Mystery Between the Lines

Sermon by Wiley Lowry on December 20, 2020

Matthew 1:1-17

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If you would turn in your Bibles or look there in your bulletins at our Scripture text for this evening, Matthew chapter 1. And what we’ll find here in this passage is that prostitution, adultery, murder and divorce are all right here as an unavoidable part of the Christmas story. It’s unavoidable. In fact, we might say it’s an indispensable part of the Christmas story. You know we tend to sanitize Christmas in some ways by our traditions, by our decorations and by our cheer. And there’s something familiar and predictable about the way we celebrate Christmas, and that’s good. There’s something safe and comfortable about all of those things. And yet just beneath the surface we sometimes hide some of the difficulties that may be right around us. In some ways, we may even forget the absolute mystery that is found at the coming of Jesus, at the heart of Christmas.

And the gospel of Matthew begins with what seems to be merely a list of names; just a simple list of names. But these names have a story and if we read between the lines of what we find here in this chapter, what we find is that it is full of the scandalous and the mundane, and it’s full of the miraculous and the ordinary. And it points us to Jesus. It points us to the mystery of who Jesus is and the plan of God’s salvation for His people. So as we read Matthew chapter 1, the first seventeen verses tonight, let’s consider the mysteries of the incarnation and of providence and of the kingdom of God and see what God is doing in our past, our future, and our present as we live for Christ. Let’s go to the Lord in prayer before we read.

Father, we give You thanks that every word of Scripture, that all Scripture is God breathed and is useful for teaching, correcting, rebuking and instructing in righteousness. And so we pray as we come to this section of Your Word tonight that we would hear You speak to us and that Your Spirit would apply Your truth to us to see Christ in all His glory, to see our need for Him, and that we would be moved to live more and more for Him and like Him, for Your glory. We pray all of this in Jesus’ name, amen.

Matthew chapter 1, verse 1:

“The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Ram, and Ram the father of Amminadab, and Amminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David the king.

And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.

And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Shealtiel, and Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel, and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.

So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations.”

The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the Word of our God endures forever.

The Past

Well when you think about a catchy way to start a story, probably not one of the first things to come to your mind would be, “The book of the genealogy of…” It has a way of starting the story in a way that seems a little bit dull, and yet genealogies are a big deal. They’re a big deal around here. If you’ve been around Jackson for very long or if you’ve been around First Presbyterian Church for very long, it’s good to know who is connected to whom. And I think even around this church you can, on a weekly basis, find our new ways that people are connected to each other and related to someone you never knew they were related to. They are a big deal!

And genealogies were a big deal for the Jews as well. This was the way for them to trace the family line throughout history and to keep up with the inheritance of land from one family to the next. Genealogies are also closely connected to the covenant promises of God, the covenant promises that He made to Abraham and to Isaac and to Jacob – those promises that are traced throughout all of the pages of the Old Testament. And this genealogy roots Jesus’ story in that history. And what this gospel is presenting to us is not fiction; it’s not fairy tale. But no, this is based on fact. This is based on real people who lived in real places. They had real names and they lived in real time and space. This is who Jesus is. And this is the family into which He was born. So starting the gospel this way with this genealogy, the message is saying to us that this is a dependable message and this is reliable history that you are reading here.

That does not mean that genealogies can’t be confusing at times. Ask your family historian how you’re related to a certain distant cousin and it won’t take long before you get lost. I’m sure you’ve had that experience before. Once they start to talk about “once removed” or “twice removed” it starts to sound like they’re making things up! It can be a little bit confusing at times to navigate all the details of a family genealogy.

And that’s somewhat the case here in Matthew’s genealogy as well. If you were to compare this with the genealogy we also find in Luke’s gospel in Luke chapter 3, you find there are differences in the names that are found as the line of Jesus is traced through each member. There have been a number of explanations for those differences. One of the earliest and the simplest ways to explain those differences is that Matthew is presenting to us Joseph’s line and he’s presenting to us the royal line of succession from David to Jesus. And what Luke is presenting to us is Mary’s line, and it’s the legal or natural descent of Jesus. And there are other explanations for that as well. Some of the explanations include the Jewish practice of levirate marriage as a sort of adoption in a sense, and that that could explain some of the differences between the two genealogies in Matthew and Luke. But one scholar says this. He says that these two genealogies, “they do not contradict one another but they complement one another,” and they’re here in the Bible to show us that Jesus is the rightful heir to the throne of David. He is the expected, the long expected Messianic King that was promised to David. This is Jesus’ family.

