Matthew 1: Advent for Joseph, the dreamer

Reading:  Matthew 1

I know when we read the Bible, it is easy to see a name list, and skip it as not important. I understand this completely, lists are information dense, but without context they don’t communicate very well. If you are in the know, they tell us something very important however, and in the case of the Genealogy in Matthew 1, there is something significant that we should notice; something that sets the tone for the start of Matthew.

At risk of stating the obvious — the name list that opens Matthew 1 includes all but one of the Kings of Judah. The only king of Judah that is missing is the one put on the throne by Pharaoh Necho II. Not only does it include the kings, but it also includes the pretenders to the throne during the Babylonian captivity, and Zerubbabel, the prince that the Persians appointed to govern the province of Judea.

Joseph might not have been the next in line to David’s throne, but he had a direct male blood line to the last Davidic leader. While the head of the family of David was likely not a close cousin, it was a cousin and the people keeping track of such things would have Joseph’s name on a list, along with any legitimate sons that he might have. Needless to say, Mary’s pregnancy was the type of thing that would lead to a scandal.

The passage tells us that Joseph responded to Mary’s news just as we might expect: he didn’t believe that she was pregnant by the “Holy Spirit.” The passage is rather euphemistic when it says that he decided to divorce her quietly, and not subject her to public disgrace — as, the form that public disgrace might take would likely be fatal.

When Joseph was resolved to do this (and I’ve no doubt Mary knew about this plan), an angel appears to him to tell him to not be afraid to stay with Mary, that the child was actually from the Holy Spirit, that he would “save the people from their sins,” and that he would be called “Emmanuel” which means “God with us.”

I like Matthew’s depiction of Jesus. From the very beginning it offers a juxtaposition of the messiah that was wanted, and who God sent. Matthew 1 starts by giving a genealogy that would be perfect for a restored monarchy — but this is the genealogy of Joseph not of Jesus. When the angel appears to Joseph, he tells him that the boy will be “God with us.” The very start of Matthew is a hint that Jesus will be something different than what was expected. Matthew 22:21 is the passage where Jesus instructs people to pay their taxes to Rome, observing his image is on the coins that they use. The king who would win independence would not accept these taxes!

Even more striking is when the Pharisees and Jesus discuss the nature of the Messiah, and Jesus asks them: “who’s son is the Messiah?” The Pharisees say that he is to be the son of David, to which Jesus asks: “Then why did David call him ‘my Lord?'” indicating that the person to come, Jesus, was more than David’s son.

Matthew is the book that tells us about the different kind of king, and the different kind of kingdom. Matthew is full of parables that begin with the words: “The kingdom of heaven is like…” These parables tell of a kingdom that has very different priorities than the nations that they live in. The most striking part of Matthew is the Sermon on the Mount, which is likely the most well known 3 chapters in the New Testament. I love how Matthew begins by showing that Jesus isn’t the messiah that people were looking for, but instead is the messiah that they need. Nobody was seeking the kingdom of heaven, but it is the kingdom that everybody needs as well.
When the angel appears to Joseph, he gets somewhat more information than Mary did. Mary knew Jesus would reign on David’s throne, with the guess that this would be a renewed dynastic reign; Joseph gets the name Emmanuel, and the detail that the destiny of Jesus would be to save the people from their sin. Saving people from their sin, and being “God with us” is something bigger than establishing a political entity. Joseph was told that Jesus was something much greater than a renewed king: Jesus was somebody who would change the relationship between God and God’s people.

Joseph’s call was simply to accept the woman he loved and a baby with a destiny. This is a calling that has some risk — but, the risk was much less obvious than that to Mary. Really, he had to take the same risk we all have to take — he had to risk living life, loving, and believing that the adventure that he would face would be worthwhile.

I know, I’m getting ahead of myself, but I thought I’d give a summary of the adventure that Joseph shared. Joseph and family ran away to Egypt to escape king Herod — because Joseph and his family were more ‘legitimate’ to be the ‘king of the Jews’ than Herod was, and Herod wanted to keep his position. The very idea that a descendant of David had a child who was something special — a prophesied Messiah was a dangerous idea.

Then again, Duke New Testament teacher suggests that Joseph dreamed dangerous dreams. He goes through the names of the children in this family; Jacob, Simon, Joseph, Joshua, Judah and observes that these are all names of strong influential people. These names included the ancestors of the entire Jewish community; Joshua, who ruled when Israel carved a place for themselves out of the land of Canaan; Judah and Simon who just a century and a half earlier were leaders in a successful war of independence against the Greek empire.

I like the idea that an angel appears to Joseph to tell him not to be afraid to love, to believe, and to keep dreaming big dreams. It is so easy for us to stop dreaming. Even when things look different than the dream, the angel tells Joseph that the son will be even greater than the biggest of dreams. Joseph is called to live believing that God has great things in store.

We know Joseph was there for Jesus’ childhood. Luke mentions that Joseph and Mary were there when Jesus was 12, and the family was in Jerusalem for the Passover. When the story picks up again, Joseph is not there. While Joseph was given a pretty clear picture of who Jesus was, he apparently did not live long enough to see the promise fulfilled.

There is something about this that I connect with. One of the themes we find in scripture is that there are promises that are far bigger than a single person, or even a single generation. Very often, the person with the clearest vision of this promise die not long before the promise is realized. Moses lead the people out of Egypt, but never saw the promised land. David planned to build the temple, but David didn’t build the temple he wished to build It seems that the people with the most vision might have started something, but they leave somebody else to finish.

I live in a world that loves to build up individuals and their vision. We want to give a single person credit for everything, and tell how one person was responsible for something big. We often don’t give credit to the vast number of people who share a vision, and work on it. If somebody starts, and another finishes, very often it seems that only one person gets the credit. We want to be the person who gets credit, we forget that the dreams that are most worth dreaming are bigger than one person or one generation.

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