Relatively Speaking - Matthew 1:1-17
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. So begins Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities. Now that is how to begin a book. A great opening line which grips the reader, and whets the appetite to read on. What you dont do, as any course in creative writing will tell you, is to begin with a mind numbing catalogue of names which appears to have all the interest of a shopping list for Tescos. So what does Matthew think he is doing with all this begetting' as it appears in the King James Version - Abraham begat Isaac, Isaac begat Jacob and on and on it goes. Surely, he could have come up with a better attention grabber than that?
Well, what Matthew has done would have caused any first century Jew to begin trembling with excitement- true.And it should cause us to do the same. Let me explain.
The other day I received the following e-mail :
Dear Sir,Thanks to a piece of information I gathered about you through the Togolese Chamber of Commerce and Industry, although I did not leave any clue as to the reason for my enquiry bearing in mind the confidentiality required in this absolute risk-free business.I am Roberts keita a Manager at the Eco Bank Head Office here in Togo. Recently we discovered a Dormant Account with a huge amount of Money Valued USD 27,000,000.00 (Twenty Seven Million Dollars) that belongs to one of our Numerous Customers Mr Duckson Fritz who died in a plane crash in November 1996. During the period of our Investigation we discovered that the deceased died along with his family, leaving behind no will and nobody to come for the claim as his next of kin. The Banking law here stipulates that if such money remains unclaimed for Six years, it will be forfeited to the Bank Treasury as an unclaimed bill.A Togolese cannot stand as the Next of Kin to a foreigner. It is upon this discovery that I and my colleagues in this Department decided to contact you to collaborate with you to pull out this dormant fund. What I want from you is for you to act as the deceased next of kin. I have in my possession, all the necessary documents to successfully accomplish the operation. However it will require that you shall be physically present in Lome, Togo with my assistance to complete the necessary procedures .We have it in our mind to use 10% of the fund for Charity through your organization, and another 25% of the money to you if this proposal meets your interest. Please reach me urgently through the above Telephone, and Email address to enable me give you the full details of this transaction.
Three thoughts immediately came to mind as I read this. First,have they got the right person? The second thought was, is this moral and legal? And thirdly , is it a wind up?So I began wondering which member of staff had decided to have a bit of a laugh at my expense- acting on the maxim that just because you are not paranoid doesnt mean they are not out to get you.And as wind ups go it isnt a bad one.
Now Matthew starts off by making the startling claim that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, that, is Gods long awaited King-the descendent of David , the one who was to fulfil the promise made to Abraham two thousand years earlier that through one of his descendants the whole world was going to be blessed beyond recognition. Well, says Matthew, he has come. Now those same three questions which I had would have popped into the mind of any devout Jew- is this a wind up? Is the claim legal? Have we the right person? And what Matthew does in the most fascinating way is to answer all three questions, leaving us in no doubt about the identity and mission of Jesus.This is no joke.Jesus is legally the King and his life and character and family connections make it quite plain he is the right person. So lets take a look at how Matthew sets out his case that Jesus is the rightful ruler of the world and our lives.
The first thing that strikes you even at a glance is the way in which this family tree is arranged into three blocks. And the two crucial turning points which divide the genealogy both make mention of King David, as if to stress the connection. The first block ends in v6a with mention of David as King . The second block begins in v6b with David being mentioned again as the father of Solomon and then leads on to the time when the Jews were taken off into Exile in Babylon (now modern day Iraq) at which point the monarchy was destroyed, David had no effective heir to the throne. So what had happened to Gods promises as in 2 Samuel 7 that there would always be someone to sit on the Davids throne for ever? Had God changed his mind? If so who wants to worship a God like that who is for you one day and against you the next?Is God unreliable then?
Well, in the third block, Matthew answers that question.No. God has remained true to his word, he is not fickle as we are,for we can trace the lineage of David from the return from exile in 539 BC all the way to this amazing figure,who legally,though not biologically, was the son of Joseph-Jesus who is the Christ-the King. So God is not a liar. God is bringing about his purpose of rescuing a wayward world in his own way and in his own time,through his own Son.
