Sunday, December 9, 2018

The Counselor and His Noose: A Sermon on Matthew 1:6 (Fallen Leaves from the Family Tree of Jesus)

In a small village in Judah, over twenty-nine hundred years ago, it's a breezy day. The tree creaks. Tied to one of the branches is a rope. The other end of the rope holds an old man. He kicks what he's standing on out from under him. The rope snaps taut. And soon he's swaying in the wind. A tragic end. But to what kind of story? What kind of life led to an old man in Judah swinging from a noose that day?

It all began over eighty years before, when a boy was born in the village of Giloh, standing partway between the Jewish town of Bethlehem to the south and the Jebusite city of Jerusalem a little bit north-northeast. The boy lived in one of the houses at the edge of town, the back room touching the town wall; but as he grew a little bit, he loved to play in the middle of the village, near the sheep pens. His name – at least as it's been handed down to us – was Ahithophel. And he was born in the days when Samuel judged Israel, though Giloh wasn't terribly close to the orbit Samuel made between Bethel, Gilgal, and Mizpah. On the day Ahithophel died, he could still remember the day – he was about twelve at the time – when news came that, for the first time ever, Israel had picked a king. From the tribe of Benjamin. Ahithophel thought it a sensible choice. Limits on the power of the monarchy, a trial run, with a king easily discredited in case the experiment didn't work out.

Ahithophel was no ordinary boy. He was sharp. Sharper than anybody. If born today, he would've joined a chess club in Kindergarten, and skipped a grade each year after that. That's the sort of boy he was. He loved to think. Loved to stretch and puzzle his brain. One thing he enjoyed about tending flocks as a kid – it gave him plenty of time, in the nearby fields, to let his brain roam far and wide. One or two of the men in town became soldiers, and every time they came back from one of King Saul's campaigns, Ahithophel was excited. Excited to run up to them and ask them for all the details, everything that happened. Not that he was bloodthirsty, no, or glamorized war, no. He wanted to hear about troop movements. Rations. Grand strategy. Tactical decisions in the moment. Wanted to know what choices Saul made, and why. Why did Saul do this and not that, why did the enemy do that and not this, and what came of it? Nor was Ahithophel shy in sharing with the soldiers from his village his opinion of what would've been best. Saul's decision to ban his troops from eating before the Battle of Michmash, for instance – clearly a tactical error. Ahithophel appreciated Saul's desire not to allow any delays in the pursuit, but should have supplied his famished troops with rations beforehand to prevent bodily urgency from distracting and weakening them.

Such as Ahithophel's youth in the early days of King Saul. There were plenty of wars for him to learn from – no doubt about that. Saul waged them 'gainst the Moabites, the Ammonites, the Edomites, the Arameans of Zobah, the Philistines. Ahithophel grew with those stories, expanded his horizons, refined his critical thinking. He got married to a nice village girl, settled down. Their son Eliam was young when Ahithophel heard tell of a battle that fascinated him. In the Valley of Elah, the matter had been settled via a one-on-one match between the champion of each party. The Philistine champion was conquered – cleverly, innovatively, ingeniously, thought Ahithophel – via a projectile, by an Israelite champion sure to be underestimated: a teenage boy from the nearby town of Bethlehem. Jesse's youngest son. Ahithophel thought he might've met Jesse once or twice, tending flocks out in the pasturelands. And now Jesse's son David, young armor-bearer and court musician, was making a name for himself.

Years continued to pile up. Ahithophel's son Eliam grew. Married a village girl. The whole family followed reports about Saul and David with interest. David, no longer a young armor-bearer, but a captain, a general, a famed military hero, even the king's son-in-law. Then David, the outcast, the wanted fugitive, fallen from royal favor. Then David, on the run, even a mercenary in the employ of the Philistines. David, warlord of Ziklag. But in all this, there was something compelling about his story. Inspiring enough to eventually lead Eliam to travel to Adullam to join up with David, enlist in his cause. Ahithophel worried about his son, but knew that this David had a creative mind powerful enough to keep Eliam alive. In the meantime, Ahithophel and his wife cared for Eliam's wife – as she brought a little baby girl into the world. The most precious little lamb.

