Lineage, Belt Buckles and the BIG US. (Matthew 1:1-25)

Here’s my sermon from December 19th.

This morning is the fourth and final week of advent. We have travelled long and far in our discussion this advent season, and hopefully some of the ideas, stories and experiences you have had thus far have been meaningful, maybe even transformative, to you.

(We did an activity to start off the morning. After having a group of people read Jesus’ Genealogy we outlined our own genealogies on the back-side of our bulletins).

A. What’s in a name? (The lineage of Christ)

Especially in the Biblical times of Jewish culture, but I think that this is true in some parts of the world today, a person’s lineage is of utmost importance. If you think back to the Old Testament there are many places where there is a well-placed geneology. And if you’ve ever tried to read through the Bible you know exactly what I’m talking about, those genealogies might even be part of the reason why you never finished reading the bible through to the end.

Let’s be honest, we come to a list of names like this and the first thing we want to do is skim over them. The same way an annoying commercial  during a commerical break makes you want to turn the channel, the genealogies seem to be more of a nuisance than anything.

This response may in fact tell us more about our own connection to family and our own society’s biases about genealogy than it does about the Bible. After all, Matthew begins his massive outreach effort of sharing the story of Jesus, the Messiah, with a list of his ruddy ancestors.

But, in keeping with our theme for Advent, all we need to do is wipe away some of the morning dew in order to see more clearly through the window of what is being presented.

So if it’s not this boring commerical to skim over what is it?

NT Wright calls this genealogy the drum-roll of Jesus’ life, it is the opening scene of your favorite prime-time show, those first 30 seconds that try to get your hooked so you won’t turn the channel.

But a genealogy for a hook? Seems like just plain old bad TV writing. Maybe Matthew just wasn’t cut out for ABC.

But then again, for any first century Jew hearing the Jesus story for the first time, their first thought would be “who is this guy, where does he come from, what family is he from, etc.”

NT Wright puts it like this:

“Any first-century Jew would find this family tree both impressive and compelling. Like a great procession coming down a city street, we watch the figures at the front, and the ones in the middle, but all eyes are waiting for the one who comes in the position of greatest honor, right at the end” (2).

His first readers want to see the connections.

Like our readers read a min. ago:

Matthew says this history has a shape.
Matthew tells it as God’s story.
Matthew suggests our story links back to this story…

And so the lineup of who is here is in part Matthew already showing the direction this is all going to go. There’s a lot of people in this list who shouldn’t be here, many of us would probably feel the same if we found our names in that list.

And it would be rather shocking to a first century Jew inasmuch as the people represented are not only not pure, but some of them aren’t even Jews.

But beyond just building up steam to get to the punchline of Jesus’ birth is something more subtle and something you’ve already made notice of is who is actually in Jesus’ genealogy.

First, Matthew names four women. In that time it was unheard of to have women named in a list like this, only males were accounted for and mattered in a genealogy. It was thought that everything meaningful passed down through the male, Jesus’ genealogy challenges this very fundamental assumption.

Matthew is clearly up to something sneaky.

And then we observe something even more scandalous not even all these woman are Jews.

And all of them are outsiders to Israel in one way or another (you’ll have to go back and read their stories if you’re interested).

So what is Matthew up to?

If you read the rest of Matthew you’ll learn that this is a Gospel about God’s undeniable love and concern for the outsiders (Matt. 15:21-28). These are the people who don’t make the cut ethnically, theologically, the people who don’t get invited over for dinner because they are perceived as unclean, dangerous to our own sense of purity, and certainly not people we could learn from.

In fact, Matthew gives a prominent role to Gentiles in his Gospel, a story that at least from the surface seems to be addressed to only the Jews. (Matthew 8:1-13 The Centurion is about an outsider to Judaism, a roman solider, who Jesus helps).

Laurel A. Dykstra writes:

“[These] verses…give striking examples of “God with us.” Among the generations of Jesus’ forebearers, five mothers are included: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, the wife of Uriah (Bathsheba), and Mary.

None of the first four women is a model of sexual propriety, and each is in some way an outsider in Israel. But each appears in a story where powerful individuals fail to do justice and unconventional action is shown to be righteous. God’s work is characterized through them, and Mary, as active, inclusive, and unexpected.”

Are you hooked yet? Don’t you wonder what this could all be about?

B. God is with us?

And then the end of the line up is found in our  passage in Matt. 1:18-25.

The angel says to Joseph:

“You will adopt this boy, you will name him Jesus and then Matthew quotes Isa. 7 about him being called Immanuel which means “God is with us.”’ In Isaiah 7, the baby Immanuel was to be born as a sign to the Jewish people during the period shortly before the fall of Jerusalem when they were all carried into exile by the Babylonians.

In the middle of turmoil, devastation, a sign is born: God is with us.

That is awesome…God is with us.

God is with us?

