The Sign of the Manger

(Isaiah 9:1-7; Luke 2:1-21)

There’s a pastoral couple out in New Jersey in my home denomination, the Reformed Church, Seth and Stephanie Kaper-Dale, who Sara and I knew at Hope. Before they went to seminary, they spent a year working with an RCA-supported orphanage in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Some years ago, Seth wrote a piece about the birth of Jesus, and in the course of the article, he told this story from the orphanage:

A few months into our time there we started taking the kids from the orphanage on field trips into the wealthy parts of the city . . . One day we took a group of kids to a new shopping mall—malls are the rage in the rich sector of Ecuador. When we arrived at the mall by bus we jumped off, and our child companions looked with amazement at the building before them.

“You mean, you’re going to take us in there? We can’t go in there.” Only one boy spoke, but it was clearly the opinion of all the orphans.

“Of course you can go in,” I said. “This is a public shopping center. You are just as entitled to walk around in there as anyone else.”

The kids shrugged their shoulders, and with the permission they needed, they ran off ahead of us to the front door—where armed guards promptly stopped them. Only when the guards saw us, and saw that we were with these kids, were they even allowed to enter the shopping center. Inside, I began noticing shopkeepers and shoppers giving nasty looks to the beautiful children with us. Apparently, the rich could see the impoverished reality of these children, as if their poverty were a visible garment.

There was no place for them in the mall that day.

In society’s eyes, they were unworthy; and just so were Mary and Joseph. We hear the traditional translation that says there was no room for them in the inn, and we tend to project our own experience into it and assume that the inns were all full. The thing is, though, Bethlehem probably didn’t have an inn—only the big cities did; Bethlehem was too small, and too close to Jerusalem. Also, the word Luke uses here isn’t the normal word for “inn”—he uses that one in the parable of the Good Samaritan; rather, it’s a word meaning “guest room”—the same one he uses for the upper room in which Jesus and his disciples celebrated the Last Supper. Which fits, because in that day and age, people didn’t travel all that much, and when they did, they usually stayed with friends and relatives. Given that Joseph was going back to the home of his ancestors, where he would have relatives—distant cousins, perhaps, but family is family—the normal plan would have been to stay in the guest room in one of their homes.

So there’s more going on here than we usually realize. Which shouldn’t surprise us. Stop and think about it—put yourself in the shoes of Mary’s father or mother: your teenage daughter, who’s engaged to a good man, turns up pregnant (disgracing your house, incidentally), and when you ask her who got her pregnant, she says, “God did!” Do you believe her? No, you probably don’t—and judging from the fact that the gospels never mention them, neither did they. In fact, nobody did, unless angels had given them reason to do so. Elizabeth believed her, being herself miraculously pregnant, but Joseph didn’t, until he had his own angelic visitation. As far as the world was concerned, here was a teenage girl who had fooled around, gotten pregnant, and had now concocted this ridiculous story to try to excuse herself; she had brought great shame on herself, Joseph, and both their families, which was no small matter.

This, I think, is one reason Mary went to visit Elizabeth and stayed three months: it got her away from her parents and their disapproval. When she did go back to them, she doesn’t seem to have stayed very long, since Matthew tells us that after Joseph had his dream, he took Mary into his home; it isn’t certain, but it sure looks like her parents kicked her out of the house for getting pregnant, shaming the family, and then lying about it (and perhaps committing blasphemy in the process). The only person Mary had who was both willing and able to care for her was Joseph.

That’s probably why she went with him to Bethlehem. Legally, she didn’t have to; she was neither a taxpayer nor eligible to serve in the Roman army, and thus didn’t need to be registered. As far along as she was in her pregnancy, traveling to Bethlehem wasn’t the best of ideas—better to stay home, if she could. So why did she make the trip? Because she had no place else to go. Her parents had rejected her, Elizabeth had a baby, and she had no other option.

And then, in Bethlehem, she found the same rejection. You would think the extended family should have made room, however crowded things were, for a woman in the last stages of pregnancy—but they refused. They couldn’t quite bring themselves to turn Joseph and Mary out, but they were completely unwilling to show any real hospitality to anyone who had brought such shame on them. They finally allowed Joseph and Mary a grudging spot in the house of one of the family, but not in the upper room, with the honored guests—and not in the part of the main room where the family lived—but only in the lowest part of the house, with the animals, where their dishonor would be plain.

In other words, there was no room for Joseph and Mary in that guest room because their family refused to make room; it was less that there wasn’t room on the floor, and more that there wasn’t room in their hearts. Joseph and Mary had dishonored the family; let them be treated with dishonor. No respectable bed for such a woman, or for her illegitimate child, the fruit of her shame. And so the mother of God was given a place with the sheep and the cow, and the Lord of the Universe was laid in a feed trough dug out of the floor; the Messiah came home to his own people, and his own family rejected him, because he didn’t come on their terms.

And yet, even in this we see the grace of God. Isaiah says, “To us a child is born, to us a son is given,” and that the child’s name was to be Immanuel, “God with us,” and God meant all of us—look whom he invited to the birth. Shepherds filled a critical role in the economy in Israel, but increasingly, their only role in Jewish society was at the bottom; yet they were the first outside witnesses to the birth of the Son of God. Would they have been welcome in the guest room of a respectable house? No; but in the lowest part of the house, where the animals stayed, they belonged. If there was no place for the shepherds in polite society, and if they were to be welcome at Jesus’ birth, there couldn’t be a place for him in polite society, either.

This, I believe, is why the angel tells the shepherds, “This will be a sign for you.” It’s not just about telling them how to find the right baby—there’s a message here. God has come to Earth, love has come to his people, and he came to a place where anyone could come, so that right from the beginning he was God with all of us—no exceptions, no ifs, ands, or buts, end of sentence.

Which is both comforting and discomfiting. On the one hand, it means that I am welcome, you are welcome, to come to him. Nothing that any of us are or have been or have done will make Jesus turn away from us; we cannot be so unworthy as to outweigh his love for us. At the same time, though, it means that he doesn’t cater to our comfort zone, either, nor does he reject those whom we reject. We can’t say to Jesus, “I’ll come to you, but first you have to get away from the animals and move someplace more comfortable—I don’t like the smell, and there’s no place to sit down.” We can’t say, “I’ll come, but only if you get rid of those shepherds. I don’t like being around people like that, and I certainly don’t want to be seen with them.” Jesus came to those who he knew would reject him, and he calls us to follow him shepherds, stable reek and all.

The Herald of the Sunrise

(2 Samuel 22:1-4Micah 7:8-20Luke 1:57-80)

I have to admit, this passage from Luke gave me fits. There’s a lot of interesting things to say about it, but I don’t just want to stand up here and tell you interesting stuff; and I had trouble finding the sermon in it. To be sure, it’s a great story. Elizabeth gives birth, and her family and the whole community rejoice. They wait to name the baby until he’s circumcised, and everyone around assumes he’s going to be named Zechariah after his father—until Elizabeth interrupts, “No, he’s going to be called John.”

Well, now that wasn’t how things were done, because sons were supposed to be named after fathers or grandfathers, and John wasn’t a family name. The neighbors seem to have figured Elizabeth was cutting her husband out of the decision—they clearly thought he was deaf as well as mute—so they asked him directly; to their surprise he wrote, quite emphatically, “His name is John.” Note that—not will be, but is. God named that baby before he was even conceived, and he’s been called John since before he even existed. With that, Zechariah’s speech is restored, and he begins praising God—and the community falls back in fear, recognizing that God is at work, wondering who on Earth this child is going to be. It’s a great scene, and it would be easy to talk about Zechariah putting his faith in God and receiving his reward; but is that really the point?

Then you have this great song of praise, commonly called the Benedictus; interestingly, he’s praising God for giving him a son, but that’s really not the focus of his song. It’s been said that every man wants his son to be a star, but we don’t see that in Zechariah’s words; instead, he essentially says, never mind the star, the sun is rising—and my son, you get to go ahead of him to let everyone know he’s coming. It’s a wonderful declaration, drawing once again on Malachi, which we read a couple weeks ago. It would be easy to turn it into a nice little moral lesson about how we should value people for how they point us to Christ, not for how impressive they are in themselves; which is true enough, but that isn’t the gospel heartbeat in this passage.

More interesting is verse 72, which our English translations blunt a little bit. Zechariah declares that God has raised up a horn of salvation for his people—the image is of the horn of an ox, with which it strikes and drives back its enemies—and then he says, “to do mercy to our ancestors.” Again, the idea here is the Old Testament word hesed; our concept of mercy tends to be pretty passive and pallid, just a matter of letting the guilty off the hook, but here we see the biblical concept of the faithful, covenant-making love and mercy of God as an active force, God taking decisive and powerful action to deliver his people. And even more interesting, Zechariah says that in bringing his people salvation from their enemies, God is doing mercy to their ancestors—he is fulfilling the covenant promises he made to them.

If you really stop and consider what Zechariah is saying, you have to be struck by the grand sweep of his vision; and here, I think, we strike something that is the gospel word for us this morning. We have the real tendency to collapse our view of God’s salvation to just one thing. Classically, for evangelicals, it’s personal individual spiritual salvation from sin, which can lead into a sort of “me ’n’ Jesus” isolationism. Equally classically, for liberals, it’s social justice—political liberation from oppressive societal structures. With the American evangelical move into political engagement that began a few decades ago, salvation began to be somewhat identified with moral transformation of the culture. You wind up with dueling theologies as political campaigns.

