The most boring portion of the Christmas story in the Bible has got to be the list of Jesus’ ancestors. As it turns out, though, the most scandalous portion of the Christmas story in the Bible may also be the list of Jesus’ ancestors.
It has been said, “Shake your family tree and watch the nuts fall out.”
That statement is certainly true of my family tree. I grew up hearing reports of my ancestors ruling a Scottish castle in ancient days. In fact, the castle is proudly featured on the cover of every Elliot Clan newsletter. When I traveled to Scotland, I made it a point to visit this family castle. When I asked the castle docent about my family’s report of owning the castle, he laughed and verified that my ancestors did, indeed, rule the castle, but only for a few hours—after my ancestors broke out of the castle prison and took control of the castle while brokering a deal for their release from the prison.
Our nation recently fell in love with the musical “Hamilton.” Well, it was a relative of mine who shot Hamilton to death…after fixing the pistols used in the duel.
Another relative financed his move to California by stealing the company payroll from the Confederate troop he had been assigned to.
More recently, an ancestor fled England after killing an opponent in a bare-knuckle boxing match.
Some people react to scandalous genealogies with shame, and they try to cover up the skeletons in their genealogical closet. For example, what do you do about an uncle who was sentenced to death for murder? According to an article in the Mayflower Quarterly, “The children of a prominent family chose to give the patriarch a book of their family’s history. The biographer they hired was warned of one problem. Uncle Willie, the ‘Black Sheep,’ had gone to Sing-Sing’s electric chair for murder. The writer carefully handled the situation in the following way: ‘Uncle Willie occupied a chair of applied electronics at one of our nation’s most famous institutions. He was attached to his position by the strongest of ties. His death came as a true shock.’”
Herod the Great shared similar worries about his own ancestry. Rather than hiring a creative writer, he destroyed his entire genealogical record so that his ancestry might not be compared negatively to anyone else’s.
The Bible includes no such cover-up when it comes to Jesus’ genealogy. In fact, Matthew almost seems to go out of his way to highlight the scandals in Jesus’ family tree. He points our attention to Perez “whose mother was Tamar.” Tamar was married to Judah’s son Er. When Er died young, Tamar was given to Judah’s next son, Onan. But Onan also died young. Judah blamed Tamar, so he refused to give her to his third son, Shelah. This left Tamar alone in the world, with no way to produce a legitimate child. She took matters into her own hands. She pretended to be a prostitute while Judah was passing by. He slept with her, and she gave birth to twin boys; one of whom was Perez.
And Matthew points our attention to Boaz “whose mother was Rahab.” Rahab was a Canaanite in Jericho and is identified in Scripture as a prostitute.
Matthew also highlights Obed “whose mother was Ruth.” Ruth is identified as a Moabite, which means she was a descendant of Moab who was a son of Lot by means of incest.
And he draws our attention to Solomon “whose mother had been Uriah’s wife.” Uriah’s wife had been taken advantage of sexually by King David. David then arranged for the death of Uriah, hoping that no one would discover that David was the father of her baby.
Here’s the bad news: Jesus’ family tree is full of scandals!
Here’s the good news: If God is not ashamed to include such scandals in Jesus’ ancestry, we can know that He is not ashamed to include us in His family. We need not be scared away from Jesus by the scandals or failure of our lives. God welcomes us into His family not on the basis of how good or faultless we may be but on the basis of how expansive His love for us is! “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us that we should be called children of God!” (1 John 3:1)
One of my favorite verses in the Bible is a verse that is often misunderstood. Habakkuk 3:19 declares, “The Sovereign Lord is my strength; He makes my feet like the feet of a deer; He enables me to tread on the heights.”
People read of “the heights,” and they imagine a beautiful scenic overlook to which you can drive your car and enjoy a panoramic view of the countryside. But that’s not what Habakkuk had in mind. To Habakkuk, the heights are the mountain cliffs where the climb is steep and exhausting, where the ledges are narrow and the traveling is dangerous. The heights are the rocky times in our lives when it is difficult for us to take even one more step, when it is a challenge for us to go on at all.
Too often, Christians live under the delusion that the Christian life is about traveling happily from one scenic overlook to another. Too often, we have the mistaken impression that all should be good in our lives and in the lives of “good” Christians.
Dave Dravecky was an All Star pitcher until he was found to have a cancerous tumor in the muscle of his pitching arm. The tumor was removed and Dravecky returned to pitching for the San Francisco Giants. He wrote a book entitled Comeback about overcoming cancer and returning to the major leagues. But the cancer returned and Dravecky ended up having his arm amputated all the way to his shoulder. He lost his career. He lost the means by which he had earned a living. He couldn’t even tie his shoes or cut the meat on his plate. He feared the cancer would return elsewhere. On top of that, the medication he was prescribed was causing ulcers. Dravecky found himself in the throes of deep depression. A fan, who seemed to believe only in scenic overlooks, sent him a letter of advice. In his book, When You Can’t Come Back, Dravecky recalls, “I received a letter in the mail with an article on depression. I appreciated the letter. It was kind and gracious. But the article wasn’t any help. It claimed to be the biblical answer to depression. It quoted a few verses and then gave this advice: ‘Force your mind into sunshine thoughts. Do this especially when your mind starts the instant replays of old fears and depressive thoughts.’”
