Text: Matt 1:1-17 – Genealogy
As we just heard Matthews’s genealogy of Jesus read aloud, I saw your eyes glazing over, shoulders slouching, drifting off into a deep winter’s sleep while sugar plums and fairies danced around in your head. Many of you are wondering to yourself: Why spend Christmas eve looking into Jesus’ “Baby Book” at his family tree full of hard to pronounce names of old?
Esteemed Biblical scholar Raymond E. Brown shares in his book on the Birth of Jesus how he once launched a personal campaign urging pastors to preach Matthew’s genealogy during Advent. Why? He says that these three minutes worth of tongue twisting names contain the essential theology and message of the Old and New Testaments for the church. That’s quite a bold, sweeping statement to make! What’s that essential message? Salvation solely by divine grace!
So, let’s take a closer look at this newborn child’s family tree this Christmas eve and test Dr. Brown’s bold claim. I want to do this while keeping the Lord’s Prayer in our minds as well. We have spent this season of Advent exploring the Lord’s Prayer one phrase at a time. Tonight, on Christmas eve, we join the shepherds, the wisemen, Mary and Joseph and all the animals in adoration of the baby who would grow up to be the great rabbi who taught us to pray: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us.”
How does this famous line of the Lord’s Prayer connect us to the Christmas Story and Jesus’ genealogy? Let me offer three main points.
1) JESUS IS BORN OF A FORGIVING GOD
It’s been popular for quite some time to view the broad sweep of the Bible as beginning in the Old Testament with a rather strict and wrathful God but eventually giving way to a much more easy-going and forgiving God in the New Testament with the birth of the Savior. So, its easy to picture Jesus on the mountainside teaching his followers to pray, “Forgive us our debts and we forgive our debtors.” But the genealogy of Jesus reveals the fact that since the very beginning, going back to the Book of Genesis and through the entire history of God’s dealings with his wayward people, He has been unfolding a drama of divine grace with constant and repeated displays of forgiveness. For example, God tells Hosea to marry Gomer, a harlot. When she repeatedly cheats on him, he is told to welcome her back each time as a picture of God’s relentless pursuit of his bride, Israel and now the church!
Looking more closely at Jesus’ family tree, we should find ourselves shocked at the kinds of people who find their way into this royal lineage. If Jesus were running for president today, critics would comb through his shady family tree and find too many skeletons in his family’s closet to get the nomination. Looking at how tirelessly Obama’s critics are in probing and questioning his birth certificate, there’s no way Jesus would stand a chance!
The genealogy begins with Abraham begetting Isaac; no mention of the more deserving older son, the unfairly banished Ishmael. Then Isaac begets Jacob—but not a word about his elder brother Esau whose birthright Jacob stole! Jacob begets Judah and his brothers. But why is Judah chosen and not the good and extraordinary Joseph we come to love with his colorful coat and preserving faith?
What’s going on here? According to Matthew, who is being faithful to OT theology, God does not necessarily select the noblest or most deserving person to carry out divine purposes. For reasons unknown to us, God may select the Judahs who sell their brothers into slavery, the Jacobs who cheat their way to the top, and the Davids who steal wives and murder rivals but also compose such beautiful psalms of praise.
And what about the five women Matthew chooses to include? Not one mention of Sarah or Rebekah or Rachel, the upstanding matriarchal wives of Israel. Instead Tamar, of the despised Canannite people, who disguised herself as a prostitute and seduced her father-in-law Judah to get a son out of him. And Rahab, another Canannite and a real prostitute this time. And Ruth the Moabite, another outsider. And Bathsheba, mother of Solomon, is named only as the wife of Uriah, whom King David had killed so he could marry her himself. Every one of these women was used as God’s instrument despite that fact that each had scandal attached to her, as does the fifth and final woman named in the genealogy. We mean, of course, Mary, the mother of Jesus, with her unconventional pregnancy surrounded by hushed whispers and gossip throughout the village—everyone questioning her character and the child’s legitimacy. But of course this perfectly sets the stage for Jesus’ coming ministry to the tax collectors and sinners and prostitutes and lepers. He will announce that he came “to those who need a physician,” not those who are already righteous.
