"The Christmas Code"
"You won't believe what he preached on this morning! Why, he stood up there and read that awful genealogy! You, know, that dreadful list of names -- names that no one can pronounce -- that begins the book of Matthew? What boredom! What's the point? Why not instead tell the Christmas story from Matthew or Luke, and talk about the grace and peace offered therein? Why not offer insights regarding the angels and shepherds, or the three kings? I know that EVERY part of the Bible is important and inspired, and NO part is worthy of being ignored, but isn't this carrying that theme just a little far?..."
In all the spy movies, the "other side" will have some sort of "code" that they use to communicate. This code holds meaning for them, but to the unsuspecting outsider, at first glance the code will appear meaningless or benign. The key to getting wise to the activities of the other side is to "crack the code," and be able to get beyond the "funny words" they are using in order truly to "listen in" on their secrets. Certain recent authors have tried to tell us that the entire Bible is a big "code" to be cracked; bestsellers like "The Bible Code" tell us that every page of Scripture has encrypted truth hidden below the surface. Personally, I feel that such a theory is farfetched; however, we can't deny that here, in his first few lines, Matthew is speaking in "code." He gives us some important clues about the meaning of Christmas--clues as to where the Christmas story starts and who tells the story and who bears the story today--but his message is coded with "begats" and funny unpronouncable names; and if we do want to grapple with the clues contained here, we must break the code... Like everything else in the NT, this so-called "genealogy" of Jesus is telling us something important about life. In the first place, this isn't an ordinary genealogy like the one you may have at home in your family Bible. It's different. In our geanology of grandpa, grandma, granny, & aunts & uncles we use bloodlines. Matthew, though, does not seek to trace bloodlines. He's not out to prove that Jesus is the rightful genetic successor to the throne of Israel -- although he does make that point in the process. Matthew's genealogy is really a story. It's the story of the promise of the Messiah which Israel bore through her entire history. It's a story that says, "Remember what God promised so long ago that he would do? He's doing it--he's been doing it all along. God is going to redeem his people, and give them new life!" If you were asked, "Where does the story of Jesus start?" you'd probably begin by looking for a date -- maybe 2:37 a.m., in Bethlehem of Judea, on December 25 in the year one A.D. Not so with Matthew. He starts at the beginning of a great saga. He starts with Abraham, the first recipient of the promise to be a "light to the nations," and he follows the travels of that promise through Abraham's descendants, through ups and downs, through thousands of years, stopping finally at a manger in Bethlehem. Matthew chooses names that tell the story of a people's hope for a world filled with peace, grace, and joy. The names Matthew offers us are not necessarily related to one another by the direct blood ties that characterize a "family tree" in our minds. Rather, they are bound to one another by God's purpose of bringing into our broken and fragmented world a new world where, as the prophet says, "the wolf can lie down with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf, the lion and the lamb together ... and a little child shall lead them." Or, in contemporary terms, a world where the Croat can live with the Serb, the Czech with the Slovak, the Iranian with the American, the Baptist with the Presbyterian, the Kentuckian with the New Yorker, the tar-heel with the blue devil; and joy shall reign between them and us. What Matthew does is to march us through Israel's liberation and salvation history right up to the Christian hope for a liberated and saved human community blessed by joy, peace, and fellowship. And Matthew puts some strange yet wonderful ironies and twists into the story. There's no boredom here. Let's take a closer look at some of those names in this morning's passage.