A few years went by again. Ahithophel heard the news. Devastating tactical blunders. Saul's forces had been distracted. When David had marched his men from Ziklag to Aphek and back, Saul had been so preoccupied with mistrust of David along a route with plenty of openings for invading Judah, that he'd failed to secure the approach to the north. The main Philistine attack force had encroached. Their archers had good positions. Saul and most of his princes were left dead on the slopes of Mount Gilboa. In the aftermath of the battle, David marched from Ziklag to Hebron, a city quite a ways to the south of Giloh along the road, in the heartland of the territory of Judah. And it was there he was anointed king of the tribe. Not just Eliam's commanding officer, but Eliam's king. Ahithophel's king. This little granddaughter's king. Of course, the other tribes were still a bit more tied up in the legacy of Saul. General Abner, Saul's cousin, held the reigns of power. Eventually had Saul's last son Ishba'al proclaimed king. But in time, after plenty of conflict, Abner and David had come to an agreement. And David was made king of all Israel and Judah.

Wasn't long after that – Ahithophel's precious granddaughter was about ten – that David and his army came near to Giloh. Ahithophel was excited to see more of his son, who'd risen to be one of David's top warriors, one of his gibborim, the 'mighty men.' David had his eyes quite sensibly set on the Jebusite fortress and town to Giloh's northeast: Jerusalem. The king's nephew Joab, disgraced after having assassinated Abner, led an expedition up the water tunnel into the city, up the shaft somehow... and it wasn't long before David had conquered Jerusalem, that mighty fortress. Ahithophel saw the wisdom. Hebron was a fine capital for Judah alone, but too attached to the legacy of one tribe, distant from the more northern tribes. Saul's old capital at Gibeah was a no-go. But Jerusalem of the Jebusites – near the intersection of tribal borders, not beholden to any particular legacy, well-positioned, eminently defensible... everything the nation needed in a capital city.

It maybe wasn't long after that that Ahithophel first met David. Eliam must've bragged often about his clever father, his genius father, his strategy-obsessed father, living in Giloh. And now that David's capital was only a few miles away, Eliam could invite Ahithophel there to meet David. And David was impressed. So impressed, mightily impressed. We're told that Ahithophel's mind – his relentless, logical mind, far-seeing and whirring away like a supercomputer – came to be revered by David as the next best thing to consulting God himself. It was no big surprise – but certainly a delight to Ahithophel – when David asked him to serve as royal counselor – a key advisor David would discuss major decisions with.

Ahithophel remembered those days. How David's palace was built, northward from the existing walls of the fortress of Zion – a vast building covering about an acre of turf, and able to overlook city and countryside from its patio roof. Offered an easy descent to the fortress in case of attack. Ahithophel liked that. Maybe it was his idea, for all we know. It was probably during those days that Eliam died – I reckon in one of David's wars. If he did, Ahithophel and David mourned together something fierce.

But Ahithophel's granddaughter – she was growing up. Eliam had introduced her to one of his colleagues, a brave and passionate young warrior, the youngest of David's new gibborim. He was the zealous son of zealous Hittite converts – a father and mother so deeply appreciative of the difference between Israel's God and the gods of their ancestors that they were all-in, and raised their son with an intensity of love and piety that put so many Israelites – and certainly Ahithophel, whose religious impulses were hardly his strongest ones – to shame. That was the young soldier whom the late Eliam had respected so well as to introduce to his late-teenage daughter. And so, before or after Eliam's death, there was a wedding one day in Jerusalem. The groom: Uriah the soldier, brave and strong. The beautiful bride: Ahithophel's granddaughter, stunning Bathsheba, daughter of Eliam. The two lived in one of the larger houses not far from the palace. Ahithophel remembered how easily you could see it down below from the palace roof. He was happy. Uriah was the only man worthy of his little lamb.