This baby in the manger was the offspring of the Holy Spirit, sinless and pure on the one hand. On the other hand, the Christ Child’s genealogy shows he is born of a family tinged with sin yet showered by God’s constant, continuous forgiveness and grace. Matthew’s genealogy is showing us how the story of Jesus Christ contained—and would continue to contain—the flawed and inflicted and insulted, the cunning and the weak-willed and the misunderstood. His is an equal opportunity ministry to crooks and saints alike.
We need to wait 30 some years before the baby Jesus would teach his followers to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, our sins, our many debts, as we forgive others.” But notice how his very existence, his birth into this world from such a spotted family, was already demonstrating that God had always been continually forgiving the sins of his people, and working out a plan of salvation that had forgiveness of sins at its very core!
2) JESUS BORN TO OFFER FORGIVENESS TO OTHERS
Now, some of you are probably thinking: Have I now smuggled the message of Easter and Good Friday into the Manger? Shouldn’t we be talking about the Angels singing on high, of lowly shepherds watching their flocks, or wisemen traveling from the East bearing gifts? Be patient. We’ll get there. But first let’s listen to what the Scriptures and Jesus himself say about the reason for his coming, for being born into this world in the first place.
The Angel told Joseph, “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). He would preach, “I have not come (been born) to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). “For the Son of Man came (was born) to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). “For God did not send his Son (to be born) into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17). “I came (was born) so that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). “For even the Son of Man came (was born) not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). And so we sing,
“Mary, did you know…
This Child that you delivered
will soon deliver you.”
Remarkably the Prophet Isaiah, some 600 years before Jesus’ birth, foretold in great detail both the birth of the Messiah and of his life’s purpose to offer his life up as a sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins. Look!
“That time of darkness and despair will not go on forever…there will be a time in the future when Galilee of the Gentiles, which lies along the road that runs between the Jordan and the sea, will be filled with glory.
The people who walk in darkness will see a great light. For those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine…. For a child is born to us, a son is given to us. The government will rest on his shoulders. And he will be called: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9).
He [that child] grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground….He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain… Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all….. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (Isaiah 53).
All of this provides remarkable assurance that when we muster the strength and humility to pray as Jesus taught us to pray, “Father, forgive us our sins” we can be certain that God has already extended it, prepared a way for it, provided the costly sacrifice to enable it. And this gift of divine grace never appeared more beautiful and precious than when wrapped in swaddling cloths that first Christmas even while surrounded by the stink of animal dung and the stench of a world stained with sin.
But the good news of God’s offer of forgiveness comes with an invitation to join Him in extending forgiveness to those who have wronged us.
3) JESUS INVITES US TO FORGIVE OTHERS AFTER HIS EXAMPLE
The gift of forgiveness was never meant to be a one-act play with Jesus alone stealing the spotlight forever. This grace-laced babe was to be the “firstborn among many brethren” who would learn not only to pray, “Forgive us our sins” but also as we learn the holy art of “forgiving those who have sinned against us.” And the order of this prayer is of utmost importance.
We pray “forgive us God”, and only then do we pray “as we forgive others.” We don’t forgive others in order to get God to forgive us. We don’t try to earn God’s grace by being a bit more gracious ourselves this year. Rather, we remember how gracious God has been in offering us forgiveness 70 x 7 times, or if someone’s been keeping track up until now, 70 x 7 billion times. Awestruck at how great a debt God has released us from, we learn to release those whose are indebted to us.
I want to begin to wrap up this Christmas eve message with an invitation, a Christmas challenge. I suggest that wrapped up in this one petition of the Lord’s Prayer is both the greatest possible gift we could receive this Christmas as well as the greatest gift we could possibly give to another!
In the first part, we receive God’s forgiveness as we pray, “Forgive us our trespasses” and immediately behold the newborn savior who came 2,000 years ago to forgive us of all our sins — past, present and future, and release us from bondage to sin and conquer our fear of death.
In the second part of the prayer we ask God to help give to others the matchless gift of grace as we “forgive those who have sinned against us, those who have trespassed against us, those who have accumulated a debt by wounding us, betraying us, speaking ill of us, misunderstanding us, and all the little trespasses that overtime snowball into a large ball of bitterness and resentment. No doubt, we all have faces and names that come to mind this Christmas who have sinned against us, and who are indebted to us. For some, the wound is still fresh and the pain still too much to bear. Forgiveness seems to be a far-off possibility — not now, not yet.
