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Ruth 4.13-17

Matthew 1.1-17

Checkered Histories

Third Sunday of Advent

Those of you who attended my Dad’s memorial service in August heard me talk about some of the mischief he and my Uncle Joe got into at family parties.  Uncle Joe predeceased Dad; he succumbed to cancer in 1997 at the age of 63.  But truth to tell, between the two of them, my Uncle was the instigator.  It was Uncle Joe who released the parking brake on a guest’s VW bug and watched it roll down the hill behind our house, through a neighbor’s yard and into the street; it was Uncle Joe who blew up our mailbox and gutters with M-80s one fourth of July; and when the police came by to settle the party down that day, it was Uncle Joe who invited the officer,  an old high school classmate, in for a beer.  But Uncle Joe was not only my uncle, he was my godfather as well, and I loved him.  There’s probably not one of us here this morning who does not have someone in the family like this, either someone who, in spite of his good humor, can be a rascal like my Uncle; or more to the extreme, someone we’re not particularly proud of.  I had a college friend who discovered that among her ancestors were Richard the Lionhearted and William the Conqueror, two family crests she wore with slightly intemperate pride, until she came across a much closer relative who was hanged as a horse thief.  Sometimes, going through our ancestral stories reveals a rather checkered history, and we may as well be ready to admit the presence of heroes as well as scoundrels in our personal genealogies.

But for as popular as tracing one’s genealogy has become, it remains true that when we turn to the Bible, probably the driest and least exciting reading of all is right there in the scripture’s own genealogies.  Even I could see that while some of you were still on the edge of your seats in the early going of Jesus’ family tree, when I was only at Amminadab; however, most of you were positively glassy-eyed by the time we got to the neighborhood of Zerubbabel.   But whether we are plowing through a seemingly interminable listing of names in Numbers and the Chronicles, or find ourselves deep in the New Testament family tables, these books of generations played a critical role in Jewish life.  The most persuasive way of telling a person’s life story in the Hebrew tradition was to give his or her genealogy, to offer a list of ancestors, to remember your roots.  And it isn’t just the Bible; anyone who has read much of the ancient classical literature will find that this emphasis on family history is an important component to much story telling.  Our own assumptions that our ancestors can help to explain to us who we are was felt even more strongly in the ancient world.  There was a time when people were not permitted to buy or sell land outside the family, which made it all the more essential to maintain an accurate genealogy.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that when Matthew prepares to tell Jesus’ story, he begins with his genealogy, which means that by the time Matthew actually gets around to telling the story of Jesus birth, we will know quite a bit about him already.  Throughout the story he plans to tell, Matthew will be making some rather audacious claims about Jesus, and because he is writing primarily to Jews, some of these claims are going to appear borderline scandalous.  So if Matthew wants his story to sound even half-way compelling, he is going to have to grab our attention at the very outset of the story.  This is why he begins the story of Jesus, not with his birth, nor with his father and mother, Joseph and Mary, nor even with Jesus’ grandparents or great-grandparents.  No, if he is going to establish Jesus’ bona fides beyond question, Matthew knows he needs to begin the story of Jesus with Abraham, whose name literally means, “the father, or ancestor, of all people.”

We know that at the time Matthew wrote, the Jews were waiting for the Messiah who would deliver his people from oppression.  They did not yet know his identity, but they did know something about him from their scriptures:  they knew he would be Jewish, a descendant of Abraham; they knew David would be in his lineage; they knew that both Judah and Israel could claim him as their own.  It is Matthew’s unenviable task to make all these claims about the son of a carpenter, born in a barn, whose life initially came and went without much notice beyond a small circle of friends.  If Matthew’s claims about Jesus were true, then all the rest had to be true about him as well.  And so, right up front, Matthew offers his proof; he offers Jesus’ genealogy.

