Monday, December 6, 2010

December 5, 2010 - Sketchy Women

Sketchy Women
Matthew 1.1-17 - The Genealogy of Jesus

    In the early days of Jesus' ministry and later at the beginning of the church, there were people who wanted to discredit him. People heard the story about his miraculous birth. Those, who did not want to believe in him, seized on his birth as the way to undermine his message and his work. Even back in Biblical times, people knew where babies come from, and those who did not want to believe in his miraculous birth went looking for other explanations. In modern times, the supermarket tabloids are evidence that we enjoy a good sex scandal just as much as our ancestors did.
    Matthew knew about all this whispering. As he wrote his gospel for the Jewish people of Israel, he addressed the whispers about Mary head on. So, starting with chapter 1, verse 1, Matthew uses the genealogy of Jesus to defuse all this talk of a scandalous birth.

    Most family trees focus on the fathers; this one is no exception. But there are mothers included, too. I want you to notice the women who are sprinkled through this list of generations. Five women are included on this list including Mary.
    +Tamar;
    +Rahab;
    +Ruth;
    +Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah;
    +and Mary.
What is interesting about these women is that each one of them is clearly part of the family tree of the Davidic line and each has something questionable about her past. It is as if Matthew is challenging those who would criticize Mary as a mother by pointing to the genealogy of all Israel. “If you want to raise questions about the kind of person who gave birth to Jesus, then you’d better deal with the questions about the rest of your family tree.”

    1. Tamar was married to one of the sons of Judah. When that son died, the next son of Judah was supposed to take her home and give her children in the name of his brother. Thus, she would be provided for and that brother would have heirs. Well, the first brother wouldn’t do what he was supposed to do. Then, her father-in-law, Judah kept her away from his third son. Tamar was a good woman, a young widow, and she was about to become an outcast simply because her brothers-in-law wouldn’t do the right thing. So, taking matters into her own hands, she dressed as a prostitute and went to sit beside the road where her father-in-law, Judah, was sure to travel. When he came that way, he offered her money for sex. Basically, he was willing to have sex with a prostitute but not willing for his sons to do the right thing for his daughter-in-law. Well, when word got around that Tamar was pregnant, they hauled her into court on the way to a stoning. But, she brought the cord, the staff and the ring that Judah had left behind the night he was with her. Everyone expected to see her condemned. But, when she arrived she said, “The father of my child is the owner of this ring, this staff, and this cord.” And as soon as he saw them, Judah recognized them as his. He had to admit that he had done her wrong, so then he took her home to give her children in the name of his son. Tamar is one of the heroes of Israel because she took a risk to honor her husband with children, and one of her children became an ancestor of King David and thus an ancestor of Jesus.

    2. Rahab began as a prostitute. When Israel came into conquer the Promised Land, it was Rahab the prostitute who welcomed the scouting party that went to figure out how to invade the land. Now, ordinarily “good, upstanding, church people” aren’t supposed to celebrate prostitutes. The Bible is very direct about this. But, Rahab the Prostitute helped Israel do what God had sent them to do – to take the Land of Promise for their very own. Thus, Rahab is one of the heroes of Israel because she believed and risked her life for God’s purposes and God’s people. Later, one of her children became an ancestor of King David and thus an ancestor of Jesus.

    3. Ruth was a foreigner in Israel, a nation that was very suspicious of foreigners. She first married a young man from Israel. When he died, she went back to Israel to seek the same tradition that Tamar counted on – that one of her husband’s relatives would give her children so that her deceased husband could have heirs. Sadly, everyone knew the tradition about taking care of the widows who have no children, but it was widely ignored. In Ruth’s case, the connection between her deceased husband and any man she met in Israel was going to be very weak.
    Ruth is honored because this foreign widow, with little claim on Israel, held onto Israel’s tradition. She acted honorably and decisively to keep Israel’s tradition and to honor her husband. Thus, Ruth is one of the heroes of Israel because she took a risk in trusting God’s purposes and God’s people, and one of her children became an ancestor of King David and thus an ancestor of Jesus.