Newlywed Uriah took some time off from soldiering – that was the law, after all, to ensure a year together for a new bride and her husband. It wasn't long after the extended honeymoon that Uriah was called back to duty. A war had broken out. David had sent ambassadors to the Ammonites, to relay his sympathy over the death of King Nahash, his ally. But Nahash's son Hunan, refusing to take the gesture of sympathy for what it was, insisting the ambassadors were spies, humiliated them, cursed them, defaced their beards and uniforms. David had little choice but to send Joab's army out to do battle with Hunan's Ammonites and their Aramean allies.

Many months passed. Ahithophel remembered the summer day a messenger came to his doorstep. Bad news indeed. His grandson-in-law Uriah... slain in battle. His unit was in the thickest of it, and he and those he led... well, it was only a matter of time. Ahithophel's heart broke for his granddaughter, his little lamb, widowed so unconscionably young. The funeral was a dark day of mourning. The king was there at Ahithophel's side as they entered the week of sorrow.

And then the week of weeping was done. And the strangest thing happened. A ceremony at the palace. David, the man of many women, was now Ahithophel's new grandson-in-law. It came as quite a shock, right out of the blue. So fast. So soon. Ahithophel wasn't sure what to make of it. At first. But it didn't take long for his mind to connect the rumors to the reality. His granddaughter had been pregnant. Gave birth seven or eight months after the marriage to David. Some thought... well, Uriah had been back in the city briefly, not long before the battle that took his life. But Ahithophel did the math. Not quite early enough. And some civil servants had seen Bathsheba brought to the palace a few weeks beforehand, and taken back to Uriah's house.

Ahithophel made the connection. Remembered the view from the patio roof, how easily it surveyed the courtyards at the hearts of each house below – including the private courtyard where, in the sanctity of her own home, Bathsheba would bathe. Ahithophel could see it in his mind's eye – the king, growing lazy and restless, cooped up in his palace; napping on his rooftop couch into the afternoon; pacing, bored, at the city below, until some excitement reaches his view... And if David had done that, what else had David done? Ahithophel waited until Rabbah of the Ammonites was taken, then subtly questioned some returned soldiers about that fateful day. Uriah's unit was shifted in the formation at the last minute. Not long after Uriah carried a letter from David to Joab. Call Ahithophel a cynic. Call Ahithophel a conspiracy theorist. But all the pieces fit together. David. Every line led back to the king. Ahithophel suspected that's why the prophet Nathan had confronted David.

Ahithophel's heart turned cold. His great-grandson, Bathsheba's firstborn, didn't last long. She and David had other children, in the years ahead. But Ahithophel waited. He could wait, in bitter coldness. Wait with what he knew. David was growing weak. Sloppy. Scatterbrained. Not the innovator he used to be. But Ahithophel – sharp as ever, even as a senior citizen. He knew opportunity would present itself.

Ahithophel bided his time. Years passed. David's family started unraveling. His eldest son, Amnon, in his mid-twenties, did something horrible. Rumors about Amnon and his broken-hearted half-sister Tamar seeped down city streets. Months ticked by. Years. Then news reports about a slaughter. When the dust cleared, Amnon was the only one dead – at his half-brother Absalom's hand, vengeance for Tamar. Absalom fled north, to Geshur, where his mother's father Talmai was king. For three years lived in exile. Ahithophel whispered a few lines in Joab's ear, and waited. Absalom came home to Jerusalem. But for two years, had no contact with his father David, no permissions to enter the palace. Ahithophel visited whenever he was in Jerusalem. Absalom – what a young man. Headstrong, very headstrong. Handsome, had hair like you wouldn't believe, but very vain. A disgruntled nationalist, disgusted at his father's weakness and the sense that foreigners had too big a role in David's networks. Ahithophel had little time for nativist garbage – he was acting in defense of his Hittite grandson-in-law, after all – but Absalom could prove useful. Little by little, Ahithophel stoked a determination in Absalom to regain his father's good graces – and then to curry favor with the populace at David's expense. Absalom stood at the city gates, and to every native Israelite who approached with a petition for the king, Absalom lied and said David wasn't receiving petitions, but that Absalom himself wished he were a judge so he could vindicate all the claims of... well, whoever he was talking to. Absalom was quite the flatterer. And just as Ahithophel had hoped, he stole the hearts of Israel right out from under David's nose.