None of these visions of salvation is big enough; none matches the vision God gave Zechariah. There is definitely a political element to the deliverance he foresees, as the enemies of the people of God will no longer be able to oppress them—they will be removed as enemies, either by their destruction or by being brought to repentance. That cannot be removed from the picture, because the deliverance God promises is not merely internal and subjective. At the same time—and this is where so many in Israel missed the boat—his deliverance is not merely political, either; the language of verses 77-79 goes far beyond that. The Lord will deliver his people, not merely from political bondage to Rome, but from spiritual bondage to sin; he will free them, and guide them by his light, so that they will at last walk in the way of his peace.

Now, here again we have a word that cannot be captured by its English translation, though shalom is rather better known. This doesn’t just mean “peace” as in “peace and quiet” or “not fighting.” Rather, the idea in this word is of being in complete harmony, first of all with God and his will, and thus, second, within yourself—resulting in a calm, unshakeable sense that all is well, and freedom from anxiety; this in turn creates harmony with others, to the extent that they are willing to be at peace with you. A life of shalom is a life lived in tune with God, ordered by his order, in accordance with his will. This is the life to which Jesus will call those who believe in him, and which he will make possible for those who believe in him.

Along with this, there’s also the aspect of his salvation we see in verses 74-75: God is fulfilling his promise to Abraham “to rescue us from the hand of our enemies and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.” This is what we might call the social aspect—the bridge between our individual deliverance from sin and the political deliverance of the people of God from those who do evil: God saves us in order that we may serve him with our whole lives, and in fact that opportunity to serve is part of the blessing he gives us. That service is not merely activity on God’s behalf, but is a way of life submitted in humble obedience to him—conformed to his holiness and righteousness, accepting his definition of what is good and right rather than insisting on our own ideas and preferences.

The salvation of God in Jesus Christ unites all these elements, because God is on about redeeming a people for his name; he saves us as individuals, but not just as individuals, and he isn’t saving us only from our individual sin, but from all the sin of all of us together. That’s why Paul in 2 Corinthians describes the work Jesus has entrusted to us as “the ministry of reconciliation,” because in delivering us from our sin and giving us peace with him, part of his purpose is to give peace between us—to cleanse the sin not only from our own hearts, but from our relationships. As he gives us the humility to bow before him and accept his good instead of our own, so too he gives us the humility to bow before each other and accept each other’s good instead of our own.

God is on about redeeming our hearts, our relationships, our families, our churches, our culture, our society, our nation, our world—in fact, all of creation. His deliverance comes at every level; his salvation operates in every area, in every aspect. He will not stop until the knowledge of him fills the earth as the waters fill the sea, and all people bow the knee to him as the only Lord and God, the only authority, the only one to be obeyed, the only one deserving of worship.

In the Middle of the Ordinary

(1 Samuel 2:1-11; Luke 1:39-56)

God didn’t come when he was expected. He didn’t come during the crisis of conquest, or the heady days of the Maccabean revolt, or the hopeful (if brief) period of independence; in any of those times, the opportunity for a national deliverer to arise and restore Israel to its glories under David and Solomon was apparent, but God didn’t come then. He didn’t come where he was expected either—he didn’t show up in a palace, or among the priests, or with the rich and powerful; indeed, he didn’t even come to the capital city of Jerusalem, the city of God. His coming was not in an extraordinary time, or an extraordinary place, or to anyone whom the world would have considered special or important in any way.

Instead, God came where the world wasn’t looking, when its head was turned. He came at a time that was like most times—neither one of great prosperity and success, nor one of crisis and great need. He came to a place that was like most places, not a center of culture nor a community of power and wealth, but just an ordinary small town where nothing much ever happened once, let alone twice. And he came to an ordinary family, no one to whom society would have given a second glance, people who were completely anonymous in the broader scheme of things. The most extraordinary event in human history—the birth of God as a human being—began in the most ordinary context you could possibly imagine.

And in this we see the gospel. We see God working salvation completely by his own initiative and power and grace, completely apart from any human effort or plan or expectation. Mary does nothing to earn this or make this happen; neither did Elizabeth or Zechariah. Yes, Zechariah and Elizabeth were faithful and godly people, and Mary seems to have been a young woman of deep and serious faith and character as well, and that’s clearly part of why God chose them; but the choice was all God’s, none of their doing—for them, there was only to receive his blessing with gratitude and faith.

We also see here that God does not judge people the same way we do; as he told Samuel, where we look at the external stuff, he looks at the heart. The world would never have chosen Elizabeth or Mary for anything important, but God did—because he knew better. He doesn’t honor our hierarchies, our evaluations, our priorities; he inverts and upends them. He doesn’t follow our agendas, he does what he will and calls us to follow him—and he does so in a way that drives home the fact that we neither know nor control as much as we think we do.

Now, there are those who use Mary’s song in political ways, as justification for their political agendas, but to do that is to miss the point and drastically shrink its vision. Human revolutions may bring down the proud, but they only replace them with other proud people; in most cases, they end up being hijacked by those who are hungry for power and greedy for wealth, and you wind up with folks in power who are no better than the ones they overthrew. Human schemes to humble the rich and raise up the poor don’t really change the system, they just shift the balance of winners and losers. That’s all they can do, because they’re all about our goals, our agendas, our efforts, and our desires—they’re about us, and focused on us. What God is doing is very different.

The great theme of Mary’s great song of praise—underscored by God’s choice of her and Elizabeth—isn’t rich vs. poor, but the humble vs. the proud. God has brought down those who are proud “in their inmost thoughts”—those whose pride is deep in their bones, who think they have no need of God. They are oppressors, perhaps of whole nations, perhaps of their wives and children, because they don’t respect others—and they don’t respect others because they don’t respect God. They feel free to use and take advantage of other people if they can because they’re strong enough to do so and they bow to no law but their own; but God has brought them down.

Now, to be sure, we can’t hide from the fact that if we look around, we can see a lot of the proud doing just fine, to all appearances; God keeps bringing them down, and more keep rising up. As we’ve said before, we live between the times—the kingdom of God broke into the world with the coming of Jesus, and is already here in us his people, but it has not yet been fully realized; in the vivid image of Swiss NT scholar Oscar Cullman, we live between D-Day and V-E Day, when the outcome of the war has been decided, but the enemy has not yet given up fighting. The proud may not know they’ve been brought down, but Mary is right: their final defeat has already been accomplished.

If we lose sight of that, it’s probably because we’re looking for hope in all the wrong places. We keep looking to the proud, to the powerful and influential, for deliverance. We look to politicians to fix our country’s problems, to government or big corporations to solve our economic issues, to people we see on TV to reverse our moral decline—and we forget that God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. To be clear, I’m not saying that everyone who’s famous is proud in their inmost thoughts—though being famous tends to breed that pride—nor am I saying that God doesn’t or can’t use powerful people. Obviously he can and he does. But we need to remember that “God helps those that help themselves” is Ben Franklin*, not Scripture, and Scripture doesn’t tell us that God gives grace to the mighty. God gives grace to the humble.

This is the key, and it’s the crux of Mary’s song: God is holy, and his hesed is for those who show him reverence. If you haven’t been here when I’ve talked about hesed, stick around and you’ll hear about it—this is one of my favorite Old Testament words, in part because it’s so rich there’s no good way to translate it. Our English versions render it a lot of ways—mercy, lovingkindness, covenant love, covenant faithfulness, faithful love; but really, it needs a sentence at least. Hesed means love in action, steadfast love that always keeps its promises, unswerving loyalty and faithfulness, complete commitment and unfailing reliability; it’s the way God treats those with whom he has made covenant. It’s what the Jesus Storybook Bible calls his “Never Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love.”

This is the love of God, the mercy of God, the faithfulness of God, for his people whom he has chosen—not because we were impressive, wise or wealthy or powerful; indeed, as 1 Corinthians tells us, God quite deliberately chooses the unimpressive in order to make it clear that the wisdom and the power and the riches are all his. He chooses us in our weakness and foolishness, and he gives us his Holy Spirit; and by his Spirit he gives us Jesus, whom he has made our wisdom, righteousness and holiness and redemption. He fills us with his love, and he teaches us to worship him, and him alone. What matters is not that we are good enough, talented enough, important enough—none of us is; what matters is that he has chosen us, and he is more than able.

* Note: though not original to Franklin, the phrase is best known in the US through its inclusion in Poor Richard’s Almanack.

Eternity Contracted to a Span

(Isaiah 7:10-14; Luke 1:26-38)

What we see here is God announcing his plan to do the impossible. In the first place, it’s physically impossible—Mary’s a virgin. She’s betrothed to Joseph—and just so we’re clear on this, betrothal is what they had back then in place of engagement, but it was much stronger; it entailed all the commitments of marriage with none of the benefits, and it lasted a whole year. So, she’s legally bound to Joseph, but they’re still living apart, probably with family making sure they don’t sneak off and do anything inappropriate. There’s absolutely no way she can be pregnant. But she’s going to be.

The physical impossibility, though, is secondary; it’s only to underscore the spiritual impossibility: this baby born to a virgin girl would be God. The angel doesn’t really push Mary to understand this fully, and she probably didn’t until much later; it was far too great an impossibility for anyone to comprehend at that point, and Mary was overwhelmed enough as it was. It’s all there, though.

In particular, note verse 35: the child will be called holy and the Son of God—why? Because he will be conceived, not by normal human action, but by a direct miraculous work of the Spirit of God. He will be fully human, but he will be more than merely human, right from the absolute beginning. He will be God become one fragile human being; the creator of the universe, the Word by whom the world was made, will take up nine months’ residence in a woman’s womb.

