December 4, 2011

The Hard Truth

This morning we are both entering a new season and beginning a new sermon series.  We are entering the season of Advent.  Advent is a season of preparation.  Technically defined, the word refers to an arrival or a commencement.  A season of advent, then, would be a season of preparing for the arrival or the beginning of something.  In our case, we are preparing to celebrate the arrival of the Savior of the World: Jesus Christ, the infant Son of God.  Speaking less technically, however, Advent is a season of waiting.  In this sense we find ourselves kindred spirits with the ancient Israelites in the decades prior to the birth of Christ.  They had been waiting for the Messiah for many, many years.  If ever there was a season of advent, they lived it.  With the rise and fall of several messiah-pretenders (all of whom faced violent ends), the assumption gradually grew with the aid of sympathetically interpreted Scriptures that when the real Messiah came, he was going to have to be much stronger than any who came before him.  People began majoring on the Scriptures that seemed to point in the direction of a royal, powerful messiah who would vanquish all of his (read: Israel’s) foes and make them what God had surely always wanted them to be.  Now for us, we are not waiting for the first coming of the Messiah, but we are waiting for Him to come back and make things right.

Taking just a moment for reflection on what this means, in light of the current state of our culture, I think we can say that there aren’t many of us who really grasp the full heart of what the Advent season is all about.  Yes, we clamor for the “real” meaning of Christmas and try desperately to recreate a set of feelings we have come to associate with the season.  And yes, we gather together as we are now to sing about Jesus and sometimes lament that our godless culture is trying to take Christ out of Christmas.  But sometimes we seem to worry more about things like the prevalence of the more politically correct ‘Happy Holidays’ taking the place of ‘Merry Christmas’ than we do about whether or not our own traditions and holiday habits are perhaps more in line with the sentiments of the former.  As a case in point, there aren’t a few in the church who are more enthused to catch the best sale of the season and don’t complain about getting up ridiculously early to be at their preferred shopping destination on Black Friday but who might complain that the timing of the Christmas Eve service or the fact that Christmas falls on a Sunday this year interrupts their normal Christmas traditions.  We know in our heads that we are supposed to be celebrating the birth of Jesus at this time of year, but when things like pictures with Santa become a bigger deal than making sure our kids understand the Christmas story—which takes more than reading it once or twice—our heads and our hearts may not be on the same page.  We’re letting our life blinders keep us from noticing aspects of our lifestyle which steal from us Advent’s real power.

With all of this in mind, we are going to begin a new series this morning which I’m calling: “The Fanfare for the Common Man.”  You see, you and I are common people.  We live common lives.  We work common jobs.  We deal with common problems.  If I were to take a survey I suspect that everyone in this room would indicate that they struggle with getting distracted by the commercial hoopla and the busyness of Christmas.  That’s common.  With the dual pressures of finding the perfect Christmas gift for everyone and meeting all the year-end work deadlines, the last thing we want when we are already aware we’re not spending any real time with Jesus is the extra guilt of a whole season focused on Him.  We know the stories of Jesus’ birth—we don’t want to hear them again.  (Unless, of course, that ‘does it’ for us to feel more Christmassy.)  And so, this season, I’m not going to spend a lot of time telling you stories you already know.  Instead, we are going to look at stories of people who dealt with common problems over the course of their common lives because they were common people.  Yes, their common issues play out in somewhat uncommon ways, but at their heart they are common issues.  Oh, and all of the people whose stories we are going to examine were people through whom God worked to accomplish His plan to send His Son to earth to save common people like them…like us.  Through these stories we are going to be reminded that Jesus did in fact come to earth for common people like us.  We are also going to receive the call to a kind of lifestyle that will better put us in a place to receive the blessings of Advent.

