Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Least Likely: A Sermon for Advent 1

I have gone off-lectionary with this sermon. I was reading the marvelous Brian Stoffregen's commentary on the lectionary gospel, and he made an off-handed reference to this passage, Matthew 1:1-17, as a possible alternative reading. I went with it.

Some have called me chicken. That is their right. But I had fun with this text. Maybe 'fun' is the wrong word. I felt connected and excited about the dawning of this beautiful season, and the amazing women whose stories we can tell as a part of it.


I suppose I’ve been fascinated with genealogies from the time I was a little girl. Maybe it’s because I am an adoptee, and for much of my life there was always a kind of mystery to my background. Maybe it had something to do with old family photographs—I could look for hours at my parents’ black and white or sepia-toned pictures or daguerreotypes showing the faces of people long dead. Many such pictures, of my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, hang in my hallways. The questions they raised up in me were always, “Who are they? What is their story? And how are they connected to me?”

The first Sunday in Advent seems to be an appropriate time to look at Jesus’ genealogy. Two of the gospels, Matthew and Luke, consider it important enough to include genealogies, though the two genealogies are very different. The first Sunday of the new church year, which for us will also be the year of Matthew, is the right time, I think, to delve into the genealogy of Jesus as found in Matthew’s gospel, and to ask about some of the names it holds: Who are they? What is their story? And how are they connected to Jesus? How are they connected to us?

Hopefully something jumped out at you when you I read our passage from Matthew just a few minutes ago. I’ll let my seminary professor, Ann Ulanov, lay it out for us. She writes,

Nothing odder or more stimulating occurs in the genealogies of Christ’s ancestors than the appearance of four women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba [she who is called ‘the wife of Uriah’]… Why does Matthew place them among the “begats,” which for the rest consists only of men and the lines of fathers? Why only these women... What is special or distinctive about them? And why have we heard so very little about them in our traditions and our teachings? What explains their presence in the Tree of Life leading to Jesus? [1]

Before we look at the individual women in Jesus’ family tree, let’s remember this: every time a genealogy appears in scripture, it’s meant to tell us something important about the person at the end of the line, the ultimate member, in this case, Jesus. Genealogies point to character, but they also speak to something deeper. To know one’s roots is to be able to live in connection to the past as well as the present. In the ancient world connection with one’s ancestors is incredibly important. Through his genealogy, Jesus embraces all those people who came before him. He is the product of all these souls, whoever they may be. Their struggles tell us something about what Jesus himself will face.

The first woman to be found in our passage is Tamar (Genesis 38). Tamar is the daughter-in-law of Judah, one of the twelve sons of Jacob, and Judah is the patriarch of the tribe bearing his name. Judah had three sons, and Tamar, a non-Israelite, was wed to the eldest. However, he died before they had any children. A couple of weeks ago we were talking about that hypothetical woman who was married to seven different brothers in succession: remember that passage from Deuteronomy, describing what is called the Levirate duty.

When brothers reside together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her, taking her in marriage… and the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. ~Deuteronomy 25:5-6

Tamar was the wife of a man who died childless, and who had brothers to fulfill this obligation. So, her husband’s second brother married her. However, he was not willing to father children by her, and so he died as well. Judah, seeing that two of his sons had died, became unwilling to risk the life of the third, as he saw it, and told his daughter-in-law Tamar to live as a widow.

We cannot overstate the tragedy of this kind of situation for a woman in ancient Israel; to be a childless widow is to have virtually no value in that society. Starvation and death were two very real possibilities.

Tamar takes matters into her own hands. Dressing as a temple prostitute, she sits by the side of the road when she knows her father-in-law will be passing by. He obligingly goes into her, and not recognizing her, fathers twin sons. When all is revealed, he admits that she was in the right—it was his family’s duty to give her children. Tamar and her children are in Jesus’ family tree.

