“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times....”
“All children, except one, grow up...”
“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much...”
The all-important First Line. Writers agonize over them. Readers judge books by them. A good one can grab your attention by the collar and force you to follow it straight on ‘til morning.
Pssst...come here, you want to read this...
Which must be why Matthew starts his book with...a genealogy? Could have worked a little harder on that hook, guy. It doesn’t exactly draw us in.
Why would anyone actually want to read the boring begats? On and on...and on...and on they go. There aren't any red letter moments or subversive stories to draw us in. No miracles in the genealogy, no parables, no "you've heard of the old way but I tell you a new way."
Not at first glance anyway.
So we stumble through the list of names if we have to and pay no attention really, until we get to names we know. Even then, though our ears might perk up, those names, the ones we know, hold little significance because they are bookmarked in between Jehoshaphat and Zerubablahblahblah, names that no preggo actually considers anymore, and by the time we finally make it to Jacob's name or Joseph's, we're just dying to get to the next of Matthew – the Christmas story – everyone's favorite. Who doesn't love the sweet old tale about the starry starry silent night, the friendly ox, the twinkly-eyed magi, the baby who would rock the world?
When you think about what's coming next in the story, well, it's hard to think of the genealogy as anything of vital importance or intrigue, and it’s tempting to skip to the next bit, the Christmas bit, the bit about stockings and snowflakes and silver bells, silver bells.
But there's a catch, you see, when we skip to the next bit. The catch is that the Christmas story doesn't make a lot of sense without the genealogy, just like any story won't make a lot of sense without a beginning. If we really want to get it, we have to walk through Matthew's Hall of Records and Vital Documents to hear Jacob's name called, and then Joseph's, and then Mary's, and finally, that clincher, that reason for all of their being, to hear the name Jesus.
Because for those who read it first, Matthew’s Jewish audience, this was not just any genealogy. This was a trumpeted fanfare. Most genealogies of Jesus’ day were meant to show how sons related to their fathers, but this one emphasized how the fathers were related to the Son. And this was not just any Son, but the promised One, the One they had been waiting for a long, long time.
The Messiah would come as a King, they’d said. So this genealogy called Jesus the Son of David, named after Israel’s greatest king.
The Messiah would come as a blessing, they’d said. So this genealogy called Jesus the Son of Abraham, named after Israel’s promised blessing.
The Messiah would be a light to all people, they’d said. And if we were following the rules, this list would have included only men, Jews, and heroes - menschen only - but this genealogy included girls and gentiles and ragamuffins - shiksas! - can you imagine?
Right from the get-go we learn it's not just why we read the genealogy that's important, but who we read in the genealogy that's important. The names in the genealogy, like all Jewish names, are packed with meaning, stories of their own. And we have to read through the whole bloody mess of it before the part where the unwed virgin teenager gives birth to the Son of God makes any sense at all. Truly, we have to wander through a little desert to find the burning bush or the Promised Land. But it's so worth it.
And there's a twist. The genealogy the Jews always expected for the Messiah was not the genealogy they got.
Every name in the genealogy was chosen to be part of that genealogy, chosen by One who knows every name ever, the One who could have excluded the poor and powerless for the sake of the rich and royal. But didn't. In the genealogy, we see a scurvy crew made into kings. Here all the unlikelies, Jews and Gentiles, men and women, saints and sinners, shepherds and kings are adopted into the family of God. Together.
And we too are invited, no matter how unlikely, unruly, unholy, unclean, to dine with him at the table of tables.
At this table, all name tags are welcome and ready or not, here they come: both cowboys and Indians, both princes and paupers, both schlemiels and schlimazels, both Capulets and Montegues.
And we too are offered water turned wine at the great round table. The old way drove us to the edge of camp with the other untouchables. The new way invites us in on the arm of the Guest of Honor, himself an unlikely, both God and man.
The genealogy is, every verse, red letter. It's a commandment, parable, and miracle, the curtain torn in two. It fulfills so many prophecies before we even get to the salad course, the first testament in a bread bowl. It's the genealogy that leads us from the old covenant to the new, the thesis statement that opens the Gospels, the character guide, the index, a family history for the God of the universe. The genealogy is, in so many words, so many unpronounceable Hebrew words, the "once upon a time" in the greatest story ever told.
Pastor Brynn Harrington
What stands out to you in this opening of "the greatest story ever told"?
Heavenly Father, Lord of the Universe, be with us now as we venture forward in faith, expecting the unexpected, trusting in your power to renew our hearts, reorient our minds, and redirect our passions. Trusting in power of your Son, Jesus our Lord. Amen
Today, taste something new that you haven’t eaten before: a new vegetable, a new tea, a new candy. Let it linger on your tongue. How does it taste? What do you notice? What surprises you?
Pastor Aaron Engler
- Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities.
- Barrie, J.M. Peter Pan.
- Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.