A lesson: Luke 1:26-38
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
What was she doing? No one knows. But at some time of some day, while she was doing who-knows-what… an angel appeared to her. Was he shining like the sun? Was his voice like thunder? We have no idea. But, he told her that of all the women ever born, she was the one chosen by God to bear the Messiah into the world.
The Gospels never tell us why Mary is the chosen one. No incredible stories of virtue or righteousness. No tales of a heroic childhood faith.
What we do have is a story about a woman who said “yes” to God. A woman who stood by her son through the hard days of his ministry, and then stood by him at the cross. What we have is a story of a woman who went to her son’s tomb and found it empty.
God met Mary not in a church or temple, but in the midst of what started out to be a normal day. God met Mary, not as a perfect person, but as a real person who God loved dearly, and who God chose. God met Mary not with a demand, but with a holy possibility.
In this sense, the Incarnation is pregnant with possibility for all of us, at any moment, and in any place. God may come shining like the sun or with a voice as soft as distant thunder at any moment, and invite us into something we never could have dreamt for ourselves.
O God, you have taken to yourself the blessed Virgin Mary, mother of your incarnate Son: Grant that we, who have been redeemed by his blood, may share with her the glory of your eternal kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
(Prayer from The Book of Common Prayer)
A lesson: 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.
We don’t know a lot about Joseph. People wonder if he was much older than Mary. People wonder if he had been widowed previously and had children from that previous marriage. People wonder if he died early on in Jesus’ life, like sometime in his adolescence or early adulthood.
When it comes to Joseph, there are lots of questions that we just don’t have the answers to.
But, there’s one thing that we are sure of: he was a good man.
He could have, according to Old Testament law, have had Mary stoned when he learned that she was pregant. He could have just picked up and left. He could have dragged her reputation through the gutter.
And, quite frankly, no one would have blamed him one bit.
He was such a good man though that he first tried to have her quietly dismissed. He was certainly hurt and angry, but he wasn’t going to take those feelings out on her.
He was also a good man, in that when God told him in a dream that Mary’s child was in fact God’s child, he stuck with her – and God. He willingly chose to become Jesus’ adopted father, and he kept Jesus and his family safe when the government was trying to hunt down Jesus to kill him.
This we know: Joseph is the good and righteous husband of Mary and the attentive and protective father of Our Lord. I don’t know about you, but he makes me wonder if I could ever be as good, as faithful, and as steadfast.
O God, who from the family of your servant David raised up Joseph to be the guardian of your incarnate Son and the spouse of his virgin mother: Give us grace to imitate his uprightness of life and his obedience to your commands; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (The Book of Common Prayer)
A lesson – 2 Samuel 6:1-5
David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. David and all the people with him set out and went from Baale-judah, to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the Lord of hosts who is enthroned on the cherubim. They carried the ark of God on a new cart, and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new cart with the ark of God; and Ahio went in front of the ark. David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the Lord with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.
The first king of Israel was Saul – though Saul didn’t work out so well. While Saul was floundering, the prophet Samuel went looking for a new king, and God directed him to David, the youngest of the sons of Jesse. While he had no leadership experience (save for shepherding flocks of sheep), he proved to be an excellent King. He unified the people, he remembered the covenant that God had made with us, he established Jerusalem as the capital city, and he began plans for a great Temple in that city.
Another prophet, Nathan, told him that unfortunately he would not be the king to build this Temple for God; that would have to wait. However, while delivering this bad news, he offered him some good news too: God would preserve his descendants and do great things with his family. Even though David had some moral failings, people looked to the house and lineage of David for centuries after him as a family whom God had blessed. And, when the prophets and sages of old foretold the coming of the Messiah into the world they reminded people to look to this family, to a descendant of the house of David.
Interestingly, there are two distinct and separate histories of King David in the Hebrew Bible – one in the Books of Samuel and Kings and the other in the Books of the Chronicles. The author of Chronicles spares us of almost any details where David would look bad, even to the point of completely glossing over the episode with Bathsheba. The author of Samuel I & II and Kings I gives us a more rounded telling of David’s story, where he is depicted as a great leader AND a human being who is subject to normal human failings.
The authors of the Gospels go to great lengths to remind us that Jesus comes from David’s stock, and that Jesus coming from the house and lineage of David was a fulfillment of the promises of God.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence
and take not your holy Spirit from me.
Give me the joy of your saving help again
and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.
(From Psalm 51, a psalm that is said to have been composed by David after the Bathsheba affair.)