In response to this advice, Dravecky writes, “I’m sorry, but to me, forcing your mind into ‘sunshine thoughts’ when you’re going through a time of depression is like standing in the rain and denying there’s a storm. Faith is not denying the weather that sweeps over your life. It’s believing that behind the clouds and beyond the storms waits a faithful God.” (p. 169)
Habakkuk did not close his eyes to the storm that was beating down on him. He faced the rocky “heights” of his life honestly. He stated, “I heard and my heart pounded, my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled. Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us. Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls….”
Habakkuk faced the storms (or the heights) of his life honestly, even though they terrified him! Yet in the midst of the storm, Habakkuk did the one thing that helped: He set his focus on the Lord who was there in the storm with him.
Max Lucado shares, “I have a picture in my mental scrapbook that illustrates this principle. In the scene, my father and I are battling a storm in a fishing boat. We are surrounded by a mountain range of white tops, most taller than either of us. The coastline is hidden, the fog is thickening, and we are honestly beginning to wonder if we will make it back to shore. I am young, maybe nine. The boat is small, perhaps ten feet. And the waves are high, high enough to overturn our craft. The sky rumbles, the clouds billow, and the lightning zigzags.
“Dad has directed the boat toward the nearest beach, taking us bow first into the waves. He sits in the rear with a hand on the throttle and his face into the wind. I sit in the front looking back toward him. Rain stings my bare neck and soaks my shirt. One wave after another picks us up and slaps us down. I grab both sides of the boat and hang on. In vain I search for the coast. It’s buried by fog. I look for the sun…it’s hidden by the clouds. I look for other boats…I see only waves. Everything I see frightens me. There is only one reassuring sight, the face of my father. Rain-splattered and grimacing, he peers into the storm. Water drips off the bill of his baseball cap, and his shirt is stuck to his skin.
“Right then I made a decision. I quit looking at the storm and watched only my father. It just made sense. Watching the waves brought fear; watching my father brought calm. So I focused on Dad. So intense was my gaze that three decades later I can still see him guiding us out of the billows.
God wants us to do the same. He wants us to focus our eyes on Him. What good does it do to focus on the storm?” (He Still Moves Stones, p. 158-159)
That’s why Habakkuk 3:19 means so much to me. In the midst of the storm (in the midst of the struggles of going on the rocky heights), I am reminded to keep my focus on the Sovereign Lord who is my strength and who makes my feet like the feet of a deer to tread on the heights.
Randy Felton makes an observation that continues to nudge me in a different direction than I otherwise tend to go in my life. He writes,
“In the book of Judges, chapter 1, verses 1-12, Israel is preparing for battle and they inquire of the Lord, Who will be the first to go up and fight for us against the Canaanites? The Lord tells them, Judah is to go. Later, in Judges 20:18, we find, Who of us shall go first to fight against the Benjamites? The Lord replied, Judah shall go first. There were twelve tribes of Israel. Why should Judah be called upon to go up first? The Hebrew word translated as Judah is used many times in English as PRAISE. So the scriptures could be translated as, Let praise go up first. This is good advice for us when facing struggles or battles. Let us first praise. This is both an act of faith and submission. Praise God before the battle is entered; anyone can praise when the battle is over and won. Only by faith can we praise at the start.”
I tend to react to difficult situations with a certain level of dread and discouragement. With that, I have an inclination to run away. When I can’t run, I roll up my sleeves and jump into the fray—but I do so with something of a blind, frantic obsession about simply getting the job done. As such, I am churning with stress, and I don’t do the job very well. I especially don’t do it or with much loving care for others who are involved.
But Felton’s concept of letting praise go first nudges me to go in a different direction, a better direction.
This new direction is the approach taken by Habakkuk the prophet in Habakkuk 3. In the preceding chapter, God pronounces “woe” upon the nation and warns them of great judgment coming upon them. As a result, Habakkuk admits that upon hearing this report, “my heart pounded; my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled.” The situation Habakkuk faced was terrifying, but he led off with praise. The chapter begins with this declaration, “Lord, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, Lord.” From there he goes on to recall great things about God’s character, and he describes some of the great things God has done.
