Jesus’ Shady Past – Third Sunday in Advent
Genesis 12.1–9 | Matthew 1.1–17
Preached by me at St Alban's Five Dock, December 2017
Genesis 12.1–9 | Matthew 1.1–17
Preached by me at St Alban's Five Dock, December 2017
[Our Father in heaven, thank you that our deliverance has dawned in Jesus Christ, and that in him you are making all things new. In this Advent season, we pray that you would refresh us with your grace, and encourage our hearts by your Scriptures, so that we might find lasting, joyful rest in you. Amen.]
It’s said that you should never judge a book by its cover; but I think you can pick an exceptional book by its first sentence. A good first sentence not only captures your imagination, it gives a sense of meaning and direction. So right from the start of Pride and Prejudice you know the story is explore love and money: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.’ Or that Peter Pan will explore themes of youth and maturity: ‘All children, except one, grow up.’
Used well, a first sentence can be a powerful thing.
The Gospels too begin with skilfully written introductions: John, perhaps most famously with: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” But I’m not sure if any of us would rate Matthew’s opening. His first sentence includes a bold statement of Jesus identity: “Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” But I think most for us, that all seems to be undone by his genealogy. It’s a little bit bizarre, given Matthew’s position in the Bible, as the opening of the New Testament. A long list of unfamiliar and unpronounceable names – I think I’m more likely to skip over this passage then draw any inspiration or encouragement from it.
The genealogy appears to be about as unexciting an opening as it could be.
But to those with eyes to see, it tells the story that must be grasped if the plot of the whole Gospel is to be understood. You see, Matthew is telling us as loud as possible that Jesus’ birth signals a new beginning. God’s work with Abraham, with David has been moving towards this moment. As we explore this genealogy today, we’ll see that this new beginning for two groups; firstly those on the inside, and secondly the outsider. Matthew’s genealogy heralds a new start for everyone.
A new beginning
Today, it’s very easy to find out who a person is and what they’re like. With the power of google at hand, and the amount of information that is freely accessible from facebook and LinkedIn, it can take only a matter of minutes to find what out who someone is. Where people have worked, which political party they support, and even what they had for dinner last night.
In ancient Middle Eastern culture, genealogies were used by the rich and the powerful to tell stories. They were narrative devices, used explain a person’s place in history via their connection to their ancestors. Matthew uses a genealogy to us who Jesus is. You’ll notice that this genealogy is highly structured, and Matthew himself tells us in v17 we have three groupings of 14 generations. Israel’s history is broken into thirds: From Abraham to David, from David to the Babylonian Captivity, and from the Babylonian Captivity to Jesus. It’s quite stylised – almost poetic – and it seems that Matthew skipped some generations to maintain the 14x14x14 pattern. There are a couple of kings, for example, missing from the list. But that doesn’t mean Matthew is being deceptive; instead we need to realise ancient genealogies served a different purpose to what they do today. Over the past couple of years my mum has been painstakingly research our family tree. [Maybe you have someone in your family who spends all their time on ancestry.com] It’s very labour intensive, as Mum sifts through records to try and record every single person we’re related too. [It turns out I’m related to a Viking prince called Gandalf.]
Matthew isn’t trying to do this. Not just conveying biological facts, but telling a story, so he can skip some ancestors, mention the existence of some brothers in vv.2&11 but not others, record some wives and not others. He’s connecting Jesus’ story into the larger plot, the story of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Like the opening credits to Star Wars, Matthew uses the genealogy to set the scene for Jesus.
But this isn’t a ‘once upon a time’ story either. Matthew’s purpose is to succinctly retell the whole history of the world, from the very beginning of the world until Jesus.
So Matthew starts with Genesis – both literally and metaphorically. You may have missed, but it’s there under our noses in 1:1, lying under the words “An account of the genealogy”, is literally ‘the book of the genesis of Jesus’. This is, a new Genesis, a new beginning. It’s the same phrase that’s repeated throughout Genesis to single something new is happening.
By echoing Genesis, Matthew raises our hopes that the God who made this world is at work in Jesus. It’s like that moment in Narnia when you hear word ‘Aslan is on the move’. This is a new beginning, and we should expect nothing less than a new creation, as God acts through his Messiah to renew and transform the world.
Which turns out to be really good news for those who are “in”; those whose religious or moral scruples give them a sense that God is on their side. This new beginning, this new Genesis, offers a new beginning to God’s people Israel. After a millenia of being the apple of God’s eye, Israel had had more than their fair share of glory. But there were also skeletons in the closet. Despite the glory, it was a shady past.
And Matthew places Jesus right at the centre of Israel’s history, this shady past. This is not just a resumption of the Old Testament story; it is designed to show Jesus as the one expected throughout history: the Messiah.
