Genes reunited - Matthew 1:1-17
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
One of the most popular TV programmes in recent years is ‘Who do you think you are?’ where some well know celebrity retraces some less well known facts about their ancestry- sometimes with surprising results. I guess the popularity of the series is not surprising given the increased interest generally in discovering our roots through such means as ‘genes reunited’. Why such an interest? I would suspect that it is not merely out of mild inquisitiveness- perhaps hoping there is someone famous, but hopefully not infamous, in our lineage, (thinking ‘perhaps we might be in line for a peerage after all!’), but that instinctively we have the sneaking feeling that who we are- our identity- is inextricably bound up with who our ancestors were. As is evident in the BBC programme, sometimes the stories unearthed about a long dead relative are actually quite moving. And so that knowledge naturally impacts upon our own self-understanding, for better or for worse.
Well, at the time of Jesus who you were was very much measured by where you had come from in terms of your family tree. Any priestly ambitions you may have had for example would soon come to grief unless you could show that somehow you were of the lineage of Levi. Questions of having the right credentials, which meant having the right family history, were crucial when it came to even greater claims, such as the claim to royalty. Even in our own history we have had so called ‘Pretenders’ to the throne- like Bonnie Prince Charlie, well at the time of Jesus there were many pretenders to the throne of David- usually spoken of in terms of the Messiah or the Christ- the proper King who was anointed by God. Now, as we shall see, one of the great claims Jesus makes of himself, at least implicitly in the first instance, is that he is the Christ, the Son of David. And so the immediate reaction of his audience on hearing such a claim would be, ‘Who do you think you are?’ A carpenter from Nazareth having had no significant formal education who would normally wipe his nose on his sleeve is the Christ!? Prove it!
And so right at the beginning of his account of the life of Jesus, Matthew sets about to do just that. What to us may seem to be a tedious list of names is anything but- for not only is it a laying out for all with eyes to see just who Jesus is, but also what he came to do. And in both cases what we discover surpasses anything that genes reunited could ever uncover.
First we have the unveiling of the authentic King. This is shown to us in several ways.
Take a look at how the family tree is topped and tailed- v 1 ‘A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham’ and then v 17 ‘Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Christ.’
So it starts by speaking of Jesus,’ the son (that is descendent) of King David, son of Abraham’, and it ends by reversing the pattern by speaking of Abraham, David, and Jesus as the Christ. The word translated ‘genealogy’ is literally ‘the genesis of.’ So this is a book about beginnings. In fact it is a book about a series of beginnings which climaxes in the new beginning which Jesus offers to all those who come to him- a new beginning in their relationship with God. So verse 1 is launched with the claim that Jesus is the Christ and it ends in verse 17 with the same affirmation that now ‘the Christ’ has come So that the claim is set out- the assertion that Jesus bar Joseph is God’s King.
But Matthew makes the same point in more subtle ways. I am sure that you will have noticed how the number fourteen’ appears again and again. For example v17, ‘Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Christ.’ What’s so special about that? Well you see, the Jews gave each letter of the Hebrew alphabet a numerical value and then used it as a sort of code- a device called a gemmatria. The name David in Hebrew is made up of three letters or radicals- d,w,d: daleth-wah-daleth. ‘d’ if you like 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 semi-artificial way, the very pattern declares Jesus to be the new David, David’s greater Son.
You will also be aware that numbers were important to the Jews in other ways too. Just as in our culture the number ‘13’ is considered to be as unlucky number, for the Jews the number ‘7’ had a special positive significance. The pattern of creation in Genesis is that God created the world in ‘seven’ days, and on the ‘seventh’ day he rested, the work was completed. Seven, then, is a powerful symbolic number, for it is the number of wholeness, completion, the climactic number. And so here with Jesus being born at the beginning of the seventh seven in the sequence is the climax to the whole list. Do you see what Matthew is saying by linking this number with Jesus? He is claiming that Jesus is the culmination to the whole of Israel’s history, going back to the beginning of that history with Abraham mentioned in v2. All that Israel has been hoping for and longing for over 2,000 years, a liberating King- Abraham’s seed of blessing- has eventually come in a baby whose name is Jesus.
