Birth Against the Machine, Pt. III
Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose Mary 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…” - Matthew 1:20
Instead of quietly surrendering to cultural and religious rule, Joseph is instructed and invited to step into the dilemma and join Mary in the middle of the scandal.
A heavenly messenger shows up and wrecks Joseph's plans to keep things proper and quiet.
The angel essentially says, “Accept Mary and her coming child—a child that is not your own—extend that child your family name—the name of King David—name that child, raise him as your own…”
And the unwritten part of that message is, “In so doing, submit yourself to being judged and condemned…submit yourself to being cut off from the religious and cultural systems that will most certainly denounce you.”
This is the divine instruction and invitation.
This is the great dilemma of Matthew’s birth narrative of the Christ.
This is the same dilemma faced by the original dreaming Joseph in Genesis.
This is the same dilemma faced by Joseph’s great grand-parents Abraham and Sarah.
Rabbi Nahum Ward Lev describes our forbearers Abraham and Sarah as signing up for a journey of “Cultural Vertigo”…being “stripped naked of the belief systems that had provided meaning and cosmic order.”
Now, generations later, Joseph and Mary are signing up for the same journey...a journey undertaken by their ancestors…a dilemma faced by all the biblical people Matthew lists in his genealogy of Jesus just before this story.
Can we see why Matthew might open his Gospel with a story like this?
This dilemma, the journey of cultural vertigo - the scandal of being stripped naked of the belief systems that had previously provided meaning and safety and security - runs throughout the biblical story.
It’s a scandal that Matthew the tax collector knows all too well.
It’s a dilemma to which the Christ speaks—even from within the womb.
It’s a journey that Jesus the Christ will live out for us—showing us the way—in the pages of the Gospels.
Anyone who truly wrestles with the divine…will face this dilemma.
Anyone who remains open to the inner messages—the dreams of God will confront this scandal.
Any keeper of "the way"—any follower of the Christ—will undertake this journey.
If we transcend the law, we will be accused by others—and perhaps even by ourselves—of rejecting the Bible and tradition.
We will face cultural vertigo.
We will be invited to leave comfortable and predictable forms behind for something much more formless.
We will find ourselves torn between the “Egypts” that have sustained us and the wondrous wilderness to which we are called.
Joseph and Mary stand at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel as a model for the tension all disciples will face—the tension between the prevailing understanding and the new thing the Christ is doing.
To quote Alexander John Shaia once more, the invitation is clear:
“We must stay open to the inner messages of God. It is important that neither our inner assumptions nor the demands of our culture and tradition impede us in moving forward with God.”
It will not be easy.
It would be much simpler to quietly dismiss the conflict and not move forward.
But hear these proclamations from Matthew’s Gospel…
Receive the reality of the new thing being birthed in our darkest hour…
You shall name him Jesus—which means, God will deliver us.
“They shall call him Immanuel, which means, ‘God is with us.’”
Whatever comes next, it is not the end of us…God will deliver us.
And it won’t happen from afar because we do not journey alone.
God is with us…right here, right now.
You know, when we release this story at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel from the confines of small, incoherent, literal conclusions and hold it as a larger, universally wondrous and hopeful question, it even makes the story that immediately follows it much more fascinating.
Joseph and Mary face the dilemma—risking cultural vertigo and leaving behind the religious and cultural resources that had previously sustained them. When they do…do we recognize what happens next?
Visitors arrive from the east with unexpected gifts. (Matthew 2:1-12)
God will deliver us.
God is with us.
And unexpected gifts will arise from unexpected places and unexpected people as we walk out our journey with the Christ.
That may not sound immaculate…but it sure sounds like Good News.
May we be people who step into dilemmas
May we be people who embrace the scandalous
May we receive and also be unexpected gifts in unexpected places
May we journey beyond small and literal certainty toward wondrous universal questions of hope, trusting that the God who is with us will deliver us.
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