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Sermon on Matthew 1:1-17
God’s Unlikely Relations
Christmas Eve, 2019
I know reading Mathew’s genealogy of Jesus on Christmas Eve might seem like a bizarre move. At this point in the evening, I have either got your full attention, or I have lost it for good. I hope you are still with me, because Matthew is doing something here that is worth paying attention to.
Matthew is the only one of the four evangelists to begin his Gospel this way. It does seem strange of him to begin his story of Jesus with something as boring as a genealogy, one of those long biblical lists of “begats” that most of us skip over when we’re reading the Bible.
Matthew’s first readers would not have found this genealogy boring, any more than that person in almost every family who will spend hours online or in the library trying to find out whether Great-great-aunt Sally was an Albright or a Palmer. Tracing the family tree gives a family a context for understanding who they are. Matthew wants to tell us about Jesus’s roots, because that gives us a context for understanding who he is.
For Matthew’s first readers, the long list of unpronounceable names I just struggled through would have been full of familiar characters. Many of the names would have conjured up memories and associations. Readers would have been looking for clues to see what all these people, some famous and some not-so-famous, had to do with Jesus the Messiah. They would have looked at his bloodlines to draw conclusions about who he was.
Matthew’s account of the human origins of Jesus is very orderly. The list of Jesus’s ancestors is neatly divided into three equal sets of generations, and each set is marked by a major figure or event of Jewish history. It’s as if Matthew wants to say, history is not haphazard, there is a plan to it, because God is not haphazard. It is not by chance that the long unfolding of ancient Israel’s history culminates in the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.
At the same time, there are some very odd elements to the way this history unfolds. For one thing, the last set of fourteen generations contains no notable people, just a string of unfamiliar names. That is the first clue that God doesn’t write entirely in straight, predictable lines.
And there is something even stranger than the list of fourteen generations of obscure people. There are five women included in this genealogy. That may not seem strange to us – everybody has a father and a mother – but in Matthew’s time only male descendants were named in genealogies. It was the paternal ancestry that mattered. The inclusion of the five women would have been surprising, even shocking, to Matthew’s first-century readers – but still not as shocking as who these women were. There is an element of scandal to each of their stories.
Tamar, the first woman named, was a Canaanite who disguised herself as a prostitute to shame her father-in-law into giving her what was rightfully hers, a place in the family – for doing this, she was pronounced “righteous” by the biblical writers. Rahab really was a prostitute, and a Gentile as well, who was commended for protecting the Israelites when they were in danger. Ruth was another Gentile, who basically threw herself at the Israelite Boaz and so eventually became the great-grandmother of King David. Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, was a victim of King David’s lust who also managed to see her son Solomon crowned king of Israel. And finally, there is Mary, an obscure peasant girl who had a lot of explaining to do to her fiancé Joseph.
All five of these women were women on the margins. Most of them were outsiders to the covenant people of Israel, jagged interruptions in the straight line of succession of patriarchs and kings from Abraham on down. Each was an unexpected “knob” or “knot” on the family tree. Yet every one of them was crucial to the history that culminated in the birth of Jesus. Matthew goes out of his way to name these women because each one played a key role in moving God’s purposes forward. Outsiders, it seems, have a pivotal role in God’s plan of salvation. God uses unlikely people to work out God’s purposes, not necessarily the most virtuous, talented, or well-placed in society.
There is something else, too. The very unsuitability of these people, their sheer improbability in the royal lineage of Israel’s Messiah, seems to say something about how precarious the very existence of Jesus was from a human point of view. Matthew is the only one of the Gospel writers who tells the story of how the Holy Family escaped from King Herod’s rage by fleeing into Egypt. Jesus and his parents were refugees, the ultimate outsiders.
In summary, then, the birth of Jesus the Messiah was all very unlikely. Matthew seems to be telling us that God’s orderly plan of salvation is nevertheless full of unexpected twists and turns, improbable alliances, and survival against the odds.
It was all so unlikely, and nothing could be more unlikely than the Incarnation itself: the event of God entering into human history, taking on a human life and living among human beings, and risking the harm human beings can do to each other. The Incarnation is about the sheer improbability of how God has made a way in the world.
We know the Christmas story so well. Over two thousand years of church history, we’ve recited this story, we’ve sung it, painted it, acted it, heard it a thousand times, it seems. It’s so familiar to us that it has ceased to amaze us. But no other religion makes the astonishing claim that Christianity makes: that the Divine Majesty would condescend to take on the mortal flesh of a human being, to enter into everything it means to be human.
God’s incarnation in Jesus, born to an ordinary Jewish Palestinian couple, says that God has chosen to become entangled in human life, to become “entwined” with us, to let us know that we are not alone in a vast and often frightening universe.
Almost twenty years of ministry and sixty-odd years of life have convinced me that every one of us, at some level, struggles with a deep, essntial loneliness. Some of us must confront this loneliness every day, while others of us, surrounded by family and friends, are not even aware of it most of the time. But sooner or later, whoever we are, we are bound to find ourselves awake at three a.m., struggling with some inner demon and knowing that no human companion, not even the person who knows us best and loves us best, can truly make sense of our life for us, can truly vanquish the unnameable fears that sometimes beset us. Only God, who is so deeply invested in human life as to enter the world we know to let us know that we are not alone, can help us here. In Jesus Christ we know a God who has laughed and cried and loved and suffered in many of the same ways we do, who has felt loneliness and fear, but also joy and hope, in some of the same ways we do. In Jesus Christ, God has chosen to be related to us, to count us among all those unlikely relations of the Son of God that Matthew lists in his genealogy of Jesus.
It has been said that “religion is what man does with his solitude.” That may be true, but I prefer to come at it from another angle: the Incarnation of the Word in Jesus Christ is what God has done about our solitude. Someone who has come to us from beyond us has adopted us and made us part of God’s family history.
Tonight is the night on which the Church commemorates, with awe and reverence, the mystery of how God has chosen to come into the world for our sake. The story is familiar, but still amazing beyond words. We are privileged to be here together to contemplate the mystery of our salvation in Jesus Christ, the one Matthew calls Immanuel, “God with us.” May this mystery illumine your lives this Christmas, and may the peace of Christ be with you.
Manassas Presbyterian Church
December 24, 2019
 Thomas G. Long, Matthew (Westminster John Knox Press),