Advent 2012: Preludes

Preludes to the greatest Love story
(An Advent reflection series)

Matthew 1:1, 5-6 (NIV)
A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham:
…Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab,
Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth,
Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David. David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife…”

Who’d have thought that Jesus Christ would have such a spotty family tree? In establishing the Messiah’s bloodline tracing back to David, the greatest of Israel’s kings, and all the way to Abraham, the father of the nation, Matthew brought up four couples preceding the names of Joseph and Mary. We’ll skip Judah, and his widowed daughter-in-law Tamar, who had to trick him into providing her with heirs – I don’t think there was a love story there as Genesis 38 narrates that he did not sleep with her after that one night of mistaken identity when she conceived her twins. But from one of those sons, Perez, came a descendant named Salmon and his wife, Rahab.

Prelude #1
“The harlot hid us,” one of the spies reported back, after their reconnaissance behind the enemy’s fortified walls. Of the two of them, the princely S felt a bad taste in his mouth at the word harlot. The woman, he thought, could barely be faulted for her racy reputation. How was she expected to support her parents, her brothers and sisters, from weaving flax into scarlet linen to sell? Living on the edge of the city, it made sense for her to rent out rooms in her house to weary travelers. The extra income would have been a lot of help. If someone offered her a little bit more money for a little bit more hospitality…well, she had a big family to support. Anyway, he thought, she didn’t even try to seduce us.

The scarlet linen. The spies reported that they had promised her and her family asylum in exchange for sheltering them from her own people. She would tie a scarlet cord woven from the same fibers that they hid under, on the window from which they escaped, so that they would know which house to spare during their conquest. That she had heard of their God, and believed in His great power – and also His mercy – took them by surprise. Everything about her took S by surprise: her beauty, which was praised by those who had sought “hospitality” under her roof, her intellect and eloquence, her leadership (why was she the breadwinner?) and quick-wittedness in facilitating their escape, the faith she had in their God. Who was she? He was intrigued.

And so, after the walls came tumbling down, and R and her family had been adopted by his people, S pursued her. And she, the foreigner whose checkered past would be written about for generations in connection with a faith to emulate, marveled at his pursuit. How could she not be won over by this brave man who chose to overlook her background? He was the leader of a great tribe; he could have any woman – a woman who wouldn’t pollute his noble bloodline with not only foreign genes, but a sinful past. Yet S chose her. This was beyond imagination. She was – in a completely different way from the battle between her people and his – captivated. Their love would give birth to a son whom they would raise up to be a godly man, and a kinsman-redeemer. And their names, their love story, would be talked about long after they were gone.

Reflection
Some Bible and Jewish scholars to this day dispute that the Rahab written about in the book of Joshua, in Hebrews 11 and James 2, is the same Rahab who married Salmon and gave birth to Boaz. Well, in the Bible study I learned from, we were taught that when in doubt about reading between Scripture’s lines, go literal. As black-and-white as it gets, it’s one and the same Rahab to me.

So it was, too, for the prince of preachers, Charles H. Spurgeon, who gave a sermon on Rahab. One of his points was:
“Rahab’s faith was a SANCTIFYING FAITH. Did Rahab continue a harlot after she had faith? No, no, she did not. I do not believe she was a harlot at the time the men went to her house, though the name still stuck to her, as such ill names will; but I am sure she was not afterward, for Salmon the prince of Judah married her, and her name is put down among the ancestors of our Lord Jesus Christ. She became after that a woman eminent for piety walking in the fear of God.”

There is faith. And there is God’s grace. And God took Rahab’s dark, sinful past and wove a new story – a love story, a story of legendary faith – from it.

***

Prelude #2
She half-ran home, as much as her unfamiliarity with the streets of the land that was not her own allowed her to; as much as the 22 liters of barley that she was carrying allowed her to. She couldn’t wait to tell her mother-in-law — now the only family she would ever have, when she turned her back on her own, out of love for this old woman her dearly departed husband once called “mama” — about her day. It was truly a day of firsts.

She had ventured out with a brave face. As much as she had wanted to hold her chin up and set her shoulders back with determination and dignity, she knew the posture she would have to take would be the lowered head and stooped form of humility. She was there, for the first time in her life, to beg. To beg to follow after the harvesters and pick up the grain they left behind, the grain that wasn’t good enough, that fell through the cracks. The grain that was like her.

