• Levi’s Genes – Matthew 1.1-17

    Author's Note: There are several sermons out there using this title, which I thought was so clever I couldn't resiust using it. However, I couldn't discover who was the first to do it, so I'm not able to give proper attributuion. If you are the one who came up witht his title, I would like to give you credit -- please contact me so I can add you to the credits on this blog post. Regardless, while the title has been, perhaps, overdone, the content of the message is original work by Steve Babbitt.

    First Sunday of Advent 2018

    Genealogies may be boring, but 2 Timothy 3.16 says that “all scripture” is inspired by God, not just the juicy parts. So there is something to be learned even from lists of names and numbers in the Bible, if we look carefully.

    There are three sets of fourteen generations, and each set represents a new phase of God’s relationship with His people. In this case, we learn that the coming of the Messiah is the beginning of a new era between God and mankind.

    The era of Abraham began with God’s promise to bless Abraham and make him the father of many nations, and through His offspring to bless the world. Abraham was known for righteousness through his acts of faith.

    Fourteen generations later, David becomes the archetype “good king,” although Israel having a king was an idea God objected to initially. Beginning with David, we have a period when the kings and the priests were morally responsible for the nation of Israel, but they just kept getting worse and worse as time went on.

    In this list of names are a few bright spots like Hezekiah and Josiah, but there are terrible, awful, evil kings like Manasseh, who burned his own child in the fire to the false god molech, and Jeconiah (Jehoiachin), who burned the very words of God given through Jeremiah in a fire pot. The era of David ended with the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon in 586 BC.

    Then we have fourteen more generations to the Messiah – a time when the rules of the relationship had changed. Israel had been punished harshly for her unceasing disobedience to Adonai, and she now entered a phase of relationship with God where she walked the line, and pretty much that’s all the relationship consisted of.

    It was a season of rigid religion, strict adherence to the code of law. The era after the Babylonian exile gave rise to the system of synagogues and rabbis and teachers of the law, and later developed into the meticulous religiosity of the Pharisees and the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. Israel was finally obedient but the relationship was cold and lifeless.

    And then comes the Messiah, Jesus – the son, it was thought of Joseph and Mary. Matthew’s ordering of Jesus’ geneology makes it clear to any Israelite who heard it – it was time for  a change. Just like it was time for a change when God made a covenant with Abraham. Just like it was time for a change when God made a covenant with David. And just like it was time for a change when God revoked his protection of Israel at the fall of Babylon.

    Do you see how Matthew rolls out the red carpet for the arrival of a new dispensation?

    Matthew makes it clear that Jesus Christ is the son of Abraham and the Son of David, which means he inherits all the promise of God to Abraham, that through his descendants, all nations on earth will be blessed. And to David that he will never fail to have a descendant on the throne, and that one day the Messiah will come through David’s line and establish an everlasting kingdom that will never fail.

    Therefore, this humble list of names is good for more than a few yawns. It traces the very essence of the plan of God for not only the redemption, but the blessing of all humanity through Jesus Christ.

    Burning Down the Family Tree

    But there’s a problem with the family tree.

    You see, in Jesus day, a genealogy was used like we might use a credit report today. It was the way you established not credit, but credibility, as an Israelite. Priests and Levites for example, couldn’t work certain jobs if they couldn’t provide a clear genealogy linking them back to the line of Jacob’s son Levi. Having Levi’s genes gave you special standing.

    Moreover, if you wanted to own land in Israel, you needed to also provide proof of proper ancestry. If you could establish a clean and pure connection to one of the twelve tribes of Judah’s offspring, you were able to own land in that tribal area.

    And if you wanted to really make a special claim at the time of Jesus, you would make sure to count David among your forbearers.

    So a clean genealogy was like a clean credit report. And that’s where we have a little problem – Jesus’ credit report is a little choppy. In particular, Matthew goes out of his way to point out four gentiles in Jesus’ family tree.

