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The scandal of a name (Matthew 1:1-17)

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We have all read Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus. But Matthew does not begin his story here. He starts with a list of names, the family tree of Jesus. Verse one of Matthew says, “This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham.”

If I were writing a biography, I don’t think I would start with a list of names. Surely it is better to start with a funny or unforeseen incident, or a story to establish the purpose of what I was going to tell. Start with a list of names? Why does Matthew bother us like that? It seems as interesting to me as it is to read the phone book.  Ram the father of Amminadab, Amminadab the father of Nashon, Nashon the father of Salmon  … You can feel the eyelids getting heavy.

Well, let’s look at that list. But I assure you that this is more than a list of names. It is more than an entry in the phone book. In fact, if you already knew some of the people on this list, you would be surprised. It would scandalise you. You might be tempted to whisper to your neighbour “Did you hear who was just mentioned … what a scandal! …” This is not the family tree you would expect for the birth of someone important.

Allow me to give you some examples.

Notice in verse 3 that Judah and Tamar were the parents of Perez and Zerah.  It sounds like a happy family. But if we read the story of what happened, maybe you wouldn’t be so sure. Because in Genesis chapter 38 we read that Tamar was the daughter-in-law of Judah. Well, not only that, Judah thought that Tamar was a prostitute. He did not realise she was his daughter-in-law. He committed adultery with his daughter in law. Jesus is one of the descendants of this family.

And verse 6, “Jesse was the father of King David, and King David was the father of Solomon, whose mother was the wife of Uriah” Wait! Is this king David? David was the most famous king to govern Israel. Did he have a son with Uriah’s wife? If we read 2 Samuel chapter 11 we would read about how David saw Bathsheba taking a bath. David wanted her and Bathsheba became pregnant. The problem was Uriah was out fighting in a war, so the pregnancy he couldn’t be Uriah’s. And so, to avoid the scandal, David had killed Uriah. Solomon was the result of adultery and murder. Jesus is one of the descendants of Solomon.

There are also foreigners in the list. For example Ruth and Rahab. Jesus comes from mixed blood.

And finally, verse 10, “Hezekiah was the father of Manasseh.” Manasseh was a very bad king. In fact, he was so bad that we are told in 2 Chronicles chapter 33 that he sacrificed his own children. There is nothing good or noble in that.

Now, there are people on this list that you would expect to be mentioned. Like Josiah, in verse 10. He lived in the ways of God and for the good of the people. But at the same time, this list has pariahs. It has adulterers and prostitutes. There are foreigners. It has evil kings. It has murderers and liars. If the birth of this Jesus is so important, surely this type of person would not be mentioned as an ancestor, right?

Well, Matthew chapter one tells us how God uses the good, the bad and the ugly. That is not to say that these people have done the right thing. It is clear throughout the Bible that adultery is wrong. It is clear that sacrificing children is wrong. It is clear that prostitution is wrong. And yet, despite the failures and rebellion of these people, God uses them. God’s purposes do not fail because of us. God uses sinners, rebels, the weak. He uses men and women and children. God does not depend on our character to fulfil his purposes.

We tend to think otherwise. We tend to think that God depends on us. That’s why we have to be good enough for God. We strive to hide our imperfections. We put on a happy face. We believe that God will only take care of us if we give him what is good, hoping to be good enough for God.

I fight with this problem. For a long time I thought that my usefulness for God was determined by me.

When I was in year 1, we had a chart where we put a sticker for a neat work. If the teacher was satisfied with our work we added a sticker. By the end of the year I had 255 points. The closest to me was Cameron with 150 points. But at the end of the list were Tony and Roger, who only made 20 points each. They had no chance. Sometimes I wondered if that broke them for life. They stopped being neat because they couldn’t keep up with me. And it was so easy to think that I was worth something more because I was much neater than them. And maybe it’s easy for the Tonys and Rogers of this world to think they are worthless.

We are so concerned about what makes us worthy, but Matthew chapter one says that’s not the issue.

Maybe in terms of this world your life is a mess. Life has been difficult for you. Maybe as a result of circumstances. Maybe it’s your own fault. Maybe you’re worried by that voice that says “you’ve hopeless,” “you’re stupid,” “you’re not good enough, so try harder,” “now that you’ve done that, you can never be good enough.”

Or maybe your life seems fine. You have two cars and most of the mortgage paid off, but there is no joy. The desire to be respectable in terms of family and finances, and nothing else, does not bring any inner peace.

Listen again to Matthew chapter one. No matter who you are or your history, God says that you are not out of reach. The things you have done or have not done do not put you out of God’s reach. If he is able to overcome all the mess and bad things in the lives of the people on this list, in order to achieve his purposes in Jesus, then he can overcome your mess and my mess.

And that brings us to the second point of Matthew chapter 1. The purposes of God are all about Jesus.

If you look at verse 1, you will see that we are told that it is “This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham.”

This affirms that everything is a matter of Jesus. Jesus is the fulfilment of all the promises of God that he gave to Abraham. And it tells us that Jesus is the true king that God promised David. The purposes of God are all about Jesus.

Let me say something about Abraham. In Genesis chapter 12, God brought this man out of obscurity. God told him that he would use him to form a great nation with its own land and as a blessing for all nations. That is what Matthew wants us to understand. God is fulfilling the promises he made to Abraham in the person of Jesus.

Likewise from David. Yes, the same David who committed adultery and murder. However, God made some special promises to David. He promised that one of his descendants would rule forever. And Matthew wants us to be clear about who this is: Jesus. Jesus is the true king. He is a descendant of King David. Unlike David, this king Jesus will reign forever. That’s why Jesus was called the Messiah in verse 16.

God’s intention to fulfil his promises to Abraham and David happened in Jesus. They have not been stopped by the disaster of humankind. Matthew wants us to be clear that God is in favor of Jesus. If we take the time to read the rest of Matthew it would be very obvious. And so he has placed this list of names at the beginning to show us that God is serious. God is serious about keeping his promises. God is serious about his king. Because it’s all about Jesus.

We often think that life is about beautiful houses and gardens, the good education of children, fulfilling my dreams, escaping difficulties, having everything under my control. In contrast Matthew chapter one says that everything is about Jesus. Throughout the history of the world the theme that touches everything is Jesus. Do you understand that? It’s another scandal, right? I assure you if you want to understand the course of the history of the world you have to put Jesus in the centre. Besides this scandal makes sense of the first scandal. The problem is not that our sin affects Jesus, but without Jesus we can not overcome the problem of our sin. Sin does not stop God’s purpose. Unlike this, Jesus, the one at the centre of everything can stop our sin. The history of the world proves it because Jesus was born, died and rose again in the history of the world. It is not a fairy tale but a verifiable fact.

Let’s summarise. You’re not out of God’s reach. Nothing you have done or failed to do means that you are abandoned by God. Nothing you have done or failed to do hinders God’s purposes. The universe does not revolve around me or you.

This news can be a relief if we struggle to think that God would love me. Nothing of what I’ve done puts me out of his reach. This news could also be a challenge if we think that life revolves around me completing my plans. Well, I suspect that for most people it’s both. We welcome relief and find it difficult to put Jesus at the centre of everything we do.

And so we have to ask ourselves: “Do I recognise Jesus as king?”

At Christmas we remember the birth of Jesus. But it’s easy to forget that Jesus is also the king. He is not just a baby. He is the king.

In fact, Christians didn’t celebrate the birth of Jesus until the year 273. Perhaps they understood the danger in celebrating it. The danger of celebrating the birth of Jesus is that he stays in the manger. He is just a cute little boy who smiles a little and is quite impotent. But the beginning of the biography of Jesus of Matthew calls us our attention to the fact that Jesus is really the king. This list of names tells us who Jesus is. He is the king of God. We have to recognise it.

In November 1997 there was a five-year-old girl on her bicycle in London. She was actually a normal girl of 5 years riding around. But on this November day she fell off her bicycle. Well it happens all the time. But on this November day, the royal Rolls Royce was going down the same street. Inside was the mother of the Queen of England. She noticed the girl had fallen off her bicycle and told her driver to stop the car. Then the Queen Mother got her driver to help the girl. The Queen’s Mother opened the door and said to the girl, “Get in and I’ll take you home by car.” The girl replied: “No, thank you I do not ride in cars with strangers.” And the girl missed the opportunity to travel in the royal Rolls Royce.

The girl only saw an old lady in a big car. She did not recognise the mother of the Queen of England.

For us, Jesus can be nothing more than another baby. But Matthew tells us, no. This Jesus is the king. And if we do not recognise him as a king we will lose out on something more than a ride in a Rolls Royce.

The understanding you have of Matthew chapter one will be reflected in how you celebrate Christmas. If you still just read it like a page from the phone book, then Christmas will be about overeating, excess alcohol and excessive spending.

The alternative is this: Matthew chapter one is about the birth of the king. The king sent by God, fulfilling his promises. The king who does not depend on what we do, or stop doing. We know him by his grace. The king who has claim to have the highest position in your life. Are you ready to leave it to him?

How do you respond to the name Jesus? This week, when you go to establish and defend your name, your reputation, remember Matthew 1. Put the name of Jesus in first place. In that way, you will know the freedom that Jesus already accepts you. In that way you will live the reality of his rule over life as the eternal king. Then you will be ready for Christmas … and much more.

(Photo: Photo by Mindy Olson P on Unsplash)