First lesson: Hebrews 11:23-31
Second Lesson: Joshua 2:1-24
Children’s story: Joshua 6:1-23
It may seem very strange to be reading from the book of Joshua on the first Sunday of Advent. It is very strange. I don’t know that I’ve ever done it before, and I bet your other pastors never did, either. But you know that I’m very interested in Genealogy and my family history. And I have learned that when we know who our ancestors are, then we know who we are. I know that I am basically deep down, a Child of God and a Child of the Earth because that’s who my ancestors were. I have worshipped in their churches and even stood in their pulpits. I have walked the paths to the farms where they worked and I have sat in their farmhouses. I have spoken with a very old man in a small village in the Netherlands who actually knew my great-great grandmother. I have bought flour in the windmill where she bought hers. I know who I am because I know who my ancestors were. In my heart I know that I am a European peasant woman because that’s who all my grandmothers were – Dutch and Swedish peasant women back as far as I have been able to trace.
So I’ve always been very interested in that long list of names in the book of Matthew. When Matthew wants to tell us who Jesus was, and tell us his story, he starts by telling us who his ancestors were – a very, very long line of men, and including a woman named Rahab who lived about twelve hundred years before Jesus. You know of course that it was very, very unusual to mention a woman’s name in a list like that so it’s especially unusual that Matthew should list five woman in that long list.
So here’s the story before the story.
The last time we saw God’s people they were camped out deep in the Sinai Peninsula. They had been slaves in Egypt for more than four hundred years, and in a miraculous moment, they had escape from slavery and had escaped into the middle of the desert into the middle of the night. You remember how when the very king of Egypt and all his soldiers came after them they had escaped by walking through the Red Sea with a wall of water on one side and wall of water on the other side. They had been living in the Sinai Peninsula for forty years and in that time they begun to know their God whom they had almost forgotten and they had begun to learn how to live as the children of God. As the family of God. With the Ten Commandments that God had given them. And we’ve had some of the stories of what their years were like in the desert there in the Sinai Peninsula. They had seen how God had guided them out of Egypt and protected them from powerful enemies. They had seen over and over and over again how God had fed them when they were hungry and led them when they didn’t know the way. And through all those forty years, they had been meandering their way back to the land that God had promised their ancestor Abraham centuries before.
And in our story for today a man named Joshua has become their leader. There had been at least a million of them when they left Egypt forty years earlier and who can tell how they had grown in those forty years? They are now a powerful nation with an experienced army. Joshua has led them in battle against two kings in Sihon and Og and the kings of a whole bunch of other cities as well, and Joshua and his Israelite army ran over their land and cities and easily devastated them all, leaving no survivors. And in our story for today, they are camped in a place called Sittim, within sight of the land that God had promised Abraham, and ready to settle there. But by this time four hundred years later, others had taken over their land and were farming the land there and had built cities there and they had kings there, and none of them had ever heard of any guy named Abraham or Abraham’s God or any promise and they were not about to leave the places where they had lived for hundreds of years. And besides which, there were a great, great many of them and their cities had strong walls around them and they had strong armies also.
Now you know that if you want to learn about your enemy, you send out spies. So Joshua sent out two spies. To see how strong the enemy was and to bring back word about how to defeat them and how to re-claim their land. Those spies headed for a city named Jericho that had very thick, very strong walls. Now if you want to know about a place you head for the bar, right? And sit for a while and listen for a while and chat for a while. So those two spies did that and there they met Rahab.
That’s the story before the story.
So here’s the story of a woman named Rahab who lived about twelve hundred years before Jesus. Rahab was a prostitute. She lived in that city named Jericho and she had a hotel there. Now you could call it a hotel, or you could call it an inn, or you could call it a bar, but it was really a brothel. And she wasn’t a Jew. She didn’t have a drop of Jewish blood in her. She was a Canaanite. Which means that she didn’t know God. She hadn’t spent the last forty years trekking through the wilderness and getting to know God and she didn’t worship God and she didn’t keep any of the commandments that God had given. Especially she didn’t keep the commandment about not committing adultery. This woman is definitely not one of “us.”
