Christmas 2005 (alternative) Levis' Genes
Focus: Jesus’ genealogy shows that God’s love is bigger than the Jewish race, yet it reaches out to redeem individuals.
Introduction: Important “Begats”
Everybody knows the genealogies are the biggest yawn in the Bible. “Rehoboam begat Abijah, and Abijah begat Ralph”—I mean it warms your heart about as much as reading a phone book. What’s not often said right out, but what’s understood, is that it’s probably best to skip over “the begats” and not to get bogged down in all those funny old names.
Yet, at the same time, we pay lip service to 2 Timothy 3:16, which says, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching and reproof.” If that’s true, that includes the begats. And so this morning, join with me as I launch my very first message ever on the genealogy of Jesus.
What’s obvious from the prominence given these names at the opening of Matthew’s Gospel is that what we consider to be the most boring, least interesting part of the Christmas story was of the utmost importance to the original audience. Genealogies become important to us at certain times of year, like this time of year.
Recently the Wall Street Journal said there is a good chance you are direct descendants of the Mayflower pilgrims (if you are American, of course). Historians say that 26 of the 102 people who traveled in the Mayflower across the Atlantic in 1620 and celebrated the first Thanksgiving had children who had children who had children. Today, twelve generations later, the Mayflower passengers may well have had 25 million descendants, which means there’s a one-in-ten chance that you are a direct descendent of those who came over on the Mayflower.
Regardless of how that may make you feel, in Jesus’ day one’s pedigree was a source of tremendous pride. In order to own land in Israel, you had to show the public documents documenting your genealogy that gave you the right to a piece of the Holy Land. Privileges were reserved for certain tribes. For example, to be a priest you had to be of the tribe of Levi and (are you ready for it) have Levi’s genes (which, of course, means being a blueblood).
Most of all, they expected the Messiah to come from a certain family of the house and lineage of David. And what’s interesting is that in the Gospels, even Jesus’ bitterest critics never once quarreled with him about his descent from David. It must have been a matter of public record that Jesus was the heir to David and Abraham, and that as such, he was the inheritor of the promises of Israel.
So let’s read this passage. Please turn in your Bible to Matthew chapter 1 and I’ll begin reading at verse 1:
”This is a record of the ancestors of Jesus the Messiah, a descendant of King David and of Abraham:
Abraham was the father of Isaac. Isaac was the father of Jacob. Jacob was the father of Judah and his brothers.
Judah was the father of Perez and Zerah (their mother was Tamar). Perez was the father of Hezron. Hezron was the father of Ram.
Ram was the father of Amminadab. Amminadab was the father of Nahshon. Nahshon was the father of Salmon.
Salmon was the father of Boaz (his mother was Rahab). Boaz was the father of Obed (his mother was Ruth). Obed was the father of Jesse.
Jesse was the father of King David. David was the father of Solomon (his mother was Bathsheba, the widow of Uriah).
Solomon was the father of Rehoboam. Rehoboam was the father of Abijah. Abijah was the father of Asaph.
Asaph was the father of Jehoshaphat. Jehoshaphat was the father of Jehoram. Jehoram was the father of Uzziah.
Uzziah was the father of Jotham. Jotham was the father of Ahaz. Ahaz was the father of Hezekiah.
Hezekiah was the father of Manasseh. Manasseh was the father of Amos. Amos was the father of Josiah.
Josiah was the father of Jehoiachin and his brothers (born at the time of the exile to Babylon).
After the Babylonian exile: Jehoiachin was the father of Shealtiel. Shealtiel was the father of Zerubbabel.
Zerubbabel was the father of Abiud. Abiud was the father of Eliakim. Eliakim was the father of Azor.
Azor was the father of Zadok. Zadok was the father of Akim. Akim was the father of Eliud.
Eliud was the father of Eleazar. Eleazar was the father of Matthan. Matthan was the father of Jacob.
Jacob was the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary. Mary was the mother of Jesus, who is called the Messiah.
All those listed above include fourteen generations from Abraham to King David, and fourteen from David's time to the Babylonian exile, and fourteen from the Babylonian exile to the Messiah.”
And yet, more than telling us simply who was Jesus, these verses really are telling us who is God the Father. What Matthew is doing between the lines here is preaching an eloquent three-point message on the nature of God. It’s typical of a modern Jewish author that he would glorify God without even mentioning the name of God.
