December 10, 2017
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
THE BEGAT CHAPTER
Matthew 1:1-2, 16-17
You may have noticed, we shortened the genealogy of Jesus considerably. Mercifully, you might say. Because if we had read all of it, we would still be reading. For quite a while, we would still be reading.
I was a little tricky the way I spliced it together. I gave you the impression that Jacob, grandson of Abraham and Jacob, grandfather of Jesus, are the same Jacob. They are not. There are actually 39 names listed between those two Jacobs. There are 39 begats. We only read 3 of them.
When new Christians start reading the Bible, it is not generally recommended that they begin with Matthew. The reason is this “begat chapter” that greets them right out of the gate. They might get the impression that if this is what Bible reading is like, they have better things to do with their time.
This is a strange part of the Bible for several reasons. For one, it drives people crazy who take the Bible literally. It’s impossible to reconcile this genealogy with the one in Luke, chapter 3 or with the record we find all through the Old Testament. It also has an internal inconsistency. Matthew 1:17 states that there are 14 generations between the Babylonian exile and Jesus, but you back up a few verses and count and find only 13. And most puzzling of all – this is the genealogy of Joseph, the father of Jesus, but later in this same chapter, Matthew says that Jesus was born of a virgin, which means that Joseph was not his biological father.
We could ponder these difficulties and try to make sense of it all. Three or four of you might be interested. We could explore the matter of “unlikely saints” appearing on this list. People like Rahab, the prostitute. That might interest a few more of you, but we already did that on All Saints Sunday this year. Instead, I want to use the “begat chapter” as a launching pad for talking about the miracle and mystery of birth.
We are getting ready to celebrate a birth. This chapter reports that birth and quite a few others. Every one of those 39 begats represents the most amazing, most wonderful event there is. The beginning of human life.
We all experienced this when we came into the world. Some of you have experienced this in your own body as you brought new life into the world. Some of you, and soon I will be able to say some of us, have had the experience of welcoming grandchildren into the world. Or great-grandchildren. Or great-great grandchildren.
On the one hand, you might say it’s not that big a deal. It happens all the time.
While I’m preaching this sermon, 5000 babies will be born somewhere in our world. My mom is a New Year’s baby. Pretty rare, right? Not so much. There will be 360,000 babies born on New Year’s Day this year. About 18 of them will be born right here in the Treasure Valley. Birth is commonplace. But still, each and every one of these births is the most amazing event ever!
I was there for the birth of our three children. So was Helen. But the women have always been there. It hasn’t been that long that fathers have been allowed into the birthing room. To see your child come into the world is an awesome thing.
I have climbed mountains. I have crossed oceans. I have seen with my own eyes some of the most spectacular beauty in God’s world. But nothing compares to seeing our daughters and our son for the very first time.
I have heard birds sing. I have heard the most talented musicians perform. I have heard Billy Graham preach. But no sound I have ever heard compares to the sound of our babies’ first cry.
One thing fathers get to do now, unless they’ve changed the rules, is to let them give their newly born baby her or his first bath. It’s kind of scary because they are kind of slippery. Kind of like a fish. That’s why I wonder if maybe they’ve changed the rules. But what a memory, as I got to study those tiny, perfectly formed fingers and toes and ears! And as I got to look in eyes that were seeing for the first time, looking back at me. And screaming.
I have a friend who is a research scientist studying brain function. He told me that the threshold at which the human eye is capable of perceiving light is a single photon. In case you’ve forgotten your quantum physics, a photon is the smallest unit of light there is. It cannot be subdivided further. That’s how sensitive our eyes are.
And our eardrums are capable of vibrating with a displacement of one-tenth the diameter of the hydrogen atom. Our sense of taste and smell can detect the presence of a single molecule of your Sunday dinner.
When a baby is born, that is all there! It’s not yet fully developed, but it soon will be. And that is just part of the incredible intricacy and complexity in the body of a newborn. That’s just the body. That’s just the part we can study and hope one day to understand. Then there is the soul that we cannot even begin to understand.
Babies are a lot of work. I remember well. I remember Helen did most of it. Some days, most every parent who has ever lived wonders at least for a moment if these tiny creatures are worth it. They are.
The moment a mother starts to think her baby is more bother than blessing, God is saying to her something like this: “Wait, wait, wait! Time out! Look at your baby! Do you realize what you have done? You have given birth! This is a miracle! Don’t you see? You are highly favored among women! Why aren’t you in awe and wonder and on your knees with the shepherds and the wise men?”
And I know God has a similar message for dads who take their children for granted.
In 1965 Rachel Carson published a book called “The Sense of Wonder”. We all have that sixth sense, that sense of wonder. In some of us it is more highly developed than in others. And for all of us, I think, it waxes and it wanes.
At one moment I am intensely aware of the wonder and miracle and mystery and glory of life. The sights, sounds, and smells are so intense and so delightful I can hardly stand it. Then at another moment, this vast and glorious world contracts. I barely notice anything. I am reduced to a life of routine through which I sleepwalk. But not for long. Something always comes along to wake me up again. Sometimes it takes something really awful to wake us up.
Of all the funerals I’ve ever had, one stands out. A 39-year-old man named Brian had been drinking. Maybe more than just drinking. He was in no condition to drive. He was heading down a steep hill at a high rate of speed. It was night and it was raining. There was a curve at the bottom of that hill. He didn’t make it around the curve. Not even close. Thankfully he was alone in his car. He was the only fatality.
In was quite an education, learning about Brian and then conducting his funeral. Brian was still living with mom and dad at age 39. He was never able to hold onto a job. He was a party animal. That was his life. He was into heavy metal music and he was into good times. It was the first funeral I’ve ever had that used music by Ozzie Osbourne. It was also the first funeral I’ve ever had where the f-word was used in one of the eulogies.
I never use funerals as an opportunity to convert people. Except this one time. I chose my words carefully. I knew Brian’s many loyal friends would stop listening if they thought they were listening to a sermon. Maybe they would walk out. Maybe they would shout me down. So I was subtle.
I said a lot of good things about Brian. There were a lot of good things to say. I said, “There are a lot of people who go through life with a good career, raising a family, making lots of money, living lots of years, who die with a whole lot less good to say about them than we have to say about Brian.”
They liked it when I said that. I’m not sure they liked it as much when I ended by saying that Brian could have done so much more with his life. And that we only get one shot at life. That it one day will be over, maybe when we’re young, maybe when we’re old. But that Brian would want you to give your one and only life your best shot.
I’m not sure how many of them heard what I was saying. But as I stood with them around Brian’s open casket, I got the feeling that maybe a few of them had woken up.
I read about a high school teacher who woke up after her husband died. It was a heart attack. No warning at all. She experienced an awakening through that awful experience. She knew she couldn’t keep it to herself. She had to share it with her students.
So one day, at the end of class, this is what she said to them:
I would like to share with all of you a thought that is unrelated to class, but which I feel is very important. Each of us is put here on earth to learn, share, love, appreciate, and give of ourselves, and none of us knows when this fantastic experience will end. It can be taken away any moment. Perhaps this is God’s way of telling us that we must make the most of every single day.
So I would like you all to make me a promise. From now on, on your way to school, or on your way home, find something beautiful to notice. It doesn’t have to be something you see. It could be a scent – perhaps of freshly baked bread wafting out of someone’s house, or it could be the sound of the breeze slightly rustling the leaves in the trees, or the way the morning light catches an autumn leaf as it falls gently to the ground.
Please, look for these things, and cherish them. For, although it may sound trite to some, these things are the “stuff” of life. The little things we are put here on earth to enjoy. The things we often take for granted We must make it important to notice them, for at any time it can all be taken away.
We just got done with Thanksgiving. But we’re really never done with Thanksgiving. Advent and Thanksgiving have a lot in common. They are both about gratitude. We give thanks for the birth of Jesus. We give thanks for birth, period. We give thanks for life. We give thanks for God’s gift of so wondrous a world. Wonder-induced gratitude. That’s the most natural human response of all. Once we wake up.
Eugene Peterson tells the story of Johnny Bergman. Johnny was a young man in his church. He and his wife were active, enthusiastic participants in just about everything that was happening at church. Then they started to drift away. It wasn’t that they were unhappy with the church. It was just that they had found other things that made them happy.
They had children, they became wealthy, their lives were filled with cars and boats and house building and social engagements. They were in worship less and less frequently. Then not at all.
Two years had passed since anyone had seen Johnny Bergman in church, and then one Sunday, there he was. He was welcomed as if he had never left. Everyone told him how good it was to see him. Everyone was curious what brought him back. Finally someone asked him. This is what he said.
I woke up this morning feeling so good, so blessed, so alive – I just had to say thank you, and this is the only place I could think of to say it adequately. I wanted to say it to Jesus.
Karl Barth wrote four fat volumes on the creation of life. Then he summed up everything he had written in a single sentence: “We have established that from every angle Jesus Christ is the key to the secret of creation.”
So you see, Johnny Bergman’s instinct was right. Jesus was the one to whom he needed to say thanks. Jesus, whose birth we prepare to celebrate, is the key to every birth, to all of life, to all the mystery and majesty of creation.
“The begat chapter” is not usually the text that leads us into Advent. It’s usually the part of the Bible we skip entirely. If you are an experienced Bible reader, I’m pretty sure you have learned by now to speed-read whenever you come to a genealogy and to hurry on the more meaningful passages.
The family tree of Jesus is a lot less interesting to us than it apparently was to people like Matthew. But this is not a passage without meaning. It announces the birth of Jesus by first announcing a long list of other births, a long list of other begats, before we get to Jesus. As if to say, every birth is holy. Every child is precious. No birth can ever be celebrated enough.
We’ll do our best this Christmas. And if we do it really well, maybe we will discover that Christmas is an invitation to wake up, to open our eyes, and to celebrate more than the birth of Jesus. Christmas is a celebration of life.
Help us, Lord, to experience all you would want us to experience in this sacred season. May we be open to you, and to others, and to all that surrounds us every moment of every day. Thank you for your gift of Jesus. Thank you for your gift of life. Help us take neither for granted. Amen.