Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Old Family Tree

Luke 3:21-38
Baptism of the Lord
January 13, 2013
William G. Carter

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work.
He was the son (as was thought) of Joseph son of Heli, 
son of Matthat, son of Levi, son of Melchi, son of Jannai, son of Joseph, 
son of Mattathias, son of Amos, son of Nahum, son of Esli, son of Naggai, 
son of Maath, son of Mattathias, son of Semein, son of Josech, son of Joda, 
son of Joanan, son of Rhesa, son of Zerubbabel, son of Shealtiel, son of Neri, 
son of Melchi, son of Addi, son of Cosam, son of Elmadam, son of Er, 
son of Joshua, son of Eliezer, son of Jorim, son of Matthat, son of Levi, 
son of Simeon, son of Judah, son of Joseph, son of Jonam, son of Eliakim, 
son of Melea, son of Menna, son of Mattatha, son of Nathan, son of David, 
son of Jesse, son of Obed, son of Boaz, son of Sala, son of Nahshon, 
son of Amminadab, son of Admin, son of Arni, son of Hezron, son of Perez, son of Judah, 
son of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham, son of Terah, son of Nahor, 
son of Serug, son of Reu, son of Peleg, son of Eber, son of Shelah, 
son of Cainan, son of Arphaxad, son of Shem, son of Noah, son of Lamech, 
son of Methuselah, son of Enoch, son of Jared, son of Mahalaleel, son of Cainan, 
son of Enos, son of Seth, son of Adam, son of God.

It’s OK if the reading of the text did not send thrills up and down your spine. It is a list. A list of names. A list of strange names. A list of names of people we never met, with no immediate connection to us.

            Right after he says Jesus was baptized, Luke gives us a genealogy. This is the recital of Jesus’ family tree. Luke does this here, right after the baptism when Jesus was thirty years old. At least he began with a couple of chapters of Christmas stories to get us on the hook. The Gospel of Matthew also recounts the genealogy of Jesus – and he puts it on the first page of the book.

            It’s a strange text for us, which is precisely why I selected it. The usual schedule for our readings refuses to touch it. There is never a genealogy in the weekly lectionary of readings. You know the reason. Why deal with a genealogy? Why deal with a list of names?

            Except that it’s not merely a list of names. Don’t call it a list. It’s a family tree.

            Ever see a family tree? There was one located on the acre that my great-grandparents owned. My forebears left the summer heat in Oil City, Pennsylvania, and drove twelve miles into the woods to relax in our family cabin. Outside, guarding the driveway was a large maple tree, probably three or four feet thick. Generations had carved their initials in the tree. People who were no longer remembered by name left their marks.

I will never forget the moment discovering E.A.S. + G.W.C, carved inside a heart. Elizabeth Ann Stewart + Glenn Wilbur Carter. They put it there before they were married in 1957, a few years before I was born. The thought was staggering to a young child. I couldn’t believe it: my parents were alive before I was born! I reached up to trace my finger in their carved initials. It was like I was touching history. And when a tornado pulled that tree out of the ground, it felt like a chapter of my life had been removed. Don’t call it a list. It’s more than a list.

The teenagers on the mission trip stopped at a graveyard. We handed out newsprint and charcoal, and said, “Go find a gravestone and rub a name.” Every name that returned, some faint to read, others clear – every name represented a human life, a human story. One name was accompanied by two dates: 1832-1839. She was seven years old. Was life cut short by illness or accident? We did not know the story. But the fourteen year old with charcoal on his fingers was deeply affected. “She was the same age that my little sister is now.”

Don’t call it a list. It’s more than a list. What is most curious is why Luke should include this list. Joseph was the son of Heli,  son of Matthat, son of Levi, son of Melchi, son of Jannai, son of Joseph . . . He was named after somebody five generations before. They would have remembered the name.