And at first glance, as we read about Jesus’ family, it looks like a pretty standard genealogy except, except for when it’s not. And there are some differences that we find in this genealogy from others and one of the major differences is the inclusion of several women in this genealogy. Most genealogies, especially the genealogies that we find in the Bible, would have recorded the male line. It would have been the fathers that were recorded. And that’s true, for the most part, in Matthew chapter 1. But what’s unusual is that there are five women who are inserted into Jesus’ family line. There’s Tamar and Rahab and Ruth, Bathsheba, and then Mary. Look at verse 3. It says, “Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar.” Verse 5 says, “Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth.” And then if you go to verse 6, it says, “David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah,” that’s Bathsheba. And then we go down in verse 16 and it says, “Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary.” Five women. Five women who were inserted into this family line of Jesus. And each one of their names is associated in some way or the other with obscurity and with scandal.

Tamar was the widowed daughter-in-law of Judah. And because Judah was unfaithful in carrying out his duties toward Tamar and providing a spouse for her after the loss of her husband, Tamar pretended to be a prostitute and she hid her face and she met Judah along the side of the road and slept with him. And to Judah were born these two twins, Perez and Zerah. You can read about it in Genesis chapter 38. Rahab, she actually was a prostitute and she was a citizen of Jericho at the time when Israel was invading and settling into the Promised Land. She was an outsider. She was an outsider to the promises of God. She was condemned to destruction along with all the rest of the citizens of Jericho, and yet we find in the book of Joshua that she hid the Israelite spies and she pled for mercy and she was incorporated into the people of Israel. She was included into the covenant promises of God.

And then there’s Ruth. Ruth was a Moabite. She was a widow who lived in Israel during the wild and reckless and rebellious days of the judges. Her situation looked bleak. And yet she was brought in, in marriage, to Boaz and she has a child and she becomes the great grandmother of David the king. And then there’s Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah. This is the one whom David took in adultery. He took from Uriah and then he had Uriah placed in the front lines of the battle and he was killed there. He had Uriah murdered. And yet this woman, Bathsheba, was the mother of Solomon. She’s the one through whom the covenant promises of God to David will be traced throughout the rest of Scripture.

And then lastly we come to Mary. Mary was a young woman from a poor background. She was from a nothing town of Nazareth. She was an unmarried virgin who was betrothed to Joseph, and when Joseph found that she was expecting a child he desired to divorce her and put her away quietly until he was confronted by an angel and instructed what he should do. This Mary is the one “of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ,” verse 16 says. These women interrupt the flow of the family line and you can’t read their names without thinking about the circumstances that surrounded their lives. These are eye-catching names that we find in this genealogy of Jesus.

But they’re not the only disruptions in this genealogy. There’s also that note, if you look in verse 11 and 12, there’s a note about the deportation to Babylon. The deportation, you remember, was God’s judgment on the people for their idolatry and for their rebellion. It was people like, verses 7 to 11, Abijah and Joram and Ahaz and Manasseh. They are the ones we read about in the book of Kings. There’s that refrain that you see for different kings. It says that “they did evil in the sight of the Lord.” Those men did evil in the sight of the Lord and the people of the nation followed after them and so God, in judgment, sent them to exile in Babylon. And those aren’t the only ones in this list who are unworthy and unfaithful. Abraham was a pagan before God called him. Isaac, according to even Jewish sources as a zero. And Jacob was a shyster from way back. He was a deceiver. And on and on it goes with so many of the names in this list.

I’m reminded of a scene from the movie version of Dr. Suess’, “Horton Hears a Who!” And the mayor of Whoville, he’s telling his son about all the other mayors in their family. That in their past, the grandfathers and the great-grandfathers had all been mayors of Whoville. And he’s showing him pictures of each one. He says, “This is your great, great, great, great, not-so-great, great-grandfather.” And here’s a picture of one person, one man – he looked not-so-great!

