Sunday, December 12, 2010

Sermon for December 12th (3rd Sunday of Advent): Matthew 1:1-17

The Jesus Family Tree

In the last few years I’ve become quite interested in tracing my family tree back through the generations and finding out what I can about my ancestors. I wouldn’t say I’m a really committed genealogist; I work at it for a while, and then I leave it for months on end, until I get interested in it again. My Dad’s oldest brother, on the other hand, is a really committed genealogist; he’s been working on it for over ten years and he’s traced our Chesterton family tree back to about 1670. I’ve been working on my Mum’s side of the family – specifically, my Mum’s mother’s side – and I’ve been able to trace the family line back to about 1811, to a small hamlet just outside Lutterworth, about eleven miles south of Leicester where I was born. I’ve also been able to discover from census records some details about the kind of life my ancestors lived and the way they made a living. But some of the records are quite cryptic and leave a lot to the imagination, and there are still a lot of gaps in my knowledge that I’d love to fill one day.

In many societies tracing one’s family line is seen as enormously important. In traditional societies, family histories and family trees are a vital part of who you are. In these traditional societies, producing your family tree or telling your family history is like producing your ID or showing your resumé.

Why am I telling you this? Because this morning I want to speak for a few minutes about a passage in the Bible that I’ve never preached on before, and one that certainly doesn’t appear in any Anglican Sunday lectionary. In fact, I’ll be very surprised if any of you have ever heard a sermon on this passage in your lives. I’m referring to the genealogy of Jesus at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel. To us today it seems a very strange thing to begin a story with a genealogy like this, but in the first century Jewish world where the gospel of Matthew was written it wasn’t a strange thing at all. Any first-century Jew would be very interested in this genealogy and in the names that appear on it. Many of them were famous names in Jewish history, and some of them were infamous, and some of them would have seemed rather unlikely candidates to be listed in the genealogy of the Messiah. So turn with me, if you will, to Matthew 1:1-17:

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

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

And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.

And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.

So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.

Why does Matthew begin his gospel with this genealogy? Well, we get a clue from the opening words of verse 1: ‘An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham’. Matthew is telling us right from the very beginning what he thinks of Jesus: he’s the long-awaited Messiah, the King who God has sent to set his people free. As the Messiah, he’s the fulfillment of all the hopes and dreams of God’s people down through the centuries. He’s the fulfillment of the old prophecies about the coming of God’s reign of justice and peace. And all the promises that God made to his people down through the centuries find their fulfilment in Jesus.

Let’s be clear: if we understand this genealogy literally, we’ll miss the point Matthew is trying to make. He says that there were fourteen generations from Abraham to David, and fourteen from David to the exile in Babylon, and fourteen from the exile in Babylon to the Messiah. But we know that this is not literally true, because his list doesn’t match up with the lists of kings we find in the Old Testament; in at least one instance Matthew has left out several generations. His Jewish readers would have known this and noticed it, because they knew their scriptures very well, and the genealogies were especially important to them.

So it’s obvious that it’s not the literal details of the genealogy that Matthew wants to emphasise. Rather, in organizing the genealogy in this way Matthew is drawing our attention to the three names of Abraham, David, and Jesus. And he’s especially emphasizing David. In the Hebrew language every letter stands for a number as well, and if you add up the letters of the name of David in Hebrew they come to fourteen. David was the first great king of Israel, and as the people looked to God to send them a Messiah, a king to set them free, it was David they looked back on as a model. Remember, Matthew wants to emphasise that Jesus is ‘The Messiah, the Son of David’. That’s why he uses the number fourteen in this way.

Abraham and David were the recipients of great promises from God. When God called Abraham to leave his homeland in what is now Iraq, about eighteen hundred years before Christ, he said to him: “Go from your country and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:1-3).

So God called Abraham to be the ancestor of his people Israel, and the focus for that people was always meant to be an outward focus: to bless all the nations. True, God called his people to be different from the nations around them: to turn away from idols and worship only one true God, and to live lives of holiness because God was holy. But the intention was never meant to be the building of a fence inside which Israel could say, “Isn’t it good that we’re God’s people and all those Gentiles are not?” No; God called his people to be a light to the nations and to lead them also to the worship and service of the one true God, and in later years the prophets of Israel re-emphasised that call. And this is going to be fulfilled in Matthew’s gospel, in which Jesus will spend his ministry teaching his disciples to follow him, and then at the end he will send them out to all nations to make them his disciples. So the promise to Abraham that all nations will be blessed through his descendants is fulfilled in Jesus.

