Imagine a church’s Christmas Eve service. The stage has a black curtain backdrop, a wooden stable, straw, a couple palm trees, and a bright LED star hanging from the ceiling. The pastor welcomes everyone, the lights dim, and an unseen narrator starts reading the timeless Nativity story:
This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham:
Abraham was the father of Isaac,
Isaac the father of Jacob . . .
The majority of Christmas services across the country usually don’t start with a reading of Matthew 1:1-17. As with other parts of the Bible, most people come across the genealogy of Jesus and honestly don’t know what to do with it. Do you just skim or meticulously look up each name and its pronunciation? Do you skip it completely? Is that bad? Paul reminds us that “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16), so Matthew just didn’t add in these first 17 verses on a whim.
What stands out most to me about this passage is the way it invites us to pause, to reflect. We’re eager and expecting to hear about Joseph and Mary, shepherds and angels—not a list of names. When we take time to engage with it though, we realize each name really is a story. Abraham, Isaac, Rahab, Ruth, David—they all encountered God as imperfect people with their own set of problems. He showed himself faithful in their stories and also was setting up another story centuries in the making. God planned for Jesus to arrive at a specific time as a descendant from a specific group of people. Ultimately, Jesus’ genealogy encourages us to remember and appreciate God’s goodness in the past and trust that he has a plan for the future, just like he did for all those people included in that list.
The Danger of Forgetting
This time, instead of a Christmas service, imagine a seven-year-old on Christmas morning. He shouts and screeches and hollers at the break of dawn, literally dragging his half-asleep parents over to the tree. Then he tears through the wrapping paper, eyes lighting up as he sees all the gifts he asked for. But the second the last present is unwrapped, he starts pouting, arms crossed, bottom lip quivering. When his parents ask him what’s wrong, he whines that it’s not fair he doesn’t have any new presents to open. A little caught off-guard, his parents remind him of the huge stack of toys and games piled right behind him. He shrugs and says, “So what? I don’t care. They’re old and dumb. I want something new.”
This isn’t just a cute example of “kids being kids” or being forgetful. When you consider it more carefully, it’s a picture of ugly, convicting ingratitude. Do we do the same thing with God? We ask for guidance, encouragement, and blessings, and then the moment we have them, we may say a quick “thank you.” But that’s the last time we think about them, too concerned about the next thing on our wish list.
Psalm 78 tells a similar story as it highlights the early history of Israel and God’s extraordinary providence. For its original audience and for many who’ve read Exodus, it can seem almost too detailed—72 verses painstakingly retelling the same story of God parting the seas, miraculously providing food and water. Like Jesus’ genealogy, it’s sometimes hard not to wonder why it’s included. But in verse 11 the psalmist notes, “They forgot what [God] said,” and in verse 42, “They did not remember his power.”
The reason why he’s repeating everything is because the Israelites of the past had a bad habit of constantly forgetting God, and the psalmist’s audience—and pretty much all human beings—struggles with that same temptation. Like the Israelites or that kid on Christmas morning, how often do we forget to remember God’s past goodness? When we face a new struggle, how long does it take before we begin panicking, demanding immediate, divine encouragement, or taking matters into our own hands? Not only is that ingratitude and a lack of faith, but when the Israelites did that, “they put God to the test” and “they vexed the Holy One of Israel” (Psalm 78:41). To us, not remembering may seem petty and minor, but vexing God is anything but petty.
The Benefit of Remembering
Deuteronomy 8:18 says, “You shall remember the LORD your God,” and when Jesus breaks the bread during the Last Supper in Luke 22:19, he says, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” On a basic level, we should remember what God has done for us because his Word commands us to, and obedience is always the best choice and will be rewarded.
But it’s important to note that remembering shouldn’t be just a two-second refresher on what God did for us last week. Remembering involves deep reflection: delving back into those moments when you were anxious and fearful, and how God stepped in at the perfect moment, how he rescued you. Communion’s a great example of this. It’s a regular reminder that allows us to literally sink our teeth into this process, deeply reflecting on and appreciating Christ’s sacrifice for us.
Beyond the reward for simple obedience, however, remembering is a great way of encouraging ourselves. Sometimes when I grow frustrated or discouraged, I often start asking God for some form of encouragement, maybe a song on the radio or a timely text from a friend. But lately, I can almost feel God shaking his head and sighing. Taking the time to remember how he has provided for me in so many amazing ways in the past should be more than enough encouragement to keep going. Not pausing to remember is like a runner who is training for a marathon expecting their coach to give them a pep talk after they’ve only run a hundred feet. Don’t think I’m saying God wants us to try to handle everything on our own, but the Bible seems to make the case that remembering his faithfulness is a spiritual discipline.
What Remembering Looks Like
Remembering God’s blessings can take many forms. I’ve started keeping a list of personal prayers and praises in my LeBron James spiral notebook (don’t judge my LeBron fandom!). That way I can look back and remind myself how God has provided in specific, tangible ways even in the last few months, and encourage myself that he will do so again in the future no matter what may be happening. Maybe this isn’t quite your style, but in some way, celebrate and remember what God has done for you in the past, which will increase your hope and expectation that he will once again act in the future.
In addition, I encourage and challenge you to set aside a few minutes to look over the genealogy from Matthew 1 again (and yes, I know that, between holiday parties, stress at work, and the general bustle of this time of year, free time seems almost nonexistent). What names stick out to you? What do you know about these people? If you don’t recognize anyone, Google them or use a concordance. Think about God’s promise to Abraham that he would grow into many nations when it took so long just for him to have Isaac or the guarantee to David that he would never fail to have a descendant sit on the throne. Even though it didn’t happen in their time frame or the way they expected, God proved himself faithful to Jesus’ forebearers. As we remember this, it should encourage us and remind us of God’s ultimate promise that Jesus’ birth is only a glimpse of things to come when he returns to make all things new.
Image designed by twentyonehundred productions team member Jono Gay.
Nathan Peterson is a writer on InterVarsity's Communications Team in Madison, WI. He formerly was the Urbana 18 writer. When he’s not at work, you can find him working on his book, at the gym, or watching movies at home.