Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Knots in the Family Tree, Part 4

     The final female name in the family line of the Messiah found in Matthew Chapter 1 is that of "Uriah's wife." She is not named, but we know from 1 Samuel 11 and 12 and 1 Kings 1 that this is Bathsheba. Perhaps the very stigma of adultery keeps the text from naming her since Matthew's gospel was being written primarily to a Jewish audience.
     Bathsheba is presented to us as an adulteress, and later, as a plotter and a schemer, working to make sure that her son by David is placed on the throne (even though it had already been declared to David to be God's plan).
     So in the Jewish mind, she already has two strikes against her to be listed in this or any other genealogy - she is a woman and a sinner. But wait, there's more! It would seem likely that, being married to a Hittite, she was also a Hittite, which would make her, yes - a Gentile (strike 3, yer out!) How about that? Four women in this genealogy - two Canaanites, a Moabite, and a Hittite, not one Jewess.
     But God, through Matthew, is saying right from the get-go in Chapter One of the Newer Testament, that some things are going to be different with this Messiah, this God-in-the-flesh, this "Savior, who is Christ, the Lord." Perhaps the biggest new thing that the Jewish people will need to get used to is that God is and always has been interested in more than just Israel. At one time, they knew this (and we'll explore how in future blog posts). But during the years between the return from Exile and now, when God was largely silent, the Jews had gone from being a people who wanted to imitate the nations (the reason they were in Exile in the first place), to a people who wanted to isolate themselves from the nations. In their misguided attempts at reform that started out well under Ezra and Nehemiah, they had quickly gone to drawing a circle around themselves and were determined to keep everyone else out.
     But Jesus would have none of this.
     Women? Pay attention especially to Luke who includes women a lot in his gospel as supporters of Jesus' ministry and shows Elizabeth and Mary to be heroic in his birth narratives.
     Sinners? Again, Luke, but not only Luke, shows Jesus going after the ones Israel had shut out. He is called a glutton and a drunkard and is regularly criticized for eating with sinners ("sinners" meaning anyone who did not try to meticulously keep the law and traditions).But even an adulteress?
Yes, according to John 8, where he tells the woman who was caught, "Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more."
     Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth
     Thy own presence to cheer and to guide;
     Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow,
     Blessings all mine with 10,000 beside.
     No condemnation for the past. Strength to go forward into new life in the future. The promise of God to all who trust in Him.
     Gentiles? Read Luke 4 again carefully, and see what the people of Nazareth were really so fired up about that they tried to throw Jesus over the nearest cliff. (Hint: it wasn't that He claimed to be the Promised One. That's what I used to think, too.)
     So Bathsheba, who had an affair with King David and who stood silent while the king plotted to have her husband conveniently killed on the front lines of battle after David had gotten her pregnant, became the mother of a child who died. Yes, there are consequences to our sins. But the repentant David had the faith to say, "(the child) will not return to me, but I will go to him." He was able to commit the child into the loving arms of God.
     Consequences - but also grace. Because God gives this couple a second son, Solomon, who would become the most influential and expansive leader in Israel's history. And because of this, Uriah's wife shows up in the line of Jesus Christ. Amazing grace!
     Whatever reason you have to feel like an outsider today, Christmas brings good news. Jesus came for you. Jesus loves you. Jesus will include you, if you come to Him by faith in His finished work on the cross and let Him remake you into a Christlike follower.
      As I said last time, I grew up trusting in my own church life and moral goodness and had to have a radical transformation at the age of 19. Since then, I have done more than my share of wrong and faithless things. But I have always trusted in His grace and have never found Him lacking. To God be all the glory. Amen!

