Christmas Eve: God Showed Up

On the door of the Gold’s Gym where I go not as often as I would like, there’s a sign that says “Know that showing up is half that battle.”  I know it’s a sign that’s mostly supposed to make me feel good about frequenting their establishment, which it does, but I also take it as a good reminder that even when I’m tired, I’m busy, I don’t have a lot to give on that particular day, there is some power in the simple fact that I am there, and I didn’t have to be.

I started thinking about other times in life when there is power in simply showing up: in showing up, for example, to the hospital, when someone has had an operation.  Showing up with food when someone is sick at home or has just given birth – an example I particularly appreciate.  Showing up to the birthday party, or the funeral, or the recital.  Showing up to the protest or the ballot box, one body and one voice determined to make a difference.

Even when there’s nothing to give beyond that, when someone shows up for us, we know that we are cared about, and that we’re not alone.

Tonight, as we celebrate the coming of Jesus into the world, we are celebrating the fact that God showed up.

At the church I went to when I was in seminary, we said a creed every week that began, “We are not alone.  We live in God’s world.”  And then it ended, “In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us.  We are not alone.  Thanks be to God.”  It’s funny how saying something over and over again can begin to make it central to your faith and who you are.  If someone had asked to write a creed, to summarize the basics of what I believe, I’m not sure I would have thought to start it that way.  But this made me think of that assertion in terms of the fundamentals of my own faith.  We begin and end by proclaiming that God is with us and we are not alone.

We call this the mystery of the incarnation: the belief that God took on flesh and bone and skin and was born into our world to walk among us, to be one of us.

It was not the first time that God entered into our story, because of course God had been there from the beginning: in creation.  In the fall.  In the Exodus, and the wandering in the desert.  In the words of the prophets, and in exile and return from exile.  Yet somehow these things had failed to make us the people God created us to be—people who, in God’s image, loved our neighbors.  Took care of the poor.  Stood up for the vulnerable.  Welcomed the stranger.  Gave generously.  Prayed for our enemies.  Forgave those who wronged us.  For all God entered our story to invite us to be different, or to demand it, we remained broken people who failed to find our salvation in those things.

So God did the simplest and most powerful thing of all: God showed up.

One night in Bethlehem, when a poor couple from a politically marginalized people came to be registered, on a night when the inns and guest houses and extra rooms were so full a woman in labor got turned away, God said, “If I have nothing else to give, nothing else that works, then here I am.  I stake my claim among you.  As a baby born in unsanitary conditions, laid in a trough where animals had drooled, a baby who with his parents would become a refugee to escape a genocide set in motion by a threatened king, a baby who would grow up to be rejected and feared and finally killed by the world he tried to love – Here I am.  I stake my claim with you.

And since I can’t tell you, I will show you – what it means to love, give, welcome, forgive, to extend grace to each other.

And when the world says no I will show them that my yes is stronger than their no, and even when you kill me, I will rise again and I will be with you.

It’s been a year, like most years, but maybe even more so, when we could stand be reminded that we are not alone.  That God cares about the brokenness and evil we see in this world around us, from the suffering of hurricane victims in Haiti to the suffering of refugees streaming out of Syria to the fear of minorities and vulnerable people here in the US to our own suffering, in our own lives.  We want to hear that those things aren’t the end of the story.

And they’re not, because this is the beginning to a different end to that story.  One where love and hope and faith and life win, because when all else failed, God showed up.  And we are not alone.  And that makes all the difference.

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Jesus’ Family Tree: Bathsheba’s Story

 

Scripture: 2 Samuel 11

If you think back a few years, you may remember the name Mark Sanford.  He was the governor (now a representative) of South Carolina who disappeared for six days after telling his family and staff he was hiking the Appalachian Trail.  It turned out he was actually in South America visiting his Argentine mistress, thus giving new meaning to the words “hiking the Appalachian Trail” for a long time to come.

We have been talking this Advent about family trees, and some of the more interesting people in Jesus’, and some of us might have a story or two like this in our family histories and family trees as well, a branch added where it wasn’t supposed to have been – though to my knowledge there were not actually any “added branches” in Governor Sanford’s case.  I won’t ask, this time, if that applies to any of you.