Matthew 1:1-17 There are three groups of names; look at the first group. Several words may come to mind: "eye-glazing"; "ear-blistering"; "unpronouncable"; "wierd." But one detail catches our eye: In the otherwise male-dominated list, the names of four women stand out. Let's look... Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and "the wife of Uriah the Hittite" -- who of course is Bathsheba. These particular women certainly add a little adventure to Matthew's journey through history! Take Tamar, for instance. In Genesis 38, she does something which was absolutely taboo in her own time -- and in ours as well. (And that's saying a lot!) She hatches a plot to bear a son by her own father-in-law. Tamar's is the story of a dysfunctional family if ever there was one; and it is the story of a father-in-law's failure to do his duty. In short: The responsibility of the father-in-law, in the event that the husband died before the couple bore a son, was to provide a new husband for the woman, so important was the idea of having male heirs. When Tamar's first husband is killed, Judah (the father-in-law) provides a second; when that husband refuses to give Tamar a son, Judah's job is to provide a third; he refuses to do so. So, Tamar is left without children. But even more important for Matthew: Judah -- who was a direct descendant of Abraham and thus a bearer of the "promise" -- was left without grandchildren. The promise was about to die with Judah. So Tamar does the unthinkable: She disguises herself as a prostitute, and seduces Judah, her father-in-law. Nine months later, she bears a child as a result of this -- to put it mildly -- most questionable relationship. But hear this: Because of this event, according to Matthew, Tamar through her refusal not to provide male heirs keeps the messianic promise alive -- a promise which results centuries later in fulfillment in the Bethlehem manger. Now, Tamar and her like may not be among those that any of us would put "front and center" in our genealogies; but for Matthew, Tamar and her audacity are crucial to sustaining the Christmas promise. According to this list: If we throw out Tamar, we throw out Christmas with her! Or, take Rahab. Unlike Tamar, who was a prostitute in disguise, Rahab had no disguise; she was the real thing. That's what she did for a living. She also ran a boardinghouse in Jericho, and in Joshua 2, when Joshua sends out spies on a reconaissance mission in Jericho prior to attacking that city, Rahab gives them a place to stay. Not only that, but for the sake of Joshua and his army, when the authorities come asking questions about the whereabouts of the spies, she lies to them and sends them on a wild goose chase. Rahab is a foreigner, an alien, an outsider, a "tainted woman," a traitor to her own people in Jericho. Not the usual hero or heroine of our family tree. But, we can't avoid the fact that she's there, in Matthew's genealogy, as a forebear of Christ! Through her courage, she saves the promise. Think of it: Without the likes of Rahab, no Christmas! Or Ruth. Again, the astounding story of an odd union between a man and a woman -- Boaz and Ruth. Again, a despised outsider, a Moabite woman, whose bloodlines carry no status, but who turns out to be, because of her own devotion to an alien Jew, the grandmother of King David -- King David, the one who truly begins to define the Christmas hope. No Ruth, no Christmas! Or Bathsheba. You know her story: King David simply commands her to his palace, they practice adultery, she gets pregnant, David plots to kill her husband, they get married -- and she bears Solomon, the heir to David's throne. And, when in 1 Kings 1, the upstart son of David, Adonijah, will become king, Bathsheba intervenes with David for Solomon, the rightful heir--and the Christmas promise is saved once again. Without Bathsheba, you can kiss Christmas goodbye. And now, lest the men out there begin to turn smug, let us note that the men involved in the story are no different. Look at Abraham. He lied again and again to save himself and his skin. He was not very chivalrous to his own wife. No, Abraham was timid and self-protective. Look at Isaac. He lied for his own benefit and put his wife's life in jeopardy. We go from Jacob, who twice plotted against his brother Esau to wrest away the birthright which he coveted. Look at Judah. He was an immoral person. Look at David. He was a lustful, scheming murderer and adulterer. God chose all of these and included them in this genealogy as well as in the book of life. Talk about having skeletons in your closet! What a lot to have in your family tree! Oh, there is none righteous. All have sinned. Everyone in Matthew's list is a sinner--everyone except one. Just what is Matthew up to here? Well, Matthew is simply telling us--in "code" -- that the promise of Christmas, that promise from God of new life, salvation and forgiveness for all through the Son Jesus Christ, that promise as it was handed down made its way through some rough scrapes. It comes to us in all-too-human hands; it's not immune to the terrors and traumas, the ironies and tragedies, of human life. Christmas, Matthew says, comes into our world because those who hold the vision, and those who seem to merit the spotlight in the arena of grace, are just as frail as the rest of us; it comes because the promise of a new and better world is carried of the shoulders and suffering of the everday winners and losers in this old world we know presently. There's no sentimentality, no fairy tales, no "knights in shining armor," no simplisitc goody-two-shoes types in this family tree. Matthew's list of names sounds more like some people WE know, maybe even some people that we ARE. What a parade, this gang who bear the message, who save the promise, who bring the message of Christmas to fulfillment! Didn't someone once say that "God writes straight with crooked lives"? And it means for you and me that, no matter what our past, no matter what kind of background we come from, no matter how insignificant we feel, no matter how inadequate we are, God can, and God wants to, use US to hand his promise of life down to the next generation! God wants you to carry the promise of Christmas to someone else! If people like these can make it onto Matthew's list, how can we dare say that we too can't be a vital part of the chain, passing faith from one generation to the next? And now look at the second set of names: kings and prophets and monarches and