oday is a very meaningful day for this congregation, for Sarah and Joelle ______ and for their family. But I would like to remind us that it is not just one day. I mean, if any family decided that they wanted to share the birth of their first child (or children) with us in a celebration of baptism, that would be a wonderful gift and a day of rejoicing. But Sarah and Joelle, though they are in worship with us for the first time today, are not really among us as strangers.
For one thing, their mother has been part of the life of this congregation for her whole life which means that some of the most important and formative moments in her life have happened in this place and with people from this congregation. We have been part of the person she has become in significant ways.
Even more important, when, four years ago, she and Andrew made the most important decision of their lives and decided that they would tie their destinies together, they came here to celebrate and to make their mutual vows. I had the privilege of presiding, on your behalf, on that very special day and I particularly remember it because I was kind of inspired by Andrew’s career. His job involves building things out of concrete that is reinforced by steel rebars, so I spent some time talking about the rebars that God wanted to use to reinforce their relationship – rebars like patience, kindness and God’s unfailing love. A little corny? Maybe. But I like to think that, amongst the many things they were thinking about that day, they did hold onto some of what I said because they seem to have indeed built a strong and enduring relationship that will stand the test of time.
But if you think that their marriage four years ago changed their life, that is nothing compared to what happened to them one year and one day ago when Sarah and Joelle showed up and began to rearrange absolutely everything – especially all of their priorities. It has got to be the most significant single event in their lives up until this point and yet today they have chosen to invite us into their relationship with their children. And not just today, but on into the future as they have said that it is their intention that this congregation should be a part of their children’s life as it has been a part of Laura’s.
As I thought about this very special day, my mind turned to the stories of births in the Bible and, for some strange reason, I particularly thought of the stories of the births of twins. There are only a few twins mentioned in the Bible. All of them happen to be boys. Some of them, like Jacob and Esau, have pretty well-known stories. But as I thought of Sarah and Joelle and what their coming among us means, I remembered another set of twins who seemed to have something important to say to us today: their names are Perez and Zerah.
But before we can talk about these two very important, but somewhat obscure twins, we need to understand that the Bible comes to us out of a world that looked on children in very particular ways. For one thing, the naming of a baby always holds deep significance and meaning in the Bible. They didn’t just give their babies names because they were popular that year or because they were naming their child after some popular television character. (And, yes, I am talking about all those parents out there who gave their daughters the name Khaleesi last year.)
It didn’t work like that in Ancient Israel. Back then, the custom was for the mother to chose the name of her child (it was one of the few things in that society that women were actually given control over) and she would choose the name based on her hopes and expectations for her child or on some circumstance surrounding the birth.
Another thing that you need to understand about the ancient people of the Bible: birth order mattered a lot. The difference between being the first born and the second born was like the difference between night and day. The firstborn male got everything (and, yes, this was all about the boys; girls were not valued in the same way, but that was really their problem and their mistake). The second son got nothing. This makes the stories about the birth of twins in the Bible particularly dramatic. The question of which one will be born a few seconds before the other one becomes a near life and death struggle.
So, with that in mind, let us take a look at the story of the Bible’s less famous twins, Perez and Zerah. Now, even though you have probably never heard their names before, they are actually very important and significant twins as far as the Bible is concerned – so important that they are named in the third verse of the New Testament – Matthew 1:3 – among the ancestors of Jesus Christ. The story of their mother, Tamar, and how she came to have them is also one of the strangest stories in the whole Bible but it never gets read in church (for reasons I’m just not going to explain to you) so you’ll just have to read it for yourselves later. (We preachers will resort to anything to get people to read the Bible for themselves.)
But the importance of these two children is something that we should pick up on here today because one of the reasons we are here is because we don’t just think that Sarah and Joelle are cute and beautiful (which they are, by the way) but also because we believe in their potential. They are only a year old. They have already started to form personalities and interests but we have no idea what they might grow up to do and to be. We don’t even have a clear idea of what the world will be like when they grow up. But we have baptized them today because we believe that God can use them and their uniqueness…… to bring about a better world – to establish some manifestation of the reality of the kingdom of God. That is ultimately what this is all about.
