Now that we’ve entered the Advent season, I’m taking a break from preaching through Isaiah in order to preach a series of sermons on the incarnation and birth of Christ from the Gospel of Matthew. Last Sunday we looked at the genealogy that introduces the account of the birth of Jesus.
To anyone familiar with the stories of the Old Testament, one striking feature of Matthew’s genealogy is the inclusion of so many people whose names bring to mind all kinds of sins and scandals. There’s Tamar, who bore children to Judah only because she pretended to be a prostitute. There’s also Rahab (a Gentile!), who really was a prostitute. Matthew doesn’t shy away from describing Solomon’s shady origins: David fathered him “by the wife of Uriah,” that is Bathsheba, whose upright husband David not only cuckolded but also had killed on the battlefield. The kings of Judah listed in vs. 6 – 12 are a mixed bag at best, faithful kings alternating with kings notorious for their wicked ways.
Jesus’ family history is checkered with disreputable characters and outrageous behaviors. But grace shines brilliantly through this tapestry of human sin and folly, because the holy Son of God did not refuse to be born of such a lineage. He came to save sinners, sinners just like those in his (human) ancestry. And sinners just like us.
J.C. Ryle said this about Matthew’s genealogy: “If the Lord Jesus was not ashamed to be born of a woman whose pedigree contained such names as those we have read to-day, we need not think that He will be ashamed to call us brethren, and to give us eternal life.” Amen. Jesus, though perfect in righteousness and goodness, is not too good to be the Savior of any who come to him in faith.
I recently finished reading Strange Rites by Tara Isabella Burton, a book both helpful and discouraging. Helpful, because Burton details all the myriad ways Americans, especially young Americans, are seeking spiritual fulfillment apart from traditional, institutional religion. She persuasively demonstrates that the so-called “Nones,” that is, those who do not identify with an established faith, are really intensely religious in their own way. They seek meaning, community, and ritual in everything from internet fan culture to the the cult of wellness (e.g., SoulCycle) to sexual utopias to the social justice movement. What ties all these disparate phenomena together is the way in which people seek in them spiritual sustenance. Though Burton doesn’t put it this way herself, these “strange rites” prove that we’re inveterate worshipers. We’ll either worship the true God, or some substitute for him.
The book is discouraging because, for a reader committed to biblical Christianity, Burton paints a bleak picture of our society’s spiritual health (and by the way, a warning: she tells it like it is, so the book is profane in parts). As she suggests at the very end, all she describes are manifestations of a resurgent paganism. As Christians, our prayer must be that just as God caused his gospel to take root in the hearts of many in the pagan society of the Greco-Roman world, he would do the same in our world today. If we only look around us, there is much to discourage us. But when we lift up our eyes to the One who is enthroned over heaven and earth, to the One who promised to build his church, we have every reason for hope.
Soli Deo Gloria!