Read an Excerpt
Walking the Road to Bethlehem
Your Journey to Christmas
By Adam Hamilton
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2013 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
The Genealogy of Jesus
An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David. And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah.... (Matthew 1:1-7)
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My great aunt, Celia Belle Yoder, keeps our family history. She's ninety-five years old but sharp as a tack and shows no sign of slowing down. I went to visit her a few weeks ago. We spent an hour together as she walked me through our family genealogy. She's a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and she can trace our family history back at least four hundred years. She tells me of well-known circuit-riding preachers who started churches a hundred fifty years ago, about Civil War soldiers, and about pioneers on the Oklahoma prairie. She wants me to know who I am and where I came from.
We begin this book of reflections about the stories surrounding the birth of Jesus precisely where Matthew begins the story—with the genealogy of Jesus. Scholars agree that Matthew does not give us a complete genealogy. He gives us just the highlights that he thinks are important. I've included only a portion of the genealogy above, but I would encourage you to read all seventeen verses (Matthew 1:1-17). Most people just skim them when reading Matthew, but there are important things to notice.
Here are a few. Matthew's genealogy is a summary of nearly the entire Old Testament, from Genesis 11 to Malachi 4, capturing the stories of the patriarchs, the Israelites' slavery in Egypt, and the exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land; there is David and Solomon and the divided kingdom, the destruction of Israel and the exile of Judah, and finally the return from exile. Here's the point: Jesus' birth is the climax of this entire story of God's relationship with Israel. Jesus is the end to which the entire biblical story was moving.
It is also often rightly noted that Matthew's account of Jesus' genealogy is nearly unique in that it includes five women. Putting women in a genealogy was not unheard of in the first century, but it was unusual. Who are these women, and what do they tell us about Jesus?
Tamar, the mother of Perez, played the role of a prostitute in order to have children after her husband died. Rahab, listed as the mother of Boaz, was a prostitute when she first entered the biblical story. She was also a foreigner. Then there was Ruth, who, like Tamar, was a widow and, like Rahab, was a foreigner. Bathsheba is mentioned next. She was the wife of Uriah the Hittite, which means that she may have been a foreigner, and she was an adulteress (or the victim of rape) at the hands of King David, after which David had her husband killed. She too was a widow. The last of the women mentioned in the genealogy is Mary, a peasant girl whose life we will examine in greater detail in the next reflection.
When my Aunt Celia Belle tells me our family's history, she describes pioneers, soldiers, and preachers. When Matthew tells Jesus' genealogy he lists two prostitutes and an adulteress, women who were outsiders. Matthew is, in this genealogy, pointing us toward Jesus' identity and mission. Jesus would bring hope to the widow, mercy to the sinner, and good news not just for the Jews, but for all humankind.
Lord, thank you for your love of those whom others see as second class. Thank you for showing mercy to the sinner and compassion to the brokenhearted. As I begin this season of Advent, help me to see you more clearly in the stories surrounding your birth. Amen.CHAPTER 2
A Town in Galilee Called Nazareth
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. (Luke 1:26-27)
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It was "the other side of the tracks," if there had been tracks in first- century Palestine. Nazareth was only four miles from the thriving city of Sepphoris with its luxury villas, markets, temples, and Roman theater. You can still walk among the amazing ruins at Sepphoris to this day. You can see Sepphoris from Nazareth, and by car it's only a ten-minute drive; but in Mary's day it was an hour's walk to Sepphoris from Nazareth. Sepphoris was where the "haves" lived. Nazareth was for the "have nots."
Nazareth doesn't even show up on first-century lists of villages in Galilee. It was considered by the Jewish population of the region as insignificant, or worse. In John 1:46 Nathanael asked, when told that Jesus was from Nazareth, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"
A woman, who grew up in poverty, once described for me the formative years of her childhood. She lived in a trailer park at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale. Children teased her at school, calling her "trailer trash," a name they had learned from their parents. Forty years and a law degree later, she was describing how it felt as a child to be made to feel small and insignificant.
When I think of Nazareth I think of her story. If the tradition is correct, Mary's family lived in the cheapest form of affordable housing at that time: a cave.1Mary's village was considered of "no account." But it was precisely here that God came looking for a young woman to bear his Son.