We said of our own genealogies that whenever we look into our past, we are bound to discover some surprises, some happy and some rather rude.  Jesus’ genealogy is no different.  There are some pretty illustrious names in Jesus’ past, people to whom we’d naturally expect Jesus to be related.  Besides Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, we also find folks like Solomon, Jehoshaphat, Amos, Hezekiah and Josiah, whom some say was an even greater king than David.  At the same time, though, as if to remind us that Jesus was every bit as human as we are, a few Uncle Joes come tumbling out of Jesus’ hereditary closet as well.  In Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus – which, by the way, is noticeably different from Luke’s genealogy of Jesus – written largely for the edification of the Jewish community, we discover a seductress, a harlot, an adulterer and worst of all (to Matthew’s audience), a gentile!  Matthew, who has the reputation of usually cleaning up some of the messier aspects of Jesus’ life, has for some reason decided to present Jesus’ forbears, as it were, warts and all!

For example, Matthew lists, in verse three, a woman named Tamar, for whom the word seductress is in reality a polite understatement.  If Tamar were simply a seductress it might not be so bad; but the object of her affection was her father-in-law, adding an extra dash of spice to Jesus’ family stew.  This is the kind of person, Matthew is telling us, who is a direct ancestor of the messiah.  From the book of Joshua, you may remember the story of the two Israelite spies who were protected by Rahab.  She hid them both from the enemy, and when the coast was clear she helped them escape.  To the Jews, Rahab was such a heroine that most found it convenient to forget that her profession is sometimes called the oldest in the world.  Bathsheba?  She becamse enmeshed in an affair with a world leader.  She was part of Jesus’ family too!  On another side of the coin, Barbara Jan reminded us this morning of the story of Ruth, the model of virtue.  Ruth was another of Jesus’ ancestors, but she stands out in Matthew’s genealogy in a different way, because Ruth was a gentile; she was not even a Jew.  The messiah, Matthew seems to be telling us, comes from a family with a decidedly mottled history.

You and I stand this morning at the heart of Advent, that season which prepares us to receive the savior once more into our lives and into our world.  Do we really need to trot these skeletons out of Jesus’ familial closet and parade them for everyone to see?  Why can’t we simply focus on the relatives with no spot or blemish on their lives or reputations?  This is an important question.  It is clear that Matthew was making a point of including these individuals in his listing of Jesus’ family tree, because in Matthew’s day women had no place in a Hebrew genealogy.  It was like a poke in the eye for Matthew to deliberately include women, and a double poke in the eye to make a point of including the women he did.  If this were a simple retelling of Jesus’ family tree, both propriety and tradition could have compelled Matthew to leave Tamar and Rahab and Bathsheba and Ruth off the list.  Clearly, Matthew included them for a reason.

Shortly before Jesus was born, you’ll recall, there was more than a whiff of scandal surrounding his parents.  The life of the person Matthew wants us to believe is the messiah began outside wedlock.  Matthew, as the teller of Jesus’ story, could conveniently have left that part of it out, just as he could have left those speed bumps out of Jesus’ genealogy.  But instead, not only does he admit Mary’s condition, he pointedly includes a handful of other equally socially questionable people in his list of ancestors.  Matthew is saying to his readers that each of these women has something in common with the others that is vitally important to the story of Christ.  To the objective eye all of them - Tamar, Ruth, Rahab, Bathsheba, and Mary - look to have a touch of scandal to their lives.  These are not the women one would expect to be progenitors of the messiah.  But the reality is, these women are heroes, heroines.  Tamar, Rahab, Bathsheba and Ruth all have a major role in propelling the story and history of Israel forward.  Each of them was used by God as channels of blessing.  Remove any one of them, and you break the chain:  no Tamar?  no Rahab?  Then there would be no Jesus, no Christ, no messiah.  These women, Matthew is telling us, are indispensable keys in God’s plan of salvation.

