Advent is a time of spiritual preparation for the celebration of the holy child Jesus. Advent, meaning “coming,” or “arrival,” invites us to think deeply about the significance of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem. It also reminds us to live in anticipation of his second coming.
Some families observe this season with Advent wreathes and candles. Traditionally these represent the four themes of hope, peace, joy and love. Scripture readings usually emphasize the prophecies of Christ’s coming, as well as the story of the town of Bethlehem, the shepherds, and the angels.
In churches all over the world the next four weeks will be marked by scriptures, songs and liturgies that recall other themes, events, or personalities surrounding the coming of Jesus. This year on this site I wish to honor some of the women who are associated with our Lord’s birth narratives.
Four of these women appear in Jesus’ family history (Matthew chapter 1). This is surprising since Old Testament genealogies did not usually include women. The fact that the apostle Matthew did so, is a reminder of their significance in the plan of God. The genealogy of Jesus also shows us that the entire Old Testament pointed forward to the coming of Messiah the King of the Jews, a theme of Matthew’s gospel.
There is something unusual, unsavory, or scandalous associated with these four women. The same is true, of course, of some of the famous men of the Bible. Abraham lied on more then one occasion. David’s great sins were adultery and murder. Solomon became an idolater, as did many of his kingly descendants. All of them were sinners in need of God’s grace.
The Holy Spirit wants us to remember these four women, not for their failures, scandals, or exclusion, but for what God’s grace did for them. Their lives are evidence of what grace can do for us as well. Grace transforms sinners and outcasts. It operates in all kinds of difficult situations. It reverses tragic outcomes.
Tamar (Matthew 1:1-3)
Tamar’s story is found in one of the strangest chapters in the Bible (Genesis 38). Her story is simply awful, embarrassing to read. She was a victim of treachery who turned around and committed treachery. (How many victims of abuse become abusers? How many children of addicts become addicts themselves?) It is surprising to read such a story in the Bible.
Tamar’s story is a messy tale of hypocrisy, deception, revenge, and sexual sin. Matthew’s brief account says that she became the mother of the twin sons of Judah, who were ancestors of King David and of our Lord Jesus. What he doesn’t say is that they were sons of an incestuous relationship.
We learn from this that God is merciful and he is able to turn human sin into an opportunity for his grace. “Where sin increased, grace increased all the more” (Romans 5:20).
Rahab (Matthew 1:3-5)
Rahab was an outsider, a Canaanite woman, who was a prostitute. Her civilization was under God’s judgment (Joshua 2 and 6). The scriptures tell us that despite her unsavory reputation, she chose to be identified with the covenant people of God. When the Hebrew spies made their way into her city of Jericho, she protected them. As a result, she and her family were spared when Jericho was conquered.
She is identified in the New Testament as an example of saving faith in the living God (Hebrews 11:31, James 2:25-26, Joshua 2:8-11). So here she is, a converted prostitute, in the Christmas story, a part of the ancestral heritage of Jesus, the king of the Jews!
Ruth (Matthew 1:5-6)
Ruth’s story is found in the Old Testament book that bears her name. It occurred in the days of the Judges in Israel. She was a Gentile, like Tamar and Rahab before her. This fact reminds us that God’s grace was not limited to the people of Israel, but that he intended to save Gentiles too.
Ruth’s husband was a Hebrew from Bethlehem, living in Moab. When he died, she and her mother-in-law Naomi were destitute. Naomi decided to return to Bethlehem. Ruth was determined to leave Moab and go with her, surrendering her life to the God of the Hebrews. She thus wanted to be identified with the people of God in the land of Israel.
Through the providence of God, she was maneuvered into the recognition of a wealthy landowner named Boaz. What followed was a beautiful love story. Her story is also an example of how God’s laws provided for economic justice for the poor.
Boaz married Ruth and they became great-grandparents of king David and members of the genealogy of king Jesus, who would be born in Bethlehem, the hometown of Boaz and Naomi. Ruth’s story is another example of God’s grace in operation. It was activated by her obedient surrender to the Lord.
Bathsheba (Matthew 1:6)
The fourth woman’s behavior was so shameful that Matthew does not name her. She is the woman who committed adultery with King David (2 Samuel 11-12). It is the tragic story of how David abused his power as king to steal Uriah’s wife, devalue Uriah’s loyalty, and authorize his murder. She cooperated with David in this sin.
The prophet Nathan confronted the king with these words: “Why did you despise the word of the Lord by doing what is evil?” When David repented, apparently Bathsheba did too because, in his grace, God blessed them with a son, Solomon. Solomon was given the name “Jedediah” by God’s prophet, which means “loved by the Lord.” Surely this was an indication that God had forgiven them and was promising a new beginning.
Applying this Advent Lesson
Three of these women were Gentiles. Their stories are not interruptions in the outworking of God’s plan. God would have his gospel to go to people of all nations. Matthew, writing as a Jew for Jewish readers, about the coming of the king of the Jews presents Jesus as savior of Gentiles too.
Our Lord’s genealogy is more than a list of names. It is a testimony to God’s grace in redeeming sinners. Elsewhere Matthew reminds us that Jesus did not come for the righteous, but “to call sinners to repentance” (Matthew 9:13).
There is hope for all of us, no matter what we may have done. We all have things in our lives we would be ashamed to have displayed for all the world to see. We are all sinners in need of God’s grace. Jesus invites us to come to him for forgiveness and mercy.
Pastor Randy Faulkner