Sermon for November 28th, 2021

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Matthew 1:1-17

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

2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3 and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, 4 and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, 5 and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, 6 and Jesse the father of King David.

And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, 7 and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, 8 and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, 9 and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, 10 and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, 11 and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.

12 And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, 13 and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, 14 and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, 15 and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, 16 and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.

17 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.

Advent Encounters: Saints & Sinners

Today is the first Sunday in Advent. This Sunday, and for the next several weeks, I'll be preaching a sermon series called "Advent Encounters." We'll look at the stories in the bible surrounding the birth of Jesus, and in particular how his birth brought unlikely people together in interesting ways.

We begin with the strangest, most unlikely cast of characters of all--Jesus' own family tree. In the King James version they are known as the Gat family. You know...Abraham B. Gat, Isaac B. Gat, Jacob B. Gat...not sure what the "B" stood for, but I always thought it was neat how they all passed on the same middle initial!

Since we're talking about genealogy and family trees today, I thought I'd share the following story:

A man was researching his ancestors, and came across some information on his great-great uncle, Remus Starr, who was hanged for horse stealing and train robbery in Montana in 1889. He also found a photograph of Remus, showing him standing on the gallows. On the back of the picture were the words: Remus Starr: Horse thief, sent to Montana Territorial Prison, 1885. Escaped 1887, robbed the Montana Flyer six times. Caught by Pinkerton Detectives, convicted and hanged, 1889.

Well, the man thought about this for awhile, and then made the following entry in his family history book: Uncle Remus Starr was a famous cowboy in the Montana Territory. His business empire grew to include acquisition of valuable equestrian assets and intimate dealings with the Montana railroad. Beginning in 1885, he devoted several years of his life to service at a government facility, finally taking leave to resume his dealings with the railroad. In 1887, he was a key player in a vital investigation by the renowned Pinkerton Detective Agency. In 1889, Uncle Remus passed away during an important civic function held in his honor when the platform upon which he was standing collapsed.

A few days later, the same man learned about his great, great uncle Willie, a convicted murderer who had been condemned to die in the Electric chair. Uncle Willie's entry in the family history book read like this: "Uncle William occupied a chair of applied electronics at one of our nation's leading institutions. He was attached to his position by the strongest of ties. His death came as a true shock."

The greatest story ever told, the best selling book of all time, begins with a genealogy--one we tend to skip right over because it is just a list of strange names tied together with a string of begats. This is a mistake, because in that long list of strange names are hundreds of encounters, hundreds of fascinating stories, some which we know well, some which are in the Bible but unfamiliar to us, and some which are completely lost to the pages of time and history.

I don't think this genealogy is meant to be taken literally, at least not in the modern sense of the word "genealogy." At the very least, that's because it ends with Joseph, who is not genetically related to Jesus at all, but is rather his adoptive father. I was adopted by my own step-father, and so I find great comfort in that example--that shared genes are not required to be part of a family tradition.

But there are other problems with this list as a genealogy, in the modern sense: For one, it doesn't agree at all with the genealogy of Jesus found in Luke, which is also Joseph's side of the family. It doesn't agree with genealogies in the Old Testament of some of the people who are part of it. In fact, it doesn't even agree with itself--Matthew tells us there are three sets of fourteen generations, but no matter how you actually count his list, you come up with either too many, or not enough.

None of this is to say that the genealogy is somehow untrue or fabricated. It's just that the ancient writers of the gospels were far more interested in story and epic narrative, than with our modern-day obsession for precise dates and supporting documents. When Matthew sits down to write his story, he's looking at a variety of source materials, and he picks and chooses his cast of characters carefully; he arranges them in such a way as to best tell the story, to best make the point that God is inspiring him to make. Like a good editor, he probably leaves a few characters on the cutting room floor. But his message would be crystal clear to any student of Jewish history: The genealogy of Jesus is downright scandalous and shameful.

There are a lot of stories in this genealogy, but I'm going to focus on five scandalous encounters, the kind that our biblical authors present in "delicate" wording, like the humorous stories I told at the beginning of this sermon.

In verse three of our geneology, we read of "Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar." Judah and Tamar were not married when they begat Perez and Zerah. In fact, Tamar was Judah's daughter-in-law, and we read in Genesis 38 that one day she dressed herself like a prostitute and waited for her father-in-law, who, not recognizing her, requested her services. And so, Judah begat twins (Perez and Zerah) by Tamar.

Scandal number two: Skip a couple of generations, and we read in verse five that "Salmon [was] the father of Boaz by Rahab." This is Rahab from the book of Joshua, as the Israelites are about to mount a siege against the mighty city of Jericho. Joshua 2:1: "Then Joshua son of Nun sent two men secretly from Shittim as spies, saying, Go, view the land, especially Jericho. So they went, and entered the house of a prostitute whose name was Rahab, and spent the night there." Delicately, of course, the Bible does not say why Joshua's men went straight to a house of ill-repute, nor what they did while spending the night there.

