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 1:17

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.


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