It’s a wonder, this; it’s a wonder we keep collapsing into sentiment and trite moral lessons because even now, even as many millions of times as the story has been told, it’s still too big for us to really grasp. The maker of all that is, the one who holds our incomprehensibly vast universe in the palm of his hand, as an unborn baby doing backflips and kicking his mother in the bladder; Almighty God with messy diapers and a rash. As the British poet John Betjeman asked in wonder,

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?

Yes, it is true, incomprehensibly, gloriously true: the infinite, all-powerful, all-glorious Son of God, the source of all life through whom all things were made, reduced himself to a zygote in the womb of a humble girl in a backwater village on the edge of civilization, to be born among the animals and laid in a feed trough by parents who were soon to be fugitives, to live as a homeless wanderer, to be falsely convicted and wrongly executed, to rise again from the dead—and he did it all for you, that you might know him, and know he loves you.

Bearing Witness

(Malachi 2:17-3:4, 4:5-6; Luke 1:1-25)

There aren’t all that many hymns for Advent. We have a lot of hymns for Christmas, of course, and a lot for Easter, and there are quite a number that work well for Lent, focusing on the sacrifice of Christ; but for Advent, not so many, and very few at all that are widely sung. Really, the only ones you can count on finding in the hymnal are “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus.” Which, for a season of the church year that lasts four Sundays, is just a little bit short.

I was lamenting this the other week as I was starting to plan the service for this Sunday and next, and I got this comment from my wife: “Our culture is actually anti-waiting, anti- letting things take time and not be instantly resolved . . . I think it might be the same reason that the church is so bad at grieving.” The point about grieving was one that hadn’t occurred to me, but she’s right about our culture. We live in a society that wants to get it decided, get it done, and move on. We have our instant oatmeal, microwave popcorn, and fast food; we have drive-through pharmacies so we don’t have to wait ten minutes while our prescriptions are filled—we can drive off and come back later. Our communications are supposed to be instantaneous—many people derisively refer to physical letters as “snail mail,” because having to wait a day or two is such a burden.

Of course, our ability to do things quickly has its advantages; but to the extent that we’ve taught ourselves to expect quick, easy answers to our needs and our problems, we’ve done ourselves a disservice. Some things just take time; some plants bear fruit slowly, or not at all. Our wounds often take longer to heal than we wish, or realize, and trying to rush the healing process only does more hurt. And all of us, in various ways, at various times, will find ourselves hung betwixt and between—unable to stay where we are, but with no apparent way forward. Even the most fortunate among us have nights of anguish, not knowing, hoping against hope that the worst hasn’t really happened; even the most blessed have times of longing for good news that does not come.

And the fact is, it’s into just such cruxes in our lives that the gospel speaks; they are entry points for the Holy Spirit in our hearts because they are points at which our sense of self-sufficiency breaks down, and we are driven beyond our wants and desires to the true deep need of our souls. Waiting, even when it’s painful, is not an interruption of God’s plan, or something we have to explain away; it’s part of his plan, part of the way he works in us to accomplish his purposes.

In light of that, it’s interesting that we see this theme working at a couple different levels in our passage from Luke this morning. At the big-picture level, of course, Israel had been waiting long for God’s promised Messiah. If you were here this spring, you remember Malachi’s ringing words, proclaiming the coming Day of the Lord . . . but those words had fallen into silence. Where God had so often spoken to his people through his prophets, after Malachi there were no more. “Behold,” God declared, “I am sending my messenger, who will prepare the way before me” . . . and then nothing, for over four centuries. After the Persians came the Greeks, then a brief period of independence, then the Romans, and through it all no sign of God’s messenger.

That’s the big story here, but it’s not the only story Luke is concerned about; indeed, it’s not the story with which he begins. Instead, he begins at the human level. Zechariah was a priest, married to a woman who was a descendant of Aaron, the first of all the priests; they were a devout couple who faithfully obeyed God and sought to please him. No doubt Zechariah prayed for and earnestly desired the coming of the Messiah—but there was something else that weighed more heavily on his heart, for he and Elizabeth had no children. They had prayed and prayed for a child, but it seemed God had ignored their prayers; they had waited so long for a baby, they’d given up, for they were now both too old for such things.

And then came the high point of Zechariah’s priestly career: he was chosen by lot to go into the Holy Place in the heart of the temple during the sacrifice—apparently during the evening sacrifice, because there was a large crowd gathered to pray; since there were some 18,000 priests, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And as he stands there, burning incense before the altar of God, carrying the prayers of the people to heaven with the smoke, an angel appears to him and says, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah. God did hear your prayers for a child; Elizabeth will have a son, and you will call him John. He will be the messenger God promised, the one who will go forth in the spirit and power of Elijah to prepare the way for the Lord.”

God could have chosen any couple he liked to bring John the Baptizer into the world; but as he brought his people’s long wait for their Redeemer to an end, he chose to bring this couple’s long wait to an end as well. To a Jew in those days, being childless was one of the bitterest of sorrows, and usually taken as a sign of God’s judgment. Zechariah and Elizabeth had served God faithfully all their lives, and so her inability to conceive must have been agonizing and perplexing. Had they somehow displeased God? Had God failed them? From everything they understood about God, it didn’t make sense; and yet they remained steadfast in their faith, serving him devotedly even when he had withheld from them the one gift they most desired.

You have to feel for Zechariah here. He’d probably given up any hope of a child long since, and now an angel appears to him and announces that God is going to give him and his wife a son, and it’s all just far too much to process. It’s hard to blame him for asking, “How can I be sure you’re telling me the truth?” The poor man was simply overwhelmed. And yet even so, the angel gives him a sign, but the sign is a punishment for his unbelief—his ability to speak is taken away until the child is born.

It’s hard to blame him, because Zechariah knows that what is happening to him is impossible—and worse, it’s implausible. It’s the stuff delusions are made of. He has a firm grip on how the world works, just as most of us do, and this simply doesn’t fit. He’s a man of faith, but within the bounds of the rational and the limits of what is reasonably possible; he knows the stories of what God has done in the past, but they’re stories, not a part of his present. As such, he can’t quite believe that God could actually do such a thing now; his faith struggles to outgrow the box of his assumptions. And so Gabriel rebukes him, for part of God’s purpose is to teach him, and others, that God is not limited by what we think he can do, or will do.

In conceiving and ultimately giving birth to John, Elizabeth isn’t just giving birth to the one who will bear witness to the Son of God; she is herself bearing witness to the truth that God is capable of doing far more than what we think is possible, and of blessing us far beyond what we can dare to hope. She is bearing witness to the truth that God can turn our mourning into dancing and our sorrow into joy—that he can take our defeats and our losses and use them to bless us in ways we never could have dreamed. She is bearing witness to the truth that just because God makes us wait doesn’t mean he isn’t coming, and just because he doesn’t act on our schedule doesn’t mean he’s too late. He is faithful, ever faithful, and he never fails to act in his good time.

Mary: A Scandalous Mother

(Isaiah 53:1-3; Matthew 1:16-25, Luke 2:1-7)

If you’ve been here during the last four weeks, you know that we’ve been going through Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus in the first chapter of his gospel, looking at the stories of the women he mentions. Though modern Americans usually consider it dull and boring, there are a couple very interesting things about this genealogy. One of course is the inclusion of women, which was a significant departure from normal practice—and particularly of these women, each of whom is scandalous in some way. There’s another way, though, in which Matthew’s genealogy is different from most, and in a rather subversive way. You see, part of the idea of a genealogy was that if you had important ancestors, that made you particularly significant, but he flips that: Abraham and David, who along with Moses were the greatest people in the history of Israel, are primarily of importance because God used them to bring about his plan to send Jesus. They are important because of Jesus, not the other way around.

This makes the inclusion of these women particularly interesting, because it means that we are to understand their stories, too, in light of Jesus’ life and work. In the story of Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, violated by King David, we see that God doesn’t only use good acts and positive situations to bring about his purposes. Their marriage was begun in blackest sin, yet it was through them that Solomon, whom God had chosen to succeed David and carry on his royal line, was born. From Ruth’s story, I think it’s especially important to note her faithfulness. She went way above and beyond the call of duty to be faithful to Naomi—for what reason, we don’t know, but whatever her reason, it was through her extraordinary faithfulness, so very like his own, that God used her to carry out his plan for the blessing of Israel and the world.

With the story of Rahab, the thing which stands out is her faith. In a time of war, she converted from the faith of her people to the faith of their attackers, trading the gods and goddesses with which she had grown up for the God of Israel. That’s a hard thing to do and a very risky thing to do; it’s an amazing act of faith and trust. Similarly, Tamar’s battle of wits with Judah, her uncooperative father-in-law, highlights her faith, and also her courage. We see her faith in her desire to keep her place in Judah’s family, worshiping their very different God, rather than going back to her own family and the gods of her ancestors, even when it meant putting herself at the mercy of a man who had already shown himself unencumbered by morality or ethics; we see her courage in the fact that she followed through and took that risk, and had the nerve to pull off her plan.

In naming these four women, Matthew links them to Jesus; he also parallels them to Mary, Jesus’ mother, who was a scandalous figure in her own right. In some places, being unmarried and pregnant wouldn’t be that big of a deal, but her home region of Galilee was pretty conservative—there, even engaged couples were never allowed to be alone together. Put yourself in the shoes of Mary’s parents: your teenage daughter, who’s engaged to a good man, turns up pregnant (disgracing your house, incidentally), and when you ask her who got her pregnant, she says, “God did!” Do you believe her?

No, you probably don’t—and judging from the fact that the gospels never mention them, neither did they. In fact, nobody did, unless angels had given them reason to do so. Elizabeth believed her, being herself miraculously pregnant, but Joseph didn’t, until he had his own angelic visitation; in those days, being engaged meant all the responsibilities of marriage and none of the rights, so it took a full-blown legal divorce to break an engagement, and he was planning on doing just that, until God told him otherwise. It’s pretty clear that as far as the world was concerned, here was a teenage girl who had fooled around, gotten pregnant, and had now concocted an utterly ridiculous story to try to excuse herself; and this meant she had brought great shame on herself, Joseph, and both their families, which was no small matter.

