Matthew begins his Gospel with a genealogy. Surprisingly, he doesn’t boast about the bloodline of a past patriarch or trace the lineage of a famous uncle, or show off a distant cousin’s rise to celebrity. Instead, he spills the secrets, all the genetic indiscretions and hereditary delinquencies from father Abraham to baby Jesus. There’s the alleged child abuse on a sacrificial altar, a brother’s sale into slavery, a woman’s career in prostitution, a girl’s seduction on the threshing floor, a king’s cover up.
Standing under the jagged leaves and broken branches of Christianity’s family tree is Joseph. A simple carpenter who is never given a speaking part, whose entire parenthood after this moment goes without mention, who disappears from the story entirely after chapter two.
But, for stepdads and quiet disciples everywhere, he’s a saint. So according to today’s text, what makes Joseph faithful?
Matthew 1:18-25 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.
He followed God, not religion.
He loved Mary and the baby more than the Law.
He parented someone else’s problem.
Before that wild night of angelic visitation and divine dreaming, Joseph must have had it all planned out. While the ink is still drying on the divorce papers, I’ll lawyer up again to recover the dowry. While my heart heals from the betrayal, I’ll repost that dating profile in the classified of the Nazareth newspaper. While finally free from planning all the wedding reception details, I’ll finish those projects in the wood shop.
But instead of undermining thousands of years of prophecy and refusing to cooperate with God’s fragile plan of salvation that always requires human partners, Joseph says yes to the mess.
Yes, even though the righteous act is to hold a trial and secure a conviction of capital punishment, I believe that relationship is always more faithful to God than being right.
Yes, from this day forward, for better or for worse, I take Mary to be my wife even though our engagement vows didn’t include infidelity, or being cheated on by the Holy Spirit.
Yes, despite a paternity test that absolves me of responsibility, I will sign the adoption certificate, not as the biological father, but as the chosen father of God’s son born a bastard scandal.
On that first Christmas, I’m certain Joseph would have preferred the embrace of a high school sweetheart on a Silent Night. But that’s not what he got and that’s not what we get. Instead, the decorations will likely get destroyed and the twinkling lights will bust a fuse, the turkey will get dehydrated and the Eggnog spiked, and the dysfunction of our holy families will be on full display under the mistletoe.
While some avoid the mess, and others try to tidy up the mess, we are direct descendants of Joseph, the father of our faith who parented the mess. And the Son he raised is being born anew, not into our fantasies or our unattainable expectations, but into the messiness of our lives.
So hear the Good News, his name is Emmanuel, God with us.