And the significance of his kingship is further revealed by the way the genealogy has been arranged in three blocks with two key turning points which especially make mention of King David. The first block ends in verse six with David, the second block begins with David and ends with the exile on 587 BC when the Davidic monarchy was destroyed and what was left of the nation was carted off into Babylon (modern day Iraq). And since that time there had been no functioning monarchy. King Herod the Great, of whom we shall here more of later in the next chapter, had no royal blood in his veins, he wasn’t even Jewish. But now, declares Matthew, all that has changed. The prophecy of Isaiah 11 has been fulfilled in that from a ‘royal stump’ there would spring up a royal shoot and his name is Jesus. That is why Matthew, unlike Luke, traces Jesus ancestry through David’s kingly descendants running through David’s son, Solomon (v6). Just as in our monarchy when the throne of succession jumps to another part of the family by default as when there is an abdication or the heir dies- the decisive factor to the succession is that there is a royal connection, heir by legal right. So it is here. By virtue of Jesus being the legal son of Joseph, Jesus is the legal heir to David’s throne. Do you see?
And each one of those three blocks represents at least three key stories in God’s dealings with his people and so the world.
In block one which begins with Abraham we are reminded that God made a promise that one day a descendant would eventually come who will bless the entire world (Genesis 12). And here he is- Jesus.
In block 2 God promised David that he too would have a descendant who would reign on his throne for ever, not just over a nation, but the world (2 Samuel 7) and here he is-Jesus.
In block 3 God promised that the exile would eventually end and he would gather his people together under one shepherd King (Ezekiel 34). That historical exile ended years ago, but still the people find themselves in a kind of spiritual exile, beaten and oppressed, well that is now going to be brought to an end by the Shepherd King par excellence and here he is -Jesus.
So we are not make the mistake of thinking this is nothing but a page filler- the family of tree of Jesus is a lightening tour of the Old Testament leading to its climax and goal- Jesus Christ.
Here’s the thing: when you look at these 3 foundational stories in the Old Testament they make it crystal clear that when God makes a promise he will keep it and he will keep it even when all the evidence around us suggests that he won’t. If God has said, ‘Never will I leave you nor forsake you’ he means it, even when it feels he has forsaken us. Jesus is the one God has been preparing for all along and his ultimate plans for our good cannot be messed up by our sin or stupidity. I said that this is a family tree of ‘new beginnings’, of fresh starts and that is exactly what we see with Jesus reversing the fortune of the house of David and so providing the possibility of a fresh start for everyone.
Which brings us to the next heading, Jesus is the universal Saviour.
This is brought out in a very interesting way.
As we have been seeing this is the royal line Matthew is sketching out for us- the family tree of King Jesus. And yet woven into its fabric we have reference to five women, and normally women were not mentioned in ancient family trees, and especially those of royal dynasties. And yet here we have five mothers mentioned. Have you ever wondered why? It has to be admitted that they do stick out like sore thumbs because, to put it bluntly, from a Jewish point of view they are morally and spiritually suspect. In other words, these are skeletons rattling around in the royal family closet.
First there is Tamar in verse 3. This is one of the most sordid stories in the OT found in Genesis 38. Judah was her father- in- law who abused her terribly. He mistook her for a prostitute and by her fathered the twin boys Perez and Terah also mentioned in v3. Can you imagine having that as a scandal? Any self-respecting family would want that air brushed out of the family history straight away? But here it is for the whole world to see.
The second mother is Rahab in v5. She was a prostitute, the one who protected the Jewish spies in Jericho. That there was a prostitute in the royal family line would also have been a source of acute embarrassment. But even worse than that, she was a Canaanite, a pagan worshipper - the lowest of the low as far as any self-respecting Jew is concerned. And yet she is specifically mentioned. You can already see the faces turning red as this list is perused.
