Category Archives: Advent

Messy Genealogy

family-treeSo much of life is colored by how we tell the story. Which bits get highlighted and which details get left out determine how we interpret the events being narrated. Each historian has the opportunity (and the power) to weave the themes they want their audience to be influenced by into their telling of the story.

So when Matthew’s gospel opens with a genealogy that highlights the roles of five women in the bringing of the Messiah, we can’t help but sit up and take notice. What to a modern reader might seem like yet another male-dominated list of names tracing the royal lineage of Jesus would have stood out to a first-century reader as a radical departure from Jewish tradition.

1 This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham: 2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3 Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar, Perez the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Ram, 4 Ram the father of Amminadab, Amminadab the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon, 5 Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse, 6 and Jesse the father of King David. David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife…
Matthew 1:1-6

In this ancient patriarchal society, genealogical records only mentioned fathers’ names. To be fair, they didn’t necessarily even mention all of the men in the family line, often skipping over a few generations in an attempt to clean up and condense rather complicated family records. At first glance Matthew’s opening genealogy fits this pattern, presenting a tidied-up version of Jesus’ lineage such that it fits into three neat historical categories, each fourteen generations long.

But while Matthew opens his account with a traditional accounting for who Jesus was based on his lineage, he radically diverts from the normal way of doing it by including several of the significant women through whose wombs the seed was passed. Their names interrupt the tidy cadence of the genealogy like signposts popping up in a perfect line of garden vegetables. They simply can’t be missed.

This can be no accident. Far from tossing a bone to the ladies so they can feel somewhat included, Matthew is throwing the spotlight on these unusual women.
And unusual is too gentle a word to describe them. The first three were Gentiles and four out of five are recorded in the Old Testament as engaging in sexually scandalous behavior–not exactly the sort of women to be proud of in describing the purity of one’s pedigree.

So why would the opening lines of a gospel emphasize these particular woman as integral to the identity of Jesus? Is it merely, as some have hypothesized, to show that God can use anyone, even the lowliest and dirtiest of people, to bring about His good purposes?

While that may be true of all of us, settling so quickly on such a conclusion severely shortchanges the significance of these great women of the faith. They aren’t included simply as passive participants in the line of Christ. They are there because of their heroic feats of faith, their unique contributions something that God (and Matthew) considered worthy of honorable mention.

Just as Abraham expressed his faith in God by sticking with Sarah to produce the promised seed, Tamar expressed her faith by sticking with her unfaithful father-in-law Judah, seducing him into fulfilling the promise that he should have kept through his youngest son. And because of her (albeit unorthodox) initiative, Judah commended her as more righteous than he.

By faith both the prostitute Rahab and the penniless immigrant Ruth (stigmatized not only as childless but also as a widow) recognized the superiority of Yahweh over their own gods, forsaking their national identity, their cultural heritage, and their own lives to join themselves to Him, even when that meant throwing themselves under the bus for His less-than-perfect people.

And what do we say of Bathsheba? Actually, it almost seems that credit is being given to her jilted husband (who, by the way, was a Gentile). Uriah’s loyal service-to-the-death for Yahweh and His anointed, especially in the face of his king’s double betrayal, earned him an indirect role (and an honorable mention) in the lineage of Christ.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.
Romans 12:1-2

Despite the way our tellings of Christ’s story tend to ignore and overlook these messy members of His family, Matthew’s gospel places them front and center. Each of these women represents not only God’s grace to the sexually impure and the social outcaste, they also represent the value God places on faith-filled, whole-bodied devotion. These are the examples He holds up to us of the kind of faith that pleases Him: women (and men) who offered their bodies to God as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing in His sight.

…and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah.
Matthew 1:16

So when we get to Mary’s offer of her body to God to use as He pleased, we see how it stood in a long line of similar women. Her readiness to offer up her reputation, her womanhood, and her very heart to His purposes earned her the title “most blessed of women” and the painful privilege of nurturing the Son of God. Hers was the example her Son would follow as He, too, submitted His body to God’s good but painful plan.

As Matthew’s opening genealogy so beautifully portrays, the heritage into which Jesus took birth was one of faith-filled, godly mothers. This telling of Jesus’ story confronts our andro-centric assumptions concerning who we identify as the key figures in redemptive history. It also challenges us as men and women to step up to the heritage of sacrificial faith that is ours as adopted members of Christ’s family.

