The title of my sermon this morning, The House of Bread, is a translation of the Hebrew word for the town in which Jesus was born. The place was called Bethlehem, or House of Bread because it was situated on a fertile plain where, the original settlers, the hoped, would be able to make a decent living supplying the region with bread. Bethlehem was not a holy city — it was a modest, hard-working, blue collar town. But it was also a town with a rich past.
Even now, in Bethlehem you can find a monument to Rachel. Rachel, that richly interesting figure of the time of the patriarchs drew her last breath and was buried in Bethlehem. It was also here that Ruth, lived with her husband Boaz. Ruth you will recall is the daughter in law of Naomi, an exiled and widowed woman who urged her daughters-in-law to leave her and find new husbands.
More important to the story, here though, is the fact that Ruth is a Moabite, an unwelcome immigrant. And of course, we know that Bethlehem is the home of Ruth’s great grandson, David.
Our reading today from the prophet Micah lifts up this little and quite ordinary town, and puts it forth as an example.
Though it is tempting to read Micah from our current Christian vantage and offer that Micah lifted up Bethlehem as an exemplary town because Jesus would be born there, it is not good scholarship to do so.
It is in fact better to go at it from the other direction. The story people told about Jesus’ birth was unlikely historical fact. But it was very likely told because of these allusions that I have just mentioned.
In other words, Micah shines a light on this town, because it is the least among the great towns of Judah. Its breadmaking is significant — but again, bakers are not kings or princes. Micah, we need to recall was distressed by the great cities of Judah, by their wealth and worldly splendors. Micah writes during some time of trouble — a time of community disintegration, high levels of poverty, and great riches; extreme poverty and extreme wealth both concentrated in close vicinity. It was also a time of terrorism from outside the city walls, from enemies like the Moabites, and he offers that at times like this we should look for great things, not from the great principle actors, the wealthy cities and kings, but from the least.
An unknown poet could have been writing about Micah’s intentions:
Small things are best;
grief and unrest
to rank and wealth are given;
but little things
on little wings
Bear little souls to heaven.
In other words, where you least expect to see God’s grace, it appears — working out the purpose of God in small, ordinary ways. The prevalent theme at Christmastime being that God’s purpose is echoed by the angels when they announced to the shepherds, “Peace on earth and goodwill to all.” It is yet another signal to nations like ours that the solutions to our problems are found in the words and ideals of our president’s Nobel acceptance speech and not in his actions.
In our Gospel reading lies further evidence that we are to read Jesus’ birth according to this thought of Micah’s that peace is worked out through the lives of ordinary bakers and butchers and brewers and that from them shall come the slow working out of the purposes of God.
I know that reading the genealogy of Jesus is relatively boring — but think for a moment about the practice. If you have ever spent some time with people who like to research their genealogy you know that they do it to establish themselves in a context of famous people or events, but also of infamous ones. Both say something interesting to us. The genealogy of Jesus includes David — we know this — that’s the famous part.
But if we are careful about reading the genealogy, we notice that after working all the way through the generations, thirteen of them, we notice at the fourteenth generation, that Joseph is not listed as the father of Jesus — There is no direct DNA link between David and Jesus.
The literal mind has a problem here — but we might view it as an opportunity to see this whole genealogy as a parable — in fact the first parable of what amounts to a book of them. And as with most parables, there is a surprise at hand and that surprise functions to shock the hearer into a new world.
In order for us to be so shocked we need to understand the actors — and most of them, I wager, we don’t know much about.
I’ve already mentioned Ruth, she’s in there. One of the other women is named Tamar. Tamar’s story is even curiouser. She is picked out as the bride for Er, son of Judah, grand-son of Jacob, the one for whom Israel is named. But before they can be married, Er “does something wicked in the Lord’s sight,” and is killed by God (remember this the the Old Testament). Judah, then tells his other son to sleep with Tamar and produce a son, fulfilling his obligation to produce an heir. But Onan is suspicious and “spills his seed on the ground” . God kills Onan too. Tamar is twice widowed and still childless. Judah, desperate, tells Tamar to wait for his youngest son to be old enough — and that she should move out of his house. Which she does.
The plot thickens when Judah’s wife dies and the youngest son comes of age. But Judah makes no move to marry him off to Tamar. Instead the story continues with a description of Judah leaving for Timnath that he make sheer his sheep. Tamar, angry at Judah hears that he will be coming to town, where she lives, and she devises a plot to catch him in an embarrassing act of prostitution by disguising herself. He does and she has a child by him, which she is later able to prove by stealing his seal at the time of the act.
This is not your typical sentimental stuff of Christmastime.
While I know that Christmas time lends itself to sentiment, and that we need some sentiment in our lives — it is the oil of moving and changing families – Christmas itself, does not represent a cozy sentiment about God. Instead Matthew’s parable of the birth of Jesus asks his readers and hearers to see the Messiah, again, as a different kind of Savior. While Jesus’ kingly credentials are second to none, being directly related to King David — we are given a notice — this is no birth meant to address our desires to be sentimental about the great and powerful past of our histories. Christmas instead, belongs to those who recognize his birth as for the little ones who struggle against the dynasties we so often, against our better judgment, want to worship and set for ourselves and encourage on our behalf.
Next week our story continues this theme with the wise men who face off with the other dynasty of the time, the Roman Government. The story gets more complex because governments are forces for good too. But for today, let us remember, that from our relatively affluent perspective, the forces of powerful empires like ours, are generally at odds with the Tamars and the Ruths who struggle against the realities of the local disruption they cause, who struggle with the very real matters of starvation and death in their lives. And for us, may these minor characters, characters, about whom some would not even attribute human qualities, yet characters none-the-less, given a place in the royal lineage of Jesus, may they encourage us who are the butchers and brewers and bread-bakers today, to see oursleves in that direct lineage, and so responsible to Jesus and his story of the locus of peace in the world. Amen.