The celebration of an anniversary reminds us that Christian people living in the midst of the world's history are like Janus of Roman mythology, who looked simultaneously forward and backward. Our look back at one hundred years of this congregation's life gives us courage and hope for the next hundred.
I've chosen a text that marks a similar turning point in the Bible: the opening seventeen verses of Matthew 1:1-17
and of the New Testament, the beginning of the collected writings of the Christian Church. This seems like a strange text for a sermon: seventeen verses of names -- who was the father of whom for forty-two generations.
It's a passage that's never included in a lectionary, seldom read in a worship service, and omitted or drastically abridged in most Bible readers and story books. It seems like mere background information. But in Matthew's understanding of the gospel, and in the logic of the New Testament canon that places Matthew's gospel first, this genealogy is the proper beginning for the story of Jesus. Why is Jesus' family history so important at this juncture in the Bible?
Jesus' genealogy serves two purposes. First, it tells readers just who Jesus was. The original readers of this gospel were Jewish people, who Matthew believed could best understand Jesus if they knew how He fit into their history. "You know who Abraham was," he says, "and Isaac and Jacob and David and Solomon. This Jesus, the Christ, is their descendant."
Second, this list of generations told Matthew's readers the meaning of their own history. In Jesus' day, the people of Israel looked to the past for their purpose. They were the people who had been delivered from Egypt, had received the Ten Commandments, and had conquered the Promised Land. But they had become subjects of one foreign empire after another, and they were inclined to see all their glory in the past; they also felt as though God had abandoned them.
In this long genealogy of Jesus, Matthew tells them, "The meaning of your history is not in the past, but in the present. The significance of Abraham and Jacob and David is not that they lived in the 'good old days' when God really cared, but that they were forerunners of Jesus." The importance of Israel's history, for Matthew, was the outcome toward which it was leading for those forty-two generations: the birth of the Savior.
Matthew's two reasons for beginning his gospel with Jesus' genealogy suggest a Christian view of history that shapes our reflections on this anniversary. First, as a church we are formed and identified by our history, by where we have been in our past. And second, the meaning of that history is determined by the future, by where our history is leading us.
Henry Ford once said that history is bunk. We all know that isn't true, and perhaps no institution is more clearly defined by its history than the Church. The Christian faith is based on a collection of writings that dates from antiquity. And the Bible is not only a historic book, but a historical book: it tells the history of God's dealings with His people.