Sermon for December 6: Branches of Our Family Tree – Advent Two
Righteous branches. Those are always terrific, aren’t they? We agree on who IS righteous, and who isn’t, right? The righteous branches are the good guys and gals, the ones who always did and do the right thing, the ones we are all proud of. The others? Well, maybe they aren’t so great – maybe we don’t want to really acknowledge those branches, because they aren’t so great. But righteousness, like beauty, is often in the eyes of the beholder. Different folks can have very different takes on who is righteous, who we should emulate, and whose examples are more on the negative side.
David was a man after God’s own heart, and yet David wasn’t always terrific. One spring, the time of the year when kings out to battle (2 Samuel 11:1), David stayed in Jerusalem, while he sent his commanders and the army out to battle the Ammonites. One day he was out on his roof and happened to see a beautiful woman bathing on the roof of a home nearby. He sent to find out who she was. Her name was Bathsheba, and she was married to Uriah the Hittite, one of David’s officers who was out battling the Ammonites. David sent for Bathsheba, and he “lay with her” – and she become pregnant. So David sent for Uriah, and basically tried to get Uriah to go home to his wife for a little R&R. But Uriah would not, because if he DID go home and sleep with her, he would become ritually unclean, and therefore unable to return to the battle. David even tried to get him drunk, hoping that might get Uriah into his wife’s bed, but Uriah still refused. So David sent word to his commander, Joab, via a letter he had Uriah deliver. In that letter he ordered Joab to put Uriah into the hottest part of the battle, and to withdraw, so the Ammonites would kill Uriah. Joab followed those orders, and Uriah was indeed killed by the Ammonites, leaving the way clear for David to marry Bathsheba. 2 Samuel 11 -12 tells this sad story. The child conceived out of wedlock died shortly after he was born. Solomon was the second child David and Bathsheba had, but Solomon was by no means David’s oldest child. His oldest was Amnon, second was Chileab, third was Absalom, fourth was Shephataih, and the sixth was Ithream (2 Sam. 3: 2-5). Those listening to Matthew’s gospel would have known all this backstory, which Matthew elicits when he adds Bathsheba onto this list.
Was Solomon any better? It depends on who you ask. 1 and 2 Kings repeatedly refers to Solomon’s wisdom, but also refers to Solomon’s decision to allow his many wives to build temples to their foreign gods. He allowed the worship of foreign gods in Israel and Judah almost as soon as David had succeeded in wiping that out. 1 and 2 Chronicles, which tells the story of the monarchy from the point of view of the Levites, those active in the day to day life of the temple, are much less critical of both David and Solomon that 1 & 2 Kings.
The point is that it is hard to be righteous, and it is hard to sort out who actually is living a righteous life. The list of kings in Matthew’s genealogy encompasses both excellent and awful rulers. Hezekiah embraced God, and tried to lead a reformation of Jewish practices, but was also naive enough to show the Babylonians the contents of the Jewish temple treasuries, an action for which the prophet Isaiah reproved Hezekiah. The son who succeeded Hezekiah to the throne of David, Manasseh, is widely recognized as one of the more wicked kings of Judah – the Southern Kingdom. Josiah was perhaps the greatest of the reformers, interested in righteousness, in following God, and in leading a reordering of Jewish worship and religious life. But Josiah inserted himself in the power struggle between Assyria and Egypt, and died in battle at Megiddo – Armageddon.
This genealogy points toward grace, I think. All of these kings did things that fell short, sometimes far short, of righteousness. And yet, God stayed true to the promises made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the promises made to Moses, to Joshua and to the Judges. Samuel’s prophecies about what having a king would be like were very accurate, from the time of Solomon on (1 Samuel 8). Eventually, the dynasty of David, and the Chosen People, hit a tipping point. God finally let them experience the consequences of living such unrighteous lives. From that struggle, of living through those consequences, the people were able to widen their understanding of who God is, whose they were, and how they are called to live their lives. But they over-corrected – they took their focus off God, and instead focused on their behavior, and being good enough, righteous enough.
Jesus came, and will come again, not because we are so righteous but because God is so loving. Let me say that again: Jesus came, and will come again, not because we are so righteous, but because God is so loving. This Advent time – this Christmas time – is all about God’s love. That’s the starting point. For Christians, it becomes focused through the cross. Jesus shows us how to live in this lost and broken world so loved by God by how He lived His life. He loved His Father, and He loved those around Him, wherever He was, addressing their needs, and helping them, empowering them, raising them up, so they could become the people they were made to be. That is our task, here, now, in this place. We too are to love God, by focusing on what God calls us to. We are to honor this creation. We are to love on, and encourage, and help, one another. We are to focus on that intent – to love – and to repent when we miss that. David was a man after God’s own heart for that reason – because when he realized that he had done wrong, he repented – that’s part of 2 Samuel 12 – Nathan, the man who became the court prophet after Samuel’s death, confronted David about his lust, and his murderous behavior. David, who had been blind to his behavior, repented. We use that confession, Psalm 51, in the Good Friday service. He refocused on pleasing God, on doing that which is pleasing in God’s sight. There were still consequences that David experienced, just as there are consequences the Chosen People faced, just as there are consequences we all face – and there is also forgiveness, and the opportunity to try again to do better. That’s why we celebrate communion – to remember that forgiveness, and grace.
Advent helps us to shift our focus from ourselves and back to God. In spite of what the advertisers try to tell us, it’s not about the latest electronic gaming system. It’s not about getting a fancier car. It’s not about getting clothes, or jewelry, or hunting or sporting equipment. Those can be nice things, if we keep them in their proper place. But Advent IS all about love, and about doing what we are called to do now, in this place, to share this story of love, hope , redemption and salvation. It’s about acting, doing those things that are pleasing in Jesus’ sight, until He returns. Many times we make lists of what we want for presents. Want to know what God wants? Remember Matthew 25, starting at verse 31: feed the hungry, give the thirsty something to drink, welcome strangers, clothe the naked, visit folks who are sick or in jail. We still have slots available for Family Promise – see Wendi or Sue. Act, in love. May we continue to do just that, until Jesus comes again in glory. And even so, come soon, Lord Jesus! Amen.
Jeremiah 23: 5-8
5The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 6In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.” 7Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when it shall no longer be said, “As the LORD lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of Egypt,” 8but “As the LORD lives who brought out and led the offspring of the house of Israel out of the land of the north and out of all the lands where He had driven them.” Then they shall live in their own land.
Matthew 1: 6b-11
And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, 7and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, 8and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, 9and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, 10and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, 11and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.
Sermon for November 29 – Advent One: Shaking the Family Tree
Isaiah 43: 14-21 Matthew 1: 1-6a
We never know what, or rather, who, we will shake loose when we start shaking our family trees. Who knew that Sarah and James are related to Mira and Kara? They are – ask Ralph or Tracey about that, but Ralph and Tracey are cousins of a sort. There was a long-time rumor in my family that one of my cousins on my father’s side had tried to track our grandfather’s side down – the rumor said that he went as far back as Germany when he discovered that one of our ancestors was hanged for horse-stealing! That cured Billy’s search for royalty! Quite the opposite!
As we reflect Advent, as we wait for Jesus to return, it can be good to look at His family tree, to see what we shake loose. There are two genealogies for Jesus in the Gospel: Matthew 1, and Luke 3: 23 on. Luke goes backwards, all the way to Adam. Matthew starts with Abraham. Abraham, with his wife, Sarah, had first followed the Lord God’s call to go, to leave the land of the Chaldeans and go to the Promised Land. That is Matthew’s point of departure – Matthew is starting with the first patriarch, showing how God had been faithful throughout that entire time frame. Listeners would have heard those names they knew because it was THEIR family history. They would have remembered the stories about God’s faithfulness even though the people weren’t always faithful, weren’t always obedient, weren’t always focused on following God. Matthew does something very interesting in his genealogy, something that Luke, for all of his including the stories of women in the gospel he wrote, didn’t do. Matthew included the “others” – those people, those incidents, that might have been embarrassing or unusual, those times when God used outsiders to do God’s will. Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar – Tamar was Judah’s daughter-in-law. In Genesis 38, we read the story – Judah married and had three sons; when it was time for the oldest, Er, to marry, Judah found a wife for him, a wife named Tamar. But Er did things that God deemed wicked, and he died childless. So Judah told his second son, Onan, to raise up a son for his dead brother with Tamar – the son he would father would legally be Er’s. But Onan didn’t exactly follow through, so God also put him to death. Judah stalled Tamar because he was afraid his third son, Shelah, was also going to die if he married Tamar, so Judah stalled, and sent Tamar back to live with her father, “until Shelah was old enough.” So Tamar waited until she knew Judah would be in the area, dressed herself as a prostitute, and got hired by Judah. Because she was heavily veiled, he didn’t recognize her. She kept his signet ring, and a cord, and a staff, which was a good thing because Judah had impregnated her. When Judah heard that his daughter-in-law was pregnant, and seemingly unfaithful, he went to Tamar’s father to put her to death. But Tamar sent the signet ring, the cord and the staff to him with this message: The owner of these things is the father of my baby. Judah was undoubtedly embarrassed; he acknowledged his error in not marrying her off to Shelah, and Tamar eventually gave birth to twins, Perez and Zerah. Perez is in the genealogy.
The second unusual listing is that of Rahab. Rahab didn’t pass herself off as a prostitute – you may remember that Rahab WAS a prostitute. Rahab was a foreigner. Rahab was also the one who hid the spies when Joshua had sent them out to check out Jericho, the one who reassured the spied by telling them that the whole countryside was afraid of them because they knew of the mighty deeds God had done for them. Rahab had won protection for her and for her family when the Israelites attacked Jericho after the walls came down.
The third unusual listing is Ruth’s. Ruth the Moabite, who left kin and country and gods to accompany her dear mother-in-law, Naomi, back to Bethlehem. And tied with Ruth is Boaz’ name – because Ruth’s dead husband should have been in that genealogy, not Boaz’ Boaz acted to redeem Ruth and the field, to raise up sons for Mahlon, but Boaz’ hesed, his faithfulness, led to his name being included in these genealogies instead.
For me, these stories illustrate part of what Isaiah is talking about in today’s reading: 18Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. 19I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. When we shake our family trees, and interesting people fall out, we can remember how God does new things. We can get so bogged down in our former things, our expectations of how our families of choice, our legal families, our biological families, even this church family “should be” that we can miss the new things God is doing now, the new things God is calling us to do now. We have been praying about the possibility of a new thing, about being a place of living waters, a light on a hill, for this time and this place, just as in other times – but still in this place – we have been a light on a hill for the community in those times. We have been considering how to use the celebration of our 300th anniversary to launch what new thing this may be, or what deepening, or extending, this new thing may be. The consistory has been praying over the suggestions, and we have been hearing several enduring themes that we will be exploring with the incoming consistory and the members of the Dream Team at the January retreat. Who will be the people from OUR family tree, the one here at this church, who will be used by God to get us to where we are to go? How will us doing the right thing, like Ruth and Boaz did, help advance the kingdom of God? How will discerning outsiders, like Rahab, be able to tell us those truths about ourselves, and about the marvelous God we serve, we love, and who loves us beyond comprehension? Who will help us to do the right thing, as Tamar helped Judah to do, which led to the continuation of his bloodline, which peaked in the Old Testament at David, and which peaked for eternity with Jesus? I don’t know. Wait – I DO know – WHO is us, here, together. Romans 8: 28: 28We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose. We ARE called according to God’s purpose. So how can we prepare? By studying the promises of scripture. By spending time praying. By doing things Jesus calls us all to do: feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, welcoming strangers, clothing the cold and naked, caring for the sick, visiting those isolated and alone, in jails of our making, and in jails of their making. By listening to the talk of the neighbors, the community, teachers, social workers and police officers, to see where people need help, letting those ideas sit next to our hearts, and then acting as a family of believers to help, to heal, to welcome, and to add to our family tree here. We may be shocked, we may be embarrassed, we may be rewarded and included beyond our most fanciful dreams. If we are willing, know this: God will indeed use us, and those who emerge from our shaken family trees, acting as the very presence of Jesus, until Advent is over and He comes again. And even so, come soon, Lord Jesus. Amen.