Sermon from December 22nd, 2013, the fourth Sunday of Advent. The text for the sermon was Matthew 1:1-17, the genealogy of Jesus.
Genealogy and Grace
When I was in New York I had the pleasure of helping out with a Passover seder for an organization I was working with. The Passover seder is the big meal, the major celebration of Passover. And the point of a Passover seder is to pass on the story of what happened in the Exodus, Moses leading his people out of Egypt. This seder I was helping with was for children, and we had a Jewish school teacher there. She was going to tell us the story of Moses leading the people out of Egypt. Now how would you start that story? With Moses in a reed basket in the river? Or maybe Pharaoh, forcing the Hebrews into slavery. And if you were particularly long-winded, you might go all the way back to Joseph, to explain why the Hebrews were in Egypt to begin with.
But this particular teacher didn’t start with Moses. And she went much further back than Pharaoh. She went all the way back to Genesis, more than 500 years before Moses was born. She got up to tell the Passover story, and she said, “Once upon a time there lived a man in Ur, and his name was Abraham.” She knew that the story of the Hebrews escaping Egypt to journey to the Promised Land doesn’t begin with the escape, but with a Promise.
Bruce Reyes-Chow, the former moderator of the PCUSA used to say that the question every single Christian should be able to answer is “Who is Jesus to you?” And Matthew’s answer begins with Abraham and it goes through 40 generations of Israelite history before getting to the beginning. Like my Jewish school teacher, Matthew wants to begin at the beginning, and Matthew knows that the story of Jesus the Messiah doesn’t begin with his birth, it begins long before that. And so Matthew begins with a list of begettings long enough to make your head spin. And it all seems a little boring until you start paying attention to what Matthew is saying about who Jesus is, and how God’s plan of salvation works.
Now Matthew’s genealogy is a little bit different from your run-of-the-mill ancestry.com profiles. For one thing, it’s wildly inaccurate. Matthew says that 14 generations separate Abraham and David, then David to the deportation, and then the deportation to Jesus. These time periods lasted roughly 750, 400, and 575 years, respectively. And then in his list, Matthew only lists 14 generations in one of his sections. The other two have thirteen apiece.
So Matthew obviously isn’t interested in being perfectly accurate, he’s not trying to get Jesus into the Daughters of the American Revolution or anything. Matthew is much less concerned with accurately recording the past than he is in saying something about who Jesus is, and what sort of salvation he will bring. You know how Abraham Lincoln used to say he was born in a log cabin? And if we look at the genealogy from that perspective, looking at it as a theological genealogy, a story of how God’s salvation is enacted in the world, then we realize that this list of names is so much more. As Father Raymond Brown, priest and scholar put it, “it contains the essential theology of the Old and the New Testaments that the whole Church, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant, should proclaim.”
The first thing that we should notice is that the list isn’t exactly full of saints. Jacob was a thief and a conniver who jumped from one frying pan into another, but always seemed to land on his feet. Judah was disobedient and couldn’t seem to resist a roadside prostitute. And David was perhaps the most cunning, manipulative politician the world has ever known. His desire for power and Bathsheba would land him in hot water over and over again, but oh, could he write some of the most beautiful songs of love and praise for his Lord. Yet in spite of their many character flaws, Matthew chose these for inclusion in his history of the Messiah. The truth about this list, and about the Bible as a whole, is that it shows us how God, with infinite grace and mercy, uses flawed and broken people to enact the salvation and redemption of the world.
Following David were the other kings of his house, and aside from a couple of reformers, most of would have made Marie Antoinette look like Winston Churchill. Any one of them could have been replaced with a sack of flour and they would have had a more just, more righteous nation. The last one, Jehoiachim, was caught trying to sneak out of the city before the Babylonians even invaded, the shepherd of Israel happy to leave them to the wolves if he can get out of the pen alive. But not only does God use flawed individuals, but flawed institutions. The God-instituted monarchy, was filled with institutional inertia, ineptitude, and even corruption, led by sinner more often than saint. But God used it nonetheless. Father Brown puts it best: “Those “Christians” who proclaim that they believe in and love Jesus but cannot accept the church or the institution because it is far from perfect and sometimes a scandal have not understood the beginning of the story and consequently are not willing to face the challenge of the sequence.”
And most of the rest of the crew are barely blips on the radar: Azor and Zadok and Achim and Eliud, not one of them was noteworthy enough for another sentence to be written about them. But its more than a little redemptive to note that if it was influential, powerful people like David and Jehoiachim who brought the Kingdom to its knees, it’s regular folks, living and loving and doing the best they can, that brought about its restoration.
There are two more aspects of this genealogy that I think that should be highlighted. First, the women. It’s slightly unusual, but not unheard of to include women in an ancient genealogy, in particular if the woman is particularly significant, or maybe allows you to claim connection to some bigger figure. What is more unusual is who Matthew singles out as especially important to include in the ancestry of the Messiah: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba.
They are more than a little scandalous. Tamar tricks her father-in-law into sleeping with her to get the child he denied her, Rahab is the prostitute who risks herself and her family to hide the spies in Jericho, and Ruth seduces Boaz when he’s passed out by the campfire. Bathsheba, when her first child with David dies as punishment for their sins, she sires another, and then cunningly and carefully ensures that he inherits the throne of his father. So what does it say that Matthew chose these women over the more standard Ladies’ bible study fare? And what does it say that Mary is included in this list of reproductive irregularities? Some were Gentiles, some Jews, but all were embroiled in sexual scandals, but all of them were enterprising and creative women who took action to secure God’s promises for themselves, and for the eventual Messiah. And if we remember that Jesus spent a lot of time with the scandalized and scandalous, we’ll realize that these, even more than the men, demonstrate God’s ability to work through any situation and any person, and that God just might have a tendency to work with those who need God the most, and we should too.
When we roll all this up into one big list, we realize that it truly is the whole salvation history of the people of God. It’s a giant challenge to those of us who only accept an idealized Jesus Christ, in whom everything is perfect, simple and decided. God refuses to be limited by what seems appropriate. In the Kingdom of God the numbers don’t add up, and the heroes are hardly heroes but they are God’s tools anyway, and our perfect church and utopian government will never be, but God will work through them anyway. God continually and constantly reaches out into the world through sinful and flawed people, through broken institutions, and cracked vessels, scandalizing the virtuous and empowering the failures to make joy out of misfortune.
What’s important about this for us is the same thing that was so important that Matthew wanted to write the list. In order for us to understand the Messiah, we need to know where he comes from, and we also need to know where we come from. We come from a long line of rule-breakers, flubs and jerks, but nevertheless God has found ways to use us all, in the midst of impossible situations, in the face of unbearable criticism, in ways that don’t always add up and hardly ever makes sense, God’s amazing grace slowly works in us the salvation through which the Kingdom will come.
There is one final detail I wanted to mention. The genealogy doesn’t quite make it to Jesus….it ends with Joseph. Even as Matthew knew that the story of Israel told the story of the Messiah, he also knew that it did not begin and end with biology. Not every begetting is the begetting of a child by a parent. Biblical families are so much deeper than that. Each of us is begotten of the father and begotten of the community in which we were raised, and we too are a part of this story. Just as the story doesn’t begin with Jesus’ birth, it doesn’t end with Jesus’ death either. So just as Abraham begat Isaac, and Rahab begat Boaz, and Azor begat Zadok, and Jesus called Peter and John, and Paul called Timothy and someone called you, so you must go out and call someone else.