This sermon was first preached on December 15, 2019.
1This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham:
2 Abraham was the father of Isaac,
Isaac the father of Jacob,
Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers,
3 Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar,
Perez the father of Hezron,
Hezron the father of Ram,
4 Ram the father of Amminadab,
Amminadab the father of Nahshon,
Nahshon the father of Salmon,
5 Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab,
Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth,
Obed the father of Jesse,
6 and Jesse the father of King David.
David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife,
7 Solomon the father of Rehoboam,
Rehoboam the father of Abijah,
Abijah the father of Asa,
8 Asa the father of Jehoshaphat,
Jehoshaphat the father of Jehoram,
Jehoram the father of Uzziah,
9 Uzziah the father of Jotham,
Jotham the father of Ahaz,
Ahaz the father of Hezekiah,
10 Hezekiah the father of Manasseh,
Manasseh the father of Amon,
Amon the father of Josiah,
11 and Josiah the father of Jeconiah and his brothers at the time of the exile to Babylon.
12 After the exile to Babylon:
Jeconiah was the father of Shealtiel,
Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel,
13 Zerubbabel the father of Abihud,
Abihud the father of Eliakim,
Eliakim the father of Azor,
14 Azor the father of Zadok,
Zadok the father of Akim,
Akim the father of Elihud,
15 Elihud the father of Eleazar,
Eleazar the father of Matthan,
Matthan the father of Jacob,
16 and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah.
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 Messiah.
This morning, as we’ve noted, is the Third Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Joy in the Church calendar. In particular, this morning, we will be looking at the creation of humanity as an act of joy, at what it means to be created in the image of God, and the opportunities we have to move towards love and reconciliation.
It’s easy to pass over genealogies like this in the Bible. They can be long, tedious, and seemingly unnecessary. While they do honor people, still it can be exhausting to list them out.
Maybe it is because of how tedious the listings can be that many preachers in approaching a passage like this mostly focus on the numbers.Here, focusing, on the couples of sevens, noting how perfect, numerically, it seems that Jesus falls within his family line. How important the number seven was in Jewish tradition, representing an element of perfection. But, if we only focus on the numbers, we miss key elements that Matthew is emphasizing here, beyond only the numbers, key elements that can be helpful for us in our lives today, especially as we each strive in discipleship with Christ. See, for Matthew, it seems his underscoring the numbers is an kind of final statement on who is included in the genealogy and the stories represented in this genealogy, that, in a way, the perfectness of those numbers demonstrates how essential these people and stories are to Jesus’ own story and this account of his life.
For example, Matthew includes a few mothers in his genealogy – and the fact that he includes any women is significant and different from other previous genealogies in the Bible. Mothers, despite their essential role in creating and bringing forth new life, nevertheless tend not to show up in genealogies in the Bible, at least not since Eve herself declared the births of her first sons Cain, Abel, and Seth.
Rather, genealogies in the Bible tend to emphasize the replacing of the father and no more. Some scholars suggest that these types of genealogies, which simply list which son came after a certain father, actually speak to a thread, or undercurrent, of fear – fear that the family lineage will somehow not go on, fear that the father’s line might actually end. Fear, even, that, after all, they might truly be abandoned by God, if their line does not progress. Thus, a son was not necessarily prized for himself, but rather for his role in carrying forward the male legacy. It ultimately was trust the forefathers appear to have had in the son as a symbol of ongoing life, more than trust in God for their eternal life.
Why so much fear, you might wonder? Why, in the recounting of family life, does it seem there is a complete neglect of any joy in these genealogies? In any sense of blessing and awe at the incredible gift of new life each generation inherently brought? Instead, it seems the fear of death and abandonment were much more the driving forces, and emphasis of these family lines. Indeed, most of these genealogies appear to exist far from any sense of the original delight God took in bringing forth a good creation, a creation in God’s own image.
If we take just a moment, it is perhaps not too hard to think of a reason why our ancestors might have leaned so far toward their fear of death or the possibilities of their legacies ending, than toward the joyfulness that their own lives represented or that any new life that followed could signify.
Beyond the original creation of Adam and Eve, out of dust, new life did not come again until after Adam and Eve experienced the trauma of leaving the Garden and the drastic changes in their intimacy with God. They very much must have been in a state of great shock and grief when they first began having children, and we know today, those strong tensions of shock, grief, and the floods of emotions that come with them can actually pass down and shape the contours of family life.