Friday, December 19, 2014

Knots in the Family Tree, Part 3

     In this post, we will look briefly at the third "knot" in Jesus' family tree, namely Ruth, the Moabitess, and thus, yet another Gentile. Ruth is distinguished by being the most moral of the four women Matthew chose, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to include in his geneaolgy in Chapter 1 of his Gospel.
     As we saw last time, Ruth ended up marrying a good man, Boaz, who, it turns out was the son of Rahab, the converted Canaanite prostitute. So even Boaz had non-Jewish blood in him. Evidently, interracial marriages were not necessarily uncommon in those days.
     Ruth is heroic for several reasons: (1) her loyalty to Naomi after the deaths of their spouses (we forget that those words used so often at weddings were not originjally spoken to a husband but to a mother-in-law); (2) her humility in following Naomi's counsel and in her respectful attitude toward Boaz; (3) her industry, as she worked hard to gather the gleanings of barley in Boaz' fields. (God would fit in with both major political parties today in that respect - personal responsibility combined with social compassion toward the poor); and (4) her purity, as she did nothing untoward in her approach to Boaz, but followed the custom of the day.
     In turn, Boaz sought to win her and to be her kinsman redeemer, which he was able to do successfully. Warren Wiersbe points out how Boaz is, for us, a picture of Jesus Christ, OUR Kinsman Redeemer. Like Boaz, Jesus was't concerned about jeopardizing His own inheritance; instead, He made us a part of HIS inheritance. Also like Boaz, Jesus made His plans privately, but He paid the price publicly; and like Boaz, Jesus did what He did because of His love for His bride - in our case, His multi-colored bride.
     Becaue of their determination to become a couple and a family, Ruth from Moab and Boaz, the son of an Israelite and a Canaanite, joined the line of ancestors of our Lord.
     But remember, Ruth began as a pagan worshiper and journeyed toward a relationship with the God of Israel. In Chapter 1, Ruth is not even aware that there is a Boaz; in Chapter 2, she is a poor laborer, gleaning in Boaz' fields and receiving his gifts. To her, Boaz is only a wealthy man who is kind to her - kind of like many see God today. The turning point comes in Chapter 3 when Ruth yields herself at Boaz' feet and believes his promises. The result is Chapter 4, where Ruth is no longer a poor laborer. Now she has Boaz and everything he owns belongs to her.
     This is the journey of every human being, no matter their culture and ethnicity - from not knowing God to thinking we must work for God and be blessed by Him, to believing Him and what he promises, to being a child and heir of the King.
     Whether one is "bad" like Rahab or "good" like Ruth, we all need a Savior. I was one of the "good" ones, growing up in church, and avoiding the common vices of my classmates. But I had to learn that this would not cut it for me. I still needed grace and salvation from my own goodness. I can only trust in the righteousness of Christ.
     Pagan families and Abraham's family - both needed redemption. I close with some good words from writer Ann Voskamp.
     "...so when we sat around the Christnmas tree tonight, and got to that part tonight in the story of Jesus' family tree and read it: "What someone else meant for bad, God means to make it good." No matter what tries to tear you apart, (sexual sin, war, famine, my words) God holds you heart. No matter what bad was meant to harm you, God's good arms have you. You can stand around your Christmas tree with a family tree as messy as Joseph's, with cheaters and beaters and deceivers, with a family tree like Jacob's, who ran away and ran around and ran folks down - but out of a family that felt like a mess, God brings Jesus, the Messiah. God always brings good out of bad. God always makes hard things into good gifts ... and right then, one kid reached over and squeezed my hand? Sometimes just a moment can feel like all the hard things being turned into a gentle draping of a many-colored grace."
     That's my story, too - and I'm sticking to it.



Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Knots in the Family Tree, Part 2

     In this post we'll look at another "knot" in Jesus' family tree found in Matthew 1 - Rahab. Her main story is found in Joshua Chapter 2. She is described as a "prostitute." While it is true that in the Hebrew, the term could also mean "innkeeper," the New Testament Greek uses a term for her which can only mean "prostitute." Sort of like with the term "virgin" in Isaiah 7:14. Yes, in Hebrew, it can also be translated "young maiden" (which liberal scholars have had a field day with over the years). The problem is that when the verse is quoted in the New Testament, and when the term is used of Mary, the Greek word, parthenos, can only have one meaning - one who has not had sexual relations with anyone. The Holy Spirit knows whereof He speaks through His Word.
     For our purposes, Rahab also represents another Gentile in the family tree, specifically another Canaanite. As we said in the last post, the Canaanites were a very wicked and violent people. In Tamar's case, she had something very bad done to her, and in turn, she retaliated by doing something very bad to Judah. There is no record that she ever converted. She may have, we just don't know.
     But with Rahab, we do know. She had heard the stories about the mighty acts of Yahweh long before the spies, "by coincidence," found their way to her. (Joshua 2:8-11) She eviently had chosen to believe in this God. This explains why both Hebrews 11 and James 2 describe her act of hiding the spies and helping them to get back to Joshua as an act of faith. For her work of faith, she and her family were spared when the Israelite army destroyed Jericho after God brought the walls a tumbling down. From that day on, Rahab lived among Israel as a member of the people of God (Joshua 6:25).
     So this Canaanite woman in the family line of Jesus can teach us several lessons. First, we believe by hearing. She believed first by hearing the stories of the acts of Yahweh. We believe by hearing the word of God, specifically the message about Christ (Romans 10:17).
     Second, Rahab shows how true faith demonstrates itself in works. Her faith led her to do the right thing in protecting the two spies from the Canaanites, who would have tortured and brutally murdered them if they had found them. So why was she not killed with all the other Canaanites? According to Hebrews 11:31, it is because she acted "by faith." Then James weighs in by saying that Rahab was considered righteous for what she did. While it is true that with God we are justified by faith alone in Christ alone, it is also true that in the eyes of the watching world, we are justified by our works. I believe this is the point James is making, which is why he is not at odds with Paul, who would also say that we act out of what we believe in order to "adorn the gospel" or in the NIV, "make the gospel attractive." (Titus 2:10).
     Finally, Rahab teaches us that when we come to God, we also come to His people. You can't really have one without the other, although many today seem to be attempting that. If you love Christ, you'll love His bride, too, imperfect as it often is. Augustine of Hippo said it rather crudely. "The church is a whore, but she is my mother." And so, as her descendant and fellow Gentile in Jesus' line, would soon say, "Your people will be my people, and your God my God." (Ruth 1:16).
     Lo and behold, this one who was immersed in pagan idolatry and was radically converted to the one true God, and who demonstrated it by her works of faith and who aligned herself for the rest of her days, not only with God, but with His people, married an Israelite by the name of Salmon, and became the mother of Boaz, and thus, the mother-in-law of Ruth, not to mention the great great grandmother of King David.  Salmon, hmm? I guess Rahab might be the patrion saint of all those Christians who swim upstream against the current and who march to a different drum.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Knots in the Family Tree, Part 1