    Not only were those four ladies aliens with no connection to the tribes of Judah except by marriage, they also represented some serious skeletons in Israel’s closet.

    The first one is Tamar, a Philistine. It says she bore twin children by none other than Judah himself. But a careful examination of the Scriptures reveals that Judah was not her husband, but her husbands’ father – to be precise, he was her father-in-law.

    After her husbands had died and left her childless, in an act of desperation, she cunningly tricked her father-in-law into getting her pregnant by posing as a prostitute along the roadside one night. It was an awful dirty trick, but Judah was even more in the wrong for soliciting a prostitute and refusing to provide assistance for his sons’ widow.

    What a salacious story to have in the family tree of Jesus! Most genealogies would go out of their way to bury that kind of story, but Matthew does the exact opposite! He goes out of his way to point it out. Remember, this was not only the family tree of Jesus, but also the family tree of all proper Judeans, the descendants of Judah. Matthew was saying to his Jewish brothers and sisters, “This is your family story, too.”

    The second woman mentioned is Rahab. Again, a gentile who in this case worked vocationally as a prostitute. She worked the town of Jericho, the first city conquered by Joshua in the promised land. Rahab, perhaps tired of being oppressed by her own people in Jericho, assisted Joshua’s invading force by providing valuable information to the Hebrew spies sent to do reconnaissance before the invasion. Rahab is listed in Hebrews 11 as one of the greatest people of faith in the Bible. However, to a genealogical purist, she was someone you might want to downplay. But remarkably, Matthew boldly mentions Rahab as a key figure in Jesus’ family.

    When I visited Israel, I spent four hours one day with two very articulate and generous Muslim men debating Christianity versus Islam. They had invited me to reason with them inside the antiquities shop one of them owned on the Via Dolorosa. It was cordial, but serious. Each of us was very entrenched in our positions. Interestingly, one of the greatest objections both men had to Judaism and Christianity was Rahab.

    “How could God work through David if his great-great-grandmother was a prostitute?” one of them argued. “God would not do such a thing.” To them, Rahab is proof of Jesus’ uncreditworthiness. To me, Rahab serves as a reminder of God’s grace – that we are all broken yet God is not only able but willing to redeem even the most scandalous parts of our past.

    The third woman Matthew mentions is Ruth – not a prostitute (although to me there seems to be something a little odd lost in the translation of her story of sleeping under Boaz’ blanket with the boys at the threshing house). Ruth was unmistakably a gentile, a Moabite, one of the sworn enemies of the Israelites. Ruth, a widow herself, demonstrated great faith when her widowed mother-in-law went back to Israel to be with her people. It was Ruth who uttered those wonderful words in the Bible, “Whither thou goest, I will go,” and, “Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.”

    Finally, Matthew mentions the mother of Solomon, although not by name. We know her to be Bathsheba, and her story represents the very worst of King David’s failures as a man, a husband, a father, and as a king.

    Matthew doesn’t say her name, but instead he gives her husband’s name, Uriah. Uriah had been one of King David’s best and most loyal soldiers. When Uriah was away fighting a battle for David, he took advantage of Bathsheba and committed adultery with her. Bathsheba became pregnant, and David ultimately had Uriah killed to try to cover his awful sin. It all came out eventually, and David had to bear the severe consequences of his actions.

    Uriah’s wife and the King – another story it might have been better to leave out of the genealogy of the Messiah. Yet Matthew wants to make it clear, that the line of Jesus includes heroes and villains, sinners and saints, bad girls and lost boys, and everyone in between.

    And that is really the miracle of Christmas – not that we need to have homes decorated like the cover of Magnolia magazine and a family around the table that’s perfect. No, your house can look like a barn – a real, dirty one, and not the trendy kind – and the Messiah will feel right at home with you.

    Your family tree can be as crooked as they come, but the Savior of the world is very glad to be invited to your table. Your messed up family has nothing on Jesus’ line.

    The real question is not where you’ve been, but where you’re going.

    Christmas is not about having the perfect family, but inviting the perfect guest.  

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