A couple more years passed. Ahithophel was in his eighties now – a little bit older than Saul was when he died on the slopes of Gilboa. Absalom got his father's blessing to travel down to Hebron, to fulfill a vow of worship. But it was a trick – Ahithophel was proud. As soon as Absalom got to Hebron, messengers went out to proclaim him king, a replacement for his father David's dwindling popularity. And at just the right time, Ahithophel took his donkey, saddled up, and rode the road to Hebron himself to join his co-conspirator.

Ahithophel knew David trusted him. Knew David relied on him. Knew he was part of David's inner circle of trusted advisers, key counselors. The ones most necessary to be loyal. Ahithophel was under a vow of loyalty. But what did he care for vows? What did he care for David's repentance? It was time for a change, and as little as Ahithophel liked Absalom, he could use Absalom to his own ends. Vengeance for Uriah and Bathsheba. The downfall and destruction of King David, the Lord's Anointed. But what did Ahithophel care for whom the Lord had anointed? Ahithophel was schooled in Realpolitik – it was prudent to keep God somewhat appeased, but that's about as far as Ahithophel went. He used to admire, begrudgingly, the pious principles of David and Uriah. But David had been a hypocrite, and all Uriah's piety hardly prolonged his life. Ever since that fateful day and the realization of what happened, Ahithophel had cared less and less for religion as anything but a tool.

Well, as Absalom gathered supporters from far and wide, the march to Jerusalem began. Ahithophel wasn't worried about taking the city. He knew David – felt he knew David better than David knew himself. If there was one weakness David had, it was an inability to take action against a son. Nor would David let Jerusalem endure a siege. No, David would run. And so he did. Absalom, Ahithophel, and their happy throng marched into the city unobstructed, right up to the royal palace. Ahithophel knew that someone would see him there and send a messenger to David. Good. Ahithophel wanted David quaking in his boots when the disgraced monarch realized, atop the Mount of Olives, just who he was messing with. Those early days in Jerusalem, the reign of Absalom... Ahithophel had been surprised to see Hushai, from the tribe of Benjamin, still there. Suspicious. Hushai had been a known Davidic partisan. Hushai claimed to be loyal to the king – Absalom assumed Hushai meant him, but Ahithophel wasn't so sure.

Ahithophel remembered the meetings in the palace, as Absalom and the elders of Israel sought his advice. How should Absalom behave? How should he conduct himself as king? With a rival claimant still on the run, with some in Israel still loyal to the ousted fugitive, how should Absalom solidify his claim to the throne? It was all apparent to Absalom. His mind clicked, whirred. He told Absalom to take David's ten concubines, left behind at the palace, up onto the roof – spread a bridal canopy, and have his way with them, one by one. A brutal act, to be sure. But it would humiliate David. A king's harem represented the nation, and it would broadcast that David had lost control and could no longer be Israel's protector. It would emasculate David in the eyes of all and sundry. It was a move so unforgivable that it would forestall any future reconciliation between Absalom and David. David could never overlook it, that crossing-the-Rubicon moment. Absalom would be locked in – good for Ahithophel, who knew David would execute him as a traitor, if Absalom reconciled. It would boost morale for Absalom to seize David's concubines, assuring them that Absalom was there to stay, was in charge. Absalom did it was pleasure. And Ahithophel found great satisfaction that David's humiliation would come on the same spot from which he'd seen Bathsheba, called for her, and grabbed her like his property.

Then came the next question. Absalom and the elders again called Ahithophel to the palace for a consultation. Hushai was there too. What to do about David? All eyes, all ears were on Ahithophel. The question he'd been waiting for. And he laid it all out. David had a small force with him – small relatively, hundreds of men, and maybe hundreds of mercenaries, all in his entourage. But David was weary. Demoralized. So were his loyal troops. And they'd never expect decisive action. The best course, Ahithophel said, was to put him in charge of the David problem. David could never outwit Ahithophel. Ahithophel would take the largest strike force they could muster that very day – twelve battalions, symbolic of the twelve tribes. Ahithophel knew the symbolism would demoralize David further, show him the entire nation was against him. And Ahithophel would charge at David quickly and decisively. Overwhelming surprise show of force, not meant to inflict damage on the troops, but to scare them away from David. Isolate David. And then Ahithophel would assassinate the old king. Without David at the heart of the resistance, his supporters would have no cause. No reason not to accept the legitimacy of Absalom's government. Surrounded, Ahithophel would march them back to Jerusalem, back to Absalom, like a runaway bride returning humbly to her rightful husband. It would put a quick and almost bloodless end to a civil war. Israel would come to be grateful for the wisdom of such a clean surgical solution. Life could move on, and leave David a forgotten memory.