The third woman is Ruth. She also wasn’t a pure Jew either, she was a Moabite, one of the sworn enemies of God’s people who were the offspring of Abraham’s nephew Lot when he had sex with his two daughters- another sordid low point in Bible history. She was David’s grandmother.
The fourth mother, interestingly enough is not even mentioned by name. In fact the shear awfulness of her predicament is highlighted by saying in v 6 ‘David was the father of Solomon whose mother had been Uriah’s wife.’ The reader of the OT would be reminded of another dipping into the moral pits. This is Bathsheba. She was already married to Uriah a Hittite (so again the purity question is raised). David, himself who was married, committed adultery with her; some would go so far as to suggest rape, and to cover his tracks David had Uriah killed. The baby born of the adultery died, but the next baby born to Bathsheba was Solomon who was to build God’s temple. Not exactly models for the Mother’s Union are they? They are the sort of skeletons we would rather have locked in the closet and then throw away the key! There were plenty of women of virtue in this line, but they are not even given a passing mention. Rather, it is the shady, the disreputable, the suspect and the spiritually impure which are deliberately mentioned in such a way as to grab our attention.
But you will have noticed that there is one other mother mentioned down in v16, ‘Mary’. And that there may be something untoward here is hinted at in the way v 16 is phrased, for instead of saying ‘Joseph the father of Jesus by Mary’ we read, ‘Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus.’ His birth is described in the passive voice. His maternity is affirmed but his paternity is left legal and formal- strangely understated. Later, some of the Jews even put about the rumour that Jesus was the result of an adulterous liaison between Mary and a Roman soldier called Pantera, after all, that was much easier to believe than some cock and bull 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 ancestry, 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 as well as the more morally dubious like Rahab. 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 feels like you want to die a thousand deaths. And what is more that sense of shame keeps you away from God. If so then let this family tree tell you something else. Let it tell you that God 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 any more than the relatives of his past prevent him from coming to save them! That is what makes this Good News.
One of the interesting things about programmes like, ‘Who do you think you are?’ Is that while from one point of view the distance between the celebrity and their ancestors -maybe going back as far as the 16th century, seems vast. But when the calculations are done, from another point of view they are not that vast at all. I find it amazing to think that my grandchildren know me who knew someone- my grandad- who fought in a war a hundred years ago! It is the living generations which form the link which spans the distances of time.
And so it is here.
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 David’s ancestors had even begun to approach the stature of David. There followed one long catalogue of political corruption and moral decay, culminating the great exile. This proud race had been cowered and the dynasty of David slipped further and further into obscurity- we are simply left with these names. The Jews 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 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 Babylon-500 years; since David, a 1,000 years, since Moses 1500 years, since Abraham 2 whole millennia. It is not so easy to keep on believing in the promise of a Saviour after such a long time is it? After all, who were the heirs to David’s throne? This list of nobodies. Who was the present heir? A carpenter called Joseph. Why he didn’t even live in Jerusalem, he was stuck away in some obscure little village in Galilee as far removed from the politics of power as the Scottish highlands are removed from Westminster. Joseph- royalty? You must be joking.
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,
And here we are tonight at St John’s. How long has it been for us? 500 years since the Reformation’ 1,000 years since the Norman Conquest; 2,000 plus years since the birth of Christ. And yet for all the changes that have taken place, am I right in saying that as in the days of Jesus there is the shadow of exile hanging over us, a cloud of despondency and especially fear? Like these Jews we are afraid and tired. We are tired of waiting for something to happen, desperately looking for some good news as things seem so uncertain.
Well, that is how it was in the days of Joseph, a world very much like ours and yet into this web of human sadness and longings Jesus is 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, 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 everyone else on this planet through our family tree and Jesus is embedded right there in our humanity, with all its shameful pasts, our under-achieving relatives, broken and lost so that by his sinless life, his sacrificial death, and glorious resurrection, we could be healed and found, restored back to God. That, of course, is why he is called Jesus- ‘Jehovah saves’. Who will he save? Well, Matthew wants us to know and believe that he saves people like just you and me.
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