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Sunday, December 12, 2010

Five Moms for Jesus (Matthew 1:1-6,16)


An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.

And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah . . .

And Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.

Our passage of Scripture this morning is believed by many to be the most boring chapter of the Bible. There are actually passages in the Old Testament books of 1 and 2 Chronicles that are much more boring than this, though this is a difficult passage to read. Our Scripture reader today must have spent hours practicing at home to get all these names down. Go ahead and take your sermon notes out of your bulletin so you’ll be ready to jot down anything of interest.

The first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel is the “begat” section, an old word that literally means “to bring into existence.” This chapter is considered so boring that most people skip it to get to the second where Jesus Christ is born. But if we skip this chapter, we skip the fact that Matthew has some important things to say to us in all these names, and for those who are brave enough to dig it out, the first chapter of the New Testament is filled with meaning. May we pray.

Here is how the New Testament begins: “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1). Why does the New Testament begin with a genealogy? Because in those days, if you wanted to know a person, it was important to know about their family.

Like it or not, we are all known by our relationship to our family. Many of you will get to meet my father toward the end of December and beginning of January. In fact, he’s preaching here on the 2nd of January, so you’ll even get a chance to hear him. There is no denying that I am my father’s son. Just seeing the two of us standing next to each other and you’ll realize that I am his son, that he “begat” me. People would say they could see the family resemblance and that I look just like my dad, and let me tell you, that’s just what every 15-year-old wants to hear. I’d be thinking, “So, does that mean I’m going to wear knee-high socks with my sandals when I grow up?”

When people know our family, they know something about us. People will make judgments about us based on our family. I used to ride my bike around the neighborhood, and had a favorite way of, shall we say, “watering the trees.” I had been forbidden from “watering the trees” near our house, but around the corner mom couldn’t see me! I was always surprised when my mom found out before I even got home, because one or more of our neighbors just couldn’t mind their own business, knew whose son I was, and called my house before I was even back on my bike.

When I was about 8, several of the kids in the church would have army crawl races under the pews after worship was over. Six of us were crawling under the pews, and I was ahead, until one of the stalwart members of the church pulled me up by the back of my shirt collar and said, “Andrew Jeremy Thomas, your father is the minister of this church, and YOU should know better!” My first thought was, “Thanks, lady, you just lost me the race,” well, actually that wasn’t exactly my FIRST thought, but I can’t say here what I was really thinking, but then I thought, “Wait a minute, what about all these other kids?” Shouldn’t they know better, too?”

We tend to identify people by the families. It is true today, and it was true in the ancient world. And what a family Jesus came from!

Jesus Christ was a descendent of Abraham. That was important in those days. It meant that Jesus was one of the chosen people. If you look closely at the covenant in Genesis 17:6, one of the promises God made to Abraham was that “kings shall come from you.” But notice that the first name in our passage is David – King David. The prophet Isaiah said: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given . . . He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom . . . forever” (Isaiah 9:6 ff). The purpose of the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel is to introduce us to Jesus Christ, to tell us about his lineage, but most importantly, to tell us that the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords has come to us. And so all of us are invited to bow in submission to Jesus, to make him our King and the Lord of our lives.

But here is the strange thing – Matthew adds the names of five mothers in our passage. In those days genealogies were traced through the father’s side of the family. Maybe you’re thinking, Hold up there, just a minute. If I understand the Christmas story, then Jesus was not descended from Joseph’s side of the family. You’re correct, but you’re thinking too much like a modern person and not like someone in the ancient world. You see, in those days, genealogy wasn’t about biology, but about belonging. Mary was engaged to Joseph, so in that worldview, she belonged to Joseph’s family. We would expect a list of fathers in this genealogy, but Matthew inserts five mothers. Why? Let’s take a closer look.

The first mother mentioned is Tamar. Her story can be found in the 38th chapter of Genesis. Tamar was the wife of the son of Judah, and get this, she was not Hebrew. I don’t want to gossip, but the Bible says that she was Canaanite. That was scandalous in those days! Hebrews were forbidden to marry Canaanites. Why would Matthew put her name in the family tree? Is Matthew trying to tell us that Jesus had some mixed race blood in his veins?

He certainly didn’t look like it, at least not in my children’s Bible, in the pictures of Jesus that hung in my grandmother’s home and in all my childhood Sunday School classes. Take a look at this picture – who is this? Jesus, of course! That’s just what Jesus looks like. If this is the image of Jesus you know and love, then you’re probably not going to like what I’m about to say. Jesus didn’t look like this.

