Even the most stable family Christmas celebration has the potential to call to mind a Dickens’ novel, and I don’t mean A Christmas Carol. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Let’s be honest. Family is LOVELY, but family is hard. The people who are closest to you, who can bring you the greatest joy and comfort and solace, are also the people who can bring you the greatest frustration or sadness or despair. Family is LOVELY, but family is hard. Family is messy, and in the truth of that statement is another case of “nothing is new under the sun.”
Jesus’ genealogy testifies to the fact that family is messy; it reads like a modern soap opera. It has its high points for sure. There are the early patriarchs of the faith, Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. Toward the middle we here about the family of God’s chosen first king over Israel, David with his father Jesse and his son, the wise king Solomon. Later in the generations are men with names like Zadok, meaning “righteous,” and Eliakim, meaning “the one who God will raise up.” It was the best of times!
But also tucked in there among the great heroes of the faith, it was the worst of times. Jesus’ family tree isn’t always one that a king would want publicized. In fact, it’s surprising that Matthew would even bother with the genealogy at all with some of the stories that turn up in the list. Jesus’ family isn’t squeaky clean. Whose is? In Jesus’ ancestors there are affairs and abuse, marriages to women from “the wrong side of the tracks” and marriages based on lies and trickery. Yet even still Matthew chose to write it right here at the beginning of the telling of the Jesus’ birth, and maybe even more confusingly, I chose to read it right here on Christmas Eve.
Unlike Luke’s nativity story, which is probably more familiar, there isn’t an obvious dramatic flair in Matthew’s telling. Luke has an older barren woman conceiving her first child; her husband a righteous prophet doesn’t believe the news and is struck mute until the baby, another important prophet, is born. Then on the other end of the spectrum a young girl, betrothed but not married also conceives a child. She sings her heart and God’s out with inexplicable joy. There’s a journey, a birth, a whole heavenly host of angels.
Luke has all this, but Matthew starts his book a completely different way. Without heralding angels or a worldwide census, he gives us a little family history. He isn’t first concerned with Jesus’ worldwide impact in his telling of the birth; instead he sets out to tell a family story. So to begin his nativity story, Matthew tells us from where Jesus comes. He tells us what Jesus was getting into. Jesus didn’t come into a perfect family, as if the perfect family even exists. But by laying out all his family secrets, by airing out his familial dirty laundry, Matthew shows us exactly what Jesus does. He does what the angel says his name declares - -Jesus saves.
Jesus saves. The Messiah, the chosen one of God, comes into the world shrouded in secrecy and confusion, mystery and shame. He humbly comes into the world born as a baby into a family full of all the stuff that families are full of, and from within this family, the human family, Jesus saves us all. He gives life to the lifeless. He rescues those in danger. He redeems the most scandalous stories of Scripture by coming directly out of them.
Very few of us, I’m guessing, have lives that are picture perfect. Very few of us, I’m guessing, can say that everything is going exactly the way we had hoped and dreamed and planned. Life just tends not to work that way. Sickness gets in the way, tragedy gets in the way. The economy gets in the way; broken relationships get in the way. And even if right now it seems like things are going smoothly, and if that’s the case fully enjoy it and live into it, but even if right now it seems like things are going smoothly, Jesus’ family tree reminds us that there are the best of times and the worst of times. Yet into all of these times, Jesus comes.
Jesus comes right into the middle of our very messy lives. Jesus is born right in the middle of our celebrations and our scandals, our prosperity and our pain. Jesus is born right in the middle of it all in order to bring God’s love and God’s grace to us right where and when we need it. Jesus is born right in the middle of a messy messy family situation, but his birth is God’s sign and God’s promise the be present in and redeem the messiest of them all.
This is the promise of Christmas. No matter how confusing and painful our lives may be, or on the other end of the spectrum no matter how joyful and ecstatic we are feeling, we are never outside the reach of God in Jesus our Christ, Jesus who was born to save us. He took on the human condition, even to the smallest detail of birth as a humble, helpless child, and in becoming one of us he has redeemed all of us. For this we give our humble thanks and praise. Amen.