That said, our first story is a doozy.  When I was in junior high, I decided that I was going to read my way through the whole Bible.  Early on in this journey I came across this story for the first time and as a thirteen- or fourteen-year-old it blew my mind.  I had to read it two or three times just to make sure I wasn’t crazy.  What was something like this doing in the Bible?  It talks about things that you just don’t talk about in church.  It doesn’t fit its context.  And it’s just weird.  What I’m talking about is the story of Judah and Tamar.  You can find it in Genesis 38.  Parents this is one of the stories that if you have given your kids a Bible you want to make sure and read with them because it’ll bring up some hard questions.  It is a story that on the surface is about one family’s sexual problems that’ll make you feel a lot better about the problems your own family is facing.  But when we take some time to plumb its depths, it is about something much more than that.  It is in fact about sufficiently more than that such that you heard Tamar’s name read in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus at the beginning of the service.  And so we’re clear, women never appeared in ancient Jewish genealogies.  No, this story isn’t about a family’s weird problems.  It’s about a man who was forced to face the truth and the woman who had the courage to bring it to him.  And in this man’s response along with this woman’s courage, we will find an invitation to an Advent kind of lifestyle.

Find Genesis 38:1 and I’ll start reading there.  “It happened at that time [the time Joseph was sold off into slavery by his brothers] that Judah went down from his brothers and settled near a certain Adullamite whose name was Hirah.  There Judah saw the daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua; he married her and went in to her.  She conceived and bore a son; and he named him Er.  Again she conceived and bore a son whom she named Onan.  Yet again she bore a son, and she named him Shelah.  She was in Chezib when she bore him.”  So what we have here is that Judah left his family to strike off on his own.  This would have been a slap in the face to his family.  Consider Abraham and Isaac’s insistence that their sons marry women “from among their own people.”  When you married outside your clan, you risked, by the laws of inheritance, losing family land to foreign people.  In a day when land ownership was a key indicator of wealth, this was big deal.  Such a decision on Judah’s part would have been incredibly self-serving.

Let’s keep reading in v. 6: “Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn; her name was Tamar.  But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death.”  Let me stop there.  We don’t have any idea what Er did.  It may have seemed big, it may have seemed small to us, but whatever it was, it was bad enough that God put him to death.  This doesn’t tell us how he died—it may have seemed to be from natural causes—but God’s judgment was the reason he died.  That’ll be important in just a second.

At this point in the story things get weird and kind of graphic to be honest.  The social custom of the day was that if a man had two or more sons and one of them died leaving behind a widowed and childless daughter-in-law, it was the duty of the next oldest son to take the widow into his home and live with her as if she were his wife so that she might conceive and have children.  All of the children resulting from this union were considered children of the deceased brother.  They bore his name and would receive his inheritance.  In a day before public welfare this was one way the potential down-and-outs of society were cared for.

Well, Judah’s next oldest son was Onan.  Look at v. 8: “Then Judah said to Onan, ‘Go in to your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her; raise up offspring for your brother.’”  Again, this seems weird to us, but it was the custom then and God tolerated it until something better could take its place.  But put yourself in Onan’s shoes for a minute.  Judah was probably a pretty wealthy guy.  With his oldest brother out of the way and no heirs to receive Er’s inheritance, Onan stood to get everything that would have gone to the firstborn.  If he did ‘the duty of a brother-in-law,’ and Tamar had sons, they would get it.  He understood this and as a result, he took full advantage of the benefits of a woman he was duty bound to impregnate, but through a natural method of birth control, made sure she never got pregnant.  He was following in the same self-serving patterns of his father and treating his sister-in-law like a cheap whore.  The kick is that other than Tamar not getting pregnant, which most folks would have thought to be her fault since Onan probably had children with his wife, no one could have known about this abuse.  No one, that is, except God.  Just like his older brother Er, God put Onan to death for his wickedness.

Guess what Judah was thinking at this point?  I’ll give you a hint: he certainly didn’t suspect God was the reason his sons had died.  He thought Tamar was cured.  He only had one son left and he had no intention of giving her to him regardless of what the culture said should happen.  Look at v. 11: “Then Judah said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, ‘Remain a widow in your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up’—for he feared that he too would die, like his brothers.  So Tamar went to live in her father’s house.”