A lesson – Joshua 2:1-6
Then Joshua son of Nun sent two men secretly from Shittim as spies, saying, “Go, view the land, especially Jericho.” So they went, and entered the house of a prostitute whose name was Rahab, and spent the night there. The king of Jericho was told, “Some Israelites have come here tonight to search out the land.” Then the king of Jericho sent orders to Rahab, “Bring out the men who have come to you, who entered your house, for they have come only to search out the whole land.” But the woman took the two men and hid them. Then she said, “True, the men came to me, but I did not know where they came from. And when it was time to close the gate at dark, the men went out. Where the men went I do not know. Pursue them quickly, for you can overtake them.” She had, however, brought them up to the roof and hidden them with the stalks of flax that she had laid out on the roof.
Women were not normally included in genealogies in the ancient world. Luke included no women in his version of Jesus’ genealogy. Matthew on the other hand, included five. And each one of those five women are remarkable. By including any women, Matthew would have been making a statement. By including THESE women, he is making an even bigger statement.
One of those women is Rahab. Rahab’s explicit inclusion in Jesus’ family tree is utterly amazing because of her profession. For Rahab was a prostitute.
Rahab lived and worked as a prostitute in the city of Jericho in the years immediately following the Exodus. The Jewish people were finally in the Promised Land, and Rahab assisted them in capturing Jericho. She hid Israelite spies in her home, and when the authorities of Jericho came to find them, Rahab hid them and helped them escape.
Honestly, Matthew could have left her out of the first chapter of his Gospel and no one would have even noticed. That he included her though says something about how Matthew sees the message of the Good News of Jesus: it is for everyone. For Matthew, anyone with any background, with any marks against them whatsoever, can make a contribution to the Kingdom of God. Absolutely anyone can be an example of faith.
Even Rahab. Even me. Even you.
God of mercy, we thank you for your unwavering grace and forgiveness; help us to forgive others as you have forgiven us, and give us eyes to see them not with prejudice, but as you see them and love them. Amen.
A lesson – Genesis 6:11-22
And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth. Make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits. Make a roof for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above; and put the door of the ark in its side; make it with lower, second, and third decks. For my part, I am going to bring a flood of waters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die. But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every kind shall come in to you, to keep them alive. Also take with you every kind of food that is eaten, and store it up; and it shall serve as food for you and for them.”
Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.
For some ridiculous reason, we just love refashioning the story of Noah into a cute, cartoonish, kid-friendly tale. Can’t you see the drawings and the baby toys? The smiling Noah? The purple elephant? The awkward giraffe with his neck sticking out of a round port-side window? The animals going on by twosies, and coming off again in threesies?
It’s ridiculous because the story of Noah is anything but cute and cartoonish. People are sinning so horrifically that with grief and anger God sets out to wipeout everyone, and everything. It’s a story of death on an unthinkably massive scale. It’s a story of pitch black clouds, of a foaming raging sea, and lives being drowned out in every direction.
Luke includes Noah in Jesus’ family tree. Noah’s inclusion reminds us of the evil things that humans can do – as if we need much of a reminder of that these days. However, while God responded to the depths of human sin with a flood in the days of Noah, God responded with love and grace in the days of Jesus.
When we juxtapose Noah and Jesus, as Luke does in his version of the genealogy, we see the remarkable consistency of human failing, and we see a remarkable difference in how God chooses to relate to us.
The gift of that child born in a manger becomes even more beautiful than a rainbow.
O God, who made a covenant with all living things in the days of Noah, and set a bow in the sky; give us grace to see our failings and strength to live according to your way, that we may evermore be people who reflect your love in the world. Amen.
A lesson – Genesis 32:22-32
The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him.So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.
Both genealogies in Matthew and Luke take Jesus’ family lineage through the patriarchs and matriarchs: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel. Jacob, the son of Isaac and Rebekah, struggled even in the womb with his twin brother Esau. The shadow of this struggle remained with him through his life, and the pattern of sibling rivalry played out in his own children when his favored son Joseph was attacked by his brothers, thrown into a pit, and sold off into slavery.
The great patriarchs and matriarchs of our faith could sometimes muster within themselves bravery, fearlessness, and heroic trust in God. And, they are also the very icons of dysfunctional families.
This personal family struggle finds some theological language when Jacob literally wrestles with God all night long. He sends his family and flocks away, fords the River Jabbok, and encounters a great struggle with some mysterious force. He can’t win the struggle, but he does manage to extract a blessing. It is at the Jabbok that Jacob “sees God face to face.”
Struggle is an integral part of life. Everyone struggles. Each person’s struggle is a little different. Sometimes it’s with family. Sometimes it’s with illness. Sometimes it’s with war. Sometimes it’s with God. Struggle is so normative that it’s woven into the story of the great patriarchs and matriarchs of our faith.
Even into Jesus’ family tree.
And sometimes, even when we least expect it, through the struggle we can find a blessing.
O God, in Jesus we meet you face to face; help us see your Presence among us when life is so hard and the day’s news is hardly bearable, and offer us a blessing, that somehow we might be a blessing to the world. Amen.