When I was pregnant with our first daughter, I remember looking for a baby book. Something that would be colorful and fun. Something that would have enough room to fill in information but wouldn’t require pages of writing. Something with enough room for pictures. I hadn’t found what I wanted when Lily decided to come, three weeks early. But after she was born, and Todd and I were still in shock that we were now parents of a little vulnerable baby, Todd pulled out a baby book that he had been thoughtful enough to find, buy, and pack in his backpack. And we began to write down the things we didn’t want to forget.
Here we are on the 4th Sunday of Advent, and we know this baby is coming. We have the foresight that none of Jesus’ ancestors had. We have the gift of knowing what to expect— what his life will look like, and how the story turns out. But of course Mary did not know. Joseph clearly did not know. They were not filling in a baby book or writing down the family tree. Where would you even start if you were to try and write down a family tree when the baby isn’t even Joseph’s child?
Well someone thought they would give it a try. The writer of the Gospel of Matthew begins his book with a genealogy. And this isn’t just any genealogy. This is meant to show Jesus’ heritage. It is meant to bind Jesus with the Jewish people forever. Because this genealogy puts Jesus right in line both as a King and as the Messiah.
In Jesus’ day and in his Judean culture, genealogies were very important. In order to get married, one had to provide a genealogy that went back at least three generations to prove that you truly belonged to the Judean people. And so, as Matthew is beginning his book to tell us about Jesus’ birth, it makes sense that he starts with a genealogy. And not just any genealogy— as you heard Carolyn read— it is a genealogy that goes all the way back to Abraham— the founder of the faith. It is a genealogy that goes back 42 generations. There are three sets of 14 generations each. The first fourteen lead us from Abraham to King David. The second fourteen lead us from David to the time when all Israelites were thrown out of the Promised Land and lived in Babylon. And the third fourteen generations lead us from Babylon to the Promised One- the Messiah. This is not a coincidence. This is a learning technique. Matthew has written down Jesus’ genealogy in a way that makes it easy for the Jews to memorize his genealogy, which was a common practice. It was a way for people to tell the story of Jesus’ coming in a way that made sense to them historically, culturally, and religiously.
But there’s more to this genealogy. Because in this long list of great Jewish men— including Abraham, Jacob, Judah, King David, King Solomon, and others, Matthew chooses to also list four women.
This, of course, is odd for a 1st Century writer. Jewish descent being traced through the mother wouldn’t show up for another century or so. So we have to ask ourselves. Why did Matthew choose to include these four women? Why did Matthew choose to include not Sarah or Rebecca or some of the solid faithful saintly women, but Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba?
You may not have even heard of these women before. These are not the kind of women that people were clamoring to know. Tamar tricks her father-in-law into sleeping with her in order to secure her future. Rahab is a prostitute that betrays her own people in order to help the Israelites in a time of war. Ruth is from a different religion entirely who shows faithfulness to her Jewish Mother-in-law and later marries a Jewish man. And Bathsheba— noted here as Uriah’s wife because King David took her for his own and then killed her husband. These women are complex people— faithful in their dealings with God, but culturally seen as difficult, conniving, and even corrupt by their own people.
And, of course, if we are to examine the men in this genealogy, we’ll find the same thing. That most of our heroes have tragic flaws. That those who do great good also have done great harm. And those we wouldn’t usually associate with are also carrying within them the light of God.
I don’t know how many of you saw Star Wars this weekend. I confess that we went. We are pretty big Star Wars fans in our house. And while I don’t like to mix entertainment with theology, there is one thing that Star Wars does get right— that we all have the capacity for great good and great evil; that none of us are all good or all bad.
Which is why we need Christ.
God’s promise to us is a promise of presence, of love, of Spirit. God’s promise to us is NOT that if we work hard enough life will be great. Nor is it that if we achieve enough God will love us or if we are just good enough we can earn God’s love. No. That’s the world’s promise— and it fails every time. Because it tells us that being in control is what is important. That’s not God’s promise. God does not choose to come into the world because of anything we do. Jesus’ light comes into the darkness precisely because God is light. God is love. That’s who God is. God does not ask us to do it all ourselves. God invites us to let go of our own perfection and to receive God’s love in full so that we can be faithful vessels of that love in this world, allowing God’s love to live in us.
It is easy at this time of year to fall into believing the expectations that the world has for the season. To believe it’s all about finding the perfect gift or having the perfect picture of your family to send out to your friends. But Jesus did not come into a perfect world and he wasn’t from a perfect family. His family was filled with imperfect people who we might be tempted to cross out of his genealogy, and yet Matthew wrote them all down as if to say, “Yes. They are just like us. They are like our family too. And God worked through them to bring forth the Messiah.”
And God works through us to bring Christ’s light into the world time and time again.
We can try to be perfect. We can try to make everything happen the way we think it should. But more often than not, it is when we think it has fallen all apart— when all of our best laid plans have been tossed out of the window and we have to recognize that we are not in control of everything— that Christ comes again, wrapping us with God’s grace and shining a light in our darkness.
That is the true miracle of Jesus’ birth— he comes unexpectedly. He comes from unexpected people. He is born into a family that were just as surprised to find him among them, as we are today to find that Christ is still among us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.