“If the master of the house had only known when the thief was coming – well the master would not have let the house be plundered” (St. Matthew 24.43). But as it is – the master of the house seems to have been asleep when Jesus, the greatest thief of them all began his plunder – began to steal away all those things the master of the house had hoarded all these many years – and the master of the house – who is he? Call him Satan, The Evil One, Beelzebub, greed, envy, shame, license, callousness, violence, apathy, despair, fear, addiction, sin – call him what you will – but the master of this house, the tyrant who for a while who rules this fallen world, that master of the house has had his day – for God in Jesus Christ has come and continues to come and will come again – like a sneak thief – choosing the most unusual and unexpected avenues of entrance into the master’s house that anyone might ever imagine.
How unusual? Well, let’s consider how the story of Jesus Christ the Sneak Thief begins in the Gospel According to St. Matthew – the book from which the majority of the assigned Gospel readings will be drawn this coming Church Year. The Christ Story according to St. Matthew begins in what looks like the most boring ways most of you could think of – with a genealogy – with a seemingly list of those people from whom Jesus is descended through his mother, Mary. It starts out with Abraham, logically enough. “Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Serah by Tamar . . .” BY TAMAR!?!?! Hold the phone!! What’s SHE doing here?? First off, women DO NOT belong in genealogies in the ancient near east – it’s only the male ancestors that count. But if you’re going to sneak in some woman – well it had better be an exceedingly virtuous woman – women in the culture out of which Scripture comes – well, even the best women are still women and therefore highly suspect characters – even the best of them a potential source of trouble. But Tamar!?!? Tamar – also referred to as “the harlot by the side of the road.” Harlot – you know – prostitute, whore? Read about her in Genesis, chapter 38, a little romp chock-full of sex, lies, and intrigue. Long story short, Tamar tarts up and seduces her father-in-law and gives birth to a set of twins by said father-in-law. Seems to be a skeleton in Jesus’ gene-pool closet. But what’s one blot? Even the best people have got some sort of dirt that’s been swept under the rug, some skeleton shoved to the rear of the closet.
The problem is, however, that reading a little further in Jesus’ genealogy we are bumped into by . . . yes, another woman, and yes, another harlot!!! – this time it’s Rahab. Now Rahab is your basic “whore with a heart of gold” who runs a house of ill-repute where a couple of Israeli spies sent from Joshua “spend the night.” God, however, seems not to care – and stoops so low as to use Rahab not only to hide these two spies, saving them from a sure death, but further uses Rahab to continue the ancestral line of Jesus. (This is going to make Jesus look good? How can this be? This is surely NOT a very religious way for God to be acting.)
Unfortunately there’s more. Rahab, the harlot, turns out to be the mother of Boaz – and Boaz becomes the husband of Ruth, who is a very important woman in Scripture – she even has her very own book in the Hebrew Testament. Not sure how that got snuck in, but there you have it. Unfortunately Ruth is mostly remembered as this sweet thing immortalized by a sappy song sometimes sung (rather inappropriately) at weddings . . .“Whither thou goest I will Go,” inappropriate because the line that spawned the lyrics of the song is addressed not to a spouse, but to a mother-in-law. But, I wonder if the sappiness of the song doesn’t quite conveniently help us dodge a bit of dodgy material. For instance, Ruth is a Moabite – and as everyone knows, the Moabites are a blot on the Hebrew landscape, the Moabites being descended as they are from a drunken, incestuous encounter between Lot and his older daughter. Yes indeed, Lot bore himself a son by his eldest daughter – umm, actually bore himself another son too – by his younger daughter, but that’s another story for another time. (And listen, I AM NOT making any of this up – go read the Bible yourself . . . it really is a fairly sordid soap opera when you really get into it.) Anyway . . . Lot and daughter have this son named Moab, and Moab is the ancestor of dear Ruth and the rest of the sorry Moabite lot. But now to Ruth herself – Ruth follows her mother-in-law Naomi back to Naomi’s home in . . . well, in Bethlehem of all places! Cutting to the chase, Naomi hatches a scheme whereby Ruth tarts herself up, goes to Boaz after he’s eaten and drunk his fill (emphasis on the drunk part), and once there, uncovers the feet of Boaz and lies next to them. Seems rather benign until you realize that this whole business of uncovering a guy’s feet, however – well, let’s just say that in Hebrew literature, “feet” is a nice way of talking about a guy’s “junk” if you catch my drift. So, after a little bit more intrigue, Boaz “takes” Ruth (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) and eventually marries her, and they have a child (yet another ancestor of Jesus), and they name him Obed and Obed becomes the father of Jesse – and Jesse becomes the father of none other than the great King David – who, if you take some time to read all about it – is no prize, and by half – some of David’s less-than-sterling behavior cropping up (surprise, surprise) in Jesus’ genealogy.