Well there are a lot of not-so-great grandfathers in the story of Jesus. They’re all throughout this genealogy. There’s sin attached to every name. This is a dysfunctional family. And the mess and the baggage associated with this genealogy are of some of the most shocking and disturbing kind. And yet Jesus is born into this family. He is not ashamed to enter into this mess and dysfunction and He does so in order to redeem the mess and the dysfunction. In fact, that is the mystery of the incarnation – that the Son of God, holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, that He would take on flesh and become man. That God became man; He became one of this unholy and unworthy line of humanity that is stained over and over with sin. We can’t explain that. We can’t wrap our minds around this fact. It’s only by the infinite power of God, of a good God and by His wisdom, that He could bring about the birth of Jesus Christ.

And do you see in reading through this list of names the staggering humiliation of Jesus Christ? He has come into the worst in order to save the worst. You see, there’s no shame; there’s no brokenness with which Jesus cannot identify. And there’s no sin, there’s no guilt, there’s no failure that Jesus cannot save and which He cannot restore. He came into this dysfunctional family to give grace to those who know all about dysfunctional families. Not only is He not ashamed to call us His brothers and sisters. But He even demonstrates something about the dignity of humanity – that He would take on flesh and become and remain man, that shows us the dignity of humanity. And there’s even an honor and a value that is displayed towards the women that are included in this list in Jesus’ family line. This genealogy shows what Jesus has come to do – to redeem and to restore a messy past. There’s the past.

The Future

What about the future? What do these names have to say to us about the future? We’ve already noticed some of the unfortunate episodes in this family history but think about the way in which those things took place; the way in which these events unfolded. There are, in this list of names, there are inextricable miracles that take place all throughout this history. You think about Abraham and Sarah, given to them Isaac, born to them Isaac, when they were well past the age of having children. Sarah was unable to bear children. She had been barren throughout her life, and yet God gave them Isaac. Nahshon in verse 4, he was a part of the exodus generation. He was part of the generation that was delivered out of slavery in Egypt by the plagues, by the Passover. And as God parted the Red Sea and allowed the people to walk through on dry land and be delivered from Egypt and to go towards the Promised Land. Some of the kings, like Hezekiah, received supernatural deliverances in battle, supernatural healings from illnesses. And the virgin, Mary, gave birth to Jesus of Him who was conceived by the Holy Spirit. The miraculous. It’s all throughout. It’s all over this list of names. It’s all throughout this preparation and birth of Jesus.

But so is the ordinary. Not only is there the miraculous but there’s also the ordinary. Most of the names in this list are the result of normal family life. That the regular growth of a family through the birth of a child as one generation passes to the next. And every name in this list, except for one, died like everyone else. There’s another one of those refrains that we find in the book of Kings that so-and-so “died and was buried,” or “he was gathered to his fathers.” Each one of these lives, except for one, ends in death. There’s nothing miraculous in the book of Ruth. There are no miraculous events in the book of Ruth. Most of this history takes place in the normal flow of history, in the rise and fall of nations.

And there’s really nothing spectacular that happens after the deportation. The list of names that we find from the days of the deportation up to the time of Christ, there’s a more or less silence from God during that time. We don’t know anything. Look at the names in verse 12 and on. Men like Azor and Zadok and Achim and Eliud. We don’t know anything about them. Their names aren’t found anywhere else in the Bible. And Ralph Davis, in his commentary on 2 Kings, he ends 2 Kings 25 by looking at Matthew chapter 1. He picks up the story of the bleak days of Jehoiakin and the deportation, the exile, by looking ahead to Matthew chapter 1. He says, “Matthew 1:12-16 picks up the story where 2 Kings 25 leaves off. And who would think that any hope from God could be hidden under this failed, dilapidated and captive people.” He says, “Go and read Nehemiah and Haggai and Malachi.” He says that, “In those books we find that Judah stays under foreign domination. Life is hard. In those books, the earth is mostly brown, the sky is gray, the leaves are pale, the wind is cold, but precisely in this time the darkest, bleakest segment of Israel’s history, the Messiah is given.” It was when this people were trampled, beaten down, and teetering between faith and compromise that the Son of Righteousness began to blaze. It was just so ordinary. Remarkably ordinary. And yet it was during that time that God moved to send His Son. That was when the fullness of time came that He sent forth His Son, born of a virgin, born under the Law, to redeem those who are under the Law.

Throughout this whole list of names there are tragedies and there are sorrows, there is sin and temptation, there’s physical and spiritual battles, there are celebrations and there are blessings. And all of it is taking place over 2,000 years. We read about, verse 17, fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the deportation, fourteen from the deportation to Jesus. It took a long time. It was a slow working out of God’s plan as it is carried through this history and through these people. But all of it, all of it God worked together to bring about His plan of salvation in sending forth His Son, Jesus Christ. You see, God weaves together all of these different lives and all of these different events, both good and bad, to accomplish His will. That’s the mystery of providence. That what man intends for evil, God means for God. And that God is working all things together for good to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. We can’t understand that either. We can’t understand all that God is doing in our lives. We can’t know all that God is doing in the world around us. But just as He has ordained every life and every event that’s associated with this history in Matthew chapter 1 to bring about His purpose of Christ, so also God is working together, He has ordained every event, every relationship, whether good or bad, to bring about His good purposes and His ultimate blessing to His people in Christ Jesus.

I think I’ve told the story before about waking up in the middle of the night one time when I was in seminary. I was in the thick of Hebrew class and I woke up in the middle of the night and looked at the clock. I was hoping to see I had a few more hours left to sleep but as I looked at the clock I couldn’t read it. I could see it, but I couldn’t tell what it was saying. I looked at it two or three different times and I couldn’t read the clock. And then I realized what I was doing. I was reading the clock like I had been reading Hebrew, and I was reading the clock from right to left and it didn’t make any sense.

Well you can’t read a clock that way, but you read providence that way. That’s the way one of the Puritans says that, “The way you read providence is like Hebrew. You read it backwards.” And how many times in our own lives do we get a little bit of perspective on what we’ve been going through and we can look back and we can see the way God was using the events and the people in our lives to bring about our good and to bring about His glory. And we can say, because of what Christ has done for us, we can say with a certainty it’s a guarantee that what God has in store for us in our future is even better than what He has done for us now. The best is yet to come. The greater blessing is still to come. That’s hope. We can look at this list of names and see what God is doing to bring about His plans and have hope. Hope because of God’s providence. Hope for the future because God, right now, is working out His plans for our good, for our blessing, into the future. So there’s the past and there’s the future.

The Present

What about right now? What does this genealogy say to us about right now? Well, the most important word in this list of names is not a name. It’s not a name but it’s a title. It’s the word, “Christ.” And that one word, “Christ,” is an attention getter. It’s groundbreaking. It’s life-altering. It’s faith-defining. “Christ” means “Messiah.” It means, “Anointed One.” This is the long-awaited Savior and Redeemer of God’s people. And in this most Jewish passage, this list of one Jewish name after another, what this announces to us in saying that Jesus is the Christ is bold and it is shocking. That Jesus is the Christ, that He is the one who had been promised in the Old Testament; that He is the one who brings about the kingdom of God. That He is the one who brings forgiveness and life and the blessing of God forever and ever.

And that’s at least part of the reason why this genealogy is broken down into these fourteen generation segments. It doesn’t include every generation. There is some rounding and there is some simplifying that’s happened to get to those fourteen different generations from one period to the next. But one thing it is doing is it’s presenting to us the full picture of the Jewish people beginning in Abraham and ending in Jesus. And what we can say is Jesus is the end of this genealogy in the same way we would say that man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. Jesus is the purpose of this whole family history. He is the climax and the aim of this whole thing. He is the Christ and He is the hope and the salvation for the Jewish people.

But now think about the way Matthew ends his gospel. In the beginning we have this Jewish genealogy and yet how does the gospel of Matthew end? Matthew chapter 28 is Jesus’ last words to His disciples. It’s the Great Commission. He says, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of the Jewish nation”? No. “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations.” And so what begins with an especially Jewish focus in Matthew chapter 1, ends with a view towards the whole world. And actually it’s already there in Matthew chapter 1 if we look again, because even those women who are inserted in there, there are so many Gentile names. Matthew is presenting here at the very beginning and at the end that this is the mystery of the kingdom. The mystery of the kingdom is that God’s salvation is for Jew and Gentile, that God’s blessing is for Jew and Gentile. “I am not ashamed of the Gospel for it is the power of God for salvation for all who believe, for the Jew first and also for the Gentile.”