Indeed, we perhaps know those experiences all too well ourselves. Here on the marker weekend of the shooting in Newtown, CT, seven years ago. Here, in the aftermath of fires and threats of flooding and powershut-offs. We know how fear and anxiety and hypervigilance can linger among us. How we can struggle to manage our stress, anger, and fatigue. The first family was not likely very different.
So, we, too, can resonate with that incredible paradox, how, at least on this side of heaven, any experiences of joy – such as new births – are most often shrouded in the awareness of how much is at stake, of how much could go wrong. In fact, some philosophers and philosophical Christians, like C.S. Lewis, for example, would say, we only know what joy is precisely because we know what is not joy. We know the absence of joy. Which, in part, is what makes the experience of joy, joyful, because we know the fullness of the gift and the tremendousness of having moments in our lives when it seems that, by some miracle, for even a moment, all the negativity can been cast away.
Yet, incredibly, even so, some people seem still to carry joy with them. Regardless of what they encounter. As if the circumstances around them, cannot possibly penetrate or rid them of some continual internal sense of contentment and blessing. We marvel at these people in our lives, in our work places, who, somehow, without denying what’s going on or having rose colored glasses, seem to manage really well.
The Jewish psychologist and Holocaust survivor, Victor Frankl, was so captivated by this phenomenon, he famously studied how it is that certain people can experience what he called an inner sense of quality of life – experiences of ongoing contentment, dignity, and joy– regardless of the circumstances they are in, and even, perhaps especially, when those circumstances include having their homes stolen and becoming imprisoned in concentration camps. Somehow, some people, even in the midst of what we would call hell on earth, somehow still have a sense of internal blessing.
Most likely, we might all agree, Jesus carried that same sense of internal quality of life. That the circumstances He encountered did not change His sense of value and joyfulness, about His own life and purpose. Yet so many people around Him struggled to find that same kind of fearlessness.
Many scholars say that the fear rooted in so much of our current troubles, especially in relationships – whether they be romantic, family, relationships with God – started all the way back at the beginning and was then passed down through the generations, accumulating impacts of stress as they went. A fear rooted in shame and guilt, betrayal and trauma. As researcher Brene Brown points out, when we are locked in shame, and the fear of being vulnerable to the heartache we feel, we too often take it out on our loved ones, neighbors, and coworkers, spreading the impact as we go. We struggle to own and take responsibility for what we feel.
And while families can pass these destructive patterns down through generations, it is also, incredibly, within our families, households, our church family, that we have the opportunity to practice taking responsibility, reconciling, and spreading care and compassion rather than the impacts of stress and fear.
Interestingly, scholar Avivah Gottlieg Zornberg says it is precisely because Adam and Eve had not been parented – that they were not yet in community beyond with each other – that they had no relational context for how to go about these practices, to be aware of how to even begin to repair what had been broken. Instead, they were very under-developed, missing those conflicts that occur within family life and given us opportunities to practice doing better. Instead, when given the first opportunity, the first invitation by God to reconcile, to answer God’s question, where are you, they avoid God and blame everyone but themselves.
In this way, Zornberg suggests the creation of Adam and Eve only initiated the start of the image of God in human creation, and that it is not until they reproduce that the image of God within humanity fully takes shame and becomes embodied within their family life. A family, initially, riddled with heartache. After avoiding God, and being cast out of the Garden, the reader might wonder, will they ever be able to find their way forward again?
In fact, there does come glimmer of hope toward reconciliation and love again. It’s not magical, and it takes time, as it always does. It occurs after Adam and Eve’s first child, Cain grows up to murder their second son Abel. Incredibly, this time after this trauma and grief, rather than blaming everyone but themselves, they come together, and they have another son, Seth. We know that, after compounding stress and trauma, is not easy.
But, when they have Seth, they are very different parents than they were when they first had Cain. And this line, Seth’s line, is different too. Rather than being rooted only in shame, resentment, contempt, and destruction, this line appears to pass on this change in Adam and Eve – a family line filled with acts of reconciling, of returning to one another, of moving toward new life and love. Seth’s line gives us the first glimmers of the possibility of repair and restoration. This line is the one that leads to Abraham and Sarah, to Jacob and Leah, to Judah and Tamar, to David and Bathsheba, to Joseph and Mary, to Jesus.
It is a line filled with remarkable shifts, over and over, toward healing relationships, moments of tremendous counter-cultural change that seek to restore what has gone wrong or has been broken. Changes toward repairing what’s been fragmented.
Changes that remind us that circumstances need not define our sense of Joy.