What made this story different from just your average married politician having an affair with an intern, though, is that Sanford was in love.  He called his girlfriend, Maria, his “soul mate.”  He sent her love letters.  He wrote things like “Do you really comprehend how beautiful your smile is?  Have you been told lately how warm your eyes are and how they softly glow with the special nature of your soul?”  As one article put it, “It’s a love story worthy of a treacly Nicholas Sparks novel.”[1]

Well, the story of David and Bathsheba is not that kind of story.

We sometimes hear it like it is, though.  We imagine, maybe, that there David was, getting some fresh air up on the palace roof, when all of a sudden this beautiful woman on a neighboring rooftop catches his eye.  She looks over and their eyes meet, and right or wrong, it’s love at first sight.  The music swells.  “Do you really comprehend how beautiful your smile is?” David asks her.  Theirs might be a star-crossed love, but they both know in that instant that nothing is ever going to be the same again.  And it never is.

Sometimes, though, the story is told differently.  Bathsheba, you see, wants nothing more than to be queen, and she has a plan.  She sets everything up just right and looks coyly over at David as he paces on the roof.  Later, when she sends word to David that she is pregnant, he is trapped—at least, if he wants to keep his reputation as benevolent dictator.  Sure, David does a bad thing, but if you really think about it, it’s all Bathsheba’s fault.

But this is not that kind of story either.

Instead, this is a story about a king who stayed home while all the other kings, and his own army, were out at war.  And one day that king went up on the roof for some fresh air and he saw a woman bathing nearby.  This was not surprising or scandalous in itself, because there was no indoor plumbing in 1000 BCE Jerusalem, and it’s a city, so it’s not like anyone has a nice shady backyard.  This woman was innocently taking a bath, maybe ritually purifying herself at the end of her cycle, and she was beautiful, and David wanted to have her.

And because he’s the king, he can.  Doesn’t think twice about it.

He asks someone who works for him who she is and he says she is Bathsheba, daughter of Eliam, wife of Uriah, one of David’s most prominent military men.  And David says, that’s nice, and he has her brought to the palace—you can imagine he’s not going to take no for an answer—and he does what he wants to do, and then he sends her home.  He probably doesn’t plan to call.

This is not a love story, and this is not a story of Bathsheba the wily temptress.

In fact, even though I’ve titled this sermon “Bathsheba’s Story,” it is hardly Bathsheba’s story at all.  She is only named once, and that also holds when we take Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus into account.  She is simply “the wife of Uriah.”  The only action she takes in the story is to send word to David that she’s pregnant.  Otherwise, she is simply on the passive end of David’s actions.  She is sent for, she is taken, she is lain with, she is sent home.  Of course, it makes sense from the author’s perspective that this is a story about the King of Israel and not some woman down the block, but in it, she is nothing more than a victim of greed and lust and absolute power.

This is a turning point in David’s story.  Up till now, he has been the good king, who united the nation of Israel and oversaw a time of relative peace and prosperity.  From here on out, David is caught in a downward spiral.

It starts with a cover-up.  David figures he can avoid the paternity suit if he can get Uriah home from the front lines for a little R&R.  So Uriah comes home, but either he is suspicious or heartbreakingly faithful, because he refuses to go to his house and reunite with his wife while his comrades are risking it all in the field.  David starts to panic a little at this point and practically begs Uriah to go home, but Uriah doesn’t go home, at which point David completely freaks out and devises a plan to kill Uriah and make it look like an accident.  He sends the orders to have Uriah killed in battle by Uriah’s own hand—and again, you can read Uriah as blissfully naïve or convictingly dutiful.  You read this story and every step of the way you just want to scream, “Don’t do it, David!  Just cut your losses!”

So Uriah dies in battle, as David planned.  And after a socially acceptable period of mourning, David once again sends for Bathsheba, and he marries her, or better put, he makes her his wife.  But there are divine consequences to David’s actions, so the child Bathsheba is carrying dies.  From here on out in David’s story, another of his children will rise up against him and try to usurp power, and then that son will also die, this time at the hands of David’s own soldiers. The son who does become king after him will not be as wise as we remember him being, and after him the monarchy will split in two. The story is a tragedy, and David is the tragic hero with his tragic flaw, and his actions with Bathsheba are where his downfall begins.

