Are you the one who is to come, or should we wait for another? (Matthew 11:3).
Surely John knew. Jesus was his cousin, and people were talking of Messiah. Yet John wondered. Jesus didn’t look like the Messiah he expected, so John sent a message and asked, ‘Are you the one?’ Like the confusing, annoying cousin that he was, Jesus replied ambiguously. ‘Look at the fruits of my ministry,’ he said. ‘People and communities are healed and restored. Am I the one? You decide.’ Then for good measure he threw in a zinger: ‘And BTW – blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me!’ For the faithful prophet John, the implication that he is offended must have felt like a punch in the guts.
Families. They sure know how to disappoint. They know how to hurt each other, confound each other, weird one another out, and throw in a zinger when we least expect it, and the families in Matthew’s story are no exception. It opens with a wild genealogy, packed with idol worshippers, murderers, adulterers and prostitutes who slept with the wrong people and raped and murdered the good people and worshipped the gods of foreign people; and every now and then turned to God, confessed their sins, and repented — at least, for a little while.
Into this messy family comes a young woman, maybe 12 or 13. She’s pregnant, but not to her fiancé; yet he marries her and accepts the baby which isn’t his, making them part of the family. It’s a terrible scandal.
This baby becomes a man who keeps challenging the idea of family. He says that following him will cause family conflict, and that loving him must take priority over loving our own parents or children (ch. 10). When he is told that his mother, his brothers and his sisters are wanting to speak to him, he points to the mob around him and says that those who follow God’s will are his siblings and his mother (ch. 12). When he tries to work among the dense network of friends and relatives which make up his hometown, he is rejected (ch. 13). When he dies, the Marys named at the base of the cross do *not* include his own mother (27:56). And when he rises again, he sends message to his ‘brothers’, by which he means not his biological family but the disciples.
As we look to Christmas, that quintessential family holiday, many of us have complicated feelings. We are celebrating the birth of a man who upended the category of family; yet many of us will meet with our own families and won’t even be at church. Instead, we will spend the day with our confusing cousins, biological brothers, and people we’re not too sure about.
And while some of us are excited and can’t wait, many of us are not. Because many of us know what it is to feel hurt and confused by our families, and to feel judged and found wanting; and perhaps some of us have done some of the hurting and judging, too.
For those of us who find family Christmas difficult, Matthew’s story is a gift. It shows that God can work through even the messiest, hardest, darkest families to bring something good and healing into the world; and it also offers an alternative. For it tells us that our ultimate loyalty must be to a family bigger than our relatives: Jesus and those who follow him. So if you are struggling this Christmas, remember two things. One, even your family and its shadows can be sites of God’s goodness and grace and holiness. And two, you always have a family among the disciples here at Sanctuary.
This week, my prayer is that amid the unmet expectations, painful disappointments and disrupted relationships found in every beautiful ordinary family, you will glimpse a sign of the Christ-child: because God never gave up on Jesus’ family, and God will never give up on yours. And I pray also that you will know deep within yourself the joy of being gathered into God’s family, which will always be greater than any human family system.
PPS – The concept of the confusing cousin was shamelessly stolen from my brother in Christ, Rev Marcus Curnow – and he knows it! And, of course, this meditation is based on Matthew’s depiction of family. In Luke’s story, family is portrayed quite differently.
Emailed to Sanctuary 14 December 2022 © Sanctuary, 2022. Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash. Sanctuary is based on Peek Wurrung country. Acknowledgement of country here.
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