Joy is a gift we receive within our relationships, and a gift, that we remind ourselves, does not have to be taken away – regardless of how much they hurt us or betray us. And this is not about ignoring or dismissing injustice or real harm that we experience. It’s actually about doing the hard work, within our relationships of righting harm and neglect that has gone on. And it’s reminding ourselves that, even in the midst of the real hardship we may experience, our dignity, our integrity, our value as Children of God, the heart of where we receive Joy, is not determined by the circumstances around us – whether people respond to our calls for goodness or not, or we respond to theirs. God, alone, determines our and our loved ones’ value, and God has declared we all are good creations, made in God’s own image. God delights in each of us, so much so that God humbled Himself to share in life with us and help us heal.
Within the stories of Jesus’ genealogies, within the changes noted especially in Matthew’s passage, each time we can see how they are changes that seem almost impossible. They are the moments full of suspense. Is it going to happen? Will they connect? Or will the family fragment again? These match-point moments occur countless times throughout the Bible. We could not possibly discuss them all right now. But several of them are alluded to in our passage today. In these cases, it happens to be when women risked or bore the weight of presumed scandal. When in spite of abuse, misogyny, murder, and the possibility of abandonment and betrayal, nevertheless, with faithfulness and remarkable courage and strength, these women called their partners or family members to their best selves. It’s a kind of just compassion, that does not ignore the real harm that has occurred, and also calls people to be much better. And of course, not only women do this throughout the Bible. Both men and women do, especially throughout Jesus’ family line.
For Matthew, it appears critical to lay the foundation of Jesus’ birth within the context of these specific brave acts of compassion and striving for the fullness of life, enacted by women who never would have been counted for anything in society, who were the people ignored, dismissed, or abused. It is Matthew who is saying, they not only have personal worth or value, they are essential, essential, to this Grand Story of Love that we all find ourselves. If you are not familiar with these stories, I encourage you to go and find them in the Bible, and get to know them. Because it is in these stories, we see how these women responded to God’s invitation in their own lives, in ways that Adam and Eve were not ready or able to do as fully. They responded to the relationships they were in, to the wrongs they had experienced, and strived to right the wrongs within their families and culture to the best of their abilities.
The other night, Erik and I had the privilege of hearing relationship expert Esther Perel speak at the Granada. Perhaps some of you were there too. If you so, you may recall, a woman from the audience asked Esther if she had advice for how a partner or spouse might find a way through feeling deeply, entrenched contempt for her partner. Esther took a few beats with that question, before saying, the solution to contempt is compassion. Do you feel the shift? It’s not ignoring what’s happened, but it’s looking at what’s happened in a different way, that values you both partners. It’s a movement from the clenched fist [fist], around all those things the other person does that can get you so mad, so frustrated, so hurt, to an openness [open hand] to learning more and calling the other person to fuller life. This is the dynamic movement that lies at the heart of both romantic and family bonds, and church family bonds. It’s not a question of whether we will hurt one another, resent one another, or feel betrayed. We will. We are not perfect. It is a question of what we do with that. It is a question of whether the relationship can be reconciled. Can we respond in ways that call one another to our best selves?
This morning we are reminded of how the family line of Jesus is, like all of ours, … very complicated. It is not shiny, and far from perfect. Instead, it is full of downtrodden people, riddled with scandal and hardship. It is hard to repair – but not impossible. And for Matthew, Advent is about bearing witness to that fact, how in the very face of tremendous scandal and great threat, where we might least expect the possibility of healing, reconciliation, and repair, there is a way toward love and joy that we are all invited to participate.
So, as we continue along in this Advent season, and we draw near to the Joy of new creation happening again, the birth of the new baby Jesus, we can recall how this baby was born despite so many odds. How this baby was ensconced in rumors, threats, and doubts enveloping his young, first time parents. We can have compassion for his parents, joining in their legacy of hurt and hardship, of shame and guilt. We can imagine what it must have been like for them to not blame each other or dump their stress or anxiety on one another, but instead to strive to trust in God and keep finding each other in the midst of the challenges, loving one another amid so much uncertainty. We know it could not have been easy. And yet, somehow, against all the odds, nevertheless, they both kept leaning toward God, and the pathway toward Joy that God provided them. They remained steadfast along that path, trusting that the circumstances around them did not determine their Joy, and embracing, together, the opportunities they had to respond to the invitation God has given to us all . . . to move toward love. Amen.
Notes on the Bible, faith, community, and congregational care.