But what about Bathsheba?  It must have been a turning point for her too.  She is, for all we know, happily married to a prominent man, probably living a reasonably well-off life, and all of a sudden that life is shattered, all because one powerful man saw her and thought he should have her.  Bathsheba doesn’t get much of her own story, and so I want to give her one.  But the truth is I don’t know – we don’t know – whether she was happy with Uriah, or whether she wanted something more out of life.  Whether she was complicit in King David’s actions, or whether she was terrified.  The story as I’d write it, though, is the story of bad things that keep happening to someone who is powerless to stop them: first, the perceived loss of her own humanity and dignity, then the loss of her husband, then the loss of her child.

You might also say this is not a Christmas story.

But Bathsheba, after her first child dies, gives birth to Solomon, and Solomon becomes king.  And Solomon is the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam is the father of Abijah…all the way down the line to Joseph, the (adoptive) father of Jesus.

It is one of the stories that makes Christmas possible.

It is also, for David, a story of grace and redemption.  He goes, in this precipitous series of events, from  being the good king to the thoroughly, utterly fallen one.  But he remains the chosen king, through whose family line God will fulfill God’s promises.  Throughout the ages, the people of Israel hold fast to the hope that someone from the line of David will sit on the throne again and that they would once again know that time of peace and prosperity.  David does repent of his actions, once the prophet Nathan shows them how wrong they were, and he does face the consequences of them, as I mentioned before.  But God does not reject or give up on David.

And if it is a story of grace and redemption, then I think it is not a bad Christmas story, because those things are the whole point of Christmas—that in all the mess of our world and our lives, God says that we are still God’s children, still God’s chosen, and God acts to redeem us by becoming one of us.

Christmas happens because God does not reject or give up on us.

Again, what about Bathsheba?  Did she find grace and redemption too?  Again, there is no way to know.  But we do know that it is her son Solomon who becomes king after his father, even though he is not the oldest—in fact, Bathsheba herself has a hand in that, which is the most assertive she has been in her whole story.  And it is her son who continues that family line all the way down to to Jesus, the Messiah who will save Israel and all of us.  So I would say there is grace and redemption in there too, whether or not she could see it at the time.

That’s not to say that God needed Bathsheba to be the victim of a wayward king in order for God’s purposes to be fulfilled on earth.  Personally, I don’t like what that says about God and God’s justice, especially as a woman.  It is to say that David’s sin and Bathsheba’s misfortune don’t ultimately derail God’s plan for humanity.  When David messes everything up, taking others down with him, God can still ultimately make it good again.  If it was God’s plan all along, there is nothing to redeem.

But the Christmas story, like this story, is the story of a God who cares enough to take the broken pieces of our lives and world and put them back together again in a way that is different but beautiful.  God shows up in the manger to get that work started, and it is completed on the cross – the ultimate example of God taking something bad that humans did and using it for God’s purposes.

Even if we say it is not God’s will, or not necessarily God’s will, for bad things to happen to people like they happened to Bathsheba, I think we still need to be careful about not blithely writing off tragedy and evil simply as something God will redeem, as if it’s as easy as that.  We’ve been hearing news from Aleppo for a long time now, but it reached a climax this point as the city fell to Assad and his forces, who apparently went around massacring people.  Maybe you heard reports of bodies littering the streets.  Maybe you saw tweets from people like one who identified himself as 7-year-old Bana, who wrote, “This is my last moment to either live or die.”  Maybe you heard it called a massacre along the lines of Rwanda, 1994.

At one point as people celebrated that civilians were beginning to be evacuated, a friend of mine cautioned, “There is no happy ending.  There is a tendency to look for some neat, optimistic ending to a tragedy….The bloodshed is far from over.”

I thought about that and wondered if that’s what my sermon was, an attempt to find a neat, optimistic ending to a tragic story.

So I honestly don’t know what I would say to the people of Aleppo this Christmas, if for whatever reason I had the chance.  And still I do believe that sometimes despite all appearances, God is working in this world to redeem the mess we make, even if like Bathsheba we can’t for the life us see how, until a thousand years in the future or more.  And that doesn’t justify the bad happening in the first place, but it does mean that God’s purposes of love and life can’t ultimately be stopped, even by us.

And God begins that work not from a distance, but by becoming part of this beautiful, terrible world that is ours, this world that will eventually victimize Jesus too, as it victimized so many people before and so many people since.

But from the manger to the empty tomb, God is with us, taking the broken pieces we hand him and rearranging, reshaping, recasting them for good.  And God invites us into that work too.

