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 a Grand Story

Preaching through the biblical narrative may be a daunting task.  But perhaps it becomes less daunting if we frame it as a grand story.  At the very least it would help lend a potential structure.  Eugene Peterson tells us that all stories have basic elements.  I like what he says and the questions he prompts enough that from this point on, I follow his lead.  In order to assist with the recognition of the narrative shape of Scripture, he punctuates the following elements.

First, there is a beginning and an ending.  “All stories take place in time and are bounded by a past and a future.”  Peterson proposes that the bible (as well as other good stories) has both an original and a final goodness.  Eden.  Heaven.

Second, Peterson says that there is a catastrophe.  The good beginning hits a bump.  There is a barrier.  Something stands in the way.  A disaster occurs.  And then, “we are, in other words, in the middle of a mess.”

Third, salvation enters the plot.  Peterson says that “some faint memory reminds us that we were made for something better than this .”  This creates a tension.  We find ourselves in between the original good and the present evil.  And a plan develops to get us out of our trouble – salvation.  I rather like the way that Peterson frames our situation.  He suggests that we are facing opposing forces while we fight “our way through difficult and unfamiliar territory to our true home.”

Fourth, characters develop.  The actions of people are important.  Personalities develop in the course of conflict and journey.  Character and circumstance are in dynamic interplay with each other.  Some people become better, some become worse.  Nobody stays the same.

And finally, “everything has significance.”  Peterson places emphasis on the fact that story implies an author.  Nothing happens by chance.  “Every word connects with every other word in the author’s mind, and so every detail, regardless of how it strikes us at first, belongs.”

He goes on to say that “all the world’s stories have these characteristics.”  Whether implied or explicit these elements are there.  And “they develop into tragedies, comedies, epics, confessions, murder mysteries, and gothic romances.  Poets, dramatists, novelists, children, and parents have developed millions of variations on these elements.”

Peterson calls the bible a “huge, sprawling account that contains subject matter from several cultures, languages, and centuries.”  He points out that Northrup Fry distinguishes the bible from other sacred books on account of its emphasis on narrative.  He highlights how the narrative even shows itself in the arrangement of the Hebrew canon.

The Torah (Genesis through Deuteronomy) gives us the basic story.  The Prophets (Joshua through Malachi) take the basic story and introduce it into new situations across centuries “insisting that it be believed and obeyed in the present, not merely recited out of the past.”  The Writings reflect on the story, assimilating them into wisdom (Job and Proverbs) and worship (Psalms).

The New Testament then takes on a parallel shape.  The Gospels tell the basic story in a new Torah.  The Epistles serve similarly to the Prophets as the story is told in an expanding world, preached over multiple journeys and conflicts across multiple geographical and cultural settings.  Peterson even adds that Luke expands the four Gospels into a five-volume Torah (Acts) at the same time that he introduces the prophetical lives of Peter and Paul.  James and Revelation are equivalent to the Writings, summing up in wisdom and worship the response of a people whose lives are shaped by story.

While I think that Peterson might allow some difference of opinion in the details, I think he would insist that scripture be read in this narrative framework where all the parts (proverbs, commandments, letters, visions, law, songs, prayer, genealogies) are included into a unified story.  In fact, he goes so far as to say that “it is fatal to exegesis when this narrative sense is lost.”

Peterson becomes helpful for us as we attempt to preach through the bible.  He helps us to see that every word fits into the larger context.  This becomes especially important when we recognize that a great deal of context gets lost when words are written down.  We lose “the tone of voice, the smell in the air, the wind on the cheek.”  But the thing we do not lose is the basic narrative – language shaped into story.

Since this is the one part of context that we do have, it becomes important to be attentive to it.  The Genesis to Revelation context.  The basic story laid down in Torah and Gospel.  The intrusion of story into history by Prophets and Epistles.  The gathering response of Psalms and Revelation.

No matter when we preach, what text, or where, we want to remember  that “God’s decision to use words as a means for revealing himself and shaping us means that we must pay attention both to what he says and to how he says it.”