RPM, Volume 15, Number 12, March 17 to March 23, 2013

Tough Beginnings

Matthew 1: 1-17

By Ken Gehrels

I can hear it already - conversation over the telephone after church this morning.... "Betty, 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? There are all kinds of wonderful stories and psalms - why doesn't he preach on the Psalms? Sure, every part of the Bible is God's Word, but...... I mean...... come on! This is going too far."

And I know, if this were a TV show, you'd have zapped the remote a long time ago. I probably would have done the same. But - it's NOT TV, and guess what? You don't have a remote. So hear me out. Because I believe that there's gold in dem dar words; there's a message that can add some real value to your life and mine.

It's a message in the picture that the Bible paints for us this morning, a picture which includes you. Look carefully, you may see your face somewhere in one of the corners, or somewhere in the background.

I don't know if you can see that it is a picture. A portrait actually. It is a portrait of the family of Jesus Christ. Parents, grandparents - all his ancestors right back to Abraham. 3 groups of 14 names here, and with those people come their stories, stories that are told in earlier chapters of the Bible - plainly told, nothing held back.

And this whole thing is painted for us right at the very beginning of the account of Jesus' life. As if God was saying, before I tell you anything else, before you learn any more about the Saviour, here's the first thing you need to know. See the kind of family Jesus comes from. Notice the kind of people I worked with in order to make this whole event of salvation happen.

It is this in particular that I want you to understand this morning. As we try to work around the ear-blistering, unpronounceable names in these verses, let's take the time to really appreciate what kind of folk they are; what kind of folk it is through whom God works the sorts of people He in His holy ways choses to pay attention to, guide and use to accomplish His tasks here on earth.

And as we do that - like I said, watch carefully. Because maybe you'll see yourself somewhere in here.

Begin here, if you will: There are a few names in here that are a real shock. At least, they'd be a real shock if you were someone living in the community to whom Matthew originally wrote his story, an ancient Jew.

The names are those of women. Ancient Jewish family trees never contained the names of women. Why? Because women were regarded as things, not persons. A woman was merely the possession of her father or husband to dispense with her the way he wanted. In his regular morning prayers a Jewish man would, among other things, thank God that he had not made him a woman.

But Jesus' family portrait breaks all those cultural rules. The women belong right in there with the men - equals in the sight of God. No less valuable. No less useful for heavenly work.

Now, get something even more amazing. Listen to some of the details of these women. If they were upstanding leading women in the community of God's people, perhaps we could understand it - right? But get a load of these characters:

Tamar (v.3): Her story is told in Genesis 38, a very sordid story. Through a series of tragic events she ends up without any children. So she hatches a plot that gets her into a situation where she seduces her father-in-law to impregnate her and provide a son. Incest. Which she initiated. That's one of the women that God uses to pave the way for the eventual birth of Jesus Christ. Think of it - without this plotting, adulterous woman, there would be no Christmas!

Or the next woman - Rahab (v.5). Know what she did for a living? Prostitute. Ran a brothel in Jericho. Joshua 2 tells her story and how she helped out spies who came to Jericho, preparing for Israel's attack. She protects them from the king's posse, and eventually joins the people of Israel. But there she is - immoral, an alien, a woman. And the Holy Spirit makes sure that she is painted right up front in the beginning of the picture. She belongs.

Also in v.5 we read about Ruth. Ruth came from an enemy nation of Israel. She was a Moabite. She became the grandmother of King David. Jesus is regularly called "Son of David." You could, then, really call Ruth the grandmother of Jesus! The outsider, viewed with suspicion, considered worthless. In God's eyes she matters - big time!

Want more? Go to v.6, where we read of Solomon "whose mother had been Uriah's wife." Here's a woman victimized by a peeping Tom who falls in lust with her, seduces her, gets her pregnant, has her husband killed and marries her. Her name is Bathsheba. Part of the family of Jesus. Without Bathsheba, you can kiss Christmas goodbye.

People that others wouldn't have cared a nickel for. Despised people. Victimized people. Marginalised. But God says - "Not so. I can work with people like that. They have value in my eyes. I will enter their lives and make them count for good in the eternal scheme of things."

We could carry on through the list, and if we bothered to go to the Old Testament and read their stories, my what would we see!

There is Abraham, who turns out to be a real cheat on his wife, and who lies like Pinocchio just to save his neck.

We read about his grandson Jacob who was slicker than a Las Vegas card shark, cheating his brother, father in law and uncle along the way. In fact, his name even means "cheater."

Then there is Judah, the father-in-law of Tamar. Now, perhaps we are shaking our heads at Tamar setting up deliberate incest with daddy. But you've also got to understand that Mr. Judah here was no clean cat. He was supposed to make provisions for another husband for Tamar, and time after time set her up with a one-night stand lover who made commitments, violated her and then backed out of any long-term relationship before she got pregnant. Some father this Judah is!!

All that in the first group of names. If you go to the second group of 14 names you see a bunch of kings. The bible tells their stories in Kings and Chronicles. And what a sad story it is - murder, mayhem, unfaithfulness, idol worship, sacrificing their own children in fertility rites, dealing in the occult, mass slaughter of their own people. It's awful, awful stuff!

