The Gospel of Matthew begins its Christmas story not with the familiar “Once Upon a Time”, but with an ancient resume, his genealogy. Unlike a modern resume in our individualistic culture that lists what we alone have accomplished, a genealogy of that time acknowledges that who we are is in large part a result of our family background. We don’t live in a vacuum; our families heavily influence who we are and who we become. These genealogies (common during that time) were attempts to demonstrate one’s significance and character by listing those important people who came before. What is interesting about Jesus’ resume is that it lists 5 women. This was unheard of at the time since women didn’t have any legal standing and by all intents and purposes treated like property in the first century. Those women listed are Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba (although her name is not listed, she is indicated as “the wife of Uriah”), and Mary.
What’s even more interesting are the stories around the three of these women. Tamar was prostitute, Ruth was a foreigner, and Bathsheba the wife of another man. Wrap you mind around that for a second … Jesus’s resume listed a prostitute, a foreigner, and a woman who participated in adultery. God flips our expectations of who has value and welcomes all into his family, quite literally. When we want to judge others for the mistakes they make or because of whom we think they are, God welcomes them, no matter who the world says they are.
This “resume” also tells us that the Christian life is not about good advice, but about “good news!” Some would argue that if only you do certain things and live in such a way, you will gain salvation. But the follower of Christ knows that this just isn’t so. David, the greatest King of Israel is listed in the genealogy, but his most appalling act is alluded to in his sending Uriah to the front lines of a battle where he would most likely die, so that he could take Bathsheba as his wife. This is certainly not advice that should be taken. The good news for us is that it doesn’t matter who you are or what you do, you can always be met by the grace and love of God. You can be in the family! That is how Matthew starts his Christmas story and its Good News indeed!
Painting by Merle Hugues, "Ruth in the Fields" (1876).
How about another “scary twist”? In the first chapter of Luke, there is an intensifying progression from the foretelling of John the Baptist’s birth to that of the Messiah’s birth. Both births were miraculous and led to a mysterious destiny that will forever be linked. But, as great as John is to become, his most significant role and calling is to serve as a precursor to Jesus the Messiah. His life, his vocation only has meaning in relation to Jesus. In fact, I would argue that the author of Luke-Acts is making the same case, in Acts, for the Holy Spirit infused church’s meaning and vocation is only significant in relation to the second coming of Christ.
So, here lies the other twist. As John the Baptist goes, so do I. You and I, the church, are called to a life of prophetic renewal. Maybe we could improve upon John’s “people skills” and not to wear camel’s hair and eat only locust and honey (but the latter might not be too bad for us!) Regardless of different personalities, we are called to speak truth to power. To live a life that cuts against the grains of this world. Not just against bad or immoral people, but institutions and systems that continually grind humanity under the insatiable stimulus of pride, profit, and power.
What a scary proposition. It gives me Goosebumps! It makes me quite uncomfortable to think that God is calling me to a life outside of my comfort zone. But, as in all areas of life, if you want results and growth, you have to get uncomfortable. We are called to share the significance of our story: the hurts, the disappointments, the pain and the redeeming glimpses and possibilities of God along the way. Yet, our personal stories only have lasting significance and meaning in relationship to the grander narrative of Christ. We are called to bear witness and prepare the way for the Second Advent! May we pray today to have courage to face our fears, stick our neck out, and live the life that God has called us to! God is giving us the possibility to be a source of great joy, gladness, and rejoicing! Let’s not miss God’s hope for us, living our story as a reflection of the greatest story of unending love.
“Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.” Luke 1:13-15
R. L. Stine, children’s author of the famed Goosebumps series once said that any good story has three parts: “a beginning, a middle, and the twist.” Even though Advent is the time where we tell the narratives around the beginnings of Jesus’ earthly life, there are also some twists! Such as in Luke’s foretelling of the births of cousins, John the Baptist and Jesus.
