Family Trees (January 13th, 2013 sermon)

I know some people in this room can trace their genealogy back for centuries. I can’t go back that far in my own family tree—maybe four or five generations, with certainty, although there is a chance that one of my ancestors was on the crew of the pirate Jean Lafitte, in the early 1800s. The stories that I know for certain still paint a picture that help me understand some of who I am. I know that I had an ancestor who travelled to the US to find temporary work and got left behind here by his younger brother when they only had enough cash for one return ticket. I know that I have a great-great-grandmother who, when she found out she was pregnant, followed her husband to Australia, where he was prospecting, had her child there with him, but did not register the child’s birth until she was back in Scotland, because she could not imagine having an Australian child. I know that my paternal great-grandfather was a latch-key kid whose Arabic-speaking neighbors taught him household phrases—phrases he later used to impress animal keepers at the Audubon Zoo, when he could get unruly camels to follow his instructions.


I think our fascination with genealogy has to do with what we learn about ourselves. I look at my family history and I see resilience, I see women with strength and a mind of their own. I see creativity and playfulness. I see people who are willing to take risks, who can be stubborn, who make the most of their circumstances. I think all of us who pay attention to our genealogy believe that there are aspects of our character and personality that are inherited traits, along with the color of our hair and eyes. We look at the stories of these predecessors and we see patterns that help us make sense of our own lives and our own identities. Bossy oldest sisters and mischievous younger brothers is an at least three-generation long pattern on both sides of my family—and both my children and my brother’s children conform to the pattern, too.

Whether we like it or not, family is one factor that shapes each of our identities. Understanding our family origins can be a kind of revelation to us.

Last week we read the story of the magi and how God spoke to them through the means of their study. Through their life work. We considered the ways that God might speak to us through ordinary life experiences, too. Epiphanies, or revelations of God are not necessarily supernatural experiences, but insights we gain through the normal stuff of our lives.

All the stories we will be reading during this season of Epiphany connect to this theme in one way or another—they have to do with God’s revelation—with Jesus’ identity revealed, and with our own experiences of revelation—both self-revelation and our experience of discovering God.

Today we come to this story of Jesus’s baptism. With the Spirit in dove from, and a voice from heaven. Really? Just when we are beginning to look for God in ordinary events, we have a story like this that seems so uncommon. So unique. Most of us have been baptized at some time in our lives, but I doubt that any of us had a dove fly down from the clouds as the water dripped down our scalps. If a voice boomed from heaven, I think my parents would have included that in their recollections of my baptism as an infant. So, as we explore this theme of revelation, what do we make of this story? Is Jesus the only one to whom God gives this blessing and words of approval? Or does this story reveal something about us, too?

I think one hint to guide us on the way comes in the next paragraph of Luke’s gospel. I didn’t include it in the bulletin, because it is not part of the lectionary passage for this Sunday, but if you want to follow along as I read it, you can open your pew Bibles. I will be starting at the middle of verse 23:

He was the son (as was thought) of Joseph son of Heli, 24son of Matthat, son of Levi, son of Melchi, son of Jannai, son of Joseph, 25son of Mattathias, son of Amos, son of Nahum, son of Esli, son of Naggai, 26son of Maath, son of Mattathias, son of Semein, son of Josech, son of Joda, 27son of Joanan, son of Rhesa, son of Zerubbabel, son of Shealtiel, son of Neri, 28son of Melchi, son of Addi, son of Cosam, son of Elmadam, son of Er, 29son of Joshua, son of Eliezer, son of Jorim, son of Matthat, son of Levi, 30son of Simeon, son of Judah, son of Joseph, son of Jonam, son of Eliakim, 31son of Melea, son of Menna, son of Mattatha, son of Nathan, son of David, 32son of Jesse, son of Obed, son of Boaz, son of Sala, son of Nahshon, 33son of Amminadab, son of Admin, son of Arni, son of Hezron, son of Perez, son of Judah, 34son of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham, son of Terah, son of Nahor, 35son of Serug, son of Reu, son of Peleg, son of Eber, son of Shelah, 36son of Cainan, son of Arphaxad, son of Shem, son of Noah, son of Lamech, 37son of Methuselah, son of Enoch, son of Jared, son of Mahalaleel, son of Cainan, 38son of Enos, son of Seth, son of Adam, son of God.

