Last Sunday there were all kinds of people coming through the line at the end of worship and meeting me down in Coffee Hour telling me how much they loved the service. The familiar hymns, along with the explanations that accompanied each hymn, made for a winning combination. It suffices to say a bunch of people left here happy last week. And a lot of people talked about how they were already looking forward to next year, which is exactly how traditions begin to take on a life of their own.
Maybe, in fact, you came to church this morning still feeling a little bit of that sacred Christmas magic, that holy fire that takes hold of you when you remember the real Good News of the Christmas season. Still humming and snapping your fingers and tapping your toes and singing out loud about shepherds and angels and newborn babies and remembering last Sunday.
So you sat down in your pew this morning until it was time to stand up for Thomas and the bagpipes leading us into worship with the classic “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” It’s one week later on the fourth Sunday in Advent…the Sunday known as “joy”…or better known as Christmas Sunday. And we’re still on a roll here in worship.
In fact, everything was chugging along right up to the point where I started reading this particular Scripture lesson. Like a stale fruitcake dropped in the middle of your Christmas dinner table, this morning’s opening words from Matthew’s Gospel leave us feeling neither warm nor fuzzy. They inspire neither mystery nor wonder. They encourage neither joy nor love, peace or hope. Not to mention the fact that many of the names in Matthew’s first chapter are really hard to pronounce.
Even if I promise all of you that you will hear the real Christmas story in Luke and in Matthew on Christmas Eve and again on Christmas Day, the question remains. What was I thinking? Reading a boring, tired, snooze fest of a genealogy on Christmas Sunday? So much for joy to the world…
Still church is supposed to be in the business of redemption. So trusting in that possibility, I want to make the case for Matthew’s genealogy, even on this noteworthy Christmas Sunday morning. Or maybe especially on this noteworthy Christmas Sunday morning.
For those of you who spend time researching and exploring these things, you know that genealogies are powerful tools. Among other things, genealogies help us understand who we are, because they show us how each of our human identities are constructed in a web of interdependent people over time. In other words, “no man is an island.” If you and I learn about the people on our family tree and we are open and honest about the stories that shaped the lives of those who came before us, we come to know ourselves better and we can better predict how our emotional DNA might drive our behavior in the future.
Because genealogies help us comprehend organizations, institutions, congregations and nuclear families, it stands to reason that a genealogy also helps us more clearly comprehend who Jesus was. Which is one of the fundamental questions we ask during the Christmas season. Who was this child, this Messiah, this infant Savior born among us in Bethlehem…?
I imagine most of us have never paid any attention to the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew. But if you were able to listen to me reading or to follow along in one of the pew Bibles, the pedigree, if you will, of Jesus Christ is both striking and startling. We might expect the ancestors of Jesus to be the veritable “who’s who” of Bible figures…pure and blameless and upstanding. The cream of the crop with impeccable genes. The finest human beings God could possibly muster.
Instead, we get a genealogy full of people that could have been rightly referred to as a “basket of deplorables.” Take a look at some of the names on this list. Among Jesus’s ancestors are Jacob, who lied to his own father and stole his older brother’s birthright. The cast includes Tamar, the woman who tricked her father-in-law, Judah, into getting her pregnant. And it also highlights Rahab, a Canaanite woman who was a prostitute…the same woman who was willing to hide a group of Israelite spies so that Joshua could fight and eventually win the battle of Jericho.
Continuing on in chronological order, King David’s son, Solomon, was the offspring of an adulterous affair between David and Bathsheba. King Uzziah tried to usurp the priesthood before he was struck with the debilitating disease of leprosy. And of course, Joseph, who was Mary’s reluctant fiancée and the soft spoken, supporting actor stepfather of Jesus.
Faced with a genealogy that runs the broad spectrum of ancestors from decent to largely irrelevant to downright unsavory, we’re left wondering what the Gospel writer was trying to accomplish. Why not skip over the ancestry and go straight to the story of Mary and Joseph and their baby who would be visited by three wise men bearing gifts? Who cares about the men and women on Jesus’s family tree?
The first reason for Matthew’s genealogy is fairly straightforward. Matthew wanted to make the case for Jesus crystal clear. To show that Jesus was not just any child. Rather, he was a direct descendant of King David, arguably the preeminent figure in the monarchical line of Israel. Citing King David proved beyond a doubt to anyone who wanted to know the royal bloodlines of the baby Jesus whom the carol tells us was “born a king on Bethlehem’s plain.”
In that sense, Matthew’s presentation of the family tree is similar to the kind of evidence you have to produce in order to be admitted to various exclusive groups. Akin to the way you have to prove your lineage all the way back to the founding of this country in order to become a certified member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, for example.
The second reason for Matthew’s genealogy is less straightforward but more applicable to us during this Christmas season. The ancestry of Jesus Christ plays out like all human stories…filled with faith and faithlessness, filled with good deeds and wicked deeds, filled with saintly actions and dubious intentions, filled with marital fidelity and sexual duplicity. To put it simply, Jesus was a king according to the royal line of David, but at the end of the day, his family tree is as checkered as everyone else’s. Some relatives were worthy of outward pride and admiration. Others were only mentioned behind closed doors in quiet whispers.
Matthew sets the tone at the very outset of his Gospel. Jesus Christ, son of Mary and Joseph, has a family genogram that could keep a psychotherapist occupied for years. When Christian thinkers insist that Jesus was fully human, Matthew’s genealogy reminds us they weren’t kidding.
There are plenty of other Biblical genealogies that are similar to the one that gave rise to Jesus Christ…chock full of relatives anyone would just as soon forget. By the same token, every Biblical genealogy underscores one of the great spiritual truths in our human experience. Pettiness, sin, evil, brokenness, deceit, and suffering are somehow passed down from generation to generation. But the graciousness of God’s blessings overcomes what appears to be an insurmountable and inherited curse. God’s mercy flows, apparently, through the actions and even despite the choices of our ancestors.
Matthew’s genealogy is a testament to the all-powerful grace of God. To be sure, the genealogy presents its greatest challenge to those in our world who can only accept an idealized Christ. The kind of Christmas story you can only write with straight lines. The kind of Christmas portrait you can only paint in pastel colors.
But the first Christmas was hardly like that. The story of the birth of Jesus Christ is full of crooked lines and detours off the beaten path. The portrait of the birth of Jesus Christ is filled with muddied colors and shadowy figures.
And in the end, all the messiness is a large part of what makes Christmas so special. If God’s grace can work through the mixed bag of people who dot the lineage of Jesus Christ, then God’s grace can work through you. And God’s grace can work through me. All of us who are broken, sinful, petty, deceitful, and suffering in our own way. God’s really Good News at Christmas is that Jesus Christ was born to love us and forgive us and redeem us and transform us and set us free and make us new again.
All God asks of us is to keep Matthew’s genealogy going…
“Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah. After Christmas, Jesus grew up and called disciples like Peter and Paul. And then Paul called Timothy. And down through the generations, people kept getting called to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Until the day came when someone in your life called you to follow Jesus Christ. And the day came when someone in my life called me to follow Jesus Christ.
And someday, if we haven’t done it already, you and I will call our sons and daughters to do the same. And they will call their sons and daughters. And the genealogy of Jesus Christ will endure and live on every Christmas for generations to come. Amen.