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.
There is a short, prophetic book in the Bible that I think we need to pay more attention to—particularly at this time in the life of our nation.
We need to pay attention to this book because we need to learn from people who are willing to argue honestly with God…and who are also willing to listen attentively to what God says to them in return. And we need to value this book because we need to learn from people who are driven by compassion and conviction.
The name of the book is the name of the prophet who composed it: Habakkuk. The name has rich meaning. It comes from the Hebrew verb habhak, meaning “to embrace.” As such, the name means “Embraced,” and is generally considered to refer to Habakkuk being embraced by God.
We commonly think of embracing as having to do with taking hold of something or someone we cherish, holding that precious thing close or our heart or wrapping our arms around that loved one. Every time a person called out the name, “Habakkuk,” this prophet was given a reminder of who he was: an individual who was embraced and cherished by God!
Yet the name has a dual significance to it. It is not just a passive name, but an active name as well. It speaks not only of being embraced but also of doing the embracing. Martin Luther suggested that this prophet should be called the Heartener, arguing that Habakkuk is a prophet “who takes another to his heart and to his arms, as one soothes a poor weeping child.”
Habakkuk was an individual who was embraced by God and cherished by God, and he was a prophet who embraced the people of Judah and took them into his heart. I love that combination.
The book begins with the announcement that what we have in this book is the “prophecy” or “oracle” that Habakkuk received. The Hebrew word used here is massa. It is used in other passages of Scripture to refer to a heavy load that must be lifted.
One example is found in Exodus 23:5: “If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen down under its massa, don’t leave it there; be sure you help him with it.” Here massa has to do with a load that is so heavy that it causes a donkey to collapse under its weight. Even though the owner of that donkey may hate you, you are to take pity on the donkey and help to lift its load.
Another example is found in Numbers 11:11-12, as Moses is arguing with God about the heavy load God has given to him: “He asked the Lord, ‘Why have You brought this trouble on Your servant? What have I done to displease You that You put the massa of all these people on me? Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? Why do You tell me to carry them in my arms as a nurse carries an infant, to the land You promised on oath to their forefathers?’”
Massa is what Habakkuk received from God. He received the weight of caring for his people in a time of great ethical failings. Strife, conflict, and injustice were rampant in his land. In frustration, Habakkuk cries out to God, complaining that God has done nothing to stop it.
Habakkuk was written between 621 and 609 B.C., but Habakkuk’s complaint of strife, conflict and injustice rings true in our nation today as well. Political rallies chant, “Lock her up.” Elected officials are heckled when they go out to eat. Bombs are mailed to political opponents. Two people are shot to death in a Kroger grocery store in Kentucky simply for being black. And 11 people are shot to death in a synagogue in Pittsburgh merely for being Jewish. With Habakkuk, we could ask, “Why do You make me look at injustice? Why do You tolerate wrongdoing?”
As I read the opening lines of Habakkuk’s massa my prayer is that God will make me more like Habakkuk, more willing to carry in my heart the pains and struggles of others. And I pray for God to raise up more Habakkuk’s in our nation at this time—more people who will care about the pain of injustice and who will complain about it and speak up about it and pray about it.
The last chapter of the last book of the Bible concludes with an invitation to us then with a plea from us to Christ.
The invitation appears in verse 17: “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ And let him who hears say, ‘Come!’ Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life.”
The invitation to come to Christ is presented three times, followed by an invitation to take the free gift of the water of life. According to verse 17, the Holy Spirit invites us to come to Christ; the “bride” (anyone who has already come into relationship with Christ) invites others to come to Christ; and “him who hears” (all who have already heard the good news of Christ) invites others to Christ. All of us who have tasted of the love of Christ are to be involved in inviting others to taste of the love of Christ. This invitation to come to Christ goes out to everyone. “Whoever is thirsty” is invited to come to Christ and to take from him “the free gift of the water of life.”
In response to this wonderful invitation, and to the good news that Christ will be coming soon, the natural response is for us to plead with Him to come to us. Thus verse 20 ends with, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.”
Thus the Bible concludes with God’s invitation to us to come to Him and with our plea to God to come to us.
Bryan Chapell tells a story about his wife’s visit to the St. Louis Zoo to see the attraction “Big Cat Country” which allows visitors to watch lions and tigers roam about in large enclosures: “As my wife and her friend took the children up one of the skyway ramps a blanket became entangled in the wheel of the friend’s stroller. Kathy knelt to help untangle the wheel while our boys—ages three and five—went ahead. When next she looked up, Kathy discovered that the boys had innocently walked right through a child-sized gap in the fencing and had climbed up on the rocks some 20 feet above the lion pen. They had been told that they would be able to look down on the lions, and they were doing just that from their hazardous vantage point. Pointing to the lions below, they called back to their mother, ‘Hey, Mom, we can see them!’
“They had no concept of how much danger they were in. Kathy saw immediately. But now what could she do? If she screamed, she might startle the boys perched precariously above the lions. The gap in the fence was too small for her to get through. So she knelt down, spread out her arms, and said, ‘Boys, come get a hug.’ They came running for the love that saved them from danger greater than they could perceive.”
