If you were hoping to write a bestselling book, or preparing a script for a blockbuster movie, I doubt you would begin with the words Matthew uses in our reading today! The start of Matthew’s Gospel is very strange – its just a long list of names, a detailed genealogy - an ‘anthology of ancestors’ stretching back hundreds of years. It’s not how Dan Brown, Robert Harris or JK Rowling would begin a new novel today!
But Matthew wasn’t mad when he wrote. Quite the opposite – he was inspired and guided by God. So why does he give us this rather fulsome family tree right at the start of his Gospel? What is Matthew trying to tell us about Jesus with this long list? What’s the reason he wrote what he did? Well, I think he is trying to teach us the following truths. I think Matthew wants us to be convinced of three things:
- Firstly, he wants us to be confident that Christmas is history, not simply a story.
- Secondly, he wants us to be convinced that God keeps his promises.
- And thirdly, he wants to show us that anyone can enter Christ’s family.
1. Christmas is history, not simply a story!
This week the latest instalment in the Star Wars saga was released. With much fanfare and media hype, Star Wars episode 8 “The Last Jedi” has hit the big screen. I look forward to watching it myself! Any Star Wars fan will be able to tell you the famous words that appear on screen at the start of every film. They say: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”. But those are rather imprecise and inexact words, aren’t they? They are a big clue that what you’re about to watch is not fact, but fiction. It’s the same with fairy stories for children, isn’t it? They all begin by saying “Once upon a time…” Historical dates and details are noticeably absent!
But the birth of Jesus is totally different. The descriptions of the first Christmas in Matthew and Luke’s Gospels are full of detail – of times and places, names and locations. Both Matthew and Luke’s Gospels go to great lengths to prove to us that Jesus was a real baby, born in a real place, at a real time, in the real world. To prove to us that Christmas is history, not simply a story.
Luke, for example, assures us that he has compiled his account of the first Christmas from eyewitness testimony. Luke’s attention to detail means he’s able to tell us that Herod was on the throne of Judea, that Augustus Caesar was Roman Emperor, and that a man called Quirinius was governor of Syria. And when it comes to Matthew’s Gospel, the genealogy in our passage today establishes Jesus’ Jewish pedigree and his historical credentials. From old father Abraham at the start to his mother Mary at the end, Jesus’ human ancestry is traced out for all to see.
So while Matthew’s list of Jesus’ forefathers and ancient ancestors might look unnecessary or even rather boring, it is actually making a powerful point. It is telling us that Christmas is history, not a made-up story. The birth of Christ is something to be taken seriously - not simply dismissed as make-believe. So celebrate Christmas with real conviction, because its fact and not fiction!
2. God keeps his promises!
Most successful sports teams have their big names – their key players whose names are the first to be put on the team sheet, the names which strike fear into the hearts of their opponents, the star names their supporters pay good money to see. Think of Ronaldo for Real Madrid, Harry Kane at Tottenham, Wayne Rooney at Everton and so on and so forth.
Two star names certainly stand out in our passage today – Abraham and David. Matthew draws our attention to them at the start and end of our reading, doesn’t he? In verse 1 he describes Jesus as “the Son of David and the son of Abraham”, and then in verse 17 he says: “there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Christ.”
If you know your Old Testament, you will know that Abraham and David were great men, well worthy of recognition:
- Abraham is described in Genesis as the origin of the nation of Israel, the first man to be saved by faith - the father with such faith in God that he was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac when told to do so.
- And David was the greatest king of ancient Israel. He united the nation, conquered its enemies - and also found time to compose some of the most beautiful psalms.
But I believe the reason why Matthew specifically mentions these men in his genealogy, is that they were two men to whom God had made great promises. Two men given promises by God that were fulfilled by the birth of Jesus – two promises kept by the coming of Christ, hundreds of years after they were first made.
God’s big promise to Abraham is found in Genesis chapter 12. He promised Abraham that one day all nations will be blessed through him. God said that one day his favour, forgiveness and friendship would be extended to every nation through a descendant of Abraham - through a Jew. But until the coming of Christ that promise remained unfulfilled. For over a thousand years none of Abraham’s offspring brought blessing to every nation on earth. Indeed, before Jesus was born foreign powers had been oppressing the Jews, rather than being blessed by them!
As Matthew mentions three times in today’s passage, the Jewish people had experienced the great trauma of exile in Babylon. Everything they loved had been lost – their king, their temple, their land and their property. Even after they were allowed home from Babylon, they faced subjugation by the Persians and Greeks, followed by occupation under the Roman Empire.
It was only with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus-the-Jew that God’s blessing became available to every foreigner who put their faith in him. We see in the book of Acts, for example, the explosion of the Church as non-Jewish Gentiles from across Asia and Europe came to faith in the Risen Jesus. This global growth of the church - this worldwide blessing through Christ - continues in every country and every continent to this very day. Jesus, son of Abraham, offers God’s grace to every nation.
God’s big promise to David, meanwhile, comes in 2 Samuel chapter 7. He promises king David that one of his descendants will sit on his throne for ever. One day, says God, a Son of David will be born who will rule with wisdom and justice forever. A righteous ruler will come from David’s family tree - a Messiah with God-given authority to rule forever.
Before Jesus was born the chances of David’s promise being fulfilled looked very slim. Ever since the exile to Babylon, Israel had been without a Davidic king. No descendent of David ruled over Israel. It was Caesar who seemed to have most power in Palestine. But Israel’s patience paid off. Because if we had time to read Matthew’s Gospel in full this morning, we would see how Jesus perfectly fulfilled God’s promise to David in every detail. Not only did Jesus have human Davidic ancestry, he possessed all the power and authority of God as well. As we read the Gospels we see Jesus’s total authority over death, disease and evil, as well as over the heart and mind of every human he encountered. And having risen from the dead, Jesus now reigns at his Father’s side forever, just as David was told he would. Christ’s kingdom is now twenty centuries old, and countless million in number.
So Matthew’s genealogy helps us to trust that God keeps his promises. If we are tempted to think that God has forgotten us or failed to deliver, we need to think back to the experience of Abraham and David. God promises to them were kept, and all his promises to Christians in the New Testament will be kept as well. Promises of forgiveness, grace and eternal life – promises we can all claim personally by putting our faith Christ.
Like Abraham and David we have to wait for them to be fulfilled, and sometimes the outlook appears bleak - but it will be worth the wait! God keeps his promises.
3. Anyone can enter Christ’s family by faith!
Have you ever watched the programme “Who do you think you are?”. It’s the TV series where famous celebrities are helped to trace their family tree. They often become quite emotional as they discover the heroes and villains among their ancestors.
As we trace at Jesus Christ’s family tree in Matthew 1 today, its fair to say it’s a mixed bunch! It contains men and women, saints and sinners, Jews and Gentiles. For example:
- As well as men like Joseph, it includes women such as Ruth and Tamar.
- As well as ‘born and bred’ Jews like Abraham, it includes people like Rahab, who were born Gentiles but joined Israel during their lifetime.
- And as well as powerful, famous kings like David,Jesus’ family tree includes obscure, poor people – people like his mother Mary for example.
Its also important to note that Jesus’ family tree includes people who were far from perfect. Sinners who often fell short of God’s standards. Even King David committed adultery, and Abraham also fathered an illegitimate child.
The great news is that the same principle applies today. Christ’s family remains as wonderfully diverse today as it was in the past. By God’s grace, anyone can enter Christ’s family through faith in him:
- whatever our gender, ethnicity or nationality, we can become part of Christ’s Church by believing in him.
- whatever our social status or qualifications, we can become citizens of heaven through faith in Jesus.
- And whatever sins we have committed in the past, we can become children of God through repentance and faith in Christ crucified.
The apostle Paul sums this all up perfectly in Galatians chapter 3, where he writes: “In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Because anyone can enter Christ’s family by faith we should share the Gospel with anyone and everyone. There is no one off limits, no one that Jesus would turn away if they come to him in repentance and faith. So don’t be reluctant to invite friends to church or our Alpha course. Even the most unlikely people can come to Christ. Even the most unexpected people can become part of Christ church – just take a look at his family tree!
Let me pray: Heavenly Father, thank you for Matthew’s long list in our reading today. Help us to have confidence that Christmas is history, not simply a story. Help us to have confidence that you keep all your promises. And help us to invite anyone and everyone to faith in your Son. In his name we pray. Amen.