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Advent’s Knotty Family Tree

Jesus was born into a messy family too
Advent’s Knotty Family Tree

On the first Sunday of Advent this season, my congregation’s sermon text was Matthew 1:1-17. Many of us likely don’t think too often about this passage: It is one of the dreaded genealogies, with hard-to-pronounce names and no storyline (or so it seems). Yet behind the sometimes unfamiliar names this text is jam-packed full of stories—stories of how God worked through the messy lives of women and men. This genealogy is a little different, as it sprinkles in a few mothers in the long line of fathers: Tamar, who seduced her father-in-law, Judah, by pretending to be a prostitute; the Canaanite Rahab who actually was a prostitute; the Moabite Ruth; Uriah’s wife, whom we know as Bathsheba; and Mary, the mother of Jesus. Here are these five women, standing out amid all the fathers, with a long back story packed into each of their names.

Matthew 1 is an embarrassing genealogy, embarrassingly glorious in the way God worked in and through these lives.

And so, before the sermon text was read in this particular service, I reminded the congregation of the story of Matthew 1 through a monologue (written by Alison Siewert) from the perspective of Rahab, retelling her story from Joshua 2. In this story Rahab, a woman with little power, no prestige, and no future, was given power and the opportunity to serve God’s people. And she did. Rahab resisted her culture: She saw something within the story of the God of the Israelites that compelled her to fear God and pledge her and her family’s lives on her promise of silence.

The story of Rahab is the story of one woman’s act of resistance. Rahab’s story contrasts greatly to the kinds of stories our culture tells at Christmastime: stories of happiness, of material success, of glitter and glamour. Matthew is clear that the family tree of Jesus was not a symmetrical, pristine fir. It’s knotty (and naughty) and complicated. This was the family Jesus entered, the world Jesus entered, and when we’re honest, it’s the world in which we all live.

It is essential for us to recognize this messiness during the season of Advent, when expectations (personal, familial, and corporate) are high, schedules are packed, and the life we see in those fun Christmas magazines is both aspirational and impossible. But as Christians, it’s important for us to differentiate between Advent and pre-Christmas. Advent isn’t just a Christian word for the days leading up to Christmas. “Prepare the way for the Lord” is not a call to “prepare the living room for decorations” or “prepare our freezer for company.” The other-worldly call of Advent is to a life of resistance to the gods of this age as we wait, with 2,000 years of Christians before us, for Christ to come and finish his new creation.

In one of my favorite books about the Christian year, Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church, Laurence Hull Stookey writes, “The beginning of the liturgical year takes our thinking to the very end of things. For ‘end’ means not only the ‘end of time,’ but the central purpose or goal of creation.” This is the prophetic reality to Advent. The reality of God’s upside-down kingdom—where a prostitute is the foremother of the incarnate God, the baby bed for the Savior of the world is a feed box, and his death is a criminal’s—is still our reality today, as we wait and try not to forget that (and why) we’re waiting. This is the challenge of Advent, and why observing it can be such a beneficial spiritual practice.

Observing Advent may be one of those things that is very good in theory but challenging in practice, especially within the surrounding self-soothing, consumerist culture. What are ways we may enter into Advent, using Matthew 1:1-17 as our model?

• We may encourage others who have suffered loss, sickness, and death (like the five mothers in Matthew 1) by mourning with them and remembering God’s faithfulness by reading Psalm 85 together.

• We may say no to the constant braying of “the holidays”— the facade of beauty and wealth—and gather artifacts that remind us of the way “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27, NIV). Consider displaying a vase of straw or hay, or lighting one simple candle instead of many. Consider simple acts you may embrace (or complicated acts you may simplify) in order to focus on God’s faithfulness in the in-between times.

• We may study the women in Matthew’s genealogy, considering how we minister to the Tamars, Rahabs, Ruths, Bathshebas, and Marys within our own contexts. We might also ask ourselves how these women are ministering to us.

Taking time to notice God’s work within Matthew 1 may provide us opportunity to recognize God’s work within our own genealogies, our spiritual and biological family trees. This Advent, invite the Holy Spirit to reframe your past, allowing you to revisit your own story in a way that enlightens and demonstrates the beauty of asymmetry, the grace of twisted trees.

Joy-Elizabeth Lawrence is a writer, speaker, performer, theatre publicist, and homemaker. She lives in Michigan, where she serves as a biblical storyteller at her church.

December08, 2014 at 8:00 AM

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