Christmas is a time for family. When we were kids, each Christmas in my family home, my brother and I would get up insufferably early. We usually would have to be sent back to bed two or three times before we were finally allowed out of our rooms. And then we’d all go downstairs and have breakfast. We were not allowed to touch the presents under the tree, of course, until after we’d eaten. And so we'd cram breakfast down as quickly as we could, always with one eye on the gifts under the tree waiting for us, and then we'd get to start opening the presents and the living room would be engulfed in an avalanche of torn wrapping paper. And then at some point, my grandfather would pitch up at the front door with a big black bag over his shoulder, like our own private family Santa Claus, and then the mandatory, ghastly Christmas sweaters would be pulled on over our pajamas. All sorts of candy would be consumed well before lunchtime and toys would be busted from their boxes before our Christmas meal was ready. And lunch really is not the appropriate name for it; not at all adequate. It was a feast the like of which was never seen in our home but once a year. And then we'd all settle down, fat and happy – or fatter and happy! – to listen to the queen's annual broadcast to the nation before our uncle and cousin just from down the street would wander in later that day. And then the next day, which in Britain is called Boxing Day, the rest of the family would descend and the obligatory board games would ensue. Trivial Pursuit or Taboo would have us all laughing and talking at the same time and shouting over one another while my father would try to cheat while no one was looking! Those were golden days that will always live in my memory as the happiest in our family.
But of course, families are complicated things. Aren’t they? And sometimes the losses and the tensions and that branch of the family that no one ever talks about are not nearly so easy to bury beneath the veneer of Christmas sentiment, however hard we try. In fact, it’s often at Christmastime, when everyone says we’re supposed to be fully of joy, that our heartaches and our family feuds hurt the most. Isn’t that so? It turns out that no matter how much tinsel and gift wrapping we apply to it, for some of us at least, Christmastime has a habit of unmasking the inescapably complicated mess of our lives.
Tonight, I want to invite you to turn with me in your Bibles to the very beginning of the New Testament. You’ll find copies of the Bible in the pews in front of you. If you would go ahead and take one and turn with me to Matthew’s gospel, chapter 1. We’re going to look together at the first seventeen verses. You can find it on page 807 of our church Bibles; page 807. If you look at it with me very quickly before we read it together, you’ll notice immediately how horribly dull these verses are. It’s a fascinating way to begin the narrative of the life of Jesus Christ. Don’t you think? Matthew’s account does not start the way a Hollywood epic might. You know, some exciting episode. You know, a car chase and a few explosions perhaps to have us all on the edge of our seats. Look at verse 1 if you would. Matthew chapter 1 verse 1. Matthew begins, “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 sixteen verses follow and all we have is a list of names. It is the family tree of Jesus Christ. And while that may not excite much interest in us, it was enormously important for the first-century Jewish leaders for whom Matthew originally wrote his gospel. You see, for them, who your family was – what they were like, your family backstory – indicated something about you. Whose son you were, whose grandson, and great-grandson mattered as people were trying to decide what to make of you. And since that is the case, you might expect Matthew to provide a glowing genealogy for Jesus. Filled with famous names whose legacy Jesus is obviously the heir to.
But like most of our families at Christmastime, the truth is, Jesus’ family isn’t nearly so pretty. Mathew presents, as we’re going to see, a family tree for Jesus Christ, warts and all. You see, Matthew wants us to understand that Jesus came into the world not for the clean and the smart and the wise and the good. He didn’t come for the picture-perfect, Norman Rockwell postcard family. He came into a broken world to be God’s Rescuer for screwed up sinners like me and like you. And so in just a moment, we’re going to read these verses together. I want you to know that despite their less than thrilling details, the Bible says of them that they are nevertheless the very Word of God for us. It also says that we never will understand them properly unless He helps us. And so before we read them, I’m going to ask if you would pause for a moment with me as we pray and ask for the help of God to understand His Word.
Let’s pray together.
O Lord, Your Word is now before us and we ask You please to help us not only to understand but to see the truth about Jesus and be led by it to meet Him for ourselves and to find in Him the Rescuer we so desperately need. For we ask it in Jesus' name, amen.
Matthew chapter 1 at verse 1. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“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.”
Now if you’ll look at the passage we just read together, you’ll see immediately that it breaks into three chunks. Did you see that? According to verse 17, each chunk consisting of fourteen generations. Now that tells us right away that Matthew isn’t trying to give us a comprehensive list of all of Jesus’ ancestors. He’s being selective, which incidentally was not at all unusual in genealogies in those days. He’s being selective in order to make a point for us. And as I said a moment ago, what is really interesting about Matthew’s list is if you or I were being selective with our family trees, we probably would not include crazy Uncle Louis or mad, ax-murdering Aunt Maude. Would we? We would cut them out, along with anyone else that reflected badly on our good names. But Matthew’s list – by the way, I’m really sorry if you have an Aunt Maude! I'm sure she's not a crazy, ax-murderer, but there we are! Matthew's list is a real mixed bag. Isn't it? A mixed bag of the great and the good, along with the lowest and the least.
And as we look at it together, I want to highlight for you three lessons I think Matthew wants for us to learn about Jesus and the meaning of Christmas. First of all, we are going to see that the baby who was born of the virgin in Bethlehem is the child both of promises and princes. He is the child of promises and princes. Then secondly, we’ll notice He’s also the child of prostitutes and pagans. The child of promises and princes is also the child of prostitutes and pagans. And finally, we’ll see that He is the child of preservation and providence.
Child of Promises and Princes
Okay, so first of all, Jesus is the child of promises and princes. In verse 2, Matthew connects Jesus to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – the patriarchs of Israel. God had made a covenant with them and promised them that in the child of Abraham blessing would come to the whole world. In Abraham's seed, all the nations of the earth would be blessed. That was the promise. And notice Matthew tells us that Jesus traces His descent from Abraham through the line of Jacob's son, Judah, so that by the time we arrive at verse 6, we discover that among Jesus' direct ancestors is David, the king! And David, verse 7, is the father of Solomon, the king. So Jesus, you see, is not just the heir of the covenant promise given to Abraham. He's also the descendant of King David to whom God made, also to whom God made a covenant promise – 2 Samuel chapter 7. In passages like Isaiah chapter 9, we read that God declares one of David's sons would sit upon his throne and establish his kingdom forever. And that, Matthew wants us to understand, that is who Jesus is. God's appointed heir to the covenant promise who would bring the blessings offered to the whole world, promised to the whole world, and originally given to Abraham. He's great David's greater Son who would reign in righteousness and of whose kingdom there shall be no end.
Now if you were Jewish, and most of Matthew’s first readers probably were, this would have been a remarkable claim. You see what Matthew’s telling them? In the baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger, their long-awaited Messiah has finally arrived. He was the son of Abraham and the son of the royal tribe of Judah, the direct heir of David, Israel’s greatest king. Which of course makes Jesus the ultimate insider, doesn’t it? From a Jewish perspective, this part of His pedigree at least is impeccable. Jesus is the child of promises and princes.
Child of Prostitutes and Pagans
But then notice, on the other hand, that he is equally, Matthew is equally clear that Jesus is the child of prostitutes and pagans. In verse 3 he mentions the pagan woman, Tamar, and in verse 5, Rahab, who is both a pagan and a prostitute. And her descendant, Boaz, he marries a Moabite girl, not an Israelite but a Moabite girl, Ruth. And then in verse 6, we read that David was the father of Solomon, "by the wife of Uriah." Now that's interesting because Matthew omits the name of Uriah's wife, Bathsheba. Now, why does he do that? Could it be because Uriah and Bathsheba were Hittites, not Jews; they are pagans. No, because Tamar and Rahab and Ruth were pagans as well. Matthew doesn't omit her name because he's embarrassed about her ethnicity or her religion. Well, perhaps it's because she was an adulteress then. But Rahab was a prostitute, so clearly he doesn’t omit her name because of her moral failure. Most likely, Matthew omits her name in order to highlight David’s shame rather than hers. David was the father of Solomon, “by the wife of Uriah.” Matthew does not spare even great David’s blushes. Does he? He is an adulterer who slept with another man’s wife and then had Uriah killed.
