Each of the Gospels approaches the story they want to tell about Jesus from a different place. For John, the Gospel for Midnight Mass, it is the deeply philosophical with the eternal Word and light shining in darkness. Mark plunges straight in with John the Baptist baptising in the wilderness and along comes Jesus to inaugurate his ministry as an adult at that point. Christmas does not feature in Mark. Luke, on the other hand, starts with birth stories, first of John the Baptist and then Jesus. Both are miraculous – John to a woman beyond childbearing age and Jesus to a young woman miraculously through the Holy Spirit. Matthew has been watching BBC1. He sets out his own version of ‘Who do you think you are?’, tracing Jesus’ ancestry (Matthew 1:1-17). We tend to miss this out from our readings in church, presumably long lists don’t excite the ears of those who devise lectionaries, but it is an important list and it comes immediately before where our Gospel reading this morning would have begun if I hadn’t extended it (Matthew 1:1-3, 5-6, 16-25).
That genealogy at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel traces Jesus’ line back to Abraham in the Old Testament. The full version is in three sections, each with 14 generations in them and in that list there are a number of women who don’t fit the mould. There are also a few people missing, so we can assume that the symbol of the maths is more important than the complete list. Fourteen is double 7. Seven is the perfect number in Jewish thought, so three lots of 14 gives us 6 lots of 7, and if we are looking for significance, that is one short of the perfect number 7. So it might be that Matthew is playing a game with numbers. The list becomes a nerd’s highlighter pen. This Jesus will begin the age of the 7th grouping, so we are into the perfect realm now. God’s grace has dawned and we know this because the numbers line up – kind of, if we ignore those missed out. The point of this is that for Matthew the key to the Gospel he wants to tell is that Jesus fulfils the hopes and dreams, the prophecies of the past. His is a gospel of fulfilment and so throughout it what happens is punctuated with:
“this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet”,
as in verse 22, regardless of whether that prophet meant what Matthew used their words to underline.
A case in point is our gospel reading this morning with the virgin conceiving and bearing a son who is to be named Emmanuel, God is with us (Matt 1:23). As we heard in our first reading the prophecy referred to was about being saved from a very different threat to the one Jesus saves his people from (Isaiah 7:10-16). This section of Isaiah has been dated around 8th century BC and the threat was from an invading Assyrian army. Isaiah’s point is ‘don’t panic’, the threat will pass before the young woman’s child has been born and has been weaned. That might sound like it might take a while, but the point is the pregnant woman will deliver her child and it will grow. There is a future, there is hope, God is with us. This is the point that Matthew picks up on for how he chooses to tell the story of Jesus. Don’t panic, God has this, the plan is being fulfilled. We can trust in God’s enduring goodness and providence. God is with in this child to be born for us.
So what can look like a long, boring list for genealogy addicts, turns out to be a message of hope and surprise. The women included in the list are Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba, ending with Mary. Tamar was a Canaanite or Aramean. She married Judah’s son Er. He died and she was passed on to the next son Onan, so he could raise up children for his brother. You begin to see where the question about marriage and the unfortunate woman, put to Jesus later in the gospel came from (Matthew 22:23-33). He also dies and Tamar is told to hang about until the next son, Shelah, is old enough! Tamar is not impressed with this idea and goes off. Meanwhile her mother-in-law, Judah’s wife, dies. He goes off to sheer the sheep. Tamar is nearby, but in disguise. Judah thinks she is for hire and offers her a kid goat from the flock and with that she is his for the night, though he still doesn’t know who she is. Tamar becomes pregnant and is about to be burned for this when she reveals what has happened. The child is Perez, who also appears in Jesus’ genealogy (Genesis 38). Put that in EastEnders and you’d say the scriptwriters have gone over the top.
Next up is Rahab another Canaanite (Joshua 2 & 6). She was a sex-worker in Jericho, who shelters the Israelite spies before they capture the city and slaughter everyone in sight. The bible says nothing of her marriage to Salmon, with whom she gives birth to Boaz, so there is a mystery as to where that comes from. She is, though, incorporated into the story of salvation through her assistance at Jericho, a gateway to the promised land and perhaps a link to the fulfilment of this dream and place of residing.
Boaz leads on to Ruth’s story. She is a Moabite who becomes the wife of Boaz after she seduces him on the threshing floor. She gets a book all of her own in the Old Testament. Their child, Obed, is the grand-father of the shepherd boy David, the key figure in this Messianic sequence; an idealised ruler referred back to so that the Messiah is a new David, though he rather has clay feet.
The fourth woman is Bathsheba, who was probably a Hittite and was spotted by King David while she had a bath on the roof top (2 Samuel 11). Bathsheba was married to Uriah who is described as a Hittite, so this gets awkward – though taking into account the previous stories it is probably on-message by now. Bathsheba becomes pregnant, so David’s response is to send her husband into the front line of a battle to ensure that he was no longer in the way. He is killed in fierce fighting. David is condemned by the prophet Nathan for this and the love-child also dies. Their second child is King Solomon, the one who is noted for wisdom and he succeeds David.
This is quite a list of women but they each open up the story to include people from other nations, people whose stories are not exactly pure. The fulfilment of prophecy, so important to Matthew, comes through some surprising people. We are being set up from the beginning for a story that will bring plot twists and takes us to unexpected places. Buckle up, this is going to be quite a ride.
And the foreigners keep coming. Next up will be the Magi (Matthew 2:1-12) and in Mathew it is these star-gazers from distant lands who come to worship and adore, not shepherds from the nearby hillside. This gospel fulfils the hopes because it is for all people. The people Jesus saves is all humanity.
At the end of the list is Mary, a young woman who could so easily have been given a similar story to Rahab, Tamar, Ruth and Bathsheba. Joseph assumes she has, because he proposes to put her aside quietly, rather than subject her to public disgrace, shame and probably destitution. It’s not clear what cover story they had lined up, but just as the others were used in God’s plan in the story of the people, so Mary is too and Joseph recognises this.
Matthew sets Jesus’ story in the context of a long unfolding story of a people, a story fulfilled in Jesus. At each point God chooses people others would discount and even uses those who would be disgraced and shunned by our PR conscious age. They show themselves to be more open to the Spirit than those who present a more shiny and pure image are. If there is hope for them, there is hope for us. There are surprises and the story of Jesus will surprise more than any before; it challenges preconceived ideas. This gospel is for everyone who opens their hearts to it, for God is with us.
Sermon for Advent 4, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 22nd December 2019