Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Be Not Afraid: Part 3- Luke 2:8-20
I have to be honest... we’re skipping ahead a bit here. There’s already a baby, but you know the baby was going to be here soon anyway. I figure a little attention on the shepherds was warranted. Next week, after the baby comes and in the weeks that follow, weeks filled with Matthew’s stories of the magi and the family’s refugee flight to Egypt and Luke’s stories of the prophets who sing their joy at the birth of the Savior, the shepherds can get lost. It seems worth our time to consider the shepherds... the first people outside of the family to learn that there is something special in this child who has been born. They will end up not only hearing divine confirmation of gift of his birth but also become a source of holy affirmation for Mary and Joseph.
Unlike the early part of Matthew, that contrasts God’s Reign from the King’s Reign by showing us a king who is frightened enough by a baby that he will try to harm the baby, Luke shows us that God’s Reign is different than Caesar’s Reign but showing us how very different Jesus’ birth and life are from the lives of the powerful in the era. Jesus’ very pregnant mom has to travel to a whole other town when she is almost ready to give birth, not because she wants to but because the Emperor has the power to force regular people to do things when he wants it done, not when is convenient for them. He wanted them to go to Bethlehem to be counted. So they had to go. Dr. Melinda Quivik reminds us that royal Roman leaders had everything they needed. This child wasn’t even born in his own home and he slept in an animal trough. He could not be more different from Caesar. Thank God for that.
And, his life and the way he wields power will be different, we can see, by who is entrusted to celebrate his birth. First, Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, is entrusted with the good news of the pregnancy. She has been similarly blessed with an unlikely pregnancy and Mary knew she could relate to this level of Divine Intervention. Then, after the birth, the shepherds are brought into the story. There are few people farther from Caesar than the shepherds in the fields.
According to Dr. Fred Craddock, Roman poets and well-known speakers were known to create works in celebration of a child who was to become emperor. In this story, it is it is the heavens that sing forth in celebration and their audience is not their wealthy patrons, as would have been true of the artists, but the very common, very ordinary shepherds in the fields. Dr. Wesley Allen reminds us in his commentary on the text that these shepherds are likely not the people who own the sheep or own any of the land. They are either slaves or employees are working the night shift. That’s why the author pointed out that they lived in the fields. They stay with the sheep, guarding them, either because they were ordered to by the people who owned them or because they were paid to do so. They are regular people with a demanding job that required a fair amount of skill to keep animals alive. It was a job that was utterly necessary as sheep provided food and clothing material. It was also a job that wasn’t necessarily well-paid or well-respected. Shepherds don’t usually get to hear the good news first, but they do in this story. They don’t usually hang out with the powerful. But, they will, in this story. And, the power will look different. We heard the first inklings of that in Mary’s song, with the lowly lifted and the powerful sent away. In the invitation of the shepherds to the manger, we are seeing the lifting of the lowly happening yet again.
I wonder what the angels looked like for them to have to tell the shepherds that they didn’t have to be afraid. Were they bright enough and loud enough to scare the sheep? Would anyone, human or angelic, have surprised these working men on third shift? Was this just a gentle way of preparing them for the incredible next words? “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” What a message to tell these hard-working, poor men! And, how wonderful that these men believed and traveled to find the child.
In my research this week, several scholars noted that while Caesar wasn’t anywhere near shepherds, Jewish leaders had once been, notably King David. Luke tells us that Jesus was part of the line of David through his stepfather Joseph. He was born in the city of David. And, now, men who shared David’s earliest work would come to celebrate him and confirm, for his mother, that her own angelic visions were true. The shepherds told Mary and Joseph what they had heard from the angels about who this simple child in a food trough would be. Everyone who heard the testimony of the shepherds was amazed. But, in particularly, treasured all their words and pondered them in her heart. That means she thought about them, a lot. She considered the words the angels said to her, to her cousin, and now the shepherd, and what it means for her family, and the world’s, future.