And yet the day was filled with surprises. She was grateful that the foreman had pitied her and allowed her to glean along with society’s “needy” — but it was law to let the widows and less fortunate do so. So his mercy was expected. But then the owner of the field showed up. Whispers flew among the harvesters and the riffraff about the middle-aged bachelor’s reputation: a man of standing. He was said to be a generous man. A kind man. She kept her head down and worked.

She caught his eye. Who would have thought he would stoop down to the level of the young, foreign widow who gleaned with the beggars, to talk with — not to — her? And yet he did. He told her that he had heard about what she had done, what she was doing, for her mother-in-law. He told her to stay and glean in his field, along with his servant girls for her safety, to eat with them and drink from their water supply. And he blessed her.

She did not know about the instructions to his men to intentionally leave good grain for her to glean. She did not know that he told his people to treat her kindly. All she knew was that she was bringing home more than enough barley for her mother-in-law and her to feast on that evening, and that the field owner had been so kind. And so she went as fast as her work-tired feet and heavy load would let her, excited to share this day of firsts with Naomi.

Reflection
And so it goes on to the next two chapters of the book of Ruth, that the rich, middle-aged bachelor would redeem and marry the poor, foreign widow.

Last night at dinner, a friend commented that Ruth had hooked Boaz because of Naomi’s scheming.

I beg to differ. They were all simply, I believe, being obedient. Ruth, who had grown up a pagan, had met the God of Israel, when she married into a Jewish family living in Moab. She loved her husband’s family, and so she followed its last remaining member, her mother-in-law Naomi, back to Israel. Naomi, the old widow who had also lost both her sons, may have turned to studying Scripture and praying, because in her frailty that was all she could do now. And so she was well-versed in the law, including the kinsman-redeemer law.

As for the rich, middle-aged bachelor who will forever be known as “a man of standing”, and an ancestor of the great kings of Israel, as well as of Messiah…well, let me dare to say, I think he was waiting for God’s best. And he used his waiting time wisely by working diligently, not only in terms of increasing his wealth, but building up his character. A man of standing. Boaz was so primed for the “woman of noble character” that God had brought to his field out of Moab. Surely when he saw her, something in his heart knew this — obedience to God is ever rewarded.

Three obedient people. One love story. Who would have thought they would leave such a mark in history? Who would have known they were modeling bits of character of the One whose obedience led Him, first to the manger, and then to the cross?

***

Prelude #3
He didn’t have to undress her with his eyes. When he first saw her, she was already undressed, a breathtaking beauty bathing by the moonlight. He wanted her; oh, how he wanted her. Fire in his loins and all that imagery – whatever it was, he had to have her.

Never mind that she was married to a man who served in his army. Never mind that he was God’s anointed king. Lust seized him, and nothing else mattered. She was going to be his.

How do you refuse the king of your land when he sends for you and tells you that he wants you in his bed, in his arms? She couldn’t, even if she wanted to. Maybe a part of her really wanted to. He was legend: killed a giant when he was a boy, soothed a crazed king with his music, enlarged Israel’s borders in record time. How do you not wonder what it would feel like? So she, too, gave in to lust. And when he sent her back to her husband’s house, pregnant, she longed for his arms to comfort her and tell her that someday, soon, they would be together.

And now here she was, a dead baby in her arms. Their dead baby. What was there to live for? He had had her husband killed…and perhaps that marriage was not as passionate as this new one, but she mourned for it anyway. She had barely recovered from that grief; now here was an even bigger one. No good had come out of their lust, no good after all.

Reflection
Of course we all know that something good eventually came out of David and Bathsheba’s marriage: Solomon, the second baby, the one who would live to become the wisest man in the world, the king who would build God’s temple. But that happened after the grief, after the repentance and the incredibly humbling experience of losing their first child.

God, in His wisdom and grace, gave David and Bathsheba a second chance. He took their ugly – the adultery, deception and murder, not without showing them His judgment first – and He turned it into something good – a marriage where she (among his other wives) had his ear and his devotion, and he had her respect and loyalty. And they had their son, God-blessed and so very loved, Solomon. And they also had their names (actually his name; she was identified as “Uriah’s wife” – perhaps another act of justice from God in their story, for Uriah had been an honorable man) credited in the Messiah’s family history.

How interesting that God would choose such characters and love stories to be highlighted in His Son’s genealogy. How many times have we glossed over these oh-so-familiar names when we read the first chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew? And by doing so, have we missed each tell a story of redemption foreshadowing the greatest story of redemption?

***

Matthew 1:18-25 (NIV)

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered 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 home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel‚” which means, ‘God with us.’ When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

Prelude #4
It’s the stuff soap operas are made on: Girl betrays boy by becoming impregnated by somebody else, but boy marries her anyway in order to give the child his name. In soap operas, however, he would use this as leverage when he finally extracts revenge on his disloyal love and her paramour.

But this is not a soap opera.

The girl – a very young girl – was engaged to a man. He was of humble means, but he was descended from the kingly line of David (actually, so was she), and he was a devout man. When he learned that she was pregnant – and not by him, because he had not slept with her yet – he thought to divorce her quietly. He was hurt, but he didn’t want to dishonor her any more than this mysterious pregnancy already did. What was it about her that made him want to protect her, to protect even the unborn child she carried, even when she had – as he assumed – betrayed him? Looking at her now, pregnant, she seemed to glow from within. She was even more beautiful than when he had first seen her and vowed that she would be his wife.

She’d forgotten all about him when the angel appeared. At that moment, she was not a daughter, nor a bride-to-be – she was simply a willing instrument. She rejoiced at the honor, amazed that God would choose her, a poor teenager, to bring Messiah into the world. After the angel left, and the reality of becoming the mother to God’s promised redeemer began to set in, she remembered: What about Joseph? She wasn’t worried for herself, but she worried about the hurt this would bring on that sweet, kind man.

He may not have been a knight in armor, riding to the rescue on his valiant stallion, but Joseph rescued her on his trusty donkey anyway. He whisked her, as fast as you can take a pregnant woman riding a donkey while you walked, to Bethlehem, away from the gossiping tongues of Nazareth. He hung up his devout reputation and married the young woman with the scandalous pregnancy, essentially telling those gossiping tongues that her child was his child, and that child would bear his name. And then he risked what little he had of a career and life savings when he fled with her and their firstborn to Egypt, to escape Herod’s massacre of infants.

Reflection
Nothing much is written about Joseph and Mary as a couple. We read a little about them as parents – like when they first took Jesus to the temple, and lost Him there. And we infer a little about them as well – as when we recognize that Jesus had followed his father’s vocation as a carpenter (we picture Joseph teaching the young Jesus the ways of his trade, while his own biological children, like James, turned their attention to something else). But we can only speculate about their love story.

Yes, Joseph was a devout and good man. Yes, the angel of the Lord appeared to him and instructed him about Mary and the child she was carrying. But after that. After that, he stayed. He loved that child as his firstborn. He raised his own biological children – children that Mary bore – alongside the son he was told to name Jesus. Surely he could not have done this without loving her, without her loving him. There should be no question about that.

And surely, although He is Love, Jesus would have learned love, too, by seeing the love between His parents.

For context, I found this very helpful: http://www.biblegateway.com/resources/commentaries/IVP-NT/Matt/When-Virgin-Gave-Birth 

***
The greatest love story of all time

1 John 4:8-10 (NIV)
Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

So Jesus Christ had a spotty family tree.

But from this family tree featuring a pagan harlot and a spy, a poor foreigner and a landowner, an adulterous king and his lover, and a teenager with a scandalous pregnancy and her fiancé came good stories. Stories that demonstrated God’s love; stories that may have enraptured a young boy, sitting at the foot of his mother (and of the man he considered father), and taught Him about love in action. These were your ancestors, his mother would have said.

From Rahab and Salmon’s story we saw God’s love in the form of new life given, and grace shown towards a changed heart and the coming to faith.

From Ruth and Boaz, we saw God’s love in the form of a daughter-in-law’s loyalty and obedience to her mother-in-law, and of a noble man’s act of redemption.

From David and Bathsheba, we saw God’s loving forgiveness, and His gift of second chances.

And from Mary and Joseph, we saw God’s love emboldening a confused couple to take the steps that were needed to fulfill the prophecies concerning the birth of Him who is Love.

May your Christmas, and the new year to come, be filled with Love!