Mark S. Mitchell

Pastor, Writer, Follower of Jesus

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A Family Tree with lots of Knots

In recent years the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Society announced it had reached a conclusion that there was a “high probability that Thomas Jefferson fathered Eston Hemmings, and that he most likely was the father of all six of Sally Hemming’s children.” This came after over two centuries of denial and cover-up which was motivated by a desire to protect the reputation of one of our Founding Fathers. The idea that someone of his stature would have an illicit affair and several illegitimate children is scandalous. The idea that he would have a relationship of this kind with an African-American slave would be even more scandalous, which of course is a testimony to our own deep seated racism.

Perhaps thats why when we read the Christmas story in the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel we don’t start at the beginning. We usually start in the middle of the chapter with the angel’s command to Joseph to take Mary as his wife. But Matthew begins the story of the birth of Christ with a record of the family history of Jesus; we call it a genealogy. The genealogy of Jesus is about as scandalous as they come. For example, there were four women included in this genealogy. As you look closely at these women and their stories, it’s clear they’re not the kind of people you would expect to be in the bloodlines of the Son of God.

Take Tamar. Judah had chosen Tamar as a wife for his son. His son died and left her childless. The law required that his brother should marry her, so she could have children, but he refused. So Tamar, desperate to have a child, concocted a scheme where she dressed up as a prostitute, put a veil over her face, and waited by the roadside until her own father-in-law, Judah, strolled by and paid to have a little fun. Twin sons were conceived. One of them was Perez, a forefather of Jesus. What a story to have in your family tree! Try explaining that to your children!

Next, we meet Rahab in the Bible, she is a professional lady of the night. After wandering around the wilderness for forty years, Joshua sent spies into the Promised land. They came into the city of Jericho, and somehow these “nice, innocent guys” ended up in the red light district at Rahab’s house. It was providential because Rahab protected them and later came to be a follower of God.

And then there is Ruth. Ruth wasn’t a harlot, but she was a Moabite. The Moabite race was a product of incest. They were descendants of Lot. Lot was living in a cave with his two daughters after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. His daughters were afraid there would be no one left to marry them and give them children. So they got their father drunk and seduced him. One of their sons was named Moab. The Jews found the Moabites repugnant. Though Ruth married Boaz and became a Jew, she was one of those descendants.

The fourth woman mentioned is “the wife of Uriah.” Her name was Bathsheba. Her story is not pretty either. She had an affair with King David. They tried to keep it a secret, but their union had produced a child, and David had to knock off her husband and then marry her to cover it all up. That child died in infancy, but she had another son, Solomon, who became the next link in the royal line.

Put these stories together and the genealogy of Jesus makes Thomas Jefferson’s look rather tame! We have prostitution, incest, adultery, murder. Who needs Hollywood?  This stuff could keep the National Enquirer in business for years! This is not the Hall of Fame, this is the Hall of Shame.

The message of the family tree of Jesus shows why he came. He came to rescue the kind of people we find in his genealogy–weak, broken and sinful people. That’s why the angel said to Joseph, “You shall call him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). That’s why Jesus was called a “friend of sinners” (Luke 7:34).

Its hard news for some; its good news for others. Some of us have a spirituality of self-reliance. No matter how much we may talk about the grace of God, we’re still trying to be good enough for God and still trying to emulate the heroes. But the Gospel confronts us with the utter inadequacy of our own willpower. It shatters the myth that we can pull up our spiritual bootstraps. The fact is we can’t add a single inch to our own spiritual stature. Brennan Manning wrote, “Any spirituality that furnishes a do-it-yourself kit plants the seeds of discouragement and disappointment.” That’s good news though for those who could very well see themselves on this list of names, and who dare to believe that Jesus really did come to rescue and transform them. Could you think of anything better than that? A God who says, “I’ll take care of everything. You just trust in my Son.”

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Sobering Up for Christmas

Just a few weeks ago I was driving to work. As usual, I was absorbed in my own thoughts about what the morning would entail, but as I peeked in my rear view mirror I saw these flashing lights on top of that car going round and round. As you can imagine, my heart started pounding, and though I hadn’t been speeding, my foot backed off the accelerator. My mind immediately began to race with the different possibilities of what I had done wrong. I started thinking of ways I could artfully let him know that I was a pastor on my way to some kind of emergency. It turns out I had rolled through a stop sign and the officer was kind enough to just give me a warning. I drove away with a sigh of relief, and was extra careful to make a full stop at every stop sign. Seeing those flashing lights always changes the way you drive. It’s a sobering experience. It snaps us back to attention and causes us to make the changes that need to be made.

