A lesson: Luke 1:26-38
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
What was she doing? No one knows. But at some time of some day, while she was doing who-knows-what… an angel appeared to her. Was he shining like the sun? Was his voice like thunder? We have no idea. But, he told her that of all the women ever born, she was the one chosen by God to bear the Messiah into the world.
The Gospels never tell us why Mary is the chosen one. No incredible stories of virtue or righteousness. No tales of a heroic childhood faith.
What we do have is a story about a woman who said “yes” to God. A woman who stood by her son through the hard days of his ministry, and then stood by him at the cross. What we have is a story of a woman who went to her son’s tomb and found it empty.
God met Mary not in a church or temple, but in the midst of what started out to be a normal day. God met Mary, not as a perfect person, but as a real person who God loved dearly, and who God chose. God met Mary not with a demand, but with a holy possibility.
In this sense, the Incarnation is pregnant with possibility for all of us, at any moment, and in any place. God may come shining like the sun or with a voice as soft as distant thunder at any moment, and invite us into something we never could have dreamt for ourselves.
O God, you have taken to yourself the blessed Virgin Mary, mother of your incarnate Son: Grant that we, who have been redeemed by his blood, may share with her the glory of your eternal kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
(Prayer from The Book of Common Prayer)
A lesson: Matthew 1:18-25
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
We don’t know a lot about Joseph. People wonder if he was much older than Mary. People wonder if he had been widowed previously and had children from that previous marriage. People wonder if he died early on in Jesus’ life, like sometime in his adolescence or early adulthood.
When it comes to Joseph, there are lots of questions that we just don’t have the answers to.
But, there’s one thing that we are sure of: he was a good man.
He could have, according to Old Testament law, have had Mary stoned when he learned that she was pregant. He could have just picked up and left. He could have dragged her reputation through the gutter.
And, quite frankly, no one would have blamed him one bit.
He was such a good man though that he first tried to have her quietly dismissed. He was certainly hurt and angry, but he wasn’t going to take those feelings out on her.
He was also a good man, in that when God told him in a dream that Mary’s child was in fact God’s child, he stuck with her – and God. He willingly chose to become Jesus’ adopted father, and he kept Jesus and his family safe when the government was trying to hunt down Jesus to kill him.
This we know: Joseph is the good and righteous husband of Mary and the attentive and protective father of Our Lord. I don’t know about you, but he makes me wonder if I could ever be as good, as faithful, and as steadfast.
O God, who from the family of your servant David raised up Joseph to be the guardian of your incarnate Son and the spouse of his virgin mother: Give us grace to imitate his uprightness of life and his obedience to your commands; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (The Book of Common Prayer)
A lesson – 2 Samuel 11:1-4a
In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem.It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful. David sent someone to inquire about the woman. It was reported, ‘This is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.’ So David sent messengers to fetch her, and she came to him
The fact that Matthew included Bathsheba in his version of Jesus’ genealogy, almost defies logic. He was under no obligation at all to include her as the mother of Solomon, for there are only four other names of
mothers in the whole genealogy. He could have glossed over the whole Bathsheba affair and no one would have criticized him for the omission.
In fact, they might have even breathed easier.
But, Matthew includes Bathsheba not by accident, but on purpose. For he is not trying to gloss over the complexities and awkwardness of human failing. I’d say “not even when telling the story of Jesus,” but in reality it’s “especially when telling the story of Jesus.”
King David saw a beautiful woman bathing on a nearby rooftop, and he had the palace guard go and fetch her. She was married, but that didn’t matter to him. When she became pregnant with their child he then arranged for her husband to be killed.
Matthew sees no reason to Photoshop this blemish out. No reason to silence the truth. It happened.
And, human failings continue to happen. Every day. By good people. By great people. By people of no consequence whatsoever. By us.
Jesus comes into the world because we need him to come. We need the grace and mercy that he brings. And in the manger and in the cross we need the holy reminder that God loves us, no matter what.
O God, thank you for the gift you give us in Bethlehem and on Calvary; the gift of your love and the promise of your grace even when we don’t deserve it. As we are day by day forgiven by you, help us to have the courage to forgive others, that your kingdom may come on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.