Now fast forward more years than Tamar should have waited.  Judah’s wife dies.  He mourns for the culturally expected period of time, and then gets back to business as if nothing had changed.  From v. 13: “When Tamar was told, ‘Your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep,’ she put off her widow’s garments, put on a veil, wrapped herself up, and sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah.  She saw that Shelah was grown up, yet she had not been given to him in marriage.”  In other words, she goes out to see her father-in-law dressed as an engaged woman in order to ask about Shelah.  When Judah arrives she notices that the boy she had been promised had become a man but no one had bothered to tell her.  All of a sudden the sneaking suspicion she harbored years before came glaringly into focus.  Judah had no intention of risking another son with her.  His intention was to kick her to the curb just like Onan had done.  Then something totally unexpected happened.  In that day the dress of an engaged woman happened to be similar to the dress of a prostitute.  When her father-in-law saw her he not only didn’t recognize her as the woman engaged to his youngest son by his own word, but actually thought she was a prostitute.

The next part is one of those times in the Bible where something we recognize as obviously wrong is presented in the context of a story without any condemning words.  This doesn’t mean the Bible is condoning the behavior.  It is simply telling the story.  Judah goes to hire the services of this woman he thinks is a prostitute—within two months of the death of his wife no less—and Tamar, rather than immediately revealing her identity to him sees an opening to get from him what he should have provided her years ago: a son.  Before anything happens, however, they haggle over her fee.  He makes an offer, which she accepts, but not without a guarantee of some sort.  She plays her role perfectly and in character won’t accept him promising to put the check in the mail so-to-speak and then disappearing.  Out of character, he’d already burned her on that once.  She demands from him what would have been like a driver’s license for us—his signet, cord, and staff—and gives him what he was after.  What we find out later is that she got what she was after as well.

Fast forward three more months.  Look at v. 24: “About three months later Judah was told, ‘Your daughter-in-law Tamar has played the whore; moreover she is pregnant as a result of whoredom.’”  As you just heard, this was all absolutely true.  Let’s keep reading.  “And Judah said, ‘Bring her out, and let her be burned.’”  This was gall.  After everything Judah had done to Tamar he has the guts to demand that she pay the full price for her sins.  If you haven’t heard this story before, of even if you have, I hope your injustice meter is raging off the charts.  We should be standing up in our seats demanding justice for this woman.  Yes, what she did in playing a prostitute to get pregnant by her father-in-law wasn’t right.  No, she didn’t rely on God to solve the situation for her.  But she didn’t know who God was or anything about Him and so couldn’t have relied on Him.  Instead, in her desperation, she took the only avenue that she had culturally available to her.  She was a victim.  And Judah, the namesake of Jesus’ lineage, was a scoundrel.

Tamar’s only line of defense is that she has the personal identification of the man who hired her.  Look at v. 25: “As she was being brought out, she sent word to her father-in-law, ‘It was the owner of these who made me pregnant.’  And she said, ‘Take note, please, whose these are, the signet and the cord and the staff.’”  Have you ever seen one of the old Roadrunner and Coyote cartoons when Wily E. Coyote is chasing the Roadrunner towards a wall painted to look like the road continuing on into the sunset?  Judah is the Coyote here.  The signet, cord, and staff were the wall.  They effectively slammed the breaks on his righteous indignation and jerked him up to a higher plane of understanding.  Judah was suddenly and jarringly confronted with a lifetime of indiscretion and self-serving unrighteousness.  In this confrontation we discover that the story which seemed to be about a messed-up family’s sexual problems is in fact a story about how we respond when faced with the truth of our lifestyles.  And in Judah’s response we can find the first call to the kind of lifestyle that will allow us to experience the Advent season in its full glory.