Cool. Logical. Clean. Simple. Blunt. Ahithophel's advice won wild favor among the elders. Absalom nodded dumbly along. Ahithophel always persuaded. And he was always right. But then something curious happened. Absalom asked Hushai to also weigh in. And to Ahithophel's surprise, Hushai disagreed. For once, he said, Ahithophel had gotten it wrong. Hushai painted a picture of David as a wild beast, a fierce unstoppable warrior like in the days of his youth, a monster untameable except by the entirety of a nation. David was too crafty to be caught, Hushai said; they needed to bide their time, call up the reserves to action from across the country, and then search out David in whatever town he sought refuge and wipe the place off the map. Total war. And Ahithophel, Hushai implied, was too old and feeble to lead the way; it should be Absalom the strong, Absalom the handsome, Absalom the victor! Ahithophel rolled his eyes at Hushai's pablum. The logic was full of holes. It was emotive rhetoric. But Absalom and the elders alike were swept away. They dismissed the counselors so they could confer. But Ahithophel saw the look in Absalom's eyes at the thought of leading the army himself. It appealed so nicely to Absalom's vanity that there was little question to Ahithophel what Absalom would decide. And, true to form, news soon reached him that Absalom had chosen Hushai's foolish plan. Perhaps foolish on purpose – Ahithophel still had a sneaking suspicion that Hushai was David's double-agent, sent to mislead.

With a heavy heart, Ahithophel mounted his donkey and rode slowly through the countryside back to Giloh. To home. He always thought five, ten, twenty moves ahead. It was plain what would happen. Absalom, following Hushai's advice, would wait until he gathered in more troops. It would give David time to settle somewhere with good defenses, to regather his wits, to call in his own supporters, to improve his morale. Absalom was no military genius. He'd let his pride bungle the whole thing. Reportedly, spies had even relayed to David the inner deliberations of the war council – meaning David would soon have the benefit of Ahithophel's ideas, and know in advance what course Absalom would take. With that, he'd surely triumph over Absalom in battle and retake the throne. Absalom would probably die. Ahithophel didn't care. Ahithophel cared about Ahithophel. And Ahithophel would be tried and executed for treason. He ran through all the scenarios. At this point, there was no course of action that didn't end with him dead. It might as well be on his terms.

So Ahithophel reached Giloh. Went into his cozy four-room house. Sat down and balanced his books, wrote out a will, dealt with any last business. Once his affairs were settled, he took some rope. He found a tree. And old man Ahithophel, royal counselor turned traitor, ended his story early, to ensure he could be buried in honor before the war was settled and his name was dragged through the mud. And thus closed the kind of life that led to an old man swinging from a noose that day. Thwarted because David had prayed God to “defeat the counsel of Ahithophel,” and God had given David Hushai and had prevailed on the hearts of Absalom and the elders to prefer Hushai's sabotage over Ahithophel's keen scheme. Ahithophel's keen scheme was no match for the Lord.

