sermon on Isaiah 16:1-5; Ephesians 3:1-6; Luke 3:21-23, 31-38
You may not have much association with or affinity for the Moabites.
If anything, Moab may make you think of eastern Utah and the gateway to Arches National Park, one of my favorites. Beer and Bible group noted that there’s a brewery in town.
That’s not the Moab referenced in our 1st reading, and I kinda doubt they had stark slickrock landscape and strange arch formations, much less a brewery.
So let’s get a concept of Moab and these Moabites, and then we’ll jump to the other readings.
The Bible’s origin story of the Moabite people isn’t very favorable, and is probably intentionally disparaging (Genesis 19). Moab was the great great nephew of Abraham and Sarah. We won’t go through all the details, but Abraham’s nephew Lot and family escaped the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah …almost. Lot’s wife turned back to scope out the cataclysmic display even though God said not to. So she turned into a pillar of salt.
Lot was fearful after that—perhaps reasonably—and moved into a cave with his two daughters. In this isolation, it says the daughters conceived strangely of the future. They decided to get their father drunk and sleep with him. Moab was a resulting child. Whatever it is, it’s not a pretty story, and not supposed to cast Moabites very positively, although they were still relatives and had been through a lot (whether or not you take that as a pun on Lot’s name).
Rushing ahead through generations of people multiplying, after the Exodus for Abraham and Sarah’s descendants waiting to enter the Promised Land, the Moabites weren’t very helpful. (Those confrontations may have produced the shameful origin story.)
A Moabite king feared the Israelites lingering in his land, saying “This horde will now lick up all that is around us, as an ox licks up the grass of the field” (Numb22:4). So he asked a prophet to curse them. It was all stopped by a talking donkey. A great Bible story you can find in Numbers 22.
Also in that time period, it says the Moabite women kept seducing allegedly faithful innocent Israelite men, tempting them with sex and further tempting them to worship idols. I don’t know if we fairly trust descriptions of the power and agency of these ancient women which were written by the men. Whatever it was, it all went on to have lasting impact. Moses declared that no Moabites would be admitted to the worshipping assembly, even to the tenth generation (Deuteronomy 22:3), and hundreds of years later a prohibition of intermarriage was still being reinforced as the final word of order on what it meant to be insiders (Nehemiah 13:1-3).
We should pause for the counterpoint to all those restrictions and shaming. The book of Ruth tells of a Moabite woman who came into the Promised Land, to Bethlehem, and did marry an Israelite and went on to become the great-grandmother of King David. That may remind us of gracious reversals that await from God and that it doesn’t benefit to be too harsh or exclusive.
All this is the background for our 1st reading’s brief reference that the daughters of Moab are like “a wandering bird pushed from the nest.” The Israelites are told to grant justice, shelter the outcasts, the fugitive, don’t let them be exposed to the destroyer.
These verses are surrounded by bad news for the men, maybe the sons of Moab, the soldiers, the leaders. They’ll expect to know the repercussions of their actions (and even go bald! Isaiah 15:2).
But the daughters! Protection is encouraged for them, sheltering from the effects of warfare, among situations where women suffer the worst though are least part of the cause. Even more than accepting refugees, this is a total reversal of how the women of Moab had been depicted before. They were the bad girls, perpetrators, known as sluts. Instead this saw then as having suffered trauma, vulnerable to injustice, even called daughters, worthy of love and needing care.
Let’s jump from that to our 2nd reading, which says that God’s goodness has been made know in Jesus, not only for the typical insiders, but also for the Gentiles. That original word is simply “the nations” and basically meant “everybody else.” It saw broader need that would include Greeks, whose language was the economic driving force of the time. It would include Romans, who held the headquarters of the emperor and all his forces. It would include the Moabites, if they were still around at that time, whether or not their women were treated any better and whether or not they had gotten around to building a brewery. Shucks, the Gentiles and that everybody-else-ness even goes on to include you.
Let the impact of that sink in: recall the shameful depiction of Lot and his daughters and descendants, the marginalizing. Remember the portrayal of enemies, inhibiting how the chosen people can enter the promise, so far removed from any possibility of sharing God’s blessing and goodness that your great great great great great great great great grandchildren still wouldn’t be allowed in. That’s a barrier. Or that what your great great great great great great great great grandparents did could still be affecting you. Instead, all of that is wiped away, reversed, for reparations or repatriation, for possibility.
Our version of the Ephesians verse about Gentiles says they (or we) “have become coinheritors, are of the same body and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus.” In the original, the with-ness is emphasized with the same prefix three times: we are co-inheritors and part of a co-body and co-having the promise. The language itself is looping us all together. Co, co, co. The Gentiles, the outsiders, the bad guys and girls now have a share in the goodness.
And there, let’s jump to the Gospel reading. With it, liberation theologian Justo Gonzalez wrote, “We come now to what is perhaps the least favorite passage in the entire Gospel of Luke, the genealogy of Jesus.” But he says Luke must have had good reason to include it.* And reason we hear it today, besides the adventure of pronouncing all the names.
Matthew’s genealogy stops at Abraham, seeming in some ways to show Jesus as the consummate insider with the right pedigree. Luke goes all the way back to Adam and Eve, and ends with “child of God,” reminding us all of our origins, our divine connection and blessedness, and tying Jesus and the promise to the whole human family. We’re in this together, and in it for good.
That may strike you that you need to be mindful of those you’d excluded, to figure out shelter and refuge for the daughters who face war and violence not of their own causing, those who have been caught up in the machinations of oppression, those you called opponents.
Or maybe you need the promise yourself, that you are brought in, that God intends goodness for you. You may need it so much that the notion of being part of the human family and sharing with the great cloud of descendants may not feel enough. You may not want to be another factoid of a fallen leaf from an enormous family tree, mere decomposing data in the genealogical record, not simply swept past in the current of time’s ever-flowing stream.
So for that we pause in the waters of your baptism with the promise that God has chosen you, claimed you, anointed you with the gifts of the Spirit. You are God’s child. God is concerned for your wellbeing, and with you God is well pleased. Welcome to the family.
* Luke, Belief Theological Commentary, p54