Dr. Kyle Schiefelbein-Guerrero noted that, in leaving their sheep, the shepherds, too, are transformed, becoming God’s messengers alongside the angels. And, of course, poor, common people would do the work of God. In a couple chapters, when Jesus, as an adult, tells us about his mission with his own words, he will say that the poor will be of special concern for God and for him. Jesus himself comes from a poor family, despite having a royal lineage. God comes into the World through the margins of society, the over-full barns and the darkened fields full of smelly sheep. What message about Jesus are you hearing while you work? And, where are you willing to go to because of it?
Resources consulted to write this sermon:
Kyle Schiefelbein-Guerrero: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/christmas-day-nativity-of-our-lord-ii/commentary-on-luke-21-7-8-20-9
Fred Craddock, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1990)
Melinda Quivik: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/christmas-eve-nativity-of-our-lord/commentary-on-luke-21-14-15-20-18
O. Wesley Allen Jr. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/shepherds-visit-2/commentary-on-luke-28-20
Luke 1:46-56 Mary’s Song of Praise
And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’
And Mary remained with her for about three months and then returned to her home.
The church will come to call her Theotokos, the bearer of God . . . the one who ushered the Incarnation into the world. We first encounter her as Mary, engaged to Joseph, cousin of Elizabeth, Galilean teenager. We will learn that she is brave and faithful, that she trusts God, and knows her scripture, that she is willing to risk the judgement of her community if it means she can do what God asks of her. Mary was in a position of great risk, both the risk inherent in pregnancy and also the risk of being unmarried and pregnant in her community. But she remembered the stories of what God had done for her people. So, when the angel told her God’s plan, Mary was confident that good could come from it. Our scripture today is Mary’s statement of faith . . . a kind of prophecy of the world to come through the life that was growing inside of her. And, it shows us something about the reign that God is inviting us into.
Mary sings this song while staying with her cousin Elizabeth, one who has recently had her own miraculous and unexpected birth. Perhaps she sings in Elizabeth’s home, because, like Dr. Wil Gafney says, teenagers often find a certain freedom talking about surprising relationships and unexpected pregnancies with elder women relatives. It is in Elizabeth’s home that Mary can finally articulate how this scandalous and strange pregnancy brings her hope. Dr. Monica Coleman, in her commentary on this passage, reminds us that sometimes in the Bible, when people need to celebrate what God has done for them and with them, they sing. Mary, the learned and brave teenager, takes up this tradition with gusto. She sings out what it means to her to be chosen to do something very difficult by God.
Mary begins with, “my soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” She is clear: God has seen Mary and known, despite her likely poverty, her young age, and her unmarried status, that she could do something vital for her people. She goes on to situate her story within the long history of God’s actions in the world. When we hear Mary say these words, "God has shown strength with God's arm; God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts," we are hearing echoes of the Exodus and the words of Miriam who sang out with joy and praise when God delivered their people from slavery: "[The Lord] has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea. In your steadfast love you led the people whom you redeemed; you guided them by your strength to your holy abode." Mary knew that God was a deliverer. God would deliver her. The child she would deliver would be a force of the Divine in the world, again, working to deliver the people.
When we hear Mary say these words, "God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty," we are also hearing Hannah's words from 1st Samuel 2:1-10, "The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. The Lord makes poor and makes rich, he brings low, he also exalts." God is invested in people’s whole lives, not just in their ideas about the Divine. As the Rev. Judith Jones puts it, “Mary sings about the God who saves not just souls, but embodied people.” The God whom Mary has come to know through scripture and her lived experience is one that feeds people and overturns unjust power structures. Rev. Jones asserts that Mary isn’t saying that God will put the currently powerless into unjust power systems. No, God will enact a leveling, where the powerful are emptied of arrogance and learn to love their neighbor. And, the powerless will be lifted up with dignity. Mary’s own uplift is a sign of Divine leveling.
