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Saturday, December 25, 2010

A Christmas Meditation

Matthew 1:1-21

I don't really make that much about Christmas. It was not commanded in Holy Scripture, so its observance cannot be imposed on the conscience. However, I have nothing afainst people who choose certain times to focus on the great events of Jesus Christ's life among us; and Christmas is a time when many are open to hearing something about the Savior, so here goes with a meditation.

I love the Gospel stories about the birth of Christ--Matthew 2 and Luke 2. I love the prologue to John, the Gospel that reminds us up front how Jesus isn't just man, but God Incarnate and "pitching his tent" among us.

But, believe it or not, I really love Matthew One, with all of its boring "begats".

Why, Uncle Cephas? Are you just a dull old man?

The Genealogy of Jesus reminds us of several things, not least of which is how God the Son chose to identify with real, flesh-and-blood people, despite all of our fallenness and misery.

Jesus, like all the rest of us, has a history. His genealogy in Matthew One shows us that this history is the long, long history of ancient Israel. His line begins with Abraham, passes through Kings David and Solomon, the greatest of Israel's kings, and moves on down to that point which the Apostle Paul calls "the fullness of time", when world-empire belonged to Rome and Herod the Great sat on the throne of Judaea. Jesus identified with a people and its story.

This, perhaps, is why Matthew plays with the idea of fourteen major generations from Abraham to the Babylonian Exile, then fourteen from the Exile to the Messiah (which is just the Anglicization for M'shiach, or "Anoiinted One", which in Greek is "Christos"). Seven is the number of perfection, fourteen is perfection doubled. Matthew's point isn't that he's playing a game of "Catch me if you Can in my Knowledge of Biblical genealogy"--one, by the way, that he loses, since many a Bible student has found gaps in his genealogy--but that the flow of Hebrew history isn't random, but follows a divine plan that meets its fulfillment in the Redeemer of the world.

As an American, I know this doesn't particularly flatter me; nor does it flatter my dear spouse who was born Chinese. But it is a reminder that God has his own purposes in history, and they are not necessarily purposes there to aggrandize me and mine. But it should be enough for us that God was concerned enough with us as historical persons that when he chose to become one of us, that he did not ignore history with all its lumps, warts, and imperfections. And, perhaps, in choosing a relatively small nation for his own, he reminds us that our notions of power, greatness, and national glory are not necessarily his.

Apart from God's guiding hand in human history, Jesus' genealogy reminds us that God chose to identify with sinners.

Many have the idea that the Savior of mankind had to come from the great and good. As a descendant of kings and Persian satraps from David to Zorobabel (Zerubbabel in the Old Testament), Jesus does descend from the great. But a reading of the Old Testament reminds us that Jesus does not necessarily descend from the good. The incarnation of God the son is not about congratulating mankind on a job well done, but about the redemption of sinners.

Judah and Tamar (Judas and Thamar in verse 4, following the Greek spellings) show us a sordid tale of deception, anger, and violation, in which a man lies with his daughter-in-law when she is disguised as a prostitute (Genesis 38). We see as well Rachad (Rahab) the harlot, who with her house was the only survivor of the city of Jericho following its capture by Joshua. And from which of David's numerous marriages did the Savior come? From David's adultery with Bathsheba and and the murder of Uriah the Hittite (Urias in the Greek spelling)--the very crime for which, as Nathan the prophet announced, the blood would not depart from David's house (II Samuel 11).

Following these unedifying tales come the kings of Judah. What a contrast the books of Samuel and Kings offer to the boasting chronicles of virtually every other ancient nation! Yes, wise Solomon, and the pious kings Asa, Hezekiah, and Josiah are mentioned. But Solomon, for all his wisdom, was the one who multiplied wives and horses, contrary to the mitzvot of Deuteronomy 17, and whose foreign wives--the staple of ancient Middle Eastern diplomacy--distanced him from the God he originally served. And Solomon's glorious, extensive kingdom, stretching from the wadis of the Sinai peninsula (the Brook of Egypt) to the Euphrates River, came into the hands of his son Rehoboam (Roboam), who ignored the counsel of the older, wiser men and took that of his contemporaries, that he might oppress the people of Israel, showing a "little finger thicker than [his] father's waist" and putting aside the whips with which Solomon chastised men to chastise them with scorpions. And to this, the ten northern tribes answered with secession under Jeroboam.

Most of the other kings are not remembered as good men. Throughout the books of the kings sound the gloomy refrains "he did evil in the sight of the LORD" or "He walked in the way of Jeroboam, who taught Israel to sin". They culminate in Manasseh, who, the Old Testament tells us, walked in all the Canaanite abominations, for which Israel was commanded to cleanse the land. It was for the sins of Mannaseh that Judah herself was condemned to destruction and exile.

And here is a reflection of how Jesus puts the importance of family in persepctive--especially since Christmas is a time of family gatherings and remembrances. Many of us wish to think of ourselves as good people, who descend from good people, and whose families are exemplars of what is right rather than of what is wrong. Hence the ancestral cult found in many cultures across the globe. Hence the importance to many of "good family". But Jesus' genealogy reminds us that we worship a transcendent and holy God rather than dead men; and that we need not walk in the sins and follies of our fathers.

The genealogy ends with the naming of Jesus. He is the namesake of Joshua, who led Israel into the promised land, bearing a name that means "YHWH saves", for Jesus' mission is to save his elect people from all nations, kindreds, people, and tongues from their sins (Mt.1:21; Rev. 7:9). This he accomplished in his life of obedience to divine law in the place of our law-breaking, his sacrificial death on the cross in which he bore our sins, and his resurrection--body AND soul--from the dead.

Reading this genealogy, I am floored by how the sinless Son of God identifies with sinful men. If any had the right to disown his family, it was Jesus Christ. Yet he did not; and through his apostle, shows us his identification with sinners for the sake of their salvation. I pray that from meditation on this passage, I and other Christians would put aside the "holier than thou" facade that comes too easily. It is not the case that we were wiser and better than others that brings us to salvation, but rather that our salvation comes from God's grace shown in Christ. I pray that this witness would be effectual to the salvation of many more.

Matthew One is the great testimony to the humanity of Jesus Christ (even if Matthew confesses Jesus' divinity in recording the apostles' awestruck "who is this, that even winds and waves obey him?"), just as John One is the great testimony to his divinity (even if John also records Jesus' humanity in his weeping over the death of Lazarus). As the Epistle to the Hebrews says, it reminds us that despite our sin and shame, the Lord is not ashamed to call us brethren, and partakes of our nature for the sake of bringing us salvation (Hebrews 2:12 ff.). It is my prayer that many will hear this message in this time of year, and that Christmas of 2010 may be the start of spiritual renewal and salvation for many.

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