There’s an old saying that in the beginning, God created mankind in God’s own image, and we’ve been trying to return the favor ever since. In other words, our image of God is often a reflection of our own biases and preferences. And so, for Christians whose origins go back to Western and Northern Europe, it’s not surprising that the Jesus in our art, in our stained glass and in our minds has flowing golden hair, fair skin, and blue eyes.

Have you guys seen Will Ferrell’s movie Talladega Nights? One of my favorite scenes from that movie is when Ferrell’s character, race-car driver Ricky Bobby is saying grace before a meal with his family, and he prays to his favorite version of Jesus: “Dear Eight Pound, Six Ounce, Newborn Baby Jesus, in your golden, fleece diapers, with your curled-up, fat, balled-up little fists pawin' at the air...”

His wife interrupts and says, “Hey, um, sweetie, Jesus did grow up. You don't always have to call him baby.” But he simply responds by saying, “Look, I like the Christmas Jesus best, and I'm sayin' grace. When you say grace, you can say it to Grownup Jesus or Teenage Jesus or Bearded Jesus or whoever you want.”

Now there’s some humor in that, but there’s also some truth in it too. All of us have a version of Jesus in our minds we prefer, and this preference usually closely aligns with our own biases. Too often, we have made Jesus in our own image, and ended up with a Jesus who is simply a more powerful version of ourselves.

Does it really matter what Jesus looked like? Does it matter what color his skin was, or how curly his hair was, or how wide his nose was? Unfortunately, to some I think it still matters. Because when we have cast Jesus in our own image, it may be entirely too easy to marginalize others who are outside this image.

For instance, and, be honest here, would you be nervous if you were boarding a plane and this guy and 12 of his friends were on board? How about if they came into town and showed up here at church because they said they had something they wanted to teach us?

Now, brace yourself, this picture has been described as the most historically accurate picture of Jesus ever created. A few years ago British scientists teamed up with Israeli archeologists to make this picture. Using advanced forensic anthropology techniques, the took three skulls from the first century found near where Jesus lived. They used computer x-ray images to add flesh material. Then they took the three images and combined them to make a composite. This might be what Jesus really looked like. Of course, this could also be Peter, James, or John, or any first century Galilean.

I remember growing up, and a woman in our church was upset because her soon-to-be grandson was going to be of mixed race. “Where will he belong?” she wondered. If she came and asked me this today, I would tell her, “Tell him he belongs here, because here we worship a Savior who was the son of Tamar the Canaanite, here we worship a Savior who was of mixed race.”

Would you like to see one of my favorite pictures of Jesus? In 1999, Janet McKenzie’s painting “Jesus of the People” was selected from 1700 entries to be the cover of the special Millennium Issue of the National Catholic Reporter. She intentionally painted Jesus with mixed racial characteristics, feminine and masculine features, and friends, this is what St. Matthew is also telling us in the first chapter of his Gospel: Jesus Christ is here to save all people. Jesus Christ is the Lord of Lord and King of Kings; he is the savior of Hebrews and Canaanites, of Jews and Gentiles. In this place we worship a savior who is the son of Tamar, the Canaanite.

The second mother Matthew mentions is Rahab. Her story is found in the second chapter of Joshua. Rahab was a woman of the evening. Rahab was a working girl. Rahab had a penchant for entertaining gentlemen callers. Rahab was a woman of ill-repute. Why would Matthew have someone like her in Jesus’ family tree?

Because I have a friend who is a recovering meth head. He was addicted to meth. He dabbled in other drugs, but when he was addicted, he would have done anything for meth. His life was not his own – everything he did was devoted to getting meth. He lost his job, his home, his family, and he didn’t care. Years later, he had an amazing story of how God had delivered him and given him the strength to find a new life. He got plugged into a church in his town, and the pastor asked him to share his testimony. He was reluctant to do so, at first, because there are so many churches that would be uncomfortable with hearing about his past.

Friends, that shouldn’t be. You may have a past. I may have a past. The line from Steel Magnolias seems appropriate here: “If you can achieve puberty, you are old enough to have a past.” But, whatever our past may be, the church is a place where people can find new beginnings. In this place we worship a savior who was the son of Rahab.

The third mother is Ruth. We know about Ruth because she has her own book in the Old Testament. The story of Ruth begins during a famine, and Ruth leaves her home to be with her mother-in-law, Naomi. Ruth was an immigrant.