My younger daughter is Margaret Rose. She hates it when somebody calls her Megan because that’s not her name. Her name is Margaret. My grandmother on my father’s side was named Margaret. She was pleased that we named one of her great-grandchildren after her. I said, “Well, Grandma, actually we didn’t name her after you,” and Grandma said, “Oh yes, you did!” She lived for four more years after Meg was born. She held her in her arms only a few times, but the generational blessing was given. It’s stated in Psalm 128, “May you see your children’s children.” The human race continues; that is God’s blessing.

And the genealogy pushes us to the past. It points to those from whom we have come. If you go over to the first chapter of Matthew, he doesn’t restrict it to men only. He includes some women, some curious women. Go poking around in Jesus’ family history and who do you find? Rahab, the prostitute. Tamar, the incest victim. They are on the list, which is more than a list. There is Bathsheba, whom King David stole from her husband before ordering his death. There is old grandmother Ruth, who was a Moabite woman. Jesus had Moabite blood in his veins! Now, that’s interesting. It is Matthew’s way of saying the birth of Jesus was an unusual birth.

Sorry to tell you, but Luke doesn’t have that much imagination. He only mentions men. Seventy-six men. A long line of men: Melchi was the son of Addi, son of Cosam, son of Elmadam, son of Er,  son of Joshua. That’s what it says: son of Joshua. Joshua and Jesus are the same name. Did you know that? In Hebrew, it is Yeshua, which means “God saves.” In Spanish, the name is Jesus, a common name. There have been a lot of baseball players named Jesus. And the meaning is the same: God saves.

            I bet you thought the last we would be doing today is reciting a list of names – except it’s so much more than a list. Don’t call it a list.

            A few years ago, I was preaching at the Massanetta Springs Bible Conference, near Harrisonburg, Virginia. It’s an annual summer pep rally for Presbyterians. We do pep rallies with a lot of sermons, and I was one of the preachers. There was a beautiful young woman who worked there. She was the director of development. Her name was Revlan. That was her name. She looked like she could model in a makeup commercial.

            She was a Virginian, from the Shenandoah Valley. One day at our lunch table, I watched her work. An old duffer hobbled up with his food tray, his pants hiked up to his lungs. She stood and helped him take his seat. She sat down with a big smile. She offered her name, he spoke his, and then she said, “Who are your people?” That was the magic question. It must be the Shenandoah Valley Question: “Who are your people?”

This old guy sat tall, started reciting names, telling stories, sharing connections. Revlan sat with a big smile, took it all in. this is how she did fundraising, by asking about relationships, generations, connections, and values. By the time she was done, she could have filled in the amount on his check – because she took him seriously. It began with one question: who are your people?

            “Jesus, who are your people?” He could tell you. Any Jew in the first century could tell you. He could trace the generations back for hundreds of years. This was the Palestinian way. This was the Jewish way. You could go into a town where a member of your family have lived. And if you recited your generations, the people there would open their doors to you. This is how we can be certain that Jesus was not born in some backyard cave . All Joseph had to do upon coming into Bethlehem was to begin the recital of generations . . .

Simeon son of Judah, son of Joseph, son of Jonam, son of Eliakim,  son of Melea, son of Menna, son of Mattatha, son of Nathan, son of David . . .

And with that, every home would be opened to Joseph the son of David.[1]  These were his people.

And it’s not only a local thing, not only a Bethlehem relationship. Luke is very clear that Jesus is a Jew. He structures the book that way, begins his gospel in the Jerusalem temple with the priest of Zechariah, and concludes it in chapter 24, with the Christian believers worshipping in the temple. Luke says Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day, like every male Jewish child. Jesus was taught Torah and discussed it with the teachers in the Temple. His family kept Passover every year. They didn’t wink at it; they journeyed three days by foot to Jerusalem. They did this every year! Because Jesus is a Jew. These are his people. . .

Hezron, son of Perez, son of Judah,  son of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham. . .

That is the Jewish family tree. But the most curious thing of all is that Luke does not stop there. For Matthew, the line goes back to Abraham, father of the multitude, “exalted father” of the Jewish race. It’s like the family that told me years ago in Connecticut how their ancestors came across the sea on the Mayflower. They were important, a significant New England family, because they arrived on the Mayflower. And then, somebody else said, “Well, what did they do before they came across on the Mayflower?” there was no answer, because for the family, and its significance, and its wealth, that was not important. It only mattered back to the Mayflower.