Your job this week is to look with fresh eyes to see God at work redeeming where something is broken.  And if you can, to get your hands dirty and join God in that work too.

 

 

 

 

 

[1]     http://www.politico.com/story/2009/06/inside-sanfords-love-letters-024269

Jesus’ Family Tree: Ruth’s Story

This Advent season we’re talking about Jesus’ family tree and some of the people who made Christmas possible.  In last week’s sermon I made reference to a movie scene that took place on Ellis Island, and this week it seems like a good time to acknowledge that almost all of our family trees involve some immigration.  I know some of you are first-generation immigrants to this country, others of you may have had ancestors that came over on the Mayflower or the Susan Constant, or you may not even know when or how your family got here.  But to be American, unless of course you are Native American, is to be an immigrant or a descendant of one.

Sometimes those trips across oceans and continents have some pretty good stories that go along with them.  I’m not sure I know many of my family’s, to be honest, but over the past few years I have had the pretty cool experience of getting to translate some of a friend’s family letters from World War II-era Germany, and I’ve found myself being drawn into their story, which my friend hopes to make into a book.  It’s the story of her grandfather who came to the US through a scholarship from the Quakers and settled in small-town Kansas, where he meets his future wife and my friend’s grandmother.  Some of the last letters I translated had to do with trying to get his Jewish mother into the country, too, as things get worse at home, until finally they can only send postcards back and forth through the Red Cross.  I found myself getting sucked into the story and emailing her back and saying, “What happens to Ella?!”  (She told me I’d have to wait for the book.)[1]  Maybe others of you have stories like these in your family trees.

Ruth is one of these stories in Jesus’ family tree – the story of how a foreign immigrant woman came to Israel and became the great-grandmother of an Israelite king – and, eventually, down the line, the ancestor of an Israelite Savior.

Ruth was from the nearby nation of Moab, which was not a nation that Israel tended to get along with.  Intermarriage, as I’ve mentioned before, was frowned upon at the time, and marriage with Moabite women specifically had caused Israel some problems in the past (cf. Numbers 25).  All of this makes Ruth an unlikely candidate for Jesus’ family tree, but as we’ve seen, Jesus’ family tree is made up of a lot of unlikely candidates.

In the days when the judges ruled, the story begins, there was a famine in the land [of Israel.]  So an Israelite couple from Bethlehem, Naomi and Elimelech, set out for Moab with their two sons, because when you are desperate for food, you don’t care so much where you find it.  But while they are there they seem to like it OK, because they stay, even when Elimelech dies, and their sons marry Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth.

It’s likely that the book of Ruth was written soon after the end of the Babylonian exile, when Jerusalem is being rebuilt, and it feels important to reestablish this sense of Jewish identity, and consequently xenophobia is at an all-time high.  (If you can imagine.)  With the story of a Moabite woman who marries into the family and becomes the great-grandmother of King David, the book of Ruth gently corrects that attitude.  From foreign nations come good things, the story tells us.

But first Ruth has to get to Israel, and before that can happen, Naomi’s sons have to die, leaving all three women, Naomi, Orpah and Ruth, widows.  Remember, as a woman at the time, your social and economic standing was through your husband and sons, and if you had neither, you had nothing.  The only thing left for Naomi to do is go back to the land she came from and try to seek some sort of charity and family connection there.  She suggests her daughters-in-law do the same: go back to their families of origin, maybe try to marry again. Orpah goes, after some prodding on Naomi’s part, but Ruth refuses to leave, and instead insists on following her mother-in-law back to Israel.

Ruth’s story is more familiar to many of us than the stories of Tamar or Rahab, the stories we’ve heard over the past couple weeks.  It’s a nicer story, too, one that it’s easier to talk about in church.  Those of us familiar with Ruth probably know it as a beautiful story of extraordinary loyalty.  And it is.  In fact, if you remember back to my very first Sunday at Arlington Temple three and a half years ago – not that I expect you to – you may remember that I told my own story of my call to ministry interwoven with the story of Ruth.  To me Ruth has always been the story of someone who found herself part of an unexpected family – for me, the family of God’s diverse children – and couldn’t turn back.  And the words that Ruth says to Naomi as she tells her she won’t leave – “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you; where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people will be my people, and your God my God”– those words were read at my wedding, just as I have read them at many others.

