************ Sermon on Genesis 38 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on August 3, 2014
I The Wickedness of Judah
A Let there be no mistake about it, the Judah at the beginning of our passage was a changed man by the end of our passage. He started off as someone wicked, hypocritical, self-righteous, and untrustworthy. He ended as someone humble and loving and caring and reliable.
Our chapter begins with Judah in Adullam. There he met and married a pagan woman and had three sons by her. Why would a child of God marry such a woman? Judah knew better. He had been circumcised and raised as a member of the covenant. He was one of God's holy, special people. Yet, he married a pagan, an unbeliever. How could he do this? He knew God's will on this matter. He knew this was forbidden just like it is forbidden for any of us. Paul says:
(2Cor 6:14-16) Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? (15) What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? (16) What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: "I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people."When God's people marry or date or develop any sort of serious relationship with a member of the opposite sex, it must be in the Lord, it must be with a Christian. But Judah disobediently chose to ignore this.
B Then we read about Judah's broken promise to Tamar, his daughter-in-law. Judah promised his son Shelah to Tamar as a husband when her first two husbands – his first two sons – died. We need to realize that there was a custom at that time that if a man died and left no children, his brother should take the widow in and father children for her in the brother's name. This way the brother's line would continue and his name would not die out. But it is clear from the Bible that Judah had no intention of ever keeping this promise. Again, Judah knew better. He knew that his word was his bond. And, I am sure we all remember what Jesus says about broken promises and meaningless words. He said,
(Mt 5:37) Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
C The next detail of Judah's descent into wickedness is his visit with what he thought was a prostitute. Judah probably rationalized this wickedness by saying he was not breaking any marriage vows because his wife was dead and his time of mourning was over. Raised as a covenant child Judah knew better than to sleep with a prostitute. He knew this was forbidden just like it is forbidden for any of us. Paul says:
(1Cor 6:15-20) Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! (16) Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, "The two will become one flesh." ... (18) Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body. (19) Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; (20) you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.Judah knew better, yet he visited with a prostitute anyway.
D I have to laugh at the next detail we are told about Judah's wickedness: his hypocrisy. Unknown to Judah, the so-called prostitute he had slept with was his own daughter-in-law, Tamar. Three months later it became evident that she had been fooling around because she was pregnant. When Judah was told about this he said "Bring her out and have her burned to death."
Talk about a double standard! Judah had slept with a prostitute, but when Tamar was accused of prostitution, he thought she deserved to die. Little did he realize he was also condemning himself. That's when Tamar laid her cards on the table. As she was being brought out to the fire, she sent a message to her father-in-law. "I am pregnant by the man who owns these," she said. And she added, "See if you recognize whose seal and cord and staff these are." I wonder what Judah's first thoughts were. I wonder if he turned white or red in the face when he saw his own seal and cord and staff. Judah was caught in his own lies and hypocrisies; he was shown to be a self-righteous fraud.
E There is one last sign of Judah's wickedness. We see that he was more than willing to break the ninth commandment. He, for instance, was not willing to find out the facts or hear Tamar's side before condemning his own daughter-in-law. He called for death by burning on the basis of what an informer told him. Judah, we would have to say, had no real love for the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. He was willing to settle for the quick judgment rather than take the time for truth and justice.
II God's Lessons
A Take a look at Judah and Tamar. Can you imagine the consistory asking either one to teach Sunday School? Would you be happy with Judah leading Cadets and Tamar being a GEMS counselor? Of course not!
So then, why does the Bible tell us the sad and sordid story of Judah and Tamar? It sounds as disgusting as what we can see on trashy TV soap operas, talk shows, and situation comedies. Some people would go so far as to say that this chapter is too crude to be in the Bible or to be mentioned from the pulpit.
But God has a habit of telling us some pretty ugly stories. I think of the incest between a drunk Lot and his two daughters; if you remember, they both got pregnant by him. I think of the rape of Dinah, the sister of Judah. I think of a prostitute called Rahab; have you ever asked what the two spies were doing in her home to start with? I think of the adultery and murder of David and Bathsheba. I think of the prophet Hosea who was commanded by God to marry a practicing prostitute. I think of the murder of the little boys of Bethlehem. None of these are nice, pleasant stories. As someone said to me, "The Old Testament is filled with all sorts of disgusting stories." And yet, there is a reason they are all in the Bible.
B First, the story of Judah and Tamar is in the Bible to show us the ugliness of sin and the self-delusion of sinners. How easy it is for even the worst of sinners to pretend they are better and holier and more righteous than others. When Judah first learned that Tamar was pregnant, he wanted to have her burned at the stake. Then he found out that he was the father, that his own sin had been found out, and he had to admit that he was even worse than the woman he wanted to kill. Did you catch what he said? He said, "She is more righteous than I." And that was the end to his self-glorification, to his self-righteousness, to his hypocrisy. This humiliating experience marked the turning point in Judah's life.
One of the books I read in preparation for this sermon is "Respectable Sins" (HOLD IT UP). One person here already told me she doesn't like the title because there are no respectable sins. She is right, of course. But sometimes we act like some sins are worse than others. Sometimes we act like some sinners are worse than others. Sometimes we act like our sins are okay while the sins of unbelievers or the sins of our culture are bad. Judah was this way. The sins of Tamar – they were bad. But his sins – they were respectable. Judah needed to learn a lesson. Judah needed to be humiliated into recognizing his own sin.
