St Barnabas and St Michael’s, 22nd December 2013
Reading – Matthew 1:18-23
For most of us family history is just a hobby. In Western culture we generally don’t have to prove who we are descended from, and many of us only really take an interest in our immediate family. But for Jewish people knowing who you are descended from is of supreme importance. To be counted as Jewish you have to show that ultimately you are descended from Abraham, the founder of the nation.
And because so much of the Bible was written for the Jewish people it is not surprising that we find so many family trees. For us reading them is rather like reading a telephone directory – except that in most cases the names are a lot harder. But for the people who first read Matthew’s gospel it was important to know where exactly Jesus came from, whether he had a genuine Jewish background.
So Matthew begins his gospel with a family tree. Now for good reasons we tend to skip over this huge list of names, and I wasn’t certainly going to burden anyone with the task of reading it out publicly. But there are just a few important details worth picking out which I believe are important for us to understand as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
First of all, Matthew shows that Jesus is indeed descended from Abraham. Why does that matter to us? Well, in the original story of Abraham, back in Genesis, the Lord made certain promises to Abraham. He promised that through Abraham one day all peoples on earth would be blessed – not just people from a particular nation, or people with a particular background. And the fact we are sitting here today about to celebrate Christmas shows just how wonderfully this promise has been met in Jesus. Through that little baby born in Bethlehem God’s blessings are available to the whole world. That birth in a manger if you like was a bit like a pebble dropped in water and from this one life the good news of God’s salvation has rippled out into almost the furthest corners of the world, and it’s still spreading out even today, even here in Devonport.
But Matthew is keen to show that Jesus isn’t only a descendant of Abraham. He also wants to prove that Jesus is descended from the greatest king in the history of Israel, King David himself. Because, you see, the Jewish people had been promised a Messiah who would once again establish God’s rule of justice and righteousness, just as David once had done. And although many leaders had come who claimed to act wisely and fairly, the reality was, most of them were no good. There was a real longing that God would fulfil all the ancient prophecies, such as the one we find in reading from Isaiah this morning, of a person who willreign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and for ever. After all, God had promised in the very next sentence: The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this. So when would this promise come about? Again, the answer lies in that birth in a manger. The Christmas story is about God making a fresh start, setting up a new kingdom, where in Jesus we can find wisdom, truth and fairness.
So who is this kingdom for? That’s a good question to ask because I find there are often people who think church is only for respectable people, or that the Christmas message is only for those who have lived good or honest lives. And I suspect even sitting here today there may be people who may be willing to say the Christmas message is good news of great joy for everyone, but who deep down in their heart still somehow can’t accept God can really be interested in them. Well, if that’s the case for you, then let me point out a rather peculiar feature from Jesus’ family tree.
Among all that long list of names Matthew mentions four women. I’m not going to explain here and now exactly who they were, but all of them were one way or another either foreigners or outsiders. They certainly weren’t the sort of people you’d expect to see featured in a good Jewish genealogy, let alone the genealogy of someone who turns out to be the Messiah. But then again Matthew wants to make the important point that the good news of Jesus isn’t just for those who are on the inside or who think of themselves as particularly good.
And if you want any proof of this, just look at who God chose to be the mother of Jesus – a young, unmarried woman already pledged to be married to Joseph, someone who no doubt had to put up with years of rumours about her pregnancy, someone who was far from obvious as the natural choice to bear a Saviour. Let me put it simply – the good news of Christmas is for you whoever you are. God does not divide the human race into people who are worthy of His love and those who are not, because actually none of us are. That’s the reason why Jesus was born for you and for me.
And just one more little detail from the family tree of Jesus. There is just one historical event Matthew mentions amid all this long list of names. It’s the darkest and most terrible event in the history of Old Testament Israel – the exile to Babylon. It was a time when many of Israel’s people were carried off to a foreign land, when Israel lost her earthly king, and everyone suffered terribly. Now about seventy years after this disaster there was change of government and the Israelites were allowed back to their own country. But Matthew doesn’t mention this return. Reading this list of names, it’s almost as if this return never happened.
So what can we read into this? Very simply, that in many ways we are all in a state of exile from God. We still live in a world of sin and suffering where it sometimes doesn’t seem God is in control. And yet the message of the Christmas story is that despite our experience God still is in charge. He has acted in such a way that we don’t have to stay cut off from His love and His peace. Thanks to Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection, it is possible to come home to God and enjoy a relationship with Him forever.
Let’s sum up so far what we have learnt. Matthew teaches us that Jesus is the promised son of David and son of Abraham. This means that in Jesus there is blessing for the whole world and we can discover a kingdom of wisdom, truth and fairness. Not only that, but Matthew includes the names of foreigners and outsiders to tell us that the Christmas story really is for everyone, no matter their gender or background or what they have done. And by referring to the exile, he goes on to tell us that the Christmas story is about Jesus offering all of us the chance to come home to God, and experience His peace and His presence in our lives.
All this is summed up in the words the angel spoke to 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). So who are His people? Are they just a privileged few who happen to go to church? No, they are everybody who is prepared to believe and trust in Him. That can include you, and you, and anyone who happens to be here today.
But what about this business to do with sins? Oh yes, I can believe that God can forgive sins, in a general sense. But my sins? Those things and the thoughts no-one else knows about? Yes, Jesus can deal with those. You don’t have to carry them around like a sack of unwanted presents no-one wants to take off your hands. You can give all that you have thought and said and done to Jesus. Because Jesus hasn’t come in the first instance to judge. He has come to save all who are willing to trust in Him.
And this Christmas, this morning, He wants to be Emmanuel, God with us, God with you. That is the offer Jesus makes. We do not worship a Saviour who is only a weak baby born in a manger. But a powerful Saviour who grew up to defeat all the power of sin and death and evil, so that if we believe and trust in Him we can come home to God and live with Him forever.
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. So today may I urge you to call on Jesus as your Wonderful Counsellor, your Mighty God, your Everlasting Father, your Prince of Peace, and let Him be born in your heart. For the wonderful truth is, that you too can become part of Jesus’ family, whoever you are. You don’t have to prove you have the right background or belong to the right people. All you have to do is call on His name and ask Him to be real to you, as your Saviour and your Lord. And when you do that, you will discover that you too are adopted through Jesus into God’s heavenly family as His precious child, in a relationship of love that will never end. That’s the good news of Christmas we are celebrating today – how will you respond?