When Gabriel, the angel of God, caused both Zechariah (John’s father, a pious, religious leader in the local Temple who was getting up in age) and Mary (the young unmarried, teenager from a backwoods town) to respond initially with fear, I think we can all understand how this encounter could raise a few Goosebumps. The shepherds were frightened as well, and they were supposed to be “tough guys!” But the twist comes when the devout person we might expect to be sensitive to the movements of God becomes paralyzed by his fear. When Zechariah questions the angel’s claim that they would have a child, even though he and his wife, Elizabeth, had prayed for this possibility their whole lives, he is silenced from speaking until after the birth. No matter how much they prayed for this, I believe it’s fair to say that he didn’t really expect that such an intervention was possible.
On the other hand, the one whom we might expect to totally freak out, the young, unmarried girl who now is living in scandal responds with the logical question of how this is biologically possible, and upon hearing the mysterious answer of the Most High’s Overshadowing, she responds with obedience and is blessed: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
And there lies in the twist: God’s transforming intrusions into their human stories are met with disbelief from the religiously devout and with humble obedience from the girl of no influence, education or social position. Our world lifts up the elite and well heeled. God lifts up the lowly and meek. A twist as old as time.
Lighting the Candle of HOPE:
Today, we begin the Christian calendar with the celebration of Advent and the lighting of the first candle (HOPE). The word “Advent” comes from the Latin word adventus, which means to come or arrival. We, as Christians, beginning the process of awaiting the coming of the presence of the Lord in the birth of Jesus. For 28 days, until December 24th, we wait. We live in the generous hope of Christ’s arrival. We live, because Christ is alive and that ushers in peace, joy and activates our capacity to love. Those capacities were on ample display tonight as we joined with our partners in ministry, Mision Bautista Hispania de Westchester, to sing carols and light our Christmas Tree of lights which are now beautifully illuminating North Street.
Each day I will be blogging my advent reflections as we wait together for the arrival of God’s presence in the world. As we wait for our greatest calling to materialize. As we wait for God’s desires for our lives to become manifest. We wait, so that we can take a much needed pause from the busyness of this world and decide to encounter the presence of the living Lord, anew. Will you join me, as we wait?
“I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you … so that you may know the truth …” Luke 1:3-4
As many of you know, I’m a Cubs fan. Born near and living in the Near North Side of Chicago for most of my childhood, that was a cross to bear until “Salvation” came and the "curse" was broken last week when the Cubs won their first World Series Championship in 108 years! So it was only fitting that I closed yesterday’s service with a quote from Steve Goodman, Chicago’s legendary folk musician and singer and, of course, die-hard Cubs fan. He wrote the song that's still in my head: “Go, Cubs, Go!” Goodman once said, “I suppose I love baseball more than the Cubs, but I love baseball because of the Cubs.”
So I wanted to turn that around for us on Sunday and make a confession of my own: I love God more than I love the church, but I love God because of the church! I have had so many church experiences in my life that have led me to this incredible relationship with God! Let’s be THAT church! The one where people fall in love with God, surrender to God’s call upon their lives, and find meaning and joy in being generous and imaginative. We can be a place where people can discover resilience for the journey of faith. Become that space in people’s lives where they can become the evidence of God’s love in the world. It saddens me that so many today simply see “the Church” as just another flawed institution and not a place where they can discover a love that will change them forever. Indeed, we are not perfect, but we are on the right path and I firmly believe we are being faithful to God’s call upon our lives. Won’t you come and see what God is doing in our midst and notice a love that is waiting for you to embrace? We can be THAT church together!
Thanks Steve, for reminding us where our true loves come from! (All Cubs fans can relate to that blank stare!)
I'm a follower of Christ, husband, father, friend, pastor, story teller, asker of questions, inspired by biblical narratives, social justice advocate, sports enthusiast, drinker of over priced coffee and general seeker of God's redemptive possibilities. Yeah, that about covers it. (If you discover something else, let me know!)