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)
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.