Wait…backup…with who? With us? or With us as in Joseph and Mary?

Who is us?

Let’s see, Matthew was a Jew, okay maybe it’s God is with the Jewish people? I mean it starts out being about the “Son of David” so maybe it’s just David’s family?

But we know this is a story meant to make disciples (Matt 28) so maybe it is just about whoever gets it, you know, like whoever understands what this is all about and has clear cut ideas about right and wrong, up and down, in and out?

But wait John the Baptist didn’t even get it. He got confused (as we talked about last week) and started wondering whether Jesus really was the Messiah.

So who is “this us?”

And isn’t this our perennial question.

Well, it must have something to do with this whole lineage. It’s all tied together after all these names come in 6 sets of 7 (whenever 7 show up in the bible we’re supposed to pay attention). And Jesus’ name is the last 7, the culmination of everything that has come before him. It looks like Matthew was intending to make a point within a point.

“The number seven was and is one of the most powerful symbolic numbers, and to be born at the beginning of the seventh seven in the sequence is clearly to be the climax of the whole list. The birth, Matthew is saying, is what Israel has been waiting for for two thousand years.” (NT Wright 3)]

This little line about Immanuel is easy enough to skip over over when reading this passage and I think it really loses weight when you don’t take into account the genealogy before. Everything builds to this. All the instruments sounds their notes in order to have the symphony at its most beautiful and fullest when Matthew writes the name Jesus. Except that there are your typical instruments playing in an orchestra!

In addition to this, it’s pretty easy to assume that the us is, well, us!

Rarely, do we ask who this is directed towards, we all want to have God on our side.

There’s a famous song that goes something like this:

Oh my name it is nothin’
My age it means less
The country I come from
Is called the Midwest
I’s taught and brought up there
The laws to abide
And that the land that I live in
Has God on its side

Oh the history books tell it
They tell it so well
The cavalries charged
The Indians fell
The cavalries charged
The Indians died
Oh the country was young
With God on its side

This is something most of us have grown up with. God is with us, or in Dylan’s words “God is on our side.”

And this question continues to haunt humanity:

If you think about the Mosque down in Clackamas that was recently burned because one group believes that God is on their side.

Or the pastor down in Florida who was ready to burn another religion’s holy book, he believed that God was on his side.

Or what about Tyler Clementi’s roomates, an 18-year-old freshman at Rutgers University, who used their computers to publicize all over the internet the fact that he was gay. Clementi, as you know, jumped off the George Washington Bridge after he found out what happened. Did they think they had God on their side?

Or those who held slaves, they definately thought they had God on their side.

Or when Anabaptists were killed by Catholics and Quakers were killed by the the Puritans and the Church of England, the were killed in the name of God.

Or when Christians thought it was a good idea to start the crusades, they too thought they had God on their side.

And I just learned this week that during world war II the Nazi’s all wore a special belt buckle that had inscribed upon it two words in German that translate:

“God is with us.” (See image above)

And then, advent returns.

And we read a genealogy about fools, liars and cheaters, prostitutes, an unwed mother and a young man whose righteousness almost leads him to almost “breakup” with Jesus mother.

Then, the biblical text tells us that Immanuel was born to impure people. Not to the powerful and the power hungry, not to the ones who thought they had God on their side, but the ones who had no good reason to every assume God was with them.

That’s who God is with.

God is with those who do not ask for it,
God is with those who are the weak, the poor, the unexpected, the losers, the Rahabs, the Tamars, the Issacs and Jacobs, the Mary and Josephs of the world.

So the overwhelming part of this, the crescendo is that it’s surprising at who is included.

S. Hauerwas writes:

In his wonderful sermon “The Genealogy of Christ,” Herbert McCabe suggests that in his genealogy Matthew was reminding us that Jesus was tied to the squalid reality of human life often exemplified in our sexual behavior as well as our politics. McCabe runs through the list of characters that make up the genealogy, noting they are anything but an admirable group of folk. The unscrupulous but entertaining Jacob won his position in the line that leads to Christ by lying and cheating his blind father; David, the ruthless and highly successful bandit, unites the tribes of Israel through intrigue and murder; Rehoboam son of Solomon loses most of Davdi’s gains through arrogance and greed; Ahaziah son of Ahab continued his father’s ways as a sadistic mass murderer…

Matthew’s geneaology, therefore, is a stark indication that God’s plan is not always accomplished through pious people, but through “passionate and thoroughly disreputable people…the moral is almost too obvious to belabor: Jesus did not belong to the nice clean world of middle-class respectability, but rather he ‘belonged to a family of murders, cheats, cowards, adulterers and liars – he belonged to us and came to help us, no wonder he came to a bad end, and gave us some hope.”

God is for those who have no reason to have God for them,
God is for those who know that they need God,
not that they are somehow doing God or the world a favor.

God is with us, the unexpected, the undeserved, the turned-around and the broken.