Christmas at Matthew’s House
December 19, 2021
Matthew 1:1-16, 18-26
Last week we took a break from our tour of the Gospel homes at Christmastime in order to enjoy a service of Lessons and Carols.
Let’s remember where we’ve been so far. We began our tour at Mark’s austere home with no decorations at all apart from a crown of thorns hanging on the door like a wreath. We saw that Mark couldn’t conceive of Jesus apart from the cross.
Then we went to John’s very well-lit house and we heard that at John’s house there are flowers and telescopes, compost bins and – allegedly – a dog bowl. We learned that John tells us of a Jesus who is committed to the fullness of creation. As a personal aside, I learned that John’s house also has a bus stop right out front….and my wife threw me right under the wheels of that one as it drove by. I still have tire marks on my Advent stole.
Also – I would like to point out that Meg preached that sermon…and the very next day our Christmas tree fell over. I don’t even have to interpret that one, y’all.
Well, this week we arrive at Matthew’s house and boy is it different. The first thing you notice is how crowded it is. When faced with the challenge of how to begin a story about Jesus, Matthew begins it like this:
Scripture Reading 1
An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar,
and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab,
and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.
And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.
And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.
Here ends our first reading:
As we rounded mid-December, Christmas cards have started arriving in earnest. Pictures of family and friends both near and far are appearing in our mailbox with letters updating us on the ups and downs of 2021.
In our house, these cards become a wallpaper of sorts. We tape them up on the garage door and keep them there all year…or at least until the summer humidity takes its toll and they begin to fall.
Matthew begins his Gospel with an exhaustive genealogy – and it, too, is a floor-to-ceiling wall of Christmas cards: great-great-great grandfathers and third cousins, once-removed.
There are familiar names like Abraham and Jacob and there are people we’ve never heard of before, but they’re all smiling at us in their polite and carefully curated photos, proud to be a part of this story.
Of course, given the patriarchal context, the gallery is mostly men, but tucked in there are a handful of women – the kind of personalities who may or may not have inspired the phrase “well-behaved women rarely make history.”
It would have been easy for Matthew to tuck those cards in the drawer, but he doesn’t. He pins up Tamar’s card even though she did the kinds of things that would make your grandma blush (Genesis, chapter 38 if you want to go read it later)
Matthew makes loops of scotch tape and presses Rahab’s card up there right next to Ruth’s –even though his aunt always refers to them as “those girls who aren’t from around here.” Which is to say they’re not Jewish and, well, some people in Matthew’s family don’t like that very much.
But Rahab and Ruth are easily overshadowed by Bahsheba – Matthew had to put her up there as well, but of course he refers to her as the wife of Uriah, going out of his way to remind us of King David’s indiscretion that led to murder and set in motion one of the most dysfunctional family systems you’ll ever read about this side of the Kardashians.
In most families, these would be the kinds of stories that are alluded to briefly in hushed tones – the family’s shame and disgrace. But Matthew puts it all up on the wall for the world to see, proudly proclaiming that the lineage of our dear savior is as messy as they come.
Perhaps Matthew feels compelled to hang every single card up there, because he knows that Jesus arrived in this world with not a little scandal in his wake as well…surely you’ve heard how his mother was pregnant before Joseph could even finalize the wedding plans. It’s true – this entire genealogy is a preamble to this:
Scripture Reading 2
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.
Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “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.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”
When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
A couple weeks ago I was at the home of Carolyn and Ralph Karpinos for a church dinner meeting.
As we gathered at the table, Carolyn directed our attention to the menorah on their mantle. Ralph is Jewish and it was the 4th night of Hanukkah. As she lit the candles, she and Ralph recited these words together: Blessed are you, Our God, Ruler of the Universe, who makes us holy through Your commandments, and commands us to light the Hanukkah lights.
Then they turned to me, a Christian minister whose ancestors only heard about Jesus thanks to the work of some determined evangelists who insisted Gentiles have a place in God’s family too, and they asked if I would bless the meal.
All of this diversity would be right at home in Matthew’s house.
In addition to showcasing his rather unconventional family tree, Matthew’s genealogy serves some other functions as well – one of those being to make it crystal clear that Jesus is Jewish…REALLY JEWISH!
Even if it is technically by adoption, Jesus’ ancestry runs right through the line of King David all the way back to Father Abraham. That is one serious pedigree.
But he doesn’t stop with a “23 and Me” kit. Matthew will also go to great lengths to suggest that Jesus’ life is a fulfillment of words spoken by Jewish Prophets centuries before. We just heard the first of six such quotations – “look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son…”
All of this insistence on Jesus’ Jewish lineage probably tells us something about Matthew’s original community. It’s not a stretch to imagine a congregation of mostly Jewish converts deeply invested in claiming Jesus as one of their own. Recognizing the power of story, they wanted to hear a story about a messiah emerging from their tradition, rather than one who has come to supplant it.
