[message for the MOPS Christmas event at Faith Lutheran Church]
This is a great theme for Advent and Christmas. Not only are there a number of mothers in the stories we hear around Christmastime, there are a lot of messy things going on. There are the miracles of the conceptions of both John and Jesus, one in the womb of a woman who has long been barren, and one in the womb of a woman who has never known a man in the Biblical sense. Now, we know that those are miracles, but miracles are open to interpretation, and we can bet that not everyone who found out about either of these pregnancies believed that Zechariah, Mary, and Joseph had been visited by messengers from God. In this world, the actions of God get a little messy. And that is never more clear than in the genealogy of Jesus. Normally, other people’s genealogies are never as interesting to us as our own. But if you want to see a mess, look at Jesus’ genealogy. There are a lot of twisted branches on that family tree. In Matthew 1:16, we have Mary, whose pregnancy would have been much more scandalous in her time than it would be in ours. There is a reason why Joseph was going to put her away quietly. Because if he does it publicly and noisily, she will probably be stoned to death. But that doesn’t necessarily make him completely honorable: he was still going to put her away.
Go back a few hundred years, and a few verses, and you find this: “And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah.” Yep, the Uriah whose wife was Bathsheba. The Bathsheba whom David lusted after, with whom he committed adultery, and whose husband he murdered by putting him close to the battle lines. Three more generations, and it says, “Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth.” Ruth, you may remember, was from Moab. Moab, for whom the land was named, was the son of the firstborn daughter of Lot; unfortunately, Moab was also the son of Lot. Born of incest, Israel wasn’t even supposed to set foot in Moab when they came to the land of Promise, let alone marry Moabites. Not only that, but because Moab wouldn’t aid the Israelites, God said, “No…Moabite may enter the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of them may enter the assembly of the LORD forever, because they did not meet you with bread and with water on the way, when you came out of Egypt, and because they hired against you Balaam…to curse you” (Deuteronomy 23:3-4). Nevertheless, she is married to Boaz, and a Moabitess enters not only the assembly of Yahweh, but the genealogy of Jesus.
Go back another generation, to Boaz’ mother, and you see that her name is Rahab, married to a guy whose name in English looks like a big fish (Salmon). We don’t know anything about Salmon, but we know about his wife. In case you’ve forgotten, she appears in Joshua 2. The two spies go into the land, and especially Jericho, to see what they can see. They went, Joshua 2:1 says, and came into the house of a prostitute whose name was Rahab and lodged there. And later, when the walls of Jericho fall down, and the whole city is devoted to destruction before the Lord, Joshua says to the two spies, “’Go into the prostitute’s house and bring out from there the woman and all who belong to her, as you swore to her.’ So the young men who had been spies went in and brought out Rahab and her father and mother and brothers and all who belonged to her. And they brought all her relatives and put her outside the camp of Israel” (Joshua 6:22-23). And everyone in Jericho is put to death except “Rahab the prostitute and her father’s household and all who belonged to her…. And she has lived in Israel to this day, because she hid the messengers whom Joshua sent to spy out Jericho” (6:25). I can’t prove it, but I suspect that one of those spies was Salmon. And their son was Boaz, the husband of Ruth, all of them ancestors of Jesus.
And one more time, go back about six generations to “Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar” (Matthew 1:3). The mother of twins named Tamar. Perhaps you know the story. Tamar was not Judah’s original wife. In fact, she was married to Judah’s son Er. And then to Judah’s son Onan. But not to Judah’s son Shelah, because Judah was afraid that being married to Tamar was a death-wish, since God had put to death both Er and Onan. When Judah didn’t do what he had promised, Tamar took things into her own hands, and dressed like a pagan cult prostitute, and sat by the road where she knew that Judah would walk. Judah hires her, has sex with her, and impregnates her. Only he never knows (apparently) that it’s his daughter-in-law, Tamar. But then he realizes that Tamar, who lives in his house, is pregnant, and he is going to have her put to death for adultery. Until she produces Judah’s ring and staff, which he had given to her as collateral for payment. Oops. As it is, Tamar is the mother of Perez, who is the father of Hezron, who is the father of Ram, who is the father of Amminidab, who is the father of Nahshon, who is the father of Salmon, the wife of Rahab, and then all the way down the line to Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Christ (Matthew 1:16).
