Godís Chosen Witnesses PDF Print E-mail
Written by Skip Jackson   
Sunday, 12 August 2018
A Sermon by Sydney V. (Skip) Jackson — August 12, 2018
Indianola Presbyterian Church, Columbus, Ohio
Texts:  Hebrews 12:1-2;  Matthew 1:1-16

…let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us… — Hebrews 12:1

An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah… — Matthew 1:1a

Thirty years ago this month, Kathy and I packed our belongings and set off with our 6-month-old daughter Kim to San Anselmo, CA, for me to go to seminary.  I’m quite sure that at that point I had no real idea just what it might mean to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”  Today I turn the Biblical “three score years and ten,” and as I approach a finish line of sorts after 27+ years as a preacher, I’m still learning what it means.  There’s always something new.  I’m always being surprised.  I always worry too much, and I never have quite gotten the hang of laying aside every weight.  But God’s grace and steadfast love endure forever.

Over my years as a preacher, there are two questions people have asked me over and over again.  One is how can I manage to find something good to preach about week in and week out.  Well, the answer to that is good material.  With the Bible on one hand and all that happens in life on the other, how can I possibly run out of good things to preach about?  Even a Bible passage that seems little more than a list of hard-to-pronounce names can be good material for preaching.  And that gets to the second question—how to go about reading the Bible.  Here my answer is that we need to remember that the Bible is not a mystery novel.  Don’t read it to find out what happens.  We know what happens.  It’s the Bible in the first place because of what happens in it.  For the Bible is about God’s saving grace and steadfast love.  In the Old Testament, the key story is the Exodus—God saving the people from slavery to empire.  The New Testament’s key story is the resurrection of Jesus and how that fulfills all the promises of God’s grace.  The Bible, then, is about how this all works out in the muddle of human lives not so different from our own.  So the key to reading it is to read through the lens of God’s grace looking for the Good News.
One of the things I always talk to potential new members of the church about is our Presbyterian/Reformed understanding that, deep down, people don’t end up joining the church because they simply decided one day all on their own to get together with other like-minded people to be the church.  That can be hard to grasp, because we tend to see the church as a voluntary organization.  But the church is not our choosing.  It’s God’s choosing!  That “great cloud of witnesses” in Hebrews 12—all those heroes of the faith cited in Hebrews 11—they were first chosen by God and only then accomplished great deeds “by faith,” that is to say by their faithful, trusting response.

At a basic level, God first chooses us to be part of the church community, and what we do is respond as best we can.  God’s choosing happens in baptism and in membership, and it continues on as the Holy Spirit (to use the wording of our Brief Statement of Faith) “calls women and men to all ministries of the church,” whether those ministries are ordained or not.  That’s all really good news, because if God reaches out and chooses us, then no matter how badly we might struggle or mess up or blow it, God is never going to let us go.

There’s a famous quote from the Scottish poet Robert Burns printed at the top of your worship bulletin:  “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley” (or, in modern English, “…oft go astray”).  Our choices, our plans, our human schemes, are unreliable.  (I’ve heard it said that if you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.)  But God’s choosing is sure—even when it doesn’t look at all like how we might choose to go about doing things.  Consider the genealogy of Jesus that begins the Good News According to Matthew—what is often called the “begats,” for the archaic word in the King James Version. I suspect few if any of you ever had to memorize the “begats,” even if you happened to grow up Baptist and learned to pronounce all those names.  We would never choose such a rag-tag bunch of people as the ancestors of our Lord and Savior.  Oh yes, there are heroes there, but also unknowns as well as a few outright villains. 

I’m going to read to you from the “begats” in Matthew.  But to liven thing up a bit and drive home how diverse and inclusive this listing of Jesus’ ancestors is, I’ll be adding brief statements of what we know about some of the people, and I want you to help me out by responding to the descriptions.  For visual aids, I have some cue cards like those used for the hero and the villain in a melodrama.  (Some of you may remember when I’ve done this before.)

Annotated Genealogy of Jesus 1
[Before reading, rehearse the congregation in responding to the following cue cards
applause, cheer, boo, hiss, moan, and HUH?.]

