The First United Presbyterian Church
Rev. Amy Morgan
January 19, 2020
The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah, of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin,
2 to whom the word of the LORD came in the days of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign.
3 It came also in the days of King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah, and until the end of the eleventh year of King Zedekiah son of Josiah of Judah, until the captivity of Jerusalem in the fifth month.
4 Now the word of the LORD came to me saying,
5 "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations."
6 Then I said, "Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy."
7 But the LORD said to me, "Do not say, 'I am only a boy'; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you.
8 Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD."
9 Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, "Now I have put my words in your mouth.
10 See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant."
An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers,
3 and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram,
4 and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon,
5 and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse,
6 and Jesse the father of King David. And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah,
7 and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph,
8 and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah,
9 and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah,
10 and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah,
11 and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.
12 And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel,
13 and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor,
14 and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud,
15 and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob,
16 and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.
17 So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.
My dad and my sister both decided in the last couple of years to get one of those DNA tests that tell you about your ancestry. Not surprisingly, they learned that we are mostly a mix of English, Welsh, Irish, Scottish and Northern European heritage. Our ancestors have been in this country since at least the War of 1812. We don’t have genetic markers for any serious illnesses. And my sister may be genetically inclined to dislike cilantro.
This kind of detailed, biological information…is not what we find in the Gospel of Matthew. Ancient Jewish genealogies were rare, with the exception of kings and priests. And even those genealogies were constructed, not with an eye toward historical accuracy, but with the intention of telling a meaningful story.
The word the NRSV translates as genealogy is actually the Greek word genesis. As in the first book of the Hebrew bible. It’s meaning is much richer than simply a list of names connecting Jesus to Abraham and David. In Greek, the first sentence of the New Testament reads: The book of the genesis of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham. This is the book of Genesis for Christians, the beginning of a new story for all humanity.
Like any good story, Matthew’s genesis story has structure, meaning, and purpose.
He organizes the generations numerically: 14 from Abraham to David, 14 from David to the deportation to Babylon, and 14 from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah (though if you count carefully there are only 13 generations in that last grouping). Like many of us involved in theology, Matthew’s not great at math. (How do you think Christians came up with the Trinity?)
The numerical construct is more important than historical accuracy for Matthew. Anyone can trace this genealogy through the Hebrew scriptures and see that there are three kings missing in the lineage as well as gaps of hundreds of years between some of the generations. Again, Matthew isn’t concerned about historical or biological record. He’s constructing theological meaning.
Both the number 14 and its derivative, the number 7, were thought to be significant and sacred numbers in ancient Israel. Hebrew letters had numerical values, and the value of the letters in the name David add up to 14. The number 7 represents creation, good fortune, and blessing. Just in the way Matthew structures this genealogy, we’re to understand that Jesus is the promised king in the line of David, the one anointed to bring God’s reign to earth; he is destined to inaugurate a new creation, and he is blessed by God in this mission.
Also hidden in this genealogy is a subversive message of inclusion. Unlike the genealogy of Jesus found in Luke’s Gospel, Matthew includes 5 women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, “the wife of Uriah,” whom we can only assume is Bathsheba, and Mary, the mother of Jesus. Now, some of these names may be familiar to you, and some might not.
Tamar was the Canaanite wife of Judah’s eldest son, who died prematurely. In this case, strange as it sounds, Judah was obligated to take Tamar as his wife, but he refused to do so. So Tamar dressed up as a prostitute, and Judah took the bait. When Tamar shows up pregnant after this encounter, Judah is ready to put her to death. Tamar then ingeniously proves that Judah is the father, and he instead declares her righteous.
There’s no evidence anywhere in the Old Testament or extrabiblical Jewish texts for including Rahab, the prostitute of Jericho, in a Davidic genealogy. She wasn’t an Israelite. And the timeline doesn’t match up by about 200 years. But here she is, mentioned in the most sacred of all family trees.
We likely know the story of Ruth. She’s got a whole book of the bible named after her. She was faithful to her mother-in-law, Naomi, and caught the eye of Naomi’s kinsman, Boaz. The book of Ruth makes it clear that she is the grandmother of King David. What is remarkable, though, is that Ruth is another outsider, a Moabite who marries into the Israelite lineage. Later Jewish law dictates that the people of Moab be specifically excluded from Israelite community, even after 10 generations. What is she doing in the lineup of Jesus’ foremothers?
And then there is “the wife of Uriah.” She isn’t named. But what she is called is significant. King David marries Bathsheba before she gives birth to Solomon. Matthew could have simply said, “And David was the father of Solomon by Bathsheba.” All the other women in this genealogy have names. But Matthew chooses to call special attention to the sin of King David. He doesn’t wipe it away or hide it, as David himself tried to do. Matthew puts Israel’s shame on public display in the lineage of Jesus.
Prostitutes and pretend prostitutes. Foreigners and enemies. Reminders of a shameful past. These are the women included in the story of Jesus, up until his mother is named. She is not called a virgin or anything special at all. She’s simply defined by her relationships to her husband and son, squeezed in the middle of male identity.