     I want to use Matthew's genealogy in Matthew 1 for the next several posts during this Advent season.  I think most of are aware that Matthew includes four women in the genealogy - but not just four women, four unusual women. They are Tamar (verse 3), Rahab (verse 5), Ruth (verse 5), and Bathsheba (verse 6). Now one would think he would want to place some of the more respected matriarchs like Sarah or Rebekah (though they had their problems, too) in this list. Instead, Matthew chooses, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, these four, who are unusual for two reasons: (1)each has some type of scandal attached to them, and (2) (for our purposes) each one has either a Gentile origin or a Gentile connection. This, in itself, would have been shocking for his Jewish readers, who thrived on a racially pure lineage, such as those re-established in Ezra and Nehemiah. Yet Matthew seems to take pains to emphasize the mixed nature of Jesus' lineage on purpose. But
remember, this was God's plan from the very beginning, a multi-ethnic, multi-national people of God (Ephesians 3). It's also the Spirit's purpose through Matthew, since He begins with a genealogy that includes persons from other nations, and then ends the gospel with the call of Jesus for His church to "go and make disciples of all nations." (Matthew 28:19)
     One more important note before we go on. I heard Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile make this point several years ago, and it has stuck with me. Matthew begins the family line of Jesus with Abraham. A good Jew, right? Wrong. He came out of Ur of the Chaldees, which became Babylon, and is today, Iraq. So, in Anyabwile's words, "the first Jew was a Gentile!" Think about it. The Jews did not become a people until they came out of Egypt together.
     So let's take a look at Tamar. We find her story in Genesis 38. She was a Canaanite. Judah had broken away from his brothers to marry a Canaanite woman (yes, Judah, the one from whom Christ came!). This entire episode is one based in lies and deceit, and as is often the case, Scripture uses a play on words to emphasize it, because the town where this woman bore Judah his third son was named Kezib (or Chezib), which is related to the Hebrew verb, "to tell a lie." Judah chose Tamar (which means "date palm," suggesting a fine figure) for his son. But after the first two sons had died at the hand of God for their sins without Tamar ever conceiving, Judah had promised his third son to her when he had grown to adulthood, a promise Judah did not deliver on. Apparently, Judah chose to place the responsibility for his sons' deaths on Tamar, rather than on God, because he had come to see her as "bad luck." He had shown his true intention when he sent her back to her father's house.
     The sordid story continued as Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute to entice her father-in-law to sleep with her so she could bear a child for the family line. Judah had deceived her, so it was payback time. When it was discovered that Tamar was pregnant, Judah decided to have her burned to death, until he discovered that she was pregnant by him. Then he showed some measure of repentance. Like his grandfather before him, Judah became the father of twin boys.
     That's where the story ends. Yet Matthew places her in the family tree of Jesus Christ. And not only her, but one of her sons, born of deception, Perez.
     There are several lessons here. One is that we are not safe when we separate ourselves from the community, which is what Judah did. We think sometimes, as believers, that we can get along in the world very well without the church. Judah serves as a warning to us that we cannot. There is always the temptation to live like our neighbors instead of as the people of God.
     And let's note the continued reaping received from deception. Jacob had used a garment to deceive his father, Isaac, and Judah and his brothers had used Joseph's garment to deceive their father into believing his beloved son was dead. Now Tamar used a garment to deceive Judah (Genesis 38:14).
     But over and above this all, the lesson is one of grace. Yes, God disapproves of our sin, and sometimes we pay the highest price for it (like Tamar's first two husbands). Yet despite their imperfections, God used these folks to accomplish his purposes, including the provision of a family line for the Messiah, the One who would come to "save His people from their sins" (Matthew 1:21). God truly takes the weak things of this world to shame the wise (1 Corinthians 1:27). I stand as Exhibit A. I like these words of Victor Hamilton:
     "Each of these four women had a highly irregular and potentially scandalous marital union. Nevertheless, these unions were, by God's providence, links in the chain to the Messiah. Accordingly, each of them prepares the way for Mary, whose marital situation is also peculiar, given the fact that she is pregnant but has not yet had sexual relations with her betrothed husband, Joseph. Thus the inclusion of the likes of Tamar in this family tree on one hand foreshadows the circumstances of the birth of Christ, and on the other hand blunts any attack on Mary. God had worked His will in the midst of whispers of scandal." (The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50, p.455-456)
     Yet again, for our purposes, let us not forget that Tamar was also a Canaanite, not only a Gentile, but a person belonging to a nation of particularly wicked Gentiles. Yet here she is in the family tree. Let's thank God this Advent season for the One who came into the world from the Father, "full of grace and truth." (John 1:14). And let's keep on dreaming of that church that is made up of all nations and looks a lot like the church that is, even now, in heaven.