We wait, and we wait, and we wait. This is the message of tonight’s Gospel. We wait, and we wait, and we wait for the fulfillment of God’s promises. These promises are not just the ones God made in the history of salvation; they are also the ones God makes to us individually. Israel’s history is a map of our own individual salvation. The long periods of time Israel waited reflect the times in our lives when we too must keep hope alive in God’s promises.
Nations shall behold your vindication, and all the kings your glory! (Is 62:2)
For what are you waiting? What promises are part of God’s call in your life?
Do you have a “genealogy of despair”? Do you fear that God has forgotten you?
How can you ready yourself to recognize God’s fulfillment?
The Bible’s many genealogies serve different purposes. In the ancient world, genealogies functioned somewhat as birth certificates do today. They established a person’s membership in a tribe or a nation. They demonstrated a person’s right to an inheritance, an hereditary office or a parcel of land. They gave one responsibility for military or religious duties. Thus it is no surprise that Jesus’ genealogy appears twice, in Matthew and Luke. Although the two lists diverge in important ways, their presence would have been normal in any ancient biography. The genealogy we read tonight demonstrates that Jesus is a real Jew, a descendant of Abraham. He is David’s successor and a member of the royal family. As the many-times great grandson of Jewish exiles in Babylon, he is the inheritor of God’s promise to restore Israel to greatness, whose fulfillment the Jewish people had awaited for centuries.
Biblical genealogies also serve to mark the passage of long periods of time. In the Pentateuch and First and Second Chronicles especially, the genealogical passages function as an elegant literary symbol, drawing the reader across hundreds, sometimes thousands of years of history. This is part of Matthew’s purpose here. At the very beginning of his Gospel, Matthew reminds his readers that the world had waited centuries for Jesus’ arrival.
The hopes were running thin. The brilliant future prophesied in the closing passages of Ezekiel and Isaiah had not come to pass even after five hundred years. Generation followed generation, century followed century, and still God’s promises went unfulfilled. With a careful reading, one can hear the despair lurking in Matthew’s account, “Shealtiel was the father of Zerubbabel, who was not the Messiah. Zerubbabel was the father of Abiud, who was not the Messiah. Abiud was the father of Eliakim, who was not the Messiah.”
So many Christians have their own genealogies of despair. So many of us first heard our call to holiness in a moment of reassurance, a sudden in-breaking of grace that convinced us that God was at work and all should be well. But then, little by little, we might have come to believe that God’s attention turned elsewhere. Consider the mother whose only child is an alcoholic. She prays relentlessly for his deliverance, but sees only a downward spiral of self-destruction. Consider spouses whose marriage started well, but who can now point to scores of tiny and alienating incidents driving them apart. Consider an elderly widower who had been graced with an wonderful marriage, but who now catalogues his increasing loneliness by clipping obituaries from the newspaper. It is too easy to find examples of God’s unfulfilled promises, of things that start with great hope, but appear to lose energy over time.
“Matthan was the father of Jacob, Jacob was the father of Joseph, Joseph was the husband of Mary. Of her was born Jesus who is called the Christ.” Israel waited, and God fulfilled the promises made through the prophets. If there is a challenge in tonight’s Gospel, it is for us to believe that God will do the same for us. Matthew follows his genealogy with the story of the angel telling Joseph not to fear to take Mary into his house. The Messiah came in such an unexpected way that even his parents needed angelic help to recognize the fulfillment of God’s promise. Human perspectives are limited; when we believe God has the same limitations, we inevitably despair. But God can see beyond any horizon and can find surprising ways to fulfill every promise. If we can learn to wait and be ready to see, we will find the same joy as all who visited the manger at the first nativity.