A thousand years went by. And there was a new king, like David. And this king had an inner circle, as David did. David, long before, had stood on the Mount of Olives and received news that his trusted counselor had betrayed him. But things hadn't worked out for the traitor, leading the traitor to settle his affairs, take a rope, and hang himself. And so, a thousand years later, as the new king stood on the Mount of Olives, one of his own inner circle turned traitor. But things didn't work out so well for the traitor. That traitor settled his affairs – took the price of his betrayal back to the local authorities and hurled it at them. And that traitor then took a rope and hanged himself. You know who I mean. The new king: Jesus, known as the 'Son of David.' And the traitor: Judas Iscariot. “When Judas, the betrayer, saw that he was condemned, he changed his mind and brought back the thirty pieces of silver..., and throwing down the pieces of silver into the temple, he departed, and he went and hanged himself” (Matthew 27:3-5). Like Ahithophel. In fact, at the Last Supper, Jesus quoted David's lament about Ahithophel's traitorous turn: “Even my close friend, in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted his heel against me” (Psalm 41:9; John 13:18). The Gospels present Judas as the New Testament version of Ahithophel. Which makes Ahithophel the Judas of the Old Testament, who – while David was far from a sinless man – nevertheless betrayed and conspired against God's anointed king.

Why does it matter? Why should we care? Why bother with this weird, uncomfortable story, especially in this season of the year? Just this, think about this. Ahithophel was the father of Eliam. Eliam was the father of that little lamb, Bathsheba. And Bathsheba bore David several children. Including Solomon. Ahithophel's great-grandson. And we know where Matthew takes things from there. Matthew traces the descent of Jesus from Solomon, while Luke traces it from David's other son Nathan – also given birth by Bathsheba. Either way, no way around it. Jesus was a descendant of Ahithophel.

Things didn't have to be that way, you know? The flow of history is in God's hands. He could have completely disconnected the royal line, the messianic line, from Bathsheba and from Ahithophel's legacy. But God didn't do that. God intentionally made it so that every later king of Judah, and ultimately the Messiah himself, would have to look back to Ahithophel – the Old Testament Judas – as one of their ancestors. The family tree of Jesus comes, in part, from a Judas.

Why would God do that? Why would God take this brilliant, bitter, twisted, traitorous Ahithophel, the royal counselor who sold out his king and set the template for Judas to follow – why would God take a Judas and put him in Jesus' ancestry? I think God must have had a reason. And I'd like to suggest to you today that the reason must run something like this: God is determined to weave even the worst rebellion and the most broken agony back into his plan. Rebellion, betrayal, bloodthirsty evil, conspiratorial wickedness, sin to its most sinful, the summit of apostasy. Ahithophel had fallen away so decisively, there was no way forward for him but a noose. And yet the redemptive life of Jesus isn't scared to touch and embrace Ahithophel, any more than it is to include the David he betrayed. Even from a Judas, Jesus can draw generations of hope and blessing.

We're gearing up for Christmas. Sometimes this time of year can dredge up some stressful family dynamics. It can remind us of our own guilt and failures, our loneliness and grief. It can entice us to judge our relatives or to condemn ourselves. We do it year-round, too. Now, I don't know what you've done in your lives. I don't know what things you might look back on and be ashamed of. I don't know what baggage you're still carrying – of times you feel you betrayed someone, betrayed God, betrayed yourself or your principles. And I don't know whether some of you wonder if you can ever really be included, ever really belong after what you've done. Or maybe it's the black sheep of your family you wonder if there can ever be a place for.

But I'll tell you this. The Jesus who let his family tree grow through an Ahithophel is a Jesus who isn't ashamed to call you a brother or sister, a son or a daughter. Even if you've been a traitor. Even if you've been a Judas. Even if you've been an Ahithophel. He's a Jesus who isn't slow to redeem you, embrace you, bring beauty out of your worst mistakes. The manger in Bethlehem is proof. If Jesus will put Ahithophel in his family tree, if he can include and redeem the legacy of the arch-traitor who paved the way for Judas, you'll never be too broken, too far gone, too much of a black sheep to belong to his flock. If there's hope for the line of Ahithophel, there's hope for you and yours. Always. Forever. Amen.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

The Prince and His Nephews: A Sermon on Matthew 1:4 (Fallen Leaves from the Family Tree of Jesus)

It was a hot May day in the desert. But not a quiet one. Nahshon had a feeling it wouldn't be long, and he was right. Behind him, he heard the distinctive tones as one of his linen-clad nephews blasted a sharp note of alarm with a silver trumpet. It was the twentieth day of the month of Iyar, and that sound meant it was time to finally move. Nahshon sprang into action. As the sound of the trumpet faded, he spun around to face the giant tent, and saw no cloud. It drifted instead overhead, on its way to another site, and they had to start the chase, the hunt. So Nahshon gave the orders for everyone to break down their own tents, pack them on their carts as quickly as they could. He was itching to move. And he'd have to lead the way.

