Sunday, December 23, 2012

A Savior for Scandalous Sinners Like You and Me: Homily for the Sunday before Christmas in the Orthodox Church

Epistle to the Hebrews 11:9-10, 17-23, 32-40
Gospel According to St. Matthew 1:1-25
            Whether we like it or not, we all inherit a lot from our parents and pass a lot along to our children.  It may not be a lot of money, but from genetics to personalities to a thousand other details about what seems normal and natural, we all play our role in shaping humanity from generation to generation.  We do that for good and bad, as a quick look at ourselves and our families reveals.   Those who went before us were not perfect and neither will those who follow us be without flaw.  Nonetheless, God works through imperfect people to accomplish His purposes.  That was certainly the case for the family tree of Jesus Christ.  
            St. Matthew begins his gospel with the family tree of the Lord, with His genealogy. He does so in order to show that the Savior had the right heritage to be the Messiah, the anointed One in Whom all God’s promises to Abraham would be fulfilled. So he traces the Lord’s ancestry back to Abraham; through David, the great king who was viewed as a model for the Messiah; and through all the generations up to St. Joseph, to whom the Virgin Mary was betrothed when she became the Theotokos, the one who bore the eternal Son of God in her womb. 
            Well, our eyes probably glaze over whenever we read a genealogy in the Bible. It can sound like an endless, unimportant list of who begat whom.  But we must not pass over Matthew’s account of Jesus Christ’s family tree so quickly, for there are many surprises in it.  And in those surprises we see that the Lord is a Messiah quite different from the one most of the first-century Jews expected.  For they typically wanted a military ruler like King David, who would defeat the Romans, and set Israel free from her enemies.  In the eyes of the Pharisees, the Messiah was to be a strict interpreter of the Old Testament law through whom God would bless the righteous and bring judgment upon the sinner.    It was commonly assumed that the Messiah’s coming would be a blessing for law-abiding Jews, but a curse for the Gentiles and the sinners of Israel.
            So how odd that St. Matthew includes in the genealogy the names of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and the wife of Uriah, Bathsheba.  They are, first of all, women.  Genealogies were usually names of fathers and sons; the women weren’t worth mentioning in that time and place.  They were also Gentiles and sinners, foreigners who were involved in one way or another in something scandalous.  For example, Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute in order to conceive children by the father of her late husband.  Rahab is known as “Rahab the Harlot.”  King David committed adultery with Bathsheba and then murdered her husband.   Ruth was King David’s great-grandmother and a Moabite woman.  The Old Testament is full of warnings to Jewish men against marrying Gentile women like Ruth. So these are embarrassing figures to include in the family line of the Messiah, who was supposed to be a model of the Jewish faith.  
            This unlikely cast of characters in our Savior’s family tree is a sign that God’s promises are not only for righteous Jewish men, but for everyone with faith, including Gentiles, repentant sinners, and those of shockingly low standing in society.  Matthew prepares us in his genealogy for the unique kind of Messiah we encounter in Jesus Christ:  not one who rewards the proud, powerful, and respectable, but one who blesses the humble, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, and those with purity of heart who will see God.   
            Immediately following the genealogy, Matthew tells us of the Lord’s birth under circumstances even more shocking than those we have described so far.  Mary, a virgin girl, becomes pregnant by the Holy Spirit.  Joseph, her guardian and protector, was horrified by what he assumed was her immoral behavior, and was prepared to end their betrothal.  But an angel told him of the miracle, he believed, and became the adopted father of the Lord.
            We have heard the story so many times that we may have forgotten how shocking, how embarrassing, how unconventional the circumstances of Christ’s conception were.  Surely, many people judged Mary and Joseph and never believed in the miracle of the virgin birth.  Surely, it was difficult for Mary and Joseph to change the course of their lives, and to risk their reputations and physical safety, in order to play their unique roles in the unfolding of our salvation. 
            And when we remember that this is the story of the union in Jesus Christ of God and humanity, of the fulfillment of all God’s promises beyond even the greatest expectations of the Old Testament prophets, of the Incarnation of the Son of God for our salvation, it becomes even more shocking.  For don’t we usually expect that God’s ways are like our ways, that His kingdom is like the kingdoms of earth, that He must love the respectable, wealthy,  and successful more than He does the scandalous, the poor, and the downtrodden?  Don’t we usually think that holiness isn’t embarrassing or unconventional or at least uncomfortable?  And who doesn’t want a faith that leads to success in the world?
            In these last days before Christmas, we should make a concerted effort to accept that the Mystery of our salvation in Jesus Christ is not an extension of our personal accomplishments, good characteristics, or abilities.  It is not a reward for good behavior, which is good news because we have all fallen short of holiness in one way or another.   It is not about politics or cultural supremacy, which is also good news because we have all become too comfortable with violence, anger, selfishness, and putting our own pleasure and convenience before God and neighbor.   Instead, the good news of this season lies in the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham, now extended to all who have faith in the true Messiah, the One who is anointed to bring light and life to the world, to be the second Adam in Whom our fallen, corrupt humanity is healed and brought into the very life of the Holy Trinity. 
            Though not many people apparently noticed it at the time, God’s promises in the Old Testament extended to all who believed, including Gentiles, sinners, and women.   The promise was not fulfilled in their lifetimes, however, “God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us.”  So, you see, we are part of the family tree also.  The line that began with Abraham and is fulfilled in Christ includes us.  He is the vine and we are the branches. 
            Yes, I know that we are unworthy and unlikely members of such a family.  Like those who prepared for the coming of Christ and those who have served Him since, we are also sinners whose lives are in many ways scandalous.  Perhaps that’s why the Son of God chose a human heritage full of imperfect people who often fell short; perhaps that’s why He was born in circumstances that at least outwardly commanded the respect of no one; perhaps that is why the Old and New Testaments are so honest about the sins of both the Jews and the early Christians.
            When we look at the Lord’s genealogy, we see people a lot like us.  For His people are not self-righteous snobs who never did anything wrong.  They are not those who have no problems, struggles, and pains. They are not those who think that everything boils down to money, power, reputation, and getting their own way.  They are not those who believe that salvation comes through armies, nations, and political leaders.  Instead, they are those who fall before Christ with faith, humility, and repentance, and who know that the only hope for blessing, peace, and fulfillment in their lives is in His mercy.  In the coming days, let us prepare to celebrate the fulfillment of the Promise made to Abraham in our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.  For He comes to make us members of His family, to share His eternal life with us; and He will, if only we will believe, repent, and seek first His Kingdom.       

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