God's Open House

Sunday, December 16, 2018

God’s Step-Dad

In 1519, an up and coming preacher in the city of Zurich named Ulrich Zwingli decided to disregard the church calendar for preaching, and instead preach the entirety of the New Testament, beginning with this passage our youth just read. His commitment to Holy Scripture would lead him to begin the Swiss Reformation, quite apart from Luther’s, though they eventually met. And long after he became one of the famed leaders of the Reformation, he still maintained that this list—this terribly long list of begats and begettings and Jehoiachins and Zerubabbels and whatnot—contains the essential theology of the Reformation.[1]

If you pay any attention to the list, you are quickly scandalized by who has been included in it. It starts off well enough with Abraham, but immediately takes a turn—not Ishmael the eldest, but Isaac the younger, not Esau but Jacob, not Reuben, Jacob’s oldest, nor Joseph, Jacob’s favorite, but Judah, the one who sold him into slavery. Specifically Perez, Judah’s child by Tamar, his daughter-in-law who becomes pregnant out of wedlock, which angered Judah until he realized that he himself was the father(see Genesis 38). What is clear from the beginning is that God paints the picture of Jesus’ advent with lines more crooked than straight, and the story of God’s salvation is filled with more sinners than saints. God is not limited by our ideas of who should be involved, and instead moves in God’s own, unpredictable, grace-filled ways.

Continuing on we arrive at David, who is easily the most conniving character in the Bible. Still, he wrote such beautiful psalms of praise to God that they remain the center of our worship three thousand years later.[2] His successors have all of his flaws but none of his redeeming qualities. Outside of two bright spots in Josiah and Hezekiah, they are, in the words of Raymond Brown, “an odd assortment of idolaters, murderers, incompetents, power-seekers, and harem-wastrels.”[3] This section concludes at the low-point in Israel’s history, the exile to Babylon. Yet even these are part of God’s plan, revealing God’s faithfulness in covenant, but also that God can turn our own evil actions to good. Grace-filled indeed.

The third section, begins with two leaders of the restoration, but then quickly descends into a collection of nobodies that are hardly fit to mention. Coming after a list of spectacularly awful kings, it highlights a contrast. While powerful rulers were the source of the kingdom’s destruction, it was a boring collection of nobodies who are the means of its restoration.[4]

We should also mention the women who are mentioned in the genealogy. Women are an essential part of the history of salvation, and in contrast with some, Matthew does not forget them. Still, one might have wished for a less-scandalous collection. Tamar plays the prostitute, Rahab is one, Ruth’s story is seedier than you remember, and Bathsheba (listed as “the wife of Uriah), by any modern definition of the word, was raped. Unusual figures in the genealogy of a king, but perhaps, given the scandal of our Savior’s birth, and the scandal of his life, frequently eating and drinking with prostitutes and sinners, they are more appropo than anyone else.

The overarching narrative revealed in Matthew’s genealogy is the overarching narrative of the Old and New Testaments, Zwingli’s so-called essentials of Reformed theology. It is the story of our salvation by God’s grace. It is not humanity’s strengths and weaknesses that we depend on for our salvation, but God’s love. And judging by the list, God’s love is powerful enough to overcome any of our weaknesses.

Which brings me to the great puzzle of this text. Why are we getting this enormous summation of Israel’s salvation history in ancestry.com format if, in the very next verse, we are going to learn that Joseph is not the father. Why does Matthew proclaim that he will list 42 (and succeed in listing 40, not everyone is great at math) generations of Jesus’ ancestors, only to have it conclude with Joseph, whom he assures us two verses later, is certainly not the father? Why all the begats and begettings if they don’t beget Jesus?

Unless perhaps if Matthew believes that they do beget Jesus. Unless perhaps Matthew believes that it’s not about DNA, it’s the choice to stay. That is, Jesus becomes the heir of all of Israel’s history, and the Son of David, not through his genes, but through Joseph’s choice to call and claim him as his own. When Joseph takes Mary into his home and names the child, he claims Jesus as his heir, and thus Jesus is adopted into the family of kings, saints and nobodies that goes all the way back to Abraham. All of this ancestry that recounts the salvation history of Israel is passed on, not by the blood of Joseph, but by the love of Joseph. I confess that I had never thought about this (this is the blindness you have when you’re in the majority) until a friend of mine in passing noted that Joseph is the patron-saint of step-parents and I was struck by the realization that the holy family was a step-family, forged by the choice to love more than accident of birth.

But if we go back to the genealogy it makes sense, because the genealogy, which never follows the so-called “appropriate” path of descent, reveals the exact same thing. It is not the status or place of birth but the presence of God’s love that is the defining characteristic of our salvation. The story is filled with imperfect people, imperfect beginnings, and as many scoundrels as saints, but God has a way with the imperfect.

I have no idea if Zwingli has this in mind or not when he made his argument about the genealogy of Jesus having the essentials of the Reformed theology, but if not, I would extend it a few verses more. Because it reveals a profound truth about the work of God in the world. Families are made by love. Jesus is Son of David even though he had no claim to David’s blood. We are children of God even though we have no claim to godliness. And it is because God so loved the world that he came down to be with us, flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone, and was united with us in knowing our wretchedness on the cross, and we are united with him in glory through the resurrection. In baptism we are joined, we are welcomed, we are adopted into God’s family, not because of who we are, or who our parents are, but because God loves us and makes us into one family through that love.

And it is all because of Joseph, who chose to make his family out of love and nothing else. So praise God for families that are like God’s family. Praise God for families who are tied together by love. Praise God for families with two moms or two dads, or one mom or one dad. Praise God for families who look nothing alike. Praise God for adopted families, step-families, relationships that take too long to explain, for people who were our second family when ours was falling apart. And praise God for those who choose to make families out of love. Praise God for those who looked out at vast uncertain terrain of a commitment like Joseph’s, to love unconditionally, and stuck it through. Even for those who could not run the whole race with us, praise God. Because these families are like God’s family. They are pieced together in ways we do not expect, but they are filled with the love of God.

Praise God for Joseph, through which, in his lineage, and in his actions, the grace of God has been revealed to us. Praise God for all who follow in his footsteps, and reveal God’s grace once more in our world. Praise God because all of our history is wrapped up together in lovers, wretches and fools, and the only thing that binds us truly is God’s magnificent love.

[1] Brown, Raymond. “Matthew’s Genealogy of Jesus Christ; A Challenging Advent Homily” Worship 60 no 6 November 1986, 485.

[2] Ibid, 487.

[3] Ibid, 487.

[4] Ibid, 488.