Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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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.