That’s the message with which the book of Revelation concludes: Come to Christ! Come to the love that saves us from a danger greater than we can perceive.
The problem is that people don’t always recognize the love with which the call to us is made. Clark Cothern tells the story of a squirrel that fell down a chimney into the wood burner stove in the basement of his Michigan home: “I thought if it knew we were there to help, I could just reach in and gently lift it out. Nothing doing. As I reach in…it began scratching about like a squirrel overdosed on espresso. We finally managed to construct a cardboard box ‘cage’ complete with a large hold cut into one side, into which the squirrel waltzed when we placed the box against the wood burner’s door. We let it out into the safety of our backyard.
“Later, I thought, Isn’t it funny how, before its redemption, our little visitor had frantically tried to bash its way out of its dark prison? It seemed that the harder it struggled in its own strength to get free, the more pain it caused itself. In the end, he simply had to wait patiently until one who was much bigger—one who could peer into his world—could carry him safely to that larger world where he really belonged. That is what we need the Lord to do for us.”
The truth is that from the depth of love, God entered our world as one of us to rescue us and to invite us into a relationship with Him of never-ending love!
At the most significant time of Jesus’ life on earth—as He hung upon a cross for three hours with a crowd of people listening carefully to everything He said—Jesus kept His words to a minimum. It’s not that Jesus ran out of things to say or that He became too disillusioned to spread His message any longer. It’s that it is extremely difficult for a person to speak while suffering the agony of crucifixion. Dr. Cahleen Shrier, associate professor in the Department of Biology and Chemistry at Azusa Pacific University explains, “Normally, to breathe in, the diaphragm (the large muscle that separates the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity) must move down. This enlarges the chest cavity and air automatically moves into the lungs (inhalation). To exhale, the diaphragm rises up, which compresses the air in the lungs and forces the air out (exhalation). As Jesus hangs on the cross, the weight of His body pulls down on the diaphragm and the air moves into His lungs and remains there. Jesus must push up on His nailed feet (causing more pain) to exhale. In order to speak, air must pass over the vocal cords during exhalation. The Gospels note that Jesus spoke seven times from the cross. It is amazing that despite His pain, He pushes up to say ‘Forgive them’ (Luke 23:34).” (APU Life, Spring, 2002, p. 7)
Because of the difficulty in speaking, Jesus chose His words. He uttered only seven brief statements—the last only one word in length in Greek. The last two things He said—at least according to John’s record of the event—were “I am thirsty,” and “It is finished” (Tetelestai in the Greek).
“I am thirsty.” This is the very human reaction to the trauma of crucifixion. Cahleen Shrier comments, “By this point, He has lost a great volume of blood which causes His blood pressure to fall and puts Him into shock. The human body attempts to remedy imbalances such as decreased blood volume, so Jesus’ thirst is His body’s natural response to His suffering.”
Later she adds, “I am struck every time with the stunning realization that as a flesh and blood human, Jesus felt every ounce of this execution.”
That brief sentence, “I am thirsty,” reveals Jesus’ complete humanness—perhaps more than any other sentence in Scripture. If He was not completely human—if He was not fully of the same substance as you and me—He would not be able to resolve the very human problems of sin and guilt and death.
But because He is more than just human, He can also say, “It is finished.”
It is important to note that Jesus’ last words on the cross were not, “I am finished,” as though He were sighing in despair, ‘I give up,’ or ‘I am done for.’ Nor is the impact of His words that time has run out on Him, as though He were saying, ‘It is over.’ The Greek word tetelestai has to do with the satisfactory completion of something. Jesus was declaring that what He had come to do has been accomplished. He came to die for the forgiveness of our sins, and with His death that has been accomplished. He came to set us right with God, and through His death that has been accomplished.
Brennan Manning remarks, “Through His passion and death Jesus carried away the essential sickness of the human heart and broke forever the deadly grip of hypocrisy on our souls. He has robbed our loneliness of its fatal power by traveling Himself to the far reaches of loneliness (‘My God, my God, why have You deserted Me?’). He has understood our ignorance, weakness and foolishness and granted pardon to us all (‘Forgive them, Father, they do not know what they are doing’). He has made His pierced heart a safe place for every defeated cynic, hopeless sinner, and self-loathing derelict across the bands of time. God reconciled all things, everything in heaven and everything on earth, when He made peace by His death on the cross.” (Abba’s Child, p. 155)
Dietrich Bonhoeffer adds, “God himself takes the humiliating path of reconciliation and thereby sets the world free. God wants to be guilty of our guilt and takes upon himself the punishment and suffering that this guilt brought to us. God stands in for godlessness, love stands in for hate, the Holy One for the sinner. Now there is no longer any godlessness, any hate, any sin that God has not taken upon himself, suffered, and atoned for. Now there is no more reality and no more world that is not reconciled with God and in peace. That is what God did in his beloved Son Jesus Christ.”
Jesus ended His agony on the cross in triumph and announced to the world the good news, “It is accomplished!”