This is probably why Mary went to visit Elizabeth, as we read in Luke 1, and stayed for three months, leaving only when Elizabeth was due to give birth: it got her away from her parents and their disapproval. When she did go back to them, she didn’t stay very long, since we know from Matthew that after Joseph had his dream, he took Mary into his home; it isn’t certain, but it sure looks like her parents kicked her out of the house for getting pregnant, shaming the family, and then lying about it (and perhaps committing blasphemy in the process). The only person Mary had who was both willing and able to care for her was Joseph.

That, I think, is why she went with him to Bethlehem. She didn’t need to, legally; she was neither a taxpayer nor eligible to serve in the Roman army, and thus wasn’t subject to the census. As far along as she was in her pregnancy, traveling to Bethlehem, whether by foot or on a donkey, really wasn’t medically indicated—better, if she had the option, to stay home. What’s more, if she and Joseph weren’t formally married at this point—Matthew would seem to indicate that they were, while Luke suggests they weren’t, but both texts can be taken either way—then traveling with him would be just one more breach of propriety. But she had no place else to go; her parents had rejected her, Elizabeth had a baby, and she had no other option.

If she hoped things would be better in Bethlehem, though, she was mistaken. I know we’re all used to hearing that there was no room for them in the inn, but that’s not really what’s going on here. For one thing, inns were uncommon in those days outside the big cities; Bethlehem was small, and close to Jerusalem, and it’s highly unlikely it had one. For another, the word here isn’t the one Luke uses elsewhere for a hotel; rather, it’s the one he uses for the upper room, the spare room, in which Jesus and his disciples celebrated the Last Supper. This fits with the rest of the picture, because in that day and age, people didn’t travel much, and when they did, they usually stayed with friends and relatives. Given that Joseph was going back to the home of his ancestors, where he would have relatives—distant cousins, perhaps, but kin is kin—no doubt he would have expected to be able to stay in a guest room in the home of a member of his family.

It was a reasonable expectation. To be sure, Joseph and Mary were far from the only members of their family headed into Bethlehem for the census, but there would be room enough to manage; and certainly, who would have a better claim on a bed than a woman in the last stages of pregnancy? And yet, it didn’t turn out that way; the very relatives on whom Joseph was counting didn’t let it. As Verlyn Verbrugge, a Reformed Church pastor in western Michigan, puts it, “Mary’s pregnancy out of wedlock . . . would inevitably have brought shame to the family name—and Joseph’s willingness to believe her story and to support Mary brought the same shame on him. One can almost imagine the gathering of relatives in the [guest room] of that Bethlehem house, talking about the latest family gossip, especially the pregnancy of that young girl Mary. They certainly could not allow someone who has brought such shame to their family to enter into their midst; that would imply some endorsement of her situation.”

In other words, there was no room for Joseph and Mary in that guest room because their family refused to make room; it isn’t that there wasn’t room on the floor, there just wasn’t room in their hearts. Joseph and Mary had dishonored the family; let them be treated with dishonor, let them sleep with the animals, in the lowest part of the house. No respectable bed for such a disreputable woman, and certainly not for her illegitimate child, the fruit of her shame. And so the mother of God was given a place with the donkeys and the cow, and the Lord of the Universe was laid in a feed trough; the Messiah came home to his own people, and his own family rejected him, because he didn’t come on their terms.

That’s where Isaiah 53 comes in. At Christmas, we tend to focus on Jesus’ welcome, not on his rejection, but it’s important to realize that even at his birth, Jesus found rejection. His own family, outside his parents, rejected him, because he made them look bad. None of the respectable people showed up to hold the baby, only grubby shepherds fresh from the fields. And as for the local political types, when Herod, the governor in Jerusalem, heard the news, he immediately started plotting to have Jesus killed. Never too early to eliminate a potential rival, after all, even if he’s still in diapers.

This is what God let himself in for—and he did it on purpose. The God of all stars was born in scandal, an offense to most of his family, to a couple of no worldly significance whatsoever from a backwater town in a backwater country under occupation on the fringe of a great empire, in completely obscure circumstances as far as anyone who actually mattered was concerned. It’s hard enough to believe that the God of the universe would actually become human, confining himself in one of our bodies and one of our lives, but if he was going to do it, surely it wouldn’t be that way; and yet, that’s exactly how it happened. And did it get better from there? No; from the time he began his formal ministry, Jesus spent his years walking up and down Israel with no permanent residence, turning away from every chance at conventional success.

Instead of cultivating relationships with the rich and the powerful, Jesus chose to spend his time and focus his attention on the poor and the marginalized; instead of aligning himself with the important people of his time, he antagonized them at every turn, pointing out their hypocrisy and sin, and ultimately getting himself killed for his trouble. He didn’t come to experience only the good stuff—he came to know the hardest struggles, the greatest temptations, the darkest fears, and the worst agonies our world knows, and to take them on his back; he came to suffer them, and for them, for us, to take the cup of sin in which they’re brewed and drink it to the very dregs.

Jesus was born in scandal and he died in scandal, and he spent an awful lot of the years in between scandalizing somebody or other, because God’s saving mission couldn’t be accomplished with the world’s approval—but he didn’t care about the world’s approval. He cared about the world, to the point that he of infinite value and utter perfection allowed himself to be murdered and to bear the guilt of all our sin and shame, so that we might be redeemed from death and find new life in him. From a human point of view, this is crazy. From God’s, this is the ultimate wisdom; and it’s this wisdom, not ours, which brought the redemption of the world.

Bathsheba: A Wife Stolen

(2 Samuel 11; Matthew 1:5-6)

“Judah the father of Peres and Zerah by Tamar . . . Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.” So far we have come; God has used the stubborn faith, independent wits, and deep hearts of these three remarkable women to bring Israel its greatest king, God’s chosen ruler, a man after his own heart, to whom God has promised the throne of his people for his descendants forever. Jewish nationalists might find each of these women questionable ancestors, but each by her actions has proven herself a hero of the faith, worthy to belong in such a great lineage.

But now! Now, we come to a very different sort of story, where the woman is not hero, but victim; now, we come to pure scandal. This great king has lived a life of blessing; he has faced severe opposition, but has always triumphed unscathed. Apparently, however, power and security have gone to his head, for here—not long into his reign—all that will change; here we read of a sin, or a complex of sins, that wreaks such terrible consequences on David and Israel that Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman compares it to the fall of Adam and Eve. Here we see the blessing and purity of David and his reign forever broken, forever marred; from now on, the golden king’s life of blessing is ended, and he will live a life under curse. From here through the end of the book, and even on into the books of the Kings, we have an almost-unbroken litany of family disasters; God preserves the nation, but David’s heart is crushed.

And how did it all begin? With the king neglecting his duty. “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle”—David stayed home. In those days, the king was first and foremost the war leader of the nation, and so it has always been with David as with other monarchs; but this year, when the roads dry out enough to be passable, when the weather clears enough to be bearable, David stays home. One afternoon, he takes a nap, and sleeps late; waking up bored, restless, with a burr in his soul reminding him that he belongs at the front, not in his own palace, he decides to go cool off on his roof—houses in that part of the world were built with flat roofs for just that purpose.

His is a high roof, and his palace is near the peak of Mount Zion, on which Jerusalem sits, so he has a commanding view of the city; and looking down, he sees a beautiful naked woman. Don’t blame her for this—she’s behind the walls of the courtyard of her house, where no one should be able to see; it’s David who’s in the wrong place. As it turns out, she has just completed her period and is finishing the purification required by the Law, but David doesn’t care a whit about that; what he cares about is that she’s beautiful, she’s naked, and he wants her. Now. (Shades of his ancestor Judah.)

Now, David’s a married man—in fact, he has at least three wives that I can think of; at this point, he should have gone and taken a cold shower, but instead he sends a messenger to ask who this woman is; he’s told, “This is Bathsheba, daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” That she’s identified by her husband is normal; the fact that he’s a Hittite, a foreigner, means that he’s one of the mercenary soldiers who made up the backbone of David’s army, while the fact that his name is Uriah, which means “Yahweh is my light,” tells us that he was a worshiper of the God of Israel. What’s more, 2 Samuel 23 tells us that he was one of the Thirty, the elite squad of David’s army—equivalent to the US Special Forces, or Britain’s SAS. This was an important man in the army of Israel.

Given that, why is his wife also identified—first!—as the daughter of Eliam? We can’t be sure, but it seems likely that the reference here is to Eliam the son of Ahithophel; this Eliam was another member of the Thirty (which is probably why his daughter married Uriah), and his father Ahithophel was David’s most trusted councillor. In short, what David hears is that Bathsheba is closely connected to some of his most valuable servants and most important supporters, which means he really ought to leave her alone.

But he’s in the grip of lust, and he takes no thought for that; he sends messengers to bring her to the palace, and he has sex with her. We’re not told what she thinks about this, because the narrator is focused on David, and from David’s point of view, what she thinks doesn’t matter; he’s the king, and whatever she thinks, she’s going to do what he wants her to. So David gets what he wants—and in a little while, the bill comes due: Bathsheba sends him the message, “I’m pregnant.”

