I’m excited to share my new Christmas essay with you. Before that, three quick announcements:
- My book launch party is on Sunday at Wheaton College at 2:30pm CST. If you’re in the area, please RSVP and join us!
- The event will also be streamed live on my Facebook page. (For friends in Ethiopia, that will be 11:30pm.)
- Flourishing on the Edge of Faith is now officially available at BitterSweet and Amazon. The audiobook will be released soon!
I hope to see you Sunday! Now back to Christmas…
I’m a shameless lover of Christmas. I love the music, the movies, the trees, lights, and cookies. But I confess that remembering the birth of Jesus feels extra special to me this year.
In its unchanging simplicity and infinite mystery, this is what Christmas is all about: God wants relationship with us.
In fact, God so deeply desires relationship with us that God became one of us. Jesus’s biographer Matthew captures the meaning of this holy birth in a single word: Jesus is “Emmanuel” or “God-with-us” (Matthew 1:23).
Perhaps this strikes some of us as obvious and unexciting. If you’ve grown up with electricity, flicking on the bathroom light at night probably feels extremely mundane. But if you’ve never experienced electricity before, a light switch is pure magic and life-changing.
Here’s the electricity of Christmas. After we’ve ignored, rejected, or replaced the Creator of the universe with lesser loves, God doesn’t get our attention with fear or force. God signals God’s entry into our world with the cries of a baby in an animal shelter. God shrinks to our level, suits up in our skin, and embraces our vulnerability. In fact, God risks being completely overlooked by us because God becomes so utterly ordinary – an infant born to impoverished parents in a rural village.
God wants relationship with us.
In a time of broken relationships and war, these five words bring tears to my eyes and ignite genuine awe in my soul. Their truth blows my mind and renews my desire to open my entire being to God.
But there’s an overlooked backstory to the Christmas story that shows why this event is truly so astonishing. Few have stopped and thought about this for the last 2,000 years. It’s the story of Jesus’s grandmas.
A Shocking History
Following Jewish custom, Matthew introduces Jesus to us with a genealogy of Jesus’s ancestors. This seemingly boring list of names was actually a potent way of telling us where Jesus came from — who his people are and the story he’s bringing to completion.
But Matthew does two genuinely shocking things in Jesus’s genealogy. First, he includes women – Jesus’s great-great-grandmas. This wasn’t something historians typically did in patriarchal cultures. Second, Matthew includes disreputable women in Jesus’s genealogy — women who carried stories of rejection, abuse, abandonment, violence, and disaster.
Who were these women, and why did Matthew choose to highlight them as key links in Jesus’s family tree? Allow me to retell their stories as recorded in Hebrew scripture.
Grandma Tamar was married to a man named Er. We’re not told if he was unfaithful or violent or something else. But Er was known as a “wicked” man and died young. As a vulnerable widow, Tamar was then sexually exploited by her brother-in-law Onan, who also mysteriously died. In response, Tamar’s father-in-law Judah kicked her out of the family.
Understandably, Tamar never forgave Judah. In fact, she waited for years to take her revenge. Eventually, Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute, seduced Judah, and became pregnant with his baby.
A transactional man, Judah didn’t care who this woman was or that she might get pregnant. He discarded her again. But when he learned that his unmarried daughter-in-law was pregnant, he actually wanted Tamar back – to burn her to death as a dirty whore.
Tamar’s story is heartbreaking and familiar. She is blamed for her suffering, rejected, and only ever wanted when it’s for a man’s sexual pleasure or violent punishment.
Tamar ends up narrowly escaping being murdered and gives birth to twins. But nothing more is said about Tamar. Her story simply breaks off. There’s no happy ending, and she’s seemingly abandoned to history – forever nothing more than a fragment of exploitation, abandonment, and bitter family conflict.
Selling sex is the link between Tamar and Jesus’s next grandma. Every time Grandma Rahab is mentioned in the Bible, she’s called “the prostitute” – with the exception of Matthew’s genealogy. Imagine if every time your name was mentioned, it always came with the tagline “the shameful failure.”
But Rahab was worse than that. She was a Canaanite. Moses had commanded Israel, “You must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy.” Canaanites were seen as dirty and dangerous, so Moses insisted that committing genocide against them was an existential necessity for Israel (Deuteronomy 7:2-4). Sadly, this way of thinking remains all too familiar today.
When two Isrealite spies visited her brothel, Rahab was terrified. Understandably, she offered to betray her own people in exchange for her family’s safety. After the slaughter, Rahab lived among the Israelites and made a family with an Israelite man.
