Christmas in a Graveyard (Matthew 1:1-17)

[Note: This sermon was preached as a dialogue with John York.]

John York: Rubel, I'm sure you've spent most of your life explaining where the name Rubel came from, and I'll bet you're one of those people who can tell the story of your ancestors back several generations. I confess that aside from knowing that I'm the seventh generation John York in my family, I know almost nothing about mine. I should know more. Several times a year someone asks me if I'm related to Sergeant York - that's been a very popular question since we moved to Tennessee.

While I've never been as fascinated with my own history as I should be, I am fascinated by that of others. When Anne and I lived in Georgia, there was an old country cemetery down at the end of the street we lived on, and we walked down there more than once just to walk around and read the grave markers. Most of the people had died in the 1800s. There were entire families there, sometimes two generations. Often there were children who lived a few months, sometimes nine or ten years. The two times I've been to Arlington cemetery have been extremely powerful experiences, not because of the stories that I know, but so many that I don't know. One doesn't have to have a relative listed on the Viet Nam war memorial to be overcome emotionally by the experience of seeing all of those names listed together. Somehow they become part of your own story.

Rubel Shelly: In light of what you've just said, John, I find it interesting that Matthew begins the story of our Savior in a cemetery. It's as if his first glimpse of the meaning of Christmas came from walking around in a graveyard. Well, almost. He begins with a long list of hard-to-pronounce names that most of us skip. Except for the people among us who are really interested in their family trees, I suspect practically all of us "observe the Passover" here - that is, we feel reverent and pass over all those names.

But to a Jew like Matthew and the Jewish audience for whom he wrote, this would have been the most natural, most fascinating, and indeed the most indispensable way to begin the story of any important person's life. What Matthew calls the "account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham" (1:1) was Jesus' pedigree. It is clearly important to Matthew, for he obviously skips some generations to get three groups of fourteen names each - from Abraham to David, from David to the fall of Judah, from the fall of Judah to the birth of the Son of Man (1:17). Section One takes us down to the glory days of King David when Israel was a player on the world stage. Section Two tells how the people traded their God-given glory for shame and disaster. Section Three winds up introducing the one who can turn shame into glory, disaster into triumph.

It's quite a genealogy! There are such significant persons as Abraham and Jacob, David and Solomon, Hezekiah and Josiah. Notably, however, there are no markers for Sarah and Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. That's just how it was back in those days when women weren't regarded as on par with males. In the customary morning prayer of an observant Jew, he would have prayed: "Yahweh, I thank you that you did not make me a Gentile, a slave, or a woman." So we wouldn't expect to find any female names in this pedigree. Right?

John: It's not that women aren't listed in the story. In fact there is one listed right alongside Jacob's son Judah. Judah was really an important man, you know. He gave his name to the people, Judeans - Jews. He gave his name to one of the great religions of the world, Judaism. Yet it is the woman beside him that grabs our attention. She wasn't his wife, but she was the father of his children - at least the children listed by Matthew (1:3).

You remember her story: She actually was a family outsider, an Arab married to Judah's oldest son. But he was such an evil character that God struck him dead. She married Judah's next son, and the same thing happened to him. She would have married the third son, but Judah thought she was too dangerous. Then came the business trip and Judah was looking for shady companionship - didn't recognize his own daughter-in-law. Months later, he learned Tamar was pregnant and ordered that she be put to death. How embarrassing it must have been to discover he was the father of his twin sons. Family trees have often those embarrassing moments in them!

Rubel: Let me add a couple more unexpected names to this list, may I? Rahab is named at verse 5. She is the woman who figures in the Old Testament story of Jericho. She hid the Israelite spies in her town. But notice how the text introduces and identifies her: "Then Joshua son of Nun sent two men secretly from Shittim as spies, saying, 'Go, view the land, especially Jericho.' So they went, and entered the house of a prostitute whose name was Rahab, and spent the night there" (Josh.2:1). A prostitute is in the lineage of Jesus Christ! Then there is Ruth (1:6b) - noble, virtuous (in contrast to Rahab) Ruth - whose story is found in the Old Testament book that bears her name.

