ALL THE GENERATIONS
Friday, December 12, 1999
So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to
the carrying away into Babylon are fourteen generations; and from the carrying away into
Babylon to Christ are fourteen generations.
Matthew's account of the Lord's birth begins with a genealogy. From a contemporary Western
point of view, it is perhaps odd that it is the genealogy of Joseph, since Jesus is
explicitly the son of Mary; but from a first century standpoint Jesus would have taken his
tribal identity from Joseph whether he was his biological son or not.
Certainly part of the message of the genealogy is that Jesus is a descendant of David.
This is what enables the evangelist to refer to him as the Christ, the Messiah, for the
Messiah or anointed one of Old Testament prophecy was to be a king of the Davidic line in
accord with the promise of an eternal dynasty.
There is another message in the genealogy though, a slightly more subtle one, that I
should like to reflect on this afternoon. It is highlighted in the summary of the
genealogy that is our text: "So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen
generations; and from David to the carrying away into Babylon are fourteen generations;
and from the carrying away into Babylon to Christ are fourteen generations."
The story of the nation of Israel begins with Abraham, specifically with God's promise to
Abram in Genesis twelve that his descendants will become a great nation and the command to
"be a blessing." The rest of the Pentateuch and the books of Joshua, Judges, and Samuel
record the struggle to realize that promise, and against all odds, it finally happens.
Under David, Abraham's descendants are at last secure in the promised land, the Lord
having given them "rest from all their enemies round about," and David himself, though not
perfect, is nevertheless "the king after the Lord's own heart. This is where the Hollywood
story would end.
The Biblical story goes on, though, and it soon becomes clear that gaining independence is
easier than handling independence. The kingdom splits in two. In a about two and a half
centuries the northern kingdom is occupied by Assyria and its people deported. About a
century and a half later, Babylon does the same to the southern kingdom. Jerusalem is
sacked, the temple is burned--the nation ceases to exist.
These may not be the three most momentous or formative events in the history of the
nation. Any such list should surely include the exodus and Sinai. No, these three events
are best regarded as the turning points, as the times when the whole direction changed.
The promise to Abram begins a way out of the chaos of the tower of Babel. It is a long
struggle upward to the pinnacle of David. Then it is a long slide downward to the exile.
Matthew's message is clear. The time, the ****ó*, is at hand for a turning point of the
same magnitude. The gospels agree that the initial message of both John the Baptist and
Jesus was the proclamation that the kingdom of God, or of heaven, was at hand, and a call
for repentance. Mark puts it this way:
Now after John had been imprisoned, Jesus came into Galilee preaching the good news of the
kingdom of God and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.
Repent, and believe the good news (Mark 1:14f.).
"The time is fulfilled." The clear implication is that this event could not have happened
earlier. There is a sense of processes we cannot see or control, of events coordinated by
an invisible hand, moving toward a particular climax. Our own theology gives specific
content to this by its statement that the Lord came when the human race had gone as far
from its creator as it could without actually ceasing to be human. Swedenborg portrays
this era as the darkest night of the human soul.
There were of course beautiful individuals, perhaps all the more beautiful because they
managed to rise above the violence and greed of their times. The point is not so much to
paint a dark picture of humanity as to extend the reach of God's love. The Psalmist said
it vividly--"If I make my bed in hell, behold, you are there."
The picture is all the more poignant because the Divine does not come into this darkness
as a blazing light or with any awesome display of power. The coming is into infant
helplessness, and the message is clear and not at all easy to accept. Innocence is
ultimate power. Nothing else is strong enough to defeat our deepest and most virulent
evils. Some of the lesser ones may perhaps be overcome by force of ego. We can reshape our
external behavior by self-compulsion, often out of a need to think well of ourselves. But
the root of all our evils is our claim to power, which is why the Lord told us that we
unless we accept the kingdom as a little child, we cannot enter it.
Abraham seems to have embodied that childlike trust. When God told him to leave home for
an unknown land, he simply got up and went. But as the story goes on, that trusting
attitude becomes ever more rare. It becomes strangely wedded to violence when the ark
leads the Israelites into battle. The Promised Land is won by warfare, by weapons. David
establishes the kingdom by defeating the Philistines and the Moabites and the Ammonites
and the Amalekites.
But ultimately, the physical might of Assyria and Babylon prove overwhelming. In fact, the
scale of warfare increases as Persia proves stronger than Babylon, Alexander the Great
stronger than Persia, and eventually the Roman Empire stronger than all of them put
together. Fourteen generations after the exile, Judea is a very little province in a very
big world. Not long after the Lord's life, it would muster one final military effort, one
final rebellion, which would lead to the destruction of the temple and to an exile that
would to all intents and purposes last until 1948.
In the Biblical story of the kingdom, this is a kind of appendix, a decisive statement of
the futility of militarism. The policy that had won the kingdom for David has become
bankrupt. It has met enemies it cannot defeat. The future lies not with greater weaponry
or larger armies, but in the most unlikely of places, in the manger. The time has come to
strike directly at the very root of evil, which Swedenborg likes to refer to as "the love
of dominion." It has been a motive force in the story for so long. It has propelled the
people from the era of the patriarchs all the way to the triumph of David. Nowadays we
call it the need to be in control.
But its own success reveals its ultimate poverty, its startling weakness. There is no way
to build genuine community on the desire for power. That requires the much greater
strength of innocence--literally "harmlessness," more deeply, the willingness to be led by
the Lord. It looks utterly helpless in the militaristic view, but anyone who makes a
serious effort to live it out knows what strength it demands--and develops.
In the image of Matthew's genealogies, then, the birth of Jesus Christ is the greatest
turning point of all. Until that point, we have been following a story of a kind of
earthly power trip from its beginning to its zenith to its collapse. Now it is as though
the rules have changed. Now the radiant ideal is not the king on the throne but the infant
in the manger. It is a shift that is meant for us all. We cannot force it to happen--we
can only do whatever each day calls for, and wait for our ****ó*--wait until our time is
fulfilled, and the kingdom of heaven draws near.