This sermon is part of the sermon series "Earthy Spirituality". See series.
The Woodley family has a number of family picture albums. Each picture album contains an assortment of photos of people that matter to our family—children and parents, husbands and wives, friends, extended family members, and former church members. These are the people who are precious to us. When I look through one of our albums, I know that there's a story that holds everything together. It reminds me of who we are as Woodleys; it reminds me of who I am. It connects me with my past and gives me hope for the future.
The first nine chapters of 1 Chronicles are filled with some of the people in God's family of covenant love. At first sight, these chapters don't look like an exciting or valuable portion of the Bible. The sprawling list of names continues, page after page. You might be tempted to ask, "Why are all of these genealogies even in the Bible?" Keep in mind that these dry genealogical accounts are the equivalent of God's family picture album. For ancient Jews, these names represent people who have faces and stories. They matter and they belong here. But what is the story behind the names and faces, and what does that story tell us today?
First, let's take a look at the background story of 1 and 2 Chronicles. Four hundred years before Jesus was born, a group of Jewish people who had returned from a 70-year exile was trying to resettle, regroup, and rediscover their spiritual identity. They were a minority under the shadow of the all-consuming, trend-setting, world-shaping Persian Empire. They felt small, insignificant, and forgotten. They still had a temple where they could experience the presence of God, but their new temple was smaller and uglier than the first temple. They also felt a nagging sense that God was still punishing them for their past sins. They felt cut off from their past and uncertain of their future. In our terms, they were experiencing a communal identity crisis that forced them to ask questions like: Who are we? Should we just blend into the surrounding culture? Can we really make a difference? Can—should—our children live different lives than our neighbors? Does our faith even matter at all?
As the people returned from exile, a genealogical list was used as an administrative tool. More importantly, it was used as a spiritual tool. The author of Chronicles took the raw statistics and the lists of names and preached a sermon—told a story. Here's the sermon in a two-point outline: (1) Remember who you are; (2) Remember that you belong together.
The author of Chronicles is saying to the people: Look through the family album—God's family album—and remember that you belong to royal stock. Spiritual nobility is coursing though your soul. You have an unbelievable, life-altering, soul-transforming calling in your life. You matter to God. Remember who you are; remember that you belong together.
Remember who you are.
The people of God are to remember who they are because there's royalty in their blood. The pastor-storyteller of 1 and 2 Chronicles first points to some of the "big names" in God's picture album, starting with David. Notice the long list of references to David that begin in chapter 3. Who was David, and how would seeing David's face in your family album help you?
Initially, David was a complete nobody—a loner and a runt, the youngest brother in a long line of brothers. He was from a small, insignificant tribe. Yet purely based on God's own grace, God chose David to be the king over all of Israel. God even made a covenant with David. A covenant is essentially a two-sided agreement and promise. In the Bible, when God makes a covenant, he says: I love you; I am your God, you are my people, and I will take care of you better than any other little god ever could.
Whenever I put anything before God—my career path, money, success, or even my own children—I miss out on the best deal in the universe: the joy and satisfaction of knowing God's covenant love. Whenever I don't help my children put God first in their lives, I cheat my children; I help them find less joy rather than more joy. That joy is the story of God's covenant love. Scattering David's face throughout the genealogies of 1 Chronicles symbolizes the covenant love and faithfulness of God.
We don't just need a covenant of love, though; we also need the assurance that our sins are forgiven. Along with the imagery of David, the pastor-storyteller also focuses on another big name in the family album of the Jewish people: Levi. These genealogies are filled with references to Levi. But who was Levi, and how would seeing Levi's face in your family album help you?
The descendents of Levi became the Levites, the band of priests who stood in the temple and led the people in worship, reminding the Jews that the holy God of Israel will not tolerate their sins—but is merciful enough to forgive them.
You might think, The covenant love promised through David and the assurance of forgiveness promised through the Levites must have been good news for demoralized Jewish exiles who lived 2,400 years ago, but what does that have to do with my life? The exciting news is that the promise of David's covenant always pointed beyond itself to a greater covenant with a greater king who was still in the line of David. Likewise, the promise of Levi's tribe also pointed beyond itself to a better way to deal with sin. The blood of bulls and lambs was never meant to be the final answer to the forgiveness of sin. Notice the very first verse in Matthew's Gospel: "A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David …" A few verses later, Matthew says that Jesus will be named Immanuel, for he will save his people from their sins. Jesus is the fulfillment of the lines of both David and Levi. When you trust Christ, you have both God's covenant love and his assurance of forgiveness.
This genealogy helps us find our new identity as children of God. When Jesus died on the cross for our sins, on our behalf, in our place. We matter to God. God wants to put us in his family picture album. It's so easy for us to think we are insignificant, but the gospel gives us our significance in Christ. In Christ we have been chosen, adopted, and empowered with the Holy Spirit; in Christ we belong; in Christ our past is forgiven.
We sometimes suffer from a spiritual identity crisis, forgetting who we are in Christ. John Westerhoff tells a fable about a baby lion that became lost and wandered into a family of lambs. The lion soon started to act like the sheep: bleating, burying his face in the grass, and running away from danger. One day, when the lion was munching grass alongside all the little lambs, he heard a loud roar. All the lambs scattered, but the lion stayed put. When the lion behind the roar finally arrived, he looked at the little lion and said, "What are you doing here?" "Why, I'm munching grass," said the little lion. The big lion asked, "But what is that pathetic noise you're making?" "That's called a 'baa,'" the little lion said. The big lion took the little lion over to a quiet pool of water and said, "Look at our faces." "Wow! I'm just like you!" the little lion said. "Yes, you are," said the big lion. "Now you know who you are and whose you are; start living like a lion."