You get the sense that there’s more than meets the eye going on when you come to verse 17: “So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to Christ fourteen generations.” So here are three paragraphs with fourteen names each—fourteen generations, three times.
Think of these three paragraphs as a kind of line graph, sort of like a stock market report charting the fortunes of Israel in the Old Testament: up, down, up. It’s in the shape of an N. It begins with verse 2, in that first paragraph of names, with Abraham, and it rises up to King David. That line represents the mercy of God. But then from King David, it plummets downward and bottoms out into the Babylonian captivity we find described in the second paragraph. That shows the judgment of God. And then Matthew ends by showing us the faithfulness of God by rising up out of the Babylonian captivity to the birth of Jesus the Christ in the third paragraph.
This morning I’d like for us to walk through each of these three paragraphs and, in doing so, for us to discover three dimensions of the nature of the God who came to us in Jesus Christ: the mercy of God, the judgment of God, and the faithfulness of God.
I. The Mercy of God
Let’s begin with Abraham to David. We’ll talk about the mercy of God. The most striking thing about that first paragraph is the mention of the names of four women. It was very unusual to mention women in a Jewish genealogy, and if one did mention women, it would mention women for the purpose of enhancing the purity and the nobility of a lineage.
For example, with Matthew mentioning women, we’d expect him to mention some of the grande dames of the Old Testament, for example, Sarah and Rebecca and Rachel, the wives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. After all, their husbands are mentioned here, and they would lend a certain prestige to the lineage of Jesus, much as the Mayflower descendants would to our family tree. And yet, instead of mentioning those three great women, look at the women who are mentioned in that first paragraph. There we see mentioned Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba—two of whom aren’t Jewish at all. Rahab was a Gentile prostitute, and Ruth was a Moabite woman. Matthew chooses women who do not in any way enhance or bring credibility to the untarnished Jewishness of Jesus, but quite the reverse. He chooses women who show how contaminated Jesus’ bloodline was.
And yet, that’s the very first point of the sermon Matthew is preaching to us this morning. He wants us to know that God’s love is bigger than the Jewish race, that Jesus is the Savior of all people, that Jesus is the light to the Gentiles, that he is the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham: “Through you shall all the nations of the world be blessed.” God is not a sexist. God is not a racist. Red, brown, yellow, black, and white—all are precious in his sight. Matthew wants us to know that the blood of two Gentile mothers coursed through the blood of the Savior of the world.
Yet that does not begin to compare with the audacity that Matthew shows as he continues on in this paragraph, because not only were two of these women Gentiles, three of these women were notorious sinners. With the exception of Ruth, none of these women had morals that were anything to write home about. We do not in our youth group hold up Tamar, Rahab, and Bathsheba as role models for our young women today. Tamar tricked her father-in-law, Judah, into having a child by her, and the child from that incestuous relationship became a grandfather of the Messiah. Rahab the harlot plied her trade on the walls of the city of Jericho.
The fourth woman mentioned is so scandalous that Matthew will not even mention her by name. If you look at verse 6, all we read there is simply “And David, the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah.” A thousand years later, and still Bathsheba isn’t David’s wife! She’s the wife of Uriah. And yet Bathsheba was a distant grandmother of our Lord.
It’s as though Matthew has scoured the lineage of Jesus in order to find the seediest women he can find. Why? Because he wants us to know that not only is God’s love bigger than the Jewish race, my friend, God’s love is bigger than your sin and my sin. God’s love embraces us even within our sinfulness. God uses stained and soiled, but repentant, sinners in order to bring the Messiah. Even the begats of the Bible drip with the grace and love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ. We find that he’s a friend of sinners. He is the light to the Gentiles.
Vic Pentz says that “Jesus isn’t the only one who had a generous smattering of outlaws among the in-laws. I remember getting a packet in the mail awhile back telling me that if I sent in a certain amount of money, I’d get back my very own copy of the Pentz family tree. Having always sensed a certain nobility in my nature, I eagerly sent off that check. Awhile later, I got back a notebook in the mail.
As I started reading it, it began on a very promising note. It said, “The first members of the Pentz family arrived on our American shores about the time of the American Revolutionary War ...” and I thought, Hey, this is great. Then the sentence continues, “... to fight on the side of the British as Hessian mercenary soldiers.” And then it went on to say that after our side lost the Revolutionary War, the Pentzes fled to Nova Scotia. After things cooled off back down in the States, we snuck back in and settled in Pennsylvania. It was like I sent fifty bucks to find out my ancestry, and it cost me a hundred to hush it up!”
