Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent

December 11, 2022.

Texts: Ruth 4:11-17; Galatians 4:1-7; Matthew 1:1-16.

They called her Miriam but we don’t know why. Miriam’s name begins and ends the maternal genealogy of Jesus, the reverse naming of the usual paternal line that begins Matthew’s gospel.

It’s a bit like looking at a photographic negative. Ghostly figures they seem, human to be sure, but requiring more effort to make out. Though very little of them other than their names is recorded, these alone can tell us volumes.

We know Miriam, mother of Jesus by her name in the Greek form, which is Mary. Miriam is an old, old name. A strong name too. It could mean beloved but also rebellious.

The first Miriam is known from the book of Exodus. She watched her mother put her baby brother Moses into a basket on the Nile to be discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter. Miriam isn’t actually identified by name until her adulthood when she escaped Egypt, and with her brothers Moses and Aaron, was a leader in the Exodus.

This Miriam was one of only a few women to be called a prophet. She also told her brother Moses off for marrying a foreigner. Her Exodus song of gladness and triumph is remembered and revered.

This name, Miriam, bookends a remarkable recitation of women whose sons became the “A-listers” of Hebrew genealogy. Through the men Matthew traces an unbroken line of descent to show that Jesus fulfills Israel’s expectation of a Messiah born to the house of David. This was God’s will and design, long anticipated and proclaimed by the prophets.

But what of the mothers? God needed women to bring forth the Son of Man, right? And they are more than ghosts, these women. Their names are a repository of faith, endurance, wisdom, heartbreak, and hope. By these names we are given fleeting views of another important genealogy – not one of purity and careful selection though. It’s a more complicated, and ultimately a very much more inclusive human story.

Some of the women’s names we know are Hebrew. Miriam, Anna, Sarah, Leah, and Rebekah are still widely used Jewish names today. Other names are strange to our ears because we rarely hear the bible texts in which they are mentioned. And some of these names we think of as classically Hebrew may actually have been adopted into the Hebrew language. Ruth is one of those names.

Ruth was not a Hebrew woman. She was a Moabite who married an Israelite man whose parents Naomi and Elimelech had come to live in Moab because of famine in Judah. Tragically, all the men of the family died without providing heirs. Ruth left her homeland with her mother-in-law Naomi when they heard the famine in Israel was ended.

In Israel, Naomi calls on family ties to bring the young widow Ruth together with Boaz, a wealthy relative. But this is a more nuanced story than it seems. Naomi needs a male heir to provide for her needs in her elder years but is past childbearing age. And though not a true blood relative, Ruth is still young enough to bear the necessary son.

Ruth knows the situation is precarious. Israel and Moab were often at enmity with one another. What if Boaz doesn’t find her acceptable? The two women could still end up in poverty.

Ruth follows Naomi’s detailed instruction for presenting herself. It goes well. Underlying details of the story reveal that Naomi and Boaz each play to their own interests. Ruth is cast as a strong, hard worker which is what first catches the attention of Boaz. Ruth is taken into Boaz’s household, gaining security for herself and Naomi

This is not a Hallmark movie one-true-love story though. As a wealthy man, Boaz possessed many wives. Ruth is not an equal partner to Boaz, nor does she become his favored wife.

Ruth’s story was preserved in Scripture as a tribute to the importance of loyalty and faithfulness within the family and to God. The laws of God are satisfied. The family’s honor is upheld. But Ruth pays a high price when her firstborn child is given to Naomi, in place of Naomi’s two sons who died in Moab. While Boaz, it seems is satisfied with the sons he has already.

But there is still another level of meaning to Ruth. Her name means “friend”, or “compassionate friend”. Hard as her life probably was, she was a true friend to Naomi. She took on Naomi’s homeland, and Naomi’s God, Yahweh. She acted as a surrogate for Naomi’s sake.

Ruth was not special in any particular sense. But her love was selfless. She prefigures both that first Miriam who protected her baby brother Moses, and the last Miriam who bore Jesus. Ruth is God’s willing agent of protection and friendship. She is the ground in which God planted seeds of future love strong enough to raise the dead.

So many stories wonderful and horrible are folded into the maternal lineage of Jesus.

Athaliah, the fearless mother who ruled Israel as regent during her son’s childhood.

Rebekah who jealously promoted her younger son Jacob over his older twin Esau.

Tamar, honored as the mother of the clan of Judah; also a survivor of abuse and violence.

Bathsheba whose soldier husband was murdered at King David’s order so he could marry her.

There’s Naamah who was an Ammonite, another outsider to Israel. Like Ruth she testifies to the inability of political, social, or cultural rules to thwart human connections across the boundaries we create.

We can also appreciate the many women whose names went unrecorded. Their lives were very real. The unnamed also remind us of how so many generations of women have contributed to the advancement of every kind of human endeavor, without their names ever rising to the level of public awareness. The unnamed women also remind us of the disappeared of many cultures and nations, lost and mourned. Women and men too, taken, never to be seen again.

We see, finally, the humble, stumbling, complicated and hidden pathway to the birth of Jesus among us through human bloodlines and ordinary bodies.  Jesus is the miracle and mystery of all our humanness joined to God’s Spirit. The roots of God’s saving love go very deep indeed.