(This is the infamous Christmas Eve homily that caused a stir! Enjoy!)
Matthew’s Gospel opens with the genealogy of Jesus and, curiously, there are two women mentioned in that genealogy who serve as examples of hope and determination in the face of challenging circumstances. I believe these women have something to say to us as we face our own challenges, as we struggle with circumstances that seem bigger than we are, as we peer into the darkness looking for the light of hope.
Tamar is the earliest of Jesus’ foremothers mentioned by Matthew. She is married to one of the sons of Judah, who is, you will recall, one of the twelve sons of Jacob–one of the patriarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel. According to Genesis 38, Tamar is married to Judah’s eldest son who dies prematurely. Following the custom of the time, Judah tells his next son, Onan, to fulfill his duty by marrying Tamar and giving her children. The firstborn son within the context of this second marriage will become heir to the dead brother’s property. But Onan refuses, and he, too, dies.
At this point Judah sends Tamar back to her own father’s dwelling to live as a widow until his last and youngest son, Shelah, becomes of marrying age. Tamar has no choice but to obey since she cannot inherit her husband’s property and because she has no children, she has no status or security. But neither can she marry anyone else since she is still considered the wife of the dead man.
So, Tamar returns to her father’s house and eventually Shelah becomes a man, but Judah does nothing to bring them together. Eventually Judah’s own wife dies, but still he won’t do right by Tamar. Finally, she devises a clever plan, but one that might cost her life. Tamar learns that Judah is going to visit a neighboring town, and she goes there herself, disguising herself as a prostitute. When Judah approaches her, deciding he’d like to be one of her customers, Tamar asks, “What will you give me?” He promises a sheep, but since he doesn’t have one with him, he leaves her his signet ring, cord and staff as a pledge to hold until he returns with the sheep. As soon as Judah leaves, she removes her disguise and returns home. Judah sends a friend with the promised sheep to pay the hooker, but she is nowhere to be found. Not only that, but the townspeople assure the friend that there has never been a prostitute who fits Tamar’s description.
Three months later, Tamar is pregnant and accused of adultery. Judah demands that she be brought to justice, but Tamar has kept the objects Judah gave her and she sends them to him with the message, “It was the owner of these who made me pregnant.” Chagrined, Judah immediately repents of his wrong treatment of her.
It’s a weird little story, to be sure, but in asking Judah, “What will you give me?”, Tamar is completely human and honest. Her question echoes what we often ask God: “How can I know that this will work out, God? What guarantee can you give me?” Like Tamar, when we come to God with our hopes, we also bring our baggage. We all have bad times when what we hoped for did not come to pass. Our expections, as we look for our highest good to arrive, are often mixed with memories of times when everything fell apart, when promises were not kept, when people disappointed us. We rarely approach any hope with absolutely no doubt, and the same is true when we approach God. Tamar, risking her life and future as she does, surely experiences a mixture of fear as well as hope.
Powerless as she is, Tamar finds a way to open the door to what she wants and needs–she keeps her hope alive. God allows her to conceive and when the time comes for her to give birth, she bears not one son, but twins. She secures a place for herself in the family and Judah has not one son but three. Her hope and her risk-taking result in positive changes in the lives of everyone around her.
The second woman in Matthew’s lineage of Jesus is Rahab, and unlike Tamar who only pretended to be a hooker, Rahab is a professional. She lives in a house on the wall that surrounds Jericho, the very walls that will crumble when Joshua and his army move in to destroy it. She is not a person of position or power, but she has courage, vision and, yes, hope. She is brave enough to defy her own king’s orders because of her vision of a better tomorrow.
The Israelites, led by Joshua, are preparing to invade the city. Spies are sent into the city and just like Miss Kitty on Gunsmoke, Jericho, too, has a prostitute with a heart of gold. Rahab provides the spies with a place to hide. When soldiers conduct a door to door search looking for the spies, Rahab boldly faces them down, and throws them off the trail (“Uh…they went thataway!”) In exchange for her assistance, she exacts a promise from the spies: When the conquering army sacks the city, both she and her family will be spared. And that’s what happens.