In his commentary on this text, Dr. Rolf Jacobsen noted that the anonymous Psalmist who recorded Psalm 146 once sang: "the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the strangers; upholds the orphan and the widow." He argues that this sounds an awful lot like Mary saying, "God has helped God's servant Israel, in remembrance of God's mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham, and to his descendants forever." Mary, a teenager living in poverty in the midst of a cruel Empire, remembered how God had worked in her people's history, and sang out, assured that though her people were not yet free, God had promised her people freedom. She was certain that her story had become part of how God would fulfill this promise, even if her community did not approve or believe her.
Dr. Fred Craddock, in his commentary on this text, notes that Mary sings of God’s movement in the world through actions in the past, in the present moment, and in the promised future. We can miss a little of this when we read it only in English. She sings of her present joy at both the past actions and future promises of God. Dr. Craddock believes that by remembering the histories of her people and singing about them in the same breath as she sings of her present condition, Mary tells us something about what she knows about God. Dr. Craddock says, “[t]o speak of what God has done is to announce what God will do.” Craddock argues that Mary is so certain about what God will do that she sings about it as though it is already done. God has liberated once. God will liberate again. God has taken down tyrants before. God will do it again and is already doing it right now.
I am under no illusion that Mary thought the next stages of her life were going to be easy. She was likely worried if her family would throw her out, if her fiancé would still want to marry her, if her community would shun her. All these on top of the difficulty of just being pregnant. Even today, with modern technology, in our country, being pregnant is dangerous, difficult, and exhausting. All the more so in the era in which Mary lived. And, yet, she could sing of a future where she would be called blessed. Blessed, here, doesn’t mean that she imagines her life would be easy. It meant that she knew her struggle would have meaning within a framework of God working through humanity towards liberation.
Dr. Monica Coleman, in a couple different meditations on Mary’s life and calling, wonders if Mary’s second gift to us, after Jesus, is that her story is a story about God at work in the life of someone who much of the world would have looked down on. Mary, who called herself lowly, was also clear that God could, and would, work through the lowly. God didn’t need her to be rich or to be a queen. God needed her to be faithful. Dr. Coleman says it this way, “[c]ontemporary readers are reminded that when God brings justice to the world, it may come in unexpected ways, through individuals and communities whom most of our society eschews.” If you are tempted to see yourself or someone as too poor or too marginal or too scandalous to reflect something of God in this world, remember Mary. God called and empowered her exactly how she was to do something incredible. God’s probably going to call you to do something, too. We’ve all got a part to play in this journey towards holy liberation.
Dr. Wil Gafney has several sermons about this passage. One of them is called, “Shalom Miriam, Hail Mary.” In it, she talked about the phrase “fear not.” Angels say fear not all the time in the Bible. One said it last week before talking to Joseph. One said it to Mary in the passages just before today’s reading. Dr. Gafney argues say “fear not,” not because there is no reason to be afraid, but as a reminder that the person they are talking to is not alone. The angelic visitors say fear not because God is already with you. In the midst of all that is scary and all that hard and all that is dangerous, God is already here, with you now just as you are. While her child will be known as Emanuel, God with us, Mary needed to know God was already there, at work in her common and extraordinary life, at that moment. The God who was already there would guide her towards the future yet to come. Maybe this was what gave her the confidence to sing. God was already with her. God would be with the world in a new way, through her, very soon. God is with you, too. I pray that you find your song to celebrate that soon.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Monica Coleman, "Third Sunday in Advent," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year A Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, Ronald J. Allen, Dale P. Andrews, Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013)
Rolf Jacobsen: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-advent-2/commentary-on-luke-146b-55
Judith Jones: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-advent-3/commentary-on-luke-146-55
A Definition of Theotokos: https://udayton.edu/imri/mary/t/theotokos-meaning-of.php
Matthew 1:18-25 The Birth of Jesus the Messiah
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’ When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
Last week, we learned about Jesus’ grandmothers, the ones from whom he inherited keen intelligence, fierce resilience, and probably a love of people who are on the margins of respectable society. Today, we’re going to learn about Jesus’ dad, who is probably the one who taught him something about deep, sacrificial love. The story of Joseph becoming Jesus’ stepfather might be really familiar to you. Or, it might be the first time you’ve heard it. Regardless of whether you’ve heard this story only once or you’ve heard it a hundred times, it’s important to remember that Jesus’ family didn’t have to look like this. Any other man might have made a different choice than Joseph did. To understand Joseph’s choice, it’s important to remember a few things about the time when Joseph and Mary were living.