Can you see? This is anything but a listing of people wearing halos and holding harps. This is the family of Jesus.

And then one more group of people - the third group. Know what's most telling about them? We know virtually nothing about them!! They are the nobodies.

Bible doesn't give details about these people. They are like the nameless faces we pass by at the mall. Absolutely no connection to them. But they, too, are part of the portrait.

Part of the group that God assembles and works through in order to bring about Christmas, the birth of His Son on earth, our Saviour.

Had a phone call on Friday from someone in the human resources branch of some firm. This person wanted reference info on someone I knew. What were their qualifications? How reliable? What sort of productivity had they demonstrated in the past? All kinds of questions about whether this person would be an asset to their organization. If so, a job would be waiting. If not - well, don't call us but we'll call you. That's how it goes.

We live in a tough environment. Many of you know that -- the hard way. People don't want to become your friend because they think you're boring. People don't want you to work for them because your skill set isn't right. People avoid you because of some mistake you've made in the past. People laugh at you because of some peculiarity you have. Blacklisted, avoided, condemned, ignored. Know it?

Perhaps it's not that others do it to you. There are times we disqualify ourselves or get down on ourselves because we just don't feel we make the grade; or we think we've failed once too often; or we don't think we're big enough or have enough or know enough.

Then take a good look at the portrait of the family of Jesus Christ; a portrait that God holds up proudly at the beginning of the gospel.

"This is MY family" says Jesus!
He identifies with them.
"These are the people through whom I've done my work" says the Father.
He chooses and uses them.
Ordinary people.
No name people.
People who have stumbled, doing a huge face plant into the mud.
Clumsy people.
God says - "I'm going to make you to be MY people!"

This is the God that comes to us in Jesus Christ. He hasn't changed the way He works, or the sorts of people to whom He comes. He looks for ordinary, not quite altogether, sometimes bumbling, downright sinful people and uses them to accomplish amazing things for His Kingdom.

Like the birth of His Son, who came to wipe the slate clean of all our sins and failures and foolish moments, so that God not only can use us, but have a living relationship with us - each day, every moment through the presence of His Holy Spirit within us; adopt people like us into His family; and take us to glory when we die.

Can you see it now? While the names may be unpronounceable, the faces in Christ's family portrait are very familiar - for they are our faces! Not only is it a familiar portrait, it's also a portrait very deliberately put together, with great holy care.

Since God made His first promise to Abraham He has been moving history in an orderly, purposeful, masterful way to completion in Jesus Christ.

That's why Matthew makes the point of this genealogy being in three groups of 14 generations. Maybe that doesn't wallop us between the eyes. But it would have done that to the first readers. They were ancient Jews. And to them numbers carried special significance. They were important symbols.

To Jews, the number 7 or any multiple thereof symbolized perfection. That's why the Bible describes the finishing of creation as happening in seven days. Every seventh year was the year that the land was supposed to rest. The completion of the exile of the Jews happened in seventy years. These generations are groups of 14, which is two groups of seven. Groups of perfection, says Matthew.

And there are three such groups. Three is the ancient number for fullness.

In full and perfect ways, God took empty and imperfect people in turbulent chapters of human history, and worked His wonderful plan to bring about the birth of His Son. He worked towards His end even in times when from a human point of view things seemed a huge mess, total chaos, or thoroughly out of control. From God's point of view it was still in perfect and full control.

And now here we are today - incomplete and imperfect people who also live in turbulent times.

We look at the way pollution destroys nature, and how global warming threatens the environment. We wonder about this whole Y2K thing and how big the impact will be. We worry about what the new millennium will mean. Economic forces around the world bounce back and forth, first with news of Asia, calming down only to be sent into upheaval again with news of Brazil's bad financial situation.

Perhaps we look at our own life, our family, our health, our future. It all seems so uncertain. Sometimes rather frightening. Then is precisely the moment to go back to Matthew 1 and have another look at the perfect portrait, 3 X 14 generations of people whose faces and lives look an awful lot like our own. See there:
- a God who looks for, cares about, and wants people like us.
- a God with the power, wisdom and will to move all History in His good way. Even when maybe it seems chaotic, or hanging from a mere string from our point of view. Even when it seems as though God has abandoned us, when we can't seem to feel Him, hear Him, or sense Him nearby.

The story is told of a horrible wartime moment - a bombing raid on a particular city. Not sure which war or what city. It doesn't matter. An apartment complex was hit. A young father managed to run outside with his young son. The man looked desperately for a place to find cover. Bombs were dropping. Sniper bullets were flying round. Shrapnel everywhere. He noticed a shell crater nearby, and peering in saw it would provide shelter. He quickly jumped in and called for his son to jump. The boy said, "Daddy I can't. I'm scared. I don't know where to jump. I can't see you." From down in the darkness of that shell hole, the father looked up and saw the silhouette of his son against the orange glow of the burning building. He called back, "But I can see you. It's OK. Jump."

In the moments when things seem out of control, or when we're not sure if we should take the plunge, when the future seems out of control and when it seems as if we're all alone, our Heavenly Father reassures us, "But I can see you. It's OK."

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