Several years ago I ran across a sermon by Vic Pentz. I’m not sure who he is or where he is from, but I liked his Christmas message. I share an edited version of it with you:
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 get bogged down in all those funny old names.
Yet, at the same time, we pay lip service to II 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.
What’s obvious from the prominence given the 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 the year, like at Christmas. 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 blue-blood.)
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.
In Matthew’s account there 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 list 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. That shows the judgment of God. Then Matthew ends by showing captivity to the birth of Jesus in the third paragraph.
In walking through these three paragraphs we can discover three dimensions of the nature of the God who came to us in Jesus Christ: the mercy of God, the judgement of God, and the faithfulness of God.
Let’s begin with Abraham to David. 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 the lineage. One would have expected Matthew, in naming women, to mention Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel; they would lend prestige to the lineage of Jesus. Yet, instead of mentioning those great women, look at the women who are mentioned: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. Two of those aren’t even Jewish. Rahab was a Gentile prostitute; 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. 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 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, 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.
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 us Tamar, Rahab, and Bathsheba as role models for 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, 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.
Some of us are in the midst of messed up human families right now, and we wonder, “Does God understand the 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 Jesus Christ has been there.
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 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 2. Down toward the end of verse 10 we find reference to Amos the prophet. “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. No, the problem was they forgot the poor, as we’re so often tempted to do. How does it make you feel to know that if the world were shrunk to a village of 100 people, 1/3 would be in poverty? Of the hundred residents in 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. Just under fifty would have heard of Christ, but over fifty would have heard of Lenin, Marx, or Stalin. Of the hundred, six would be Americans, 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 would spend $86 on defense and 40-cents on spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Amos 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. Some preachers today use the Biblical prophecies as simple ways of predicting the end times and thereby desensitizing us to the social dimension of the call of the prophets. 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.
So paragraph two chronicles the downward slide of Israel into oblivion.
But then Matthew celebrates finally the faithfulness of our God. There was one thing that all forty-two people in these three paragraphs had in common: They were all waiting. The promise first came to Abram: “Through you shall al the nations of the world be blessed.” 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, generations went, still no Messiah.
And so they waited some more and kept all the genealogy straight to keep track of who might come and sit on the throne. They even rushed off to ask John the Baptist, “Are you the one – the Christ – who is to come?”
Some of us are waiting, 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, as we read in Galatians 4:4, 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.
In reading Matthew’s gospel, 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. Not only was he the Son of David; he was also the Son of God. We read through those verses and everything says, “And 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!
What does it 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. It didn’t matter any more, after Jesus came, that Abraham was their father. All that mattered now was faith in Jesus.
This royal bloodline of Jesus Christ 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 the children of God, who were born not of blood but 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 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.
It’s not fiction; it’s fact. History is His story.