Yr A ~ Advent 1 ~ Matthew 1:1-17 (see below for a fantastic video/song version of Matthew’s Begats by Andrew Peterson)
I’m betting you’ve never heard a sermon based on the begats in Matthew’s gospel, and have certainly never had those begats sung to you! So why are you being treated to this today? Every December the whole world is in preparation mode for Christmas, but the church insists on being in anticipation mode.
For us, rightly, Christmas doesn’t begin until the 25th and then lasts for 12 days until Epiphany. We’re just getting started as the world is wrapping Christmas up (get it?).
So instead of waiting until after Christmas to talk deeply about the story of Jesus’ birth I’ve chosen to dive in deep for the whole month. No, that doesn’t mean we’ll sing any more Christmas carols before the 24th. Sorry. It means instead of us wading into ancient prophecies and ‘apocalyptic darkness in need of light’ this year, (which is the usual lectionary fare), we’re just going to look at the heart of the story itself. I’m going to do it through a series of character studies. Next week we’ll talk about Joseph, Jesus’ dad. The week after that we’ll look at Zechariah’s story – he’s the father of John the Baptizer. Then on the Sunday before Christmas we’ll talk about Mary, the mother of Jesus. That leaves Jesus’ story for Christmas Eve.
Now, how shall we prepare for all of these character studies? By looking at where they all came from. And so we turn to the first words in Matthew’s gospel and examine this long list of generations of Jesus’ ancestors.
The writer of Matthew’s gospel had one overarching purpose – to persuade everyone that Jesus was the Messiah promised by scripture. So every single chance Matthew gets to show Jesus is the fulfilment of the prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures, Matthew takes. In this case it’s not so much a prophecy as a lineage. If Jesus is Messiah he must be connected to King David – so out comes the family tree.
I’ve just used two different expressions – lineage and family tree – but the Greek word used in Matthew 1:1 is geneseos – which is literally translated as genesis. Sound familiar? It’s supposed to.
Isn’t Matthew clever that within the first words of this gospel we have a direct connection to the first book of the Hebrew Scriptures – the book of Genesis. Like I said, that’s Matthew’s goal – make the connections.
So, the genesis of Jesus is found in his ancestors. And so we get the begats. It’s too bad that word has fallen out of usage because it’s a really fun word. Begat! The song version of this reading was fun, but it left out the most significant verse for understanding how this all fits together.
That verse is Matthew 1:17 – There were fourteen generations from Abraham to David, another fourteen from David to the Babylonian exile, and yet another fourteen from the Babylonian exile to Christ.
There are lots of theories about why the 14 generations thing was used. This is my favourite, and the one I think is most persuasive. Remember how Matthew’s primary goal is to make a case for Jesus being the promised Messiah. If you like numbers you’re going to love this.
The book of Daniel 9:24–27 states that ‘seventy weeks of years’, meaning 490 years, would pass between the restoration of Jerusalem after the Exile and the coming of the Messiah.
Since generations were commonly placed at 35 years, this means exactly 14 generations. (14×35=490).
Connecting back from the Exile to David, and then back to put Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in Jesus’ family tree only makes the case stronger.
Now, if you are a persnickety person and insist on things like scientific accuracy and attention to detail, and you were to painstakingly comb through the history of all this you’d discover that Matthew actually missed a few generations in the list, and that the last collection is only 13 generations and not 14.
Thankfully, we’re not biblical literalists so we don’t have to watch our heads explode as we do theological gymnastics to explain that all away.
The truth is, it just doesn’t matter. What matters is that Matthew is desperately trying to tell us a story, not give us a scientific lesson.
It’s a story about family, about connection with one’s roots, and about how that story is both embedded as part of our past and projected as part of our future.
And that makes this a story about hope.
I think that’s why we do genealogies. They’re very popular these days. read on