You think your family is a mess? A little dysfunctional? Got some skeletons in your closets? It’s not just yours, or mine. It’s also the family of Jesus. It’s a wonder that anything good ever did come out of Nazareth, or Bethlehem, or Judea. But the history of Jesus is also the history of the world, which means it’s your history. All of the little messes hiding behind the names of Jesus’ family members add up to one big mess. You know how it goes, even though you may not know how it happens. One little word becomes an atomic explosion and the eruption contaminates the whole day, or week, or year. One relatively simple thing, which could easily be forgiven, becomes years and years of bitterness, and now forgiveness is the furthest thing from your tongue. One little mess, and now everything’s a mess. Could this really be beautiful? Yes, but not simply because we say it is so, or because we find a little humor in it, or because it’s our mess—or because it’s the same mess in which everyone else finds themselves. The genealogy of Jesus, as it stands, is not beautiful. It’s a disaster of lust, adultery, murder, and people trying to do the right thing that always turns out wrong. No surprise, then, at what Jesus says in Matthew 15: “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (15:19). Nothing beautiful there. The whole mess is only beautiful because of what Jesus makes, apparently out of nothing. I know that the English translation of Romans 8:28 says “for those who love God all things work together for good,” but that’s not quite right. It sounds too much like blind fate, like when we say “everything’s going to be okay.” The fact is, it may not be okay. If it’s up to fate, or providence, or some cosmic uncertainty, there’s no guarantee at all that things are going to turn out well in the end. We want it to be okay. We hope it will be okay, but we use the word “hope” as if there’s some uncertainty. We hope we can turn things around; we hope God might help us when we’re in really deep…stuff. But Romans 8:28 is not talking about things generically working out alright in the end. The verb “work” has to have a subject, Someone who is working. And that’s what we find in the Greek. It actually says, “God works all things together for good for those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose.” It is God who is working, God who calls, God who has a purpose toward which He is driving everything. And that purpose is Jesus. The very next verse says that “those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son.” And, unfortunately for our happy, fairy-tale dreams, the Image of Jesus is a crucified one. That’s the reason He enters that genealogy. And the only way He could make this mess come out right was not by gradually untangling the various knots. The mess of this world was far too gone for that. Like sometimes, hypothetically, my daughter gets gum suck in her hair. And sometimes peanut butter or baby oil works. But sometimes, the only thing you can do is cut it out and start over. And that’s what God does, but He somehow starts over within the very mess that we have created. Just like with the flood, where God began again with Noah and his family; so with Jesus, He begins again, forever, with a mother, and her Son; flesh and blood and the disaster people have made of God’s good creation. All that whole history of sin and death somehow gets woven together into the flesh of Jesus. All that whole history of small and big messes, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, parents and children, God works together into the only truly good thing that has ever happened outside the Garden: Jesus. And then He works forward and backward, everything, into Jesus on the cross. That is, finally, the biggest mess God ever got Himself into. The eternal Son, in flesh and blood to give life to His dying creation, somehow Himself dies. That seems like a bigger failure than anything I’ve done with my wife or children. And there’s only one way out for Him or us: resurrection. This is how God fixes the whole damned mess: He raises Jesus from the dead. The whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved” (Romans 8:22-24). The whole creation, lost in a hopeless mess, is being put right in the resurrected body of Jesus. And “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Romans 8:11). He makes everything beautiful in its time (Ecclesiastes 3:11). In the fullness of time, He sent forth His Son, born of a woman. In His own good time, He will send His Son again, and your life and your family, this world and all creation will be revealed for what God has made it in Jesus. And this is a hope that has no uncertainty whatsoever. It is not a hope about how things may be, how they might turn out okay in the end, but how they will be. And hope in what will be, what God has done, is a hope that cannot fail us, lost in the mess. That is beautiful. That is why Isaiah says, “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels” (Isaiah 61:10). “The LORD is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The lines have fallen to me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance” (Psalm 16:6).
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 12/10/13