So, what do Tamar and Rahab have to tell us about hope? First, they show us that hope faces reality. Hope is not about putting on a happy face, denying our needs and frustrations, mouthing familiar platitudes about how good God is. Hope faces squarely what life is and what life is not. Tamar faces the fact that Judah has not brought his son to marry her. She could have made excuses. She could have meekly accepted her fate. But she doesn’t do that. She pays attention to the injustice done to her and takes action. She risks everything for the sake of something better.
Rahab takes a similar approach. She does not pretend that hiding Hebrew spies is an innocent enterprise. Neither does she pretend that her nation is going to defeat Joshua and his army. She admits her fear and the fear of her people. Rahab assesses the situation and decides to cast her lot with God. She says: “The Lord, your God is indeed God in heaven above and earth below.” That is, the God of the universe is more than a remote God out there somewhere. The God she proclaims is God also on earth, a God concerned with our daily lives, with all that concerns us. Her words tell us something important: What we see is never all there is; God is here, in what we see and feel, yet God is more than that. Rahab believes that, beyond the dangers and difficulties of her life, God has power available for her situation.
These two ancestors of Jesus teach us that we do not have to understand the whole of what God is doing in order to be a part of it. Neither of the women expresses any interest in winning a place in Israel’s history. They aren’t concerned with becoming heroes. They are simply living their lives. As Tamar and Rahab attentively live the lives they have been given, God uses them. What they do becomes a part of what God is doing, part of something that will change the world—in ways they will never foresee. These two are part of God’s plan and their influence on the world has outlasted the deeds of kings and princes of their day.
My dog, Cooper, always makes me smile and he knows a fair amount of theology, too. Cooper is not a large dog: he is a llasa apso with an attitude of bigness. On rare occasions when I have time, I allow him to walk me around the neighborhood. He doesn’t stop at the crosswalks when I tell him to and neither does he cease and desist from trying to escape from his leash to catch squirrels and birds he encounters on our walks. He has never been allowed to actually pursue another animal, but he keeps the hope alive within himself that one day it will happen and he will get so close to one of those birds that he will be able to actually lick it. (He licks everyone and everything!)
One morning last summer, something wonderful, rare and totally unexpected happened: a hawk literally fell out of the sky, and landed right in front of Cooper. If he’d been prepared, he could easily have pounced on the bird and licked it to his heart’s content. But he was too astounded and overjoyed to move. His eyes popped out of his head and I swear he even stopped breathing. To this day, whenever Cooper is outside he gazes upward with longing in his little face because Cooper believes that animals fall out of the sky.
So, what if you and I walked through life with that kind of expectation, waiting for God to show up in the midst of our daily activities, for gifts of grace and healing to fall into our lives so close that we could reach out and touch them? What would be different if we lived that way? Living in hope and expectation does not mean we do nothing. Tamar and Rahab show us that. And Cooper has not given up trying to chase animals; he still expends great amounts of energy barking at them even when they are down the street, straining at his leash, waiting for that great day of unbridled licking that must surely arrive. But there are also quiet times when he is sitting on my lap by the fireplace, gazing longingly out the window. Who knows? It could happen again. And when it does, Cooper will be ready, because he knows that sometimes animals really do just fall to earth. Cooper knows that wonderful, unexpected and totally undeserved gifts can just show up in our lives.
Wonderful things do happen. Most of the time, they come after we’ve done our fair share of work; but sometimes, like Cooper’s hawk or like the coming of the Christ Child at Christmas, they are pure gift. Those of us who are paying attention may even see these wonders in the making. In this season of hope, we are invited to look for the wonders that show us God is still at work in our world and within us. “What will you give me?” we ask. Hope holds with it the promise that God always answers our question by showing up, not necessarily with what we ask for but with remarkable gifts that change our lives, our perspective and our world.