It begins with a look back at the whole of the Old Testament and it ends with a wonderful promise. The opening of the Gospel according to Matthew is not just ‘an account of the genealogy of Jesus’. It’s much more than that. It’s like the opening clips in a TV drama series that not only tell you the story so far, but also highlight what was really significant in the previous episodes. The story of the Old Testament is the story of three ages: the age of Abraham and the shaping of a people; the age of David and the coming of a kingdom; the age of exile and the period of oppression. And now a new age dawns, the age of the Messiah, the age of the kingdom of God. That’s how the Gospel begins. And how does it end? With wonderful words of promise that Jesus makes of this new age that he has brought into being: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” As we prepare to celebrate Christmas with all the special things that are happening this week we can only make sense of the Christmas story as we remember how the story ended with a wonderful promise that knows no end.
There’s a theme running through our four Advent Sunday services this year and it’s a theme prompted by the Nativity we are going to share on the Sunday morning before Christmas. It’s a nativity with more than a bit of a difference that prompted me to go back to the Gospels and see the Christmas story in a fresh light.
Most Nativities just tell the story of Christmas; maybe it’s safer to keep Jesus as a little baby. Ours this year does more than that. It finishes with the life, the death and the resurrection of Jesus. The meaning of Christmas is to be found in what happened in the end.
Actually, our nativity is going to begin a bit earlier than Nativity plays often do. There’s good reason for that as well. You can’t really get the point of the Christmas story unless you take notice of the back story too.
There’s a bit of a convention in TV drama series. Each programme begins and ends in a set way. At the beginning there’s a summary of previous episodes. It’s not just that it summarises the story so far, but often the collection of clips from previous episodes are chosen to emphasise the really significant bits in the story that are going to lead in to today’s episode.
The Gospel according to Matthew begins in that way. It’s a bit of a shame really, we very rarely bother to read the opening seventeen verses of Matthew chapter 1.
Something very significant is happening in those seventeen verses. And it is more than just a family tree. Can you spot what’s really going on here?
Verse one is an overall introduction.
An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
The book is going to be all about Jesus the Messiah who is descended from David who is descended from Abraham.
You then get the genealogy and it is in three parts.
1. From Abraham to Jesse the father of King David.
2. From David to Josiah the father of Jechonia and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.
3. From the deportation to Babylon and Jechonia, the father of Salathiel to Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.
Then, just in case you haven’t spotted it yet verse 17 sums up what we have just read.
So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations
What you have got effectively is a summary of the back-story, a summary of the Old Testament. It’s one way to get into your mind the story of the Old Testament. Think of it in three parts.
1. The first part of the Old Testament tells of the formation of the people of God from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob through Joseph and Moses to Joshua and the settlement in the promised land, through to the point at which a Kingdom is established fully under King David. – That’s before the kingdom
2. The second section is the story of that kingdom from David until the deportation and exile to Babylon
3. And the third section of the Old Testament is about the return to the land, a period when the kingdom is not established again.
That’s the back story – and along comes Jesus – and the heart of his message is that the kingdom of heaven has come near. A new age has dawned
I just love that as a framework – of the Old Testament. There’s the age up to the establishment of the Kingdom – there’s the age of the Kingdom which tragivally quickly divides and is spoiled by the failings of a succession of kings. And then there’s the age after the kingdom. And now a new age is upon us.
It’s the age of the kingdom – the rule of God. Straightaway in Matthew 1 we are told who this child who is born to be Messiah is
21 you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’
Read through Matthew’s Gospel and it’s all about the Kingdom of heaven – the way God’s rule is made real on earth – nowhere is that more powerfully worked out than in the Sermon on the Mount. Love God, Love your neighbour, love your enemy too, pray and keep watch. In the values Jesus maps out you see what God’s rule is like, what God’s will is.
This is the age we now live in – it’s the age when God’s rule has been ushered in. And our task is set out in the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray. God’s way of doing things in God’s rule, based on justice and his will for good, that is to be made real on earth as it is in heaven.
How can we do that? How can that be real? What should we be doing? How can we sustain the work we should be doing.
That’s the point when we need to bear in mind another convention in TV dramas. If each episode begins with a resume of what has gone before, the back-story. It ends with a preview of what’s coming in the next episode.
We need to jump to the end of Matthew’s gospel and in a sense that’s exactly what happens.
Matthew 28:16-20 is full of echoes of the start of the Jesus story. And it finishes exactly where it all began. But somehow by the time you get to the last verses of Matthew’s gospel it all makes sense, it all falls into place. What’s more as you reach the end you sense it’s only just beginning –
To make an end is to make a beginning;
The end is where we start from.
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee,
Matthew’s Christmas story ends with the flight of Jesus to Egypt and his return to Galilee – it is in Galilee that Jesus’s ministry started.
to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.
Matthew’s gospel began as Jesus was taken to a mountain top and tempted to exercise a devilish power over the world, a temptation he resisted. It was on another mountain that Jesus delivered his Sermon on the Mount. Mountain locations are really important in Matthew’s gospel.
17When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
Given by God. And now comes the task that Jesus sets his followers – the task that is going to be the task they are going to have down through the generations to come. The task we have too.
19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.
This is the task.
This is what will make the difference.
Going into the world – as people come to learn of Jesus and the way of Jesus that people’s lives can be changed – the mark of that change and of belonging is in baptism but the important thing then is to take seriously the way of living that Jesus had taught for that is what must then be shared.
This is the task for us to share.
Then comes one final promise.
And this final sentence of Matthew’s gospel is the wonderful climax to the Gospel. It brings us right back to the place where started.
And remember, I am with you
This is a wonderful echo of that name given to Jesus, Emmanuel which means God is with us.
It is that presence of Jesus with us that makes all the difference – where two or three gather in his name; the unseen presence that is so very real.
It’s a hard task he sets. One we cannot do on our own. We are not on our own. We have a presence with us, nothing less than the presence of Jesus with us. This is what makes it all possible.
I am with you always,
That’s a wonderful thought. Always with us. You could translate that I am with you each and every day, all day.
I am with you always to the end of the age,
That’s the point of the opening of Matthew’s gospel. There was the age before the kingdom, there was the age of the kingdoms that failed, and there had been the age after those kingdoms. Now we are in the age of the kingdom of heaven. And the promise is that Jesus will be with us always, each and every day, to the end of the age, to the point at which all comes to its fulfilment in the glory of God.
There’s a question to ask … so in this coming week what are you going to be doing to be part of that task?
Just look at the diary for each day – and think that Jesus is going to be with you at 11-00 on Wednesday, at 3-00 on Friday – each and every day, all day, he says to each of us I am with you always to the end of the age.