Scandal number three occurs immediately after number two: "and Boaz [was] the father of Obed by Ruth. Now the story of Boaz and Ruth (in the book of Ruth) is a beautiful love story, and one I preached on earlier this year. But if you remember that story, you know it's rated PG-13, if not R. It's the biblical version of 50 Shades of Gray.

Boaz is a rich man. Ruth is young, attractive, foreign, and not-so-rich. Ruth's mother-in-law, Naomi, tells Ruth in 3:4, [Tonight], "when he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.” It is well known among Biblical scholars that "feet" in Hebrew is usually a euphemism for another part of the body entirely. Anyone hearing this story in ancient Israel would have turned bright read, stared at the ceiling, or laughed nervously at the scandal of this story.

Scandal number four: "And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah." Bathsheba's name isn't even mentioned in the verse, but we all know this scandalous encounter: King David, rooftop. Bathsheba, rooftop, naked. The begatting begins. Bathsheba's husband, Uriah ends. Scandal all over the place.

Scandal number five is the very last one on the list: "Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born." We often fail to appreciate the scandal here because we know what's going on behind the scenes--but Matthew's original audience would not have. In fact, they were more likely to be familiar with rumors that Jesus was the illegitimate child of some other, human, father. Those rumors persisted all the way into the third century after his birth.

Five scandals in Jesus' family tree. But there's more than just scandal here. There is also great faithfulness. In the immortal words of Paul Harvey, now here's "the rest of the story."

Long before Tamar dressed as a prostitute and seduced her father-in-law, her husband had died, leaving her childless--without anyone to take care of her in her later years. Under Jewish law, her husband's brother was supposed to take her in, and provide her heirs to carry on the family line. Judah's second son refused to do this, so he promised his third son to her when he became old enough. But years passed, and Judah forgot his promise. Finally, Tamar took action, out of desperation, but also out of faithfulness to her deceased husband, to Jewish law and custom, and to the belief that God would provide for her when no one else would. When Judah finally discovers what his daughter-in-law had done, he says "She is more in the right than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah."

When the two spies encounter Rahab the prostitute in her city of Jericho, she hides them from the local authorities who are searching for them. Then she tells them, "The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below. Now then, since I have dealt kindly with you, swear to me by the Lord that you in turn will deal kindly with my family. Give me a sign of good faith that you will spare my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death.” Rahab the prostitute puts her faith in God, and takes the initiative to save her family. When the city of Jericho falls, she and her family alone are spared.

In the story of Ruth and Boaz, Ruth takes the initiative, literally, to win the affection of Boaz. But long before this, in the very beginning of the story, she speaks to her mother-in-law Naomi these famous, faithful words: "Where you go, I will go, and where you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God."

Bathsheba likely had little choice when King David summoned her to him. In the aftermath of her encounter with David, she loses her husband, Uriah. Then she loses the child she has conceived with David. Finally another child--Solomon--is born to her, but he is the youngest of David's children, the last in line for the throne, and the most vulnerable in the violent, ambitious, and often deadly politics of succession. But Bathsheba is faithful. She waits. And in David's old age, she takes initiative, enlisting the help of Nathan the prophet to plead and convince David to declare her son Solomon king. Solomon, of course, goes on to be one of the greatest and most revered kings in the Old Testament.

The faithfulness of Mary is well known, and a strong part of Christian tradition in just about every denomination. Since Mary's encounter with her cousin Elizabeth is actually the subject of next week's sermon, I don't want to give too much away today.

Near the beginning of the sermon, I said that the author of Matthew chose his introduction, his cast of background characters with great care. He certainly chose different characters than his counterpart, the author of Luke, and his message is different than the one found in Luke. So what is the message of Matthew? What is that overlooked message of the overlooked genealogy that begins the first chapter of the first book of the New Testament?

The encounters that I've highlighted today all revolve around scandalous situations. But they also demonstrate acts of great faithfulness. They feature five strong, independent women, which is pretty amazing coming from a 1st century patriarchal culture that seldom even recognized the existence of women, and almost never in genealogical lists. Incidentally, all of the women except Mary are foreigners, outsiders to the Jewish faith. I think that's significant, too.

Part of the message the gospel of Matthew is conveying is that this Savior, this Messiah, is for everyone: Men and women, natives and foreigners, rich and poor, powerful and vulnerable alike. But I think there's also something else, something even more profound.

Like the people we have encountered in these stories, we too, are well acquainted with scandal. Most of us put on a good show. But if our deepest, darkest secrets were suddenly on display for the world to see, I think all of us would be mortified, embarrassed, and ashamed. And yet, Matthew reminds us, this is precisely the sort of thing God can use. We are precisely the kind of people God uses to bring hope into the world. By nature we are all sinners, but by the grace of God, we are all saints.

Christmas begins--the very gospel itself begins--at the place where human fallibility and divine perfection finally encounter each other head on. Christian songwriter David Crowder calls this a "beautiful collision."

This is the message of Matthew's genealogy: Out of scandal and faithfulness is born hope. Out of human initiative and divine intervention is born salvation for the world. May all of your encounters this advent season bring hope, and may the story of Jesus the Savior become a part of your own family story this year and every year to come.