Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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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, I talked about a network of foremothers, women with miraculous pregnancies who came before Mary and her miraculous pregnancy. Today, I’d like to talk about the foremothers of Joseph’s line, the ones who may have taught him something about being compassionate through a scandal. Joseph was a good man, just as scripture tells us. He was from a family that traced its history through a set of well-known fathers, particularly King David and Abraham, father of their whole people. But, within the traditional translation of Joseph’s family tree, with most of the ancestors named being men, there are a handful of women named. And, they are extraordinary.
The very beginning of Matthew, the 17 verses before today’s reading, has this series of begats: “The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas and his brethren; And Judas begat Phares and Zara of Thamar; and Phares begat Esrom; and Esrom begat Aram; And Aram begat Aminadab,” and so on and so forth. The reason there is such an extensive family tree is because the author of Matthew was trying to make the case that Jesus was the Messiah. By demonstrating that he was part of the line of David and Abraham, which was part of some of the prophecies about the coming messiah.
As I said, for much of the Bible, the stories are about the fathers, sons, and brothers. Not all of the stories, that is to be sure. But, many. And, when you look at this genealogy, it follows the pattern of the earlier stories. It is mostly a list of fathers and sons. Abraham and his son Isaac... Jehoshaphat and his son Joram... all the way to this Joseph, son of Jacob, the carpenter who is engaged to Mary. However, in the midst of this lists of fathers and sons, you will find the name of four mothers: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and “the wife of Uriah. That’s Bathseba. This style of genealogy is mostly concerned with fathers and sons. So, why did these four women get included?
If I wanted to do them justice, I’d probably have to preach a sermon on each of them. But, I will not preach four sermons to you today. You’re welcome for the early Christmas present. Instead, I’ll offer this short reminder of their stories, several of which involve traumatic deaths and scandalous professions. I will not go into great detail about their stories, but will say enough to be clear. For example, there’s 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 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 ended up in this list.
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. The Hebrew leader Joshua had sent his soldiers to scout out the city before a battle. They had chosen, as soldiers sometimes do, to visit Rahab’s establishment while on their mission. The opposing king’s men came to Rahab looking for Joshua’s scouts. She hid the scouts and helped them escape. The book of Joshua remembers her as a woman whose deep faith helped her be confident that God wanted her to save the scouts. She then asked the scouts to spare her and her family when they returned to fight for the city. When the city fell, only Rahab’s family was spared. She would go on to marry Joshua and convert to his faith. Her name lives on as a brave and righteous hero to the people.
And, what of the last two women, Ruth and Bathsheba? 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 death of her husband, rather than return to her father’s home, she creates a new and unusual family with her mother-in-law Naomi and, eventually, Naomi’s distant relative Boaz. Their unusual and caring family helps Ruth and Naomi survive in an era where widows had little support outside of their families. Ruth eventually bears her little family a child, Obed. She becomes known as a renewer of her family’s hope.
As for Bathsheba, she found herself the object of King David’s interest. It is never clear in the original story in 2nd Samuel if she wants this attention. Kings were pretty free to do what they wanted with women in their vicinity. David sent her husband away, placing him in lethal danger, and taking Bathsheba for his own. As I said, it has never been clear to me if Bathsheba wanted to be where she found herself in this story. But, once she was there, she took care of the son she had with David, Solomon. Solomon would become king, one of the most famous kings of his people. That would not have happened without the intervention of his mother, Bathsheba.
Four women. 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. The Gospel of Matthew, tells us that Joseph, engaged to Mary, was their descendant. Their family was his family. Their blood was his blood. And, it looks like he would need every bit of their bravery and intellect to care for his family. Because his betrothed, Mary, had told him a story befitting the complex and scandalous lives of his foremothers. Mary’s story would change the course of their whole lives. And, Joseph had to figure out what he was going to do about it.
Matthew tells us that Joseph was a just man who did not want to humiliate Mary. He was well within his right to choose not to marry her. The story tells that he had just settled on a course of action that would afford Mary as much dignity as possible and still allow him not to marry her, when an angel intervenes. The angel says, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid.” Who here has heard an angel say that before? The angel tells Joseph to marry his fiancée and that this child is a gift of God. Joseph is commanded to give the boy that she will have a name that will tell people something about who he is. In Greek, that name is Jesus. In Hebrew, it’s Yeshua... Joshua. It means “The Lord helps.” This child will save his people. But, he will need parents to care for him first. He will need Joseph.
