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Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Throughout the summer we have focused on one of the five guiding principles of the Reformation, Sola Fide, by Faith Alone. For Martin Luther, faith alone was the solid, unshakable confidence in God’s promise which allowed the believer to act in a broken world. This morning we continue our sermon series on the Old Testament characters mentioned in the Book of Hebrews who embodied this faith. Today we turn to Rahab.
From Hebrews 11:32
By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.
Since its founding in 1983, Ancestry.com has become the largest for-profit genealogy company in the world. The founders were able to capture the growing interest in roots of a nation transferred to a new land. Their slogan captures that personal spirit. “Discover the rich history of the people and places that led to you.”
In the Orthodox Church, there is a Sunday each year which could be sponsored by Ancestry.com. The Sunday before Christmas is known as the Sunday of the Holy Fathers. On that day the liturgy commemorates “the rich history of the people and places that led to Jesus’ birth.” Traditionally, two passages of scriptures are always read. The first is the genealogy of Christ found in the first chapter of the St. Matthew’s Gospel. All in all, some 47 names are mentioned that make up Jesus’ family tree – the great, the near great, and the not so great, “begats.” This long list of names may seem to make for dull reading, but it has it surprises. We know that Jesus was a descendent of King David, but we are startled to discover that David’s great, great grandmother was Rahab, the wife of Salmon, the father of Boaz, the woman who was the harlot in Jericho at the time that the wall came tumbling down.
Jesus’ family tree in Matthew’s gospel is read alongside a sort of spiritual family tree from the “list of heroes” in the Book to the Hebrews. In that lengthy recital of history, an unexpected name appears again, the Canaanite woman, Rahab. Here she is listed among a whole host of male spiritual heroes. She does have a little female company: Sarah is mentioned for her faith in giving birth, and the midwives at the time of Pharaoh are noted for having hid Moses in the bulrushes. But the mention of Rahab startles us. She simply isn’t the natural choice for Jesus’ Holy Family on Ancestry.com or on the short list of virtuous character in scripture. And yet we read, “By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.”
So this morning, let us take a page from Ancestry.com, and let us meditate on Rahab, and “Discover the rich history of a person and place that led to Jesus.”
When we turn to the book of Joshua just before the Battle of Jericho, we enter into a story of intrigue and suspense. Joshua sent two spies into Jericho, to survey the city. In order to remain undetected, they spent the night in Rahab’s disreputable house, The king of Jericho heard word of their hiding in the city, and ordered that Rahab produce them. Instead, she told a story that they left at dusk, and then she hid them on her roof. Once she had misdirected those who would arrest the Hebrew spies, Rahab visited the men whom she had hidden, and declared: “I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that the dread of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt in fear before you. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the waters of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites, whom you utterly destroyed…The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below.”
It was a remarkable confession. She had already heard stories of God’s greatness, as had all the others in Jericho, including the king. All their hearts had melted in fear, but there was a difference for Rahab. She had also come to the correct conviction—that God of Israel was all-powerful, not just a tribal sky god or earth goddess, but the God of everything. And so she asked for mercy, not only for herself, but for her whole family.
At this point, Rahab’s house became an ark of salvation for any who would stay in it with her. It was to be marked by a crimson cord—the same cord that she would use to let the spies down, out of her house, which was situated on the wall of the city. The vey cord that would save them would become the mark of her salvation. Its red color would mark her home, just as the Hebrews had marked their doors during the Passover night, so that the avenging angel would pass over them. And the spies warned her not to tell anyone that they had been with her. Rahab agreed, and let them down the window, and then tied the crimson cord so that it could be seen.
After the city of Jericho has been destroyed by the shouts of Israelites and the rams horns blowing as they marched around the city seven times, part of Joshua’s instructions included bringing out of Rahab’s house all the family gathered there, to save them, as the spies had assured her. Rahab’s family was spared, and as was written in the Book of Joshua, “Her family has lived in Israel ever since.” By faith, Rahab, despite her pagan upbringing, and her ignorance of the God of Israel about many things, believed that God was all powerful. And she trusted that that the spies would do what they promised.
The earliest rabbis exalted Rahab for her beauty and wisdom. They noted that acted wisely when she concealed the spies in her house, thereby saving her entire family from the ravages of war. Eventually she converted to Judaism and was married to Joshua, and her descendants included renowned priests and prophets. The Hebrew scripture, however, merely states that she married Salmon and their son was Boaz. Other rabbis argued that Rahab should be remembered for her act of hospitality to the two spies. This teaches us that any genuine act of hospitality is rewarded with boundless blessings. Finally, Rahab often is mentioned alongside Jethro and Naaman as “positive examples” of converts who joined Israel.
Even before Ancestry.com’s easy DNA kits were mass produced, however, both Jewish and Christian scholars wrestled with Rahab’s character and her profession before her conversion. We can all be a bit uncomfortable about discovering and acknowledging skeletons in our family closets. The 1st century Jewish historian Josephus, in his scholarly work “The Wars of the Jews” chose to be subtle and coy about the role of Rahab in the battle for Jericho. He described Rahab as an inn keeper never mentioning her traditional title as a harlot. Apparently, it was not uncommon for both an inn and a brothel to function within the same building.
Others, however, including Jesus’ own family members were proud of their ancient ancestor’s Rahab’s story. The author of James, considered by the early church to be Jesus’ own brother, unabashedly wrote, “Was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead.”
Why was Rahab so important to the early church, that her name would appear boldly in both Jesus’ genealogical records, and in the Book of Hebrew’s testimonials in the “hall of faith?” Simply said, because her faith demonstrated action- a conviction of things hoped for and not seen. You see, for the early church, Rahab represented a true believer, more than any other character in scripture. She was willing to abandon the old ways for the new ways of God. Even though all the residents of the city of Jericho heard the reports of the God of Israel, she alone chose to place her faith in this God. She was willing to take a chance in the face of death and remain in her home in Jericho even as the walls came tumbling down. She was will to trust that the God who had led the Israelites through the Red Sea would deliver her and her family. Yes, her faith was alive and vibrant for all to see.
Rahab is a great story with many lessons. But the most important lesson is this. God can use anybody for his purpose, regardless of their DNA background or the skeletons in their closest- even a foreign woman. You and I are a unique combination of our DNA and our experiences, and our most importantly our choices and convictions. God chooses whomever he chooses. And God has chosen you. So, let me assure you, God is calling you to do his work in this world. I don’t know what task he has set before you, but I know this. He knows your challenges and your hurdles, and he has uniquely gifted you with the talents need to accomplish his work. That is your DNA. And by his Spirit, “May you discover the rich history of the people and places that led to you” so that you can make a difference in this world, and the lives of those you love. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.