Merry Christmas From the Family
My favorite Christmas song, not hymn, not carol, but song, is Robert Earl Keen's "Merry Christmas from the Family." Some people don't like it at all. It's lyrics are at best gritty and at worst off color. Any song whose opening line is "Mom got drunk and Dad got drunk at our Christmas party," has got to be suspect. Nevertheless the song goes with our text which I doubt you ever heard read in church before. The long list of names are Jesus' ancestors according to the flesh. They're whom Jesus is descended from. The entrance porches to Gothic cathedrals have everyone of these people chiseled into the pointed arch you walk under (Martin Moseback, Heresy of Formlessness, 138). Jesus didn't get to us without coming through all these members of the family, and in some sense we really don't get to Him without going through them.
The family Jesus comes from is notable in that He comes from all sorts of men. He comes from powerful men like Abraham. Abraham was the leader of an ancient city/state. His holdings were so large that he could lead into battle 318 servants all born in his household. Abraham was the leader of an expedition against 4 kings that rescued 5 kings. If you were doing your genealogy and found such a powerful man as Abraham in your ancestry, you would be proud. You'd consider that this reflected favorably on you.
The family Jesus comes from had powerful men like Abraham and rich men like Solomon. I don't think even the Donald Trumps or Bill Gates of our world compare to Solomon in riches. Scripture says that he had so much gold that silver was counted as nothing in his day. King Solomon's gold mines are a legend to this day. Finding him in your lineage would be like finding J.P. Morgan or John Paul Getty.
The blood coursing through the veins of Baby Jesus isn't just powerful and rich, it is blue. Jesus was the last of the kings of Judea. The blood of 18 kings surged through Jesus' body, but so did the blood of the forgettable ordinary man. Go to a Bible dictionary; see what you can find about Abiud, Azor, or Akim. You'll find nothing more than they appear in Jesus' genealogy. Akim was the great, great, great, great, grandfather of Jesus living about 180 BC. But that's all we know about him. Totally ordinary, totally forgettable, totally like you and me.
Meet the family of Jesus this Christmas. See that He comes from all sorts of men and that He comes from sinners. Liars, adulterers, and murderers are in the bloodline of Jesus. Abraham lies about his wife being his sister twice. David commits adultery with Bathsheba and then murders her husband, Uriah, in an attempt to cover it up. Sure Jesus' has blue blood but He also has black blood. Some of those kings were idolaters, unfaithful people any Christian would blush to have in his ancestry. King Ahaz practiced child sacrifice (2 Kings 16:3); King Manasseh practiced witchcraft and used mediums (2 Kings 20:6), and King Amon "forsook the God of his father and did not walk in the way of the Lord" (2 Kings 21:22).
Have you ever seen the inside of a water pipe, the inside of one of the pipes that brings fresh, drinking water into your home? It will have black, gooey stuff in it; stuff that you won't what to touch let alone put in your mouth. Yet through it comes your clean, water. This is the lineage of Jesus. From all those figures above the cathedral arch representing the vilest, most wicked, disgusting men comes the pure, holy Jesus. That's the full miracle of the incarnation. Not only that God takes on flesh and blood, but He does so through the womb of a sinful, fallen woman. Not only was Mary a sinner, she was a sinner from a long, long line of sinners. But the power of the Most High God was able to bring God in the flesh pure and holy from her in the same way that your black, gooey water pipes deliver clean drinking water.
The family tree of Jesus shows us He comes from all sorts of men, from sinners, and from God. Did you notice that only four woman are referred to in Jesus' lineage? Tamar pretended to be a prostitute; Rahab was a prostitute; Ruth threw herself, literally, at the feet of a powerful man and gets a husband and a protector, and Uriah's wife is an adulterer. Years ago The Lutheran Witness used the fact that the Holy Spirit included these particular women as proof of my point above that Jesus came from a long line of sinners. They got hate mail from women. Some were fired up by feminism others by justifiable anger at the suggestion that the Holy Spirit picked these particular women because three of them were notable sinners and apparently all four were from outside the church originally.
There may be something to them being from outside the chosen people. Jesus has bloodlines from all nations as we will see. But the sinner part is proven better by the fallen, beastly men in Jesus' lineage. What all four women have in common is that all gave birth to children not fathered by their first husband. The King James preserves the way the Greek highlights this. It says of all the men "they begat" but when it comes to these women it says the child was "of" them; when we get to Mary a similar construction is used. Joseph is the husband of Mary but the Child is only "of" her.