Joseph, son of Jacob, great-great-great-grandson of Bathsheba, Ruth, Rahab, and Tamar, knew what he had to do. With the angel’s words still ringing in his ears, he summoned all of his foremother’s bravery, and he married Mary. Together, Joseph and Mary created, with the Holy Spirit, a new and unusual family. The love that came to life in their son Jesus still lives on in us today. I pray that, while we seek to be just, as Joseph did, we will remember the angel’s call to not be afraid. God’s kindom will come through both justice and love. Jesus’ own family helps us catch a glimpse of it.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
John M. Buchanan, "Fourth Sunday of Advent," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year A Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013)
Tikva S. Frymer-Kensky, "Rahab,"The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, primary ed. Paul J. Achtemeier (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996)
Phyllis A. Bird, "Tamar" The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, primary ed. Paul J. Achtemeier (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996)
Phyllis Trible, "Ruth" The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, primary ed. Paul J. Achtemeier (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996)
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.
Sometimes, a genealogy is family... the blood relations kind, not the chosen kind. That list of begats at the beginning of Matthew... that’s a genealogy. We’ll talk more about that one next week. Other times, we might think of genealogy a metaphor for connecting people with similar experiences in different generations across a span of history, regardless of their biological connections. Once Mary accepted that the good news of the angel was true, that she would become pregnant and that, despite all the ways that her community could judge her for this unconventional pregnancy and despite all the risks inherent in pregnancy, particularly for teenagers, that this child would be a source of justice and love, Mary found herself within this genealogy of women with unconventional, impossible, and maybe even scandalous pregnancies.
I am grateful for the work of Dr. Wil Gafney who has outlined this genealogy of women that Mary became a part of. In other parts of scripture, we are encouraged to imagine a great cloud of witnesses, generations of Christians who have gone before us and who exist now and we don’t know, all part of the Body of Christ, connected through the Holy Spirit, at work for the coming kindom. Mary, with her belief in the Wellspring of Life and the Ground of Love, became a part of a network of foremothers, ones who show us the power of faith in that which seems impossible and God’s deep love for those who have been cast aside. As we remember Mary, we may also lift up the other women whose stories might have helped her on those days when the morning sickness was too much or her feet were too swollen or she had to travel by order of the Empire, so very pregnant, with Joseph to another town. Whose words might have bolstered her when she felt most lowly?
Elizabeth first probably. She stayed with her for the first trimester of her pregnancy. Elizabeth had called her blessed. When Mary felt terrible, would Elizabeth’s words ring through her memory: “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of those things spoken to her by the Holy One.” When they would sit together, spinning and weaving, preparing for their children’s arrival, would Elizabeth share her own thanksgiving to God for her miraculous pregnancy: “This is what the Lord as done for me when God looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people. Remind me that when I can’t see my feet anymore.” Would they laugh and joke and delight in what God was doing for both of them?
When Mary laughed, would she remember Sarah’s laugh and the boy, Isaac, who was named for it? Sarah sang no song about her pregnancy. In fact, she was reasonably incredulous about its likelihood. But, she gave thanks when she saw God had kept God’s promise. She even named her son after that first snort of skepticism. Maybe Sarah needed to remember the time she wasn’t sure her dearest wish could come true so she could appreciate when it finally did? Maybe Mary gleaned some wisdom from the wit of Sarah?
I wonder if Mary thought of Hagar, the woman Sarah enslaved, who would become a rival once Hagar became pregnant. Mary understood deeply that God cares for those who were cast out and looked down upon. Hagar was treated so poorly by Sarah that she ran away. As she hid in the wilderness a messenger from God appears, offering a different annunciation: “Greatly will I multiply your seed, so they cannot be counted for multitude.” The messenger tells Hagar, “you are pregnant and shall give birth to a son.” Hagar names the child Ishmael, as God commanded and named God “El-ro’i,” the God who sees. Mary understood God to see her and look upon her with favor. Out of jealousy, Sarah cast Hagar and Ishmael back out into the wilderness, when Hagar did not think they would survive. God saved them and gave them a home away from the abuse. I wonder if Mary remembered this when her own son, later in his life, would be in mortal peril. Did the God who sees see them, too?
There is this woman in Judges 13 that I didn’t know about but whom Dr. Gafney draws into this network of foremothers for Mary. We don’t know her name. Dr. Gafney tells us that historic rabbis have called Zlelponi and Hazlel and Hazlelponi bat Yehudah, but those are names of tradition, not ones given her in Judges 13. We are simply told she is unable to become or stay pregnant. And, one day a messenger of God appears to her and says, you guessed it: “You shall conceive and give birth to a son.” In this story, the woman is asked to set herself aside as a nazirite, a person who takes a vow to be of service to God. Her son, when he is born, will be consecrated as a nazirite as well, set apart to serve God. You might know his name: Sampson. Mary was never a nazirite, as far as we know. But, she certainly saw herself as set apart to serve God. Her son, Jesus, would have his own special mission from God. Could she have remembered this story of an unnamed woman who gave birth to a man of great strength?
