This last Sunday we had the distinct pleasure of welcoming Gordon Matties, Professor of Biblical & Theological Studies at Canadian Mennonite University, to The ConneXion to share with us a sermon from Joshua chapter 5. Matties recently finished a commentary on the book of Joshua (published through Herald Press). The sermon focused on verses 13-15 in chapter 5 where Joshua encounters the figure of a man who appeared before him with “a drawn sword in his hand.” Matties’ sermon explored the way in which this encounter can act as a foil for reading the entire book of Joshua, informing the way in which we understand the taking of the land. The commander of the Lord’s army identifies himself, not as being “on the side of” either the Israelites or the Canaanites. Rather, as “commander of the Lord’s army,” this man shows that God’s “army” is not subject to or completely allied with any human people group but stands in authority above and in judgement of all human armies. The practical and theological outworking of such a statement are many, both from the viewpoint of the book of Joshua as a whole and from the viewpoint of modern politics and culture wars. God is not simply “on our side,” but is above all “sides,” working for the reconciliation of the whole cosmos.
For the past several weeks we have been exploring the book of Jeremiah: a book that has taken us back in time to a point in Israel’s history when the threat of the Babylonian empire loomed large against Israel as a people. But much more than a book about this threat, we discovered that Jeremiah was a book in which the prophet challenged God’s people with the call to faithfulness through repentance and obedience.
Israel had failed time and again to follow God faithfully and Jeremiah tells us that this eventually led them into destruction. By the time that we leave the Jeremiah story, we leave the people of Judah in exile in Babylon – taken from their homes, their place of worship (the temple), demoralized and their people scattered. One can only imagine that at this time in their history, the people of Israel were asking, “What has it all been for? All of these years trying to trust in the one true God and what has it gotten us but ruin as a people. We have screwed up and now all seems lost – all of our history, our patriarchs, our kings, and our most sacred stories of God’s work among us lost in the chaos of exile.” Remember, Israel had a long history of trust in the LORD beginning with Abraham to whom God said,
“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” - Genesis 12:2-3
Sitting in Babylon, words that expressed this promise were not heard; rather we only have the sorrowful words that the Psalmist has left us:
“By the rivers of Babylon– there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How could we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land? O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” - Psalm 137:1-4, 8-9
It is not hard to see why instead of praise for God’s mighty deeds, all Israel could sing were songs of hate. In exile, it probably appeared that God’s promise to Abraham had been foiled by the faithlessness of the people of God. In exile, it probably appeared that God’s love was conditional and limited. But, as we leave Jeremiah, we do not find such appearances confirmed. Instead, amidst the ruins to a nation torn down, there are words of hope spoken by God to his people:
“I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O virgin Israel! Again you shall take your tambourines, and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers.” - Jeremiah 31:3-4
The faithlessness of God’s people would not undermine God’s faithfulness. And the transgression of God’s covenant would not undermine God’s freedom to fulfill the promise that he made to Abraham. In spite of Israel’s sin, God would speak grace. All of Israel’s history would not be for “nothing”. Indeed, we leave Jeremiah with words of trust that God is moving history exactly in the direction he wishes it to go. This does not mean God orchestrated every action of every person. What it does mean is that he used each action for his good purposes.
And so we leave our brief stint in Jeremiah and move towards the story of Christ’s coming: of Advent. Of course there is a lot that could be talked about between Jeremiah’s time and the time leading up to Jesus’ birth. Indeed over 400 years pass during that time that people often call the intertestamental period. Israel as a people are eventually allowed to return to Jerusalem and eventually rebuild their temple. Practically they gain some sense of independence during that time. But politically Israel would not regain independence for an awful long time and would consistently find itself under the rule of whatever political power had the upper hand at the time: The Persians under Cyrus, the Greeks under Alexander the Great, the Ptolemaic and Seleucid dynasties and eventually the rule of Rome. In between there was a short stint of Jewish independence under the Maccabean dynasty, but this did not last long. All in all, while God’s promise to “build Israel” again did in fact come true to an extent, Israel was a far cry away from being a “great nation.” For it did not have a King in place who was anything like their most cherished King David, and so Israel still longed for the moment in history when their Messiah king would arrive and truly re-establish Israel to her rightful place among the nations.
This morning we heard the words of Matthew Chapter 1 read to us which begin with the words:
“An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” - Matthew 1:1
Immediately we are summoned to recognize that this man named Jesus of whom we learn about in the Gospels, is the awaited Messiah, the one who is most like King David, and the one who would carry on the legacy of Abraham. Matthew wants to alert his hearers to the fact that Jesus is what Israel has been waiting for throughout its history.
And so Matthew goes on to prove how this is the case by reading a very carefully constructed Genealogy – by dictating a family tree from which Jesus comes. On the surface of it, this is a section of scripture that sounds a little dull to modern ears. But those first hearers who would have heard these words read aloud would have found them anything BUT boring. The names in these Genealogies would have immediately brought to mind the amazing stories of these foundational figures in Israel’s history: Abraham and Isaac, Jacob, David and Solomon, and the list goes on. Some commentators have noted that this passage would likely have been read slowly and with pauses in between these names to allow for the stories of these people to flood the minds of the hearers. All for the purpose of showing how special and significant this Jesus was. Genealogies were important to the people of Israel because they retold the story of God’s work among their people.
Not surprisingly, those who wrote Genealogies often did so with a particular emphasis in mind. Not that they necessarily fabricated the family tree, but that the way they presented the family tree was not so much for the sake of precision but to make a point. For example, in Matthew’s Genealogy, he splits the generations of God’s people into three sets of fourteen generations:
“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.” - Matthew 1:17
Commentators note that 42 generations (14×3) do not account for all of the generations that would have passed throughout the time periods mentioned. So what is Matthew up to in dividing them in this way? Thomas Long, in his commentary on Matthew, notes that Matthew is making a “theological claim that history is not haphazard, but under the control of God. Jesus’ appearance in history, Matthew wants us to know, was no mere accident, no random birth….It was orderly, arranged, the result of God’s careful plan and providence.” (p.10) This certainly resonates with later writings in the New testament that talk about Jesus as being: 1 Peter 1:20 0 …destined before the foundation of the world.
Matthew wants his hearers, and that’s us today too, to know that all of history has been leading up to the moment of Jesus’ birth. We do well to keep in mind an obvious fact that Matthew writes after Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection and so the original hearers of this genealogy were those who were living after Jesus’ resurrection. To them the task at hand was to understand the significance of Jesus’ coming for their identity as God’s people. Matthew’s audience was a Jewish audience, and so they wondered, “how does Jesus’ story connect to ours?” Matthew’s use of the literary device of genealogy is a way for him to help the Jewish people understand their story as leading up to Jesus. And so Matthew says:
An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. - Matthew 1:1
Matthew essentially calls Jesus the Jewish anointed one, the true heir to David’s throne, and the true pioneer of the covenant made with Abraham. How does Jesus’ story connect with the Jewish story? This is how – he is the hoped for Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham.
Well, we might look at this and say, “this is all fine and Good, but how might such a Genealogy impact us similarly today? For Abraham and David are not our biological forefathers. How might reading Jesus’ genealogy cause us to understand the significance of Jesus’ coming for our identity as god’s people today?” Over the next three Sundays of advent we are going to be giving a few different answers to these questions by digging deeper into Matthew’s genealogy and the names we find there. But as a sneak-peek and as a general answer to this question, I want to challenge us with the following answer:
The Genealogy of Jesus found in Matthew chapter one presents us with the challenge of looking through our family history and asking, “where has the God of Jesus Christ been active and why does it matter?” Now, this may not seem like all that much of a challenge. But let me get a little more specific in how I ask this question:
“Have you ever come to a place in your life where you have asked yourself, “has everything that I have placed my faith and trust in all these years all been for nothing? Was my devotion and everything I placed my hope in wasted time and energy?” And to this, Matthew’s Genealogy says “NO!” God has come in Jesus Christ to take all of our yearnings and hopes, everything we place our hope and trust in, and bring them to fulfillment.
And still I might ask you this morning: “do you ever look back upon shameful parts of your family history and wonder, “could this mess ever be dealt with? Can good really come from this?” And to this Matthew’s Genealogy says “YES!” God has come in Jesus Christ as the one who can set things right and re-establish true blessing in all of the families of the earth. In spite of your sin and the sins of your family, God still, to this day, is speaking grace! The faithlessness of God’s people cannot undermine God’s faithfulness.
And still I might ask you this morning: “Do you ever reflect on the many unexpected and surprising parts of your family history and ask: “what was that all about? Is so much of my history just random and lacking in purpose?” And to this Matthew’s Genealogy says “God works in the unexpected and the unpredictable, as much if not more than in the “typical” or “normal”. Regardless of how strange the circumstances, God has and is moving history in the direction he wishes it to go. The Genealogy of Jesus in Matthew stands before us as a challenge to see how God has been consistently at work in our own personal and social histories, calling us to proclaim in word and deed the world changing good news that in Jesus all peoples have been reconciled – that all peoples have been made right and so can live freely in love for God and others.
It doesn’t even matter if your personal or family history lacks a religious background – the Gospel declares that God is working everywhere – and this fact will become evident over the next few weeks as we look at some of the strange names included in Matthew’s Genealogy – scandalous names – names of outsiders and strangers.
So, as you enter this season of Advent and anticipate the celebration of Christ’s birth, remember that Christ has not only broken into the life and history of Israel, but has broken into your life and your history. The babe that is to be born in Bethlehem is not only Israel’s anointed one, but is also our anointed one. He is not only Israel’s king, but also our king. And he is not only the pioneer and perfecter of Israel’s faith but of ours and our families as well. May we welcome this anointed one, this king, this one of perfect faith this Advent and Christmas season. Amen.