And then keep reading. The rogue’s gallery goes on. Of the line of kings descended from David, many of them were remarkable for their wickedness. Among the worst was Manasseh, mentioned in verse 10. If you want to read his story you can turn to 2 King 21 later on. In verse 9 of that chapter, we’re told, “that Manasseh lead his people astray to do more evil than the nations had done whom the Lord destroyed before the people of Israel.” And in verse 16, we’re told that Manasseh “filled Jerusalem with innocent blood.” He was a monster. And so right alongside the portrait of Jesus as the child of promises and princes, we also need to see this portrait of the same Jesus who is the son of prostitutes and pagans. Some of them, of course, become wonderful trophies of grace whose stories are remarkable tales of redemption and rescue, a bit like the two stories we heard earlier from Dominique and Chase of how God breaks into the midst of our sin and brokenness and begins to rescue us by His grace. Rahab and Ruth are examples of precisely that.
He Came for Sinners
But some of them are also tales of tragic decline from faithfulness to debauchery and sin like David’s affair with Bathsheba and his murder of Uriah or Manasseh’s tale of murder and idolatry. And so now, do you see, the second portrait that Matthew paints of Jesus shows Him to us as the ultimate outsider. His family has plenty of black sheep. Doesn’t it? If the first portrait tells us about Jesus the promised Messiah in whom the nations would be blessed, God’s anointed King who would reign on the throne of His father, David, the second portrait tells us what kind of King and Messiah He will be. And it turns out that Jesus came for the unclean and the unwelcome, for the wicked and the lost. He didn’t come to crown the model successes and the social progress of the cultural elites – the great and the good. No, He came to rescue Manassehs and Rabahs. He came for pagans and prostitutes. “I have not come,” He said, “to call the righteous, but sinners.”
What is Christmas really about? It’s actually not a bright, clean Disney story of a beautiful little family and their adorable baby. It is, rather, the account of the divine rescue mission for which Jesus was born; a mission, Matthew’s gospel will go on to explain, that would require His death in order to accomplish. The heart of the Christmas message is that we are, all of us, messed up, broken down, guilty people. We belong in this rogue’s gallery, truth be told. And Matthew says it is precisely for messed up, broken down, guilty people that Jesus was born, and for them, that He died. Although He was the true child of Abraham and the great heir of David’s throne, He was, remember, rejected and condemned and outcast; not because He had done anything wrong, but because we have. He embraced the condemnation and the rejection I deserve, you deserve, at the cross, and He gave Himself that we might be forgiven. And that is the true wonder of the Christmas story. The babe of Bethlehem is the child of promises and princes and He’s the child of prostitutes and pagans. Which means, that He is a Savior for every single one of us who need Him.
Child of Providence and Preservation
Then finally, notice that the baby of Bethlehem is the child of providence and preservation. You may have noticed that verses 2 to 6 take us from Abraham to King David. Then verses 7 to 11 take us from David to the time when enemy invasion resulted in the deportation of the people to Babylon. And at that point, it really looked to all the world as though the line of David had been snuffed out. Just think about it. War overwhelms them, exile to Babylon ships them far away from their native land. They are immersed in a pagan culture. They are subject now to pagan laws. And yet, Matthew's story is that one little family is preserved in the marvelous providence of God. Like a fragile thread that does not break despite all the strain that is placed upon it. This one little family is guided and protected. Eventually, they come back from Babylonian captivity under the leadership of their ancestor, Zerubbabel. They resettled in the land of Judah and then they virtually disappear from political and cultural prominence. Mary and Joseph belong to the last remnants of the Davidic line now reduced to obscurity. By the time Jesus was born, there was really nothing remarkable about them, nothing particularly noteworthy. Certainly, they have a fascinating family tree, but they do not have a single heirloom from the glory days to show for it.
And yet if you’ll look down at verse 16, it is to this average little family that one is born who is called “the Christ.” You see that phrase? Christ – that’s not a name; that’s a title. It’s the Greek equivalent of Messiah. And now here’s the point. I wonder if you can see it. When the tidal waves of war swept over this little family, still they persevered, were preserved in the providence of God. When it looked as though they might disappear, submerged into the melting pot of exile, still they were kept and sustained. Till at last, the night arrived when the virgin was delivered of her child and she wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger because there was no room for Him at the inn. That night, hidden away in the obscurity of a Bethlehem stable, God kept His promises. That night, He fulfilled His ancient words.
The Jesus whose birth we are celebrating was born as a child of promises, born as heir of princes, born to rescue not the great and the good but the sinner and the guilty. And when you come to trust Him, you really can be sure He will deliver on His promises, that He really will forgive you and cleanse you and rescue you because His own story, His family’s story, is the great proof that when God makes a promise He always, always fulfills it. He is the child of providence and preservation. His own family tree, His own birth is the demonstration that God will always keep His Word, always faithful to fulfill it. And so you can take Him at His Word when He offers you rescue. If you will but trust Him, He will deliver. As Paul puts it in 1 Thessalonians 1:10, he says, “Jesus is God’s Son from heaven who rescues us from the wrath to come.” And when you hear that promise, you really can take Him at His Word. Jesus is God’s Rescuer come for insiders and outsiders alike – for those with all the pedigree and the prestige and those for whom their background is a source of shame; whose present may be a mess. Your background, your family, your past, your present mistakes for that matter, your guilt, your unworthiness – none of that is any impediment to the promise of God in the Gospel. Jesus really can rescue you. He really can.
A New Beginning
And just before we close, would you look again at the curious detail we noticed at the beginning in verse 17. Matthew points out that this carefully selected genealogy results precisely in three blocks of fourteen generations each. Now you may know that numbers, in Jewish literature, often had a symbolic meaning. And the number “seven” in particular was used for God and His work. And so here are six generations of seven, with Jesus now standing at the head of a seventh generation. A generation of spiritual children – born of God through faith in Him. You see, with the coming of Jesus, God was doing something new. He was making a new beginning. And that is what He is offering to you tonight. You may not realize it, but you need rescuing. And that is what He offers. The Bible says you need rescuing. So do I. We are sinners and Jesus has the rescue that we need. If you’ll put your trust in Him, He will come into your life and He will make you new. He will begin the lifelong rescue mission for which He was sent. I wonder if you would do that tonight. Put your trust in Jesus Christ and begin to discover that God keeps His promises, rescuing you from sin’s guilt and sin’s power, and begin the amazing work of making you new.
Jesus is the child of promises and princes. He’s the child of prostitutes and pagans. He’s the child of preservation and providence. He’s exactly the Savior we need. I wonder if you would turn to trust in Him. Let’s pray together.
Lord, we thank You for Jesus who is exactly the Savior we need – a perfect Rescuer for the great and the good and for the lowest and the least. Help us, help all of us to see how badly we need Him tonight. Thank You for the stories of rescue that we’ve heard; for the reminder that Jesus is the one who rescues us from the wrath to come. Please, will you help us to bend our knee to King Jesus, to come and put our trust in Him, to turn from our self-reliance and our pride, to cry out to Him that we are lost and broken and guilty and we need Him to rescue us. And as we do that, would You come to us, break in upon us, and make us new. For Jesus’ sake we pray, amen.
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