Hannah is the foremother, other than Elizabeth, whom we might most closely relate to Mary. We spoke of her a few weeks ago, before Advent. She had deeply wanted to be pregnant and had been unable to carry to term. But, she asked God to grant her prayers and spoke to the priest Eli about them. It was Eli who functioned as God’s messenger in that story, telling Hannah that God would grant her prayer. When her son is born, like Sarah, she names her son in honor of the story of her prayers be answered. He is called Samuel, which means “God hears,” because she said “From the God who hears I have asked him.” And, then she sang a song of thanksgiving. Mary’s song, our scripture for the day, sounds very much like Hannah’s song. Maybe Hannah’s song held the melody that Mary later intensified and magnified in order to capture the scope of her hope for her child’s, and her people’s future. Maybe Mary had heard what God had done for Hannah and knew that a song was the way she, too, must greet her own miracle.
Dr. Gafney notes that, unlike most of the women I have listed, save for Hagar, Mary had not been trying to conceive for many years. So, while her story is connected to their stories, it is also different, like a riff inspired by one song that becomes a whole new sound. Within this riff, though, is our first view of Jesus’ mission. Because this song, while also about what God has done in Mary’s life, is very much about how God with move through Jesus’ life. God has looked at Mary with favor, but God will continue to work, through Jesus, to change this world. In the coming months, as we turn our attention to Jesus’ own mission, it will sound like the work of God in this song: offering loving-kindness, scattering the arrogant, bringing down the powerful and lifting up the lowly, filling the bellies of the hungry and sending the rich away. God’s help will come through him. And, Mary seems to already know that, mere days into her pregnancy.
Rather than hear me talk more about music, why don’t we actually listen to this song set to music. Unfortunately, we don’t have the exact notes or melody that Mary sang. But, over the years, composers have been inspired to set it to music. Connie and Kristin have shared this recording of one version today. May we hear it and may we magnify God in our hearts.
(click the orange arrow below to listen)
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Wilda C. Gafney’s entries on Advent I, II, and III from A Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2021)
Attribution for the Art at the beginning of the post (left to right, top to bottom:
1. Pittman, Lauren Wright. Mary and Elizabeth, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57086 [retrieved December 14, 2021]. Original source: http://www.lewpstudio.com - copyright by Lauren Wright Pittman.
2. Koenig, Peter. Mary and Elizabeth, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=58512 [retrieved December 14, 2021]. Original source: https://www.pwkoenig.co.uk/.3. JESUS MAFA. The Visitation - Mary and Elizabeth meet, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48279 [retrieved December 14, 2021]. Original source: http://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr (contact page: https://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr/contact).
4. Pittman, Lauren Wright. Marys Song, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57074 [retrieved December 14, 2021]. Original source: http://www.lewpstudio.com - copyright by Lauren Wright Pittman
5. JESUS MAFA. Virgin and Child, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48380 [retrieved December 14, 2021]. Original source: http://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr (contact page: https://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr/contact).
6. Saget, Father George. Visitation, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=58351 [retrieved December 14, 2021]. Original source: www.robertharding.com.
7. Visitation, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56718 [retrieved December 14, 2021]. Original source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/johndonaghy/22885862/ - John Donaghy.8. Visitation, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=58366 [retrieved December 14, 2021]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Visitation_Pelendri.jpg.
9. Pittman, Lauren Wright. Marys Song, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57074 [retrieved December 14, 2021]. Original source: http://www.lewpstudio.com - copyright by Lauren Wright PittmanVisitation, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56718 [retrieved December 14, 2021]. Original source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/johndonaghy/22885862/ - John Donaghy.
Luke 1:39-45 (Translation from Wil Gafney's new book, A Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church) Mary Visits Elizabeth
Mary set out in those days and went to the hill country with haste, to a Judean town. There she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. Now when Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. Elizabeth exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. From where does this visit come to me? That the mother of my sovereign comes to me? Look! As soon as I heard the sound of your greeting in my ear, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Now blessed is the one who believed that there would be a fulfillment of those things spoken to her by the Holy One."
When you lost your first tooth, who was the first person you told? Who did you tell about your first kiss? When you realized you might be in love, who was the first person, maybe other than the object of your affection, that you shared that joyous news with? Name changes, transitions, new schools, new jobs, big moves, crushing loses... who do you just have to tell when something momentous and life-changing happens to you? How did you decide that this person was the person you needed to tell? Is it someone you’ve known a long time or, maybe your whole life? A relative? A newer friend who has already proven themselves deeply trustworthy? Is it your spouse, if you have one? A sibling? A trusted older mentor? What does it take for you to entrust the biggest news in your life to someone?
