Matthew 1:1-16 Christmas Eve Communion 2005
We might think it’s strange and puzzling to start a story with a long list of names, many we’ve probably never heard of. But, this is no ordinary story and this is no everyday list of names. This is more than a list of names, this is the story of Israel in miniature according to Matthew – from it’s beginning with Abraham to – to it’s climax – the story of Jesus. This list of names functions as a summary of God’s story with Israel.
Names are important – especially in the Bible - when we mention a name immediately we connect that name to a story. The mention of a name will call to mind past events, stories and associations, a world of meaning. Names can be remembered fondly or fearfully, can bring a smile or a scowl, names can be honoured and can be shamed. Names identify who we are and who we belong to, whether it be our family name or the name ‘Christian’ which marks us as one following and joined to Christ Jesus. We are given names. We have generally little choice about them and as we grow older our name becomes a shorthand for our character, for our life. When someone hears our name what stories would they tell about us? What is or who is associated with our name? Does the mention of our name bear witness to the truthfulness of the story of God?
This list of names that Matthew records, this family tree of Jesus tells a history of honour and shame, of praise and disgrace. It functions in one way to show Jesus’ credentials, to show that he is the fulfilment of the promise to Abraham and the promise to David, the one Israel has been waiting for. But Matthew also uses it to show that the way the story of Israel unfolds, the way God guides and brings his story to this point is not as we might expect … God chooses the unexpected, unpredictable choice … so we find there is Abraham who both trusts God and also takes things into his own hands … there is Tamar, who tricks Judah, her father-in-law into sleeping with her (Gen 38) … there is Rahab, the prostitute who helps the Israelites capture Jericho (Joshua 2, 6) … there is Ruth, a Moabite, someone from outside of Israel, God’s chosen people … there is David who sleeps with Bathsheba (who is not even mentioned here by name) and then has her husband Uriah killed (2 Samuel 11) … there is then a list of the kings of Judah, who, with the exception of Solomon, Hezekiah and Josiah are described as doing evil in the sight of the Lord and leading the people astray, in particular Manasseh, who is described in 2 Kings 21 as being the most evil and sinful of all Israel’s kings ... This is not a history of good and upright people of God. Why does Matthew recount this history? Because God ways are not our ways and God’s plans are not our plans. God is the God of surprises, of the unexpected … Matthew tells us this because the story of Mary and then the story of Jesus which will follow is a story of the amazing and astounding God realizing his salvation purposes. The way of Jesus into the world is a story of a young woman becoming pregnant outside of marriage, and who is then shoved off (according to Luke) to her cousin Elizabeth, so the family can pretend it hasn’t happened; a husband who is unsure and most probably embarrassed and humiliated by the events, who wants to do the right thing, but … In particular let us consider Mary: what was running through mind during those 9 months – fear most certainly, exhilaration maybe, anger, distress and awkwardness, delight – why does God ask her to do this? What was God doing choosing her? Was her pregnancy easy? Did she worry about having a miscarriage or a still birth? She must surely have spent many hours wondering what manner of child might this be? … Let’s not turn this story into a fairytale or a romance … Matthew’s list of names, says to us, God’s story is never a fairytale – its in-your-face inescapable reality, a full roller-coaster ride of emotions. Beneath the surface of Matthew’s and Luke’s different nativity stories is a story in which we are probably all secretly glad that we are not Mary or Joseph - we are glad God has not asked us to play their role in his story. But, what kind of role has God asked us to play in his story? Perhaps for some of us think we’d like to be the hero – the saviour of the church, the reviver of a nation; sorry, but Jesus has already taken that role. Actually I want to suggest that our role is to be that which we secretly fear: it is to like Mary who says ‘let it be, I am a servant of the Lord’ and Joseph, who does what God commands. Our role, like it was for Mary and Joseph will be scary, uncomfortable, cause us to get angry (most likely at God), but equally it can be exhilarating and joyful. Being distinctively different, being a disciple – one who follows Jesus in all things – is never in God’s story ‘and they lived happily ever after.’
Whenever we think we have God worked out, fitting neatly into our human-made God-shaped boxes. God says, think again. Think again. Free your minds. Empty them. ‘I am doing a new thing. Do you not perceive it?’ (Is 43:19) The story of God is one where we are left in wonder and awe. Is that your experience? God does not keep himself at distance, but takes the plunge and becomes nothing. He strips away all his power, might, knowledge, glory, all that was obviously divine, all preconceived ideas of God-ness are discarded, and God chooses to be conceived within a young woman’s womb and be born into this world (some of the wording here is borrowed from The Complex Christ, Kester Brewin, 2004). The story of the God who becomes incarnate is the story of a God who breaks into the world in the most astonishing and miraculous way … he turns our world upside down, back to front, inside out. When you have waited - when we have waited - for God to come to us for so long … he comes quietly and without warning in the frail and dependent life of a baby, utterly reliant on a mother’s love and care.
The Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams said earlier this month:
“Christmas is the Christian’s Christmas present to everybody else. Christmas, for a Christian tells us why people matter. They matter because God took us seriously, seriously enough to get involved with our lives to suffer with us and change things. That’s what I believe, that’s what Christians believe and Christmas exists because of that belief … that’s our present, that’s our gift to the rest of the world”
People matter to God. We matter to God. Every child matters. Every person matters. Where so often we think the only people who matter are those who appear on our screens and in our magazines, Christmas – the coming of Christ into the world – says every person is important and valuable, and perhaps especially those who live at the margins, those who are easily forgotten. Matthew ends his summary of Israel’s story with Israel still in Babylon, still in exile. A people displaced, a people under foreign rule, subject to high taxation, alien laws, brutal oppression and a pagan society. Israel would ask if they were God’s people, called to be his true humanity, why did God allow his people to be trampled on and left at the margins? Did they not matter to God? The Christmas story of the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, is God’s act of saying, I’ve not forgotten you, I’m doing something about it, although in a hidden and different way to how you might expect, yes you do matter, but also, every person matters – in fact, you failed to be the light to the nations I wanted you to be, you failed to show that every person matters to me. When we feel God’s left us, abandoned the church, allowed the world to trample on us, let us make sure we don’t miss what God is doing and asking us to do.
A few years later, Jesus was on a hillside and teaching that Blessed are the poor, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are the who hunger and thirst, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are those who are persecuted, which is Jesus’ way of saying people matter to God. Again the Christmas story demands our response, how do we show that people matter to God? Do we treat each other as those who are made in the image of God?
Does the mention of our name bear witness to the truthfulness of the story of God?
What kind of role has God asked us to play in his story? To be a Mary or Joseph?
Do we pay attention to God’s way of working or we always watching for bright lights?
How do we show that people matter to God?