This upcoming Sunday falls on November 11th, Remembrance Day. This is a day in which we are encouraged to “remember” and “never forget” the people who fought in the wars of recent past. These people deserve to be remembered, and so the ConneXion community will be attending the Remembrance Day service at the Arborg Hall at 10:30am on November 11th. We will be meeting at The ConneXion prior to this at 9:30am for coffee, breakfast, conversation, and some scripture reading and then we will head over to the hall.
It may not be evident to everyone, but in many ways faith in the God of Israel, and faith in the God revealed to us fully in Jesus, is a faith nurtured in the discipline of remembering. All throughout Israel’s history they were called to practice the discipline of remembering. But remembering what? Most often, the community of faith was encouraged to remember God’s saving action on their behalf and so often the call to remember was a call to remember specific events in their history in which God saved his people from destruction. One of the more foundational experiences of salvation for Israel was its salvation from slavery in Egypt. As Israel journeyed through its history as the people of the LORD, they were constantly called to “remember” how God had saved them. This memory was to be a safeguard against being ungrateful and against the sin of idolatry — the act of turning to trust in other Gods or in their own might and strength.
In the New Testament, memory serves an equally important function for the community of faith. When Jesus institutes the practice of Eucharist, or communion, he calls his disciples to “remember” him — to act in memory of him. When we take communion, we remember the saving act of God in Jesus, an act that overcame the power of sin and death, and opened up a way for human beings to be reconciled to God and each other rather than fight and kill each other. We are called to let the saving act of God in Jesus shape us into a people who are grateful and faithful to the ways of God which are the ways of peace. As a community of faith, we remember Christ’s sacrifice, and let that sacrifice color all our other acts of remembering.
As we prepare to participate in the rituals and acts of memory common to remembrance day, may we, the worshiping community, let our remembrance of the men and women who have fought be colored by our remembrance of Jesus Christ our Lord. May we be mindful of the tragedy that comes when the world still lingers in the habits of the old order ruled by principalities and powers. May we be filled with compassion for those who have lost loved ones to the evils of war. May we be filled with love and kindness for those who have survived only to suffer continual emotional and psychological trauma. And may we be filled with hope that the Kingdom of Light has, is, and continues to break into a world at war. May our remembrance of Jesus draw us deeper into the life of our community, seeking its peace and prosperity, for the glory of God.
Just yesterday, we had the pleasure of having Rob Reimer, President of Steinbach Bible College, come and speak to us about the Sovereignty of God. It was a wonderful presentation and one that brought up a whole set of questions for the community. One such question was, “So what? How does acknowledging God’s sovereignty affect my life today, tomorrow, and beyond?” There were some great suggestions given during our discussion time and from those suggestions, I have found myself further reflecting. What follows is part of that further reflection.
In the most simple terms, we might say that if God is truly Sovereign, then we must live under his rule or else live a life in opposition to the true ruler of the universe. But some fair questions we might ask at this point are: “what IS God’s rule?” “What does it look like?” And “what does it look like to “live under” that rule?”
While there may be numerous biblical ways to describe God’s rule, we might say that God’s rule is most effectively and definitively displayed in the New Testament as Jesus hangs on a cross.
In 1 Corinthians 1:18-19, the Apostle Paul says that “the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” God’s rule, his power and authority, according to Paul, is seen in the cross. In a world where power and authority are established and sustained through military, economic, and political prowess, God’s power, as displayed in Jesus, is seen in His suffering love. God rule’s through weakness and this is the radical nature of God’s rule. Of course this weakness was displayed throughout the Gospels and not just in the moment of the cross. All throughout Jesus’ ministry, he displayed his rule through the weakness of welcoming the rejected and socially outcast; he displayed his rule through obeying no other rule than the love of God and so often clashed with the rules of the political and religious rulers of the time; he displayed his rule through calling and journeying with faulty, frail, and incompetent men and women as he lived out his ministry.
So, if the above words reflect the “what” of God’s rule (what is it? and what does it look like?) then I think we begin to see the picture of what it looks like to live under that rule. As a community, are we welcoming the rejected and socially outcast? Are we obeying the rule of God’s love, even in the face of pressures from the political and religious authorities of our time? Are we practicing the patience of calling and journeying with faulty, frail, and incompetent men and women in the work of God’s ministry in the world?
If we truly believe that God is sovereign, then we do well to not confuse the sovereignty of God with the sovereigns of our world. For, as Jesus has shown us, our God reigns in weakness and rules in being rejected. May we see God’s sovereignty at work in every place we find ourselves and may we choose to submit to that rule in every day by doing simple and common acts; acts like welcoming others different from us, standing up to those who are knowingly hurting others, and patiently spending time encouraging each other and drawing out the potential and beauty in everyone even when we, as fickle people, are incredibly frustrating to live with.
This last Wednesday night we had the privelidge of having Dr. Arden Thiessen come to speak to us on the life of peace as we see it exemplified in the Jesus of the New Testament. Below is a link to Steinbach Bible Colleges’ online resources where there are a number of video lectures of Dr. Thiessen’s available for viewing. If you take the time to watch them, feel free to comment and start a discussion: