Sermon for Christmas Eve 2016

Luke 2:1-20

Christmas is about family. We all know that. Each year, at the worst time of the year weather-wise, we either make the journey to see family or family members come to see us. We all have stories about Christmases that don’t go as planned, Christmases where one family member did something funny or unusual, meaningful Christmases with our loved ones, and remembrances of Christmases with family members who are no longer with us and whom we miss dreadfully. We tell stories of Christmases when those family members were still alive, and we tell stories of Christmases when children were just born or very young. Christmas is about family.

For the last four weeks during our Advent season, we have been listening to stories about certain women in Jesus’ genealogy, and how they may have influenced his character and his ministry. The four women that are listed are very unusual women; some were outsiders, some were denied justice and used questionable means to get justice. All of them have strange and disturbing stories. But, there is a fifth woman in that genealogy that we haven’t yet talked about, and that’s Mary: Jesus’ mother. Tonight, we focus on her story, and the story of how her son, Jesus, was born.

We are all familiar with the story. Mary, the young woman, engaged to marry Joseph but not married yet. She’s minding her own business when suddenly, an angel appears out of nowhere and tells her she’s going to have a baby. I vividly remember one of my professors in seminary preaching a sermon about Mary and saying, “Of all the silly things the church has ever said, the statement that Mary was meek and mild has got to be the silliest.” Angels in the Bible are not mystical, soft, beautiful creatures. Angels are scary, because the first thing they always tell us humans is not to be afraid. But Mary is different, and when the angel tells her she’s going to have a son, she is not afraid to say, as we modern people might say it, “Hold on. Time out. How, exactly, is this going to work?” And after the angel tells her, she does not meekly bow her head and submit. She faces the angel and says, “OK. Here I am. Let’s do this.” She boldly says yes to being the mother of the Savior of the world, even though that will mean being an unwed, teenaged mother whose baby is not fathered by the person to whom she is engaged. Mary’s “yes” to God means that she will risk her life—because the penalty for adultery was death by stoning—and she is going to trust that God will follow through on his promise to her.

And Luke tells us several times through her story that Mary ponders things. She thinks about the events that are happening to her, she wonders, and she meditates. After she goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, her meditations burst forth into song. And Mary speaks about how God raises up the lowly and brings down the powerful. That means her—an unwed, teenaged, Jewish mother who lived in what powerful Rome thought was the worst backwater province they’d ever decided to conquer. This is the family to whom Jesus came: not the family who had it all together, not the rich and powerful in the halls of New York and Washington, D.C., and not even to us middle-class folks of suburbia. Jesus chose to come to the poorest of the poor, to be a member of a family who was part of a group of people who were being oppressed by the powerful empire, Rome. Jesus chose to come to a family whose ancestors were the who’s who of murderers, thieves, and adulterers. And Jesus chose to love them. These are the kinds of things, I think, that Mary pondered when Jesus was born.

And when Jesus was born, he was not born in a lonely stable all by himself. That image comes to us from a 2nd century text, not the gospel of Luke. The word that gets translated as “inn” in the Gospel of Luke has a better meaning of “guest room”. When Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem, they went to Joseph’s family home, and found that it was the “guest room” that was full—already full of family members who had arrived in Bethlehem before them. But Joseph’s family lived in a home that was also home to their animals—think of traditional homes in Europe where the basement houses the animals in the cold winters, and that opens up directly into the fields. Since the guest room was full, Joseph’s family found space for them with the animals. It’s like when we go to visit family today, and we’re all crowded under one roof, so the kids get the adventure of sleeping on the floor either in sleeping bags or on air mattresses. When Mary gave birth to Jesus, she was surrounded by family, family who welcomed Jesus into the world, who loved him, and who wondered what this child, this Savior, would be when he grew up.

Christmas is for family. And Luke talks about Jesus being born into a human family. When a baby is born, those first several hours after the birth, when it is known that the mother and the baby have come through the ordeal safely, then the extended family comes in and coos over the baby, and showers the baby and the mother with love and affection. But Luke surprises us again. Not only is the Savior of the world born into a poor family in a backwater province, Jesus’ family doesn’t get him all to themselves. In come traipsing some shepherds who had been out in the field and, who said, that angels had told them about this baby that has been born, who would be the Savior and the Messiah. And Jesus’ family does not shoo the shepherds out of their home, but welcomes them inside to see Jesus and to tell their story. And the story that the shepherds tell becomes part of this family’s story as well. In essence, the shepherds have now become part of Jesus’ family.

And that’s where we who follow Jesus come in. We are invited in to Jesus’ home with the shepherds. We, too, have heard the army of angels singing, “Peace on earth among those whom he favors!” When the world around us seems dark, God invites us in to see the light. When the world around us worships power, wealth, and fame, God calls us to the insignificant backwater province of an all-powerful Empire, to a people whom the Empire is oppressing, to an unwed teenaged woman in a crowded home who just happens to be giving birth to the Son of God. When we want to change the world with power and might, God says no, I am going to change the world with humility and weakness. And after we see this birth of God’s love among the poor and the humble, we are forever changed.

We are forever changed because we understand that we have become part of Jesus’ family. We are changed because we have seen God come to us, not in the form of an avenging angel to punish the wicked and lift up the good, but instead as a small, vulnerable baby who asks us to love him and to love the poor family into which he is born. We are changed because we realize that our brothers and sisters in this world include the poor, the humble, and those who look different than we do. We are changed because we hear Jesus calling us to be different from the world: to not chase wealth, beauty, fame and power, but to seek the virtues of humility and peace, to share what we have with others and without expectation of receiving anything in return, and to not be afraid to be vulnerable in order to let God’s love shine from us.

The beginning of this change within us happens when we see Jesus lying in the manger on Christmas Eve. But I pray that it does not stop there. When the glow of the birth has faded, when the presents have been opened, when the family goes home, do we remember what God has shown us in the manger? Do we remember that we are sisters and brothers with the poor, the wretched, the refugee, the immigrant? Or do we go back to our comfortable lives and wait until the next Christmas comes to be reminded of these things? This baby in the manger does not stay a baby forever, and our faith, too, should not remain immature. We need to continually be reminded of these things every day and every hour of our lives. We are called to follow Jesus, not only the baby in the manger, but also the adult Jesus, who teaches us how we are to live and who challenges us to love one another and to treat one another as we would treat him.

Jesus’ mother Mary knew that to be the mother of the Son of God would not be easy, and still she said yes when the angel came. She said yes to risking her life to give birth to him. She said yes to allowing the shepherds to come in to see the baby on that long-ago night, perhaps realizing even then that being the mother to the Son of God meant that she would not be able to keep this baby to herself, but would have to share him with the rest of the world. She said yes, even though she may not have fully realized it then, to having the whole world be part of her family. Can we do any less than Mary did? What does saying yes to God mean for us? It does not mean having an easy life, for until Jesus returns there will be evil in the world. But saying yes to God means that we have seen the light that Jesus has brought into the world, and that we are now called to be part of that light shining in dark places, to everyone we meet. Come to see the light of the Christ-child, and go into the world, changed by what you have seen, to show that light to all whom you meet. Amen.

Sermon for Advent 4A

Note: This is the final sermon in a series on the women of Jesus’ genealogy. This final sermon is about Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah.

2 Samuel 11; Psalm 51:1-17; Matthew 1:1-6

Today we end our sermon series on the four women of Jesus’ genealogy mentioned in Matthew 1. We began with Tamar: a woman who lived at the time of Jacob’s son, Judah, who used unusual means to get justice for herself. We went next to Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute living in Jericho, who hid the two Israelite spies and thus gained her life and the lives of her family members when the walls of Jericho came tumbling down. Last week we visited Ruth, a Moabite woman who married into an Israelite family, returned to Bethlehem with her mother-in-law when all the men in their family died, married Boaz, and became the great-grandmother of King David. This week we have one of the most infamous episodes of the Old Testament: the story of Bathsheba, the woman whom King David saw bathing when he was walking around on his rooftop instead of going to war with the rest of his troops; the woman whom he sent for and slept with; and the woman whose husband David had killed when he couldn’t manage to cover up the fact that he had slept with her. Why would Matthew think to mention Bathsheba, an embarrassing episode in the otherwise golden age of King David? Well, let’s dig into the story and see how Bathsheba, like the other women in Jesus’ genealogy, can point us toward Jesus. Some of what I’m going to say to you today may sound familiar, as we talked about Bathsheba for last year’s Bold Woman Sunday. But, it is always good to review and to look at stories anew, right?

So, let’s begin with the opening scene between David and Bathsheba. We don’t know why Bathsheba was bathing in a place where David could see her. David was on the roof of his palace, but the text does not say that Bathsheba was on a roof. She could have been in a courtyard that she thought was secluded, and she didn’t think to look up and notice that anyone was on a roof. She was a married woman, and since the text says that she did mourn for her husband Uriah after he was killed, I’m willing to bet that she was not displaying herself on purpose. David, instead of being at the battlefield with his troops as he should have been, is wandering around his rooftop, happens to look down, and sees the beautiful Bathsheba purifying herself. He is smitten—but not with love; this is lust. He finds out who Bathsheba is, that her husband is away at the battlefield, and sends messengers to get her.

The next question that the text presents us with is: was Bathsheba a willing participant? Or was David guilty of rape? Different authors have written different fictional accounts of this story, using their imaginations to fill in details that are not there. Surprisingly enough, several female authors present this as a situation where Bathsheba knew it was wrong, but was attracted to David and was lonely because her husband was away, participated in the act willingly enough, but then felt extremely guilty about it afterward. I can’t exactly fault these authors for this portrayal, because they’re trying to make Bathsheba relatable to modern-day women who may have been tempted, at some point in their lives, into having an extra-marital affair. But after preaching on this text last year, and after continued study of this text, I still don’t think that is a good way to imagine this encounter, and here’s why: there is a power differential here. David is the king. He has a lot more power than Bathsheba. How could Bathsheba have ever said no to him? Bathsheba was a survivor, and she knew that saying no to a king would have meant death, or perhaps bad repercussions for her husband, who was in David’s army. She had no choice. In his novel, The Book of God, author Walter Wangerin describes Bathsheba sobbing as she submits to David’s will, the only author writing about this story who I’ve found that portrays the encounter in this way.

In the next scene, Bathsheba becomes pregnant and sends a message to David, which in itself is a bold move on her part, as she is demanding that David take responsibility for what he has done. David then calls Uriah back from the battle and tries to get Uriah to sleep with Bathsheba, so that he can say the baby is actually Uriah’s, but Uriah refuses, and David has him killed, making it look like the fortunes of war. Bathsheba mourns for Uriah, and when the time of mourning is over, David then takes Bathsheba as another wife and she bears a son. Our story today ends with, “But the thing David had done displeased the Lord.” David thought that he had covered up his sin pretty well, but what he didn’t understand is that there’s always someone that knows what’s going on, and that’s God.

What we don’t get in today’s story is this: God sends the prophet Nathan to confront David, and although David admits his sin, the child born from this union still dies. This story focuses so much on David that we are left to guess and to infer what Bathsheba is feeling. But, like any woman who loses her child, Bathsheba grieves. “Then David consoled his wife Bathsheba,” and she eventually gave birth to another son, named Solomon. Even though her first son was born of a forced union, she still loved him and grieved his death, just as any mother would grieve. Such heartache for Bathsheba in such a short amount of time! Who wouldn’t grieve after being taken by the king, becoming pregnant, finding out her husband has been killed, getting remarried right away, giving birth, and then losing that baby. Bathsheba seems to have found a measure of peace, though, since her second child with David was named Solomon—coming from the Hebrew word, “Shalom,” meaning “peace”.

In the story of David’s continued reign over the kingdom of Israel, we don’t hear about Bathsheba again until David has become old and ill, and the question is raised of who will succeed David on the throne of Israel. David’s oldest son, Adonijah, is setting himself up as the next king, when Nathan—yes, the same Nathan who confronted David about his sin with Bathsheba—and Bathsheba herself concoct a plan to get David to name Solomon as the next king. They remind David of a promise he made to Bathsheba that Solomon would be king after him. David acknowledges the promise and officially names Solomon as his successor, displacing his oldest son, Adonijah. Bathsheba is now no longer a victim of David’s lust, she is now no longer just another one of David’s wives, but instead has risen to power as the queen mother, with a great deal of influence over her son, the new king, Solomon.

This is a story as shocking and disturbing as those of the other women that we have looked at in this sermon series. The first question that we need to ask is this: How would Jesus have related to this story of his ancestress, a woman who went from being a victim of the lust of a king to a powerful queen mother? There is an echo of this story, I think, in this teaching from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” This was certainly true of King David: one look at Bathsheba caused him to abuse his power as king, send for her, violate her, and then have her husband killed when she became pregnant. Jesus’ teaching is truly revolutionary, even today. When a woman claims that she has been raped, how often does our society put the blame on her? Well, it must have been something she was wearing: she was asking for it. Or, she shouldn’t have gotten so drunk. Or, she just wants to extort money out of him. Or, the attitude of “Boys will be boys.” Instead of these attitudes, Jesus puts the responsibility squarely on the person who looks on the woman with lust. How might our society be different, I wonder, if we actually started by truly believing the woman who says that someone raped her, and put the burden of proof on the man to show that he didn’t do it rather than on the woman to show that he did do it?

But more than this, I think this story shows us the possibility of redemption. Whether or not Bathsheba was a willing participant in this affair or was a victim of rape, God was able to bring good out of it. Not only did Bathsheba become the queen mother to the wisest king Israel would ever know, Solomon, her many times great-grandson was Jesus, the Savior of the world. God showed his mercy and love to both Bathsheba and David, and through Jesus, would show his mercy and love to the entire world.

And this, finally, is the good news for us. As we anticipate celebrating the birth of Jesus, which is just around the corner, we are reminded of why Jesus came: to show us love, mercy, and forgiveness just as we are. Jesus does not demand that we become perfect before we come to him. He was born into an earthly family that included murderers, adulterers, and thieves. Bathsheba and the other women in his family tree were women who fought for justice in the only ways they knew how; who schemed for power; who, yes, engaged in questionable sexual ethics to get what they needed, and who boldly reached out and grasped the promises that God offered them. And Jesus came into his family with no demand that they clean up their act first, but with love and forgiveness. And he offers that same love and forgiveness to us, and that love and forgiveness is what transforms us to want to be better. Let us never think that a person is beyond hope and will never change. Let us instead embrace everyone we meet with the good news of Jesus’ love and forgiveness, let us invite them to come and see Jesus. And may we never forget that God may just work his amazing will through someone that we might never have expected.

As a postscript to this sermon series, there are several more generations after Bathsheba in Jesus’ genealogy that are include both kings and people unknown to us. But I’d like to sum it up by playing this video that I stumbled across yesterday, so that we don’t think that all of these people are somehow not worthy of being mentioned.

 

 

Sermon for Advent 3A

Note: We continue with our sermon series on the women in Jesus’ genealogy looking at Ruth.

The Book of Ruth; Matthew 1:1-6a

Today we have come to the third of the four women who are named in Matthew’s genealogy: the woman known as Ruth, who has a whole book of the Bible named after her to tell her story. We have gone from a woman who lived at the time of Jacob and his sons and who used unusual means to get justice that had been denied to her, to a Canaanite prostitute living in Jericho at the time that Joshua led the Israelites into the Promised Land, now to a woman who lived in the time when the judges were ruling the land of Israel, not too long before kings were chosen to rule over the people. Ruth is a story that we’re all more familiar with; if you were here on a cold and snowy Sunday in February 2014, you may remember that a couple who lives near Red Lodge came down to Powell, and we told the story of Ruth for WELCA’s Bold Woman Sunday that year. And, like both Tamar and Rahab, Ruth, too, was a bold woman, who reached out and took hold of the promises that the Lord was offering to her through his people Israel. Like Tamar and Rahab, we can see Ruth pointing to her greater descendant, Jesus. Also like Tamar and Rahab, Ruth gives us a little bit of messiness to Jesus’ family history, just like there is messiness in all of our family histories.

So, let’s take a look at Ruth’s story. Ruth was a Moabite. The country of Moab was a neighbor to Israel, and according to the Scriptures, the Moabites were cousins to the Israelites. But, it wasn’t always a happy relationship. The Israelites claimed that the Moabites descended from an incestuous relationship that Abraham’s nephew, Lot, had with his daughters; I’ll let you all read that on your own in Genesis chapter 19. And there are many more accounts in the Old Testament about quarrels and battles between the Israelites and the Moabites. This background, then, makes the opening of Ruth’s story a bit shocking: an Israelite couple from Bethlehem—the name of the town means “house of bread,” by the way—migrates from Israel to Moab because there’s a famine: there’s no bread in the house of bread. The famine must have been pretty bad for this couple, Naomi and Elimelech, to head to the land of their enemy to find work and food. But, they did find work and food, for they ended up living in Moab for ten years, long enough for their two sons to find wives among the Moabites. But then, tragedy strikes: Naomi’s husband and two sons die, and she is left with her two daughters-in-law.

This is when the story gets interesting. Naomi decides that she needs to return to Bethlehem, and her two daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, decide they need to go with her. When Naomi urges the two women to turn back, Orpah decides to go back to her family. But Ruth insists on returning to Bethlehem with Naomi. Some of the most beautiful words of love ever recorded are spoken, not between a man and a woman, but between two women: a daughter-in-law to her mother-in-law. Naomi has released Ruth from service to her and her family, but Ruth refuses that release and insists that Naomi’s people will be her people, and that she will follow Naomi and care for her until death. This is no easy promise that Ruth makes. She is vowing to share the same poverty that Naomi has. She is vowing to become a Moabite immigrant in Israelite society, risking her life to stay with Naomi and to care for her. This kind of love falls under the Hebrew word, chesed, which is usually used to refer to God’s love for us. It’s translated as “loving-kindness” or “steadfast love”. And in this story, it is not an Israelite, not a member of the chosen people who displays chesed, it is a foreigner, a hated Moabite, and a woman.

Besides the theme of chesed, there are two other facets of Israelite society that we need to understand in order to understand Ruth. First, the law stated in both Leviticus and Deuteronomy that landowners were to leave the edges of their field unharvested for those who were poor and those who were resident aliens, like Ruth, to pick up grain and so be able to feed themselves. And so, Ruth is able to get food for herself and for Naomi by gleaning in the fields of Boaz. The second thing that we run across in this story is, once again, the concept of levirate marriage: the law that says when a man dies without children, his brother or the nearest male relative is to provide the dead man’s wife with children, thus ensuring the woman’s protection and that the dead man’s line would not die out. And, even though the relationship between Ruth and Boaz is not as close as the relationship between Tamar and Judah was, what Ruth does to get Boaz to fulfill his duty is just as scandalous. The only women who went down to the threshing floor when the harvest was going on were women “of ill repute”; this is the reason that Naomi urges Ruth to go to Boaz in secret, and this is why Ruth gets up and leaves while it is still dark. Thus far, Ruth was known in Bethlehem as an honorable woman who was caring well for her mother-in-law, but she was still a foreigner, a Moabite. One hint of scandal and all the good that she had done would be quickly forgotten. But Ruth’s and Naomi’s gamble pays off, Boaz marries her, and they have a child who continues the line of descent that heads towards King David and, finally, Jesus.

How would Jesus have been affected by this story of his Moabite ancestress, Ruth? Well, first off, he would have understood what it was like to be an immigrant and to live in a land not his own. The Gospel of Matthew tells us that, after the Wise Men came to visit Jesus with their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and went home without reporting back to King Herod, that an angel came to Joseph in a dream and warned him to take Mary and Jesus and flee to Egypt. According to what Matthew tells us, Jesus may have been close to two years old at that time—which is one reason that we celebrate Epiphany separately from Christmas. We don’t know exactly how long Jesus and his family spent living in Egypt, but children do remember traumatic events—such as fleeing for your life in the middle of the night—even at a young age. When Jesus heard the story of Ruth as he grew up, he would have identified with her as a foreigner living in a strange land. Perhaps because of his ancestress, and perhaps because of his own experience, Jesus talked often in his ministry of welcoming the stranger, including naming that in the list of things that the “sheep” get commended for on the last day.

But, there’s even more to the story of Ruth and how she points towards Jesus than both of them having similar experiences as immigrants. Traditionally, Christian theologians have looked at Boaz and noted how he points towards Jesus by redeeming Ruth and Naomi, just as Jesus has redeemed us. That’s all well and good. But I believe that it is Ruth herself who points even more clearly to the work that Jesus has done for us. Ruth says, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you. Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people will be my people. . .” When Jesus became human for us and was born of Mary, these are the vows that he took. Jesus has vowed to never leave us. Jesus has vowed to go where we go, even into the depths of sin in which we find ourselves. And when Jesus became human, he became part of our people. Just as Ruth cared for Naomi by serving her, Jesus cares for us by serving us, even to the point of death on the cross. I believe that when Jesus heard this story of his ancestress, Ruth, it encouraged him during those trying times when the disciples did not understand him, and when they abandoned him in his hour of need. I believe that hearing and remembering Ruth’s story encouraged him to continue modeling the chesed, that steadfast lovingkindness of God, even when those around him were not understanding him and running off and abandoning him. Even when we are faithless, Jesus remains faithful to us, fulfilling the promise of the name the angel gives to him in the Gospel of Matthew: Emmanuel, God is with us.

On this third Sunday of Advent, we have lit the pink candle as well as two purple candles. The pink candle is the candle of joy, and reminds us of how we are joyously anticipating the arrival of the Lord. One of those reasons for joy shines through in Ruth’s story. Ruth models God’s steadfast loving-kindness towards her mother-in-law, Naomi, and towards Boaz as she gives up everything she knows in Moab and risks her life to live in Israel, the land of her people’s enemy. And God blessed Ruth and provided for both her and Naomi by giving them food, and the support of a family. God continues to show steadfast loving-kindness towards us today. God has done this by sending Jesus to this earth to love us even when we are at our most unlovable; by experiencing what it is like to be born, to live as a human being, to understand intimately our sorrows and sufferings as well as our joy, to teach us even when we are unwilling to learn, and finally, to die on the cross for us to show us the true meaning of sacrificial love. This is Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, and for this gift, we have much cause to rejoice. Amen.

Sermon for Advent 2A

Note: We are continuing with our sermon series on the women of Jesus’ genealogy. Today we looked at Rahab.

Joshua 2:1-24; Hebrews 11:30-31; James 2:24-26; Matthew 1:1-5a

This week we continue our exploration of the women named in Jesus’ genealogy; his skeletons in the closet. Last week we heard about a woman named Tamar, who used very unusual means to seek out justice that had been denied to her, including disguising herself as a prostitute. This week we go from a pretend prostitute to an actual prostitute, and a Canaanite one at that. We jump forward from the time of Jacob and Judah and his brothers, past the time of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, to the end of their 40 years of wandering in the desert. The Israelites are now camped outside the walls of Jericho, which still exists today and is in fact the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Some of you might be remembering a song from Sunday school that talked about Joshua fighting the battle of Jericho and the walls came tumbling down. That’s the story that we’re talking about today, and we’re talking about a very unusual Canaanite prostitute who lived in the city by the name of Rahab. And again, as we talk about these women who are listed in Jesus’ genealogy, I’d like for us to be thinking about two things: First, we’re looking for how these women can point us toward Jesus as we are anticipating celebrating his birth, and second, we are remembering that even Jesus, the Savior of the world, the Son of God, had a messy family history, just like we do; showing that he became fully human for our sake.

So, let’s take a look at Rahab. We don’t know how, exactly, the two spies sent from the Israelite army end up in her house. My guess, from the context of the story, is that the people of Jericho recognized them as “different,” pretty quickly after they entered the city; they started running, and somehow ran into Rahab’s house. But there is no indication as to why Rahab decides to take them in and hide them, at least at first. In come the two spies, with a desperate plea to Rahab to hide them from the king’s guards; she hides them on the roof, and then tells the guards, “Yeah, they were here, but they left. I think they went that way. Go and find them quickly.” Then, once the guards are gone, she goes up and talks to the two Israelite spies that she has hidden on the roof.

Now, here’s the amazing part of the story: Rahab tells the Israelite spies first, how all of Jericho is melting in fear because they have heard about how much the Lord has done to get the Israelites out of Egypt and to defeat their enemies. That I can understand. What is truly astounding to me is how Rahab boldly confesses, “The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below.” Is Rahab just hedging her bets and saying the words that she thinks the Israelites want to hear so that she will be spared in the coming battle? Or has she truly heard the Lord’s voice calling her to believe? Has the word of God truly come, not only to the prophets of Israel, but also to a Canaanite, a foreigner to the people of Israel, and a prostitute at that?

Well, based on some clues in the story itself, and then events and interpretations that came later, I think that somehow, in some way, the word of the Lord did come to this Canaanite prostitute named Rahab. The first clue that I see is that she was willing to do what the Israelite spies told her to do in order to be spared: hang a crimson cord out her window. Like the blood of the lambs that was smeared on the doorposts of the Israelite homes on the first Passover long ago in Egypt, this crimson cord was a statement that Rahab believed that the Lord would save her from the destruction of the city that the Lord would bring about through Joshua and the Israelites. The next clue that I see is that she pleads for the lives of her family as well. If she were just in this for herself and if she were just hedging her bets, then she wouldn’t have given a thought to her family. Her family may not have believed that the Israelites would win the battle, and her family may not have believed that the God of the Israelites was truly God in heaven above and on earth below. They may have still been worshiping idols. And yet, Rahab pleads for their lives, and she gets her family to come into the house where she has been a prostitute for many years in order that their lives may be saved. And the final clue is this: after the Israelites have destroyed Jericho, Rahab and her family not only survive, but Rahab marries into the Israelite family and becomes an ancestor not only of David, but also of Jesus.

So, how would this story of his colorful ancestor have affected Jesus? In Jewish tradition, Rahab is a hero: the rabbis sing praises of her for her beauty and her wisdom. She is also a model for those who wish to repent of their ways and seek divine mercy. Perhaps, too, she would have been a model that even those outside of the Jewish people and faith could hear the word of the Lord and come to believe. Perhaps when, in his adult ministry, Jesus encountered the Canaanite woman seeking healing for her demon-possessed daughter and initially called her a dog, the story of Rahab flashed through his mind as he witnessed this Canaanite woman’s persistence in pleading for her daughter. And the story of Rahab, the prostitute who reformed her ways and believed in the one true God, probably influenced Jesus as he ministered among those whom society labeled as “sinners”. In his ministry, when Jesus was questioned about his eating with tax collectors and “sinners,” he answered, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” Jesus came to this earth for sinners, to urge us to repentance and to show us God’s love and grace.

So, how does this play out in our lives today? Well, I’ve included two other New Testament references to Rahab for our consideration this morning. The first one is from Hebrews. Hebrews 11 is commonly called the “Hall of Fame for Heroes from Biblical History.” Here the author of this letter lists many well-known figures of Israelite history and what they accomplished by faith. It was because of faith, the author says, that Rahab received the spies, hid them, and sent them on their way. That seems to bear out what we have learned of Rahab in her story: she states that she believes that the God of the Israelites is the one true God. And yet, in the next verses that we have, from the book of James, this author tells us that Rahab was made right with God because of what she did: hiding the spies and then setting them on the road. And James uses this story to make the point that faith, without works, is not really faith at all: it is dead. So, which one is right? Is it faith or is it works that saved Rahab? And is it faith or is it works that saves us?

Any good Lutheran, when presented with an either/or question, will say “yes”. Yes, Rahab was gifted with faith in God by the Holy Spirit; we don’t know when or through what means, but she had received that faith. In turn, her faith led her to save the spies and, in return, be saved, with her family, when the walls of Jericho came tumbling down. The Israelites saw that Rahab had faith by the actions that she took. And that is how others around us see how we have faith: by the actions that God is calling us to do.

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” In the reading that we would normally have on this second Sunday of Advent, John the Baptist exhorts those coming out to be baptized to “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” These teachings are not saying that the things we do are going to save us. Rather, they are saying that a true and living faith expresses itself in how we live our lives, and how we treat others. And Jesus tells us how a true faith lives itself out: by feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting those in prison. And the faithful do these things not for reward, but because it is simply an outflow of the faith that the Holy Spirit has given them.

And yet, even the most faithful will fail from time to time. We will miss an opportunity to care for someone whom we are supposed to care for, or we will unjustly condemn someone as a worse “sinner” than we are, or we will fail in an even more spectacular way. When this happens, we realize again that we cannot depend on our works to save us, and so we return to the Lord, repenting of our sinfulness, and receive his grace. And we are renewed and strengthened to continue living out this faith that God has given us; this faith in the one who came once long ago as a baby in the manger and who will come again one day to set all things right; to wipe away all mourning and crying and pain.

This is the God who Rahab believed in: a God of love and mercy and grace; a God who would accept her, a Canaanite, an outsider to God’s people, and a prostitute. If God can accept such a person and bring her into God’s people, then God can accept—and does accept—you, me, and each person we meet, and every person around the world into God’s family. It doesn’t matter what our past sins are—when God speaks into our lives, God speaks words of love and gives us the faith in him which gives us the will to go out and show that love to everyone we meet. So let’s go forth from here and find those colorful characters in our lives to befriend them and to show them how much God has done for us. We just never know who the Holy Spirit is going to give the gift of faith to next. Amen.