An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah  (cheers & applause)
   the son of David  (cheers)
   the son of Abraham (applause) — who pretended Sarah was his sister and let Pharaoh have her (boos) and received much cattle  (cheers)
   Abraham was the father of Isaac, whose name means laughter  (cheers)
   And Isaac was the father of Jacob, who stole his brother’s birthright  (hiss)
   And Jacob was the father of Judah and his brothers, who got together and sold their brother, Joseph, into slavery  (boos)
   And Judah was the father of Perez and Zerah  (huh?)
   Whose mother was Tamar who played the prostitute (boos) — for the sake of justice  (cheers)
   Then Perez was the father of Hezron  (huh?)
   and Hezron the father of Aram (huh?)  and Aram the father of Aminadab  (huh?)
   the father of Nashon who was a fine captain of Israel  (cheers)
   And Nashon was the father of Salmon  (huh?)
   And Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, the prostitute (boos) — who saved God’s people at Jericho  (cheers)
   And Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, the faithful foreigner (cheers & applause)
   And Obed was the father of Jesse, the father of David the king!!!  (cheers)
   And David was the father of Solomon (cheers) by Bathsheba, the wife of Urriah the Hittite whom David set up to be killed in battle  (hiss)
   And Solomon was the father of Rehoboam who was faithful to God for much of his reign (cheers), but abandoned God for five years  (boos)
   And Rehoboam was the father of Abijah who had 14 wives (cheers & boos)
   And Abijah was the father of Asaph, who was a good king (cheers) but who abandoned God at the end of his life and died of gangrene of the feet  (moan)
   Asaph was the father of Jehoshaphat who ruled wisely most of the time (applause)
   And Jehoshaphat was father of Joram the father of Uzziah whose pride brought about his fall  (boos)
   And Uzziah was the father of Jotham, a very good king in every way  (cheers)
   And Jotham was the father of Ahaz, a very bad king in every way  (boos)
   And Ahaz was the father of Hezekiah who cleansed the temple and restored the kingdom to piety and justice  (cheers & applause)
   Hezekiah was the father of Manasseh who ruled as king for 55 years (cheers) and was evil for all 55 years (hiss & boos)
   Manasseh was the father of Amos who did evil in the eyes of the Lord  (boos)
   And Amos was the father of Josiah who was the father of Jeconiah and his brothers all of whom were faithful to God throughout their lives (cheers & applause) and were conquered and deported to Babylon  (huh?)
   After the deportation to Babylon, Jeconiah was the father of Shealtiel  (huh?)
   who was the father of Zerubbabel, a wise governor chosen by God  (cheers)
   And Zerubbabel was the father of Abiud (huh?) the father of Eliakim (huh?) the father of Azor (huh?)
   who was the father of Zadok (huh?) the father of Achim (huh?)
   who was father of Eliud (huh?) the father of Eleazar (huh?) who was the father of Matthan (huh) who was father of Jacob  (huh?)
   who was the father of Joseph  (cheers) the husband of Mary (applause)
   of whom was born Jesus who is called the Christ!!!  (cheers & applause)

•    •    •    •    •    •    •

Ahhhhh… there’s the heart of the good news—“Jesus who is called the Christ.”  Here is Jesus placed in continuity with the whole history of Israel—but not some cleaned-up, sanitized history.  There are good people here within this particular God-chosen “cloud of witnesses”… and some very bad.  There are both men… and (truly shocking in Jesus’ time!) women—including a prostitute, a foreigner, and an adulteress. 

Such ancestry is a powerful sign of God’s grace.  Out of the mess and muddle of human history, where “sin clings so closely,” God enters into humanity as Jesus the Christ, not to condemn but that we (and indeed all people!) might be made whole.  When we really look at ourselves—chosen by God every bit as much as all these men and women were chosen by God—we know there are times when each of those cue cards could be held up as judgment upon us. 

Moments when we are at our best (cheers)
       …moments of stomach-churching shame (boos)
       …and moments of sheer, unadulterated foolishness (huh?)

Yet God chooses us, chooses to come to be with us in the full humanity of Jesus, chooses (despite everything we are and do) to love us into salvation.  Oh, the wondrous grace of God’s choosing!   
    (cheers and applause!)
1 Based on similar annotated genealogies by Doug Adams.  See “Bringing Biblical Humor to Life in Liturgy,” by Doug Adams, in Modern Liturgy, Vol. 6, No. 8 (Dec/Jan 1979), pp 4-5 & 27.

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