Preached February 24, 2013 (Lent II)
Text: Matthew 1:1-17
The Story, Ch. 22
Well, Merry Christmas! I think we just jumped backwards a few weeks…time warp…some of us may wish we could rewind the days that easily…
In another sense, though, it is more like fast forward. Last we knew, the people of Israel had arrived back in Jerusalem, and found the city only a shadow of its former self. They were rebuilding the Temple and the city walls; they were starting over again. Only, as we saw last week, their new start fell rather flat.
When I was in seminary, my Hebrew Bible professor summarized the Old Testament with three words: people, place and presence. At the start – in Genesis – God’s people (Adam & Eve, the ones God created and called “very good”) were in God’s place (the garden, overflowing with all the goodness of creation) and enjoyed God’s presence (God walked and talked with them, Genesis 3:8).
Of course, we know that didn’t last. The results of human sin was that people turned on one another; they were cast out of the place of nurture and provision; and they were separated from the presence of God. People, place and presence were all distorted by sin.
In the remainder of the Old Testament, we see glimpses of restoration; God calls to himself a new people, beginning with the family of Abraham and continuing with the nation of Israel. God provides them with a place – the promised land, and the Temple courts. And God’s presence returns – separated from the people by mountains and clouds and curtains and Temple walls – but still there, still present.
Ah, but sin continues to distort and disrupt people, place and presence. The people are scattered in exile; the place is destroyed when the Temple is torn down; God’s presence fades from their memories.
And that is where the Old Testament story ends: with a scattered group of exiles longing to be God’s people again, trying to rebuild their sacred places (the Temple and city of Jerusalem), wondering if the presence of God might someday return.
And then, we fast forward some 400 years, and the book of Matthew falls open before us. (Actually, the Gospel of Mark was probably the first Gospel written, though Matthew is first in our ordering.) And he begins: “An account of the origins of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Mt 1:1).
All of a sudden, heads jerk up, conversations stop mid-sentence, eyes pop open. Did he say Messiah? Messiah, as in the anointed one? In the history of God’s people, it was kings who were anointed. Is Matthew talking about the promised king, the long-awaited deliverer who would make the people into a nation again, and bring them back to their own place? Does this, could this, mean that the presence of God has returned to them?
We know it does, of course, though not at all in the way that the people expected.
Let’s look a little closer at Matthew’s opening words.
This first chapter of Matthew isn’t usually included in our Christmas readings. The colorful imagery of Luke’s narrative makes a much better children’s pageant than the long list of names that begins Matthew’s gospel!
Genealogies are funny things. Long lists of names might seem rather tedious and boring to us under normal circumstances – but when we see our name on the list, when we learn that we belong to these people and they to us – genealogies become much more interesting. Suddenly the lengthy list of names goes from yawn-inducing to fascinating. We can whittle away hours at the computer reaching farther and farther back the genealogical line.
The genealogy of Jesus that opens Matthew’s Gospel is no different. It seems rather irrelevant to most of us; an ancient record that might have some interest to historians, but means little to the rest of us.
But when we turn the page from the Old Testament to the New, feeling the longing of God’s people to experience God’s presence in a holy place – then this genealogy might become our own. When we long for purpose or meaning in our lives, we are longing for a restored identity as people of God. When we look at the beauty of this window and remember all the moments of our lives lived out before it – we are longing for the place of God. And when life feels rushed and hectic, or empty and frail, we are longing for the presence of God to return to us.
And those longings – those longings tell us that this is our family tree! Because this list of names tells us exactly how God has been at work in human history – and how God’s work continues in and among us. Matthew’s genealogy shows us how Jesus continues the story that began in Genesis – the story of God’s people encountering the presence of God in a holy place. People, place and presence are all fulfilled in the person of Jesus, the Messiah, God’s anointed one – and Matthew’s going to make sure we see it.
Matthew begins by identifying Jesus as Abraham’s son. You will remember, perhaps, that Abraham’s son (Isaac) was to be sacrificed. God provided a ram to take his place for a time, but Jesus – as Abraham’s son – will finish that sacrifice himself. Jesus takes Isaac’s place as the true son of Abraham, the one through whom God will fulfill the promise to make Abraham’s descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. God’s people!
Matthew’s genealogy also makes clear that Jesus expands the people of God beyond Israel. Did you notice the women included in the geneaology? Tamar and Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba. Women did not belong in Israelite genealogies, but in the new people of God, called into being by Jesus, there “is no male or female, slave or free, Greek or Jew, for you are all one in Jesus Christ” (Galatians 3:28). Matthew names these women – each somehow an outsider to Israel – to claim them as people of God. In Jesus, the people of God includes anyone who would be his follower!
Then there is Jesus identity as David’s son: David, the man after God’s own heart, whose own son Solomon built the Temple as a dwelling place for God among the people. Jesus takes Solomon’s place as the true son of David, building not a temple of stone but of flesh. Jesus himself becomes the Temple of God, the place where we encounter God. At the same time, we are called out of our familiar places to “Go into all the world, making disciples…” For Matthew, Jesus is the place where we meet God, and we can take him to any and every place we live!
Then, there is Jesus’ name. It is a form of the name Joshua – meaning “God saves.” In the Old Testament, it was Joshua who saved God’s people from their enemies and brought them into the promised land, where God would dwell with God’s people. In the same way, Jesus saves us from our enemies – the enemies within, the sins and brokenness that tear us down – and brings us into God’s presence. In Jesus, Emmanuel, God dwells with us!
When we get to the end of the genealogy, we might notice something else. Matthew divides the list of names into thirds: 14 generations from Abraham to David, 14 from David to the exile, and then 13 generations of those who return from exile, culminating in Jesus. Why aren’t there 14 generations in the final list, like the first two? Well, because the 14th generation is the one that Jesus will form – not biological descendants, but disciples who choose to follow him. Jesus calls into being the 14th generation – us, the church, the people who will carry his presence into the world! This is our family tree after all!
Matthew’s genealogy isn’t as sentimental as the Christmas pageant, but in Matthew’s gospel, we see that God offers a new beginning, beginning with God’s presence, inviting us to be God’s people, carrying God’s presence into the world – that the whole world becomes the place of God. That’s a pretty compelling genealogy!
During the remaining weeks of Lent, we will be looking at the ways that Jesus brings God’s presence to us…and how we are changed by that presence into the people of God…and then the ways in which we might carry that presence with us into the world, that wherever we go might become the place of God.