Preaching a Genealogy

It is noteworthy that when we open the text we call the New Testament, the first thing we find is a genealogy. Some of us read it as if it is interesting to Matthew but has little to say to us. Others as if it is necessary history before getting to the good stuff. Still others do not even read it at all. In reality, it is not our place to dismiss some scripture as irrelevant or uninteresting. There are likely a number of reasons Matthew included genealogy and not one of them considers Matthew 1 as optional reading. This is Gospel.

Matthew wants us to know from the start that much has already happened. Generations and years have passed and God is interested in all of it. God is deeply committed to His chosen people. While people may stray, God does not. When people lose their way, God is committed to bringing them back. Matthew wants them to know that no matter what happens, He is “God with us.”

Scot McKnight, in A Fellowship of Differents, talks about “the story of Israel that morphs into the story of the Kingdom and the story of the Church.” I propose that this genealogy is an important piece of this story. The genealogy is more than information about one family of Middle Eastern origin. It is an introduction to a family of faith that God is deeply involved with and deeply committed to. We become part of this family and are included among the people with whom God chooses to dwell. We become evidence that God is involved with the world and has invested everything that we might receive salvation.

The genealogy reminds us that God has intervened in history through multiple situations and with multiple people. No matter what goes wrong, God does not give up His great desire to be with us. The genealogy reminds us that each of us are born into an already existing story. Our stories are connected to a bigger story, a story that includes Messiah. Matthew 1 prompts us to explore the commitment of God to be with His people since the beginning.  And to recognize His most serious move to be with us is Jesus.

The more we read this genealogy the more we realize God’s interest in people groups like nations and families. God is interested in communicating salvation through common forms of relationship. The Messiah comes through the flesh and blood history of a family. By the time we arrive to the New Testament we are aware that God views salvation as a relational project. We preach knowing that God’s work among people groups is not finished. God continues to work through such groups – primarily the one we call Church.

The genealogy reminds us how theological history can be. Ben Witherington talks about this in The Indelible Image. God becomes involved in the messy events of human history. Indeed, God enters it in the person of Jesus. The more we read the genealogy, the more we realize that this is an unlikely group to be chosen for passing the torch of God’s Good News. Even among the chosen, some things do not happen as we would like. The genealogy acknowledges this reality along with the reality of God’s presence. Certainly there were better candidates with more stability and better decision-making skills. Yet, this is the people God chose to bring the Gospel into the messy events of human history.

Preaching Matthew 1 should encourage a look around the sanctuary on a Sunday morning. What will we see? An unlikely group? Not the group you would have chosen? Still, this is the collection of people God has assembled to call His own. This is the family He chooses to dwell among as “God with us.”

Preaching the Activity of God

Luke wants us to see a bigger picture. He finds events to be significant, but he does not consider all events equal. Luke is aware that things are taking place. He does not ignore them; he prefers to mention them as part of his historical monologue. Yet, he never makes them more important than they are intended to be. He desires that we acknowledge the content of what goes on around us, but does not wish for us to make it the main subject. Luke reminds us that we are participating in history. So he writes about this God who intervenes in history. He wants us to know that everything that occurs is part of this bigger story about God.

The Gospel reveals that Caesar decreed and the Acts that Herod gave a speech. But both Luke and Acts want us to know that political intervention is weak and short-lived in comparison to the intervention of God. In fact, these things appear to take place in order to halt the work of God in history. Instead, they become part of a series of events that are deemed powerless in comparison to the Gospel news.

The Gospel is a book that encourages the reader to pack for Jerusalem. The Acts is a book that tells the reader that what happens in Jerusalem does not stay in Jerusalem. Jerusalem seems to be important for Luke on account of the significant events that happen there. The undeniable intervention of God that is evident at crucifixion, resurrection, and Pentecost.

In a sense, Gabriel’s words to Mary could be seen as a text for both volumes as we see them proven again and again. “Nothing will be impossible with God.” In Acts, this is evidenced by the structure as the word continues to move and spread and the church continues to grow despite the barriers presented along the way.

At 6.7; 9.31; 12.24; 16.5; 19.20; and 28.31 we find summaries that remind us that the Good News of God will not be stopped by barriers of any kind. Simply, we may suggest the following; we encounter a language barrier, apostles are jailed twice, there is evidence of an imperfect church, and neglect of the Greek widows. Still, “The word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith.”

There is a death by stoning, murderous threats, ethnic barriers, even magic, yet “the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, being built up; and going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase.” Then dietary restrictions, political power, death by sword, and an unbelieving church, but “the word of the Lord continued to grow and to be multiplied.”

The barriers continue as we find geographical barriers, lobbying, thrown in jail again, magic, economic barriers. Still we are told that “the word of the Lord was growing mightily and prevailing.” Finally, we encounter yet another arrest, a dangerous voyage, shipwreck, snakebite, trial, and disagreement but the book ends with “preaching the kingdom of God and teaching concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all openness, unhindered.”

It is important to see that all along the way, the content never becomes the story. The people never become the story. Luke wants us to be aware of things going on around us. Even more, he wants us to be aware of the bigger story that God invaded the planet in history and nothing can stop His news.

Acts sets a precedent that nothing is able to stand in the way of the good news that God has intervened in history. Acts does not list every potential barrier but does bring up a number of them. These include every major barrier of the first century; language, geography, ethnicity, politics, magic, other religions and philosophies, even imprisonment and death. These have not disappeared and other barriers have emerged. But our preaching can still reflect the bigger story that nothing is able to stop the activity of God.

The Activity of God in History

Acts is an account that insists on the activity of God in history. Acts is convinced that the Spirit is able to overcome any barrier, no matter how impossible. So whether we encounter a beggar at the temple gate or hungry widows, Stephen’s death or Peter’s imprisonment – none of these things are exempt from the Spirit’s activity. Whether the scene is an upper room in Jerusalem or a road in the desert, a prison in Caesarea Maritima or a ship sailing in dangerous waters – the Spirit is not absent from any of these places. Even catastrophe cannot limit the work of the Spirit or stop the spread of the good news.

I cannot read Acts without getting the impression that conflict, persecution, and catastrophe are opportunities. This is counter intuitive. We would like to believe that peace, comfort, and worry free moments are the times that we can best organize effectively and therefore prosper. Acts may suggest that times of comfort and prosperity bring with them a lack of urgency and intensity and priority. Without apology, Acts continues to present challenging situations. Without exception, Acts reports that the good news continued to spread. Acts leaves us with the impression that our writings, stories, and growth are strengthened during less fortunate situations.

There is a temptation for preachers to preach about a language miracle, or healing, or call to ministry, or prayer, or persecution or any other situation that arises in the narrative. We certainly do not want to ignore these contexts, but neither do we want to miss the message being pushed forward by the narrative. Why would we want to focus on the barrier and make it the main point of the story? I propose that it would be no different than preaching a sermon about surviving shipwreck or snakebite. In every chapter, rather than focusing on the barrier, our focus should be on the Holy Spirit who overcomes the barrier.

Preaching Acts is proclamation of the ongoing activity of God. Acts sets a precedent. Our barriers may be different, but there is an implication that the Spirit may be at work in any conversation, in any location, and during any activity. Acts insists that despite a host of barriers, the result continued to be “preaching the kingdom of God and teaching concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all openness, unhindered.” Acts insists on the activity of God in history. It is no different for us.