A lesson – 2 Samuel 6:1-5
David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. David and all the people with him set out and went from Baale-judah, to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the Lord of hosts who is enthroned on the cherubim. They carried the ark of God on a new cart, and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new cart with the ark of God; and Ahio went in front of the ark. David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the Lord with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.
The first king of Israel was Saul – though Saul didn’t work out so well. While Saul was floundering, the prophet Samuel went looking for a new king, and God directed him to David, the youngest of the sons of Jesse. While he had no leadership experience (save for shepherding flocks of sheep), he proved to be an excellent King. He unified the people, he remembered the covenant that God had made with us, he established Jerusalem as the capital city, and he began plans for a great Temple in that city.
Another prophet, Nathan, told him that unfortunately he would not be the king to build this Temple for God; that would have to wait. However, while delivering this bad news, he offered him some good news too: God would preserve his descendants and do great things with his family. Even though David had some moral failings, people looked to the house and lineage of David for centuries after him as a family whom God had blessed. And, when the prophets and sages of old foretold the coming of the Messiah into the world they reminded people to look to this family, to a descendant of the house of David.
Interestingly, there are two distinct and separate histories of King David in the Hebrew Bible – one in the Books of Samuel and Kings and the other in the Books of the Chronicles. The author of Chronicles spares us of almost any details where David would look bad, even to the point of completely glossing over the episode with Bathsheba. The author of Samuel I & II and Kings I gives us a more rounded telling of David’s story, where he is depicted as a great leader AND a human being who is subject to normal human failings.
The authors of the Gospels go to great lengths to remind us that Jesus comes from David’s stock, and that Jesus coming from the house and lineage of David was a fulfillment of the promises of God.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence
and take not your holy Spirit from me.
Give me the joy of your saving help again
and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.
(From Psalm 51, a psalm that is said to have been composed by David after the Bathsheba affair.)
A lesson – Samuel 16: 5b-13
And [Samuel] sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice. When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.
Jesse was the grandson of Ruth and the father of David. When the prophet and kingmaker Samuel came to town to find and anoint a new king – since Saul didn’t work out – he came to the house of Jesse, a Bethlehemite. Jesse gathered all his sons together to greet the great Samuel.
Well… not all of his sons. He left his youngest son in the field, tending the sheep.
I mean, who would need him? Jesse had his seven oldest sons present. Who would want the youngest? It was better to keep him where he was.
All seven of those sons passed by Samuel, and Samuel didn’t discern God calling any of them to be king. Samuel asked Jesse, “Are all of your sons here?” When Jesse indicated that the runt of the litter was in the fields hanging out with the sheep, Samuel immediately told him to summon him.
When David finally reached the gathering, God immediately told Samuel to anoint him to be king.
Jesse didn’t obviously see much in him. But, God did.
Jesse, I think, embodies that tendency, that rests in all of us, to be impressed with the biggest, the shiniest, the most educated, the most… You get the point. The choice of David here reminds us that God can do great things with the least likely of people, in the least likely of times, and in the least likely of ways.
O God, keep us open to your ways, and your possibilities. Let us see you at work wherever you are, even in those people and places that we most often overlook. For you are the one who does wonders. Amen.
A lesson – Ruth 1:14-18
Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” But Ruth said, “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 shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.
Ruth is one of the five women who Matthew includes in his version of the genealogy of Jesus. The book which bears her name tells the tale of her in-laws, Elimelech and Naomi fleeing Israel in the midst of a famine, and heading to Moab. While there the two sons of Elimelech and Naomi married Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah. Then in a series of unfortunate events, Elimelech and their two sons die. Naomi decides to return home to Israel, and she releases her two daughters-in-law of any commitment to her, and tells them to find other husbands in Moab. Orpah reluctantly listens to Naomi, but Ruth will hear nothing of it. Ruth, in a stunning act of familial love towards Naomi leaves her home and journeys to Israel with her.
While in Israel, Ruth catches the eye of a handsome farmer, Boaz, and ends up marrying him. They become the parents of Obeb, who becomes the father of Jesse, who becomes the father of David.
One thing that commentators mention over and over again is the fact that Ruth is a Moabite – a people who were held in great contempt and suspicion by the Israelites. That she becomes the great-grandmother of David, King of Israel, is stunning. I think that the most important thing about Ruth though is her display of love and fidelity. She is the very icon of faithfulness and sacrifice on behalf of her mother-in-law. She could have stayed at home in Moab, and been quite comfortable. Instead, she chose the harder road.
That she becomes a root on the genealogical tree from which the Messiah comes, I think, is quite beautiful.
O God, whose faithfulness knows no end, give us the wisdom and grace to follow the example of the loving fidelity of your servant Ruth, this day and every day. Amen.
A lesson – Joshua 2:1-6
Then Joshua son of Nun sent two men secretly from Shittim as spies, saying, “Go, view the land, especially Jericho.” So they went, and entered the house of a prostitute whose name was Rahab, and spent the night there. The king of Jericho was told, “Some Israelites have come here tonight to search out the land.” Then the king of Jericho sent orders to Rahab, “Bring out the men who have come to you, who entered your house, for they have come only to search out the whole land.” But the woman took the two men and hid them. Then she said, “True, the men came to me, but I did not know where they came from. And when it was time to close the gate at dark, the men went out. Where the men went I do not know. Pursue them quickly, for you can overtake them.” She had, however, brought them up to the roof and hidden them with the stalks of flax that she had laid out on the roof.
Women were not normally included in genealogies in the ancient world. Luke included no women in his version of Jesus’ genealogy. Matthew on the other hand, included five. And each one of those five women are remarkable. By including any women, Matthew would have been making a statement. By including THESE women, he is making an even bigger statement.
One of those women is Rahab. Rahab’s explicit inclusion in Jesus’ family tree is utterly amazing because of her profession. For Rahab was a prostitute.
Rahab lived and worked as a prostitute in the city of Jericho in the years immediately following the Exodus. The Jewish people were finally in the Promised Land, and Rahab assisted them in capturing Jericho. She hid Israelite spies in her home, and when the authorities of Jericho came to find them, Rahab hid them and helped them escape.
Honestly, Matthew could have left her out of the first chapter of his Gospel and no one would have even noticed. That he included her though says something about how Matthew sees the message of the Good News of Jesus: it is for everyone. For Matthew, anyone with any background, with any marks against them whatsoever, can make a contribution to the Kingdom of God. Absolutely anyone can be an example of faith.
Even Rahab. Even me. Even you.
God of mercy, we thank you for your unwavering grace and forgiveness; help us to forgive others as you have forgiven us, and give us eyes to see them not with prejudice, but as you see them and love them. Amen.
A lesson – Genesis 6:11-22
And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth. Make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits. Make a roof for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above; and put the door of the ark in its side; make it with lower, second, and third decks. For my part, I am going to bring a flood of waters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die. But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every kind shall come in to you, to keep them alive. Also take with you every kind of food that is eaten, and store it up; and it shall serve as food for you and for them.”
Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.
For some ridiculous reason, we just love refashioning the story of Noah into a cute, cartoonish, kid-friendly tale. Can’t you see the drawings and the baby toys? The smiling Noah? The purple elephant? The awkward giraffe with his neck sticking out of a round port-side window? The animals going on by twosies, and coming off again in threesies?
It’s ridiculous because the story of Noah is anything but cute and cartoonish. People are sinning so horrifically that with grief and anger God sets out to wipeout everyone, and everything. It’s a story of death on an unthinkably massive scale. It’s a story of pitch black clouds, of a foaming raging sea, and lives being drowned out in every direction.
Luke includes Noah in Jesus’ family tree. Noah’s inclusion reminds us of the evil things that humans can do – as if we need much of a reminder of that these days. However, while God responded to the depths of human sin with a flood in the days of Noah, God responded with love and grace in the days of Jesus.
When we juxtapose Noah and Jesus, as Luke does in his version of the genealogy, we see the remarkable consistency of human failing, and we see a remarkable difference in how God chooses to relate to us.
The gift of that child born in a manger becomes even more beautiful than a rainbow.
O God, who made a covenant with all living things in the days of Noah, and set a bow in the sky; give us grace to see our failings and strength to live according to your way, that we may evermore be people who reflect your love in the world. Amen.