreams. Real fears. Real weaknesses. Real strengths. And they were a real family.
No matter what anyone says, they were a real family.
Family doesn’t have to look like that cleaned-up version of the Holy Family that we put on display each year. It doesn’t have to be a mom, dad, and 2.2 kids or whatever the average is these days. Family isn’t about matching up with some societal norm. At least not when God has any say in the matter.
Christ came into the world in the life of a newborn baby who was born into a family that no one would have put on a cover of a magazine. Christ was born into a home that many would have called broken. And Christ comes still in every type of family you could possibly imagine and some you’ve never even thought of.
See that single mom with her four young kids as they pack up the car to go to Grandpa’s house for Christmas? That’s a holy family and God is there.
See those two dads who are nervously and excitedly preparing to travel across the country to their grown daughter’s wedding? That’s a holy family and God is there.
See those two women who don’t live together but consider each other to be the only family they’ve got? They’ve been through the thick of it together. That’s a holy family and God is there.
See that young couple at the gym at 6:00am on Wednesday? They don’t have any kids. And please don’t ask them when they’re planning on “starting a family.” They might not ever have children. That’s a holy family and God is there.
See the two siblings in their 80s who live together after their spouses passed away? They fought like the dickens as kids, but in their golden years they have found their way back to each other. That’s a holy family and God is there.
Family is so much bigger than what the rules and conventions of our day would have us believe. I’ve heard folks joke about Jesus having two dads – ha! Two dads! Joseph and God! Get it? But the thing is, Jesus really did come from a non-traditional family. Any way you slice it – single mom, child of adultery, child of the Holy Spirit – any way you slice it, the Holy Family was not the norm.
In a time and place where society continues to disagree and argue about what holy families are “supposed to look like,” let’s rejoice in the good news that Jesus came from a family that did not fit the mold. I promise you, there is a whole world out there that is longing to hear this good news. The Church has, for far too long, pretended like it’s our job to preach some divine decree about what a family is supposed to look like. How on earth did we come to this conclusion when the very person we claim to follow broke all the rules at his birth?
It’s high-time the Church stop focusing on what we think family should look like and begin celebrating all the families out there who are nurturing human beings into the people God would have them be.
God blesses all families. God rejoices when families get it right. And God weeps with us when families get it wrong. God cheers from the sidelines as people in families try their best to offer love, care, safety, a sense of belonging, and a sense of rootedness and connection. God rejoices when reconciliation occurs and holds out hope of resurrection when relationships die.
Picture-perfect or dysfunctional, so-called-broken or so-called-normal….every family is wonderfully whole and terribly broken. Just like the family Jesus was born into so long ago.
May God bless each and every holy family this Christmas.