The Roots of Hope

Text: Matthew 1.1-17

When I was in Miss Taylor’s third grade class at King’s elementary she challenged us to read the entire New Testament, from front to back.  And, as an incentive, she offered a cupcake party for those who had read every word from Matthew to Revelation.  I wanted to be at that party and therefore determined to power through the New Testament.  How hard could it be?  I sat down and turned to the beginning of Matthew’s gospel and started reading…  begat, begat, begat… I closed it up and went home and made some cupcakes with my mom.   I didn’t make it past the first chapter of the first book.  The concept of lineage, heritage, genealogy was utterly alien to me… and still is.

Last monday night a friend of mine who is Serbian Orthodox invited my family over for dinner.  From the living room to the dining room tables were spread out for an amazing feast.  My friend Radoje, his wife and mother never sat down once, they just kept filling our glasses and bringing out dish after dish and course after course.  Bashfully, I asked my friend, “Radoje, what exactly are we celebrating tonight?”

“Tonight is my family’s feast day – the feast day of St. Michael the Archangel.”  He said.

“How did it become your family’s feast day?”  I asked.

“It’s the day that my family was baptized when they converted to Christianity from paganism.”  He said.

“And when was that?”

“The ninth century.”

I can hardly fathom that kind of family history.  From father to son, father to son, this tradition has been passed down in his family for 12 centuries!  Just to put this in perspective:  Rosewood Manor, where you are sitting now, is a hundred years old, built in 1905. At that time there were only 144 miles of paved road – people came to this house by horse.  The American flag had 45 stars.  It would be five more years before women were able to vote in Washington state.  That’s how old this place is and yet, Radoje family has been celebrating St. Michael’s feast day for one thousand, one hundred more years than this place has been standing.  So it’s no wonder that I come to the genealogy of Jesus and think, “There is nothing of importance here.  Blah, blah, blah…”

The European colonizers of this country cut themselves off from their history when they moved west and we’ve been moving west ever since.  You live here because someone at some time left home and moved west.  But now we’ve reached the ocean, so I figure there’s no where else for us to go but backwards now.  And that’s what I want to do tonight, is try to reconnect with the lineage of Jesus.

That’s where the Gospel of Matthew wants to start.  The genealogy of Jesus reminds us that this Gospel – this Jesus-Story that has captured our hearts and united us to God, did not start on Christmas eve with Mary and Joseph, but 28 generations before, with a childless moon priest from Ur of the Chaldeans name Abram, and his wife named Sarai, whom God called out to one night and said – “I will make of you a people who follow me.”  Tonight we want to look deep into the beginnings, because Advent asks us to look deeper.

Did you notice anything strange when you heard the names being read?  Did you notice that there were the names of four women in the genealogy? You might not think it strange, but in that day this would have been most peculiar.  Only father’s names would have been included in a genealogy, but here in the Genealogy of Jesus there are four names of women included.  Why would that be?  What is Matthew trying to get at here?  The women that you might assume would be named, the Matriarchs of faith, like Sarah, or Rebecca or Leah don’t even get a mention.  Instead there are four names that are attached to four stories, that some genealogists would have wanted to omit.  Four names and four stories that some families would have wanted to keep a secret.  Listen again:

“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…”

Why include Tamar?  She married Judah’s son, then widowed before having a child, married the next son, widowed again before having a child.  Judah sent her away promising her his youngest son when he grew old enough, but time passed, she waited, but was never sent for.  Judah thought he could sweep his history under a rug.  But Tamar traded her widows clothes for the veil of prostitute and posed by the road where she knew Judah would be walking.  And it worked.

“What will you give me to sleep with me?  Give me your family seal and staff and I’ll hold on to them till you pay me.”  She told him.

Later, Judah acted the coward again.  He wouldn’t go himself, but instead sent a friend to pay up and collect his stuff, but the friend couldn’t find Tamar.  “Where’s the prostitute that hangs out here?” he asked the locals.  “There’s never been any prostitute here.”

Judah decides, “Fine, let her keep it.”

Months later he gets word, “Your daughter in law, Tamar has been whoring around – now she’s nine months pregnant!”  And Judah is irate. “Bring her here!  Is it true, Tamar?”  “Well, here are the father’s things.  Can you identify him?”

And by Tamar twin boys are born, fathered by the father-in-law.

Their names: Zerah, and the second is Perez, who fathered Hezron, and Hezron fathered Aram, and Aram fathered Aminadab, and Aminadab fathered Nahshon, and Nahshon fathered Salmon, and Salmon fathered Boaz by Rahab…

Why include Rahab?  The righteous prostitute.  Living in the crumbling wall of a city under a holy curse.  She became the sanctuary for Hebrew spies who are scouting out Jericho.  For her help she’s promised safety for her and her parents and brothers and sisters when the day of battle comes.  A scarlet rope hung from the window, the sign that meant she was open for business would become the sign of her salvation.

When the day came the city was in a panic.  Rahab lowered the scarlet rope out her window.  The Hebrew priests and people silently circled the city seven times and then shouted it down.  Rahab left with the wandering Hebrews that day and married Salmon.  Salmon and Rahab had Boaz, and Boaz fathered Obed by Ruth…

We don’t have to go far down the family tree to meet another woman.  The third outsider, the third gentile in a hebrew family tree.  Why include Ruth?  Ruth, the last hope of Naomi who moved away from the land promised to be flowing with milk and honey due to a famine.  Naomi whose husband and sons died in that foreign land, leaving her with only her faithful daughter in law.  Until taken notice by the last rich bachelor in her deceased husbands family.  Another story of desperate survival, and stealthy seduction.

Yet, amazingly, from this family tree next grows Obed who fathered Jesse, and Jesse the father of the great King David. And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah

She remains unnamed… only known by the name of her husband.  Where people remain unnamed, there must be intense shame.  But we know her name, Bathsheba.  Why include Bathsheba?  Wife a rising star in the military, but a gentile… maybe that’s why he was so fiercely loyal to his King.  He felt like he had something to prove that the others didn’t.  The nights were lonely for military wives in that day, because the King was expanding, always expanding his kingdom, yet he wasn’t willing to go out and lead them in battle.  No, the king stayed at home, on the roof looking out from his castle.

Her name was Bathsheba – the one thing the king of israel couldn’t have, so he took it, he took her… raped by a king.  Then widowed by a devious plot fit for the Bard’s theater.  She was sent for to live with her victimizer.  Bathsheba.  The name calls to mind the one black spot on a national hero – the man after God’s own heart.  The book of Matthew wants you to remember her, but can’t seem to say her name.

Bathsheba.  Ruth.  Rahab.  Tamar.  These are the women of Jesus’ genealogy.  To this list of women, Matthew adds one more, as if to say, “Don’t be alarmed by the scandal of the story I’m about to tell you.  Scandal has always been apart of the story of God.” The genealogy of Jesus says that where there is scandal, there is the grace of God.  All of these stories lead us to this:  “and Jacob was the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.”

What did Matthew want us to see in Jesus’ family tree?  It was such a risk to draw attention to these stories.  It might discredit his lineage.  It would induce scandal.  By no means is Jesus born into a pure line.  This is family full of disfunction.  This is a family full of outsiders, and mess-ups, and desperate schemers.  And yet, the Gospel of Matthew goes out it’s way to say this:  Look.  These are the people that Jesus includes in his family.  And if Jesus enters the mess of his family… perhaps Jesus could enter the mess of your family?  Perhaps there is a place for you in the family of Jesus?

This is the message of Advent: that Jesus is coming, always coming, in every age and at every moment.  Matthew shows the courage to not leave out the hard details.  Matthew will not let shame silence the stories of these women.  Will you let shame silence your story?  Or will the very Hope of God be birthed even among your family’s deepest secrets?  This Advent root your hope here – in this messy story into which God comes, in the most vulnerable way, in order to bless the families of the world.