David probably panics at first, but then he settles down and conceives a plan: bring Uriah home, he’ll sleep with his wife, and they can pass the baby off as hers. Unfortunately, Uriah isn’t going to indulge himself when the Ark of the Covenant, the holy throne of God, and the whole army are living in tents on the battlefield, so he insists on sleeping in the palace guardroom with the rest of David’s servants. He shows himself a man of great integrity, more loyal to David and Israel than David is—and certainly more loyal than David deserves, just at the moment—and the core of this tragedy is that his integrity costs him his life. David sends a message to his general, Joab, to have Uriah killed—and in the crowning touch, he sends it by Uriah’s own hand.

Well, Joab obeys, but he doesn’t like it—especially since, to keep everyone from realizing what’s really going on, he has to put a whole squad of troops at risk; from a military point of view, he has to throw away the lives of a number of his best men (including Uriah) just to cover up for the king. It’s clear from Joab’s comments that he’s putting the blame for this squarely on David’s shoulders, and it seems likely that he’s figured out that there’s a woman involved in this; which means he probably has a pretty shrewd idea exactly what woman, and how, and why. He’s a loyal servant to the king, but his fury at what he’s been forced to do, and for such a sordid reason, is clear.

But David doesn’t care, handing the messenger a platitude and a proverb for his trouble. Uriah’s dead, Bathsheba will be available once she finishes her mourning for her husband—seven days was the usual period—and he’s foolish enough to think no one’s the wiser. And indeed, when Bathsheba hears the news, she mourns her husband, and then David sends for her again and marries her, and she gives birth to their son. All is well.

Except for one small problem: “The thing that David had done displeased the LORD.” David has forgotten what Onan forgot, what Judah forgot, what Cain forgot—you can’t slip anything past God—and God is not happy. After all, of the ten commandments, David has just broken three: first, he saw his neighbor’s wife and wanted her—that’s coveting, the tenth commandment; then he had sex with her—that’s adultery, the seventh commandment; and then he had her husband killed—that’s murder, the sixth commandment. What’s more, he had Uriah killed in order to cover up the adultery, so the murder was in service of a lie, which is also a sin. That’s a lot of evil packed into a very short time; and while it would be bad enough if one of us did all that, David was the king, God’s anointed ruler, and as such, he was held to a much higher standard. His conduct was reprehensible—he has “utterly scorned the Lord”—and God will not let it pass.

So, God sends the prophet Nathan to confront David with his sin. That story is told in chapter 12, which I encourage you to read; for now, I just want to point out the steep price David pays. The new baby will die, and David’s family will be cursed. His children will be at war with each other and with him; at the peak of the troubles, his son Absalom will launch a coup, drive him from his home and his city, and signify this by having sex with David’s concubines in full view of the people of Jerusalem. That act, incidentally, will be suggested to Absalom by Ahithophel, Bathsheba’s grandfather, who had been David’s closest and most valued counselor; it’s not hard to imagine why, given the opportunity, he will choose to side with Absalom against David.

Out of all this disaster, there is only one solitary grace note: after the death of David and Bathsheba’s first child, we’re told that “David consoled his wife Bathsheba, and went to her, and lay with her; and she bore a son, named Solomon.” The judgment on David stands—all his repentance cannot undo that—but God forgives; to David and Bathsheba is born the son whom God has chosen to carry on the royal line, to be king in Israel after David. Through Solomon, the son of Bathsheba, the line will continue which will ultimately bring Jesus the Messiah.

In one way, this seems inappropriate. David took Bathsheba from her husband by force; why should this sordid story lead to the birth of David’s successor? After all, David had other wives; just to name one, there’s Abigail, whose story is told in 1 Samuel 25. Abigail was clearly the equal of Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth, worthy to stand in their company; why didn’t God choose one of her sons? Why choose a son of the wife of Uriah, who would be a constant reminder of David’s great sin? It’s not something we would predict, yet it’s what God does; and from that, we have much to learn about him.

Out of evil and scandal, God brings good; from the black, black roots of sin, he grows a white flower of grace. His plan is to redeem the world, and there is no one and no part of it he cannot redeem; even such evil acts as these do not defeat him, and even so great a sinner as David may be restored. Even in the face of such darkness, God accomplishes his purposes and carries on his plan; and in this, we may see the shadow of the cross, where the greatest crime the world has ever seen would be the moment of the greatest glory and victory it has ever seen, the moment of its redemption. God is the God who brings white flowers from black roots. Or perhaps we might say, red flowers, red as blood: the red Rose of Sharon, the Messiah, Jesus Christ, descended from David and Bathsheba, whose coming we await.

Jesus declared, “I have not come to save the righteous, but sinners”—and he said that with tongue planted firmly in cheek, because even the most righteous are still sinners; the real division wasn’t between those who sin and those who don’t, but between those who admit it and those who won’t. That’s why the apostle Paul said, “It is a true statement and worthy of acceptance that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” The foremost leader of the church in all its history called himself the foremost of sinners. Can any of us claim to be better than Paul?

This is critically important for us, because if only those who never do something really wrong are qualified to be used by God, then let’s not beat around the bush—we’re hosed. If there is to be any hope for us, it must be that Jesus meant what he said, and Paul was right; and if there is to be any hope for the church, it must be that a bunch of us sinners all working and living and growing together, guilty of sins we admit and sins we refuse to admit and sins we don’t even recognize as sins, can still somehow be used by God in his plan for the salvation of the world—not because we do such a great job, but despite the fact that we really don’t.

That can be a hard thing to believe, and so we often don’t; instead, we either drift into insecurity and fear and negativity, feeling that we have to be good enough and can’t manage it, or we adjust our standards for our lives so that we can feel that we’re good enough, and God just can’t really be as unreasonable as all that. But if we look to the Bible, we don’t find any support for that point of view; rather, what we find is stories like this one of David and Bathsheba—stories that tell us that even the greatest and most godly people out there have done evil and disastrous things, and though God has disciplined them and allowed them to face the consequences of their sin, yet he has continued to love them anyway, and continued to work through them anyway to accomplish his purposes. White flowers from black roots; sinners saved by grace, through whom God works—warts and all—to save others. This is God’s method of operation; this is the gospel in action. And it’s implicit even in the birth of Jesus; just as his family line and heritage reflects the will of God to bring all the nations into his people, so in the story of David and Bathsheba it shows us his redemptive grace.

Ruth: A Foreign Daughter

(Ruth 1:1-18, Ruth 4:13-17; Matthew 1:5-6a)

There are a couple things to say right off the bat before we dive into the story of Ruth, the third woman Matthew includes in his genealogy of Christ. First, you ought to have your Bibles open; we couldn’t read the whole book of Ruth, but we’re going to cover the whole book. Second, if you weren’t here last week, you need to know that the writers of Hebrew genealogies felt free to skip people; Rahab wasn’t actually Boaz’ mother, but his great-great-ever-so-great-grandmother. From Rahab to Ruth is actually about 200 years, from Joshua’s time to the end of the time of the judges. This was the time of the conquest of the land—and then its periodic reconquest from various oppressors. After Joshua died, Israel got into a pattern: they would be faithful to God for a while, then fall into idolatry, then someone like the Moabites would conquer them. They would cry out to God for someone to deliver them, and he would send someone to drive away the oppressor and win their freedom; and for a time they would be faithful to God. Then they would lapse back into idolatry, and the pattern would repeat.

It was toward the end of that period that a major famine drove a man named Elimelech to take his wife and two sons and head off to Moab to try to make a living. Not long after, he died, leaving his wife Naomi with their two sons. Her situation is tenuous—no longer able to count on her husband for support, she must lean on her sons, who aren’t yet married; if anything happens to them, she’s all alone. Understandably, she won’t complain if they marry local women, and so they do, and for a while, everything’s good; but then, before they have any children of their own, both her sons die.

At this point, Naomi figures she has no one; there’s nothing to do but go back home to Bethlehem. She’s heard that the famine is over, so she ought to be able to eke out some kind of living. To her surprise, her daughters-in-law insist on going with her. She argues with them—there’s nothing I can do for you, she tells them; I’m not going to have more sons to marry you. She succeeds in persuading Orpah to turn around and go home. Ruth, however, flatly refuses, telling Naomi, “Don’t argue with me! Where you go, I will go; where you live, I will live; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried.”

This is a permanent commitment for her—not only is she going with Naomi no matter what, she will never turn around and never go back. Her commitment to Naomi, and through her to Naomi’s family and people, is absolute; even in death, she would sleep in fellowship with Naomi’s family, not her own. To seal her promise, she follows it up with a dramatic statement: [draw finger across throat] “Thus may the Lord do to me and more if even death parts me from you!” This oath had its origin in covenant ceremonies, as one accepted the promise of severe penalties for breaking the covenant; Ruth is not content to leave her commitment to Naomi as mere words, but turns it into a covenant, sealed with a great oath. It’s important to note here that in verse 8, Naomi said to Orpah and Ruth, “May the Lord do hesed to you, as you have dealt with my sons and with me”—if you were here last week, you should remember that Rahab used that phrase as well—and that hesed, that great word for the abiding love and faithfulness God shows his covenant people, is all over this book. Ruth here is being held up as a real example of hesed in the extraordinary love and loyalty she shows her mother-in-law.

Faced with this, Naomi gives up and takes Ruth home with her. They get back to Bethlehem around the beginning of the barley harvest, which is a lucky “coincidence”—i.e., God acting incognito. Because the harvest is going on, Ruth immediately volunteers to feed the two of them by going out to glean in the fields—to follow behind the harvesters to pick up grain they dropped or missed. As a poor widow, it’s her right under the Law to do so; but if the owner of the field were to refuse to cooperate, the results could be ugly, especially given that she was a foreigner, an outsider with no one to protect her, and that Moab was Israel’s enemy. Still, for Naomi, she’ll risk it.

