Celebrating the Paradox

A Service of Reflection on Matthew 1

Advent always seems to surprise me, even though it arrives on my doorstep near the end of November each year. Advent is surreptitious, coming when we least expect it, but when we most need it. When our lives seem to accelerate to a more frenetic pace, Advent comes, calling us to wait, watch, and remember. Advent is not solely about keeping watch for the coming Messiah, it is also about remembering the faithfulness of God that makes the waiting worth it. We are confident that the waiting today will not be in vain, because all the previous waiting has not been in vain. God has shown up, and God will show up again.

This spirit of waiting and remembering is at the heart of the genealogy in Matthew 1. The genealogy is not simply a prologue to the incarnation, it is Matthew’s recollection of the way God has already shown up in the lives of this crazy family. Of course God is coming, because God has already come—in fact, God is here right now because God never left. This is the paradox of Advent.

We are waiting on the one who is already here. It is as true for us as it was for Matthew. This paradox is at the heart of our hymns as well: the God who shows up in David’s city is now leading “his children on to the place where he has gone”; the rose Isaiah saw is now leading us “to the bright courts of Heaven, and to the endless day.” The Immanuel whom we wait on never actually left. The God that we wait upon is present now, forming us all into God’s family.

This service of hymns and readings is designed to celebrate the paradox at the heart of the Advent season. The gathering congregation is reminded that the God who has gathered this family is the God we wait upon, and if we look closely enough, we can see the presence of that same God in our midst.

Service Notes

This service began with a prelude by the handbell choir, and the reading broke the silence after the prelude. I intended the very repetitive passage to break the silence. It is a familiar passage but one often skipped over in Advent. I wanted it front and center and thought an introduction would delay the breaking-in effect of the Scripture.

At the front of the sanctuary was a bare table—no Advent wreath. For this service you’ll need three Scripture readers. Reader 3 holds a lit candle. The three readers will progress together down the center aisle of the sanctuary as noted here:

  • The first reading is read by Reader 1 out of sight of the congregation, from the narthex if possible, or from the back of the church. During the hymn following the first reading, the three readers walk a third of the way down the aisle together.
  • After the hymn the second reading is read by Reader 2. Again, during the second hymn, the readers walk forward another third of the way down the aisle.
  • The final reading is read by Reader 3. The readers walk the final third of the aisle. Reader 3 continues to the table. When s/he reaches the table, s/he turns and faces the congregation until the hymn is finished and verse 17 is read. S/he then sets the candle down in the center of the table and the readers return to their seats.

Gathering Music: “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”
(arr. Susan Geshke)

Reading: Matthew 1:1-6a

Spoken Hymn Introduction: Psalm 132 recounts the distress of King David and his determination to build a house for God. God responds with a promise to David: “I will build a house, and it will come from your line.” Michael Morgan’s working of Psalm 132 steers us toward an Advent interpretation of the psalm.

Hymn: “Once in Royal David’s City, When the King Was in Distress” PFAS 132B (see sidebar p. 22)

First Reading (by Reader 1): Matthew 1:6b-11

Spoken Hymn Introduction: The old plainsong chant “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” often gets swept up in a pervasive culture of Christmas cheer. But it is a sad song, a song of trauma, of a people deported to Babylon, living and dying in what seemed like hell.

Hymn: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” LUYH 61, PH 9, PsH 328, PFAS 74A, TH 194, WR 154

(Different hymnals organize the stanzas of this song differently. The text chosen for this service were the stanzas Emmanuel, Branch of Jesse, and Bright and Morning Star. Sing all three stanzas and then the refrain.)

Second Reading (by Reader 2): Matthew 1:12-16

Spoken Hymn Introduction: From the line of Jesse and David, through the night of a wintry exile, a bud comes to flower.

Hymn: “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” LUYH 79, PH 48, PsH 351, TH 221, WR 190

Reading: Matthew 1:17

Reflection

The genealogy is not simply a prologue to the incarnation, it is Matthew’s recollection of the way God has already shown up in the lives of this crazy family.

