Third Monday of Advent: Israel's Longing for the King

If (as we discussed yesterday) we want to get to know the story Jesus lived in, one of the most helpful places we can start is also one of the most unlikely. If you open your Bible to the first page of the New Testament, you will see Matthew's genealogy of Jesus. Most of us pay about as much attention to that opening passage of Matthew as we do to acknowledgements listed in the preface when we open a new book, and there are some similarities: in both cases, there is a list of people's names––most of whom we don't know, and the author is indicating that the book wouldn't have come into being without them. Nonetheless, we assume that the people named have no real significance for understanding the remainder of the book. While that may be the case with most things we read, it isn't what Matthew intended nor what his earliest readers would have thought when they read that list of names. If we dig into it a little bit, we can see that Matthew's list is less like an inconsequential roll of names who preceded Jesus by historical accident, and more like a way of beginning the book with a drum roll, trumpets blowing, and a royal herald calling for everyone's attention.(1) One way that Matthew makes this clear is by dividing his list into three:

In the first section, the first three names are Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, which immediately lets us know that the story Matthew is about to tell us is a thoroughly Jewish story. In contrast to the understanding of the gospel represented in children's Bible app I described yesterday, Matthew can't tell his version of the story by saying, "Once there were a man and woman who lived in the Garden of Eden who sinned....[and then skip to Matthew 1:18] Now the birth of Jesus took place this way...." No, for readers of the gospel, Jesus' story is always a story of the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Matthew's beginning indicates that if we don't understand the Jewish story, we won't understand Jesus.

The second section of the list indicates that not only is Matthew about to tell us a Jewish story, but it will be a story about Jewish royalty. Not only is it going to be a story of a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but also of one who traced his lineage through the royal line of David and Solomon. Almost all Jews of Jesus' day would have pointed to Abraham as their ancestor, but only a select few could claim to be a part of the line of David, Solomon, and the kings of Judah. It won't take long in this story to encounter Herod, who though he had the title, "King of the Jews," had no royal blood, and Matthew has already made it clear who has the right to the throne.

If that wasn't enough to pique our interest, the third section of the genealogy identifies the story as a messianic story. The third section begins with names who lived at the time when the kingdom of Judah was conquered, the center of their national identity (the Temple) was destroyed, and many of the descendants of Abraham were carried off from the land God had promised them into exile in Babylon. The prophets during the exile indicated that God would restore David's royal line and keep the promise that one of his descendants would be on the throne forever. Even though Jesus' ancestors had geographically returned from exile, they had never fully regained their freedom and therefore had a sense that the exile wasn't really over. They needed a deliverer who would free them from the oppression of their enemies. Even though Herod was rebuilding the Temple, there was no way he could fit the bill of their deliverer. They needed the one anointed (Messiah in Hebrew, or Christ in Greek) by God to rescue them and fulfill God's promises.

In Matthew's telling, each of these three sections of the genealogy included fourteen generations, which is also packed full of meaning. Particularly in Jewish symbolism, the number seven was a symbol of completion. Jesus was born, not at a random point in history nor in a chance place in this genealogy, but as the first one in the seventh seven of generations. As N.T. Wright comments, "Jesus isn't just one member in an ongoing family, but actually the goal of the whole list....This birth, Matthew is saying, is what Israel has been waiting for for two thousand years."(2)

Having (in week one) considered some of the present aspects of Advent through the practices we can put in place in our lives which train us to wait on God's abiding in us now, and then (last week) explored the future aspects of Advent as we wait for Christ's return, this week, we look to strengthen our Advent waiting by looking in our rearview mirror and remembering ancient Israel's Advent longing as they waited for the Messiah to come. To be able to do so, we have to begin by clarifying what the term Messiah means to us and what it meant to them as they waited through centuries for his coming.

When we read, for example, Peter's confession, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God," we read into that from our perspective now, thinking that Peter understood Jesus to be God. Rather, both the titles Messiah (Christ) and son of God were ways of Peter saying the same thing Matthew has said in his genealogy: Jesus was the promised, long-awaited, rightful king who had come at last to deliver Israel from her enemies.(3)

Matthew's genealogy sets up the story in one more vital way, by warning the reader that God accomplishes his purposes in unforeseen, even seemingly bizarre, ways. Matthew goes out of his way to include three names in Jesus' messianic, royal, Jewish lineage: Tamar (who tricked her father-in-law into sleeping with her by pretending to be a prostitute), Rahab (a prostitute in Jericho), and "the wife of Uriah the Hittite," whom we also know as Bathsheba, with whom King David committed adultery. The next part of Matthew's story begins with another young woman becoming pregnant through extraordinary circumstances as God continues to work toward the fulfillment of his ancient promises.

It's hard for us to imagine what the ancient Israelites' longing for their King, their Messiah, their long-expected anointed one, would have been like, but we will spend the remainder of this week looking at this aspect of Advent from the past. As we remember their waiting for the King's birth, and engage in the practices of waiting on him now, we will be better prepared for his return.


A Prayer for the Day:

O God, the King eternal, whose light divides the day from the night and turns the shadow of death into the morning: Drive far from us all wrong desires, incline our hearts to keep your law, and guide our feet into the way of peace; that, having done your will with cheerfulness while it was day, we may, when night comes, rejoice to give you thanks; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.*

A Prayer for the Week:

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.*

Readings for the Week*:

*Prayers are from The Book of Common Prayer and readings are from the Revised Common Lectionary. (1) Though I've communicated it in my own way, virtually everything I say in this post I learned from N.T. Wright, especially through his commentary on Matthew 1:1-17 in Matthew for Everyone. (2) N.T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 3. (3) See Wright's glossary entry for Messiah in Matthew for Everyone, 215: "The Hebrew word means literally 'anointed one,' hence in theory either a prophet, priest, or king. In Greek this translates as Christos'Christ' in early Christianity was a title, and only gradually became an alternative proper name for Jesus. In practice, 'Messiah' is mostly restricted to the notion, which took various forms in ancient Judaism, of the coming king who would be David's true heir, through whom YHWH would rescue Israel from pagan enemies. There was no single template of expectations. Scriptural stories and promises contributed to different ideals and movements, often focused on (a) decisive military defeat of Israel's enemies and (b) rebuilding or cleansing the Temple...."