Here is the "kicker," though. All these women are Gentiles! Rahab was a pagan woman in a pagan town about to be demolished by God's hand. Ruth was a Moabite, and the Moabites were among the people forbidden to enter "the assembly of the Lord" for ten generations at Deuteronomy 23:3.

What's going on here? If you're trying to give a pedigree that provides someone acceptance and stature, where do you come off doing it in such an unusual manner? Women. A non-virtuous woman. A woman whose descendants were supposed to be barred from the nation's worship of Yahweh for ten generations!

John: Fortunately, there are men in the list that give some respectability to the family! Right in the center of this graveyard is the biggest monument in the place. King David, the greatest fighter and greatest king in Israel's history. He was a man after God's own heart. What a remarkable man - from those humble beginnings as a shepherd, he was a great musician and song writer, a warrior, a king. He was also a man of great ambivalence. He could write such intimate lyrics about his relationship with God - "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. . . . Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever." He had an immense capacity to weep over his own sin. "O Lord, my sin is always before me; create a clean heart within me, O God. Renew a right spirit within me. Restore the bones you have broken; do not take your holy spirit from me." He also could be cold and calculating and arrogant.

Rubel: Ah, and buried right there beside King David is . . . (Let me dust off the tombstone and be sure I'm reading the name correctly!) Bathsheba. Yep, there it is. The name is still legible after all these years. Bathsheba (1:6b) - the wife of Uriah the Hittite, the woman with whom David committed adultery while her husband was away on military duty for his country (cf. 2 Sam.11:1ff).

John, I need help here! Why women? Why some pagan women? And why - of all things - these women of "tainted" heritage who have so many skeletons in their closets?

John: Great question! None of them are Jews. The most faithful woman described is a Palestinian - from those people we love to hate. The others are all women of the night in one way or another. Surely there were some righteous women that could have been included. Yet, these women often proved to be more faithful to God, more righteous, than the males in the story.

Perhaps they are in here as a sign of things to come in the age of Messiah. Perhaps they are here specifically to demonstrate the grace of God that has always been at work in our world, choosing the people we would least expect, sometimes even the most unsavory of stories and circumstances, to be about God's salvation. Perhaps they are prophetic of a time when women would no longer be treated as inferior and dropped from the story altogether. Perhaps they prophesy of the time when, under the grace of Jesus Messiah, distinctions of male and female, Palestinian and Jew would be wiped away.

Rubel: And the nature of this list of names doesn't really get a lot better if we just stick with the men. Suppose, for example, we concentrate on the royal blood in Jesus' veins. We've already named King David and King Solomon - who are tainted themselves with moral failure and spiritual breakdown. But catch the names of three other kings out of Old Testament history.

First comes foolish King Rehoboam (1:7). He was so determined to begin his rule with a tough-guy image that he split the nation of Israel permanently into two hostile groups (cf. 1 Kings 12:1ff). Second is King Uzziah (1:9; cf. 2 Chron. 26:1ff). Oh, he started well and - the record says - "did what was right in the sight of the Lord" and "set himself to seek God." But his success made him arrogant. "When he had become strong he grew proud, to his destruction. For he was false to the Lord his God, and entered the temple of the Lord to make offering on the altar of incense" - something only a priest had God's authority to do. This was his fate: "King Uzziah was leprous to the day of his death, and being leprous lived in a separate house, for he was excluded from the house of the Lord." Finally comes King Manasseh (1:10) who had this judgment passed on his 55-year reign over Judah: "He has done things more wicked than all that the Amorites did, who were before him, and has caused Judah also to sin with his idols" (2 Kings 21:11b).