Suppose you could pick your family tree the way you pick a Christmas tree. What kind of family tree—what pedigree—would you pick for yourself? Would you have a lot of shady characters and unwed mothers? One baby did pick his own pedigree, and look what he chose: an ordinary human family with scoundrels and saints mixed together! He had holy men like Abraham, wicked kings like Ahab, sweet saintly Ruth, and sexy siren Bathsheba. Jesus didn’t fall out of heaven like a meteor. He was born in a usual way into the very real world of a human family.
My friends, some of us are in the midst of messed-up human families right now, and we wonder, Does God understand my pain I feel for my family? Does God feel the hurt that I hurt for my family members and loved ones? The answer is yes, because he has been there in his Son, Jesus Christ.
II. The Judgment of God
Now hang on tight to the mercy of God as we descend into the judgment of God. At the beginning of paragraph two, Israel is riding high, wide, and handsome on the reign of David. They thought they were on the brink of paradise in B.C. 1000, when David was at the height of his reign. But suddenly it all crumbled, and everything was downhill from there.
Why did Israel fall apart and get carried off in chains? To find out look for a familiar name in paragraph two. Down toward the end, verse 10, we find (in some versions) Amos the prophet. Listen to his words: “Hear this, you who trample on the needy and bring the poor of the land to an end, that buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals ... the Lord has sworn by the Pride of Jacob, ‘Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.’ ” Israel fell because they divorced religious practice from concern for the poor.
It wasn’t that Israel didn’t go to church often enough. Religion was the favorite indoor sport in Israel. Listen again to Amos (chapter 4, verse 4): “Bring your sacrifices every morning, your tithes every three days ... for so you love to do, O people of Israel.” No, the problem was they forgot the poor, as we’re often tempted to do. How does it make you feel this morning that if this world were shrunk to a village of a hundred people, one-third would be rich or of a modest income like ourselves, and two thirds would be in poverty? Of the hundred residents of our village, one would have been to college. Thirty-five would suffer hunger and malnutrition. Fifty would either be homeless or living in shacks. Eight would be practicing Communists, but thirty-five would live under Communist rule. Thirty would be Christians. Just under fifty would have heard of Christ, but just over fifty would have heard of Lenin, Marx, or Stalin. Of the hundred, six would be Americans and Canadians, and we six would have one-third of all the income in that village. The other ninety-four would split up and subsist on the other two-thirds. Every year, we six Americans and Canadians would spend $86 on defense and only 40¢ on spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ.
How does that make you feel? Upset? Angry? Or are you one of those dry-eyed realists who say, “Hey, that’s life in the big city”? If you are, friend, you are not one who’s heart is broken with the things that break the heart of God.
Amos said there is only one contact lens through which you get a clear view of this world, and that is a tear. He soaked his robe with the tears he cried for the poor, the orphan, the widow. The Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel reminds us that “Prophecy is the voice God has lent to the silent agony of the plundered poor.” God is raging in the prophets’ words.
Here I can’t help but comment on what is passed off today in many places as prophecy. Some preachers today use the Biblical prophecies as simply ways of predicting the end times and thereby desensitizing us to the social dimension of the call of the prophets. I was watching the television awhile back, and there was a lady—well-intentioned, I’m sure—who said, “The darker things get, the happier I get, because it just means Jesus is coming soon!” Let me assure you that if any of the prophecies you are experiencing desensitizes you to the plight of the poor or makes you less likely to respond, what you are experiencing is less than biblical prophecy, because nothing is more abhorrent to God than religiosity divorced from the life to back it up.
Singer Don Francisco gives us Amos’ message to the church of today in one of his songs in which God says:
I don’t care how many buses you own or the size of your sanctuary.
It don’t matter how steep your steeple if it’s sitting on a cemetery.
I don’t care if you pave your parking lot or pad your pews.
What good is a picture-perfect stage if you re missing all the cues?
I don’t care if you pray for miracles. I don’t care if you speak in tongues.
I don’t care if you say you love me in every song you sung.
I don’t care if your pastor’s superpowered or your programs are brand new.
What you need is love and truth, and all will come to you.
