Joanna Harader – Waiting with Tamar

Good morning! It is so good to be with you all—to worship with you on this first Sunday of Advent. I’m honored that you are using Expecting Emmanuel, the devotional I wrote, as I guide in this season, and I’m excited to join you this morning as we begin the journey.

We’ll get to the soap opera-worthy story of Tamar soon, but I want to start at the very beginning of Matthew’s Gospel: “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” While the genealogy of Jesus in Luke contains only male names, Matthew’s “account” includes five women–Mary, of course; and four surprising women from the First Testament: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and “the wife of Uriah,” who is Bathsheba.

A focus on the genealogy can ground us in the incarnation. This list of names is a reminder that God became flesh, for real; Jesus was part of a family line. And the particular names on this list—certainly the women named—remind us of the messiness of being human. In these women’s stories we see hardship and joy, strength and vulnerability—the complexity of what it means to be a human body in the world. And in Advent in particular, we stand in awe of God’s willingness to enter that messy complexity out of love for us.

Speaking of messy complexity . . . can you believe the story of Tamar? There are a lot of threads we could pull on here. Fascinating conversations about loyalty, obligation, grief, justice, power, sexuality, capital punishment. And there is a temptation, especially as a guest preacher, to say all the things!

But I won’t. Maybe we can talk about some of these threads at the sermon discussion this evening. For now, I want to focus on an aspect of Tamar’s story I find particularly intriguing—and especially relevant as we begin Advent. I want us to consider what it might mean for us to wait with Tamar.

Advent is a season of waiting. In the secular world we are told how many shopping days we have left until Christmas. At church we light a new Advent candle each week as we wait for the birth of the Christ child. Maybe you have an Advent calendar at home, granting you a special reading or item or—preferably—a piece of chocolate each day as we get closer and closer to the big day.

Advent is a season of waiting. And Tamar’s is a story of waiting.

After her husband Er and his brother Onan die, Judah, her father-in-law, sends Tamar as a widow back to her father’s house. Judah implies that once his youngest son, Selah, is of age, he will allow Tamar to marry him and thus fulfill the obligation of providing children for Er.

And so Tamar does what is asked of her. She returns to her father’s house, and she waits.

This first period of waiting is a necessary waiting, a healthy waiting. It takes time for Shelah to be old enough to marry. There is nothing anybody can do to make Shelah get older faster. They simply have to wait.

We have these periods of necessary waiting in our own lives. During Advent, in particular, I think about the waiting of pregnancy. It’s not a passive waiting. There are things to be done to prepare for the baby and choices to make about staying healthy. But no matter what you do, the full gestation period for a human baby is nine months. (Which can feel like a long time, but is not that long to wait compared to African elephants, who have a 22-month gestation period.)

There are other situations, of course, when we just have to wait. For special day, like birthdays or Christmas or vacation; for flowers to bloom; for dough to rise; for the new season of “Only Murders in the Building” to start. Sometimes there is nothing to be done to speed up the process, so we wait for Christmas, for the flowers, for the bread, for the first episode to drop.

And Tamar waits for Selah to come of age. . . . And she waits. . . . And she waits. At some point she realizes that that kid is definitely of age already, but she is still waiting. This is when she decides she has waited long enough and takes action on her own behalf.

This is the part of Tamar’s waiting that interests me the most: the shift from waiting to action– and the discernment involved in that shift. Because while we sometimes find ourselves waiting out of necessity, many times it’s not so clear whether we should be waiting or not.

Maybe you’re not feeling so well—stuffy nose, headache, cough. Do you just rest and wait and hope you feel better? Do you get a flu test, a COVID test? Do you go to the doctor? Maybe you are feeling irritable, sad, lethargic. Do you just wait for the day you wake up calm and happy with new energy? Wait for the frustrating or sad or energy-draining situation in your life to pass? Or do you make significant changes in your life, find a therapist, figure out new strategies?

Maybe, like Tamar, you’re waiting for someone else to do something. How long do you wait for your boss to notice your hard work, for your partner to plan the vacation, for your child to clean their room? Where is the line between helpful reminders and nagging? At what point do you take action, like Tamar, to encourage (or, in her case, trick) people to do the right thing?