“As it happened”—“coincidence” again—she ends up in a field belonging to Boaz. Now, Boaz is a member of Elimelech’s extended family, a relative of Naomi’s by marriage; and in fact, he’s a relative to whom Naomi and Elimelech had been close. What’s more, he’s a rich man, highly respected, with great influence in the community, and a godly man as well—that much is clear from the behavior of his servants. They allow her to glean, and she works herself hard; when Boaz shows up and asks about her, the overseer identifies her as Naomi’s daughter-in-law from Moab, notes that she asked politely to be allowed to glean, and then reports, “She’s been working from dawn’s first light until now without a single break.”

Clearly, he’s impressed. Boaz is, too, and not just by this report. He goes to Ruth and says, “Listen carefully: don’t go glean in another field—don’t leave my land—but stay with the women who are collecting and binding the cut grain and glean right behind them; I’m going to order the young men working out here not to bother you. If you get thirsty, feel free to drink the water we’ve set out for the workers.” In saying that, he’s given Ruth status as part of his household, set his protection on her, and put her in the best possible position for gleaning.

She’s overwhelmed by his generosity (understandably); she drops to her knees, bowing until her face touches the ground, and asks, “Why have I found such favor in your sight, that you have paid me special notice, when I’m a foreigner?” The answer is her loyalty to her mother-in-law, her willingness to leave everything and go into exile to remain with Naomi—something which no doubt meant even more to Boaz because Naomi was part of his family. For that, he does the best turn for her that he can, and then prays that God will give her every blessing. Indeed, he does his part to make sure that happens: when mealtime comes, he invites her to eat with him, and then orders his reapers to leave extra grain for her.

It’s important to note that in chapter 2 verse 2, when Ruth volunteers to go out and glean, she says, “behind someone in whose sight I may find favor.” In other words, she’s not just going out to gather food, she’s hoping to catch someone’s eye; she’s looking for a husband, so that she may have children to carry on Naomi’s family. Remember what we talked about two weeks ago, the importance of not letting the line die out? It’s the same issue here: Naomi’s husband Elimelech is dead, his two sons are dead, and Naomi’s too old to have more children; if the family is to continue, Ruth must bear a child to carry on Elimelech’s line. Now, she has indeed found favor in someone’s eyes—Boaz—someone who is clearly both wealthy and good. When she returns to Naomi with a huge bundle of grain, plus some cooked food left over from lunch, Naomi is completely astounded; obviously someone has paid Ruth special attention. Who?

When Ruth answers, “His name is Boaz,” Naomi bursts out in an exclamation of praise to God and blessing on Boaz. When she calms down, she explains: Boaz is one of their relatives. In fact, she says, “He’s one of our kinsman-redeemers.” The Hebrew term here, go’el, was an important legal term. A go’el had several responsibilities. If a person had to sell part of their inheritance, part of the family land, a close relative who had the necessary resources would act as a go’el to buy the land and bring it back into the family. If someone were forced to sell themselves into slavery to pay their debts, the go’el would buy them back. In the case of injustice to a member of the family, the go’el was responsible to see that justice was done. And it appears that in cases like Ruth’s, the custom was that the go’el was responsible to marry the widow. After all, the practice of levirate marriage, which we talked about with Tamar, could only go so far; if there were no single brothers to marry her and give her dead husband an heir, someone had to do it.

This obviously sets Naomi thinking; and after a while, she puts her plan into motion. Remember in the first chapter, Naomi prays that God will bless Orpah and Ruth? God has given her the opportunity to bring about those blessings for Ruth, and she’s determined not to miss it. She tells Ruth, “Take a bath, put on some perfume, and get dressed up, then go down to the threshing floor. Boaz will be celebrating; don’t let him see you. He’ll be spending the night there. When he goes to sleep, uncover his feet and lie down there.” There are three things to note here. One, the verb “uncover” usually occurs in a phrase used to describe improper sexual relations. Two, the word “feet” is a common euphemism for the genitals. Three, the verb “lie down” is one of the usual verbs for sex. Now, this doesn’t mean that Ruth does anything improper—as far as I can tell, she simply lay down fully clothed at Boaz’ feet—but the overtones here are deliberate, for this is a sort of seduction, if a chaste one: she is there to ask Boaz, as their go’el, to marry her. (That’s the significance of “spread your cloak over your servant.”)

With this plan, Naomi and Ruth are staking a lot on Boaz being a man of good character, and they aren’t disappointed. Boaz is startled, but pleased, and declares, “This last act of hesed is even better than your first. You could have landed one of the choice young men, whether poor or rich, but you chose family loyalty instead.” He understands that she wants to marry him, at least in part, in order to give Naomi and her dead husband an heir. He doesn’t see this as a problem, however, and so he gladly agrees; but he cautions her, “There’s another relative closer than I who has the first right to act as kinsman-redeemer here. I’ll talk to him in the morning. If he wants to carry out this duty, let him; otherwise, I will.”

The next morning, Boaz goes down to the city gate, where all legal decisions were made, and no sooner does he get there and sit down than that relative comes walking by. Boaz stops him, grabs ten of the city elders, and presents the situation—beginning with something we haven’t heard to this point: their relative Elimelech owned a piece of property which now needs to be redeemed. This relative has the first right to do so; if he doesn’t, Boaz will. It seems like a good deal for this relative. He can get the land cheap, Elimelech has no surviving heirs to lay claim to the property later, Naomi isn’t going to have any more kids, and he boosts his reputation by carrying out a family duty. It looks like a win-win situation, and so he agrees to buy the land.

Ah, but before he can make the formal declaration to the elders of the city, Boaz has a surprise for him. “The day you buy the field, you will also commit to marry Ruth, the dead man’s widow, to give him an heir.” That provokes consternation. This relative was thinking of Naomi and Elimelech, but Elimelech died before his sons; the property actually belonged last to Ruth’s husband, making her, not Naomi, the widow in question. Unlike Naomi, Ruth was young enough to bear children, and if he married her, she probably would. He’d have to pay for the field, and then her child would inherit, meaning less money for the children he has now; supporting that child would further reduce the amount he could leave to his current children. This news turns the purchase from an investment into an unwanted expense, and so he passes on the right to redeem to Boaz.

The rest, you know: Boaz married Ruth, and she gave birth to a son, Obed. As seems to have been the case under these circumstances, the baby was considered both the heir of Ruth’s dead husband Mahlon, and thus of Naomi and her family, and of Boaz. As such, he was a great blessing to both families, for Boaz seems to have been childless up to this point, and they rejoiced greatly. However great their joy, though, they didn’t know the half of it; for as verse 17 tells us, Obed would be the grandfather of King David, the second and greatest king of the people of Israel.

Now, here again we have a foreign woman brought into Israel; but where, with Tamar and Rahab, they are brought in by their courage and their faith, with Ruth it is first and foremost her hesed, her extraordinary love, loyalty, faithfulness and commitment, that makes her a part of the people of God. At the beginning, Naomi praises her daughters-in-law for their hesed, but when push comes to shove, Orpah goes back home. She’s not condemned for that in the least—she’s following the wise counsel of her mother-in-law, doing the smart thing. It’s a perfectly fine act. It just isn’t hesed, for hesed goes above and beyond the call of duty—like Ruth. She continues to do hesed to her mother-in-law—by going home with her, by taking the risk to go out and glean, by taking the risk to lie down at Boaz’ feet, and by asking Boaz to marry her to give Elimelech an heir so that his line, and Naomi’s, might continue. All the way through, Ruth is held up as a shining example of hesed, of godly love and faithful commitment, which is why she has an honored place among the ancestors of David, and ultimately of Jesus.

There’s one other thing to note here, one which foreshadows the work of Christ: the book of Ruth shows us God acting below the radar of history, through common people and ordinary circumstances. One cannot call Naomi, Ruth, or Boaz truly ordinary people, but they’re the sort of people who get dismissed as ordinary because they aren’t famous; Boaz is rich and influential, yes, but only in Bethlehem, which is a town of no great consequence on the national scene, let alone by the world’s standards. And yet, through these three people and their God-given character and wits, God acts to continue the line which will ultimately lead to the birth of his Son.

And when his Son is born, it will be, again, in that town of no great consequence, that sleepy little burg of Bethlehem, to someone the world considers unimportant and thus ordinary; and who will be called to witness the birth? Shepherds. The most blue-collar workers imaginable. Yeah, the kings are coming, too, but they won’t show up until later. The Savior of the world will be a man of no reputation, a common builder, who will live a life of common things: eating peasant bread, working with calloused hands, walking everywhere. Yet through that life, below the world’s radar until the very end, would come the redemption of our fallen race.

Rahab: A Faithful Defector

(Joshua 2:1-14, Joshua 6:22-25; Matthew 1:4-5a)

I’ve talked to a couple people this week who thought it strange that I would do a sermon series on the women mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus. After all, as we read it—if we read it; most people don’t—it doesn’t seem like that big a deal to us that he’d mention a few women here and there; and of the ones he does mention, some of their stories aren’t exactly nice. But in fact, his inclusion of women is a profound break with normal practice that needs an explanation—and the fact that there’s something scandalous about every one of these women, that they weren’t the sort of people a good Jew would want in the lineage of the Messiah, is part of it. The other part, I think, is the way that God used each of them to build Messiah’s family—which in most cases was through extraordinary acts of faith on their part.

Last week, we looked at Judah’s encounter with Tamar, which led to the birth of his sons Perez and Zerah. It wasn’t long afterward that a great famine drove them and his brothers and all their family down into Egypt—where Joseph, the brother whom they had sold into slavery, had risen to be the Pharaoh’s prime minister. Though Joseph might have taken vengeance on them, instead he welcomed them (after testing them a little first), and the Pharaoh gave them the best grazing land in the kingdom for their own. As time passed, their numbers grew, until they were a powerful tribe; they were known as the Israelites after their ancestor Jacob, whom God had renamed Israel.

