“The Everlasting Covenant”Dr. Lee Carter 2 Samuel 7:1-11; Luke 1: 26-38. Year B - Fourth Sunday in Advent
Let’s face it. When it comes to genealogies there is nothing more interesting than tracing your own and nothing more boring than having to listen to someone else’s. Of course, for many years, to be welcomed into certain social circles, such as the Daughters of the American Revolution or the Mayflower Society, one had to prove one’s blue-blooded pedigree. However, nowadays, genealogy is big business. People today are only too eager to hand over big bucks to swab their cheek saliva in order to discover how much Neanderthal DNA still survives in the family.
Discovery about one’s roots, ethnic or national origin or one’s possible kinship to someone of historical renown can slim the wallet but that doesn’t stop thousands who invest in Ancestry.com, My Heritage DNA, Nebula Genomics, Vitagene, 23andme, and a host of others, just to unravel the mysteries about their past that DNA uncovers.
The Bible is full of genealogies, or, as they are sometimes lovingly referred to, “the begats.” One can while away many hours, of course, struggling to pronounce strange-sounding names of people long forgotten and who seem to have little relevance to the thrust of either the Old or New Testaments. We simply don’t care about people we have never heard of and who lived in a world so alien from our own. Yet, somehow, we know that these tedious genealogies must have some importance, or else why are they so prominent in the Bible?
The first nine chapters of the book of I Chronicles are, you guessed it, simply list after list of genealogies. The perfect remedy for the insomniac, you say? Those who pledge to read the whole New Testament, beginning with Matthew, might be put off by the fact that they must first wade through, you guessed it– a genealogy! And here on the cusp of the Christmas season, Bible readers discover, perhaps to their dismay, that the Nativity story itself begins with a genealogy (Matthew 1: 1-17).
While we may find reading through lists of genealogies even less interesting than watching paint dry, they serve a most valued spiritual interest for people of biblical faith—and they do relate most pointedly to the Christmas story. No kidding!
Many of the genealogies of the Bible were collected during times when prospects for the future of God’s covenanted people were quite dim and many were giving up hope of the fulfillment of God’s promises. Genealogies were of great importance during the period of Babylonian Exile, after Jerusalem was destroyed, with its formerly glorious Temple, when its king wore prison garb in the hoosegow of a foreign land and many of the leading citizens were transported to the ghettos established for Judahites along the River Chebar. Meanwhile, squatters were settling on the homesteads of people who could do nothing about removing them.
Hopelessness, anger and frustration characterized the attitudes of many of God’s people, as we find reflected in such Bible books as Lamentations, Obadiah and Malachi. In brief, all seemed lost. The former inhabitants of Judah were simply being absorbed among the nations. Was there hope for the future?
Please understand, that for people who have lost everything, all they have left are their memories, fond recollections of better days and faint hope that their story might continue. Having a story is therapeutic.
If you have a story, you have a past. Just having a past might give you some vague confidence that you might have a future because, even if everything seems so hopeless, you at least know that life goes on, so your story must continue.
Genealogies function, then, as seeds of hope. Do we not today look at our children as promises of hope for the future? Through them we are confident that the story must go on. The “begats” of the Bible function to inspire the people of God to continue to believe that God, who began a good work, cannot be finished with us yet. Genealogies remind us that we have a story to tell, a story that has solid roots, a story yet unfulfilled.
I like to think of the Bible’s genealogies as a great symphony with each and every name that is read as an indispensable musical note. Think about how we commemorate the tragedy of 9/11 to this day in the vicinity of the Twin Towers. We recite the names of the fallen—each and every one of them. So, would we say that it is just a recital of boring names that we can hardly pronounce? Hardly! The recital of each name is not to point us solely to the past, but toward a better, more hopeful future.
Those who can still recall living during the 1970’s might remember how for three nights our nation’s people were riveted to their television sets as they watched the stories from Alex Haley’s Roots. When the finale aired on January 30, 1977, an estimated 80 million viewers tuned in to watch, making it what was then the most viewed program in American television history.
All told, over 130 million people– nearly half of the population of the United States at the time–saw least one episode of Roots in 1977. Let me remind those who watched the series with eyes glued what Roots really was—the account of someone’s genealogy! I guess genealogies are not so insufferably boring after all!
Central to the Nativity stories in Matthew and Luke are the genealogies of Jesus. Jesus, it was declared by the earliest of Christian evangelists, was the Son of David. Matthew goes so far as to arrange the genealogy that opens his gospel into three sets of fourteen generations. The number fourteen (in Hebrew and Aramic the letters daleth waw daleth or 4+6+4 is numerically equivalent to name “David,” the great king of ancient Israel (Matthew 1:17).
Why was it so important for Christians to declare that Jesus, the Son of God, was descended from David? Why is it so important in our Scripture reading for today? Why is it so significant in the angel Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary? The words of the Annunciation declare:
“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 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 1:30-33).
The genealogy of Jesus from David was not simply important to the earliest followers of Jesus. A family-owned genealogy that existed independently of the genealogies of Matthew and Luke, was cherished by our Lord’s grandnephews because it linked the family directly to David. This particular genealogical chart would later capture both the attention and concern of the Roman emperor, Domitian (ruled AD 81-96).
The paranoid despot feared that a descendant of David, the heroic king of Israel, might be expected to lead his fellow Jews in another revolt against Rome. The account by the second century AD church historian, Hegisippus (and recorded by Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History Book III, Chapters 19–20 ) demonstrates how significant this genealogy of descent from David was:
‘Of the family of the Lord there were still living (in 81 to 96) the grandchildren of Jude, who is said to have been the Lord’s brother according to the flesh. Information was given that they belonged to the family of David, and they were brought to the Emperor Domitian by the Evocatus (an equestrian soldier). For Domitian feared the coming of Christ as Herod also had feared it.
And he asked them if they were descendants of David, and they confessed that they were. Then he asked them how much property they had, or how much money they owned. And both of them answered that they had only nine thousand denarii half of which belonged to each of them; and this property did not consist of silver, but of a piece of land which contained only thirty-nine plethora, and from which they raised their taxes and supported themselves by their own labor. Then they showed their hands, exhibiting the hardness of their bodies and the callousness produced upon their hands by continuous toil as evidence of their own labor.
And when they were asked concerning Christ and his kingdom, of what sort it was and where and when it was to appear, they answered that it was not a temporal nor an earthly kingdom, but a heavenly and angelic one, which would appear at the end of the world, when he should come I in glory to judge the quick and the dead, and to give unto every one according to his works. Upon hearing this, Domitian did not pass judgment against them but despising them as of no account, he let them go, and by a decree put a stop to the persecution of the Church.
Thus, in spite of Domitian’s paranoia about the genealogy and the threat it might impose upon his rule, when he called our Lord’s kinsmen in for questioning, he realized that these simple farmers posed no threat at all.
Being descended from King David meant more than having genealogical bragging rights of course. The Son of David, it was believed, would appear one day as the Messiah, that is, the One anointed by God to re- establish the kingdom linked to the David of old.
The idea of a coming messiah was rooted deeply in the heart of the Old Testament and in the minds and hearts of Jews who had suffered oppression long enough and who longed for God to bring justice at last and relief to those who had endured the wait. Indeed, the foundation of messianism, as recorded in the Bible, was God’s promise to David through the prophet Nathan. That promise, in the form of a covenant grant, assured that a descendant of David would sit on the throne of Israel forever. Unlike the covenant associated with Moses, the law and Mount Sinai, this new covenant was not ultimately contingent upon obedience. It was an outright gift to David from God, and was fixed as an everlasting covenant. The story of the promise, as it appears in II Samuel 7, features the revelation of God to Nathan in a vision and audition of the night (II Samuel 7:12-17)):
Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. But I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever. In accordance with all these words and with all this vision, Nathan spoke to David.
This prophecy, which plays upon multiple meanings of the word “house” (as temple, dynasty, household, royal line and palace), would arouse hope in the coming of God’s future anointed king long after the old kingdom of Judah was dissolved. The people who believed that God would be faithful to the promise never lost hope.
The coming messiah would share several titles: Son of David, Son of God, and the “anointed one” (Messiah or Christ). The goal of the liberating messiah of David’s own lineage was to reestablish God’s Kingdom.
Titles, we understand, are just labels and Jesus of Nazareth would break the mold of popular conceptions of how God liberates us. Still, it was very important to earliest Christian preachers of the gospel to make our Lord’s descent from David a key point in the basic outline of the gospel message. For example, Paul begins his presentation of the gospel before the Romans with these words Romans 1:1-6):
Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead.
The very first verse of our New Testament references the kinship of Jesus to David (Matthew 1:1): “This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” In the first chapter of Luke (Luke 1:68-70), Zachariah, filled with the Holy Spirit, declares: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel… for He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old.”
References to Jesus as the Son of David abound within the gospel stories.
In Matthew 9:27 two blind men cried out to Jesus “Have mercy on us, Son of David!”
A Canaanite woman who wanted her daughter healed cried out: “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is cruelly demon-possessed” (Matthew 15:22; 20:30).
As Jesus entered Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday, the crowd shouted “Hosanna to the Son of David; Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21: 9) Even the unbelieving crowds in are perplexed by the meaning of the signs of Jesus. They ask themselves: “This man cannot be the Son of David, can he?” (Matthew 12:23).
Even the gospel of John has the crowds bewildered by Jesus ask ironically (John 7:41, 42) “Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he? Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?”
The letters of the New Testament reinforce the significance of Jesus as a descendant of David. II Timothy 2:8 states: “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal.”
Moreover, the final book of our New Testament references Jesus as “the lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David” (Revelation 5:5) and has the Risen Lord declare: “I am the root and offspring of David, the bright and morning star.” (Revelation 22:16).
The coming of our Lord Jesus, in short, fulfilled the ancient promise of the everlasting covenant. Believers today need never lose hope for we can trust in the faithfulness of God. The promise to David is a promise to us as well that God keeps His word.
During the Advent and Christmas seasons we sing carols that evoke the connection of Jesus, born in David’s little town of Bethlehem, to the royal line of the ancient king:
Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming
From tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse’s lineage coming,
As men of old have sung.
O come, Thou Key of David, come
And open wide our heav’nly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
And from the carol, “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night” we sing:
“To you, in David’s town this day, is born of David’s line,
The Savior who is Christ the Lord, and this shall be the sign.”
The carol, “Once in Royal David’s City” summarizes the significance of Jesus as Son of David even by its title.
One of the most powerful ways we express our faith is through song. It seems that Gabriel’s message to Mary, announcing the birth of a son, is intended as an angel song: “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.”
This season, as we rejoice at the coming of God’s messiah, Jesus Christ our Lord, of the seed of David, born in Bethlehem itself, may we raise our voices high especially as we rejoice that God is good to his promises– and let us not forget our Lord’s genealogy!
About the writer:
The Rev. R. Lee Carter, Ph.D., has served as pastor of the North Chapel Hill Baptist Church (Chapel Hill, NC) since 1994. He also is a professor of Religion at William Peace University (Raleigh, NC), and serves as the William C. Bennett Chaplain there. He is a graduate of Furman University, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has been married to Pamela Weatherly Carter since 1975 and they have two grown children, Jonathan and Christa, two grandsons, Charlie and Sammy, and a granddaughter, Leila.
Scripture and Music:
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Psalms 89:1-4, 19-26
O Come, All Ye Faithful
Silent Night, Holy Night
It Came Upon the Midnight Clear
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
The First Nowell the Angel Did Say
For Unto Us A Child Is Born (Handel)
Candlelight Carol (John Rutter)
Some Children See Him (Alfred Burt)
Angel s Carol (John Rutter)
Away in a Manger (Mack Wilberg)
Angels We Have Heard on High (Mack Wilberg)
Love Came Down at Christmas
The Birthday of a King (Neidlinger)
Gesu Bambino (Pietro Yon)
Silent Night, Holy Night