In the second place it is generally recognised that this division into three generations of fourteen is artificially constructed by leaving out certain names in order to make an important point-v 17, Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile in Babylon and fourteen from the exile to the Christ. So what is so special about this number 14? Well, it is this. The Jews gave each letter of the Hebrew alphabet a numerical value and then using it as a sort of code. When I was a young boy I was greatly influenced by Bond films and the Man from UNCLE on Telly. So my friends and I used to send messages to each other in class by way of simple codes.Giving A the number 1, B-2 and so on-not exactly Enigma but that is all we could manage.Well, the Jews at the time of Jesus did the same.So the point is this.The name David in Hebrew is made up of three letters- d,w,d: daleth-wah-daleth. d was given the numerical value 4 and w - 6. So by adding them together, 4+6+4 you come to the grand total of 14. So by arranging Jesus family tree in this way, the very pattern shouts out to a Jew that this Jesus is the new David, Davids greater Son. I tell you reading the Bible beats Poirot anyday.
The third intriguing feature of this list is the mention of five women:Tamar (3);Rahab(5);Ruth (5),Bathsheeba (Uriahs wife-v6) and Mary v 16.Now most Jewish genealogies excluded women.They were not regarded as being all that important.They had precious few legal rights,they were unable to inherit property or even give a testimony in a court of law for they were considered unreliable. And one popular prayer of a pious Jew at the time was I thank thee Lord that you have not created me a slave, a woman or a teacher of Greek philosophy. But here women are specially singled out as being of supreme significance.But perhaps not in the way we would have expected.
Notice that Matthew does not even mention what we might call the great ones in the Old Testament,like Sarah or Rebecca. On the contrary. There is Tamar who had the dubious reputation of inticing her father -in- law Judah, into an incestuous relationship in order to have a child by him.Then there is Rahab who made her living as a postitute-not exactly the paradigm of virtue you would want to parade at the Mothers Union.Then we Ruth.She wasnt even Jewish but a Moabitess, descended from Abrahams nephew Lot through his two daughters who got him drunk so that he would unknowingly have sex with them and from this incestuous liaison came the Moabites and so eventually Ruth. And if that were not enough we have Bathsheeba who is not even mentioned by name, she is simply called Uriahs wife, as if to underscore the appalling scandal that here David committed adultery and murder,getting rid of her husband to cover up the wickedness caused by his own lust.
Now the fact is that the kings and princes of this world proudly display their noble pedigrees dont they?-their links with dukes and duchesses.presidents and prime ministers.What used to be called good families.Where there were skeletons, they were firmly locked away in the cupboard because they are far too embarrassing and shameful to bring out in public. Now dont you find it moving to see here that Jesus includes in his pedigree prostitutes and pagans? Jesus is not ashamed to be associated with them because it is precisely for such people that he came; those whose had made a mess of their lives and whose mess spilt on down into subsequent generations.These are the very people he came to save-his rescue work on the cross extending back through time to cover their sin just as it extends forward in time to cover our sin.
But what about Mary?She couldnt be accused of having a morally dubious reputation surely?Well she was actually.From what we see elsewhere like Mark 6:3 everyone thought there was something decidedly odd about Jesus birth.And they were right of course.Some of the Jews even put about the rumour that Jesus was the product of adultery, an affair between Mary and a Roman soldier called Pantera,after all, that was much easier to believe than some way- out story about a Virgin Birth.Well, the point is Jesus has always been associated with women of dubious moral quality-so where there is a basis for it,Matthew comes clean,placing in bold type such women in the genealogy and in so doing making his claims about the Virgin Birth more credible. Yes there has been immorality associated with Jesus, but not at this point in the story-with Mary. Mary though far from perfect was nonetheless a good woman-and the great thing is that Jesus came to save good people too.like his own mother. The barriers we erect and think so important he breaks down, male-female, Jew-Gentile, moral-immoral, he came to save everyone who has the humility to come to him.