After we hear that Jesse is indeed the father of David, we hear that David is the father of Solomon, who is, rather inconveniently, born of Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite. Another sordid story . . . really sordid – including voyeurism, lust, adultery, war, murder, mayhem – you name it. Nice family tree you got there Jesus – no wonder the master of the house is unprepared. Who would expect God to be born of such a bunch of . . . . sleazy, sleazy people from the shallow end of the gene pool? But then again, if God is going to come like a thief unexpected – what better a way to do it, eh?
We’re not done, however. The closet has one more skeleton lurking – Mary. Seriously, consider the story – Mary is engaged but becomes pregnant not by Joseph the man to whom she is engaged. Of course we hear, that “the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” And that whole Holy Spirit thing, true as we say it is . . . listen, it’s every bit as suspect a claim then as it is now. God – about to be born of a mother who conceives out of wedlock by someone not her fiancé – that in its time and place, an offense punishable by death – death by stoning. Talk about a risky entrance into the world. Yes – God has come to plunder the house of the evil one like a complete sneak thief – from the most unlikely people – from women yet – and no, there’s no way we in our time can understand how completely and stunningly scandalous this all is. It’s . . . it’s ingenious!!
OK, so, ingenious indeed and not just a little bit funny in a Sordid Lives sort of way, but what has it all to do with us? Well, first, the thief has broken into the house of sin, evil, call it what you will – and the thief has stolen away the sin of the world – the books that delineate who’s naughty and nice have been stolen and destroyed. Listen: Jesus, God from God, light from light, True God from True God, has broken in on your world and has stolen away all of your sin. All of it – all your misdeeds, past, present, and yet to come – God has not only stolen these from you, but God has forgotten what those misdeeds, what those sins, trespasses, ever were – all of it, God’s deed of grand larceny theft on Calvary.
But there is one other thing too. Just as God used a whole lot of sleazy character, just as God used four trampy women and unwed Mary – herself, descended from these trampy women and a whole bunch of even more sleazy men – just as God chose to use the most unlikely and unsavory suspects imaginable through whom to sneak in on the world to take away the sins of the whole world – well, this God who does not make appointments, this sneak-thief of a God – this God, is still at work through a whole bunch of suspect characters even unto this very day. God – at work in a bunch of characters every bit as dodgy and misbehaved suspect as Tamar, Lot and his incestuous daughters; at work in and through Rahab, Ruth, David, and Bathsheba – not to mention in and through a few murderers here and there – not to mention in and through a dyspeptic, foul-mouthed, beer-guzzling priest in Wittenburg – God still is at work in and through a whole bunch of suspect and unlikely characters this very day. “Who might those suspect characters be?” you ask. How I wish the ushers had – along with your worship folders – how I wish the ushers had handed each of you a small mirror for you now to hold up to your faces so that you each could see one of the suspect characters in and through whom God is at work. Yes, God is at work in each of you and in ways none of you, none of us, can even begin to understand – in ways none of us can know or assess – God at work in and through each of you in ways that are hidden with Christ in God – nevertheless God at work in and through each of you nonetheless, mightily at work still and always in broken and suspect people. God is, don’t you know, a sneak thief who has not only robbed the house of the evil one – has taken away the sin of the whole world – but God is still a sneak thief, stealthily at work in each and every one of you to accomplish mysteriously God’s promised purpose – the salvation and restoration of all creation.
Now if that ain’t just a hoot, I don’t know what is.