I cannot help but think that some of us – perhaps all of us – need to be humbled as well. Like Judah, we see so many mixed up family situations today. I think of things like divorce, remarriage, incest, physical and mental and emotional abuse, adultery, broken promises, homosexuality, pre-marital sex, single parent homes. It is real easy, like Judah, to condemn those in these situations; there are people who are really quick to do this. It is real easy, like Judah, to call for punishment and judgment upon such people; there are people who are really quick to do this too. It is real easy to condemn abortion, murder, drive-by shootings, home invasions, car-jackings, alcoholism, drug abuse, and white-collar crimes. It is easy for us to condemn these obvious sins while ignoring our own sins of gossip, pride, envy, bitterness, anger, and lust. The story of Judah and Tamar tells us all to be careful. The story of Judah and Tamar tells us that those who condemn the loudest are as bad as or even worse than the people they condemn.
"Respectable Sins" makes the observation that too often we fool ourselves into thinking our sins are respectable or even acceptable. Our gossip or unkind words about a brother or sister in Christ roll easily off our tongues without any awareness of wrongdoing. We harbor hurts over wrongs long past without any effort to forgive as God has forgiven us. We look down our religious noses at "sinners" in society without any sense of a humble spirit.
Like Judah, we all need to be humbled at times. Like Judah, we need to see ourselves as God sees us. Like Judah, we might have to say, even of someone whose behavior we despise, "She/he is more righteous than I." The story of Judah and Tamar, congregation, reminds us that we are not to think – for even a moment – that we are better than all others. It reminds us that we cannot go around condemning all others. It reminds us that we all need to come to the point where we confess we too are sinners, as fallen as anyone else. A self-righteous Judah came to that point when he was forced to admit, "She is more righteous than I."
Why is this important? We need to recognize our sin, congregation, because the Gospel is only for sinners, for those who know they are sinful and fallen and short of the glory of God. Jesus did not come for the righteous; He came for sinners; He came for fallen people. So, like Judah, we need to stop pointing the finger at others and instead point the finger at ourselves.
C Second, the story of Judah and Tamar is also a story of grace – God's grace. The Lord used Tamar to humble Judah and destroy his self-righteousness, and after that Judah began to change. Consider this: Judah was one of the leaders in selling his brother Joseph into slavery (Gen 37:26f). But remember what Judah did years later when a cup was found in Benjamin's sack of grain? Judah offered himself as a hostage and slave in the place of his brother (Gen 44:16f). Do you see the change that took place in Judah's life? He was changed from a self-centered, selfish, evil, wicked man to a man willing to serve and love others. God's grace brought about that change.
What is the point for you and for me? If God's grace can change a man like Judah, then His grace can change you and me too – no matter how big a hypocrite we may be. If God's grace can change a man like Judah, then His grace can change the life of a loved one too – no matter how great their sin and misery may be.
So this is a story of hope and comfort. This is a story of what God can do and does do in the lives of broken people.
D Third, this story also teaches us about God's providential care in preserving the family tree, the lineage, of Jesus. Our Scripture passage ends with the birth of twin boys to Tamar. They were given the names Perez and Zerah. Now guess where else we read the names of Judah and Tamar and Perez? We read them in Matthew 1. You see, Judah and Tamar and Perez are listed as part of a family tree that starts with Abraham, goes to David, and ends in Jesus Christ. You heard me right: Judah and Tamar and Perez are part of the family tree of Jesus. They are listed among those whom God has chosen, whom God has elected, to be His special people. These aren't exactly the kind of ancestors we would tell others about, but the Bible includes them in the family tree of Jesus.
Remember when Father Jacob was on his deathbed? He called all twelve of his sons to him, one by one. God inspired him to give a special prophecy about and blessing to Judah. As someone said, Judah lived like an alley cat, but Jacob called him a lion. Jacob said that Judah's and Tamar's line would be a royal line that would eventually give birth to the Ruler of all nations (Gen 49:10). This prophecy was realized in Jesus Christ, the lion of the tribe of Judah (Rev 5:5).
Seen this way, the story of Judah and Tamar is a wonderful story of God's providence by which He preserves the lineage, the family line, of the Messiah. We see here that God can carry out His great and eternal purposes by using a mixed up, messed up family like Judah's and Tamar's.
This is not the only time God did something like this. This is not the only time God took a messy situation and used it to work out His great and eternal purposes in Christ. For instance, God – by His providence – blessed Ruth, a descendants of Lot's incestuous relationship with his daughters, and made her part of the family tree of Jesus. In spite of adultery and murder, God – by His providence – blessed David and Bathsheba, and made them a part of the family tree of Jesus. And, God – by His providence – used a virgin from Nazareth to give birth to Jesus.
God's providential care and guidance, when it comes to the family tree of Jesus, is seen another way in our passage as well. Take note that Perez and Zerah were twins who struggled in the womb – just like their grandfather Jacob and his brother Esau. If you remember, by the plan and providence of God, the birthright did not go to Esau, the older brother; instead, contrary to human custom, it went to Jacob, the younger brother. The culture back then stressed the rights and privileges of being the older brother; yet, by the plan and providence of God, it was Jacob who became part of the family tree of Jesus. In the story in front of us we see that Zerah was marked as the older brother; yet, it was Perez, who became part of the family tree of Jesus.
Do you see what counts in each and every one of these situations? What counts is not human qualification. What counts is not human righteousness. What counts is not human effort. What counts is not human custom or standards. What counts is God's blessing and God's providence and God's choosing. That is the only thing that counts for Judah and Tamar and for you and me as well. It all depends on God's blessing and God's providence, and has nothing to do with how good or how holy or how righteous I may be.
The sad and sinful story of Judah and Tamar tells me that God does not avoid sinners. Rather, by grace, He saves them. And, by His providence He humbles them and changes them and uses them.
Thanks be to God for His grace and providence!
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