And it may well be that you are here tonight and to be frank there is something so painfully shameful in your past or that of your family that the very thought of it makes you die a thousand deaths.And what is more you think that God could not possibly be interested in someone like you.Then I would simply ask you on the basis of this list , to think again.He is passionately interested in you -these are individual names mentioned, real people,and there is nothing in your past which would present a barrier for him having a personal relationship with you, for on the cross Jesus broke every barrier down by getting rid of the source of all our moral guilt,our sin, freeing us to come to him, as we repent and put our trust in him.No matter how bad,how sordid,how messed up your life-Jesus will take you as your are in order to make you into the person he wants you to be.
But in the fourth place what are we to make of that final list beginning in v 12? Who on earth is Azor,Akim and Eleazor? Well, that is precisely the point,they are nobodies,there is nothing remotely notable about them at all,they appear just as names,they dont even come into the same league as Abraham ,David and Solomon,but nonetheless Jesus identifies with them too. For form these so called nobodies was to come this great somebody.
Here we are just having entered a new millennium. Let me tell you about the time in which Matthew was writing. It had been a millennium since the golden days of King David.But it had been a millennium of decline and profound disappointment.Not one of Davids ancestors had even begun to approach the stature of David,not one.There followed one long catalogue of political corruption and moral decay,culminating the the great exile when the temple was destroyed, the land ravaged and most of the population, including the nobility, were herded off into captivity.Eventually, some came back after seventy years of penal servitude, in dribs and drabs at first. Sure, a new temple was built but it was as nothing compared to the temple they had under Solomon.This proud race had been cowered and the dynasty of David slipped further and further into obscurity.They could well have been forgiven for thinking that God had abandoned them.In fact right up to the birth of Jesus the people felt they were still in some kind of spiritual exile, they had not had a prophet in over 400 years. Sure, they had called upon God,but it seemed as if he had left the phone off the hook.And you may well be feeling like that too. How long had it been? they asked.Since the Babylon-500 years. Since David, a 1,000 years ,since Moses 1500 years, since Abraham 2 whole millennia..It is not so easy is it?To keep on believing in the promise of a Saviour after such a long time.Emmanuel- God with us?That was nothing but a pipe dream for many of them.After all, who were the heirs to Davids throne? Nobodies. Who was the present heir? A carpenter called Joseph. Why he didnt even live in Jerusalem,he was stuck away in some obscure little village in Galilee of all places as far removed from the politics of power as the Scottish highlands are removed from Westminster.Joseph-royalty? You must be joking.
But not so,says Matthew, I am bringing you the astonishing news-v16, that Joseph, the husband of Mary has an heir,who is the Christ-the exile is now over, God has come to live amongst his people in a way that no one could have possibly imagined- God almighty has been reduced to a human zygote implanted into the uterus of a young Jewess.
And here we are tonight at St Johns.How long has it been for us? 500 years since the Reformation and Elizabeth the first.1,000 years since the Norman conquest,2,000 years since the birth of Christ. And yet for all the changes that have taken place, am I right is saying that as in the days of Jesus there is the shadow of exile hanging over us, a cloud of despondency and fear,if the truth be known.Like these Jews we are tired.Tired of war.Tired of promises made by politicians which have never materialised.Tired of religion which is superficial and never satisfies.Tired of relationships broken. We are tired and weary of waiting for something to happen,looking for some good news.
That is how it was in the days of Joseph.A world very much like our torn apart by prejudice,war and pain.And yet,and yet- it was into this web of human sadness and longings that Jesus was born. You see, he belongs to the family tree of humanity.His family tree is part of our family tree and as such Jesus is our brother, our cousin as he took on our human flesh those 2000 years ago. Does that seem such a long time? Then study your family tree and you will see that it is only a handful of generations.Each one of us is connected with every one else on this planet through our family tree and Jesus is embedded there,in our humanity,lost and broken as we are, with shameful pasts, undr-achieving relatives,broken and lost so that by his sinless life, his sacrificial death,and his glorious resurrection, we could be healed and found,restored back to God.That is why he is called Jesus- Jehovah saves. Who will he save? Well, Matthew wants us to know and really believe that he saves people like you and me.The question is:will you believe it?Will you act on it?
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