There is a second thread that ties their lives together as well.  Each of these women took the initiative.  They were not so much acted upon as they were themselves actors, or actresses, within the divine drama.  The fact that they are channels of God’s blessing derives directly from the fact that they had the courage to be part of God’s plan regardless of what anybody else thought of them.  There were not many who had the same kind of courage these women possessed.  These are very special people, Matthew is saying; without them, there would be no story to tell of Jesus of Nazareth, son of David, descendant of Abraham, the messiah and chosen one of God.

The church of Matthew’s day had little use for women in the telling of its history, and even less use for women of questionable repute.  Yet these are the very people, Matthew is saying, through whom God has chosen to work.  The salvation of the world depends on them.  They are the same people through whom God continues to work today, the people whom polite society would just as soon ignore, and whom some elements of God’s church might wish away.  But as Matthew put them front and center in the story of Jesus’ life, in a deliberate, “in your face” kind of way, so God reminds us that the work of salvation takes place through every single child of God.  There is none of us whom God cannot, and will not, use.  It may be that the outcast, the ignored, the marginalized and the interloper are the ones through whom God’s message will speak most convincingly.  It may also be that some day we will wake to find our own names in the genealogy of God’s faithful servants.

At the end of the day, this is a story about Jesus.  While a genealogy can tell us something about his ancestors, and indeed in the longer view his offspring, the whole reason it exists is to tell us about Jesus.  Jesus is the Christ, the messiah to whom all of history points, forward and backward, and proclaims, “This is the Son of God.” As you and I move through the season of Advent, Matthew reminds us not to get caught up in what we may think about those who surround the Savior.  Rather, he invites us to consider our place among them, no matter who we are or where we are on life’s journey.  You and I and every one of God’s children is an important, crucial part of Jesus’ family.

So next time you decide to read the genealogy from Matthew’s gospel – for pleasure – be sure to put your own name somewhere in that family tree – because we all belong.

all have a major role in propelling the story and history of Israel forward.  Each of them was used by God as channels of blessing.  Remove any one of them, and you break the chain:  no Tamar?  no Rahab?  Then there would be no Jesus, no Christ, no messiah.  These women, Matthew is telling us, are indispensable keys in God’s plan of salvation.

There is a second thread that ties their lives together as well.  Each of these women took the initiative.  They were not so much acted upon as they were themselves actors, or actresses, within the divine drama.  The fact that they are channels of God’s blessing derives directly from the fact that they had the courage to be part of God’s plan regardless of what anybody else thought of them.  There were not many who had the same kind of courage these women possessed.  These are very special people, Matthew is saying; without them, there would be no story to tell of Jesus of Nazareth, son of David, descendant of Abraham, the messiah and chosen one of God.

The church of Matthew’s day had little use for women in the telling of its history, and even less use for women of questionable repute.  Yet these are the very people, Matthew is saying, through whom God has chosen to work.  The salvation of the world depends on them.  They are the same people through whom God continues to work today, the people whom polite society would just as soon ignore, and whom some elements of God’s church might wish away.  But as Matthew put them front and center in the story of Jesus’ life, in a deliberate, “in your face” kind of way, so God reminds us that the work of salvation takes place through every single child of God.  There is none of us whom God cannot, and will not, use.  It may be that the outcast, the ignored, the marginalized and the interloper are the ones through whom God’s message will speak most convincingly.  It may also be that some day we will wake to find our own names in the genealogy of God’s faithful servants.

At the end of the day, this is a story about Jesus.  While a genealogy can tell us something about his ancestors, and indeed in the longer view his offspring, the whole reason it exists is to tell us about Jesus.  Jesus is the Christ, the messiah to whom all of history points, forward and backward, and proclaims, “This is the Son of God.” As you and I move through the season of Advent, Matthew reminds us not to get caught up in what we may think about those who surround the Savior.  Rather, he invites us to consider our place among them, no matter who we are or where we are on life’s journey.  You and I and every one of God’s children is an important, crucial part of Jesus’ family.

So next time you decide to read the genealogy from Matthew’s gospel – for pleasure – be sure to put your own name somewhere in that family tree – because we all belong.

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