Rahab’s (Joshua 2:1-24) name will be familiar to you if you know the story of the conquest of Jericho by Joshua and the Israelites as they enter the Promised Land. Rahab is no pretend prostitute: she is the real deal, living in an apartment in the city’s walls. By virtue of her profession, she is not only an alien to the Israelites, she is also an alien among her own people, living on the outskirts of society as well as the city. Rahab aids the Israelites in return for their promise that neither she nor her family will be harmed in the coming invasion; they are identified by a red cord she hangs out her window. Rahab and her family are spared. Rahab and her child are in Jesus’ family tree.

The story of Ruth (Ruth 1-4) is another story of an alien, non-Israelite woman married to an Israelite man, whose husband dies, leaving her alone and childless—along with her sister-in-law and mother-in-law, both of whom have had the same terrible hand dealt to them. Ruth and her mother-in-law return to Bethlehem where an opportunity presents itself for Ruth to join herself in marriage to Boaz, the male next-of-kin to her deceased husband. Ruth, at the time of the harvest festival, takes the advice of her mother-in-law and memorably anoints herself and lies at the feet of Boaz, her gentle suitor, after a feast on the threshing floor. Ruth and her child are in Jesus’ family tree.

The wife of Uriah (2 Samuel 11-12) is included in the genealogy, but not by name. Women were left unnamed in the ancient world for two main reasons. The first, and far most common reason, was that women were not considered important enough for their names to be recorded. The second reason to leave out a woman’s name was to protect her honor and dignity, when to associate her name with a story or an event would tarnish it too badly. That latter one seems to be the reason here. The wife of Uriah, whose name was Bathsheba, came to the attention of King David when he spied her from his rooftop while she was performing a ritual bath, a ritual required of all Israelite woman. David was immediately seized with desire for her, and sent for her, and took her, even though he knew she was the wife of one of his most trusted generals. When she told him she was pregnant he tried to cover it up, first by calling the general home, and finally by having him killed. God punished David for his crime—which apparently included rape as well as murder—the child born to David and Bathsheba did not survive. Bathsheba was subsequently taken into the palace to be a queen of David’s. In the end, as the mother of King Solomon, Bathsheba was a woman of great influence. But her original connection to David was so scandalous that Matthew, apparently, chose to leave her name out of it. Still: Bathsheba and her child, Solomon, are in Jesus’ family tree.

Does a pattern seem to emerge as you hear these stories, all together? We have entered into this season of Advent in which we prepare ourselves to celebrate a mystery. The mystery at the heart of our faith is that our all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving God chose to take on human flesh, to live among us in Jesus. What thread ties together the stories of these women who are Jesus’ ancestors? To put it in one word, scandal.

Each of these women either comes to be pregnant in a way considered scandalous, or comes to pregnancy with her own scandalous background. And when we think of the story of Jesus’ birth, the inclusion of these women begins to make sense. Jesus is the son of a woman who found herself to be pregnant out of wedlock, and not by her intended. Jesus was the son of a woman whose fiancĂ© had every right under the law to take her out and have her stoned.

But Jesus is also the son of a woman whose intended was visited in a dream by an angel. Jesus is the son of a woman whose fiancĂ©, instead of “quietly putting her away,” decides to marry her, because whatever the nature and source of this pregnancy, he becomes convinced it is the handiwork of God. Jesus is the son of a woman who is also convinced of God’s role in her pregnancy; in another gospel she announces that, “the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name” (Luke 1:49).

I believe these four women—the woman who achieves pregnancy by trickery, the prostitute who bargains for the lives of her family, the woman who seduces by her innocence and hard work and love for her mother-in-law, and the woman who was raped by a king—these four women take their place in Jesus’ family tree as a sign to us. Though they may seem to be the least likely candidates to be a part of Jesus’ genealogy, they are a sign to us that, with God, nothing is impossible. They are a sign to us that, no matter the brokenness in our own lives, God stands ready to redeem. They are a sign to us that Jesus will take his stand alongside the least and the lost, the sinners and the sinned against. They are a sign to us that the Savior whose birth we await in this Advent season stands ready to save us all. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Ann Belford Ulanov, The Female Ancestors of Christ (Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, 1993), 1.


John said...

I love your sermons!

John Donaldson

Magdalene6127 said...

Thanks John!

Robin said...

Just saw this. We did our four weeks of Advent adult ed a few years ago on these four women.