In this time before Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve we are inundated with “Best of” lists”. The best ad of 2018 – according to Business Insider it’s the Nike “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything” ad; best movie of 2018 – according to Rotten Tomatoes, it’s Paddington 2, according to Esquire it’s a horror-fest called Mandy; most important news story of 2018 – the Parkland School shooting (AP); best Canadian books of 2018 includes Washington Black by Colwood’s own Esi Edugyen…and so on. At first the genealogy Matthew gives to Jesus looks a bit like a “Best of” list too – the best of the Bible’s leading lights traced through Joseph to Mary and her son Jesus. Significantly, the word used for genealogy here is “genesis” – so Matthew is tying Jesus to the act of God in creating all of life, as well as to the ancestral stories of his people. We have Abraham, the first patriarch, and his descendants; we have King David, the Biblical equivalent of King Arthur, and his family; then we have the more obscure ancestors of Joseph, step-father to Jesus.
Unlike many of the “Best of” lists, we have some shady characters as well. Even Biblical heroes have their shadow side. Abraham, as we know, banished his own son and concubine to a life in the desert; his grandson Jacob had to run away from home after cheating his brother and lying to his father; we know Jacob’s sons took sibling rivalry to the highest (or lowest) level when they tried to kill their brother Joseph and then sold him into slavery instead. Many of those patriarchs and kings were murderers, liars, rapists, or abusers. There are skeletons in Jesus’ family closet.
“Four [famous or] infamous women are [singled out and] listed in Jesus’s genealogy of forty-six names (Matthew 1:1–17). Tamar was widowed twice, then became pregnant by her father-in-law Judah who mistook her for a temple prostitute. The offspring of this incest were the twin boys Perez and Zerah. Perez is a relative of Jesus (see Ruth 4:18–21). Rahab was a foreigner and a [prostitute] who by her lies protected the Hebrew spies. She’s mentioned only three times in the New Testament: as a hero of faith (Hebrews 11:31), as an exemplar of good works (James 2:25), and as the great-great-grandmother of King David (Matthew 1:5). Ruth was a foreigner and widow who married the wealthy Boaz, King David’s great-grandfather, [after meeting him at night in a grain field under questionable circumstances]. Bathsheba, the subject of [King] David’s adulterous passion and murderous cover-up, was the mother of King Solomon. These women [too] were part of Jesus’s family of origin.” (https://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20070611JJ.shtml)
And then there were his parents. I imagine for the whole of Jesus’ life the shadow of his irregular conception hovered over him. Small-town neighbours don’t forget these things. They knew Mary was pregnant before she and Joseph got married, and they knew Joseph hadn’t originally claimed the child as his. When Jesus got to be controversial I’m betting that they talked, and talked, and the gossip spread around the countryside just as fast as his message of God’s love and healing. In fact in the earliest Gospel, Mark, he is referred to not as “Jesus son of Joseph” as would be normal at the time, but as “Jesus Son of Mary”. (Interestingly, that’s also what the Quran calls him. Muslims have a deep reverence for Mary.)
Why does any of this matter? For Matthew, this “genesis” is a timeline for God’s redemptive action in the world – and look who is there! All the shady and glorious characters you can imagine. That gives us hope, doesn’t it? I’m constantly reminded when reading Scripture that the people are as human as they can get, with all the brokenness and beauty of humanity on display to see. Sometimes we don’t like that very much – we want our Bible Best to be shiny-clean and saintly, and find it hard to deal with them as they are. Yet how shiny-clean are we, when it comes down to it? I’d say on the whole this is a group of good, decent people here in the church, Sunday by Sunday and through the week. That doesn’t mean we don’t have shadows in our lives and skeletons in our closets, just like Jesus’ ancestors. We bring all of that with us to church, and we lay it at God’s feet and say, “Here God! You managed to do something with all those messed-up people in the Bible. Can you do something with me?”
We all have our shadows, and we are profoundly affected by the patterns, both positive and negative, in the families that have produced us. Patterns of addiction or overwork, patterns of perfectionism or dependence, patterns of distant bonds or isolation, patterns of deep affection and open communication, patterns of honesty and ethical dealings – all these things can shape us for better or for worse. We are also shaped by the values of our culture: the drive to succeed alone or together, altruism or one-upmanship, individual focus or communal focus, greed or generosity, protectionism or openness – all of these things and more have an impact on us. We need God’s help to leave the negative influences behind and be shaped by the values Jesus shared. He was as human as you or I; he had all the things bedevilling us that we have and more, because evil recognizes opposition and does its best to subvert it. Yet somehow the divine in him allowed the human to resist evil and to live a life of radical inclusion and love. And Scripture is clear – God can do that in us, and more!
What better time than the New Year to shake of the skeletons and step out of the shadows into the light? Soon we will celebrate the season of Epiphany, the celebration of Light transforming the mist and murk of our world. When we move into our prayer time a little later in the service, I’m going to invite us to begin with several minutes of silence. If there is anything hampering your walk with Jesus, any patterns or influences or choices or deeds that are weighing you down and holding you back, I’m going to invite you to begin to lay them down at Jesus’ feet in that silent prayer time, and continue to do so into the coming year. Sometimes a symbolic act helps: writing thoughts down on paper and then shredding or burning it; holding a rock in your hand while naming what you want to see changed and then throwing that rock into the ocean; planting a seed to grow into something new and beautiful by the spring; writing your shadows and skeletons down on your hands in washable ink and then washing them away – a symbolic baptism for the redemption of your life.
As followers of Jesus we are invited into HIS life – a life so profoundly shaped by the divine that we are able to see God in him. To be born into a new life with Jesus, to be transformed by the Spirit is to embrace the Holy in us and allow it to grow from a tiny spark into a bright and steady light. We are both children of our humanity and children of God, and we, like Jesus, can live as transformed humans. God can do that in us. Give thanks to God for the powerful and life-changing love that has come to us in Jesus, and be ready – it’s time to start anew. Amen.