But as it turns out, Ruth’s story is a little more interesting than just that – and maybe even has a hint of scandal about it.

When Ruth and Naomi return to Israel, it is the beginning of the barley harvest, and the only way for them to survive is by gleaning – harvesting the leftovers in someone else’s field.  The law required landowners to leave the edges and corners of their fields unharvested (Leviticus 19:9) so that the poor could come and harvest for themselves.  Ruth gets to work.  It just so happens this field belongs to Boaz, a relative of Elimelech, who takes notice of Ruth and welcomes her to his field.  It’s their meet-cute, maybe.  He tells her he’s heard how she left Moab and everything she knew to come with Naomi, and he thinks that’s pretty cool.  He says she doesn’t even have to glean the leftovers – she’s welcome to any of the barley in the field.

Ruth goes home that afternoon with her arms full of barley and tells her mother-in-law about meeting Boaz, and you can almost hear the wheels start spinning in Naomi’s mind.  Boaz is their closest existing relative, and as such, Boaz has the right and/or the responsibility to buy back Elimelech’s property, the right of redemption.   So Naomi schemes up another little encounter between Boaz and Ruth – one that will hopefully secure a marriage proposal and some economic security beyond just what Ruth can find in the fields.

This is where things get good.  Naomi tells Ruth to make herself pretty, put on some nice perfume, and head to the threshing floor at night, after Boaz has eaten and drunk and is in, as the Bible puts it, “a contented mood”, and has fallen asleep.  She is to lay down at his feet and wait for him to wake up and notice.

This, by the way, is not something “nice” girls do.

Sure, we could take things at face value and it all seems fairly innocent, if a strange way to make oneself available.  But a lot of words the story uses – “lie down,” for example, and “uncover,” – have somewhat less innocent connotations.  The threshing floor was known to be a place where untoward things happened.  And when Ruth lies down at Boaz’s feet – let’s just say that in the Bible “feet” often means something else entirely.  Ruth’s story is the kind of story where you have to talk in euphemisms.

So Boaz does wake up, and there is this woman from the barley harvest the other day, there at his “feet,” and you can imagine his reaction – like something from a sitcom.  And then, boldly, Ruth asks Boaz to “spread his cloak over her” – metaphorically, to not just claim his right of redemption on the land, but to claim her too.  To marry her and protect her.  It’s an unconventional proposal to be sure, if not outright entrapment – if Boaz is honorable, he’d better marry this girl he woke up next to on the threshing floor!  Either way, Boaz says yes.  In fact, he finds it charming that, whatever her reasons, Ruth has gone for him instead of making a play for a younger man.

So Ruth and Boaz get married, and they have a son, Obed, who has a son, Jesse, who has a son, David, who becomes king of Israel, and from whose lineage comes a new king, born in a manger, surrounded by cows and donkeys, visited by shepherds and wise men.

Ruth is a story of extraordinary loyalty.  But it is also a story of extraordinary boldness.

Ruth is a spunky young woman ready to give up the safety of home to set out for the unknown.  Maybe she knew that she was the kind of person who would make a way out of no way, or at least that together she and Naomi would.  Maybe she knew that God would go with them.

Once she’s there in this new place, she ventures into the barley fields, even though being a Moabite woman in a coed group of Israelite harvesters put her in a pretty vulnerable situation.

And she shows no hesitation in following Naomi’s instructions to pull off this risky cockamamie scheme to get Boaz to marry her, thus securing an economic and social future for both women.  In fact – not only does she follow Naomi’s suggestion, she takes it a step further.  Naomi tells Ruth that when Boaz wakes up, he will tell her what to do.  Instead, when he wakes up, Ruth puts it all out there and essentially asks him to marry her.

Ruth is a bold woman, and it is a boldness that is rooted in love and hope: love for her mother-in-law, and hope that God has something better in store for both of them.

I’d say that makes this a story appropriate to Advent, because Advent is a time for bold hope.  When we look around at the remains of this crazy year around us – when we think of the police shootings and news from Aleppo and our election and the general state of division in our country and the wave of hate crimes and harassment we’ve seen especially in the past couple weeks – it does take some boldness to believe that God is with us.  It does take some boldness to believe that God is going to enter into all this mess and be here in the brokenness with us, redeeming it and redeeming us.  Advent is the time in our liturgical year to wait and hope and feel the need for what is not yet – and that is a bold thing to do, believing that God will be faithful.