Look at how Judah responded in v. 26: “Then Judah acknowledged them and said, ‘She is more in the right than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.’”  When Judah was confronted with the truth after years of indiscretion and unrighteousness, He acknowledged it and adjusted his life to it.  In the same way, if we want to live an Advent-ready kind of lifestyle, when we are confronted with reality, we need to embrace it.   Let’s talk reality for just a minute.  The truth is that most of us go through much of this life with blinders on.  These blinders help us move steadily in some direction which proves beneficial in terms of getting us through each day.  But blinders also keep us from seeing things that lie off the path or may even be creeping up behind us which will cause us to stumble badly someday if left unchecked.  Judah’s blinders kept him from seeing how his self-serving nature was causing a great deal of injustice in the life of this innocent girl.  His attitude was passed on to at least two of his sons and resulted directly in the death of at least one of them.  It was purely God’s grace that he didn’t also dropped dead.  Eventually, as always happens, the fruits of his lifestyle ripened and he was forced to sample their bitter bouquet.   At this point, he could have kept his blinders on and went on as if nothing had changed.  Such a stay-the-course mentality would not have gone well for him in the end, but he could have taken it nonetheless.  There are not a few folks today who when confronted with the reality of their lifestyle refuse to walk in reality’s light, preferring instead the illusory comfort of their fantasy world in which they are alone guiltless in a guilty world.  But, if we want to have the kind of lives in which the power of Advent can make a difference, in which the power of the coming Savior and King can turn our hearts and minds from the wrong to the right, when we are confronted with reality, we need to embrace it.

Thankfully, we have a great example of this in Judah.  He acknowledged reality when faced with it and adjusted his life to it.  There’s something important for us in the character of Judah and Tamar here: neither of them were perfect.  He was a self-serving rich guy who trampled on the people around him in order to make sure he had what he wanted.  She was a desperate young woman who turned to the only things she thought might pull her out of her miserable life in spite of their illicit nature.  He was the upper-middle class working man who had lived his entire life for himself, with cursory nods to God of course, and unknowingly left a wake of wounded human debris in his path.  She was the young woman turning to whatever she thinks might help get her through a financial or emotional or relational rough patch even if it might not be her first choice.  These are common stories.  These were common people.  Their stories are played out around us—even in our own lives—every day.  Forgetting about the details for a moment, I would wager a great deal that you or someone you know has lived a story just like this one.  And yet both of these individuals are listed as ancestors of Jesus.  They were a key part of God’s great work in preparing the way for the Lord.  This was not because they were perfect, but because they embraced the truth when faced with it.  They were open to the reality of God.  In the same way, if we want to be a part of what God is doing to prepare the way for His Son to work in the world around us, when we are confronted with reality, we need to embrace it.

God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit have never operated under the principle of calling people to serve who are completely ready at the beginning of the task.  He consistently calls people to be involved with what He’s doing who in spite of  their brokenness, are open to Him; who are willing to step out of the illusions of their brokenness and into the reality of who He is.  When we are confronted with reality, we need to embrace it.  When we are faced with the truth of our brokenness and the life-giving, life-changing power of Christ, we need to embrace it.  And so as we enter into this season of Advent, of preparation, of waiting, let us make sure we are open to not only what Jesus is doing, but who He is.  He can work with brokenness—even the worst kinds of brokenness—if it is paired with an open heart.  Judah and Tamar demonstrate that pretty well.  But He can’t work with a closed heart; a heart that won’t even acknowledge brokenness.  A closed heart, a closed mind, a closed life, will never experience the power of Advent; will never be ready to celebrate the Christ child.  Such a person may try and lose themselves in the “spirit of Christmas” which usually plays itself out through commercial largess, but they will never know that which they most earnestly seek.  It makes no difference if the closed heart belongs to someone obviously broken as the world defines it like Tamar, or someone like Judah who seems to have everything together, doing the church thing and the family thing and the work thing with great success by all external accounts.  If we want to experience Advent’s power—the hope, joy, peace, and love of the coming Savior—we need to be open to the reality of the Christ child.  When we are confronted with reality, we need to embrace it.  I pray that this Advent season you will embrace the reality of what Jesus is doing around you, of who Jesus is, and join in with joy and gladness.