John: Last on the list is "Joseph, the husband of Mary, who gave birth to Jesus . . . ." Are we to think of Mary in the same way that we thought of the other women in this story? We know the story too well, I suppose. We know about the Holy Spirit conception and church tradition about the virgin Mary. But I wonder how many people in Nazareth always believed Mary was just like Tamar and Rahab and Bathsheba? When she turned up pregnant and Joseph knew he wasn't the father? Well, news spreads fast in small towns!

Everyone knew Joseph and Mary were officially engaged. That was serious business back then. Engagements were arranged by the parents. Engagements were as binding as the wedding vows themselves. You couldn't ask for the engagement ring back, couldn't call up and say I've changed my mind. What was Joseph to do? He was engaged to a young girl that somebody else had gotten pregnant. He could have listened to what other people told him, I suppose. Everybody in town must have had an opinion. He could have asked his buddies for advice. Some religious soul probably told him, "You just need to do what the Bible says!" Well, the Bible says, "Take her out and stone her!" Publicly humiliate her and then kill her! That's what the Bible says. Oh, you don't like that verse, try another: "If she does something that embarrasses you, write her a certificate of divorce and send away." Then she won't be your problem anymore. You know, that business of "just doing what the Bible says" sounds religious and righteous and all that, but there are lots of circumstances in our lives when "just doing what the Bible says" can actually be the opposite of the very heart and will of God.

Rubel: What a set of choices Joseph had! Do what he understood the letter of the Law of Moses required and repudiate Mary? Cast her aside and destroy her reputation and life prospects? Make her subject to stoning? Or act on a dream? (Was it really a "dream," he might have asked himself, or a "day-dream" of a lover's wishful thinking?) But if he did take Mary as his wife, what would that do to his reputation? Wouldn't everyone think he just couldn't wait until the wedding and that he had gotten Mary pregnant?

I think Joseph was clearly a man whose righteous devotion to Yahweh had been tempered by an equal commitment to God's compassion and love and grace. Who knows? Maybe some of his more orthodox friends thought him a bit liberal! For even before the dream and any explanation of Mary's pregnancy, Matthew tells us this was going through the hurt and bewildered man's mind: "Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and [perhaps better here, but] unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly" (Matt.1:19).

John, if Joseph is noble because he was able to see Mary and her baby and even Holy Scripture through God's eyes of compassion, grace, and love, surely that is part of the lesson we are to get here about how we view people, situations, and our favorite texts.

I think Matthew's genealogy of Jesus of Nazareth is skillfully crafted for clear purposes. I think this walk through a graveyard we have taken with him is supposed to teach us at least three things. In the coming of Jesus, the barrier between Jew and Gentile is gone. In the coming of Jesus, the fences between male and female are down. In the coming of Jesus, the false fašade between saint and sinner has been ripped away. In Jesus, there is no Jew or Gentile, no male versus female, no unspoiled over against soiled! We are all simply sinners, and - Thank God! - Jesus came not to call the Jews, the men, and the righteous but all sinners of whatever racial stock, gender, or lifestyle to God (cf. Matt.9:13).

John: It's not Christmas yet. The child is not yet born. Mary is not even in labor. We still have nine shopping days left. But we know that the boy's lineage is solid, and we know he has an earthly father who will teach him to read scripture as he reads it, to know God as he does, to see his mother as he sees her. When you have somebody like Joseph on the scene, it's already Christmas. And Christmas will last as long as God can find in every community at least one person who says I will do what is right. I will choose grace and love and compassion over judgment and condemnation. I will treat you as my own son, my own daughter. I will do what is right.

Rubel: God wants you to be such a person. In order for you to be that man or woman, you will first need to receive grace in your situation. You will first need to believe that he is able and willing to receive you - regardless of the skeletons in your closet and the failure in your personal life. Gentiles, females with scandalous histories, men with horrible secrets - not one of them is an afterthought to God. Not one is accepted reluctantly. God has had them in mind from the beginning! Don't you think even the genealogy that begins the story of Jesus is meant to say that?

Maybe all of us need to walk through this cemetery occasionally just to be reminded that there is room for us too in the heart of a God so great.

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