God routinely chooses the humble and the least expected in and through whom he might do his greatest work. Mary recognized this in Luke 1:46-55, when she praised God because he "looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant" while he "scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts."
Many of us live in Sepphoris. But God's choice of a woman from Nazareth to bear the Christ leads us to see the importance God places on humility; calls us to repent of any ways in which we, like Nathanael have said, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"; and even invites us to reconsider how we celebrate the birth of Jesus.
As you are preparing for Christmas, here's a suggestion: What if this year you recalibrated? What if this year you decided to give away a bit more to people in need and spend a bit less on yourself and your immediate family? Our family made a commitment several years ago to donate to organizations serving the poor and those in need an amount equal to the total of what we spend on our family and friends at Christmas. This decision forces us to reduce what we spend on people who don't really need anything, so that we can give to those who truly stand in need. In the process, we've found greater joy in our Christmas celebration.
Lord, forgive me for any time I've ever made others feel small. Forgive me for thinking more highly of myself than I ought. And help me, in the words of Paul, to "consider others better than myself." Help me, this Christmas, to look for ways of increasing what I give to those in need. Amen.CHAPTER 3
An Angel Named Gabriel
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. (Luke 1:26-29)
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What do you think about angels? A Washington Times poll found that half of all Americans believe in them. The other half were not so sure. If we're talking about little babies with wings flitting about shooting arrows into the hearts of lovers, I'm not biting. If we're thinking John Travolta with giant wings as he portrayed the archangel Michael in a 1996 film, I'm still saying, "Nope." Clarence talking poor George Bailey off the bridge in It's a Wonderful Life starts to get a little closer to the angels of the Scriptures, but skip the part about him earning his wings.
When we read about angels in Scripture, it is important to remember that the word angel simply means "messenger." Angels typically appear simply as people—no wings, just people. Sometimes their attire is majestic or glorious, but usually they're just strangers with a word from God. Sometimes they come in visions. But sometimes they come in the flesh. The writer of Hebrews notes that some Christians in his day, as they welcomed strangers, had welcomed angels without knowing it.
In our Scripture, Mary was perplexed by Gabriel's words but not by his appearance; hence he appeared as a stranger who told Mary a word about God's will for her life and who invited her to be open and willing to answer God's call.
To my knowledge I've never met the heavenly kind of angel. But there have been many people whose messages changed my life. When I was fourteen years old, a man named Harold Thorson knocked on my door. He spoke with an electrolarynx (a device that looks like a microphone pressed to the throat, to allow speech for those whose larynx has been removed). He was going door to door in my neighborhood, inviting people to church. Though I did not believe in God I was moved by this man's visit and started attending church, and my life was forever changed. While in college I was selling women's shoes in a department store. Belinda came in to try on shoes, but before she left she also invited my wife and me to visit the Methodist church she attended. We'd been looking for a church. Her invitation, and our visit to her church, led to a call to be a part of renewing The United Methodist Church. How different my life would have been had Harold Thorson not gone visiting door to door or had Belinda not listened to the nudge in her heart to invite me to her church.
There have been a thousand more messengers since then. I think of the pastors whose preaching I heard week after week, and how God spoke to me through them. I also think of my professors at college and seminary, too. My wife has certainly been a messenger from God for me on countless occasions, as have members of the church I serve, such as Nancy, whose persistent invitations led me to visit southern Africa years ago, a visit that would have a profound impact upon my ministry.
Which leads me to a question for you: do you take the time, do you pay attention to what's happening around you, and do you listen so that you don't miss God's angels when they come speaking to you?
Today many of us are so busy, so preoccupied, or in such a hurry that there is no time to listen to how God may be trying to speak to us. Imagine if Gabriel had approached Mary while she was fetching water and she had said, "I'm sorry, I'm really busy right now. Do you think you could come back later?" Or if she had dismissed him as a crackpot when he tried to tell her about God's plans for her life. And yet this is precisely the response many of us would have in our busy and preoccupied lives today.
God speaks through Scripture and through the still small voice of the Holy Spirit; but God also speaks through people (and occasionally heavenly messengers who look like them). Pay attention! Listen, lest you miss out on God's purposes for your life.