Israel’s story had started so well. From the founding promise to Abraham there is an ascending movement to David’s kingship. The names in this section are the ones we are probably most familiar with: Abraham the man of faith who trusted God to provide him with an heir; Isaac who at a young age almost had his throat slit because of his father’s faith; Jacob who lied and cheated his way into blessing, and was later cheated into marrying the wrong woman; Boaz who came to the rescue of Ruth; and King David, God’s chosen Messiah who battled Israel’s enemies.
By the time we reach King David these promises seem fulfilled: the nation is numerous and secure in the Promised Land. But tragically, Israel’s history declines into exile. It seems almost inevitable from v6 when we’re reminded of David’s adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband Uriah. Matthew can’t even bring himself to name her, describing Bathsheba as simply Uriah’s wife. God’s promise to Abraham was to bring blessing to all families on earth; here we find God’s king tearing a family apart.
And from there Israel’s trajectory is continually downward spiral of sin and decline. It’s a pretty shady history. Some of the names here are still familiar: David, Solomon, Hezekiah, Josiah; some of the names are more infamous than famous: Rehoboam, who lost David & Solomon’s kingdom through his arrogance and greed, Manasseh and Amos, two kings who enjoyed sacrificing children to pagan gods. The achievements of the previous generations appear lost, as Israel’s glory is carried off into captivity.
The third stanza presents Israel’s history as sliding into obscurity. The names of the third section are entirely unfamiliar. Who is Azor? Who is Zadok? Who is Eleazar? We know almost nothing about most of these men. None of these men ruled as kings. None of these men reigned in peace. This period smells of failure.
For many Jews during the time of Jesus, things still smelt like that. We sing about this every year in some of the Advent carols: “O come o come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, That mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear.” Israel was still in exile. According to verse 17 that’s where Jesus arrives: He comes at the depths of Israel’s shame and disgrace, to rescue Israel from their sin. Born into this family of adulterers and liars and murderers, he will save his people from their sins. He makes Israel’s exile his own, taking the shame of exile and sin, the legacy of injustice, idolatry, and violence; he takes it all to the cross.
This birth, Matthew says, is the birth Israel has been waiting for. In the face of Israel’s abject failures, religious hypocrisy, and moral self-righteousness, we see God’s relentless love shine through. Through Israel’s shady past we can trace God’s grace, time and time again, until the advent of his messiah. Which is good news if you’re living that kind of upright life. You might have a sponsor kid, or use green sourced electricity, volunteer for the P&C be vegetarian, or support the refugees on Manus Island. They’re all good causes – but we have skeletons in our own closet. You might be genteel and polite. You might vote for the right party. You might go to church every Sunday, or usually never be seen dead in a place like this. Whoever you are, we each have a shady past – not just from our ancestors, but in our lives. Your ethics, your morality, your integrity and sincerity, won’t be enough to deal with whatever it is for you. They might paper over it for a while. But eventually cracks will appear; and whatever it is that haunts you about your life will find a way back. The good news according to Matthew 1 is that whatever it is that weighs you down, God has more than enough love and forgiveness to deal with it – for good – in Jesus. That’s grace. That’s grace that you can trace over you own life, over all the stuff ups, all the failures, all your fears. Let Jesus trace God’s grace over your life.
It turns out that this is a new beginning for those on the outside. If you feel alone, like you don’t belong, like you could never fit in, Jesus offers you a new beginning too.
You may have heard of the old prayer Jewish men once prayed thanking God that they were neither a gentile – that is a foreigner – nor a woman. Yet Matthew’s genealogy includes four gentile women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah. This is highly unusual, firstly because genealogies generally didn’t include women, and secondly there were other women not included, like Abraham’s wife Sarah. The inclusion of these four women breaks the pattern of father and son, calling our attention to them. Why does Matthew include these women in Jesus’ family tree?
· The twice-widowed Tamar, who tricked her father-in-law into sleeping wih her by dressing as a prostitute.
· The Canaanite Rahab, an actual prostitute.
· King David’s great-grandmother Ruth, from Israel’s great enemy Moab. We’ve seen quite a few of our federal politicians resign because they held foreign citizenship. In ancient Israel you couldn’t hold Israelite citizenship if you were within 10 generations of a Moabite ancestor.
· And the adulterous wife of Uriah, who slept with David.
Why does Matthew include these women in Jesus’ family tree? It could be that by including these four unexpected women, Matthew is preparing us for v16...God worked in bizarre ways through each of these women, and will do so again through Joseph’s fiancée, the Virgin Mary. But it seems likely that these women hint at something else. Despite their irregularities, these women were examples of tenacious faithfulness.
· the twice-widowed Tamar, who continued the family line
· Rahab, who aided the Israelites in their entry into the Promised Land
· Ruth, who served her mother-in-law and took shelter under the God of Israel.
· And Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife, and Solomon’s mother who brought her son to the throne.
Some of them are victims of the schemes and machinations of the men around them. They’d have their own #metoo stories to tell.
Yet each of these foreign women are part of the story of the Jewish messiah: the story of Israel is open to the inclusion of Gentiles. These women demonstrate that God has woven ethnic outsiders into the story from start to finish. The signpost the ending of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus would be preached to all nations. What they show us is that God’s kingdom, God’s family, is not just for people of the right race or gender. His love is not limited by blood or DNA. God’s love is for all people, Jew and non-Jew, men and women, the lonely and the outcast, the unlovely and the excluded. God’s grace is for the outsider.
For many of us sitting here today, their story is our story. We were strangers to Israel’s promises, but we sit here today by God’s grace as members of Abraham’s family. We read Israel’s scriptures, and worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. By the same grace that God showed Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba, we enjoy the blessing promised through Abraham to all families of the world, now realised in God’s Messiah. These women embody the truth that David's son, the Messiah, is not only the ruler of Israel but also the promised descendent of Abraham in whom all the nations will be blessed.
Male and female, king and prostitute, Jew and Gentile, are all equally part of Jesus’s family. This list of unpronounceable names drips with God’s mercy.
Let’s tie the threads together...after Israel’s failures and disappointments, Matthew tells us that God has unfinished business. Which is such good news for us at the end of a long and busy year – our failures, our fears, aren’t the final word. Matthew presents us with the story of God’s steadfast love. That story comes together in Jesus. He offers rest to those who are languishing and weary by saving people from their sins. He brings the lonely exiles home, and welcomes the strangers to these promises. He is the Messiah, who offers a new beginning, a new creation, a new Genesis, to the world.
There’s a second way that Matthew highlights Genesis for us – to get this you need to be good with maths; or at the very least get the significance of the number 7 in the old testament. In the Old Testament the number 7 symbolises completion. It points to rest. God rested on the seventh day. That rest was echoed in the Law God gave Israel, so that every seven years, the land in Israel was supposed to lie fallow, to replenish its nutrients. And after 49 years – seven sevens, Israel celebrated a Jubilee Year, in which all debts were forgiven in and all slaves were freed.
In Matthew 1 we’re presented with a list of names that’s divided into 3 sets of 14. 3 sets of 14 easily becomes six sets of 7, with Jesus beginning the seventh, final stanza. Jesus is the seventh seven. He is the year of jubilee, bringing rest for the weary, forgiveness of every debt, and freedom for those in chains.
He is ultimate rest.
- You don’t have to earn God’s love: it’s given to you as a gift purchased by him.
- You don’t have to prove yourself, you’re free from the constant striving.: in Christ you have the absolute approval of the only one whose opinion really matters.
- You don’t have to bear the weight of the world on your shoulders. The pressures from family, from work, from raising kids, getting that exam mark, providing the best Christmas lunch, finding that perfect Christmas present. He is your protector and provider. If God loved and pursued you like this when you were his enemy; don’t you think he’ll take care of you now that he is your friend?
- You don’t have to grasp so tightly all the goodness of the world because every promise of God is yes to you in Christ Jesus, and he has an eternal inheritance laid up for you that moths cannot destroy and thieves cannot break in and steal.
He brings real rest to all families. It’s why on Christmas Day you’ll find people from every language and nation celebrating Jesus’ birth. The church is most diverse and inclusive organism that has ever existed in history – because all people are invited to find rest in him.
At the centre of history then, is this man; this man. The story of God’s faithfulness and steadfast love finds its climax and joy and completion in him. Not the Roman Emperor of Jesus day; not the last US election, or the next one; not the GFC, or how much grant money you got this year...the defining the moment in history is a person, and his name is Jesus the Christ. He came to bring you rest for your soul by becoming a lonely, languishing, exile. [He’s even more fulfilling than an Eels premiership]. God’s own Son left his father’s side and became an outside so that you could take your place in his family. He was left alone and forsaken on the cross, taking all our shady history with him, and leaving it to die there with him.
This is the story of grace that Advent teaches us to learn, and taste, and long for in our lives now. Advent directs our gaze back to Israel’s longing for a Messiah, and forward to the world Christmas promises. Advent teaches us not be set our hopes on the ipod or the bike under the Christmas tree, but to yearn for that world of peace and justice. And if you listen closely, you’ll hear that something new is happening. It might only be a whisper, but can you hear it? ‘God is coming. God is coming’.
It’s been a long year, and the end of the year brings with it enough stresses of its own. Jesus offers you something new. Something that will satisfy your heart and exceed your wildest dreams. Jesus says, come unto me, all you who labour and are heavy laden and I will give you REST.
 From Tim Keller: “Women were seldom put in ancient genealogies at all, let alone women who reminded readers of the sordid sins and corruption of ancestors such as Judah and David. All of these figures would have been disowned or expunged from a normal genealogy, but here they are not.”