hierarhs: the likes of Rehoboam, Asa, Jehosaphat. Leaders of the nation of Israel -- some of them more-or-less good, others undeniably corrupt, others incompetent, still others such utter failures that finally this people bearing the messianic land is forcibly dragged out of its own land and exiled, left to die under a foreign tyrant. Whatever that second series of names, beginning with Solomon and ending with the disintegration in Babylon means, it means that the promise of God is held in nations, and people-groups; it resides in states and religious institutions -- hear that? Religious institutions like Israel -- religious institutions like CHURCHES. That's right, churches! Matthew is alert to our type in his genealogy, saying simply: You churches, out there—yes, even you, wondering in 1999 if you can even make a difference in your world any more—the Christmas promise can be born of YOU; when you're bound together as a group you can do SO MUCH MORE than you can when you're scattered about. The promise of the Gospel which was born at Christmastime can be carried by you through all your concerns and worries, all your frustrations and joys, all your seeming ordinary-ness. Through all the things that define you today, you, too, stand in that long line of nations, people, and churches who in all their frailty and plainness seek to save, carry on, and live the promise of the new world and new life which is breaking in among us at Christmastime. Without you--yes, even without YOU, the ones who constitute the family of faith at this place--without your faith, without your commitment to carry the Gospel message forward in your midst--without that, it's Goodbye Christmas! And that means that, no matter how disillusioned we ever get with the idea of church, and worship, and gathering together for fellowship, we don't dare forsake it--for 'where two or three are gathered together in my name,' says the Lord, the message of the Gospel, the Christmas story is there with them, ready to be carried on to someone else who so badly needs it. But it's the last group in Matthew's crowd that's truly incredible. It's Abi'ud, Eliakim, Azor, Zadok, Achim, Eliud, Eleazar, Matthan, and Jacob, the father of Mary's husband Joseph. Do you know why that's such a terrific list? Pick up a Bible concordance and you'll find out why. Every other name Matthew gives us in his genealogy can be found somewhere else in the OT, somewhere else in Israel's saga of salvation. But these names in the last group don't appear anywhere. They're anonymous. They're nobodies. They make a cameo appearance in Matthew 1, and then they're gone forever. They're the little people who don't get written up. They're the ones who bear the Christmas promise day by day, no big deals, no derring-do, no neon lights, no prominent headlines. Tim Hall, Mac Roberts, David Brock, Sarah Hobbs: Have you ever heard their names? I know that you haven't. Why, they were my youth minister, a family friend, my middle school Sunday School teacher, my RA leader... Anonymous bearers of the Christmas promise! And you've got a list of those names in your life, too. You've got an Abi'ud, an Eliakim, and Azor, a Zadok, an Eleazar. The ones who told you the Christmas story; the ones who bore the promise. It may be the person on your left or right; it may be someone long gone. But they are there. Anonymous, yet remembered. Insignificant, yet instrumental. Each one of us heard the promise from someone who got it from someone who experienced it through someone who saw it through someone who knew it through someone who grasped it through someone who caught it from someone -- and therein lies the true meaning of that word, "begat," "begat," "begat" in the genealogy. It's not talking about the physical bloodline succession from one generation to the next. No, it's talking about the conception and birth of new faith and new life in a new generation, thanks to the faithful witness of the one before. And the challenge which our Azors and our Eliakims and our Abi'uds deliver to us, along with the promise, is: Will you carry the baton to someone else? Will YOU be an Eleazar, or a Zadok, willing to diligently carry on the promise of Christ at Christmas, and to seek out others who can be made heirs to that promise? And, are you willing to witness to the promise even at the risk of remaining anonymous? Willing to share the gospel faithfully and regularly knowing you'll never have fame and fortune as a result? ...except, that is, in the eyes of the ones with whom you share the promise, and to the One in heaven who gave the promise in the first place--to them, you will not be anonymous, but rather may enjoy in the satisfaction of being part of the most wonderful chain of events ever put into action upon this earth, the carrying of God's light from one real person to the next. At the grand climax of this genealogy, there is one who is the Son of God, the holy one, the sinless one. He is placed at that grand climax to give hope to Abraham, David, Judah, Jacob, Tamar, Rahab, Bathsheba and Ruth. And, now, for you and me, also, there is a Savior. Do you now see the glory and the wonder of this genealogy? Therefore, let us be encouraged by this genealogical list. It tells us that God shows mercy to Gentiles, to Jews, to sinners, and to outcasts in his Son Jesus Christ. His name is Jesus, "because he will save his people from their sins." So, my friends, where does the Christmas story, the story of Jesus, the birth of the gospel, with its promise of hope, its heralding of peace, start? Well, according to Matthew, it doesn't just start in a manger in Bethlehem; that's too simple, too limited. No, it starts with Abraham, and, incredibly, it moves through imposters, traitors, connivers, and pretenders--after all, that is what "grace" means. It has come through monarchs, slaves, aliens, and churches, even communities of faith just like the one gathered in this room tonight. It has been borne by the John Does and Jane Does of this world. With whom you may identify in this procession most closely I do not know. But I know this: You've heard the Christmas story, you've been embraced by its grace, you've been renewed by its forgiveness, you've been included in its peace, you've been inspired by its promise of new life for the world and for you. And now: Where does Christmas start today? It starts today, and it must continue today, with each one of us! Are you ready to carry the Christmas story to someone else today?