You may want to object and protest: “How?! How is it even possible for me to let them off the hook? Sure, Jesus was able to pray “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing” even as he was being mocked, spit on and tortured. But he’s the divine Son of God. I’m … well … just me. So, HOW? How can I learn to forgive my enemies?” While acknowledging how difficult this step can be and how deep the wound really is, let me suggest a basic starting point—a small step in the direction of becoming more able to forgive others. It involves a change in perspective.
The language in the Lord’s Prayer is evocative — of course, in some translations we read “forgive us our debts” and in others we read “forgive us our trespasses” and others just call it “our sins.” Humorously, some churches need to ask God for forgiveness for fighting over the correct language of forgiveness! :)
Let’s stick to the literal sense for a moment. Perhaps you have had a trespasser walk all over your property uninvited, stomping around carelessly and leaving deep imprints in your lawn—and hearts. After a while, we get tired of being walked on and so we put up fences and NO TRESPASSING signs for all to see. If we do this effectively and often enough, we eventually push people away, we get what we want, and we find ourselves with no more trespassers but we also find ourselves very isolated, lonely and walled in.
In a similar way, we pray “forgive us our debts” which means Jesus assumes we have them. Our books are in the red, as they say, when it comes to our relationships with God and others. We can keep track of all the wrongs others have committed against us, and every time we encounter them pull out the books and remind them of how much they owe us, but who would ever remain in such a relationship? Again, we may feel justified and “in the right” with others, but it will come at the cost of most of our relationships. As we hear read at so many weddings, “Love is patient, love is kind, love keeps no record of wrongs.” If you insist on keeping records of others wrongs, you will likely find yourself overflowing with self-righteousness but running very low on love.
How then do we explain the extent of God’s forgiveness with his wayward people throughout history? Is God just a pushover, overlooking our sins, brushing it off lightly, letting people get away with it? No, the cross shows us just how costly such forgiveness is. So, why does God keep choosing to forgive? According to Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon, “It is the nature of God to forgive, not because our God is soft on sin but because our God is determined to have a family, is committed to have us.” And as every married couple knows, heavy doses of forgiveness is required to maintain a healthy, long term relationship. A sobering question to ask yourself the next time you hav a quarrel with a loved one: Do you value being right more than you value that relationship itself?
Now, do you desire to become like Jesus, learning to extend forgiveness to others and beginning to remove the fences and no trespassing signs on your heart? Are you ready to burn the books that keep records of wrongs, and keep others in your debt and out of your life? If so, then you must look again at the kinds of folk that found their way to the manger that first Christmas. You need to look again at the crooked, scandalous names in that baby’s genealogy.
Someone has said that the door of the stable where Jesus was born was very low to the ground, so people had to bow down humbly on their hands and knees in order to approach the manger to worship the savior. And did you ever notice that we find the same kind of folks surrounding the manger as we find at the foot of the cross? They‘re the same kinds of unsavory characters we find in Jesus family tree.
Meanwhile, the haughty, powerful, self-righteous somebodies are conspicuously absent from both. Herod is walled up in his strong fortress, keeping all trespassers at bay…only to die alone with an iron heart and without a savior. Caesar is conducting his census, counting his soldiers, and keeping track in his books of how many are indebted to him and his vast empire.
Yet, what happens when we remember that the ground is level at the foot of the cross? That there’s no moral high ground to claim from which to look down on others? What happens when men and women all around the world choose to humble themselves before a King who relativizes all lesser differences and allegiances? What happens when we see ourselves first and foremost as citizens of a kingdom that overshadows all other worldly kingdoms of race, ethnicity, national borders, economic class? What happens when a world at war remembers the depths of the love that was born in a manger in order to bring peace on earth?
The world witnessed just such a Christmas miracle about 100 years ago in the trenches of WWI when both sides ceased fire on Christmas Eve in 1914. “Silent Night” was heard in the German trench, soon joined by soldiers in the other trench. One telling of the story has both sides coming out of their trenches, putting their earthly allegiances aside, and enjoying a fun game of soccer. Watch this video!
So, this Christmas Eve let us do the same. Let’s come out of the trenches we have dug and embrace the other in radical grace and courageous forgiveness. Blessed are the peacemakers. Before the manger and underneath the cross we are all on equal footing—we’re all sinners in need of God’s grace. Will you receive the greatest gift of all tonight? Will you ask God to help you offer this gift to another this Christmas?
Let us pray.
A Christmas Eve Sermon from 2015 by Jeremy Berg