Hopefully they cultivated a healthy sense of pride and self-worth in this Jewish identity they shared with Jesus. God willing, they didn’t take it too far as humans are wont to do. God willing they didn’t get too smug in their assumption that Jesus was from their people and really ONLY for their people. Though I wonder if they did – because from the jump Matthew is already messing with this idea that Jesus is a pure-blood.
“Sure, Jesus is really, really Jewish, but remember Rahab,” he says, “she was a Canaanite. And Ruth – remember Ruth – she may have been King David’s great grandmother but let’s not forget that she was a Moabite. I know y’all don’t much care for Moabites but there she is as plain as day – so they’re not all bad.”
And Matthew’s poor church must have really blown a gasket when they saw what happened next. Turn the page and you discover that the first people to come calling for this special baby aren’t the good Jewish neighbors but rather a pack of meandering Magi – mysterious foreigners from way over yonder. They’re the first ones to even get curious about him.
Oh – Matthew is messing with any presumption that Jesus is only for the Jews.
The truth is, we need to be messed with sometimes.
It isn’t just Matthew’s original readership who would be tempted to put limits on who God can and cannot love. In every time and place there are people who are all-too happy to give God tiny T-Rex arms – just long enough to hold me and my kind but not long enough to embrace the whole human race. Maybe Matthew knew that we could be parochial like that and so addresses it right off the bat.
Eboo Patel may be familiar to many of you. He is a Muslim author and activist and the founder of the Interfaith Youth Corp, an organization that works on college campuses to promote healthy interfaith dialogue and collaboration.
In an interview, Patel confesses that, when addressing a group of students, he often opens by saying, “You know when the Pilgrims landed in America, they dusted off Plymouth Rock and found the words Judeo-Christian.” He also confessed that every time, without fail, he has to tell them “that was a joke.”
He then informs them that the truth about that phrase is that it was completely invented in the 1920s. As the Ku Klux Klan unleashed all manner of anti-black, anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic hatred, interfaith leaders responded by inventing a phrase – they began calling America
“a Judeo-Christian nation.”
That’s not historically accurate per se. It’s not like Christians and Jews had equal footing in this nation from the start. It’s not as if their religions are all that alike.
And yet, Patel says, it was a brilliant narrative for equipping a people to be more welcoming of diversity. Recognizing the power of a narrative, they told a different story from what the Klan would have us believe – that this land is and always will be for white, Protestants only.
Instead they told a story about a people who are strengthened by their differences; who rest comfortably in the notion that God’s love is for all people.
Patel has long urged Americans to reclaim that same inclusive spirit because it is increasingly endangered. After the attacks on 9/11, there was an idea among the American Muslim community to establish the Cordoba House at the site where the Twin Towers once stood.
It was never meant to be a mosque per se, as was often alleged in the media, but rather a place for public benefit – like a Catholic University or a Presbyterian Hospital. America relies on such institutions founded by other religious communities. In this time of deep grief and fear, Patel said, the Muslim community that has become a significant part of our national fabric wished to make a similar contribution.
Instead, it was met with intense resistance. Blocking it became a high-profile victory for Islamophobic groups who have only felt more emboldened in the two decades since.
Patel looks to those leaders who, a century ago, countered racism and xenophobia with the term “Judeo-Christian,” and challenges the Church today to find a similar vision for what America has become today – one that honors the place of all her people no matter their faith.
All of this goes to show that the times may change but the questions remain the same.
Whether you were sitting in Matthew’s congregation, hearing this Gospel for the first time or whether you are a citizen of these United States sitting in this Church a couple millennia later, the question is the same: How long are God’s arms? Can we imagine a God who can in fact embrace the people of every nation?
Matthew could see it.
It’s what makes Christmas at his house unique….and Easter too fo what it’s worth.
Clear on the other side of this Gospel a very risen-from-the-dead Jesus will say it as clear as can be: “Go therefore and make disciples of every nation…”
There’s no limit to the love of God. There’s no far-flung country that God’s arms cannot reach.
You know, I almost forgot – back at Carolyn and Ralph’s house – I didn’t mention why we were there in the first place. The other people at that dinner meeting were the members of the Global Outreach committee and our guests of honor were Andy and Ellen Collins, and their son Jonathan, Presbyterian mission co-workers that UPC has supported for many years.
They have served in Thailand, and then Nepal before that – sharing the love of God to every neighbor in every place.
Matthew would love that dinner party.
Because Matthew’s vision is of that kind of church;
one that celebrates all the faces on the Christmas cards and the branches on the family tree;
one that has open doors and open hearts to neighbors of every nation.
May we find ourselves capable of catching that vision as well. Amen.