Scott Black Johnston: Christmas at Matthew's House


How do you celebrate Christmas? What family traditions do you observe? What foods have to be on the table? What decorations must be displayed? What carols do you need to sing in order for you to feel like it is really and truly Christmas?

Just as we have our traditions, the four gospels have theirs too. Mark, Matthew, Luke and John each take a unique approach to Christmas. Each introduces Jesus to the world in a distinctive way.

This Advent, the Reverend Tom Are, Jr. and I are visiting the homes of the four gospel writers. We are peeking in windows to see how each author has decked the halls. We are noticing who they have invited over for dinner. We are asking: "Why do you think the arrival of Jesus is significant - is holy?"

Last week, Tom took us to Mark's house. Mark didn't go in for much in the way of tinsel and garland. Instead, he took us out to the wilderness. For Mark, the wilderness is where we all (at some time or another) live. And when Jesus arrives, he meets us there.

The second house on our tour of homes belongs to Matthew. Matthew's place has got cars jamming the driveway and doubled up at the curb. Let's take a stroll up the walk and see what sort of Christmas he is preparing to celebrate.

Listen now for God's Word as it echoes to us from the very beginning of the Gospel according to Matthew - Chapter 1, verse 1:

Matthew 1: 1 An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. 

2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, 4and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, 5and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, 6and Jesse the father of King David.

And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah... [And so it continues. All the way to:] Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, 16and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.

This is the world of God for you, the people of God.


Matthew's house looks nothing like Mark's austere place. Here, there are angels and lights! Next to the garage, Matthew has set up a creche. He has strapped a neon star to his chimney. Lining the walk are three life-size, glowing plastic statues of the magi. None of the other houses on the block honor these astronomers from the East. They are a unique part of Matthew's story, and he - quite rightly - wants to make a big deal out of them.

Music and laughter radiate from Matthew's house. The sign on the front door says, "Don't bother knockin', This house is rockin'!" And it's true. Matthew's house is full of people - all sorts of people holding glasses of cider and plates of food. Everyone is standing around a tree.

If you look closer, it's not your typical Christmas tree. It's a family tree. Matthew's Christmas, you see, is a family reunion.

Do you have a relative who keeps track of the family tree - someone who spends time on, someone who knows who all the second cousins are, and what became of Aunt Anna and where your middle name comes from? Maybe that person is you. If you are a genealogy wonk, you are going to love Matthew's house.

At Matthew's house, an extended family is getting ready for the birth of a baby. To prepare, our host has pulled out charts and yellowed family photos to demonstrate that this baby comes from an established bloodline. It goes all the way back to Father Abraham. You know the song. "Father Abraham had many kids; many kids had Father Abraham. I am one of them and so are you; so, let's just praise the Lord..."

Where was I? Oh yeah, Father Abraham! Matthew traces a careful line that begins with father Abraham and his miracle of a son, Isaac. Matthew follows that lineage all the way (42 generations!) to a carpenter named Joseph. It is quite a feat, really, diagramming forty-two generations of a family tree.

As Matthew moves through his chart, a pattern unfolds, "Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel." So-and-so was the father of so-and-so, and on and on. Curiously, though, when we get to the carpenter from Nazareth (when the genealogy arrives at Joseph), the gospel writer breaks cadence. Matthew diverts from his pattern. 

Perhaps you heard it? "Eliazar the father of Matthan, Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary." Matthew does not describe Joseph as "the father of." He is a husband - a husband to Mary, the woman who gave birth to the Messiah. 

Matthew makes it clear that Joseph has no biological connection to the baby born in Bethlehem. He does it again when he tells Joseph's story. On learning that his fiancé is pregnant, Joseph gets visited by an angel. The angel explains that Mary's baby is not Joseph's child. This babe belongs to God.

This is, of course, the story of Christmas. Although, it's a bit of a headscratcher. You see the problem here, right? If there are no biological ties that bind, then why does Matthew unscroll his genealogy? Why trace a bloodline through forty-two generations, and then turn around and say, "Oh, and by the way, the last guy in line, Joseph, the crucial link between all of the previous generations and the Messiah, was not actually related to him"? 

How could Matthew make such an obvious blunder?  Unless, of course, it wasn't a blunder at all. 

A few blocks from where I minister, at Rockefeller Center, New York City erects a massive Christmas Tree every December. Crowds flock to see it. According to Eric Pauze, the head gardener at Rockefeller Center, the search for the perfect tree goes on for an entire year all around the United States. The final eighty to ninety-foot-tall candidate is chosen because it has an ideal shape and color and majesty. "This tree," says Pauze, "can have no bad sides."