The One on whom we wait this Advent season is one who invites us to approach God with boldness—or, as Hebrews puts it, who allows us to “approach the throne of grace with confidence” (4:16). He invites us to pray honestly and passionately, making our needs known to God, knowing we are God’s children.  He makes it possible because the separation between humanity and divinity has been overcome in this thing called the incarnation, God becoming human.

And he is the One who invites us to love boldly, across social boundaries, because that is the job that the God we wait for has in mind for us.  To love the poor.  The beggars.  The lepers.  The Romans.  The sellouts.  The broken.  The “other.”

Thirty or so years after the birth of the baby we are waiting for this season, the man that baby grows up to be has an encounter with another non-Israelite woman.  She is called, depending on the Gospel, either a Canaanite or a Syro-Phoenician woman.  Her daughter is possessed, and she has heard that Jesus might be able to heal her.

But Jesus doesn’t want to heal her daughter, not right away.  In fact, he seems downright dismissive of her.  He has come to minister to the people of Israel, he tells her.  Not to the Canaanites.  Not to the Syro-Phoenicians.  You don’t give the children’s food to the dogs, he tells her, which sounds to most of us like one of the more unkind things Jesus ever said.

But then she says, “Even the dogs get the crumbs under the table,” essentially telling Jesus to give her what she wants anyway, and he is taken aback and then smiles (I imagine) and tells her her faith is great.  I wonder if he saw the boldness of some of his female ancestors, like Ruth, in her.

I was thinking of all this this week as I read about a United Methodist church in Baltimore that is facing a $12,000 fine for letting homeless people sleep on its property.  First it was two guys, who had been sleeping there for years.  Then others started to come.  Then the neighbors complained about the smell of urine and the trash they saw piling up, and now the church is facing this fine for unlawfully operating a shelter.[2]

This news struck a chord in me because I thought how easily it could be us.  We have, at least so far, never been fined for allowing our homeless neighbors to find shelter just outside our doors under the skywalk or in the little garden area below.  We do get similar complaints from time to time.  I understand those complaints and value our relationship with our neighbors on this block, just as the pastor in Baltimore said.  And yet, it makes me think about what it means to love and welcome our neighbors boldly, including in a situation like ours.  Maybe there’s something more or different we could be doing.  And yet I’m convinced that to love boldly means to love when others around you maybe wish you wouldn’t.  Think you shouldn’t.  And I do think that’s a useful thing to keep in mind as we go about our lives—in our loving, in our serving, in our waiting, how might we channel the boldness of Ruth?  The boldness of Jesus?

So here is your job for this week in Advent: Think about that.  Pray boldly, love boldly.  Believe boldly that despite all appearances God really is making God’s presence known in this broken world.

 

[1] If you’re interested in the blog version of this story…http://www.tomandmarjorie.com/

[2] http://www.bwcumc.org/news-and-views/county-fines-patapsco-ums-for-non-permitted-shelter-of-homeless

Jesus’ Family Tree: Rahab’s Story

Scripture: Joshua 2:1-14

As I was preparing this week, I couldn’t help but think of a scene from one of my favorite movies, Hitch.  It came out when I was in college and in it Will Smith plays Hitch, the “Date Doctor,” a guy who sets people up professionally, but doesn’t actually seem to have a lot of game himself.  When he meets a woman he’s interested in named Sara, he has the idea to take her on a fun and romantic expedition to Ellis Island to see one of her ancestor’s names in the log they kept of immigrants entering the country.  He keeps his plan a secret from her, though.

They ride jet skis over to Ellis Island and are wandering around the museum when they come upon the registration book where her great-great-grandfather’s name is written, and Hitch casually stops and gestures for her to look.  When she sees the name she tears up, and he’s smiling to himself, until Sara cries out angrily and starts actually crying and runs away.  In the next scene they’re walking and Sara is saying to Hitch, “…and my family never saw him again, well, except on the Wanted posters.”  And Hitch says, “When I saw it on the computer, it said ‘The Butcher of Cadiz.’  But I thought it was a profession, not a headline.”

She says, “It’s just one of those horrible family legacies we’ve all tried to forget.”

I asked last week if any of you had anything interesting in your genealogy.  Have any of you come across something or someone you’d rather erase out of your family tree altogether?