Where Joseph and Mary grew up, people thought you did things in a certain order. First, you get married. Then, if you want, you have a baby. If you did things out of order, people didn’t like it. Sometimes you could even get in trouble if a lot of people in your community thought you did things in the wrong order. Part of what makes Joseph’s story special is that he knew that while not everyone thought it was ok to make a family in a different way, he would choose to do just that. At first, you’ll remember, he was ready to go along with what everyone else wanted. But, an angel helped him be brave enough to realize that he could still make a family with Mary, even if people got mad. What was most important was the baby would be taken care of and God was confident that Joseph could take care of this baby.
Matthew tells us that Joseph was a righteous man who was engaged to be married to Mary. He did not want to humiliate Mary when she said that she was pregnant and it was not his child. If Joseph had done what most people would have said was the right thing, he would not have married her. The story tells that he had just settled upon a course of action that would afford Mary as much dignity as possible, while also allowing him not to marry her, when suddenly an angel intervenes through his dreams. The angel says, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid.” That phrase gets used a lot around Jesus’ birth, both here in Matthew and also in Luke. Angels show up in some very scary times and they tell people not to be afraid. I think Joseph really needed someone to help him not be afraid.
Marriage and parenthood can be pretty scary, mostly because people want to do the right thing and not hurt people they care about. Even if you are excited to be married and excited to have a child, you might find yourself afraid. That is true even without the complications that Joseph and Mary have in their relationship. If you think the community might judge you harshly or are worried about whether or not your fiancée is lying to you, you might be even more frightened. Thank goodness the Angel came to help him be brave.
“Do not be afraid.” Fear can often keep us from imagining a life beyond what other people tell us is possible or good. Fear can keep us from trusting people we love, even when they tell us the truth. Fear, and its cousin, Anger can make us break relationships instead of build them. When the angel told Joseph that he didn’t have to be afraid, Joseph heard, maybe for the first time, that he had other options for how he could treat Mary, and, that maybe, they could still be a family.
There is an artist and poet named Jan Richardson who has spoken about what is like for her to fall in love with someone who already had a child. In a reflection on this portion of Matthew, she once wrote, “The man whom I love has a son, and his son whom I love has changed how I read Joseph’s story. I am intrigued by this Joseph who claimed a child who was not his own, this man who drew a circle of family not only around Mary but also around her son, her Word-made-flesh.” Richardson’s stepson, who has a way with words like his father and like poet step-mother, has become beloved to her precisely because she chose to build a family with him and his father. Ten years ago, when she wrote the commentary I read this week, she said, “Ten years since first meeting this man and his child, I still choose this stretching into a vast, unknown terrain that the journey with this father and son calls me to.” I am certain she feels the same way now, 20 years after first choosing to make this family together. A child that is not your child by blood can still be a gift.
The angel tells Joseph to marry his fiancée and that this child, too, is a gift, this one, from God to their whole people. Mary will have a son. The angel tells Joseph give the boy a special name, a name that will tell people something about who the child is. In Greek, that name is Jesus. In Hebrew, it’s Yeshua... Joshua. That name means “The Lord helps.” This child will save his people. But, he will need parents to care for him first. He will need Joseph, who will help him learn to love beyond what most people thing is either possible or appropriate.
Joseph, great-great-great-grandson of Bathsheba, Ruth, Rahab, and Tamar, with the help of an angel, realized that this family was still possible. Looking at Mary and her complex and scandalous story, remembering the scandalous women of his own family, he summons all of his bravery, and he marries her. Together, they create, with the Holy Spirit, a new and extraordinary family. The love that came to life in their son Jesus still lives on in us today.