Now, as I said, birth order meant everything to the ancient people of the Bible – much more than it means to us today. And this story in Genesis plays with that ancient obsession because, of course, when you are talking about twins, that sort of obsession is exposed as ridiculousness. After all, why would you insist that a child’s destiny and inheritance must be limited by its place in the birth order when, in the case of twins, we’re only talking about a difference of a few minutes or even seconds?
But it is even more ridiculous in this case when one of the two children puts his hand out and the midwife marks him as firstborn by tying a thread around his wrist and then, in the end, it is the other one who is actually born first. By the end of it, even the author of Genesis seems confused, not really knowing which one is the eldest. (The confusion is actually even more clear in the original Hebrew text. The translators have clarified something that wasn’t very clear in the original.)
I believe that that confusion in the story is quite intentional. The Bible is reminding us – as it frequently does – that all of the systems of this world, the systems that we human beings like to set up in order to say that some people are just better or more valuable than others – are truly meaningless. We keep trying to divide people by birth order or race or wealth or status and God just seems to delight in overturning all of that. The birth of these twins is a graphic illustration of one of Jesus’ favourite sayings, “The first shall be last and that last shall be first” because God just loves turning things upside down.
That brings us, finally, to the names that are given to these Biblical twins, for their names are taken directly from the story of the contest between them to be born first. The twin who is born first (after the other twin puts out his hand and gets the bright red thread tied on it)ay that you get full otory of the contest is called Perez and Perez means breach. The meaning of this has nothing to do with what is called a breech birth which is what you call it when a child comes out of the womb feet first. This was a particularly dangerous kind of birth in the ancient world and could often be fatal for mother or child or birth. But that is not what breach means in this story. It is rather a reference to ancient warfare when a breach would be made in walls or defensive fortifications to allow an enemy army to win a battle or take a city.
The idea behind this name seems to be that Perez has made a breach in the normal ways of doing things. He has overturned the whole way that the world works by stealing the first place from his brother and maybe from all firstborns everywhere.
Wouldn’t you agree, Laura and Andrew, that breach or Perez does make a good name for a twin because I am pretty sure that you have experienced exactly that. The arrival of these two children, especially when they both have come at once, has turned everything upside down for you. They have breached every single habit, every assumption every limit you thought that you had set. They have changed everything including your living arrangements and your relationships with your families and with almost everyone else. They have changed your priorities and your anxieties. But that is what children do and they do it all the more powerfully when they come two at a time.
The other child is given the name Zerah. This is the one who first put his hand out of the womb and the midwife tied a red thread around it. The name Zerah sounds like the Hebrew word that means bright so the idea seems to be that this child is named for the bright colour of the thread.
But, wherever the name comes from, the promise that the arrival of this child brings a new brightness into the world is one that can celebrate here today. Laura and Andrew, I know that you have named your children Sarah and Joelle, but there is no question that they have brought a new brightness into your lives and into the world even as they have breached and disrupted everything. You now know a new meaning to your lives and a new purpose to your being. You now find laughter and joy in places where you never found them before – even in dirty diapers, sleepless nights and just being together. This is a precious gift and we pray that you get full enjoyment of it. And thank you today for sharing that gift of brightness with all of us.
These children, Sarah and Joelle, are among us all as a gift from God today – a gift to their family first but also a gift to all of us. They come to disrupt us because the reality is that the church needs to have its comfortable assumptions of what its priorities are breached and disrupted. They are here as a reminder that the church needs be open to change and to breach if it is going to provide for these children and for others like them a place where they can grow up and take their own proper place in the kingdom of God.
They are also here as a gift of brightness – of new life and new beginnings. They are a sign of the hope that God is with us and will continue to renew us. Andrew and Laura, thank you for sharing these gifts of breach and bright with us today!