Rahab could have easily been one of those people in Jesus’ family tree.  She was no Butcher of Cadiz, I mean, but she was a prostitute, and that’s one of those things you maybe don’t mention in your seventh-grade family tree project.  But as it turns out, not only does she make it onto the family tree, she’s one of only five women who does in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus.  So what’s she doing there, and why does Matthew think she’s so important?  What does Rahab have to tell us about her descendant Jesus and who he is and what God is doing through him?

Well, let’s back up and hear her story.

Rahab’s story takes place just as the wilderness years are coming to an end and the Israelites are camped on the eastern side of the Jordan River, about to enter the promised land of Canaan.  She and her family live in the city of Jericho, the first city in the promised land to fall.  You might remember the song – Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, and the walls came a-tumblin’ down?  Rahab and her family actually lived inside the wall of the city, which confused me until I visited the city of Cartagena, Colombia, where the wall was actually wide enough to stroll on at sunset and have shops and such inside it.  Anyway, this is right before that wall and all its wall-houses come a-tumblin’ down.

Moses has died, by this point, and his assistant Joshua is in charge.  God tells him to “be strong and very courageous.”  If he and his people act in accordance with the law that God gave them through Moses, God promises him, God will be with them.  Before Joshua leads the Israelite army into Jericho to take it over, though, he wants to scout it out, see what they are up against.  So he sends two spies into the city for a little recon mission.

The spies enter the city and the very first thing they do is go to Rahab’s house.  Very important spy work going on there, I’m sure.  The Bible simply says they entered her house and spent the night, but as one writer, Tom Fuerst, put it, “Two unnamed soldiers in the house of a prostitute does not stretch the imagination.”[1]

But while they are there, the king gets wind of the fact that some spies have entered his city.  They must not have been very good spies, but, so the story goes.  So the king sends some of his guys to Rahab’s house to find them.

Rahab must also have heard that they were coming – I suppose word travels pretty quickly in Jericho – because she ushers the men up to the roof, where flax is drying from the recent harvest, and hides them there under the drying stalks.  And when the king’s men knock on the door, she tells them, “Oh yeah, they were here, but they left.  I think they went that way,” and the men thank her very much and ride off.  Then she lowers the spies out through the window on the outer side of the city wall with a rope and tells them to literally run for the hills.  (Notice they haven’t done much spying.)

We are reading this story, of course, from an Israelite perspective, and so Rahab immediately goes from Canaanite prostitute to Israelite hero.  We read about her in Hebrews 11, listed as a paragon of faith.  We read about her in the book of James, as someone whose faith was shown through her actions.  But Rahab was a traitor.  She harbored two enemy spies, people who would literally cause the walls of her city to come a-tumblin’ down.  Why would she do it?

Maybe, as one of my commentaries suggested, she was not the polished professional, the madam, that we might picture, but a poor girl from a poor family forced into her line of work to repay debt or help put food on the table.[2]  Maybe, given her marginal social status, she didn’t feel much loyalty to the powers that be.  That first part – her poverty – seems likely.  Still, it’s hard to believe she wouldn’t have cared if her whole city was destroyed.

Here, though, is what Rahab tells the spies.  She says, “I know that the Lord has given you this land.  We’ve heard what you all did in Egypt, how your God dried up the waters of the Red Sea, how you went to war against some kings across the Jordan and one.  We are all afraid of you.”  And she says, “The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below.”

Rahab believes when she has no reason to believe.  She stakes her life on a God her people don’t even worship.  For that, we are called to emulate her faith.

Then again, it’s possible Rahab’s faith might have been a little more calculated than miraculous.   If she really had heard these stories of Israelite military victory, then maybe she simply wanted to make sure that when those walls came a-tumblin’ down, she’d be standing with the winners than the losers.  Is this faith, or  is this just telling these men what they want to hear – something she must be very practiced at – in a desperate gamble for her own survival?  How much of a difference is there?

Either way, the spies agree to her request: she has saved them, and they will save her too.

As they head down the wall and toward the hills, though, they do give her one condition: that she and all her family tie a red cord in their window, so when the invading army comes, they will know to pass those houses over.  Sound familiar?  This Canaanite family gets a Passover of its own.

So that is Rahab’s story.  Here’s the thing, though: it’s not just Rahab’s profession that made her an unlikely candidate for Jesus’ family tree.  It’s not even just that she was a non-Israelite, though that was a strike against her at the time, too.