But one day these two Hebrew spies came checking things out in Jericho. And they stopped at the Rahab’s establishment. And after a while the word came to the king of Jericho that these two strangers were at Rahab’s house, and they must be spies. And the king sent messengers to Rahab asking about them. But look what this Canaanite prostitute did when those two spies came to her hotel. Or bar. Or brothel. Or whatever you want to call it. She took them into her home and she hid them safely on the rooftop of her house. And I love this part of the story. She lied. This prostitute stood up to the King of Jericho and lied. “Yeah,” she said, “they were here, but they left and if you hurry you can catch them.”
That woman, that prostitute, dared to stand between her king and those enemy spies she had hidden.
But there’s more about the gusty woman. She had heard about the Israelites and their strong army and she had heard about how they crossed through the Red Sea with wall of water on one side and a wall of water on the other side. And how they escaped from the Egyptian king and all his soldiers. She had heard what happened to the Kings of Sihon and Og and all the other cities. She recognized the power of God – that Canaanite prostitute recognized the power of God. She was scared to death of what would happen to her and her family when those spies came back to Jericho with their entire army behind them. So were all the other people who lived in Jericho. So she made a bargain with those spies. She bargained for her life and the lives of her entire family in exchange for their lives. She begged them, “When you come back again, and when you destroy Jericho the way you have destroyed the other towns, and when you take over our land, promise me that you’ll spare me and my family.” The spies agreed. “Our lives for your lives,” they said. And when the danger was past, she lowered them out of her window on a scarlet rope and sent them off to hide in the woods. And you heard how they kept their promise.
And as hard as it is to believe, this woman is one of “us.” She’s woven right into the family of Jesus. Matthew makes a point to tell us that this woman is the grandmother of Jesus.
So we are not surprised when we see that Jesus is talking with that woman by the well. Maybe you remember that story. She was also an outcast – a Samaritan – not a Jew. And you might recall that those Samaritans had some very strange religious beliefs. Some of them even sound suspiciously like Islam. And she was also a woman with a questionable history when it came to men, to put it delicately. She’s not one of “us” for sure. And Jesus stood there at the well in Samaria and engaged her. He had a long, drawn out, complicated theological discussion with her. And she stands toe to toe with him and looks him straight in the eye answers him point for point if you recall. I don’t know of anybody else in the Bible who could do that.
And we are not surprised, either, when Jesus has an interchange with the Jewish religious leaders. You might remember that. They had caught a woman in bed with a man not her husband. She’s certainly not one of “us.” We surely don’t do such things. And they were all set to stone her to death as their laws indicated they should do. But Jesus stooped down and wrote in the sand, and when they read what he had written it said, “If any of you has never sinned, he may throw the first stone at her.” And one by one, they put their heads down - those self-righteous religious leaders - and shuffled off in the other direction. And when all those upstanding religious leaders had taken their red faces somewhere else, Jesus looked at the woman with gentle eyes and said, “If they didn’t judge you, I’m not going to judge you either.” And we are not surprised that Jesus would say that, because look at who his grandmother was.
And you see what all this means for us, don’t you. If we call ourselves followers of Jesus Christ. If we long to pattern our lives after his. If we call ourselves by his name, “Christian.”
We may have to look again at how we draw our circles and who is in and who is out of them. We may have to think again about who is one of “us” and who is one of “them.” We may need to learn the art of gracious welcome of people who are very different from us. We may need to unlearn that way we all have of immediately judging another person – based on our very first impressions. Or even our second impressions. We may need to develop tender hearts and gentle eyes and kind ears. We may need to search for the good in others. And maybe the day will come when we will humble ourselves to accept the kindness of a person who’s not like us at all. And then Jesus will call us very, very blessed.