You can’t get to Bethlehem without attending a family reunion. What do I mean? Is anyone ever comfortable at a family reunion? Who doesn’t ask, upon arrival, “You mean to tell me I’m related to these people?” Here’s the bad news. We are related. I am related; to the cousin who got shot in the behind fleeing the scene of an extra marital affair while climbing through the window of a double wide trailer. I am related to people who always call me by a name other than my own. No matter how much I protest, or DNA tests I may take, I will always be related to the people at these reunions. In order to be me, I have to go through them. They help make me, me. Like it or not, I am defined by these relationships.
Our family reunions are usually in the summertime. Christmas (and Thanksgiving just before) lets many families sneak an additional reunion in under the radar. It may be a little smaller than the traditional summertime bash. Perhaps there is more turkey and ham on the table instead of fried chicken. But make no mistake about it, it’s a reunion nonetheless. Same people, same stories, and the same basic question: “Exactly how am I related to these people?”
The first seventeen verses of Matthew chapter 1 are Jesus’ family reunion. Now I know your eyes tend to glaze over at best (and roll back in your head at worst) when you hear a preacher or reader start going through a long list of Biblical names. You’re sitting there thinking, “Is this really necessary?” “Aren’t all these names just unpronounceable place holders bearing little or no significance on the story of Jesus, Christmas, or anything else in our life?” I’ll answer both questions. Yes, it is really necessary. These names are vitally important. Matthew 1:1-17, the genealogy of Jesus, are some of the most overlooked verses in the entire New Testament. They are also critical to understanding Jesus. In fact, I would argue it is impossible to get to Bethlehem without going through these names, that is, attending this reunion.
This is the lesson of Matthew 1. Sure, you could do it, skip to Luke 2, go straight to the manger, and plop down in Bethlehem but it wouldn’t be like altering the time space continuum. Everything would look the same but in crucial and critical ways, things would be very different. Imagine the movie “Back to the Future”. The house is the same, the street is the same yet Marty’s dad is now a successful writer and Biff the Bully is washing his dad’s car. If you skip Matthew’s list of Jesus’ family history and simply show up in Bethlehem, who knows what we’re going to see? Can we truly appreciate the reality we’re encountering?
Luke’s story is cool. It’s the one we all know. If Christmas were a TV show it’d be called “Everybody Loves Luke”. Linus retells Luke’s version in the Charlie Brown Christmas each year. Starting with Luke mirrors our own desire for a “clean start” at Christmas and New Years. It feels right to start with Luke. That’s not how the Bible says it works. No matter how much we want to start over and be “instant Christians”, without the work of getting to Bethlehem, part of us always knows there’s something not quite right about “just showing up” and expecting Christmas to happen. The idea of the clean break seems to start with Paul. He fell off his horse (which the Bible never mentions) and started out on his new life. Jesus, on the other hand, realizes we are born, live, and die in muddy waters-like the muddy waters of the Jordan where the wild man John brought sinners to be baptized. Like the muddy waters of our lives. To get to Bethlehem, we go through the muddy waters of Jesus’ own familial past.
Look at the muddy waters of Jesus’ own family that brought him to Bethlehem. These diverse people made Jesus who he was, is, and became. Listen again to the muddy rhythm of the names. Like a blues song from the Mississippi Delta, they form a chain of stories, some extremely personal tales of suffering and woe; linking one generation to another. We must go into the water. If we want to arrive in Bethlehem and have just the right kind of Christmas, we must, to paraphrase the late Muddy Waters, reorient and restart our Mojo in a new direction.
She’s hiding right there in verse three. If you blink, aren’t paying attention, or don’t know it’s a woman’s name, you’ll miss her altogether. Her name is Tamar and she’s got her mojo working. Tamar was a good Israelite girl forced who had trouble getting remarried after her first husband died. Her former father in law didn’t want to allow it. She had to pretend to be a prostitute to keep from being denied an inheritance and being kicked out of the tribe; an extreme action in any day an age. While pretending to be a prostitute, she became pregnant by her father in law, who didn’t know his new girlfriend was his daughter in law. When daddy found out his daughter in law was pregnant he sentenced her to death. It was then Tamar revealed that the baby’s daddy was her father in law. Her life was spared. Sounds like Jerry Springer? Yes. Sounds like a crazy family reunion? Yes. Is it all in the Bible? Yes! Tamar, her father in law, and their descendants are all great grandparents of Jesus of Nazareth. Wow! What a muddy water story to tell around the manger! “Do you remember the time great great great great great grandma Tamar slept with her father in law Judah?” Joseph would ask that question. And we think we’ve got the monopoly on eccentric and weird.
Did you see Rahab in verse five? Rahab first shows up in Joshua 2:1. After Moses dies, Joshua takes control of the Israelites and is preparing for the Battle of Jericho. He sends two spies into the city to get an idea of the opposition they’ll face on the inside. Verse 2:1 says the spies, “went and entered the house of a prostitute whose name was Rahab and spent the night there.” Rahab could have been an innkeeper in a really sleezy part of Jericho or she could have been exactly what the Bible says, “a prostitute”. But remember, this is Jesus’ relatives we’re talking about here. Rahab became a spy and was invaluable in providing military intelligence to the Israelites when they invaded the city. We see a series of anonymous, unpronounceable names with sordid pasts. These are the living relatives of Jesus. People Jesus learned to love. Each person has a story of leaving a legacy more important than their gender, job, or society’s first impression. Those are the kind of things Jesus would come to value when he began to preach and teach. Where did he learn them? He learned them from his own family.
There is a second name in verse 5 which is more familiar and easier to recognize: Ruth. She has her own book. Ruth is important for so many reasons. She is the grandmother of King David. Grandmothers shape our lives, character, and beliefs. Secondly, Ruth is not an Israelite. She is a foreigner. Ruth is from Moab. She is not a native Israelite. A perennial outsider among those who were born in the Promised Land and the faith of Abraham, Ruth choose to be among Israelites. It was hard for her. She was constantly reminded of her outsider status. But she stuck it out. There was something about God’s promises, which she believed extended beyond those born and raised in Israel. Some people thought this was crazy. Then her grandson, a shepherd, who became king, wasn’t even 100% Israelite. Then, imagine this; one of her great grandchildren talks about God’s all encompassing love for lost things everywhere. Where would the son of Joseph the carpenter find such radical ideas? Maybe he found them at the family reunion, around the holiday table, or by the Christmas tree in Nazareth? Perhaps God working through broken, fallen, ordinary sinful people wasn’t anything new at all: it was just the holiday tradition in the Jesus household.
To view the events in Bethlehem in sweet, splendid isolation is to miss the grandest, biggest picture of all. The story of Jesus’ birth didn’t begin with shepherds, angels, or a story about no room at the inn. It started with the relatives most of us would prefer to disown, disavow, and downright forget. It began as it ended, with the very people Jesus was trying to save; the marginalized, like the men and women in his own family. So my friends, if you want to keep the Christ in Christmas, keep room for the whores, harlots, adulterers, murdering kings, immigrants, people who muddy our perfect waters, and messy relatives. In the middle of that motley crew, you’ll find the one guy reality checking our annual orgy of consumerism and self induced holiday stress: Jesus of Nazareth, son of Joseph the Carpenter, son of Mary the Teenager; a brother, a grandson, and also the Christ.