As their tribe grew larger, the Pharaohs who ruled Egypt began to view them as a threat. Finally, one Pharaoh tried to end the threat, first by enslaving the Israelites, and then by ordering that every boy born to them should be killed at birth. Despite this policy (which the midwives tried not to enforce), God raised up Moses to lead his people out of Egypt and back to Canaan, to the land God had promised to give to Abraham and his descendants; and by God’s grace, Moses did. And yes, I’m skipping a lot here, but we don’t have time to read all of Exodus and Numbers just now.

Anyway, as our passage this morning begins, the Israelites have reached the banks of the Jordan River, which forms much of the eastern border of the Promised Land; Moses has died, command has passed to his chief lieutenant, a man named Joshua, and the people of Israel are preparing to invade Canaan. They’ll cross the Jordan near the city of Jericho, which means that will be the first threat to their bridgehead, and the first city they’ll need to take; so Joshua sends two men ahead to spy out Jericho, its defenses and the surrounding area. They enter the city and decide to stay in the house of a prostitute named Rahab—and it should be noted, the Hebrew text is carefully worded to make it perfectly clear that they did not sleep with her, they just slept in the same house.

Rahab’s an interesting character. Clearly, she was an independent businesswoman. She’s unmarried—there’s no husband mentioned anywhere in the text—and though she has a father and brothers, they aren’t the decision-makers: Rahab runs this family. She owns the house, she runs the business, and she makes the decisions; indeed, she feels perfectly free to make a major commitment on her family’s behalf without consulting anyone. She certainly has the ability to handle the job: she thinks fast on her feet, she’s clever enough to keep the king’s messengers from finding the two spies, and whatever we might think of her deceit, she has the nerve to put her head on the chopping block for them. To lie to the king’s messengers was to lie to the king; to lie to the king and get caught was fatal. She does it without hesitation, and she gets away with it.

Like Tamar, Rahab is a strong, smart, capable woman; and like Tamar, she chose the people of God over her own people. We don’t know what about the spies caught her attention, but her speech in verses 8-13 makes it clear what won her support: the absolute conviction that God was with them, not her own people, and that they were on the winning side. To us, that might seem rather crassly opportunistic, but that misses the religious element of the conflict: she was convinced that the God of the Israelites “is God in heaven above and on earth below,” and thus that the gods of her own people were false gods. She may have been convinced by military victories, not by argument, and she may have been motivated by fear for her family, but that doesn’t make her faith any less real or praiseworthy. She could see what the rest of the city couldn’t, or wouldn’t: that these spies were on the side of the God of the world, which meant that fighting them could only bring disaster. The proper course was not to fight them but to welcome them.

Thus when the spies come to her house, she protects them and sends the king’s messengers off on a wild-goose chase; then she goes to them and confesses her faith in the God of Israel because of all he has done for his people. “Now then,” she says, and the NIV says, “because I have shown kindness to you,” which captures the sense but not the force of her statement; the key word here is the word hesed, which we’ve looked at before. Hesed, you remember, is a loaded word—it’s the word used to describe the absolute loyalty and faithfulness and unstinting love which God shows to his people with whom he has made his covenant. It gets translated “lovingkindness,” “covenant love,” “covenant faithfulness,” and other things of that sort, but none of the translations really capture its full meaning; there’s no word in English that really expresses the depths of love and commitment and faithfulness hesed entails.

Here, what Rahab says is, “Since I have done hesed to you,” preserving your life from destruction, “now you swear to me by the LORD that you in turn will do hesed to my family,” saving them from destruction as well. Basically, she wants them to treat her actions on their behalf as her making covenant with them, and through them with the whole people of Israel, and thus to make sure she and her family survive to join the people of Israel once Jericho has fallen. We might see this as her application for Israelite citizenship for herself and her family, but there’s more to it than that, because Israel is defined by its covenant relationship with God; her offered oath of allegiance is to God, not just to his people. If the spies accept it, she and her family will in every important respect cease to be Canaanites and become Israelites, heirs to all God’s promises. From the spies’ point of view, if she gets them out of this alive, they’re happy with that. She does her part, getting them out of the city and helping them get safely back to their camp; when Jericho falls, God does his part, and she and all her family are preserved.

The story of Rahab points forward to the work of Christ in a couple different ways. First, as we saw with Tamar and will see again next week with Ruth, we have a foreigner—this time with her entire family—being brought into the people of God. This fulfills in a small way God’s promise to bless all the nations of the earth through Abraham, and it anticipates the day when Jesus Christ would come to fulfill that promise in earnest. Indeed, since all these women are ancestors of Jesus, each is a part of that fulfillment: because of them, when he came, he came not as a pure Jew, but as a Jew who already carried the blood of the nations in his veins.

Second, Rahab is accepted as one of the people of God because of her faith, not because she had lived an exemplary life and kept the Law. She was living in a pagan society, worshiping pagan gods, and earning a living as a prostitute—she was a long way from being a model of righteousness by Jewish standards. But whatever one might say about her life in Jericho, here’s the important thing: when she saw something better, she went for it. When she saw the true God, she knew she needed to set aside her false gods and worship him. Where others merely saw danger, she saw deliverance, and when it came within her grasp, she took hold and would not let go. She was given the choice between the way of friendship with the world and the way of friendship with God, and she chose God. For this, she is named in Hebrews 11 as one of our heroes of faith.

Note this well: her act of faith was a total change of allegiance, laying everything on the line. From the point of view of her society, the people of her world, she was a traitor; if she’d been found out, she and all her family would have been dead. But she took that step in the absolute faith that she and all her family would be dead if she didn’t act—in the utter conviction that the only path to survival, the only path to life, was to turn her back on Jericho and join up with the people of God. A few weeks ago, we heard James calling us to choose our side, to give up double-mindedness and commit completely to God; in Rahab, we see what that looks like. She set herself apart from her friends, neighbors, customers, government, society, everybody; she chose God over all of them. They would no doubt have said that she betrayed them, though one imagines that she would have saved some of them if there had been any way to do so. She chose God over her entire life—she turned her back on everything she had ever known, and gave up everything she had, except her family, whom she brought with her—and she never looked back, because she had no doubt that what she gained in return was worth it.

Tamar: A Widow Wronged

(Genesis 38, Deuteronomy 25:5-10; Matthew 1:1-3)

To many modern eyes, it seems strange that Matthew begins his gospel with a genealogy; but it didn’t seem strange at all to his Jewish audience. For them, genealogies were very important, because they told you who you were, and showed you your place in God’s chosen people. That’s why Matthew goes back to Abraham, because he was the ultimate ancestor of the people of God. The interesting thing, though, is that unlike every other genealogy of his time, Matthew includes women in his genealogy of Jesus, highlighting five women whom God used as part of his plan to redeem the world—and the women he highlights aren’t exactly conventional Jewish heroines. So why does he mention them? Well, thereby hangs a tale; and it all begins with Abraham.

When God told Abraham to move to Canaan, promising him that his descendants would be a great nation, he was 75, his wife Sarah 65. The move wasn’t easy, but they made it, then waited for God to fulfill his promise . . . and waited . . . and waited . . . and waited. A quarter-century passed, and still no son; and then one day, the Lord appeared again and told Abraham, “This will be the year that Sarah has her son.” Sarah laughed at that, but it happened just as God said; they named their baby boy Isaac, which means “laughter.” Isaac in turn had twin sons of his own, Esau and Jacob; and though Jacob was the younger, God chose him over Esau to be the ancestor of his chosen people.

This wasn’t the first time God had chosen the younger over the older—Isaac had an older half-brother, Ishmael, and God had favored Abel’s offering over Cain’s—and it would happen again among Jacob’s twelve sons; his oldest, Reuben, would disgrace himself, and God’s choice would fall on his younger brother Judah. The chosen kings of Israel, David and his descendants, would be from the tribe of Judah, and from David’s line would come Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, the Savior of the World.

Of all the unlikely people God chose to use, though, Judah was perhaps the unlikeliest. Jacob and his family were living in Canaan, but though God had promised them the land, they were a small minority among the idol-worshiping natives; that’s why Abraham had sent a servant back to his homeland to find a wife for Isaac, and why Isaac had sent Jacob back when the time came for him to marry. Judah, though, didn’t care about that; instead, he went out and married a Canaanite woman, and clearly spent more time with his pagan neighbors than he did with his family.

What’s more, he was a cold, selfish man. You see, Jacob fathered twelve sons (and some number of daughters) by four women, but he only loved one of those women—his second wife, Rachel—and he favored her two sons, Joseph and Benjamin, far beyond the others. In Genesis 37, Joseph’s neglected brothers (who despised him) ambushed him and threw him into a pit. They were going to kill him, but Reuben persuaded them not to; Judah took advantage of this while Reuben was away, convincing his brothers to sell Joseph into slavery for twenty pieces of silver. They followed this up by taking Joseph’s fancy robe—a special gift from his father, of course—dipping it in the blood of a goat, and taking it to their father to convince him Joseph had died. This was the kind of man Judah was.

We can see this in our chapter this morning. First, all we’re told about Judah’s wife is that he liked her looks, he had sex with her, and she bore him three sons. Clearly, this is all Judah really cared about, except probably that she put dinner on the table every night. Second, while Judah felt free to choose his own wife, he had no intention of allowing his sons to do so—and when the time came to choose a wife for his oldest son, Er, he simply grabbed another Canaanite woman. Third, he obviously didn’t do much of a job raising his sons. Er was so bad that God killed him off young; after that, his younger brother Onan selfishly refused to do his family duty, so God killed him off too.

