December 24, 2011: Christmas Eve (Early) Solemn Vespers

Matthew 1:18-25

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 

Joseph is the father of Jesus. Does that scandalize you? Joseph is the father of Jesus. That is the point St. Matthew is making in the first chapter of his gospel.  He begins this way: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham.” Genealogies were important to the Jews. The first book of the Bible, Genesis, is filled with them. And not just genealogies—lists of fathers and sons—for the sake of nostalgia. The biblical genealogies are the record of a promise, a promise made by God, long ago, to our first parents, that a woman would give birth to a son to save mankind, rescue us from the darkness, death, and misery that have become our daily bread.

That promise was given to Adam, to Seth, to Noah, to Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob, to Judah, to Boaz, to Jesse, to David, to Solomon, to Rehoboam, on and on and on down to Joseph, the husband of Mary.

The Jews, even before they were Jews—that is, from Judah—kept a record. Abraham and David were luminaries in that record. But their full story is not hidden from us. They were not perfect. Just the opposite. Abraham, father of the Hebrew people and pillar of faith, pretends his wife Sarah is his sister when he is afraid men will kill him to take Sarah, who was beautiful. But barren Sarah could not provide him a son, so Abraham fathers a child by another woman, betraying the bond of matrimony.

Fourteen generations later, David, great king, a man after God’s own heart, murders a man, Uriah, to cover up the fact that he had impregnated Uriah’s wife – while Uriah was out fighting for David in his army! This fact is not hidden by the genealogy, but pointed out. Matthew wants us to know that there are scoundrels in the genealogy, people who don’t belong. Judah, son of Jacob, who is called Israel, has an heir through Tamar, his own daughter-in-law! The great-grandfather of David, Boaz, is the son of the prostitute Rahab.

The record was kept, both bad and good, and the bad was not hidden. What about your bad? Your sins, your darkness – your lies, your lusts, your laissez-faire attitude about the Word of God? Have you kept these things hidden? These things are your real problem – not the poor economy, not your family troubles, not your failing health, not the capricious whims of a chaotic world. Sin is your problem, and that has been the one constant amid all the change and decay of this fractured world. Sin, and death, is why they kept the careful record from Adam to Noah, from Noah to Abraham, from Abraham to Judah, from Judah to David, from David to Joseph, husband of Mary. They kept the careful record, the genealogy, because of the promise that a Son was coming who would be not merely a better man than the ancestors, a greater king, a more virtuous teacher, a mightier warrior – but a Son who would save His people.

And at what must have seemed midnight for that race, a dark hour for that line descended from Abraham and David, when a son of David was not a king but a carpenter, and that in an obscure village in Galilee, now ruled by a mighty pagan emperor in the city of Rome – at that midnight hour for the descendants of Abraham and David, a son of David was summoned to his ancestral home, Bethlehem, where David had tended sheep as a boy.

He goes with his wife Mary, who was with child, though she remained a virgin. For God was doing a strange thing in this dark hour. Strange, and yet not entirely unexpected. For it was written long ago in the prophet Isaiah that this would happen, which was probably the only thing that could have convinced Joseph that the child growing in Mary’s womb was indeed the Son of God.

For Joseph did not find it any easier to believe in a virgin conception than you or I do. In fact, it must have been harder for him to believe it. But the angel reminds Joseph of the promise to his ancestor Ahaz that a virgin would conceive and bear a son, and His name would be called “Immanuel,” God with us.

And so Joseph is married to Mary, and the Child with no human father acquires a human father, Joseph, son of David, son of Abraham.

With all of this, the author—Levi the tax collector who is reborn as St. Matthew the Apostle and Evangelist—is telling us that this birth of Jesus is for our own rebirth. Whoever you are—and the genealogy of Jesus through Joseph gives us a representative sampling of scoundrels—whoever you are, this birth is for you. Gentiles, idolaters, prostitutes, men who visit prostitutes, greedy men, drunken men, violent men, murderers, liars, and cheats: all have their place in the genealogy. For while Jesus is born of a pure virgin, He is born into a line of sinners going all the way back to the first sinner, our first father Adam. And we are told all of this that we might be comforted: comforted that we who stumble into another Christmas with another year’s full of sins, we who are one year closer to our grave, one year closer to death—comforted that this Jesus is for us. Your idolatry may be hidden, your lusts cleverly concealed, your lies and grasping for power couched in pious phrases, but you are a sinner, and if you don’t realize this, then useless baubles and fake decorations will be all you get for Christmas.

But if you confess your sin and acknowledge the judgment you deserve, than there can be no greater message than this word spoken to Joseph in the instruction to name the virgin’s child and become His earthly father: “And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins.”

God keeps His promises. In His own time, in His own way, He sent His Son, a son of no human father and yet at the same time son of Joseph, son of David, son of Abraham, son of the promise. Tonight is the church’s declaration to the world, and the reminder to you, dear children, that God has kept His promise. Why? Because, despite of your sins, your failings, your fears, He still loves you, He still shows mercy to you. And just as JESUS truly came to save you from your sins, so He will come again to save you from the wages of sin: death; and in the day of resurrection we shall dwell with the Son of Joseph, the Son of David, in the new city of David, the new Jerusalem, even unto ages of ages.

In the Name of Jesus.

The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.