Communicators know very well that how you begin greatly affects how people listen to everything else you say. That is true for how we speak and how we write. People are looking for clues in your introduction that will indicate where you are going and will help them to interpret the rest of what you say. For advent we are going to go through the four Gospels and how they begin. As we begin with Matthew, this is especially important as what we look at actually starts off not just the Gospel but the entire New Testament. We are expecting something really great, something that will capture our imagination and we get… a genealogy. Really? That was the best Matthew had? If I was going to write an autobiography and I was really hoping for it to be a bestseller, I probably would not begin with a long genealogy going back to the 1490’s, even though I have that information. Why would Matthew do that and why shouldn’t we just skip that and get on to the good stuff? I would like to argue that this genealogy is actually very important and sets the stage for the rest of the Gospel, if not the rest of the New Testament.
Before going too far into the genealogy, let us take a look at something that we are a bit more familiar with: the story of the virgin Mary. In fact that might be the problem, we are too familiar with the story of the virgin Mary. It is so well known that we do not take the time to think through it. When we think of the virgin birth we think of the sense of awe that this young girl must of had at receiving the honour of bearing the Son of God. We may think of the power of God that he would be able to create a baby in the womb of Mary with no male involvement. We may even think about the importance of Jesus being virgin born as a means that Adam’s sinful nature would not be passed on to him. Most of what we may think of when it comes to the virgin birth likely enhances what we think of Mary and Jesus. But let us look at it in a fresh way. What was the consequence of God causing Mary to become pregnant with Jesus before being married to Joseph? One of the consequences of this is that it permanently sullied the reputations of Mary and Jesus, at least during their time on earth. Do you really think that it remained a secret that Mary became pregnant outside of marriage or that Jesus‘ legal father was not his real father? There was likely much whispering and gossiping. There was a tremendous amount of shame in that culture with becoming pregnant outside of marriage. We see a glimpse of that today in middle eastern countries where women who are raped can be put in prison on the charge of having sex outside of marriage. Even in recent times, there still is a stigma that goes with being born out of wedlock. We speak of shotgun weddings to at least give the appearance of respectability, praying that no one counts the months. By deciding that Jesus would be conceived outside of marriage, God was setting up both Mary and Jesus for questionable reputations. Is that reasonable? Think of who Jesus spent most of his time with. Jesus was in constant conflict with the people who had sparkling reputations but he was compassionate toward those who were called sinners, those whom no one respected. So when Jesus appeared, what he had in common with us was not just human DNA, but a messy family and background and people who questioned his respectability. The question is: how does the genealogy prepare us for that.
When we read the genealogy, our eyes likely glaze over. We really don’t care about all these names. The names seem to run together. We need to look at what stands out. There are a number of things that are important here but we are going to focus on the mention of women. That is unusual. Most often, it was only the men that were mentioned. Of course there are some important women in the Bible, some that would fit into the time period we are looking at here, people such as Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel. Yet, these are not the women that are mentioned. The women who are mentioned have a couple of things in common that fit very well with the nature of Jesus‘ ministry and the kingdom of God. The first person we will look at is Tamar. There is some controversy as to whether Tamar was an Israelite or a Canaanite. Whatever her ethnic background, there were some issues that were sketchy. Tamar was married to the son of Judah, one of the twelve patriarchs of Israel. Her husband died before fathering a child, and the second son of Judah died as well. Judah was hesitant to allow her to marry his third and last son and so he withheld him from her even though it was her legal right. As a result, Tamar dressed as a prostitute and had relations with her father-in-law Judah and became pregnant. It was one of the children from this union that was an ancestor of Jesus. The second woman mentioned was Rahab, known commonly as Rahab the Harlot. Now Rahab was definitely a Canaanite and had some uncertain morals. In fact the one righteous thing that she is known for is that of lying. She lied about hiding the Israelite spies. Her child was an ancestor of Jesus. The next woman is perhaps the most well known as she is the only one to have a book named after her: Ruth. Ruth also was not an Israelite, she was from Moab, one of Israel’s bitterest enemies. There is nothing obviously sinful in her story as found in the biblical book. However, there is a passage where she goes into Boaz’s room at night and sleeps at the end of his bed. Later traditions looked at that and speculated as to what might have really happened. As in modern times, what matters is not just the truth but how people perceive the situation. Finally, we have a woman who is mentioned but not by name. She is referred simply as Uriah’s wife. This reference highlights for her the troubled nature of her story. She was likely not an Israelite as Uriah was a Hittite. Her name was Bathsheba and one day, as her husband was away at war, King David saw her and desired her. David got Bathsheba pregnant and then had Uriah killed in an attempt to cover the crime. David and Bathsheba’s second child was Solomon and he was an ancestor of Jesus. Four women mentioned. All four with some questions about their ethnic group and their sexual standards.
What does all this mean? It means that when people looked at Mary and Jesus and started questioning the circumstances of Jesus‘ birth that they had better first look at the rest of the family tree. God is in the habit of transforming less than ideal circumstances into means of grace and of accomplishing his will. When it came to the appearing of God’s Son, this pattern was not bypassed but embraced. Let people talk if they must, but God was more interested in gathering the outcasts and rejected of society. Questions about Jesus‘ parentage, although based on rumor rather than fact, were not obstacles to God’s kingdom coming but rather an image of what that kingdom will look like. We all have our baggage, our secrets, our embarrassing past. Jesus comes, not as the one with a stellar family and no skeletons in the closet but as one who sees the truth and redeems it for God’s glory.