Carolyn Brown, a religious educator who writes really wonderful Sunday school material for kids, pointed out something very important about this reading. Even with the help of the angels, Joseph and Mary must have trusted each other a lot to make this choice to build a family together, especially under such strange circumstances. How curious they must have been to meet the boy and help him grow into the mission of his adulthood. How much better this world is because they trusted God and each other enough to take this risk together.
Jan Richardson, in honor of her own beloved stepson and the family she and her husband chose to make, wrote this Advent Prayer. I want to share it with you today:
A Prayer for Choosing
What we choose
Who we love
How we create
Where we live
So in all our choosing,
O God, make us wise;
in all our loving,
O Christ, make us bold;
in all our creating,
O Spirit, give us courage;
in all our living
may we become whole.
We have been blessed by Joseph’s courageous love. May we offer the world our own courageous love when we have the opportunity.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and 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.
And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph,
Tasha and I have developed some family Advent and Christmas traditions in the 13 years that we have been together. We collect and display nativity scenes. The one on our altar today was the first one we bought here in Maine. Since I became the pastor of Winthrop Congregational Church UCC, we’ve developed a tradition around when and how we get our Christmas tree. It’s always from the Winthrop Rotary and it’s always after the church Christmas fair on the first Saturday in December. We also buy our Christmas wreath at the fair, handmade by some members from the church. These traditions have been part of every late November/ December for many years now. This year is different though.
For one thing, Tasha started listening to Christmas music in, like, October, because she wanted something a little cheerier in the midst of all the hard news in the world. Also, I noticed, that, independently of each other, both we and our neighbors decided to put Christmas lights up right after Halloween. We usually wait until Thanksgiving. Again, we felt like we need extra cheer this year. While we have all our little manger scenes, we won’t be buying our tree after the Christmas fair, because our church realized that we can’t safely have the fair. We will still buy a tree from the Rotary though. I just don’t know when. And, we did get our wreath from some church folks, though it wasn’t at the fair, but from a Scout fundraiser.
I imagine a lot of us have been reorienting our traditions this year. In this extraordinary year, we all are examining our traditions and discerning what is meaningful and necessary in this time and also what we need to put aside, at least for now. For example, our church, and I’m sure our neighbors at Old South in Hallowell, have been reconfiguring our plans for Advent. Both our churches have been making sure that folks can have Advent wreaths at home, because this feels like a tradition that is portable and necessary in this season. And, I don’t know how Old South is planning to have their Christmas or Christmas Eve service, but our deacons and musicians want us to work hard to sing and play music, even over zoom, because music helps us do both the waiting part of Advent and the celebrating part of Christmas more fully. Music and scripture are traditions that are vital and necessary for us. So, we’re going to figure out how to have them in whatever form we can manage.
There is grief in this planning, to be sure. Advent is meaningful, in part, because of the ways we gather in the same space to help spiritually prepare for the coming of Christ. At our church, over the course of Advent, our sanctuary changes so much. And, while we are praying and working to craft meaningful worship, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and in light of our current needs, a lot of how we are doing Advent this year is not the same.
But, I’ve realized something. I personally don’t need things to be the same. I don’t need things to be the same because the world isn’t the same. What I do need is for the things we do now to be rooted in our values and responsive to the present needs. What this means, I think, is that we need to reclaim our stake in the meaning of Advent as a time of hopeful waiting, expectation, and preparation. The Hope we are looking for is a resilient and active one, invested in the well-being of our neighbors and preparing for new life, even in the midst of death and devastation. And, I think we can find some models of that resilient, active hope in the stories of Jesus’ grandmothers.
