Following on from Colin Adams’ excellent article on what to preach at Christmas, let me suggest a further passage of Scripture, and some ideas on how to preach it. “The Genealogy of Jesus” with which Matthew begins his gospel (Matthew 1:1-17) is rarely used at Christmas. “What’s the point of a list of names?” the uninitiated might ask. And “How can I pronounce all those Hebrew names?” (the only time my reading of Scripture was followed by spontaneous applause was after reading through Luke’s genealogy!)
Of course Matthew, writing his Gospel for a Jewish audience, gives us his reason for beginning with the genealogy in his opening statement: to demonstrate the pedigree of Jesus Christ: “the son of David” (in the royal line), “the son of Abraham” (in the patriarchal line). And the genealogy at least demonstrates that Jesus is a real human person with named antecedents – not some mythical figure. There is a story of a team with Wycliffe Bible Translators who completed the Gospel of Luke for the first time in a language – except for the genealogy. There was minimal interest in the story from the people group in question until the missionaries finally decided (believing that “all Scripture is God’s breathed”) to translate the genealogy – a fairly simple matter of adapting the names using the sound-system of the language. The response when it was read out was astounding and the key to the reception of the gospel in that community. In a group that prized their ancestors (and could name them many generations back) they realised that this Jesus Christ was a real person – unlike the mythological figures who featured in their own religion.
But there is even more in Matthew’s genealogy. Kenneth Bailey, whose book “Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes – Cultural Studies in the Gospels” (SPCK, 2008) is a must for every preacher (especially at Christmas), points out that Matthew, written for Jews, includes four women in his genealogy and asks why:
Matthew 1 contains a genealogy of Jesus that few bother to read. But a second glance reveals some meaningful surprises. Amazingly, along with the men, Matthew includes the names of four women. Middle Eastern genealogies are expected to be lists of men. Sirach began his list by saying, “Let us now praise famous men’ (Sirach 44-50) and Luke 3:23-38 is a list of seventy-six men without the inclusion of a single female. Along with a list of forty men, why does Matthew include four women?
And not just any old women! The four listed are all of dubious reputation or background:
- Tamar (verse 3) See Genesis 38:1-30 – pretended to be a prostitute to entice her father-in-law and got pregnant and was almost killed by him!
- Rahab (verse 5) See Joshua 2, 6:24-25 – a Canaanite prostitute
- Ruth (verse 4) See the Book of Ruth – a member of the Moabite nation, excluded from worship in Israel.
- Bathsheba (verse 6) See 2 Samuel 11:1 – 12:25 – and Matthew won’t even write her name but refers to her as “the wife of Uriah” (a Hittite!)
Yet Matthew deliberately includes them in his genealogy. Why? Bailey answers his question:
“With such a list, Matthew gives us a clue about the kinds of people that the Messiah came to save. He was to be a Saviour for women and men who were both saints and sinners, Jews and Gentiles. This genealogy is truly comprehensive. Many can look at the stories of these women and men and find some reflection of themselves.”
Matthew’s Gospel continues…
Little wonder then that Matthew’s Christmas story features foreigners who come to worship Jesus (Matthew 2:1-12) and concludes with the Great Commission given by Jesus to his followers to “go and make disciples of all nations (people-groups)” (Matthew 28:18-20)
Any preacher should be able to work out the contemporary relevance of this genealogy. One of the most popular shows on British television with 8 million viewers is “Who do you think you are?” in which well-known people trace their ancestry – with many surprising discoveries.
Some people find out that they have royal blood – others that their great-great-great-grandfather was transported to Australia for stealing a sheep! And many are moved to tears – as was even Jeremy Paxman, the BBC’s “rottwelier” interviewer when he learned of the tragic background of one of his forebears. Yet Matthew is not embarrassed to include people of dubious reputation people in the genealogy of Jesus – indeed he deliberately (under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) includes them. Who do you think he (Jesus) is? Matthew tells you, beginning with the ancestry of Jesus Christ.
“Who do you think you are?”
Here is Christmas gospel/good news for everyone: no matter what your pedigree or background, no matter who you think you are. You can be included in God’s family through faith in Jesus. Here are some useful connecting Scriptures:
You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:26-29)
Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers. (Hebrews 2:11)
He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. (John 1:11-13) –
In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons, through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will – to the praise of his glorious grace which he has freely given us in the One he loves. (Ephesians 1:4-5)
Surprise your congregation (who are expecting wise men after shepherds last year!). More importantly, connect with the visitors who only attend church at Christmas and offer the gospel of hope to rootless people who are “without hope and without God in the world”.
For further ideas, see the videoed seminar “Preaching Christ at Christmas” on http://2tim4.org/index.php/2009/11/preaching-christ-at-christmas/ and contact me if you would like any of the PowerPoint presentations at firstname.lastname@example.org