It’s that most of the book of Joshua is based around the divine command to utterly destroy everything and everyone in the land of Canaan.  In Hebrew this is known as herem, sometimes translated into English as “the ban.”  When the Israelites entered the promised land and took it for themselves, not one person, not one animal, not one thing that might cause them to assimilate to another culture, was to be spared.

This is not an aspect of our theological heritage we tend to talk about a lot in church, because it doesn’t actually make us look very good.  Especially if we affirm – as Jesus would have – that the God of the Old Testament is the same God we meet in Jesus in the New Testament.  Who, these days, wants to worship a God who calls for the utter destruction of the people already in the land?  They weren’t even the invaders – just the people going about their business in the place where they presumably always had.

This is one of those big theological problems for pretty much anyone who has any sliver of compassion, and no one has a great way out of it.  We could spend a lot more time on this, but for now let me simply recognize the problem and also mention that we can think about it symbolically, our need to cut everything out of our lives that is not of God, no questions, no exceptions.  (Recognizing that it is also problematic to think of people only symbolically.)  Or we might say that that is how people understood God’s will at the time, but times change, and it’s possible they were wrong, just as it’s possible we’re wrong in some of the ways we understand God’s will today.

In Rahab’s story, though, that command is violated.  Had the Israelites followed the rules—the rules they understood to be from God—Rahab and her family would have been toast.  Instead, she lives to become the father of Boaz, who will marry Ruth, who will give birth to Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of David, the ancestor of Jesus.  Rahab represents a branch of Jesus’ family tree that might never have been.

The beauty of Rahab’s legacy is that someone who was apparently supposed to be blotted out of God’s story gets written back in.

And maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise, because God’s story is full of people who by some standards shouldn’t have been a part of it, from Jacob, who tricked his way into the family tree, to Moses, raised as a son of the enemy king, to David, chosen and thoroughly fallen, to Paul, who hunted down the very people he would become a pastor to—to a baby, born to an unwed mother, whose first bed was a feeding trough, and who would die a criminal’s death.

“Advent,” writes Tom Fuerst, “opens our eyes to the ways in which God’s love is bigger than we possibly could have imagined.”[3]

In Jesus’ time, too, we hear of people who might otherwise have been written out of the story: of Mary Magdalene, who had seven demons.  Of lepers, banned to the outskirts of the community, and paralytics, begging outside the Temple.  Of Zacchaeus, the tax collector, complicit in his own oppression.  Of a Roman soldier who lost a child.  Of a woman married five times who showed up at a well when she thought no one else would be there.  Of – once again – a Canaanite woman whose daughter was possessed.

They were outcasts, enemies, people living in the margins.  And what did Jesus do?  He healed them, forgave them, showed mercy on them, healed their children, invited himself over for dinner.  He wrote them back into the story.  He made them believe that maybe it wasn’t God who had written them out, after all.

Maybe you know someone who seems like an unlikely candidate for being part of what God is doing in our world.  Maybe they’re an addict, someone who has wasted their life and potential and brought only misery to others.  Maybe they’re needy in a way it’s hard to feel sorry for, always taking and never giving.  Maybe they are just not a good person, always looking out for number one without regard for how their actions affect others.

Or maybe you are someone who wonders if you yourself have been written out of God’s story—if God has simply left you to the devices of the people or forces who would destroy you.  If your past or even present has made you unworthy of your place at the table, unworthy of doing God’s work.

I know one Canaanite woman who would tell you otherwise.

What are we waiting for during the season of Advent?  Maybe this is a season of waiting to be written back in.  Because when you think about it, all of us are unworthy to be part of God’s story.  All of us are unworthy to do the work that God has for us to do in the world.  So maybe this is a season of waiting for the grace that includes those of us who might otherwise have been  excluded.  A season of preparing ourselves to be able to recognize it when we see it.   A season leading to the birth of the one who gives us reason to believe we were never written out.

So this is your job this second week of Advent: Remember that God’s love is bigger than we ever thought possible.  Try to look at others in that light, and try to look at yourself in that light too.

 

[1] Tom Fuerst, Underdogs and Outsiders: The Untold Stories of Advent, p. 34.

[2] New Interpreter’s Bible: Joshua

[3] Underdogs and Outsiders, p. 31