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The secret to Christmas joy

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Matthew 1:1-17

Christmas started me on the road to moral ruin. In first grade, our class was melting crayons into drawings of the Wise Men. I finished early and asked the teacher if I could do whatever I wanted. She said yes, so I melted a crayon into her hair. She quit teaching that year. Thus began a life of elementary school crime.

My second-grade teacher broke her paddle on my backside, and quit that year. My third-grade teacher suffered a nervous breakdown and quit. In the fourth grade I locked a girl in the coat closet during lunch; another day I knocked eraser dust into the window air conditioner, spraying the entire classroom. That teacher quit that year.

In the fifth grade I learned to make stink-bombs out of plastic pens (I’ll not share the secret, so others won’t follow my immoral example), but that teacher stayed on the job anyway. My sixth grade teacher quit that year. Perhaps there’s a pattern in the story. My long-suffering mother knew my teachers better than I did. I received Christmas presents each year only by grace.

Today we’ll look at those Jesus invited to his birthday. We’ll learn that we’re each invited by grace, no matter what our elementary school teachers thought of us. And we’ll learn why that fact matters so very much in this, the Advent week of joy.

From Abraham to David

Verse 1: “A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” Why did Matthew begin in such a boring way? Because this subject was absolutely crucial to his purpose. He is writing to convince the Jews that Jesus is their Messiah. But the Messiah must come from the racial line of Abraham and the royal line of David, much as a candidate for President of the United States must be a natural-born citizen of our country. If Matthew cannot demonstrate these twin facts about Jesus, his work is done before it begins. His genealogy back to Abraham and David proves the case for Jesus’ Messiahship.

Now, remember that Jesus was the only baby who chose his ancestors. And he chose these 38 people. Let’s learn something about them, and ask why they’re here.

Jesus chose Isaac rather than Ishmael, though his mother was 90 years of age when he was born. Jesus’ own birth was not the first miraculous conception in his family line.

He chose Jacob (which means “deceiver”) rather than Esau, though the former lived up to his name most of his life. He would not be the last deceiver included by Jesus in his disciples and family.

He chose Judah rather than another of Jacob’s 12 sons. He could have chosen the godly Joseph, for instance. Any of the others were men of greater integrity than Judah.

Here’s how we know: “Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar” (v. 3a). Tamar was married to Judah’s first son, but he died; then to his second son, but he died as well. Judah refused to give her his third son, so she pretended to be a prostitute, slept with her father-in-law, and bore him Perez and Zerah. Jesus chose a family line which included the worst kind of immorality. But Judah was not the last person of questionable character to be included in his family.

God redeemed Judah’s sin in amazing ways.

Despite his incestuous beginnings, Perez was blessed greatly by God (cf. Ruth 4:12). His descendants would become military heroes and political leaders (1 Chronicles 27:2-3; Nehemiah 11:6; 1 Esdras 5:5 [Apocrypha]). God can always hit straight licks with crooked sticks.

Hezron was the ancestor of two of the greatest clans in Judah (1 Chronicles 2:18-24, 25-33).

Ram was not Hezron’s first son, but his second (1 Chronicles 2:9). We don’t know why God chose him specifically, though his name means “exalted.” The Lord has plans for us which only he knows.

Amminadab was the father-in-law of Aaron, the first high priest. And so Jesus is descended from the priestly line, as well as the royal.

Nahshon was one of the most prominent leaders in Jewish history, known as the “leader of the people of Judah” (1 Chronicles 2:10).

His son Salmon, on the other hand, married the pagan prostitute Rahab. Straight licks with crooked sticks, indeed. And with remarkable results.

Their son Boaz was one of the most honored people in Jewish history. And one of the most famous, for his romance and marriage to Ruth, the Moabite foreigner. No one would have included her in their family but God.

Their son was Obed, which probably means “worshipper.” His son was Jesse, a resident of Bethlehem and father of eight boys. The last would become the greatest king in Jewish history.

Jesus chose some of the holiest people in Hebrew history for his ancestors, but also some of the most corrupt. Why?

From David to Babylon

The moral disease in his family tree is most evident in what comes next: David’s son was Solomon, “whose mother had been Uriah’s wife” (v. 6b).

The story of David’s adultery with Bathsheba was so loathsome that Matthew could not bring himself to call her by name, but he made sure we know that she was Uriah’s wife before she was the king’s.

But as another example of God’s redemptive ability, their son Solomon became the wisest man of all time (1 Kings 3:12). Tragically, he was not the most moral. His 700 wives and 300 concubines led him into paganism and immorality. The result was a downward slide into captivity and near oblivion for the people of God.

Now the list bounces back and forth from morality to immorality, as the nation catapults into captivity.

Rehoboam refused the wisdom of his elders; his egotism split the nation permanently into the 10 northern tribes (“Israel”) and the two southern tribes (“Judah”). Jesus’ genealogy follows the southern kings from this point forward.

Abijah was a positive and righteous leader.