And what this gospel is presenting to us by presenting Jesus as the Christ is that everyone, everyone must come to terms with who He is. Everyone must reckon with Jesus. We either bow the knee before Him in faith and devotion or we turn away altogether in unbelief, but there’s no middle ground. There’s nothing in between. There’s no wavering between the two. Jesus is the Christ and He demands our allegiance today. He demands our allegiance right now. It’s not something we can put off to the side or delay any longer. The fact that Jesus is the Christ, that should be as monumentally altering to our own lives as it is to this genealogy that we find in Matthew chapter 1.

And we’ve been through a year – we’ve talked about it many times – a year unlike anything that many of us have ever experienced. We’ve become familiar with using words like “uncertain” and “flexible” and “holding our plans loosely.” But aren’t those the things we should always be doing? Isn’t that the way we should always be living? We never know what tomorrow brings and our plans and our lives are fragile and they easily change. But Christ, Christ is our solid ground. He is the same yesterday, today and forever. And when we don’t know what tomorrow brings, when we are disappointed by what has happened in our past, Jesus is still the Christ and Jesus commands our today, He commands our present, to live like Him and to live for Him.

And that points us to another mystery of the kingdom. Jesus brings the kingdom not by power and strength and resources and in any kind of impressive way, but Jesus brings the kingdom – how? By suffering and by humiliation and by death. And He accomplishes His kingdom purpose through death and through resurrection. What does that say to us as we live for Christ today? It really says something to us about humility. Don’t you find in a year in which sometimes so many things have been pared back to the basics, to get back to the basics, don’t you find that oftentimes when our life needs to get back to the basics what we need to get back to is humility and to live a life of humility as Christ lived in humility? So often we think, we think that resources and connections can allow us to do our own thing and to get our own way, when really we should be thinking, “What are we doing for Christ?” and “How are we living His way?” And sometimes with even a scaled back ministry at the church we may be tempted to think, “There’s nothing at the church for me,” when really we should be thinking, “There’s always something for me to do for Christ.”

Christ is calling us today to live for Him and to seek ways in which we can minister to others in His name and maybe even in new ways. But we all have something. We always have something that we can do for Christ as we live for His honor and glory because He is the Christ, He is the Messiah, He is the King, He is our Lord and our Savior. Incarnation. Providence. The kingdom of God. Don’t miss the mystery of Christmas.

About 200 years ago, Thomas Jefferson completed, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. It’s commonly known as, The Jefferson Bible. What Jefferson did was with an actual razor and with his own Bible, he cut and pasted parts of the Bible and he took out anything that was miraculous. And what he compiled from the gospels were Jesus’ teachings or what he said was, Jesus’ “code of morals.” There was nothing about healing, nothing about signs, nothing about resurrection. It ends with Jesus securely in the tomb, and that’s it. One writer was reviewing a recent book on the history of that Jefferson Bible and he says that the Jefferson Bible, “it’s flat.” He says, “It rumbles along at ground level on square wheels.” It has a hard time going anywhere. And the writer says this. He says, “Mystery, wonder – they are of the essence. Like the yeast that leavens the bread, like the treasure in the field, take the razor to that and you’re in trouble.”

Don’t take the razor to the wonder and the mystery of Christmas, because without it we miss the glory of the Gospel and we miss what Jesus is doing in our lives right now through Jesus Christ. See, this ordinary list of names, what it shows to us is that Jesus redeems our past, He blesses our future, and He commands our present.

Let’s pray.

Father, we thank You for the mysteries of the Gospel which we are confronted with as we read Your Word. We bow before You and confess that there is much we don’t understand. And yet we bow before You in faith and ask that You would lead us and guide us by Your Word, that we would trust more and more in Christ and see His glory, His wonder, His splendor, His majesty; that He is worthy where we are not. He is worthy. Father, if any are here tonight that have not bowed the knee to Christ, I pray that You would bring them to You, that they would see the glory of Jesus, their need for Him, and that You would bless with salvation. And we pray all of this in Jesus’ name, amen.

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