David also received great promises. He lived probably about 1100 B.C., and, as I said, he was the first great king of Israel. At the beginning of his reign as king of the united kingdom of Israel and Judah, God spoke a word of promise to him about the future of his dynasty; we can read it in 2 Samuel chapter 7. Here’s the important bit for our purposes today; God said, “When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever… Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever: (2 Samuel 7:12-13, 16).

Now it was true that the dynasty of David lasted for a very long time, but it didn’t last forever. Between four and five hundred years after the death of David, the nation of Judah was conquered by the Babylonians, and all the leaders and educated people were taken away into exile in Babylon. That was the last time a descendant of David ruled over God’s people. After the return from exile the leaders and kings were not from the Davidic dynasty; in fact, Herod the Great, the king who tried to have Jesus killed when he was a baby, was only half-Jewish, and couldn’t even trace his ancestry back to David, let alone to Abraham.

So what happened to God’s promise to David? Matthew’s contention is that it is fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus is ‘great David’s greater Son’, as the hymn says; he is a descendant of David, but he is also the Son of God, and he lives forever as God’s anointed king. And he sets his people free, not by leading an army against their enemies, but by defeating our greatest enemies, sin and death, through his cross and resurrection. And so all the promises of God are fulfilled in him.

So Matthew has constructed this genealogy to emphasise the names of Abraham and David and teach us that Jesus is the fulfillment of the promises God made to them. But that’s not the only thing Matthew is emphasizing. If he’s teaching us about the glorious promises of God, he’s also emphasising that God made those promises to flawed and sinful human beings. And Jewish people who knew their scriptures would know this right away.

In this genealogy we have Abraham, a man who pretended his wife was his sister to save his own hide, and offered to marry her to another man – not just once, but twice. We have his grandson Jacob, who went through his life cheating his own family and anyone else he met along the way. We have Tamar, a woman who seduced her father in law by pretending to be a prostitute so that he would have sex with her in the place of her dead husband and give her the children she wanted. One of those children, Perez, appears in this list as an ancestor of Jesus. We have Rahab, a prostitute who lived in Jericho at the time when Joshua led the people of Israel into the promised land. He sent spies to spy out the city of Jericho; Rahab helped them, and in return her life was spared. Apparently she married into the people of Israel, and her name appears as an ancestor of both David and Jesus.

We have Ruth the Moabite foreigner; she married an expatriate Israelite in her own homeland, but after he died she went to Israel with her mother in law. She married a man called Boaz and became the grandfather of King David. And David himself was tragically flawed; not only was he a terrible father, but he lusted after Bathsheba, the wife of one of his soldiers, Uriah, and then had Uriah killed so that he could take his wife. And there’s Bathsheba in the list, the mother of King Solomon.

One thing that would have stood out like a sore thumb to the people of Matthew’s day was the inclusion of these women in the genealogy; that was not the usual practice in those days. Why is Matthew breaking Jewish custom in this way? Well, he’s about to tell us the story of how Mary became pregnant before she was married, not through her fiancée Joseph, but through the Holy Spirit. But of course by the time Matthew wrote his gospel there were all sorts of unsavoury rumours about Jesus’ true parentage, spread by people who couldn’t buy this idea of a miraculous conception and wanted to discredit the claim that Jesus was a true Messiah. So Matthew intentionally points back to these earlier women in the list. Look, he says – in the ancestry of King David we have incest, prostitution, and a despised foreigner, and David himself had a son out of wedlock. None of that invalidates what God did for his people through David, does it?

And that’s the good news this genealogy brings us. We human beings are a tragically flawed bunch. Even our heroes – people like Abraham and David – have feet of clay. We all have our personal demons that we struggle with, but if we were to think that this somehow disqualifies us from the promises of God, we’d be quite wrong. Flawed and sinful human beings are precisely the ones God calls to be his people, the ones he makes his promises to.

And it’s precisely because of our flaws and failures that the Son of God comes to live among us. God sent his Son to us because we need a Saviour, a deliverer, one who would come among us in all of our struggle and imperfection and lead us out of darkness into the light. Jesus is that Saviour. Charles Wesley wrote about him in these words:

Come, thou long-expected Jesus, born to set thy people free;

From our fears and sins release us; let us find our rest in thee.

God has answered that prayer; that’s the good news Matthew wants us to know. God has sent the long-expected Jesus, and in him all the promises of God are fulfilled. All who look to him in faith can be set free from their fears and sins. So let us put our trust in him, and find in him the freedom that God has promised.

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