I don’t know how often you read the first 17 verses of the first chapter of Matthew. Many folks skip over it to get to the Joseph part in verse 18. I used to, too. I don’t anymore. Because the names are here for a reason. They are telling us something about who Jesus will grow to be. They are telling us about his foundation. In a genealogy that is nearly all men, the inclusion of four women, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba, stands out. Why would these women in particular be included when so many other women weren’t? Unfortunately, the author of Matthew doesn’t spell out why exactly they get included. So, we need to work a bit to try to figure it out. That means we have to spend some time with Jesus’ grandmothers to sort out why it is vital that they are included here. As it turns out, all of these women have stories about surviving trauma and making courageous choices in terrible situations.
While there are a couple different Tamars in the Hebrew Bible, the one who is mentioned in this genealogy is Tamar from Genesis 38. Tamar was a widow reliant on her father-in-law Judah for care. As was their custom, when her husband died, she married his brother. She ended up having three husbands die, which is the first tragedy. Judah, upon losing three sons, refuses to allow his fourth son to marry Tamar. This is the second tragedy. Tamar would have been left with no financial or emotional support because Judah refused to live up to his familial responsibilities. Tamar devised a plan to save herself, a scandalous plan which implicated Judah in unrighteous behavior. It was a great risk to her and could have hurt her reputation, but, it worked. She survived and rebuilt her family, ending up in this list as an ancestor to David
The second woman listed is Rahab whose story is in Joshua 2. She ran her own business, in the world’s oldest profession, out of her home that was built along the city wall of Jericho. She hid some of the Hebrew leader Joshua’s soldiers when enemy soldiers came searching for them. She even helped them escape. Her actions helped Joshua to win the battle for the city and saved her own family from being destroyed in that same battle. She would go on to marry Joshua and convert to his faith. She is remembered as one with a deep faith in God and as a righteous hero to her people.
Ruth was a Moabite married to an Israelite man at a point when Israelite men weren’t supposed to be married to Moabites. Upon the deaths of her husband, father-in-law, and brother-in-law, rather than return to her father’s home, Ruth creates a new family with her Jewish mother-in-law Naomi and Naomi’s distant relative Boaz. Their atypical family helps the women survive in an era where widows had few social safety nets. Ruth, who once said that Naomi’s God had become her God, who risked traveling to a foreign city where the men weren’t even supposed to marry her, would eventually bear her little family a son, Obed. In this act of trust and faith, in building new relationships and bearing new life, she becomes known a renewer of her family’s hope.
And, Bathsheba? It is not clear when we first meet her in 2nd Samuel if she hoped to become the wife of King David. Kings were pretty free to do what they wanted with women in their vicinity, so her intent may not have mattered to him at all. David sent her husband away and took Bathsheba for his own wife. While it isn’t clear if she wanted to be in the relationship where she was, but, once she was there, she would take great care of her son, Solomon. In a story that is longer than I have time to tell today, Solomon would become king, one of the most famous and wise kings of his people, as a direct result of the intervention of his mother. Her strategic forethought, especially in the face of the nearly unchecked power of King David, would change her people’s history and the future of her own family.
Four names: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. Four complex and scandalous stories. Four women who became heroes of their faith, who survived dire and often unjust circumstances with keen intellect and astute strategy, thereby preserving and creating the very family which would birth the Messiah. It is fitting that we begin the book of Matthew by be reminded that it is possible to survive terrible things, but often that survival requires us to veer away from accepted tradition for our own safety and the survival of our people.
It is fitting, on the first Sunday of Advent, when we ask for God to show us hope, Scripture shows us these stories of resilience and creativity in the midst of grave danger. If we want to know how we might make it through the coming weeks, we can look to these grandmothers, as Jesus himself might have done, and remember that we can build the relationships that will save us; that we can protect those who are in danger, no matter what kind of work we do; that we have to hold the powerful accountable when they do wrong; and that the choices we make won’t just affect our families, but also our country, and, frankly, our world. The tradition that will be most important for us right now is their fierce and tenacious Hope. I pray that in the coming weeks, this hope will be born in all of us, once again.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.