This is the first sermon in the 2018 Advent series, “Mothers of Jesus,” preached on Sunday, December 9, 2018.
We need peace. The Hebrew word for peace is SHALOM, meaning more than just the absence of conflict, although it certainly includes that. SHALOM means wholeness. Rightness. We need SHALOM in our marriages. We need SHALOM in our homes. We need SHALOM in our church. We need SHALOM in our nation, and in our world.
Jesus’s arrival is heralded as the beginning of the arrival of SHALOM — of peace (Luke 2:14). And the way that Jesus arrives is essential to this story. Which is why both Matthew and Luke give us a record of Jesus’ genealogy (Matthew 1:1-17, Luke 3:23-38).
Matthew, in his account of Jesus’ lineage, includes men AND WOMEN. Culturally, this was unprecedented: genealogies were, as a rule, “men-only” affairs. Matthew includes the names of 5 women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary. These names are noteworthy, notorious even. All the women in Jesus’ family tree, his “mothers,” were notorious for their shameful behavior and scandalous actions, but they also show in their stories their cleverness and courage in the midst of their circumstances, bringing peace and justice to others.
We start with the first name on the list: Tamar.
Tamar’s story is a shocking one. It interrupts the story of Joseph at the end of the book of Genesis. It is filled with cultural baggage that is difficult for us to access in the 21st century, so a casual reading shows us that Tamar’s story isn’t really about us or for us in any meaningful way. But this story is part of Jesus’ story, and it is worth a closer reading:
Tamar acts creatively and courageously for justice for herself.
Tamar had very few options, very little freedom, in this story. As a woman, her marriage to Judah’s son Er was a business arrangement initiated by Judah (Genesis 38:6) and agreed upon by Tamar’s father. Er was a wicked man, and we can only imagine what abuses or shame Tamar endured during her short marriage to him. When Er died without having had a child with Tamar, it was the custom of that day for Judah to give Tamar in marriage to Er’s brother, Onan. Onan’s responsibility was to give his deceased brother an heir, who would inherit Judah’s household in Er’s name. But this was also how Tamar was to be protected as a part of Judah’s family. Without a husband or a family, Tamar had nothing in the patriarchal society of her day, and would have been abandoned. Onan was also wicked, however. If Onan performed his duty, he would lose his inheritance, so out of arrogance and greed, Onan intentionally fails in his responsibility. After Onan’s death, Judah has two options, legally. Either, he betroths Tamar to his third and only son, Shelah, or he legally releases her from his family, so that she could marry into another family. Judah does neither. He gives her an unclear promise of marrying Shelah when he is of age, and sends her to live in her father’s household again until that time. That time comes and goes, and Judah fails to keep his word to Tamar.
And as we see in her story, this led her to do some seriously sinful things. It would be easy to focus on the sinfulness of her actions, and blame her for her deceit and seduction of Judah; but that’s only half the story. She is also a victim of injustice throughout this story, and she stands up under it with quiet strength and surprising grace. Tamar chose to stand up for her rights, and to get justice for herself, in the only way available to her. Child-bearing was her salvation, within the rigid system in which she lived. She did so deceitfully and immorally, perhaps, but we see God redeem her sinful activity to bring about His good purpose.
Tamar’s actions revealed Judah’s unconfessed sins, bringing Judah to repentance and reconciliation.
We cannot understand the importance of Tamar’s story for the story of Jesus without first recognizing her impact on Judah’s story. Judah is the one who proposes to sell his brother Joseph to Ishmaelite merchants as a slave (Genesis 37:26), which is what they do, out of jealousy and anger. They then cover up their actions by dipping Joseph’s splendid coat in a goat’s blood and bringing this false evidence to their father Jacob, who is heartbroken at the apparent death of his beloved son.
We pick up the story with Judah’s fleeing his family. Rather than face the painful consequences of his scheme to sell his brother as a slave, Judah makes a home for himself away from his family, running from his sins. He then begins his own family, choosing to start over rather than go back and confess. As a result, his unconfessed, unreconciled sins against his brother and father show up again, this time in broken relationships with his own sons, and in their singular wickedness. Because Judah ran from his sins and hid from them, they were allowed to continue unchecked.
This same dynamic shows up in our families, doesn’t it? How many of us here feel anxious about the spiritual lives of our children? How many of us carry shame because we feel we failed to parent and disciple our children better? This is a painful reality in many of our families, one that we do not know how to handle. So we tend to hide it. We shudder under the burden that it’s too late. We can’t go back and fix it, so we bear it in secret. Of course, our children are ultimately responsible for their own actions; but we as parents can help them take responsibility for their actions when we model taking responsibility for our actions, owning our failures, and working for peace and reconciliation.
I think this describes Judah. He has failed as a brother, and as a son, and as a father, and now as a father-in-law. All of his breakdowns in integrity are catching up with him, but he is still afraid to face it. So when he is told of the adultery of his daughter-in-law Tamar, Judah lashes out to condemn Tamar and punish her sins to the fullest extent, even though he himself is guilty of the same sin (Romans 2:1). We see again Judah’s inability to face his own sinful actions and failures.
Now we see the full power of Tamar’s strange actions in this story, and why God has preserved her story for us. Tamar has laid a trap for Judah perfectly, asking for his ring, cord, and staff as proof of his identity. She has exactly what she needs to expose him publicly, bringing his sin and shame down on his head for all to see. But she doesn’t. She sends word privately, returning Judah’s belongings to him.
When Judah sees them, he is cut to the heart. Judah says, “She is more righteous than I” (Genesis 38:26). In this strange series of events, broken and troubling, Tamar quietly, graciously confronts Judah with his failure toward his family, and she brings him gently to deep repentance. And not only repentance, but reconciliation, even! After this story, when we return to Joseph’s story, we find Judah has returned home, living with his father and his brothers; and we see him act boldly to protect his brother Benjamin and his father Jacob. Tamar brings repentance and peace to Judah, and to Jacob’s family.
No sin is beyond redemption in God’s hands.
The promise of God to bring a Messiah through Abraham’s family, from the tribe of Judah specifically, has been in peril throughout this story. Will God’s promise come to be? Will there be a descendant in the line of Judah, or won’t there? And God uses the least-expected means to fulfill His promise. God chooses to redeem Tamar’s scandalous actions and transform them for good. Immediate good, and ultimate good.
God brings Tamar, an outsider and a woman, into Judah’s family to bring wholeness and reconciliation and peace. And through Tamar’s courage, generations later, God brings his Son, Jesus Christ, into the dark and broken world that He loves so much.
He does the same today. God uses our broken lives, our failures and mistakes, and even our sins, to bring about His good purposes, when we choose to honestly, vulnerably bring them to God and place them in God’s hands. Tamar’s story should proclaim to us that no sin is beyond redemption in God’s hands. We can be sure that God is weaving together our stories, mistakes and failures and all, into His beautiful story of grace and peace and wholeness. It is up to us to let Him, to surrender our lives, and to trust His surprising wisdom.