In case the nature of his duty is unclear to you, the idea here is the same as Deuteronomy 25. This practice had two purposes. One was to ensure that the widow was remarried and thus provided for—widows were extremely vulnerable in that day and age. The other was to ensure that the dead brother had legal heirs to carry on his name, which otherwise would be forgotten. Of course, in Judah’s version, he doesn’t tell Onan to marry Tamar—he really doesn’t care a whit about providing for her; he just wanted an heir for his dead son. Onan, however, doesn’t want that. As the situation stands, he’s the oldest son and only has one brother to split the inheritance when Judah dies; but if he does his duty and Tamar gets pregnant, his share goes down dramatically. So, Onan sleeps with Tamar—he didn’t seem to mind that part—but practices birth control to ensure that she never gets pregnant. He probably figured he’d get away with it because Tamar would be afraid to expose him. What he doesn’t seem to have known, given the way Judah raised him, was that God was watching and wouldn’t tolerate his behavior. He might get it past Judah, but he wouldn’t, and didn’t, get it past God.

So here we are: Judah’s first two sons are dead—and you notice, he doesn’t mourn them at all? Their deaths are extremely inconvenient, but there’s no sign of grief—the problem is, they’re dead, and he still has no grandchildren; and instead of blaming them for their deaths, he blames Tamar. The way things were normally done, he should have kept her in his house and taken care of her—it was his responsibility, in that culture, as her father-in-law—but instead, he sends her back to her own father’s house, telling her to remain a widow until his third son, Shelah, grows up a little more. That is to say, she’s to consider herself betrothed, not free to marry anyone else, and to wear only the clothes that marked her as a widow in mourning. Unfortunately for her, Judah has no intention of keeping his word. Unfortunately for Judah, she figures that out—and lays a trap for him. Once Judah’s wife dies, she puts her plan into action.

The important thing to realize as we consider her plan is that under the laws of her society, it was probably perfectly ethical. Deuteronomy just says, if a man dies and he has an unmarried brother, he has to marry the widow and give his dead brother an heir; that responsibility doesn’t extend to their father. In the law codes of other cultures in that part of the world, however, it did, if the father were no longer married. Tamar is probably doing something perfectly acceptable by the ethical standards by which she was raised, whether Judah would have considered it so or not. Certainly, the fact that she waits for the death of her mother-in-law to carry out her plan indicates that she is trying to act rightly and morally, as best as she understands it.

In order to make her plan work, of course, she needs good information, and so she has an informer somewhere in Judah’s household. When the time is ripe, the informer tells her that Judah will be going up to Timnah to oversee the shearing of his sheep (and, probably, to enjoy the partying that always went along with it). Tamar takes off her widow’s garments, dresses up, puts on a veil (to ensure that Judah won’t recognize her), and sets herself up where he’ll be sure to see her. He does, and likes what he sees—and once again, that seems to be all that matters; taking Tamar for a prostitute, he goes over and asks to have sex with her. She plays along and asks him, “How much will you pay me?”

At least he makes her a good offer: a young goat from his flock. She accepts, on one condition: he has to leave a pledge with her to ensure that he’ll actually bring the goat—and the pledge she demands is steep. The seal was a disk or cylinder worn on a cord around the neck; on letters or official documents, it would be pressed or rolled into a piece of soft clay, and that would serve, in our terms, as an authorized signature. The staff was Judah’s symbol of authority, and had the mark of his seal carved into the head. These were things he could not afford to lose; in our terms, it’s as if he’d given her his driver’s license, passport and Social Security card. Still, Judah accepts her terms, takes what he wants, then goes on his way; and unbeknownst to him, she does the same, returning to her father’s house and going back undercover, so to speak.

We may imagine that Judah sent that goat as quickly as he could; notice, though, that he doesn’t take it himself, but sends it with his friend Hirah. Hirah gets to the place Judah described, and—no one there. So he asks around; only to keep Judah (or himself) from looking bad, he dresses things up a bit: “Where is the temple prostitute who was sitting by the road here?” After all, sleeping with a temple prostitute was an act of worship, nothing to be embarrassed about. However, putting things that way made the question rather ridiculous, because temple prostitutes worked in the temples, not along the roadside; and so the people Hirah asks look at him like he has a screw loose and say, “There haven’t been any here.” So Hirah goes back to Judah and says, “I couldn’t find her, and no one I talked to had seen her.” This is a problem for Judah—but as he sees it, the biggest problem isn’t the loss of his ID, but the fact that if this gets out, if people hear that he was played for a mark, he’ll be a laughingstock; so he tells Hirah to give up the search. Keeping this quiet is more important than getting the seal and staff back.

Now, Tamar had to know that if her plan worked, her pregnancy couldn’t stay hidden for long; and since she was carrying twins, she had even less time than she might have expected. About three months later, someone figured it out and took the news to Judah. Does Judah react with grace? What do you think? She’s betrothed to his son Shelah (whether or not he ever actually intended to let them marry), and so she’s guilty of adultery—and worse, of making his family look bad. These are not crimes he’s prepared to take lightly. Little does he know, of course; and so, as she’s being dragged out to be burned alive—rather an extreme punishment, that—she sends a message to her father-in-law: “The man who owns this seal, cord and staff is the man who got me pregnant. Rec-ognize them?”

And here comes the pivot point of the story, because this obviously hits Judah right between the eyes. NIV softens this, unfortunately, because what he actually says is, “She’s in the right, not I.” In other words, she acted rightly, and I’m the one at fault here; she was justified in her actions, and I wasn’t. This is completely out of character for Judah as he’s been to this point in Genesis. For the first time, he takes stock of himself and recognizes—and admits!—his fault; for the first time, he lets considerations of right and wrong guide his actions. For the first time, he really pays attention to someone besides himself. It’s the beginning of a critical character shift in Judah. Six chapters later, in Genesis 44, the man who callously sold his brother into slavery will do everything in his power to keep his youngest half-brother, Rachel’s son Benjamin, from suffering a similar fate, even offering himself as a slave in Benjamin’s place.

Now, from an Israelite perspective, Tamar isn’t an obvious hero. She was a woman, for one thing, and the heroes of the stories were more often men, though not as much more often as you might think. More importantly, she was a Canaanite—a foreigner, and a member of a people who were a real threat to the faith of the people of God. Finally, however defensible her actions might have been by her own standards, there’s no denying that they were, at the least, irregular by the standards of God’s law. And yet, she’s clearly the hero of this story, and just as clearly deserves to be. Despite her religious background, despite her decidedly problematic marital history, she is clearly the one person in this entire story who is faithful to God’s plan, and the one through whom God acts to bring that plan about.

There are a couple of reasons for that, I think. One is that she stays faithful to Judah’s family even when he is faithless to her. Why this is, we can’t say for sure, but the standard interpretation makes sense: even though Judah wasn’t paying a lot of attention to the God of his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, Tamar could see the hand of God on him and his family, and had made a decision to cast her lot with them. That’s a plausible explanation because it makes sense of her clear determination to be a part of this family despite the ill-treatment she had received from them; while she had few if any legal options herself, her father and the rest of her family could have put considerable pressure on Judah, had she wanted to get free of her sham “betrothal.” Instead, all she seems to want is what she was promised: to bear a child to continue Er’s line.

This is a big thing, because for all Judah’s disregard of his family’s faith, his family was nevertheless identified with a God alien to Canaan; for her so decisively to choose Judah’s family over remarriage into another Canaanite family—to choose these outsiders over her own culture—was to choose their God over those of her own people. As such, though her deception is problematic in some ways, she was acting out of faith in the one true God, however imperfectly she knew and understood him. Yes, her act of faith was impure, tainted by her deceit, and her ethics didn’t come up to God’s standards; but are we any better? None of our motives are unmixed, after all, nor are any of our actions completely pure, and we have more reason to get it right than Tamar did.

There are a couple of lessons we might draw from this story. First, in a very real way, this marks the beginning of the fulfillment of God’s promise that in Abraham, all the nations of the world would be blessed. The fulness of that promise would come in Jesus Christ, of course, who would draw people from all nations into the family of God; but it begins here, with this Canaanite woman who chooses to stay with the people of God rather than take a place among her own people.

Second, we see the power of the transforming grace of God, who can use anybody to accomplish his purposes. At the beginning of the story, Judah is about as ungodly as a socially respectable man can be; he fails as a son, as a brother, as a father, as a father-in-law, and above all as a follower of God, acting with complete disregard for anyone but himself. Tamar, meanwhile, is an alien to the family, both ethnically and religiously. Neither of them is a faithful servant of the God of Abraham. Yet at the end, God uses just this improbable couple to carry out his will. Perez and Zerah are born, and through Perez, the line continues which will lead ultimately to the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Judah has been changed by this encounter, his incorrigible selfishness broken, beginning the movement toward his act of utter selflessness in chapter 44 on behalf of his father and youngest brother. And Tamar has earned herself a place in the litany of the heroes of faith—and a place of honor among the ancestors of Christ.

We might look at people like Judah and despair, for in this world, hate, and selfishness, and pride, and many other evil things are strong and mock the Christmas message; yet for all that, the message of the Christmas bells is true: God is not dead, nor is he sleeping, and his purpose will not fail. Judah’s position seemed impregnable, his hard, cold heart incorrigible, yet God worked through Tamar to shatter both. However powerful and clever the wrong might seem now, it is neither strong enough to overpower God, nor shrewd enough to outsmart him. In the end, no matter what anyone might do, God’s will shall be done.