Being the Bearer of the Fulfillment of the family tree makes Mary a culmination of sorts too. Mary is the new Tamar preserving the Promised Seed without the aid of men. Mary is the new Rahab who believes the powerful promises of God more than what she can see. Mary is the new Ruth not ashamed to be a humble handmaiden so the Promised Seed could come into the world. And as the new Bathsheba, Mary brings into the world one greater than Solomon (Ibid., 146).
But it's not about Mary but her child Jesus, and we don't really know Him unless we not only know the family He comes from but the family He comes for.
Jesus comes for all sorts of men. Let me burst for you one of the most persistent myths about Jesus. This being that we have no idea what Jesus actually looked like. The oldest sketch we have of Jesus is made by an Italian artist in the 16th century, but he copied a portrait he found dating to the first or early second century (Herbert Norris, Church Vestments, xvii). It looks like our standard pictures of Jesus, but that's not the point I want to make. Though we have a pretty good idea of what Jesus looks like, if you go to an art books you'll find the Christ-child painted as Asian, African, Hispanic, Arab, European, or Indian. This is as it should be; God took on flesh and blood for all sorts of men. For people who look like us and people who don't look like us at all. For all fallen descendants of the first Adam the Second Adam came.
Yes, the family Jesus comes for is a fallen one. Jesus comes not only from sinners but for sinners. Think of it. Who got the birth announcement "for you this day is born in the City of David a Savior which is Christ the Lord?" Not King Herod; not the leaders of the church, but shepherds who were considered ceremonially unclean an unable to enter the church. You send birth announcements to friends and family. Sinners are the friends and family of God.
You know all those Christmas legends from the holly, to the poinsettia, to the little drummer boy where a poor, outcast child is sad because he has nothing to give to the newborn Jesus? They are wrong-headed in that Jesus is born not to get from sinners but to give to sinners. "Today He opens heaven again and gives us His own Son," we sing in the hymn, but understand this: it is to poor, outcast sinners the Gift is given.
For the most part, the congregations I've served have been blue collar, working class. You know when men work with their hands day after day in grease, in dirt, in mud, in oil it gets into their very pores. Big men would lumber to the communion rail thrust out their oversized hands for me to place the Body of Christ in them. I would take from the gold paten, the holy, pure Body of Christ, and place it in a hand scrubbed clean but nevertheless marked by soil, oil, and stains. And as I did so I would think: This is as it should be; Christ is not ashamed to be the brother of sinners; He has no fear of being stained by their sins. Indeed, the opposite is the case. When He touched the dead they lived, He didn't die. When He touched the sick, they became healthy not He sickly. When He touched the unclean, they became clean not He dirty.
Wait; I'm not even at the best part of who Jesus' family tree says He came for. He comes not only for all sorts of men and for sinners, He comes for God. I know, I know Jesus is God, and we say in the Creed He comes for us men and or our salvation, but we can rightly say He comes for God as well.
God never stopped loving His world, but His own Law showed the world to be fallen, unlovable. They do this; they don't do that. They sin here, here, and here too. The Law He Himself gave to men required that those who broke it be punished. Santa can laugh off wrongs and he appears kind. If God were to laugh off sins He would cease to be God, and then no one could stop sin, death or the Devil from claiming us.
What a mess, and like a Hollywood action film star, Jesus leaps into it. God takes on flesh and blood. Obligating Himself to do all that God commanded men to do. And what's this? He does it perfectly. He didn't fail to this, that or this either. There is no sin here, there, or anywhere. So the Law is fulfilled in Jesus. In Him, God sees no broken laws anywhere, but there is still the matter of paying for sins. God's wrath must be satisfied. Into the furnace of God's wrath and judgment, God the Son willingly walked, and guess what? He put it out. He extinguished it.
Robert Earl Keen's "Merry Christmas from the Family" has these lines. "Little sister brought her new boyfriend/ He was a Mexican/ We didn't know what to think of him until he sang/ Felis Navidad." Christmas bridges gaps between men because it bridges the greater gap between God and fallen man showing us that ultimately the family of man is God's family in Jesus' name. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Christmas Day (20091225); Matthew 1: 1-17