Sermon for the third Sunday of Advent
15th of December 2013
Were you surprised by today’s Gospel reading? I have to confess that this morning I cheated. The lectionary reading for this Sunday comes from the 11th chapter of Matthew, and tells us about John the Baptist, imprisoned by Herod, sending disciples to ask Jesus who he is. Jesus answers: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.” It’s a great reading for any time of year, especially Advent, but I’ve decided not to preach on it. Instead, I want to talk about a reading that isn’t in the lectionary and is very seldom talked about – the opening verses of the Gospel according to Matthew.
The Gospel according to Matthew starts with Jesus’ genealogy. No other gospel starts like this; Luke also has a genealogy, but Luke puts it chapter three of his gospel: after all the birth stories have been told; after John has baptised Jesus; and when we are told that Jesus is about thirty years old. Only Matthew begins with a list of Jesus’ ancestors, which tells us that Matthew thinks this list is important. The list is not historical; it’s theological. Matthew is telling us that Jesus was the son of Abraham and the son of David. But Matthew also tells us that Jesus is descended from Abraham and David in unusual ways. In this long list of names, usually considered boring, are some fascinating stories that tell us a lot about who Matthew thinks Jesus is.
Most of the genealogy tells us that so-and-so was the father of such-and-such, but there are four places where this pattern changes and mothers are mentioned as well as fathers. We are told that Judah was the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar; that Salmon was the father of Boaz by Rahab; that Boaz was the father of Obed by Ruth; and that David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah. Only four women are mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy, and none of them are shining heroines of the faith; there is no mention of Sarah or Rebecca or Rachel. These are all women from the margins; women whose stories involve potential shame.
Tamar’s story is told in Genesis chapter 38, and it’s one we don’t often get to hear, so I’m going to tell it to you. Judah had three sons: Er, Onan and Shelah. Judah took Tamar as a wife for Er. When Er died, Judah married Tamar to Onan, and told him to raise up sons for his brother. But Onan didn’t, and he died, too.Then Judah said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, ‘Remain a widow in your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up’. So Tamar went to live in her father’s house. But when Shelah grew up, Judah didn’t marry him to Tamar. She was left as a childless widow in her father’s house, a woman without any status at all in her society. So Tamar acted.
When Tamar heard that her father-in-law, Judah, was going to Timnah to shear his sheep, she put off her widow’s garments, put on a veil, wrapped herself up, and sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. This is how it’s written in Genesis: “When Judah saw her, he thought her to be a prostitute, for she had covered her face. He went over to her at the roadside, and said, ‘Come, let me come in to you’; for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. She said, ‘What will you give me, that you may come in to me?’ He answered, ‘I will send you a kid from the flock.’ And she said, ‘Only if you give me a pledge, until you send it.’ He said, ‘What pledge shall I give you?’ She replied, ‘Your signet and your cord, and the staff that is in your hand.’ So he gave them to her, and went in to her, and she conceived by him. Then she got up and went away, and taking off her veil she put on the garments of her widowhood.”
Judah did send the kid to the prostitute, but she couldn’t be found, and when Judah asked the people said that there had been no such woman. Again from Genesis: “About three months later Judah was told, ‘Your daughter-in-law Tamar has played the whore; moreover she is pregnant as a result of whoredom.’ And Judah said, ‘Bring her out, and let her be burned.’ As she was being brought out, she sent word to her father-in-law, ‘It was the owner of these who made me pregnant.’ And she said, ‘Take note, please, whose these are, the signet and the cord and the staff.’Then Judah acknowledged them and said, ‘She is more in the right than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.’ And he did not lie with her again.” Tamar has twins by Judah, Perez and Zerah, and Perez is the ancestor of Jesus.
The next woman mentioned is Rahab, and it is generally accepted that the Rahab mentioned is the prostitute of Jericho mentioned in the Book of Joshua. Her story is as fascinating as that of Tamar. Joshua sent two men as spies to Jericho, who entered Rahab’s house and spent the night there. The king of Jericho was told about them and he sent orders to Rahab to give them up. But she hid them on her roof under stalks of flax, said that they’d already left, and sent the king’s men on a wild goose chase to the Jordan. She then let the men out of her window on a rope, because her house was within the city wall itself, and when Joshua and his army invaded Jericho Rahab and her family were spared. Matthew tells us that this Gentile prostitute was also an ancestor of Jesus.
We don’t often hear the stories of Tamar and Rahab; but we do know the stories of Ruth the Moabite and Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah who became the mother of King Solomon. Ruth gets a whole book to herself so I’m going to assume you know the story, and Ruth taking Naomi’s advice and going to lie down at Boaz’s feet. David sees Bathsheba bathing on the roof of her house and, as the book of Samuel tell us: “David sent messengers to fetch her, and she came to him, and he lay with her”. Bathsheba becomes pregnant and tells David. David, after first trying to get Uriah to sleep with his wife, has him killed. It’s not a very edifying story, as the prophet Nathan points out to David. But David marries Bathsheba, and Solomon is their son.
Rahab and Ruth are clearly non-Jewish, Tamar was often regarded as non-Jewish, and in the list of names Bathsheba is identified not by her own name but by the name of her Gentile husband. Here at the very beginning of the gospel we are shown that God’s plan included Gentiles as well as Jews. The Messiah himself had Gentile ancestry.
These are four stories of potential sexual impropriety: Tamar behaved like a prostitute; Rahab was a prostitute; David and Bathsheba committed adultery; and Ruth made advances to Boaz. Next week we’ll hear another story of potential sexual impropriety, when Joseph discovers that his betrothed is pregnant by someone else. The possible impropriety of Jesus’ own birth might explain why Matthew includes these particular women in his genealogy.
The story of Jesus’ ancestry that Matthew gives us is the story of women who go beyond the boundaries of what is acceptable or safe. It’s the story of Gentiles as well as Jews. And as we’ll discover next week, it’s the story of righteousness that doesn’t stand on the letter of the law, but instead offers mercy. The good news of Jesus begins long before Jesus begins his ministry, even before Jesus is born. The gospel begins in the list of Jesus’ ancestors, and in a God who does new things, who brings safety out of peril, honour out of dishonour, grace out of disgrace, and good out of evil. This is one of the things that we celebrate at Christmas. Thanks be to God!