That’s quite a genealogy! So, why on earth does Luke include it? Certainly it is here for some greater purpose than just to provide a Hebrew pronunciation challenge for the reader. What is that reason? And why did Luke put it here, and not earlier with the birth narrative, like Matthew does?

genealogy window

The beginning and the ending of Luke’s genealogy are both kind of strange. Let’s look at the end, first. Matthew’s genealogy points to Jesus as a child of Abraham—a child of the covenant God made with Israel—and a descendant of David—a king in the royal line. Both David and Abraham are listed in Luke’s version of Jesus’ genealogy, too, but Luke doesn’t stop at Abraham—he keeps tracing back all the way to Noah, and eventually to Adam, ending with the clincher—Son of God. Jesus has just been identified as the Son of God at his baptism. Why make the same point through his genealogy, too?

Especially since, right a the beginning of the genealogy, Luke does something else strange—he undermines the whole thing by saying that Jesus was the son (as was thought) of Joseph. Right at the beginning, Luke seems to indicate that this whole genealogical line is mistaken, anyway. After all, Luke is the gospel that emphasizes that Mary was a virgin and that Jesus’ conception was miraculous, precisely because it did not involve Joseph.

This is such a strange genealogy! Why on earth would Luke feel the need to trace back dozens of generations through a paternal family line that, according to his own account, isn’t even Jesus’ real ancestry?

I think it has to do with those last few names on the genealogy. Let’s get into a first-century frame of mind, here. Tracing lineage back to David is like short-hand for saying a person is royalty, or destined to be royalty. Tracing a lineage back to Abraham identifies someone as a true Israelite—someone who is part of the covenant—one of God’s chosen.

Tracing a lineage back to Noah? Well… that pretty much represents the whole world, doesn’t it? Everyone is descended from Noah. So to trace Jesus’ ancestry back to Noah shifts to focus from Jesus as a good, true Israelite to Jesus as a human—one of the vast, diverse human family.

But Luke doesn’t stop there—he continues to trace the lineage all the way back to Adam, as if to really drive the point home—we’re talking about all humans, here—every single living person ever is in this family tree. And who is our common ancestor—who is the one from whom all humanity derives identity?

God. Every single one of us is a Son and Daughter of God.

In his baptism, Jesus has this revelation of his identity—Beloved Son of God—but here’s what I think Luke is doing with this strange genealogy: I think he is saying that even if the means of the revelation are unusual and miraculous, the message of the revelation is one that is true for us all. Jesus is not named the Beloved Son of God, one in whom God is well-pleased—because of his miraculous birth. I think with this genealogy, Luke is saying that that identity would hold true, even if Joseph really was his father, because ultimately, it is true for every single one of us.

Beloved. Child of God.


What does it mean when we realize that God is our truest family—the source of all that we are—the one from whom we inherit all that is good and true, and pleasing? What a revelation that would be, if we really grasped it!

Can you think of a moment when you’ve been aware of being in God’s family? It may not be a moment with a voice from heaven, or the Spirit in the form of a dove, but maybe. Maybe it was a moment of silence in stillness in which you realized how connected you were to everything. Maybe it was a time when the love of family surrounded you, embodying God’s love. Maybe it was a time when human love failed you, or was absent, and you remembered that God’s love is different—that it never fails.

And even if you’ve never had an experience when you were aware of being part of God’s family, you are. Your lineage traces back, just like Jesus’ through our common human ancestors all the way to God. You are a beloved child of God. God is pleased with you. May that confidence carry you through challenges ahead, and may it be a source of energy as we seek to live out the call set before us.


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