The act of praise brought about significant change. It is not that praise changed the situation Habakkuk faced, but it changed Habakkuk himself. Cyril Barber points out, “As one compares the beginning of the book of Habakkuk with its closing, it is clear that outward circumstances had not changed. Only the prophet had changed. His former bewilderment and confusion had given way to peace and trust in the Lord.”
Praise changes us because it anchors our souls on a solid foundation. Praise is the deliberate act of remembering and declaring the goodness of God. It is in the process of doing this that our hearts begin to settle into the truth that God’s goodness withstands all of our hard times. True praise is not the declaration that I am happy about how things are turning out in my life; true praise is the declaration that I cast my hope on the goodness of God whether things are going well or poorly for me. I am beginning to learn to let praise go first.
If we actually believe in a living God who cares for us personally, why don’t our prayers match what we say we believe? Why do we spend so much more time talking at God rather than listening to Him?
Sadly, Gregg Lewis captures well what most of my prayers are like in an analogy he shares about a customer at a fast food restaurant:
“I’d barely started to eat when, looking out the window I noticed a businessman in a three-piece suit racing across the parking lot. Throwing open the door, he jostled his way through a cluster of exiting customers and stepped into the shortest line—just in front of a young mother toting two preschoolers. ‘One Quarter Pounder, large fries, a medium Coke, and an apple pie.’ As the girl at the register left to fill his order, the man turned on his heel, strode out the door and trotted back to his car. By the time the girl returned to hand him his lunch, the man was pulling his car out of the parking lot.”
How often my prayers are like that: “God, tell me what to do about this mess I am in. Give me the wisdom I need for this situation. Enable me to discern Your guidance. Oh…I’ve got to run now! I’m too busy to talk to You further!”
I make requests to God for His wisdom, His guidance, His answers, or His peace, but I don’t stick around long enough to be in a position to receive anything He might give.
An anonymous writer observes, “‘Speak, Lord, for Thy servant heareth,’ said young Samuel. Almost universally we have made the keynote of our praying, ‘Listen, Lord, for Thy servant speaketh.’ It is strange that it has never dawned on us that nothing we say to God can be half so important as what God says to us. And yet, when every prayer ought to be a two-way conversation, most often we make it a monologue.”
Habakkuk, however, takes steps to avoid having his prayer become a monologue.
In Habakkuk 1:12-17, Habakkuk expresses to God his complaint and his confusion. He cannot understand how God could allow people as cruel and immoral at the Chaldeans to invade and defeat his country. In verses 12-17, Habakkuk presents his side of the dialogue. In Habakkuk 2:1, he positions himself to hear God’s participation in the dialogue. He states, “I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts; I will look to see what he will say to me, and what answer I am to give to this complaint.”
This verse is distant from my personal practice, but it is an inspiration and challenge to me. Habakkuk does two things here that I rarely do but want to learn to do:
1: By stationing himself in his ramparts, or at his guard post, Habakkuk moved himself away from the bustle of public life. Apparently Habakkuk recognized that it is away from the flurry of activity that we have the best likelihood of being able to hear God speak to us.
Coming at this issue from the opposite direction, C.S. Lewis offers advice on how to hide ourselves from God: “Avoid silence; avoid solitude; avoid any train of thought that leads off the beaten track. Concentrate on money, sex, status, health and (above all) on your grievances. Keep the radio on. Live in a crowd. Use plenty of sedation. If you must read books, select them very carefully. But you’d be safer to stick to the papers. You’ll find the advertisements helpful; especially those with a sexy or a snobbish appeal” (p. 168-169 of Christian Reflections).
By setting himself away from the commotion of activity, Habakkuk improved the likelihood of his prayer being a dialogue.
2: By stationing himself in his ramparts, or at his guard post, Habakkuk gave himself the best vantage point to hear God speak. It’s not just that Habakkuk avoided the distractions of activity, he took the active step of putting himself in a place where he had the best opportunity to hear what God would say. He made the matter of listening to God the single most important thing to him, and he arranged his day so that he had time and location and opportunity to hear God. One way we can do this is by setting aside time each day to talk with God and to listen to Him.
James Hamilton shares, “Before refrigerators, people used ice houses to preserve their food. Ice houses had thick walls, no windows, and a tightly fitted door. In winter, when streams and lakes were frozen, large blocks of ice were cut, hauled to the ice houses, and covered with sawdust. Often the ice would last well into the summer. One man lost a valuable watch while working in an ice house. He searched diligently for it, carefully raking through the sawdust, but didn’t find it. His fellow workers also looked, but their efforts, too, proved futile. A small boy who heard about the fruitless search slipped into the ice house during the noon hour and soon emerged with the watch. Amazed, the men asked how he found it. ‘I closed the door,’ the boy replied, ‘lay down in the sawdust, and kept very still. Soon I heard the watch ticking.’”
We increase our likelihood of hearing God when we set aside time to be silent before Him.