Lord, thank you for the people through whom you have spoken to me. Help me to pay attention and to listen for your voice through those you send. Speak, Lord; your servant is listening. Amen.CHAPTER 4
"You Will Conceive and Bear a Son"
"And now you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." (Luke 1:31-33)
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The stories of the Annunciation and the virgin birth are meant to teach us not primarily about Mary, but about the child she would bear. In our passage today, Gabriel said a great deal about Jesus. You might read it again and underline each word or statement concerning the child Mary would bear. Gabriel was telling Mary that she will give birth to the long-awaited messianic king.
A thousand years before Gabriel's conversation with Mary, God sent a messenger to King David. This messenger's name was Nathan, and he was one of God's prophets. Nathan, speaking on behalf of God, said to King David, "Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever" (2 Samuel 7:16). For four hundred years a descendant of David ruled in Jerusalem.
But in 586 B.C. Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians. The Davidic king, Zedekiah, was arrested by the Babylonians. His sons were executed while he watched, and then his eyes were gouged out and he was led away in chains as a prisoner to Babylon. The leading citizens were exiled to Babylon, others fled to Egypt, and the rest were scattered. For fifty years the Israelites remained in exile. During this time the prophets of the Exile reminded the people of the promise made to David, that his throne would "be established forever." Surely this meant that, despite their current circumstances, there was still hope that God would restore his people.
Thus the people began to hope and pray for God to send an anointed king who once more would rule over God's people. They began to dream about what he would be like and what his kingdom would be like. This was the beginning of the messianic hope. And it was these hopes, dreams, and promises that Gabriel announced would be fulfilled in Jesus, whose name itself means, "Deliverer" or "Savior."
Jesus was born to be a king. He was born to rule over a kingdom. When he began his public ministry, he preached, "Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand" (see Mark 1:15 KJV). His entire ministry was focused on teaching about God's kingdom and inviting his hearers to be a part of it. That kingdom is not some future heavenly realm; it is a reality today. Jesus said, "The kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:21 KJV). Whenever and wherever we choose to follow Jesus and to live as his people, we become citizens of his kingdom.
Jesus said those who are citizens in his kingdom, who follow him as king, will love their neighbors and even their enemies. He said they will feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty, visit the sick and imprisoned, and welcome the stranger. How would Jesus have us celebrate his birth? I think he would say, "By doing my will and living the precepts I taught you."
I was struck recently by the actions of a child who understood this. His name is Jake. For his fifth birthday his parents threw him a birthday party. He invited all his friends. But he told his friends the only presents he wanted were jars of peanut butter. Jake had heard there were children in Kansas City who received breakfast and lunch at school each day, but on the weekends there was little food in their homes. They were coming to school hungry on Monday mornings. Our church started a program to send backpacks home with these children every Friday filled with snacks to tide them over for the weekend. Included among those snacks were jars of peanut butter. Jake decided that for his birthday he wanted other children not to be hungry over the weekend.
Jake is learning what it means to call Jesus his king. How might you follow his example this Christmas?
Lord, in this season of Advent, as I read the stories surrounding your birth, I once more acknowledge you as my king. How grateful I am that you reign forever. Help me today, and each day, to live as a citizen of your kingdom. Amen.CHAPTER 5
"Here Am I, the Servant of the Lord"
Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." (Luke 1:38)
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Imagine thirteen-year-old Mary hearing from the messenger that she would have a child, conceived out of wedlock, who would grow up to be the messianic king. Those words would have made it appear, from her vantage point, that the child she was to bear would be a direct threat to both King Herod and the Roman Empire. If the child's identity were found out, then the child, and she, would be killed. Herod had already killed two of his own children, along with his favorite wife, because he believed they dreamed of taking over his throne. Viewed in this light, we can see that the messenger had brought to Mary a dangerous request from God.
But it didn't stop with the obvious danger of giving birth to a son who was to be king. There was also the matter of the child being conceived outside of wedlock. The law commanded that if a woman engaged to be married was found pregnant by another man, she was to be put to death. God's request to Mary was dangerous indeed.
Then there were Mary's hopes and dreams for her own life. She was to marry the carpenter Joseph. But now, how would this work? He would not believe her story—how could he? God's request would mean the end of their engagement. People in her hometown would discover she was pregnant, and she would be considered promiscuous or worse. Add to this the fact that Mary was being asked to give birth, no small request in a day and time before modern medicine. Women died giving birth.
Excerpted from Walking the Road to Bethlehem by Adam Hamilton. Copyright © 2013 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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