Children of God, remember who you are. The author of Chronicles reminds us that there's royalty in our blood. We are sons and daughters of the Risen Christ—the one greater than both David and Levi.
Remember that you belong together.
Our pastor-storyteller has another message: remember that you belong together. This family picture album doesn't just have a few big names; it also contains a sprawling kaleidoscope of men and women—old and young, high and low, Jews and non-Jews. In other words, God developed his plan through a wildly diverse group of people and continues to do so today. My friend Peter Esser, a brilliant Jewish follower of Jesus, wrote me this week and said, "These genealogies give a great sense that God is working in the world over many generations with many different people."
This is a very inclusive list. When the people first saw it, they probably said, "I'm happy to have the tribes from the Southern Kingdom, but I don't want those moral failures from the Northern Kingdom" or "I like my friends from my generation, but I don't want people from those older or newer generations." But the pastor-storyteller never loses sight of the importance of unity among the Israelites. One of his favorite phrases is "all Israel." He wants the unity of God's people to run deep, across racial, age, and socioeconomic lines.
We have a big problem in our country. In 2007, two major news stories—the firing of radio personality Don Imus over racially-charged remarks and the Duke Lacrosse players being found innocent of sexual crimes against an African-American woman—revealed a massive racial divide in our nation. I have nothing to say about whether these decisions were right or wrong; I only want to share what disturbed me most: how black Americans and white Americans viewed these issues so differently. Many don't have a clue as to what it feels like to be degraded as a young black woman in our country.
Am I being too sensitive? Am I overreacting? Many would say, "This isn't our problem. We didn't make the mess, and it's not our job to clean it up." The pastor-storyteller of 1 Chronicles and the authors of the New Testament would say, "This is your issue. You are the people of God—a new and radically different community called the church." From the beginning God has had a plan to bring all nations, races, and socioeconomic groups into a relationship of covenant love. Take a look at 1 Chronicles 1:5: the seven sons of Japheth founded the people of Europe and northern Asia; from Javan came Greek Ionia; from Gomer, the ancient Cimmerians of the Russian plains; from Madia, the Medes and Persians of Iran; from Tubal and Meschech the inhabitants of the Turkish plateau; the four sons of Ham founded the ethnic groups of Africa and southwestern Asia.
Consider the message of Ephesians 4:1-3. How do we live a life that is worthy of Christ our Lord? We become unified. Is unity easy? No! Paul tells us to work at it: "Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace." Are you making every effort to embrace and understand people from different cultures, perspectives, or generations? Do you try to understand what it's like to be non-white or non-American?
The pastor-storyteller of 1 Chronicles challenges us with big, diverse names. He also intentionally includes "little" people with "little" names, because they belong here, too. The list includes Tamar, a victim of incest, and Bathsheba, a foreign woman who had an affair with King David. The genealogy starts with Adam and moves through Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David—all great, famous people—but ends with 15 verses about the guys who guarded the house of the Lord and opened the doors in the morning for worship. Isn't that wonderful? Moses gets a verse or two, but so does a guy named Mattithiah. What did Mattithiah do? He showed up to make bread in the morning!
Do you ever feel like Mattithiah? Maybe you feel that what you do—or what you are—doesn't matter. But here is the message of these genealogies: you matter to God, and you matter to the people of God.
You matter to God and his people.
We can easily start to feel small and unimportant, wondering, What difference does it make? We're just a bunch of losers! We'll never have an impact on our culture. Why don't we just blend in, fly low, and just do a little church stuff on the side? Let's just try to hang on until Jesus comes back. That's exactly what the people of God were thinking in the time of 1 Chronicles. They returned from exile, and it seemed like the glory days were over. They were dejected and defensive. But the author of Chronicles tells us, "No! You are God's covenant people. You have a special calling that no one else can fulfill. The public schools, Kiwanis club, sports teams, choirs, marching bands, civic organizations—they all have their place. But none can take your place. You are the church of Jesus Christ. You are marked by God's covenant love, and the world desperately needs you. You have to be a light to all the earth, pointing people to God's incredible love for the world. Look at your heritage and the people in your family album—the high and low, the rich and poor, the Jews and foreigners, the mighty and humble, kings and rulers; they're all in your family tree. You have royalty in your blood. You matter to God. You belong to this rich and sprawling family tree. Don't you know how much you matter to God?"
As a church we have a job to do that no one else can. How could you walk away from a job that only you can do? If you're a mother or a father, you have a job to do. Nobody else can replace you. God can raise up mentors, friends, or other family members to help and support your child, but only you can be you. Only you can speak up where God has planted you in the workplace or at school. You may look around and wonder, Why doesn't someone do something about ____? Why doesn't someone share the gospel with these people? Why doesn't someone make a different at my high school, university, or hospital? God says, "That's why you are planted there. You make the difference. Don't wait for someone else to do your job. I've called you, so feed my sheep."
God is still putting together his family picture album. But how do you get your picture in there? John 1:12 says, "To all who received [Jesus], to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God." All you have to do is receive Christ by putting your trust in his name. God wants to write your name in his family picture album. If you're name is removed, you leave behind a blank page and the album is incomplete. A partial family is not a family; a partial fellowship falls short of God's divine ideal. Come, sons and daughters of God, brothers and sisters in Christ. Remember who you are. Remember that you belong to God and that there is royalty in your blood. It doesn't matter where you came from, because you belong to King Jesus. Remember, too, that you belong together—black, white, Chinese, Korean, male and female, rich and poor, white-collar and blue-collar, American citizens and non- citizens.
Matt Woodley is the pastor of compassion ministries at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois.