Along with most other mainstream churches, Episcopalians use a three year cycle of Bible Readings for Sunday mornings. This year our main focus will be the gospel of Matthew. Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus is the more familiar one. In today’s reading from Matthew we heard about Jesus’ father, Joseph, and one of the dreams which prompted him to take some unexpected and daring steps.
But before I talk about that, I want to make some more general comments about Matthew’s gospel. We don’t know who wrote it but it has been called the Gospel of Matthew since the 2nd century. Matthew seems to have been writing for a Christian community which was on the verge of leaving Judaism. These Jewish Christians probably lived in Syria in the last quarter of the first century.
His gospel is both the most Jewish and the one which most sharply delineates between those who are in the kingdom and those who are not. In the chapters before the crucifixion, Matthew calls the Jewish people “Israelites” – the people of Israel, God’s chosen people, but after the crucifixion he calls them Jews, indicating that God’s chosen people are now the followers of Jesus, the true Messiah. During the year we will be hearing many parables that separate the wheat from the tares, the good fish from the bad, the sheep from the goats and so on. With our contemporary perspective of God’s inclusive love for all beings, Matthew is often not an easy book to read.
The question of whether Jesus was the Messiah is central to the narrative because it is what marked the new Christian sect from their Jewish neighbors. It’s important to Matthew that Jesus is clearly seen to be the Messiah as foretold in the scriptures. So this morning we heard a prophecy from Isaiah which was originally a short-term message meant for King Ahaz, but which Matthew claimed as a prophecy about Jesus the Christ, “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.” The pregnant young woman of Isaiah translated into the Greek of the gospel becomes a virgin, adding mystery and gravitas to Jesus’ birth.
The gospel itself starts a few verses before this passage with a genealogy that doesn’t make for easy or exciting reading! It is intended to emphasize that Joseph is a direct descendent of David and so Jesus is also. This was important to Matthew because of the ancient promises made to the house of David and the belief that the Messiah would be David’s descendent. But there is one thing in the long list of names starting with Abraham that is interesting to us. There are four women mentioned.
They are Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba.
None of these women were quiet law-abiding women. We would list them in the top ten wild women of the Bible.
The widow Tamar had been promised a husband but when her father in law Judah failed to deliver on his promise, she tricked him into sleeping with her by masquerading as a prostitute. She got pregnant as a result and had twins. Once Judah got over his embarrassment, he agreed that she was right and married her to his younger son (Gen 38).
Rahab was a prostitute who lived in Jericho. She hid Joshua’s spies when they came to see how vulnerable the city was to attack. (Joshua 2). In return they saved her and her family even though the Israelite custom was to kill everyone when a city was taken. Rahab married into the tribe of Judah and was the mother of Boaz.
Ruth was a Gentile – a Moabite – who left her homeland to return to Israel with her mother in law Naomi. Her loyalty was unusual; it would have been more usual for a widow to return to her own family if there were no men in her husband’s family to protect her. But Ruth made the journey to a strange land and was canny enough to work her way into the good graces of her mother-in-law’s cousin, who happened to be… Boaz, Rahab’s son.
Bathsheba was a very beautiful woman who King David lusted after from a distance. He sent her husband, Uzziah, into battle with orders that he should be in the front line so that he would be sure to be killed. When David was old, Bathsheba manipulated him into agreeing that her son would succeed him and so Solomon came to the throne after David died.
So four feisty women are tucked away in the genealogy of Jesus – two of them considered extremely beautiful, two of them Gentiles, three of them widows. Each one of them treated the law in an unusual, even unlawful way, to secure something which seems to have been aligned with God’s will.
In todays’ reading, Joseph is described as a “righteous man”. Righteous is one of Matthew’s favorite words. He uses it more than any other gospel writer. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:20) This must have been an astonishing idea for his audience, as the scribes and Pharisees were those who set the standards, who applied the law to everyday life and said what was lawful and what unlawful. But we know that Jesus saw them as hypocrites who said one thing and did another even when they kept to the letter of the law.
I think we might interpret “righteousness” as holy living. So Joseph was a man who lived a holy life according to the law. And now he’s in a dilemma.
His young fiancée is pregnant and he knows the child is not his. According to the law he can and should end the relationship immediately. But this would be a disaster for Mary. The culture of the day thought of honor and dishonor a bit like we think of wealth. It showed status. Every family wanted to build up honor and avoid dishonor. The shame of an unwed pregnancy and a broken engagement would bankrupt both Mary and her family.
And as Joseph was pondering his decision to end the relationship quietly, he had a dream. And in the dream a messenger from God told him, “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.”
And so he did.
Now this was not unlawful, it was his decision to make. But it was certainly unusual. Just like the four feisty women in his ancestry, he didn’t live by the letter of the law but what he did was in accordance with God’s mission.
God’s mission is the redemption of all creation.
And as we approach Christmas we are remembering and celebrating an important part of God’s mission – the incarnation – the coming of the Christ in flesh and blood. We, who in our baptism are enrolled in the reign of God, are called to take our part in the redemption of creation by continuing the life of the Christ in flesh and blood.
We are called to live with a righteousness, a holiness, that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. In other words, which goes deeper than keeping to the rule book. We are called to follow in the footsteps of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba and their descendants Joseph and Jesus as we discern God’s calling to us and take risks in the name of life and hope.
Many people are finding this a dark time in the world. But we are called to be a community of resurrection hope, willing to take risks in the name of our God. Willing to acknowledge the wildness that is a part of our heritage, willing to do unusual things when prompted by the Holy Spirit. This is not a time for us to stick to the rules, to the way things have always been done, to the nice path. We are not called to be nice but to take risks and to follow the prompting of the Spirit however it comes and wherever it leads.
A few years ago the United Church of Christ had a campaign which said, “God is still speaking.” God is still speaking. God is still speaking today as God has spoken in the past to Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, Joseph and yes to Jesus himself. And just as each one of them took their part in the mission of God, so may we even if it’s unconventional, even if it’s daring.
Because the mission of God is our mission, and if we take the incarnation seriously it was not something that happened once in Bethlehem 2000 years ago. It is something that continues to happen every day even in the most surprising places. And we are invited to be part of it. We are invited to be God with skin on.