Asa was, as well, for most of his 41 years on the throne, though his life ended in rebellion against the Lord (2 Chronicles 16:10-14).

Jehoshaphat led his people to miraculous victory over their enemies through passionate prayer (2 Chronicles 20:1-30). So far so good.

But the bad soon follows.

Jehoram put all his brothers to death when he ascended the throne, was rebuked by the prophet Elijah, and lost the treasures of his palace and even some of his own sons and daughters to the Philistines. We cannot count on our father’s faith, but must make it our own.

Uzziah was one of Judah’s great military and spiritual leaders, until his pride led to his downfall. He took for himself the priestly privilege of burning incense before the Lord, for which he was punished with fatal leprosy. It’s not how we start but how we end that counts.

Jotham was generally successful, known for building programs during his rule.

Ahaz was not. He led the people into idolatry and even child sacrifice, as one of the most wicked rulers in Jewish history.

Now the pendulum swings even more wildly from generation to generation.

Next came Hezekiah, one of the greatest rulers in all of Jesus’ family line. He brought sweeping reform to the nation, abolished idolatry, and saved Judah from Assyrian assault.

His son was Manasseh, whose reign was longest of any king in Judah’s history but also the most wicked. The nation’s destruction was ultimately his fault.

His son Amon was killed in a palace revolt.

Josiah turned the nation back to God, as one of the greatest leaders in biblical history. He rediscovered the Book of Deuteronomy, and used it to make sweeping spiritual reforms. Tragically, he died in battle at the age of 39. And the rest of the story is equally tragic.

Jeconiah ruled only three months until the king of Egypt deposed him. Then his brother Jehoiakim took the throne, until the Babylonians deposed him and destroyed their nation in 586 B.C.

From the nation’s greatest heights under David and Solomon to their lowest subjection, in 14 names. How quickly history can change. But Jesus chose them all, godly and wicked, for his family tree. Why?

From Babylon to the Christ

Most of the names which complete the list are completely unknown to us.

Shealtiel means “I have asked of God.”

Zerubbabel was governor of Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile. He and Joshua the high priest rebuilt the altar and laid the foundation for the Temple.

The next names are given to us in triplet.

Abiud means “my father is glorious;” Eliakim means “God will raise up;” Azor’s name possesses no theologican meaning so far as we know.

Zadok means “righteousness; “Akim’s name has no significant meaning; Eliud means “God is high and mighty.”

Eleazar means “God helps;” Matthan and Jacob are otherwise unknown in Scripture.

For nine generations, the Messiah’s chosen family possessed no leaders remarkable enough to earn biblical citation. They may have been rulers of the nation, or not. They may have been as godly as Josiah or as profane as Manasseh. Only God knows. But God knows. Why are such unknown people here?

Conclusioin

Every name in the list is included because Jesus wants everyone to come to his birthday party. He understandably invited people of unblemished moral record such as Boaz and Josiah. But he also invited tragically flawed figures like Judah, Ahaz, and Manasseh. Why? Because God “is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

Some of us don’t think we’re worthy to be invited to the party.

We know our sins and failures. Some are secret, and some are not. Every family has a story, as does every person you know. I have had conversations this week which would prove that fact to us all, if I were to make them public. You probably have as well.

What private sins are you glad no one knows? What secrets are locked away in the closet of your soul? Ahaz and Manasseh prove that none of our stories are bad enough to keep us out of God’s story. We can all know him, and know that we know him. We are each welcome at his birthday party.

Others of us think we are worthy to be invited. We don’t have a story as bad as some of these we’ve heard today. But your last sin was enough to keep you out of God’s perfect paradise. All of us have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). If God were fair, none of us could come to the party. It is only by his grace that any of us are invited. And it is by his grace that all of us are invited. We can all know him, and know that we know him. None are worthy, but all are welcome.

How grateful are you for Christmas this year? Is the pressure and busyness of the season getting to you? For some of us it’s a very hard time of the year. The 25th anniversary of my father’s death is this week. For many of us this is a difficult season. For all of us it is a busy season. Have you found the joy of Christmas yet? Here’s how you can.

Since I knew all week that I would be teaching on this subject, I have tried to spend the week in gratitude. I have focused on the fact that the baby came just for me, to bring God’s forgiving love into my hardened world and my stress-filled heart.

I have prayed and read Scripture each morning, not to fulfill a religious duty but as a privilege, realizing that I am standing in the throne room of heaven itself by grace. I have done my work this week as a beggar helping other beggars find bread. I have prepared this message in gratitude for the honor of speaking God’s word to you today. And as I have spent this week in gratitude for the grace of Christmas, I have rediscovered a depth of joy which had gone missing in my hurried, busy life.

Do you think you’re unworthy to come to the party? Or do you think you’re worthy to be invited? Either belief will steal your joy. Come to Christmas this year, not because you’re worthy but because you’re welcome. And you’ll find the joy your heart longs to feel. This is the promise of God.