    4. The fourth woman in the genealogy is Bathsheba. When Israel was at war, David was at home in the palace. One day, he went up on the roof of the palace. While he was there, he looked out and saw a woman doing the ritual bath of women. He sent for her (he was the king, after all), knowing that she was married to one of his own soldiers, one who was fighting for him and for Israel at that very moment. When Bathsheba became pregnant, David tried to cover it up. He brought Uriah home from the front, hoping he would go home to stay with his wife, but Uriah was too honorable to rest while his comrades were in the heat of battle. So, David sent him back to the battle carrying the message to put Uriah at the front of the battle where he would be killed. Uriah’s death happened as David asked, and he took Bathsheba into the palace as his wife. It was a great cover up until Nathan the Prophet confronted him one day. Today, we would call David’s actions “sexual abuse by a person of greater power and authority.” Bathsheba was powerless to refuse the king, but she was faithful in doing what was required of her and in raising her child. Thus, Bathsheba is one of the heroes of Israel because she took a risk to work for God’s purposes and God’s people. One of her children was the son of King David and thus an ancestor of Jesus.

    Now, let’s look back over this list of women before we move onto Mary. According to tradition, Matthew’s audience would have seen these four as women of *doubtful character*. We have been taught to expect the same. But, as we have looked closer today, each of these women showed herself to be the hero and the person of greater character than the man or the society of men who finally fathered their children.

    5. Now, Matthew watches as we run our fingers down the list of names in the genealogy. He looks at us closely as we pause at the name “Mary.” He knows that we are expected to find fault with her, to whisper about her doubtful character. We are expected to search for something in her that would diminish the character of her son, Jesus.
    By outlining these four women before her, Matthew has prepared us for Mary. The world whispered to us as we took up the story that she, like so many others, is of doubtful character. But, Matthew puts the list in front of us and calls us closer to examine their stories and their character. What we find is that on closer examination each of these doubtful women has proven to be *heroic* in character, risking their honor and dignity to do what was right, risking their honor on the distant promises of God, and, without ever seeing it themselves, trusting God to bring a Messiah to the hurting world.

II. So, what do we learn from the Genealogy?
    A. We learn that God has purposely woven men and women into His purposes. Imagine! God could have cast a miracle: Stop all wars! Clear up all disasters! Show the nations how to live in peace! With a little flash and a lot of thunder, God could have settled the whole problem in a matter of minutes. But God has chosen a different way. God has chosen to write the work of healing through the lives of faithful people. By God’s grace, humanity is chosen as necessary to every aspect of the work of God.

    B. Further, we have learned that God made a *necessary place* in the work of divine grace for these women of doubtful character. They are not just *allowed* or *tacked-on*. The prostitute and the sassy, back-talking daughter-in-law were made *necessary*. The young wife who was claimed as the King’s plaything and watched her husband be killed to cover up the crime was made *necessary*. And Mary, who knew that no one would understand, took the risk that God meant her good when he asked her to bear the Christ Child. All of these are, by God grace, made necessary to God’s act of grace. If they had not taken the risks that put their own reputations on the line, the next generation would not have been born, the Promised Land would not have been settled, and the Savior would not have found a home.

So, hear the Good News.
    A. The grace of God is not reserved for the righteous, the washed, and those who got it right the first time. Let every woman, every man, with a past that you want to keep out of sight hear the news that you, too, may become *necessary* to the healing work of God’s grace. Despite your past (or perhaps because of it), God may use your story as a step along the way to the healing of the nations.

    B. The grace of God is not reserved only for those who have stayed out of the clutches of abusers. People who have been damaged and abused, like some of these women, can find themselves not only healed, but standing at the center of God’s grace.

    C. God is not afraid of our pasts nor our doubtful reputations. In God’s hands, our futures are open and brimming with possibility. [CONCL] On Christmas, God gathers up our broken, damaged lives to weave them into God’s gift of hope. The birth of Christ Child is not just a random act of kindness on the part of *God the Divine Stranger*. The first Christmas was not prepared on some distant planet and only then delivered fully formed to the manger in Bethlehem. In the birth of the Christ Child, God has taken the broken pieces of many lives and placed them one by one until they make the most beautiful work of art. What our ancestors did in desperation, God turned into courage and hope. What our ancestors did in blind trust, God turned into joyous faith. Christmas is all about faith that one day greets God now among us in the birth of Mary’s baby.
    This is the courage and the loving risk-taking that we celebrate at Christmas. God was moving during that time. Christmas is our reminder that God is still moving to heal the earth, the bind up the broken, to bring peace to the people and families and nations.

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