Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Genealogy of Jesus Christ

Christmas Vigil 2013

Of all the ways to start a best seller, this isn’t one of them. “A genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham…” followed by a long list of names, most of them unpronounceable… Yawn. It’s likely many would have doze off before reaching the end. It’s no wonder that this passage is one we tend to overlook. Many, including priests who have the benefit of choosing the shorter version, would be inclined to skip verses 1 to 17 and go right to verses 18, which says, “This is how Jesus Christ came to be born.” We just don’t know what to do with it. So why does Matthew begin the Christmas story with a genealogy?

Genealogies were significant ventures in the past because they were ways people stayed connected. In most eras of human history and in different parts of the world, family names and family histories were integral, living factors in people’s lives. In scripture, the genealogies were not only devices which sought to compress centuries of human history into a single paragraph but more importantly served to demonstrate God’s faithfulness to his people in every generation, a faithfulness that remain intact in spite of humanity’s sinfulness.

Genealogies meant a great deal to the Jewish people too. Knowing your genealogy was important to a people who cared about maintaining their identity. Genealogies were important to show that they were part of the Chosen race; it was a prerequisite qualification for temple priesthood; and finally, it served to support the cause of royal claimants to the throne of the ancient monarchy of Israel. That’s exactly why the genealogy of Jesus is so important: it proves that he is descended from the unbroken line of Abraham and the David. The genealogy of Jesus serves as a kind of provenance, a certificate of origin. But in the usual ironical twist of the ordinary, we encounter a surprise ending: after detailing this whole illustrious line of ancestors (with a few questionable characters thrown in for good measure), it became clear that the line is broken at the very end. Joseph is indeed a direct descendant of David and Abraham, but Jesus is not of his issue!

The beginning of the Christmas story in Matthew has several important lessons for our generation too.

First, the genealogy, by connecting the birth of Jesus to human history, seeks to present this event as a new beginning for creation. It doesn’t take a genius to notice that the word ‘genealogy’ and ‘genesis’ have a common root, which means beginning. Here St Matthew deliberately wants us to begin reading his book with a sense of recalling the past. He wants to take us all the way back to the beginning and see his book, beginning with the birth of Jesus Christ, as a fresh start and a new beginning. Matthew is saying in the first line of his gospel that this world has two beginnings. The first one took place a long time ago in Chapter 1 of Genesis when God created the heavens and the earth, and everything was good. But we know how that story ended. Man has yearned ever since to correct the fatal mistake of his forefathers and undo all the damage that sin has brought to the world. The good news which St Matthew announces on this night is that the birth of Jesus does exactly this. Christ is the new beginning.

The original creation, which is damaged, flawed, and broken, is now being restored and transformed in the person of Jesus Christ. And so for all of us who are longing for a fresh start, and who are longing for everything in this world to be put right, the birth of Jesus is what makes this possible. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). The birth of Jesus is a new beginning for all of us, and for the whole world.

Second, the birth of Jesus also proved that God fulfills his promises; in particular, He will go to ridiculous lengths to keep his promise to save us. From the moment of man’s fall, when Adam and Eve sinned by disobeying God, God has set into motion this great plan to bring about humanity’s redemption and salvation. We hear this promise reverberating through the centuries as humanity and Israel plodded along. The only one way to redeem man was to provide a substitute, not just any sacrificial animal, but a perfect man, a perfect sacrifice that would take the place of sinful man. And, through Jesus, God gave the whole world a substitute. That’s why Matthew makes it clear by giving us this genealogy that Jesus is the Son of Abraham, the promised sacrifice. But God has also promised his people with a king. Jesus is that king because this messed up world of ours is in need of a ruler who will undertake this cosmic clean up and reclaim the universe for God’s glory. In, Jesus we see the fulfillment of the promise made to David that his descendant will reign forever.

The fact that God keeps his promises is great news because it means that God will work through ridiculous circumstances to save his people. He will spare no effort to save us, because God always keeps His promises. There comes a point when we are tempted to cut our losses and call it quits. But not God. No matter how unfaithful the Israelites were, no matter how hopeless things seemed, no matter how impossible it was to keep going, God never abandoned them, God kept going. The genealogy becomes an account of God’s sublime faithfulness. Through wars, famines, betrayals, slavery, exile, and turmoil, God is going to make sure that Jesus comes.

And that brings me to my final point. When you examine some of the names listed in this genealogy, you would certainly come to the conclusion that God will work through ridiculous people to accomplish his will. Thus the genealogy highlights that the birth of Jesus includes us all. Most of us are embarrassed of and do all within our power to sugar-coat the narrative, conceal the skeletons in our closet, the black sheep of the family, the shady characters that sully the pristine purity of our family tree. But here in this genealogy, St Matthew lays it bare and sets out a family line that hides nothing and reveals everything. Listed among the list are illustrious patriarchs that figure prominently in the Old Testament, kings, and persons of power and position. But the list is not re-edited to weed out the questionable characters.

Included in the list are four women. What is significant here was who these four women were? Why are they mentioned and not others? We have Tamar, the prostitute who tricked her father-in-law into incestuous union to ensure that she could continue the line of her husband; Rahab, another prostitute who was the ‘Matahari’ of her days, betrayed her own people and sheltered the enemy spies; Ruth, the grandmother of David, who was a foreigner, a Moabite, who seduced her employer and married him; and then we have Uriah’s wife, the woman involved in David’s scandalous adulterous affair and cover up and the mother of Solomon. So in this list you have great people, but you also have people with a past. The genealogy leaves a paper trail of men, women, adulterers, prostitutes, heroes, and Gentiles open for public scrutiny. Right from the start, Matthew is telling us that Jesus is immersed in the gritty and seamy side of fallen humanity. No matter who you are, people like you are already part of Jesus’ story. Right from the start, God chooses the most sinful, broken, and unlikely people to be his players and actors in His divine drama of salvation. Man’s wilfulness, sinfulness and brokenness cannot hinder the purposes of God. That’s great news.

So enduring a torturously long reading of the genealogy wasn’t simply a waste of time. This is no boring prelude to the exciting stuff that’s going to come later. In fact, this is story-telling at its best. Right from the beginning, St Matthew wants us to understand that the birth of Jesus marks a new beginning, it demonstrates the fulfilment of all of God’s promises, and finally announces the good news that Christ’s coming is for all kinds of people, saints and sinners alike. As we continue to keep vigil and await the moment when we remember the birth of that wonderful baby in Bethlehem, let us take in this amazing picture of God’s plan of salvation, a plan that he seeks to fulfil against the odds, a plan that refuses to be waylaid by human failing and weakness. Let us on this night, join this wonderful story. It’s a time for a fresh start; it’s time to start believing that God has not abandoned you because he always keep his promise; and finally it’s time to realise that this story includes you, no matter how unlikely a person you may be.

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