When we find ourselves in a season of waiting, we, like Tamar, have to discern when the proper time for waiting ends and the time for action begins.

Sometimes, of course, we are not waiting on our own, but waiting with an entire group of people.

We wait as a church community. You all installed your new pastor, Phil, at the beginning of October. So I expect you all are quite aware of the discernment needed to know when to wait and when to act. You wait for the church to be ready, you wait for the right candidate to show up. And maybe the church never seems quite ready. Maybe—not here, obviously, but for some churches—the perfect candidate doesn’t appear. And churches have to decide when the waiting is over, when to move forward as best they can with what they have.

I think a lot of churches have been waiting for things to get back to normal after COVID. And, at least at Peace Mennonite and I expect at a lot of other congregations as well, we are starting to realize that pre-COVID normal is never coming back. We have to stop waiting for what was and take action, as the Spirit leads, toward what can be.

Tamar is especially inspiring to me in this context, because the action she takes is so . . . unexpected. She comes up with a wild, bold plan that actually works! Now, to be clear, I am not advocating that the church engage in any sort of seduction or trickery, but we do need to be creative and try new things. We see that when Tamar stops waiting and takes bold action, God honors her. Perhaps we can trust that the same will be true for churches that step out in faith—no matter how . . . unexpected their actions might be.

I’ve also been thinking of Tamar’s waiting as it relates to seeking God’s justice in the world. Judah was in a position of power over Tamar—she needed a husband in order to have security, but she was not free to find a husband for herself; she was promised to Shelah; but she couldn’t marry him until Judah allowed it. So considering the social realities and the power dynamics at play here, this is definitely a story about justice.

Tamar waits for the one with power to do the right thing, and when it becomes clear that he won’t do it on his own, she takes steps to make him.

This feels like a familiar pattern, doesn’t it? People in power saying, “wait.” Saying, “it’s complicated.” Saying, “it just takes time.” Those in power will tell those seeking justice, as the white moderates told the civil rights leaders, that actions that upset the status quo are “unwise and untimely.”

Peace Mennonite is involved with an inter-faith justice group named Justice Matters. I’ve been working with this group for years on alternatives to incarceration. Part of that work has been opposition to a jail expansion project which was viewed as a necessity by many “compassionate” moderates in my county. Our group’s opposition was certainly viewed as “unwise and untimely”—though the words used weren’t always that polite.

As a member of the Supportive Communities Network, I imagine you all followed the progress and—to my mind—miraculous passage of the Resolution for Repentance and Transformation. Those of us supporting the resolution in Kansas City earlier this year had Gerald and Carrie on speaker phone one night to help us understand the intricacies of Robert’s Rules of Order. There were, to be sure, many people—people who theoretically support full inclusion in the church—who considered the resolution “unwise and untimely.”

In both of these situations—working toward decarceration in my county and toward lgbtqia+ justice in MC USA—we have had to discern how long to wait and when to push a little—or a lot. In the end, in these two situations at least, we’ve ended up needing to push pretty hard to get those in power to do the right thing. (And, of course, the pushing continues.) But waiting isn’t always out of line. Because the reality is that these are complicated situations; that solutions to these problems do, in fact, take time. Even the most justice-minded leaders can’t change the systems overnight.

So how long do we wait? When is it time to act? For a thoughtful, faithful, inspiring response to those who consider actions toward justice “unwise and untimely,” I commend to you Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In part he writes:

I am coming to feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will. . . . We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of [people] willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.

How long do we wait? When is it time to act? For a response that is a bit rougher around the edges, but no less faithful, I commend to you the story of Tamar. I commend to you her willingness to be creative, work hard, and take a risk.

Whether we are waiting as an individual, a congregation, or a broader community, Tamar’s story can be a guide and inspiration for us. Even though the story does not explicitly mention God, we can see God’s presence in the story. We can see God’s presence with Tamar in her waiting. We can see God’s guidance of Tamar as she realizes she cannot wait any longer. In her commitment to justice—in this case justice for herself—we can see her faithfulness and her commitment to God.

And so, in this Advent season of waiting, I pray we can wait with Tamar: That we can wait patiently and peacefully when the waiting is necessary; and that we will be led by God into action when the time for waiting is over.