This kind of experience describes how we ought to prepare for Christmas. Most of us get excited about Christmas; some of us dread it, but either way, there needs to be a sobering up. There needs to be a snapping to attention. There needs to be a willingness to straighten up and make whatever changes are needed in our lives. Most of us wait until January 1 for that kind of thing, but the time is now.

For centuries, the Christian church has called this season leading up to Christmas, Advent. Advent has always been viewed as both a time of anticipation and preparation for the coming of Christ. During Advent, we anticipate both the first and second comings of Christ. Certainly this brings hope and expectation because the coming of Christ means salvation for those who trust in Him. But the coming of Christ also requires preparation; it requires a kind of sobering up; it’s like looking in the rear view mirror and seeing the flashing lights. It ought to cause us to look at our lives and make the changes that need to be made in order to be ready. Imagine what you might do for the next three weeks if you knew Christ would actually come back on December 25. How would you prepare for that day? How would your shopping list change? Would you eat too much and run too fast or would you take the foot off the accelerator and sober up? Advent is a time to snap back to attention.

Of all the Gospel writers, Luke is tuned in the most to this idea of preparation. Luke believed that when God made a flesh and blood appearance in the world preparation was required. You can see it by the way he wrote his book. His book, like the other Gospels, is about Jesus Christ. But Luke takes longer than any other Gospel writer to get to the life of Christ. It takes him 80 verses just to get to Christ’s birth. And then it takes him 70 verses just to get to Christ’s ministry. Luke believes that anything worthwhile is worth preparing for.

How does he prepare us? He prepares us by giving us a snapshot of one very important person. John the Baptist’s singular mission was to prepare the way for Jesus. How did he do that? Luke says “he preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” What is repentance? We think of this word exclusively in religious terms, but back then repentance wasn’t a religious word. It was part of a culture where people lived with no street signs or maps. It’s easy to get lost walking through the wilderness. You walk and walk and then you realize that the countryside is unfamiliar. You finally say to yourself, “I’m going in the wrong direction. I need to turn around.” That’s repentance. Not only do you see you’re going in the wrong direction, but you turn around.

A number of years ago I was working at a church in Pleasanton. I was going through a time of deep burnout. I was spiritually dry and not sure I could keep going. In the midst of that time we went down to San Diego to visit family. While we were there we attended church with them. When pastors go to other churches we like to check things out. We like to sit back and critique the music and grade the preaching. But on this particular Sunday I was caught completely off guard. The preacher started to preach and I started to melt. He was speaking about how we can give and give and yet neglect the necessity of allowing the Lord to fill our lives. He was speaking to me. At the end of his sermon he held up a half empty glass of water. He wanted to know if anyone there felt a need to just be filled up again with the Lord. He wanted us to come forward. I sat there and thought of a hundred reasons NOT to go forward. Among those reasons was the simple fact that I was a pastor. Pastors don’t go forward! We don’t walk the aisle! We know the Lord. We know His Word. We teach others this stuff; why should we go forward? I was fighting the Lord at that moment, and I lost. I finally got up and went forward. I cried and I got prayed for and the Lord restored me. It was one of the most humbling things I’ve ever done. That’s repentance!

John prepared the way for the coming of Christ by calling us to humble ourselves and repent. John’s message was like seeing the police car lights flashing as you’re driving along thinking that everything is going fine. His message ought to cause our hearts to pound and our feet to back off the accelerator. But John’s ultimate purpose was not to condemn us or judge us, but to prepare us for the one who could save us. But we can’t be saved unless we come to this place where we realize we have been going in the wrong direction and we need to be washed.

How do we get ready for Christmas? How do we prepare for the coming of God’s Son into the world? By recognizing that perhaps we’ve been going in the wrong direction. By humbling ourselves and admitting to God and to others that we need to be washed. By beginning to turn outward in a spirit of generosity. Don’t wait until January 1 to do this. New Year’s is not the time to change your direction. New Year’s is too late. The time to turn around is now. Advent is the time.