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Comforting Eve

 

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“Virgin Mary Consoles Eve” By Sr. Grace Remington, OCSO Sisters of the Mississippi Abbey in Dubuque, Iowa.

Two women, old and new

One’s flesh tainted, the other’s faith true.

Lovely Eve, with face from God downcast

Clings to shame imposed by her past.

 

Glorious tresses fail to bring

O’er corrupted flesh full covering.

No passage of time can hide

The death of life she feels inside.

 

Far from the garden as she may flee

She can’t outrun shame’s misery.

Her labour miscarried, her fruit ill-born,

Love’s light lost leaves her soul forlorn.

 

Will serpent’s grip forever chase

All hope of freedom from her face?

In expectation and agony she sighs

As one by one, each offspring dies.

 

But from one daughter a Seed now springs,

An incorruptible life to end Eve’s suffering.

Perfect fruit Mary’s willing womb bears,

Proof to the world its Creator still cares.

 

Two women meet face to face.

Eve, dammed by law, encounters Mary, full of Grace.

“God is with us,” her feminine form cries.

“Through our seed the serpent crushed, and his lies.”

 

Take heart, mother, sister, daughter.

Lift up your heads, oh son, brother, father.

The King of Glory comes as gentle Healer

His reign to restore creation’s grandeur.

 

Eden shall return, only bigger and better;

Christ has come His earth to unfetter.

Sons brought to glory, daughters adorned as a bride

Reigning o’er heaven and earth by His side.

 

Two women, both mothers of our race,

Look in hope on their newborn baby’s face—

The fulfillment of God’s promise, the hope of life to come—

Leave behind disgrace as they celebrate the Son.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advent: Kissing the Peace Child

kiss the sonDespite how consumerist Christmas has become, there is one thing about it that the world gets surprisingly right. Hallmark specials and feel-good commercials repeat the story of reconciliation, of estranged friends and far-off family members being brought near through unexpected twists of fate. Cliché references to the true meaning of Christmas inevitably point to restored relationships and random acts of kindness.

What used to strike me as distracting perversions of the gospel message I have now come see as beautiful retellings. Meditating on the final Old Testament prophets through this advent season, I have felt the angst of post-exilic Israel. Finally restored to their land but still estranged from their God, they had to be wondering if they really wanted to Him to show up or not.

When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.”
Exodus 20:18-19

From their first real encounter with Him as a nation, God had been a terrifying enigma. He had thundered at them from the top of Sinai, causing them to quite literally quake in their boots. His commands had seemed rigid, His demands overwhelming. Out of fear they drew back, wanting relationship with the God who took care of them but feeling the distance between His holiness and their all-too-human selves.

Serve the LORD with fear and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
Psalm 2:11-12Exodus 20:18-19

Throughout their history as a nation, they had consistently failed to live up to His standards. And though He proved His long-suffering temperament and His merciful nature, He had also followed through with His promises to punish their persistent disobedience. Who knew the extent of His wrath better than these survivors of famine, war, deportation, and lengthy exile?

“…Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty. But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness…
Malachi 3:1-3

Perhaps a cold, distant relationship with their God was safer than an up-close, fiery-hot one. But the souls of the faithful longed for more. In response to their cries for His intervention, God promised the day of His return. But would it be a good day or a bad one? Would they survive His purifying fire or be consumed by it? The Old Testament closes with a mixed-bag of prophecy, anticipating the coming King with equal portions of hope and fear.

Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
Zechariah 9:9

Who could have known that the King they both desired and dreaded would come so gently? The clenched jaw they expected would come instead with soft, kissable cheeks. The unapproachable Judge would arrive wrapped in a blanket, irresistibly lovable and anything but intimidating. The lamb-like bleat of His newborn cry would beckon those both nearby and far away to come adore Him.

This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”

When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord…
Luke 2:12-14, 22

When God finally returned to His temple, He came as a peace offering. His flesh-and-blood presence brought laughter and rejoicing, not fear and trembling. Yes, His broken body and spilled-out blood would purify the sons of Levi, enabling a priestly nation of believers to offer up acceptable sacrifices to the Lord. But His tiny, cuddly presence was in itself an invitation to restored intimacy. Prophetess and priest held Him in their arms. Lowly locals and pagan kings made the trip to gaze on their God.

Though the world may not know why, the core message of its advertising campaign is dead accurate. Christmas is about receiving an unexpected gift, about estranged people being drawn into the warmth of long-lost relationship. Some of us may more keenly feel our estrangement than others.

Sing to the LORD, you saints of his; praise his holy name. For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime; weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.
Psalm 30:4-5

Whether like the wise men you have never known this King or like the shepherds you have fearfully co-existed with Him, Jesus is God’s gift to you. His tiny form alleviates your fears, beckoning you closer to the God you have wanted but dreaded.

Come home to your Father, whose love outlasts His anger.

Kiss the Son. Embrace peace.

Advent: Calling All Second-Stringers

man-in-mud

Some call it the “Imposter Syndrome.” My kids like to call it “being scrappers.” But when many of us peel back the thin veneer that covers our truest selves, we admit that we feel incompetent, inadequate, and in constant danger of being found out.

Every time I read Zechariah’s vision of Joshua the high priest caught in dirty robes, I think of my most common nightmare. Inevitably I am caught in some publicly humiliating situation, exposed for not having completed an assignment or not yet presentably dressed and scrambling for cover.

Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right side to accuse him.
Zechariah 3:1

In Joshua’s case, an accuser comes along to make matters worse. He was already plenty aware of his own disqualifying state: high priests can’t wear dirty clothes! They have to be holy and pure to serve in God’s presence. But the shame of someone else pointing out his disgraceful predicament to a majestic magistrate was unbearable.

Joshua, like us, was a second-stringer. By birth he was a priest, set aside for service to God. And by anointing he was a high priest, entrusted with the responsibility of representing his people to God and of purifying his people on behalf of God. But he lacked the resources to go with his lofty position. He was just getting back into the game after a devastating destruction and a lengthy exile. There was no temple to work in, no vessels with which to properly do the job, and even his professional uniform was unacceptably soiled.

“Listen, O high priest Joshua and your associates seated before you, who are men symbolic of things to come: I am going to bring my servant, the Branch. See, the stone I have set in front of Joshua! …and I will remove the sin of this land in a single day.”
Zechariah 3:8-9

But the Joshua in this vision is more than just a post-exilic priest coming from behind. He is also the great High Priest who was still to come. His tainted clothes and the shame they brought on Him would enable Him to identify with those He came to represent. He would hear the voice of the accuser whispering in His ear that He was unworthy, disqualified from the running because of His tainted condition. And in one sense, the allegations would be true.

The LORD said to Satan, “The LORD rebuke you, Satan! The LORD, who has chosen Jerusalem, rebuke you! Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?”
Zechariah 3:2

And yet God’s response to Joshua the priest, Jeshua the Messiah, and us, their companion second-stringers, is the same. He sends His angel to rebuke the accuser. We are His chosen ones. He loved us enough to snatch us from the fire; the disgraceful smut that clings to us in the aftermath of our rescue does not disqualify us from His ongoing care.

Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. The angel said to those who were standing before him, “Take off his filthy clothes.” Then he said to Joshua, “See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put rich garments on you.”

Then I said, “Put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him, while the angel of the LORD stood by.
Zechariah 3:3-5

Yes, we stand before Him in filthy rags. But as the angelic arbiter did for Him, our High Priest now does for us. He strips us of our disqualifying preconditions. He does not deny the reality of our shame or cover over its cause. Instead gets His own hands dirty stripping us down and washing us off. And having cleansed us from all unrighteousness, He re-dresses us in the attire appropriate to our exalted calling.

We are no more imposters than either Joshua was. Yes, there is plenty of smut that could be dug up on any one of us (and most likely will be). But when the accuser stands to make his case against us, he is the one that gets rebuked. Our High Priest’s story sets a precedent that alleviates our fear of being caught out.

The angel of the LORD gave this charge to Joshua: “This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘If you will walk in my ways and keep my requirements, then you will govern my house and have charge of my courts, and I will give you a place among these standing here.
Zechariah 3:6-7

He already knows our baggage. There is nothing new He will discover about us that suddenly disqualifies us from the running. Rather, He is in the process of remaking our image, both inside and out. His love is the precondition for our acceptance.

God is in the business of calling second stringers and qualifying us to serve in His courts. He is the sort of God who sides with the underdog and roots for the rejects. As we enter His presence dirty and ragged, we re-enact the experience of the exiles, feeling their need for a Messiah.

Our “imposter” rags prepare the way of the Lord. They make room in our hearts to receive His love.