joseph and angel

If you swab your cheek, and send your DNA off to one of the sites that will analyze it for you, there may be a surprise in store.  People who want to know where in Africa or Europe the family came from have, instead, been finding step-siblings and secrets about their parentage.  Long-held family secrets are coming to light, and people are discovering things they never knew.  Affairs, missing siblings and unexpected fathers all come to light from these simple cheek swabs.

Read the scripture here.

Read the Working Preacher commentary here.

In contrast, the ancestry of Jesus is all laid out in Matthew’s gospel…sort of.

Just before this, Matthew gives us a long genealogy for Joseph, establishing his place in the line of David, and then grafts Jesus on.  Brian Stoffregen notes, “Throughout verses 1-16a, Matthew has used egennesen 39 times (aorist, active of gennao, which means: when used of the male role = “to beget,” or “to become the father of”; of the female role: “to give birth”). In 16b the grammar changes. He does not write, “Joseph begat Jesus,” which we might expect after 39 times; but rather he uses egennethe (aorist, passive of gennao) “Joseph the husband of Mary from whom was born Jesus the one being called Christ.” We already have a hint that there is something different about this birth from all those that went before.”  He adds, “Besides telling us “who” Jesus is with these titles, these texts also indicate “how” Jesus is “who” he is.  He is “son of David” because of his genealogy — but Joseph didn’t “begat” him! The Davidic descendancy is not transferred through natural paternity but through legal paternity.”  Joseph’s action seals Jesus in the “house and lineage of David,” as Luke tells it in the other version of the story.

Every part of Joseph’s ancestry is laid out for us.  The only wild card is Jesus.  The encounter between Joseph and the angel takes on extra poignancy because it’s set next to the genealogy.  Into this carefully remembered line of people comes a child of uncertain parentage, and we understand the depth of Joseph’s choice to stay with Mary and her child.

But there’s still the experience of shame and surprise that many people encounter in exploring their ancestry.  Both Mary and Joseph experience public embarrassment in the conception and birth of Jesus.  The angelic visitations make it clear what they should do, but that inner certainty doesn’t remove the sting of caustic comments from the neighbors, and the disapproval of family.  Both Joseph and Mary pay a significant public price for following God.

I wonder if his uncertain parentage, even with Joseph’s seal of approval, was part of what made Jesus so sensitive to people on the margins.  Did he carry some of that with him all of his life, and use it to connect with other people on the edge of respectability?

Sermon possibilities:

Originally, Joseph resolves to dismiss Mary quietly.  The sermon might look at the people we dismiss quietly, not seeing their worth or taking the time to know them.  Whom do we allow ourselves to dismiss?  Heavy people?  People who have accents?  People who look shabby?  People who are poor?

Or the sermon might look at the shocks involved in family life.  Even when the surprise isn’t dramatic, there’s always something.  Our “good kid” starts to rebel.  Our partner doesn’t act as we would predict.  We can’t control someone’s behavior, after all.  Illness or violence changes the course of family life.  The sermon might look at how we cope with those surprises.

Or the sermon might look at the price we pay for following where God leads.  It could be a personal price – lost income, or lost status, or a season of confusion.  Or a church community could pay a price in lost members, or changing location, or having the pain of leaving a too-large building.

Where are your thoughts taking you this week?  We would love to continue to the conversation in the comments section below.

Mary Austin is the pastor of Westminster Church of Detroit, a diverse Presbyterian church.  She is the author of Meeting God at the Mall.     The image above is Joseph’s Dream, from the Vanderbilt Library of Art in the Christian Tradition.

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3 thoughts on “Narrative Lectionary: Surprise! (Matthew 1:18-25)

  1. I’ve have multiple false starts today … perhaps because I am preaching Advent 4 narrative in the morning at my home congregation and in the afternoon “Christmas Eve” at a small country church. A reading from Matthew in the morning and Luke in the afternoon. The Matthew text names Jesus 3 times, Joseph 4 times, and Mary twice. The Luke text on the other hand never names Jesus, names Mary 3 times and Joseph twice.

    I think I have a better idea … but I hope it comes together soon as it is almost 7PM. And I need them fairly well drafted by 6AM. (I don’t preach from script thanks be to God).


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