Nothing more is said about her. Like Tamar, Rahab’s story simply breaks off – except for being remembered as “the prostitute.” The shame and survivor’s guilt she lived with must have been excruciating. Every new day and her very own children came as grievous reminders that she was alive because she had betrayed her murdered people.
Like Rahab, Jesus’s next grandma, Ruth, was also from a despised ethnic group. Grandma Ruth was a Moabite, and Moses commanded Israel never to show Moabites kindness or allow them to enter Israel’s community. They were condemned to be permanent outsiders and enemies (Deuteronomy 23:3).
Like Tamar, Ruth was a widow. In fact, her Israelite husband Mahlon died in a famine, and it’s likely that the wider Israelite community blamed this on Ruth. After all, Moses had commanded Israel never to show kindness to a Moabite, much less to marry one! Ruth was probably seen as a deadly curse.
But Ruth was also extremely courageous. She devoted herself to God and to her widowed mother-in-law Naomi. She eventually married the loving, Moses-defying Israelite man named Boaz, and she became the great-grandma to King David.
In many ways, Grandma Bathsheba’s story brings together aspects of these three other women’s lives.
Bathsheba was strikingly beautiful and married to a forbidden foreigner. One day, King David saw her bathing from his rooftop and sent men to bring her to his palace. Between the lines, it appears that David raped Bathsheba.
To cover up her pregnancy, David then had her husband killed and took her as one of his wives. As such, Bathsheba’s pregnancy would appear perfectly normal. The bitter irony is that David was the great-grandson of Ruth. Out of that moving story of love came this unintended consequence of cruelty.
Thereafter, Bathsheba’s story is filled with more pain, loss, and heartbreak – what the author summarizes as “calamity” (2 Samuel 12:11). Bathsheba’s son died seven days after he was born. One of David’s sons murdered another. And the lights start going out until Israel is reduced to an enslaved colony of the Roman Empire, which takes us forward to the time of Jesus.
A New Story of Hope
Why did Matthew go so far out of his way to highlight these disreputable women as Jesus’s grandmothers? Why were they so important to name?
Matthew is signaling something shockingly beautiful: when God shows up, these people and their stories don’t get erased. With Emmanuel, we learn that even our most painful memories get woven into a larger story of healing and hope. The people who seemed like shameful losers, the cursed and condemned, the victims of violence and genocide, are reinvested with dignity and brought back to life with new honor.
When Matthew calls Jesus “God-with-us,” he means all of us. We humans may fail to see this and tell our stories another way. But God is with the victims of abuse and violence, the rejected and discarded, the outcasted and despised, the people whose stories break off in tragedy or live on with heartbreaking calamity. When we see the story from Emmanuel’s perspective, this is what we discover.
The relationship God desires with us is not just a cleaned-up church service on Sundays. God-with-us wants to enter into our history of pain and show us that it’s not lost, wasted, or condemned. What we see as ended and unredeemable, God can redeem. God is truly with us, even when this seems beyond our ability to believe. God can rewrite our story, even after we’re certain it’s over or we’ve been dead for a thousand years.
God wants relationship with us – as we really are. And so God wants to change our minds about ourselves and our stories.
If we could rewind the film to Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, or Bathsheba’s time, we’d doubtlessly heap scorn on the idea that they’d become grandmas of God. In all likelihood, they themselves would have laughed at this ridiculous nonsense. Our pain can be overwhelming and consuming.
But this is how Matthew wants us to re-see our stories through the eyes of Emmanuel: our deepest pains, our worst shames, and our most despairing dead-ends can be rewoven with healing, dignity, and hope. Our story can be brought back into the light and reintegrated into a totally unexpected story of God’s unconditional desire for relationship with us – all of us. In my book Flourishing on the Edge of Faith, this is what I call “God’s new we.”
Maybe your family history has stories like Jesus’s grandmas. Or maybe you’re living one of their stories right now. Maybe all you can see and feel and believe is anxiety, pain, loss, breakdown, terror. Maybe you feel like that’s all there really is. Maybe that feels like the story of the whole world today.
The ordinary cries of the Christ child are a protest message of hope: there’s room for you, and your story isn’t over. The stories we stuff with shame, the people we cast out as evil, the pain we see as irredeemable — all of this belongs when God shows up in person. When the final version of the story gets written, Emmanuel embraces all of us as family.
The grandmas of Jesus are the most surprising witnesses of this hope.
PS: What do you have in your story that you fear God can’t redeem? Is there a tragedy or trauma you think is beyond hope?
This Christmas, I pray that you experience a fresh revelation that God wants relationship with you and can redeem what currently feels unredeemable.