In the beginning was the beat. Did you hear it in Matthew’s genealogy? It’s the pulsing rhythm of life between the begotten and the begetting. The bum, bum, bum—the steady cadence of a faithful God. Matthew opens his gospel with the drumbeat of God’s relentless grace. In a list full of scoundrels, murders, and reprobates, in a list full of people who have derailed their lives, derailed their relationships, derailed whole kingdoms, there is the drumbeat of grace. This is a family that sought to destroy every blessing given to them, but what this family could not destroy is God’s tremendous faithfulness; they could not destroy God’s plan to save.

Indeed, salvation comes from among this family. This Scripture is not just a genealogy, it is salvation history. And the end of this genealogy is really its center, the still point of the turning world—the One who is called Messiah. The point of the genealogy is not just to remind us of God’s salvation history, but to introduce us to the culmination of all of history: Jesus, the Christ.

All of human history has been bent toward the Incarnation, toward that time when Word became flesh, when God finally dwelt among us. Us. You see, Christ came to be our salvation by becoming one of us. He was born into a crazy family of liars, cheaters, murderers, and schemers so that our family might finally find redemption. Yes, our family. This crazy family that has gathered here today and gathers in Advent all over the world.

Because that’s the secret: we are a part of this family.

Look at the family tree again. Matthew has this nice and tidy way of summing up the family tree, fourteen, fourteen, fourteen. Fourteen generations between Abraham and David, fourteen between David and the exile, and fourteen between the exile and the Messiah. But count the beats again. How many between the exile and the Messiah? I count thirteen. We are missing one. Now, a lot of research has been done on Matthew’s poor counting, and about a hundred different theories have been forwarded. But I think the fourteenth generation, the final child, the child of Christ, well—it’s us! It’s the church. We are now part of the beat.

As John says in his gospel, “All those who have come to Christ, who have believed in his name, Christ gave them power to become children of God.” The family of Christ doesn’t end with Christ, it explodes ever wider after Christ. In Advent we do not wait alone; we wait as the family of God.

In the beginning was the beat, and the beat goes on.

Prayer

Hymn: “I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light” LUYH 730,SNC 77, WR 248

Benediction: Beloved, see what the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God, and indeed that is what we are. May the power of God be with you and remain upon you, now and forevermore. Amen.

Passing of the Peace

Once in Royal David’s City, When the King Was in Distress

Once in royal David’s city,
when the king was in distress,
God redeemed his shepherd servant
through a covenant to bless:
“I have made this realm your home
—yours, and children yet to come.”

God of trials and perseverance,
David’s strength, and Israel’s stay,
grant the refuge then provided
to our troubled lives today.
Help us fashion through your grace
hearts to be your dwelling place.

Mighty Lord, by prophets promised,
come and reign in righteousness;
let your people shout salvation,
justice show, and love confess.
May our songs with joy proclaim
boundless blessings in your name.

Always loyal to your children,
in your Word we rest secure;
gifts beyond our expectations,
mercy full, and love so pure;
bread for all whose plates are bare;
loaves to break, to feast, to share.

Faithful to your ancient promise,
Lord of present, future, past;
flesh and Spirit, dwell among us,
face to face with God at last!
Born to show each child the way
to your resurrection day.

Heir to David’s royal lineage,
God of heaven, child of earth;
join us through your Holy Spirit,
brothers, sisters in one birth.
Love and light to us come down,
by your gleaming star and crown.

Words: Michael Morgan © 2011 Michael Morgan,
admin. Faith Alive Christian Resources

Music (IRBY 8.7.8.7.7.7)

This text may be used with OneLicense.Net or a CCLI
license or by contacting Faith Alive Christian Resources.

Adam Hearlson is assistant professor of preaching and worship and the director of Wilson Chapel at Andover Newton Theological School and an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ.