A Sermon from Sherborne
The genealogy of Jesus
A sermon for Evensong, preached at Sherborne Abbey on Sunday January 15th 2017 by The Reverend Richard Wyld, Assistant Curate
A couple of years back I read the fascinating account of the theologian and broadcaster Robert Beckford’s journey to learn about his forebears, and in particular those who had been slaves in the Caribbean. As was common then, the name Beckford itself belonged originally to the slave owner, and his relatives had been given then name as a mark of their enslavement, erasing part of their own history. Robert Beckford reflected on the problematic of carrying that memory of enslavement with him in his very name. But he also learned about another Beckford slave who had led a revolt and fought for freedom, and in so doing at least partially redefined what it meant to be a Beckford. Thus the name carried that memory as well, the memory both of slavery and the struggle for freedom.
In all sorts of ways people take an interest in genealogy, both as a hobby and in terms of what it might mean for people; we have TV programmes like ‘Who do you think you are?’ Yet when I read a text like Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus (Matthew chapter 1), I can sense us shifting in our seats, wondering how long this thing is going to go on for. It’s probably not a text that we have given much attention to despite the fact (a fact which seems odd to our modern sensibility) that Matthew chose to open his gospel with this long list of names. But doing so allows Matthew to do more than just say something about Jesus’ royal heritage (though probably not less than this). It allows Matthew to tell a story, the story of God’s people with Jesus as the culmination of that story. And it allows him to tell that story in all its ambiguity.
On the one hand there are crucially important figures of faith, from Abraham as the one who receives the promise of God to be blessed and to be a blessing to the nations, to David the king who takes on a kind of mythical quality of symbolizing everything that Israel longs for in a ruler. But on the other hand we are reminded of far less benign characters; there were other good kings like Hezekiah the great reformer, but a number of them are described very unfavourably in the Old Testament, and this leads to the exile which marks for Matthew the transition into the final 14 generations. So in Jesus’s heritage there is the memory of great sin as well as great good.
But there is a third strand as well, that marks the unexpected in Jesus’s background, and it is perhaps best symbolized through the four women who are mentioned in a long list of men (five if you include Mary). It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what connects all four, though there are significant connections between them in twos and threes (producing children in unusual circumstances is probably one, given the story of Mary and Joseph). But what I think does connect all of them might be described as a kind of insurgence into the people of God from outside, from the margins. All of these women are, for one reason or another, marginal, outsiders who nonetheless show God’s people what true faith, true wisdom, and true love really mean.
Take Ruth; the book of Ruth describes the characteristic of hesed, steadfast love, a characteristic that is vital to OT understanding of God. But while the story dates to the time of judges, there is a strong possibility that it was written down around the return from exile, and that tells us something more about its meaning. When the exiles were returning to Jerusalem, there was a strong mood of national pride, aiming to ‘make Jerusalem great again’, building a big wall that the Persians were going to pay for and generally having nothing to do with foreigners. And in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, part of this includes a strong judgement against marrying so-called foreigners. So against this backdrop, Ruth presents a counter-narrative, a so-called outsider who shows what true Godly love looks like, and by the way, is ancestor to David the great king. Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba all break sound simplistic notions of boundaries and holiness by bringing in something better from the apparent outside.
So Jesus’s background is complex, resisting any easy characterisation. Of course it is, for we are all the result of complex and ambiguous histories, good decisions and bad. But while emerging from complex history, Jesus is not to be confined by it; rather he will transform and transfigure it. For when we finally get to his name, we will be told something interesting. Very often in the OT, people are named after a particular event or mood, something that has happened that names them. But we are told that Jesus’s name (deriving from the word save) has to do with what he will go on to do. He is named looking forward, rather than backward. And that symbolizes from the outside that whatever Jesus’ past, his future holds to promise of transformation. And for us who seek to put our faith in Jesus, the promise is that whatever we are or have been, we are not defined and confined by it. The confinement of the past is placed with him on his cross, and his resurrection breaks down the closed barriers of human existence to bring new possibilities, a new future not determined by past successes or failures, but rather on the gracious gift of God.
Jesus does not erase the past in one very real sense; we remain the complex beings that we are, unique and formed through a unique story. But it seems to me to be a vital truth of the gospel that Jesus breaks the power of the past over us, that we need not be simply the product of failures (or successes for that matter), but rather that in his death and resurrection a new future is opened out in him, a gift of God.