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The Crooked Lines in Jesus’s Family Tree: December 24, 2017 (morning)

The 4th Sunday of Advent
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Canticle: The Magnificat
Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38

A Gospel reading we never hear in the Advent season — not in years A, B, or C — is the very beginning of the Gospel According to Matthew. It’s one of those genealogical lists, that we may have assumed were left behind, in the Old Testament.

But there it is, in Matthew. Seventeen verses of x begat y, and a begat b, and occasionally so-and-so begat such-and-such by that person.

Matthew, who’s especially conscious of connecting the Gospel story with the history and hopes of his Jewish audience, starts appropriately with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Jewish patriarchs. And the list goes on, some names harder to pronounce than others. And it sections off at “David, the king.” So it starts strong, and goes on this upswing that culminates with David.

Then it continues, into the second of this three-part list. From David (who wanted to build the Temple) to Solomon (who did build the Temple), to a several more generations — this list definitely harder to pronounce than the first. And this second chunk, other than David and Solomon — flawed but favoured, and two other figures: Hezekiah and Josiah — it’s a list of what Biblical scholar Raymond Brown describes as “an odd assortment of idolaters, murderers, incompetents, power-seekers, and harem-wastrels.” And this disordered group culminates in the Babylonian Exile. A big down-swing.

Then there’s the last part of this list of ancestors of Jesus. Almost everyone in this part of the list — other than the first two and the last two (Joseph and Mary) — we don’t know them, outside this list. I’ll bring in Raymond Brown again, who suggests this: “while powerful rulers in the monarchy brought God’s people to a low point in recorded history (deportation), unknown people, presumably also proportionately divided among saints and sinners, were the vehicles of restoration. Still another indicator of the unpredictability of god’s grace is that God’s purpose [is accomplished] through those whom others regard as unimportant and forgettable.”

And in this list Matthew includes several important women — something that we might not expect based on Old Testament convention. He includes Tamar, daughter-in-law of Jacob’s son Judah, and much more faithful to God than Judah was.

And he includes Rahab, a prostitute, and a Cannanite one, at that — one of the people who was supposed to be expelled from the Promised Land.

And there’s Ruth and Bathsheba, and eventually we get to Mary. That Mary’s pregnancy and family situation is a complicated one is foreshadowed in “the crooked lines” [Brown] that God used to get from Abraham to Mary.

And so today, as we come to the end of the Advent season (for us, technically at 3:59 PM) we come to Mary, and her special and decisive role in salvation history. We’ve been reminded of the crooked lines in the genealogy of Jesus. Reminded of how God used both the celebrated and the practically anonymous; the mighty, and the exiled; patriarchs of the Chosen People, and chosen outsiders and aliens. How the famous and powerful lead to low points in history; but the nobodies and the surprises bring us to Joseph and Mary, and in turn, Jesus. Mary’s powerful song specially makes sense in that context: His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

This ‘reordering,’ or, rearranging of the values of the world is especially what we’re going to celebrate tonight, in our Christmas services. But it’s there already in our Advent readings this morning. And it will be consistently embodied in Jesus’s earthly life and ministry that we reflect on throughout the church year.

Caryll Houselander was a 20th century mystic and devotional writer, and she writes this about Mary and the Incarnation: [In the Advent and Christmas seasons] we celebrate the wedding of the Holy Spirit with humanity, the wedding of the Spirit of Wisdom and Love with the dust of the earth. [….] This is something which can happen to everyone now, but it could not have happened to anyone but for the fiat of the peasant girl in Nazareth whom the whole world calls Our Lady.

Mary, as we’ll hear tonight, was visited by the shepherds, and “treasured [their words] and pondered them in her heart,” has been called “the treasure chest of the post-Easter Church” and “the memory of the Church.” And today there’s a sense that Mary offers the whole Church more than just a devotional approachability, and sentimental feelings around the nativity. That part of Mary’s treasure and wisdom is that radical message that our God is one who surprises the world by choosing those whom we might not expect. A God who scatters the proud, brings down the powerful, and lifts up the lowly.

A God, we heard in our first reading, who surprises David, sitting in his castle, and says, “no, don’t build me a castle. I’m fine — for now — living freely and flexibly in this Tent and Tabernacle.” The Temple would of course eventually come, but not without its issues and shortcomings. And one day the ancestor of David, and Son of Mary, will demonstrate to the elites of his day, that God truly wants our hearts and our compassion for others, rather than seeming holiness acquired through the transaction of money and sacrificial animals. And, according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, that will lead directly to his death. And like a sword, this will pierce Mary’s heart.

Let us pray:

Almighty and everlasting God,
who stooped to raise fallen humanity
through the child-bearing of blessed Mary:
grant that we, who have seen your glory
revealed in our human nature,
and your love made perfect in our weakness,
may daily be renewed in your image
and conformed to the pattern of your Son
Jesus Christ our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

© 2017 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

* References to Raymond Brown are from A Coming Christ in Advent (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1988), 16-26.