John Fitzgerald, the senior pastor of Boone United Methodist Church where I served on staff before coming here, told us about a church he had previously served that began a ministry to Spanish-speaking people. People in the church volunteered to teach Spanish speakers conversational English. The volunteers didn’t have to speak Spanish, they could simply point to a picture and say, “Food” or “Post Office” or whatever.

John said there were some who asked, “Why are we doing this?” John replied, “Because in the Bible in the book of Leviticus it says, ‘Be kind to strangers because you were once strangers in the land of Egypt yourself.’ Because in the Bible in the book of Hebrews it says, ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for some have entertained angels unaware.’ Because in the Bible, Jesus himself said, ‘If you have done it unto the least of these you have done it unto me.’” They said, “But if we do it for some, more of them will want to come here. Have we checked their documentation? Has anyone checked their green cards?” John said, “No, because this is not a division of the US government; this is the church of Jesus Christ!” In this place, we worship a savior who was the son of Ruth, the immigrant.

The most scandalous of all was the fourth mother, Bathsheba. Let me give you the PG version of her story. One night King David was on the roof of his palace, and he looked out and saw Bathsheba bathing in her backyard. And David thought, “Well, that’s just fine!” He sent for Bathsheba, she came to the palace, and they spent the night together. Remember, David was the king and his army was off to war, and David should have been with them. Instead, he was lazily lounging about the palace – idle, with lots of time on his hands, and he got himself into a situation that never should have happened.

You also need to understand the dynamics here. David was the king, and he wanted Bathsheba, and the king generally gets what he wants. Bathsheba has no choice the matter. What happened between them wasn’t consensual, and King David abused his power and took advantage of Bathsheba.

Bathsheba didn’t do anything wrong. She was bathing in her own backyard, at a time of day when darkness should have provided a reasonable level of privacy to her. She is a victim to King David’s out-of-control libido.

But then, even more trouble: she was found to be pregnant. One big problem was that she was married to Uriah, one of David’s soldiers, and so David had him sent to the front line and then abandoned by the rest of the troops, leaving him to be killed in battle. Bathsheba is twice a victim to King David’s abuse of power. First, in taking advantage of her, and second, in the murder of her husband. Matthew’s Gospel explicitly calls her “the wife of Uriah” not “the wife of David” or “the mother of Solomon.” Matthew reminds us that King David abused his power and took what belonged to another man. Why the focus on this low point in Hebrew history?

Because, somewhere in town there is a man or a woman who is a victim of someone else’s abuse of power. They have been marginalized, they have been made to feel guilty because of something that happened to them that they had no control over. They are not here this morning because they think people here will judge them. They think they will be condemned. The Christians they have known have probably been the most harsh and condemning toward them of anyone. They blame themselves for the wrong someone else did against them. That is simply not true. If that is where you are this morning, let Advent be a time for healing.

Bathsheba is included in this story to remind us that Jesus doesn’t identify with the powerful. Jesus identifies with the outcast, with the marginalized, with the friendless, with the powerless, with those who are victims to others’ abuse of power. In this place, we worship a savior who is the son of Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah.

And finally, the fifth mother is the obvious one: Mary, the mother of our Lord. We have heard the Christmas story so many times that it no longer shocks, but perhaps it should. When God chose to enter human history, he chose an unwed teenage peasant girl from backwater Nazareth for whom there was no room in the inn. We tend to picture the stable as a wooden barn with warm firelight and soft hay and docile animals, but a stable in Bethlehem would have been a dark, cold, smelly cave. In those days, the manger wasn’t wood, but a stone feeding trough. Picture this place filled with hay, dirty animals, and plenty of filth underfoot. I cannot imagine a lower place on earth for a royal birth.

But if God could reach down from the heights of heaven to a dirty barn and a lowly manger, don’t you think God can reach you or me wherever we may be this morning? Garth Brooks sang, “I’ve got friends in low places.” However low you may be, Christ has been there – Christ was born there – and he has come to lift us from there to God.

The Gospel of Matthew begins with the genealogy of Jesus, and there we find five mothers of our Lord named. What is Matthew telling us? Jesus is the King of kings and the Lord of lords, but more specifically, Matthew is telling us five things. Jesus is the son of Tamar the Canaanite, the woman of mixed race. Jesus is the son of Rahab, the woman of ill-repute. Jesus is the son of Ruth, the immigrant. Jesus is the son of Bathsheba, the victim of abuse. Jesus is the son of Mary, the lowly and powerless.

In this place, we worship Jesus, who is all of these things, and who still wants to be my king and your king – the Lord of my life and your life. And we say, “Come, Lord Jesus, Come.”

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