When I consider why Mary chose Elizabeth as what seems like the first person to tell about her miraculous and scandalous pregnancy, I wonder if Elizabeth’s own miraculous and scandalous pregnancy made Mary feel safe in confiding in her. Last week, Sarah invited us to remember Mary’s incredible encounter with the angel Gabriel. It was an encounter that started with fear and confusion and ended in great hopefulness. Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, had had a similar encounter with Gabriel. He was informed that God would grant them a child, and Zechariah, an older man and a priest, mostly had questions about how this could happen given his and his wife’s ages. He seemed less hopeful than suspicious or, at least, doubtful. He wound up unable to speak though Elizabeth’s entire pregnancy, ostensibly to be given to really consider why he didn’t believe the angel in the first place.
But, Elizabeth... she could speak, and when she realized she as pregnant, as Hannah had once done and Mary will soon do, she gave thanks and glory to God. Because she had wanted to be pregnant, and her community had judged her harshly for her inability to carry a pregnancy to term. She had known what it was to be looked down on by her neighbors because she was not living up to community standards around creating families. And, Mary, though much younger, only a young teenager, really, would have heard what people said about Elizabeth. Kids hear everything adults say. It is unsurprising that when Mary found herself in a different kind of scandal around reproduction and divine visitations, she might go to Elizabeth.
Elizabeth has lived with years of communal scorn. Elizabeth was carrying, at the same time, an unexpected child who would have a divine mission. And, while pregnancy is always a great physical risk, it is a particular risk for people on both the young and older ends of the age spectrum. Of everyone Mary knew, Elizabeth was probably the one who best understood just exactly how dangerous and also wonderful this pregnancy could be. So, of course, it is to Elizabeth’s home that Mary travels. This is the biggest news of her life and she will entrust Elizabeth with it.
In her commentary on this text, Judith Jones notes that, while the angel foretold that Elizabeth’s child would be a prophet, it is Elizabeth who offers up prophetic blessings to Mary. Upon feeling her own baby leap inside of her, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit. Mary doesn’t even have the chance to tell her what has happened yet but Elizabeth already knows. Mary is blessed and her child will be blessed. She calls Mary the “mother of my sovereign.” Mary isn’t even showing yet. But, Elizabeth knows because the Holy Spirit had made it plain to her. As soon as Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, she knew. And, with her silenced husband in mind, Elizabeth said, “Now blessed is the one who believed that there would be a fulfillment of those things spoken to her by the Holy One.” How relieved Mary must have been to be received with such hopeful welcome.
Today is typically known as the Sunday of Peace during the Advent season. We must consider what kind of peace Mary and Elizabeth might have been hoping for. In her commentary on this text, Wil Gafney reminds us that Jesus is promised to bring reconciliation to a world full of what she called “fractured and unreconciled people.” The world, I’m afraid, has not grown less fractured and unreconciled in these last 2,000 years. Jesus would become the child of parents who could have been split apart by the nature of his conception, but weren’t. He will be born into a family marked by miraculous and weird births that are greeted with joy. He will live in a series of communities... Bethlehem, Nazareth, Capernaum... among his own Jewish people and alongside Gentiles, all oppressed by the imperial power of Rome.
In her commentary on this text, Niveen Sarras notes that there was a significant and disastrous Israelite revolt the year that Jesus was born. Jesus and his family lived a scant four miles from a city completely destroyed and enslaved by Rome because they revolted. The peace that Mary and Elizabeth knew Jesus could bring wasn’t just a warm and fuzzy feeling in people’s hearts. The Messiah was coming to rearrange the world, lifting up the lowly and tending to the forgotten, building a Kindom rooting in God not an empire rooted in greed and brutality.
As Jones says in her commentary, Elizabeth lives into this hope for the messiah by overturning the social conventions that would have demand she shame Mary. Mary is at peace with this wholy and holy unexpected turn in her life because she knows that God can do impossible things like bring pregnancies to surprised women and break apart the most powerful empire. At this point in the story, pregnant and tending to each other, neither Elizabeth nor Mary fully knows what to expect in their sons’ divinely-shaped futures. I mean, how could they? And yet, they still rejoice because in that moment, they were blessed with the confidence to believe that God can work through them and their families, lowly and scorned as they were. May the stories of their hopeful confidence in God’s work for peace in this world bless us with the same kind of confidence.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Wilda C. Gafney, "Advent II," A Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2021)
Niveen Sarras: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-advent-3/commentary-on-luke-139-45-46-55-4
Judith Jones: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-advent-3/commentary-on-luke-139-45-46-55-3
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.