I would love to, someday, preach a sermon focused just on these women included in Matthew’s genealogy. But alas, that is not the sermon the Holy Spirit gifted to me this week. But the inclusion of these women does provide insight into Matthew’s purpose in constructing this unlikely genealogy. The male players are famous forefathers, kings and prophets. He includes the good with the bad, the righteous and the wayward. But what the women in this genealogy tell us is that the family of Jesus, and therefore the family of God, includes those who count for nothing, those who were specifically excluded. The hope and promise and redemption of Jesus Christ is for everyone.
The word genesis does not simply imply a story of the past. Genesis is the beginning of a story that continues. Some scholars believe that Matthew’s use of the word genesis in the first sentence of his gospel indicates that the whole gospel, not just this opening genealogy, is the beginning of the story. All 28 chapters of Matthew are equivalent to the first 2 chapters of the Hebrew book of Genesis. And, just like Genesis goes on for another 48 chapters and spills out into the rest of the Pentateuch, Matthew’s genesis extends past the closing words of Jesus, “And remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
The genesis, the genealogy of Jesus, persists through all the ages. Not through his bloodline since, as far as we know, he had no offspring.
The continuing genealogy of Jesus, like the one given to us by Matthew, is theological, not biological. His theological descendants include his disciples, who are sent to “all nations.” They include Paul, and Tabitha, and Lydia. They include martyrs like Perpetua and Stephen, desert mystics and Christian apologists.
Once Christianity merged with the powers of empire, the picture gets muddy. Like Matthew, we might pick and choose, skip some generations. We might choose to exclude the extended periods of brutality, violence, and genocide, of which there have been many. But maybe, like Matthew, our genealogy includes those who draw attention to the sins of our past. We might also follow Matthew’s lead by including some outsiders: deists, like Thomas Jefferson and several other Founding Fathers of our nation; critics of institutional Christianity like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Gloria Steinem; the Hindu Gandhi, or the Muslim Malala. And, of course, we’ll be sure to include all the heroes and heroines of the faith, the greats like Francis of Assisi and Hildegard of Bingen, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Mother Theresa, and Martin Luther King, Jr., whose life we will commemorate tomorrow.
Winding through sinners and saints, insiders and outsiders, skipping around and organized selectively to tell a coherent story, the genealogy of Jesus eventually leads here, to all of us. We are part of the ongoing story of God’s activity through Jesus Christ in time and space and through ordinary people.
Christian mystic and author Richard Rohr suggests that “We are still carrying the DNA of our great, great grandparents of faith, and knowing that can give us deep identity and meaning. Not knowing this heritage will allow you to cling to superficial Christian distinctions that emerged much later, and largely as historical accidents.”
We have theological, spiritual DNA. It isn’t necessarily based on our biology or history. But it is full of meaning and deep identity. Like DNA, each person’s genesis is unique. But we share many common ancestors.
As we begin the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, this is an appropriate time to reflect on our common ancestry. While Christianity today may be fractured into thousands of denominations and millions of churches around the world, we are united in the continuing story of Jesus Christ. We are all part of that genealogy.
And, in our unity, we each possess a distinctive, personal genesis. Our faith has an origin story that continues on through us. It will pass along through us to future generations. Not just to our physical offspring, but to all of those who are influenced by how we live and teach and express our faith.
The ancestors of this community include ordinary and wonderful folks like Bill and Sylvia Spearman; Bob Fisher; Jeanne Grether; Heather Janssen; and many others near and dear to us. It also includes many ordinary and wonderful folks we have never met or even heard of. The folks who, through the course of 145 years, served on committees, called pastors, taught Sunday School, sang in the choir, cooked for pot-lucks, managed finances, repaired the building, and so many other everyday, ordinary things that have allowed this to remain a flourishing community of faith today. Some of their names are enshrined on windows or plaques. But most of them are buried in dusty books of church records. They won’t show up in our list of names, but they are part of our story all the same.
And today we will add to that list new officers of the church. Deacons and elders who have been called by the voice of this congregation to be a part of our story, to help form and shape our community and our faith. When we ordain church officers, it is a life-long ordination. Because we recognize that these folks are now a permanent part of our genealogy. The influence they will have on this community will last much longer than their brief term of service. Their story will continue on after them.
All of us, not just these folks called to particular service in the church, have a vocation that has been shaped by our spiritual genealogy. It begins in Jesus Christ, and it will continue after us. But we have our own story within this larger story. And knowing our genesis, our spiritual DNA, can help us discern and live into that vocation more faithfully.
So this week, for the first time, I think, I’m giving us all some homework. It’s a research assignment. I’m sure enough of us have done some digging into our biological ancestry. This week, or however long it takes you to do this, I’m going to encourage all of us to construct our spiritual genealogy. Beginning with Jesus, the Christ, how do you trace your spiritual lineage through the ages? Where is the through-line of spiritual influence for you? Some points in history may be sparse. You might get more detailed when thinking about those most recent generations. You’re welcome to include siblings as well as parents. Matthew does. You might include some renegades and outsiders.
But do some digging. Trace the route of your theological development, your faith formation. Who are the ancestors whose life and thought and work have shaped who you are today?
And when you’ve done that, take some time to pray about what it all adds up to. What calling does this genealogy place on your life? Because this is your genesis, the beginning of your story. And you are not the end of the story. There are others who are depending on you to pass along your spiritual DNA. This is only the beginning.
To God be all glory forever and ever. Amen.