It don’t matter if you know the Bible if it’s all just in your head.
The thing you need to ask is have you done the things I’ve said.
Do you love your wife? For her and for your children are you laying down your life?
What about the others? Are you living in service to your sisters and your brothers?
Do you make the poor one beg you for a bone?
Do the widow and the orphan cry alone?
‘Lord, when were you a prisoner, and we not come to you?
When was it we saw you sick and didn’t follow through?’
Every time you turn your head and pretend you did not see.
When you did it not to the least of these, you did it not to me.
So paragraph two chronicles the downward slide of Israel into oblivion.
III. The Faithfulness of God
But then Matthew celebrates finally the faithfulness of our God. There was one thing that all 42 of the people in these three paragraphs all had in common: they were all waiting. The promise first came to Abram: “Through you shall all the nations of the world be blessed.” And then it came to David: “ Thy seed will I establish forever and build up thy throne for all generations.” Meanwhile the people waited, like a sentry scanning the horizon for the first rays of dawn, like a child waiting on tippy toe for Christmas morning. Generation came, and generation went. Still no Messiah.
And so they waited some more and kept the genealogy straight to keep track of who might come and sit on the throne. They even rushed off and asked John the Baptist, “Are you the one—the Christ—who is to come?”
Some of us are waiting this morning, waiting for God to move in power in situations of misery and pain and sorrow and heartache. We’re tired of waiting, and we wonder, How long, O Lord? Is God really faithful to his promises?
Well, my friends, he is, but only within his own time. We have to trust that God will move in his own way and his own time in his own will, because, sure enough, we read in Galatians 4:4 and 5: “When the time had fully come” (not when we thought it was time; not when we got sick and tired of waiting, but when the time had fully come) “God sent forth his Son to be born of woman, born under the Law to redeem those who are under the Law, so that we might receive adoption as sons and daughters.”
On the page before you, we see the faithfulness of our God, because when that One came, he was a lineal descendent of King David, which meant that Jesus Christ has a literal right to sit on the throne of Israel. Herod was perfectly correct in his terror of this baby, because Jesus was heir to the throne.
Not only was he a Son of David, he was also the Son of God. We read through those verses, and everything says, “So-and-so was the father, and So-and-so, and So-and-so.” But then we come to verse 16, and we find the startling phrase, “And Jacob, the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who was the Christ.” No, he’s not Joseph’s son; he’s Mary’s son. His nature came from God. What a startling way to end a genealogy: he’s not Joseph’s boy; he’s God’s Son!
Conclusion: The Family of God
What does that mean for you and me today? It means that Christ’s coming canceled the importance of that bloodline connecting the Jewish people to Abraham. No longer do people now simply grandfather their way into the kingdom of God on the coattails of their ancestors. They say, “Oh, Abraham was our father! Abraham was our father!” It didn’t matter anymore, after Jesus came, that Abraham was their father. All that mattered now was faith in Jesus Christ.
My friends, I’m here to tell you this morning, it doesn’t matter a whit to God whether your parents attended this church or that church, or are elders or deacons. What matters to God is you. Can you say, “The Lord is my Shepherd; the Lord is my light and my salvation; thou hast searched me and known me; I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in and through me; not my mother, not my father, but it’s me, O Lord”?
This royal bloodline before you continues down through the ages and extends to this very day. God’s genealogy can now be our genealogy, but blood has been replaced by faith. By faith in Jesus Christ, we can become God’s own children: “For as many as receive him, to them he gave power to become children of God, who were born not of blood but of God.” Oh, what a difference that makes in our lives!
We all have earthly genealogies, and yet after a few generations we forget those genealogies. You may remember your grandfather and your great-grandfather or grandmother, but how many of you remember your great-great-grandfather or great-great-grandmother? We’re all going to be there some day. Some day all of us are simply going to be a memory in the minds of our grandchildren. Then we’re going to be a name in a faded family Bible. Finally we’ll be forgotten altogether by this world, and all that will matter then is, Are we remembered in the mind of God?
Our descendants are going to forget us; you can count on it. But we can be members of God’s family and never ever be forgotten, because Matthew’s genealogy teaches us two things: First, here was a life like other lives, but, second, this life also was the revelation of a new life, a life that has the power to bring us out of darkness into light, out of death into eternal life with God in heaven.
And it’s not fiction; it’s fact. History is his story.