Allow me to introduce...

In order to introduce us to Jesus, Matthew gives us along genealogy.  If we look closely, in the midst of all these unpronouncable names, there is good news.

Full Text: 

Allow me to introduce…

December 7, 2014 – Matthew 1:1-17

 

            I have two grandfathers.  My father’s father – Thomas Thompson – was a South Dakota farmer.  He died at the age of 58, back in the 1940s, so I never met him and my father never said much about him.  My mother’s father – Sanford Tesdell – was an Iowa farmer.  He died at age 66 in 1958, when I was five years old. 

My two grandmothers lived much longer, both into their 90s, although both now have been gone for some time.  My father’s mother – Leontine Johnson – died with I was in college, a sophomore at Luther.  I didn’t know her very well.  I only saw her once or twice a year – once at the annual family reunion in Omaha and then maybe once when our family would drive to the family farm in South Dakota to see her and my uncle Marcus.  Sometimes we’d go in July and see the rodeo in Winner.  Sometimes we’d go in the fall so my dad could go pheasant hunting.  Sometimes we would go at Thanksgiving.  I have good memories of those trips, but also don’t have many memories of her – except that she had a sweet smile and amazed me once by bending over and putting her hands flat on the floor of the kitchen!

            My mother’s mother – Olive Osmundsen – I knew much better.  She lived in the town of Slater, just ten miles south of Ames, so I got to see her on a weekly basis and then also on holidays – like the Fourth of July and Christmas.  I would also stay overnight at her house once in a while.  She’d feed my some of my favorite foods – poached eggs on toast and root beer floats – and we would watch Lawrence Welk.  She would sing old hymns and we would pray the Lord’s Prayer together.  After my parents she had more influence on my early faith than anyone else.

 

            Families are important to us.  As a culture, however, we define ourselves, not by our families, but by our work.  The first question we are asked when we meet someone for the first time is – Where are you from?  The second is – What do you do?  That is how we define people.  And after receiving these two bits of information, that’s often all we feel we need to know.

            But this is not so in other cultures.  The first question is – Who are your parents?  Who are your grandparents?  People are defined by their families, not so much by brothers and sisters, but by generations of family.

            This is why Matthew begins with a genealogy.  This is his way of introducing Jesus to us.  And it is an extremely impressive genealogy.  It begins with Abraham, the father of faith. It passes through David, the model king.  It endures through the exile, the deportation to Babylon, when much was lost.  It lists three sets of fourteen generations each.  Another way to think if this, however, is that it is six sets of seven generations each.  This means that Jesus is the first born of the seventh set of seven generations – an auspicious birth, to say the least!

            This genealogy lays out Jesus’ credentials.  It makes claims about who he is and where he stands in the long story of Israel and its relationship to God.  It is the kind of genealogy which any great man would be glad to call his own.

            Except for this – there are also five women – five women who have no claim to greatness – five women who many would say do not belong in a genealogy of the Messiah of Israel.

            The first is Tamar.  Tamar’s story comes in the middle of Genesis, in the middle of the story of Joseph.  From our perspective, it is a bizarre story.  It’s not one we learn in Sunday School.  It’s not even one I have ever taught to confirmation students.  The heart of the story, however, is this – Tamar poses as a prostitute in order to expose the unfaithfulness to her of the family of Judah, son of Jacob.

            The next woman is Rahab.  Despite the fact that Rahab is actually a prostitute, this is a story we learn in Sunday School.  When the people of Israel are ready to enter the Promised Land, the fortified city of Jericho is the first thing that stands in their way.  Joshua sends spies to scope the city out.  They are helped by Rahab, not only a prostitute, but a Gentile (meaning, “She’s not one of us.”)  For her help, the spies promise protection for her when the army of Joshua finally attacks.

            Then there is Ruth.  Ruth is not a prostitute, but she is also a Gentile, someone outside the circle of Israel.  She is a Moabite.  Nevertheless she shows great faithfulness to her mother-in-law, Naomi, who is from Bethlehem, after Naomi loses her husband and her two sons.  Despite the fact that there is really no hope of Ruth ever having her own family, she stays with Naomi. Eventually she links up with a wealthy relative of Naomi’s, named Boaz, and gives Naomi the joy of a grandson.

            The fourth is “the wife of Uriah.”  We know this woman as Bathsheba.  But by calling her the wife of Uriah, we are reminded not only that Uriah was a Gentile.  We are also reminded of the unfaithfulness of King David, when we committed adultery with her and had Uriah killed in battle in order to cover it up.  This story – when I teach it in confirmation – gives rise to the biggest sense of outrage, perhaps because it involves the greatest king in Israel.

            These four women I call, “The Grandmothers of Jesus.”  They are also important for telling us who he is and why he is here.  They are all marginal in their own way.  They remind us that, even though Jesus might be called, “Son of the Most High,” he is not a pure blood.  His background is not ethnically pure.  It is mixed. 

It is also ethically mixed.  One woman posed as a prostitute.  One woman was a prostitute.  One woman was an adulterer.  In each case however – with Tamar and Rahab and the wife of Uriah – we could easily ask whether this was their sin or the sin of the men in their lives.  Either way, the ancestry of Jesus is not ethically pure.  It is messy. 

Now if you’re into neatness, this can be a problem.  But it can also be very freeing.

 

I’m not much of a genealogist.  I like to learn about my ancestors, especially if there is a good story to be told.  But I’d prefer that others do the research.

            Sylvia’s uncle Gerry was a renowned genealogist out of whose work the Naeseth Genealogical Center here in Madison was born.  Gerry was the oldest of my mother-in-law’s siblings.  He was tall and slender and quite stern in appearance, what I think of as a typical old Norwegian.  My initial impression was that he would be stiff and humorless, someone not to be crossed.  But Gerry had a very gentle way about him, as well as a wonderful sense of humor.

            Gerry and Milma came to visit us in Argyle not long after we moved there.  Gerry had actually been to the cemetery at Yellowstone Lutheran Church before in order to do genealogical research.  Walking in the cemetery that day, I told him that my first wedding at Yellowstone had been for a young couple with a three year old son.  They had gotten pregnant during their senior year in high school and decided to wait, rather than rush into marriage.  They lived in the farm just down the hill from the church.

            I thought he might scoff or grumble about kids these days.  Instead, he turned to me and said, “Did you know that one of your wife’s ancestors got married at the baptism of their second child?”

            Gerry surprised me.  He didn’t respond out of the strict Norwegian pietism that was his background.  He used what he knew about genealogy and applied it in a compassionate way.

            So, when we look at the genealogy of Jesus, we can see the great names of Abraham and David, among many others.  We can marvel at the connection Jesus has with the whole history of Israel.  But if that is all we see, then we are missing out.  In fact, we are leaving ourselves out.

            When we see the names of Tamar and Rahab and Ruth and the wife of Uriah, we can be glad.  We can remember, when we think of ourselves as not fitting in or not belonging with the people of God, that Jesus had ancestors who were marginal, whom you would not expect to find associated with him.

            Even more, if this baby who is to be born is really to live up to the name, that the angel announces to Joseph, “Emmanuel – God with us,” then we can know that Jesus is with us in the midst of our mixed and our messy lives.