The tree my family hauls home from a pop-up store on Lexington Avenue pales in comparison. Matthew knows this. Looking up from his ancestry charts, the gospel writer nods. Our family trees are not perfect - not even close. Our families are composed of beloved scoundrels, gentle martyrs, and silently bitter folk. We are related to criminals and heroes, noble people and charlatans. We have kin whom we deeply cherish, those whom we merely endure, and those we cannot believe share our same gene pool. 

While living in Austin, Texas I developed a taste for a musician named Robert Earl Keen. In one of his most famous songs, Merry Christmas from the Family, Keen describes - in an unvarnished, but not unloving manner - a typical Christmas at his parent's house. One of the verses goes like this:

Brother Ken brought his kids with him

The three from his first wife Lynn

And the two identical twins from his second wife Mary Nell

Of course, he brought his new wife Kay

Who talks all about AA

Chain smoking while the stereo plays Noel, Noel

The First Noel


Keen says out loud what we all know to be true: our families are messy. If you look at our genealogies, you will find records of separation and abandonment. You will see places where people's names have been crossed out, scribbled over, and downright erased. Some of us belong to families where diagramming our relationship to each other requires a degree in ancestral calculus. 

At this time of year - this "family time" when all is supposed to be jolly and perfect, our flawed trees stand out in our minds. So, we do what all normal Christmas tree owners do: we spin the greenery around until the best side faces the room. We live in the hope that no one will notice our hidden imperfections.

Isn't this what Matthew does? Look at this impressive, idyllic family tree, check out all of the patriarchs and kings. Hopefully, these shiny baubles will pull your attention away from a pregnant teenager, an anxious woodworker, and a baby without a clear daddy. 

If only it were that simple. 

Matthew actually refuses to hide the imperfections! He spins the scruffiest parts of the baby's family tree toward the room. His genealogy includes spies, traitors, and homeless foreigners. Matthew highlights disreputable moments in the family's history. Instead of saying: "Jesse was the father of David, and David was the father of Solomon," Matthew writes, "and David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah." Ouch. Matthew pulls us close, like a gossipy uncle, and whispers: "Hey, remember that messy affair with Bathsheba?"

What's going on here? Why does Matthew prepare us for the birth of "Emmanuel - God with us" by pointing out scoundrels in the family tree? Why doesn't the Gospel edit out the scandals? And why, for pity sake, does he trace a genealogy all the way to Joseph, and then fail to connect Joseph to the baby?

Ah, Joseph. Joseph is a crucial guest at Matthew's house. He is over there - sitting in the corner. Hasn't touched his cider. Looking like the weight of the world is on his shoulders. His fiancée is pregnant. The baby is not his. He wants to do the right thing. He is contemplating, as the gospel puts it, "dismissing Mary quietly." He has almost decided to deposit his betrothed at the Nazareth House for Unwed Mothers. He is hoping that this scandal won't pursue him for the rest of his life. 

That's his best plan. Until, Joseph gets visited by God's personal courier. The angel encourages Joseph to wed Mary, to accept the child growing in her womb, and to give that child a name. Simply put, the angel asks Joseph to adopt Jesus. 

Why does God ask Joseph to stay involved? Why does God's messenger ask the carpenter to adopt Mary's baby?

The answer Matthew gives is fascinating; and, in a Robert Earl Keen way, it is revealing. "God," the angel tells Joseph, "is in the middle of the mess that you find so morally troubling. The same God who was there in all the not-so-pretty, difficult events shaping your family tree, is in the midst of this moment."

"Not only is it possible for God to work in the midst of a mess," explains the angel, "but God actually has authored this unconventional situation involving your betrothed, Mary. Pay attention, Joseph. Do you hear what I am saying? It's you who has been adopted; in and through this baby, you and your family (stretching all the way back to Abraham) have been adopted by God." 

Illuminated Bibles from the Middle Ages often depict the first chapter of Matthew's Gospel as an elaborate family tree. Men and women perch on each branch like ornaments. At the top of the tree, Mary stands, holding the infant Jesus. Alongside the tree, Matthew stands, holding a scroll and a pen. He is still adding names to the genealogy.

In a nutshell, this is Christmas at Matthew's house. Here, the holy infant presides over our trees. I'm not talking about the ones with glass balls and tinsel. Here, Christ embraces our families in all their messiness. Here, Matthew stands, waiting for you, with pen in hand. He is going to write your name on a branch.

Protest all you want. It didn't do Joseph any good. "I am no blood relative of Jesus. This baby belongs to God."  No matter. Matthew is going to scribble away! "This," he will say, "is how God operates, forever grafting our flawed and fractured selves into a story of immeasurable hope."

Let us pray.

Give us patience and grace as we face our flawed families this Christmas. Allow us, in this holy time, to trust that we too have been adopted by God. Amen.