We hear a lot about John the Baptist during Advent. John appears on the scene in Luke’s gospel even before he’s born: leaping in his mother’s womb in joyous anticipation of the birth of Jesus. Here in Matthew’s gospel he isn’t introduced until adulthood, when we find him preaching up a storm out in the wilderness of Judea, calling people to turn their lives around, to get their acts together, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Preaching, witnessing, baptizing, John prepared the way for one who would come after him, Jesus the Christ.
But if John – and a long line of Hebrew prophets before him – prepared the way for Jesus’ ministry and message, there were many others who prepared the way for his birth, simply by being part of his family tree. Both Matthew and Luke include a genealogy of Jesus in the opening chapters of their gospels, presumably to set the stage, to demonstrate how that little child born in a manger in Bethlehem was the crowning moment of a much longer story.
This morning we’ll be reading a paraphrased version of Matthew’s genealogy, (taken from Douglas Adams, The Prostitute in the Family Tree) to give you a sense of the kind of people who were included in the family tree of Jesus, a sort of snapshot of his roots.
In order to do that, I’ll need my assistants to join me here in the front of the sanctuary. We’re going to need your help too. As Don reads through the list of names, our team will be holding up cue cards, and your job will be to follow the directions on the cards.
A reading from the first chapter of the gospel of Matthew:
A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ
(APPLAUSE! + CHEER!)
the son of David (APPLAUSE!),
the son of Abraham (CHEER!).
Abraham was the father of Isaac (APPLAUSE!),
Isaac was the father of Jacob, who stole his brother’s birthright (BOO!)
And Jacob was the father of Judah and his brothers,
who sold Joseph into slavery (HISS!).
And Judah was the father of Perez and Zerah (WHO?),
by Tamar, his own daughter-in-law (WHAT?!),
And Perez was the father of Hezron, and Hezron was the father of Ram, and Ram was the father of Amminidab (WHO?),
And Amminidab was the father of Nahshon, the father of Salmon, who was the father of Boaz by Rahab, the prostitute (WHAT?!),
who helped the Israelites enter the promised land (CHEER!),
and Boaz was the father of Obed by Ruth (APPLAUSE!);
and Obed was the father of Jesse, the father of David the King (CHEER!).
and David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, whom he had murdered (HISS!);
and Solomon was the father of Rehoboam, who was a good king, but abandoned God’s way for several years (BOO!),
and Rehoboam was the father of Abijah, who had fourteen wives (WHAT?! BOO!)
and Abijah was the father of Asa, a good king but one who did not walk in the way of the Lord at the end of his life, and so died of gangrene of the feet (MOAN!),
and Asa was the father of Jehosophat who was a fine king ruling wisely most of the time (APPLAUSE),
Jehosophat was the father of Joram who was the father of Uzziah whose pride brought his downfall (BOO!);
But Uzziah was the father of Jotham, a very good king in every way (CHEER!),
who was the father of Ahaz, a very bad king in every way (HISS!),
and Ahaz was the father of Hezekiah who cleansed the temple and the kingdom (CHEER!).
Hezekiah was the father of Manasseh who ruled for fifty-five years (APPLAUSE!),
but who was evil for most of that time (BOO!),
He was the father of Josiah who did right in the eyes of the Lord (CHEER!);
and Josiah was the father of Jeconiah and his brothers (WHO?),
at the time of the deportation to Babylon. After the deportation to Babylon, Jeconiah was the father of Shealtiel who was the father of Zerubbabel, a governor of the people and chosen by God (APPLAUSE!),
and Zerubbabel was the father of Abiud (WHO?),
and Abiud was the father of Eliakim (WHO?),
who was the father of Azor (WHO?),
who was the father of Zadok (WHO?),
who was the father of Akim (WHO?),
who was the father of Eliud (WHO?),
the father of Eleazar (WHO?),
the father of Matthan (WHO?),
the father of Jacob (WHO?),
the father of … JOSEPH (APPLAUSE!)
who was the husband of … MARY (CHEER!),
Of whom was born JESUS whom we call CHRIST
I’m sure you noticed any number of things about this important text today, not the least of which was that the first chapter of Matthew’s gospel makes a better story than you’d feared! Allow me to recap a few highlights.
First, the cheers and applause: for the great kings of Israel’s history, the royal background we often talk about this time of year, Jesus being from the line of King David, plus all the other noble, worthy ancestors we probably expected in his family tree.
But if parts of the list sounded like a hall of fame, others were more like a hall of shame. We boo’ed and hissed along the way too – and you may have been surprised to find so many unsavory characters in the mix. It’s fascinating to me that the scoundrels are included here, and I wonder if it’s a nod to the full humanity of Christ. Truly God, yes, but also born into a family with faults and weaknesses, like any other. And somehow these scoundrels, according to Matthew’s gospel, were integral pieces of a larger picture which would ultimately usher Jesus onto the scene. It calls to mind for me a line from the movie “Amadeus.” Solieri, an accomplished musician frustrated by the ease with which the bratty young Mozart creates works of musical genius, remarks on the irony of Mozart’s talent: How strange that the voice of God could be heard through the mouth of an obscene child. And how strange that Matthew would highlight not only the family heroes, but also the family embarrassments, as important elements of a salvation history leading up to the birth of Christ.
Remember, too, that our list included not only the famous and the infamous, but a number of people you may never have heard of. About some of these, we can find a little bit more information in the Old Testament, but many of them are mentioned simply by name there as well. Would that we knew why they were included as part of this incredible divine plan. But remember, God has never been limited to working through the more famous figures in human history.
Finally, think back on the way the genealogy was composed. So and so was the father of so and so, who was the father of so and so… That a woman, a mother, stands silently in the background of each branch along this family tree should be obvious, though it would have been unusual to list women in a genealogy at that time. Yet four women are mentioned by name here along with Mary – and notice which four they are. Not necessarily the better-known characters of the Old Testament like Sarah and Rebecca, who could have made the cut. But Tamar, who deceives her own father in law and gets him to provide her with the son she deserves under Israelite law; Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute who helped Israelite spies move safely in and out of her homeland; Ruth, a Moabite widow; and “the wife of Uriah,” better known as Bathsheba, who became King David’s wife only after he arranged to have her husband killed to cover up their adulterous affair. Not one of them has a biography we might expect to find in Jesus’ family tree. But maybe this is exactly why these women are highlighted in the list as forerunners to Mary. Mary, a young unwed mother whose pregnancy alone was scandalous, whose role as the mother of the child of God appeared impossible, whose son’s preaching and ministry would be all about turning expectations on their heads.
Women and men, the famous, the infamous and the virtually unknown. God worked through each of them, not just the “Davids” and “John the Baptists” to prepare the way for the coming of the Christ child. What an amazing statement of our Lord’s humanity, and the real world into which Jesus was born. What a fantastic introduction for the Savior of the world, who would spend his days on earth communing with just these sorts of folk: princes and prostitutes, saints and sinners, heroes and creeps.
Surely if God could use this cast of characters, then God can use any of us to accomplish great things. And so we too are called to prepare the way of the Lord.
Rejoice! Get ready! For Emmanuel shall come… and shall come precisely to people like us. Amen.