Roots: Church's Advent worship looks at Jesus' family tree

November 30, 2015

There’s a tree hung with ornaments in the sanctuary at Hampden Highlands UMC in Hampden, ME. Not unusual for the Advent season, perhaps, but this is not the typical fir or pine. It’s not even the part of the tree you see above ground. It’s a root ball from a cedar tree.

And the roots are the important part, said Rev. David Nicol, pastor at Hampden Highlands.
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For the past few years, the church has been observing a seven-week Advent season.

“I had this thought for Advent, instead of being on lectionary, we could do something a little bit different,” said Rev. Nicol. “During that seven-week block, we could look at the First Chapter of Matthew, which is Jesus’ family tree. It’s really Joseph’s family tree, but it leads right up to the birth narrative in Matthew. We need to get to Jesus’ roots, because the roots matter – and they’re our roots, too.”

Rev. Nicol admits the worship team was a bit skeptical about telling the Christmas story from Matthew.

“ … there’s no shepherds; it’s not nearly as adorable,” he said. “There’s no singing angel choirs or anything like that. It ends with a massacre and running off to Egypt. This is not as much fun as the story we want.”
Ornament featuring the image of Tamar
(Click the image to enlarge)
Ornaments with images from the stories are being hung on the root ball. The first was Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. On the second ornament, is the image of Tamar and the symbols of Judah. The third week, would be the story of Rahab and so on.

But though these stories are not easy or pleasant ones, Rev. Nicol said, the lessons they offer are important.

“There’s this series of really troubling stories in (Joseph’s) family tree,” Rev. Nicol said. “The stories that Matthew thought were so vital as to highlight – we need to look at that, because it will reshape the way we look at Christmas. It really will.”

One aspect he hopes will stand out for people, Rev. Nicol said, is that “if this mess can lead to Jesus, your mess isn’t a problem for God to deal with. Really, it’s all a story of grace, it just pushes grace backward into the Hebrew Scriptures. Christmas transforms these stories into something that is far more significant than just the messiness that’s there. It makes them the foundation, the roots of all the rest of us.”

One of those messy stories is that of Tamar and Judah (Genesis Chapter 38). When Tamar is widowed, she’s married to Er’s brother Onan. Onan sleeps with Tamar, but refuses to father children.

“There’s a pair of lessons there: One, You shouldn’t treat someone else as an object. You shouldn’t use them for your own pleasure,” Rev. Nicol said. “Also, there’s an economic imperative to take care of those who have nothing. That’s really what (Onan) was supposed to be doing. He was supposed to be making sure there was someone to inherit his brother’s share, and he refused to do that.”

When Onan is killed by God (just as Er was), Tamar is sent back to her family. Though she is pledged to Judah’s son Shelah, Judah does not want her to marry him.  

The bulletin cover for that week featured the image of an old woman begging at a gate.
“That was not Tamar’s future,” Rev. Nicol said, “but that’s the future Tamar expected,” since once her father died, her family would not be obliged to care for her.
When Tamar sets up a booth as a temple prostitute, she is visited and impregnated by Judah.

“When Tamar gets called out for getting pregnant, Judah admits he was more in the wrong than her (for his involvement in pagan worship),” Rev. Nicol said.

“There’s all sorts of messes here,” he said. “And yet here are the people who become heroes of the faith. Not because they got it all right, but because they learned to repent, to admit they got it wrong and ask for forgiveness.”

Rev. Nicol admits the story is “shocking” and “culturally strange,” and that some in the congregation may be embarrassed – “you do get a few folks who tend to spend more time staring at their shoes than usual because it doesn’t make them comfortable.”

Still, he said, “These are things we need to talk about, and too often we decide it’s too racy for church, so we’re going to skip it. But I think it’s really essential, because how else can we find out that God’s got grace sufficient enough to deal with the messes we’ve made of our own lives unless we hear it. And hear it in a place we don’t expect to hear it – Jesus’ family tree. And if this is His family … mine may look messy, but it doesn’t quite look like that.”

And so far, two weeks into Advent, Rev. Nicol said he’d gotten positive feedback from members.

“People want to hear that the Bible has something pertinent to say to the challenges we face in the real world, and not just the sterilized version,” he said. “Here’s this unwed teenage mother (Mary) at the end of this trail of crazy stories, and every one of those women becomes a hero in some sense, in spite of everything that would normally disqualify them.”

People react, he said, with “Wow, there’s messes in the world, messes in the Bible, messes in my life – apparently that’s what the Good News is: That God’s willing to get into the midst of the mess and do something about it.”