But when Luke speaks of Jesus, he takes it all the way back. I mean all the way back . . .

Shem, son of Noah, son of Lamech,  son of Methuselah, son of Enoch, son of Jared, son of Mahalaleel, son of Cainan,  son of Enos, son of Seth, son of Adam . . . son of God.

            Now, that’s interesting. At his baptism, the heavens open, the dove descends, and God says directly to Jesus, “You are my son. You are my beloved child.” And when the genealogy is recited, it goes all the way back to Adam, the first child of God, the original Single Father. Jesus is named “Son of God” at his baptism, and traced back to the first “Son of God” in the genealogy. That is to say, Jesus is both a member of the human family and also mysteriously its source. He comes for everybody. Not just for some, but for everybody.

Fred Craddock loved to tell the story of the time he took his wife to vacation in the Great Smoky Mountains. They lived in Oklahoma at the time, where Fred taught at a seminary, and they got away to somewhere around Gatlinburg. They were having dinner in the Black Bear Inn, with one whole wall of glass looking out on the mountains.

In the middle of their meal, an old man wandered up and said, “Hello!” Fred nodded quietly and said, “Hello!”  “Are you having dinner?” Well, yes, we were.

“Where are you from?” he said. Well, Fred wanted to say, “It’s none of your business.” But he said, “Oklahama.” And he thought, “I’ll get rid of him,” so he said, “I teach preachers at a seminary.”

“Oh, you’re a preacher? Do I have a story to tell you!” And he pulled up a chair and sat down. Fred said, “Yes, have a seat,” but he was thinking, “Who does this guy think he is?”

The old man said. “I grew up in these mountains. My mother was not married, and the whole community knew it. I was what was called an illegitimate child. In those days that was a shame, and I was ashamed. The reproach that fell on her, of course, fell also on me. When I went into town with her, I could see people staring at me, making guesses as to who was my father. At school the children said ugly things to me, and so I stayed to myself during recess, and I ate my lunch alone.”

He said, “I was in an orphanage, and began to attend a little church back in the mountains called Laurel Springs Christian Church. It had a minister who was both attractive and frightening. He had a chiseled face and a heavy beard and a deep voice. I went to hear him preach. I don't know exactly why, but it did something for me. However, I was afraid that I was not welcome since they didn’t know who my father was. So I would go just in time for the sermon. When it was over I would slip out because I was afraid that someone would say, `What's a boy like you doing in a church?'

He said, "One Sunday some people lined up in the aisle before I could get out, and I was stopped. Before I could make my way through the group, I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned around and caught a glimpse of his beard and his chin, and I knew who it was. It was that minister. He turned his face around so he could see mine and seemed to be staring for a little while. I knew what he was doing. He was going to guess who my father was.

“He paused and said, ‘Boy, you’re a child of . . .’ and he paused again. ‘You’re a child of . . .’ and he paused. I knew what was coming. I knew I would have my feelings hurt, that I could never go back there again.”

“The preacher said, ‘Boy, you’re a child . . . you’re a child of God. Why yes, I see a striking resemblance!” Then he tapped me on the back and said, “Now, you go claim your inheritance.” I left that building a different person. That was the beginning of my life.

Fred said, “Sir, what’s your name?” He said, “Ben Hooper.” Ben Hooper… Fred said, “My father used to tell me when I was just a child how the people of Tennessee had twice elected as governor a fatherless child named Ben Hooper.[2]

Do you know what we can say about Jesus? It was supposed he was son of Joseph ... who was son of Enos, son of Seth, son of Adam, son of God. I suppose you could say the whole human race is connected to him. And he comes for the whole race to say, “You belong to God.”

Jesus, who are your people? “You are.”

© William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Kenneth Bailey, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 28.
[2] This well-oiled story comes from Fred B. Craddock, Craddock Stories (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 20010) 156-157.

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