It took longer than he would have liked. Nahshon may have been in the dusky years of later life, but if one virtue had struggled to grow in him, it was patience. Nahshon had always been a man of action. Never fond of waiting. Never fond of sitting around. So the last eleven months, stationary camping on the plateau at the mountain's foot, had been a strain. He couldn't wait to hit the open sands. No matter. It was time to move now. And as soon as all the tents were packed away, he shouted for his flag-bearer to raise the tribal standard high and proud. And Nahshon, his wife, his son, his daughter-in-law, and his grandson not far behind, began the steady march – his eyes fixed like a falcon's on the shadow of that precious cloud to guide him, step by step, as an entire nation trailed in his wake. His sandals assiduously pounded the sand, daring all Israel to keep up.

The day's march was long. And as he routinely checked himself, slowed himself, so that his family and clan and tribe and people could keep up, he found it best to blunt the edge of impatience with nostalgia. He let his mind wander back to where it all started. Back, at first, to his days as a boy. He grew up in Goshen, an easterly stretch of the Nile river delta in Lower Egypt. He remembered the scoldings and the occasional playfulness of his father Amminadab, who always told him what a squirmy baby he'd been. He thought back to those days of middle boyhood, being teased by his big sister Elisheba, their exasperated father keeping peace between them when he could. Not that he always could. Nahshon didn't understand until he grew a little bit, that their family was subject to forced labor, baking bricks and laying bricks and baking bricks and laying bricks, all at the whim of rather distant Egyptian overseers armed with whips. Amminadab had tried to shelter Nahshon as long as he could. Nahshon was grateful for the glimpses of innocence. But they couldn't last.

Nahshon had grown. In the years of his strength, forced into labor himself, drafted into the chain gangs – but he still had time to himself, too. Time to attend his sister's wedding, for instance. Nahshon was still fairly young when it happened. He remembered his feeling of surprise when his sister married outside the tribe. Her new husband was a bit older, though not as old as Amminadab, and brought with him a sister-in-law. They said they had another brother, one secreted away and raised as a child of the nursery in the palace of the pharaoh's power. That was the story of Nahshon's brother-in-law's brother. It'd be a while before Nahshon really met him.

Nahshon had grown some more. Married a wife of his own. Had a son. They lived for years, decades. Often visited his sister Elisheba and her husband Aaron. Watched their own boys grow. Nahshon remembered doting on his nephews, cradling their infant bodies in his arms, all four of them, one by one. Saw them play, saw them learn, saw them keenly study and listen to their father's wisdom. As Nahshon got to know his brother-in-law, he was proud of his sister's choice in marrying him. And for his part, as Nahshon's grit and determination got him ahead, as he gained a reputation for learning and virtue and character, as he rose to a position of prominence in his father's house, in his clan system, indeed, in the entire tribe of Judah – well, Aaron more frequently started telling Elisheba that he, Aaron the Levite, was glad he'd married the sister of Nahshon of Judah!

Nahshon couldn't say he fully enjoyed life yet. Not while the chains of Egypt hung so heavy on his neck. But then it happened. Nahshon could hardly believe his ears. Aaron's brother, returning from exile among a foreign people. Aaron was the one who told him – had run into Nahshon's house, urged him to drop everything and come along, and greet his brother as he came back to Goshen. Nahshon remembered meeting the man in passing before. But not like this. Time to get to know this man, this brother, this Moses.

Moses kept Aaron busy. So busy that it seemed like Elisheba and the boys were at Nahshon's house nearly daily while her husband and his brother carried on a rough and disappointing diplomacy with the pharaoh. But far from a fruitless one. See, Moses had come to them, insisting that he'd encountered the God of their ancestors in the desert, that he'd been seized by the voice of Yahweh in a shrub on fire, that he'd been commissioned to bring liberation, rescue, salvation to their overburdened people. Nahshon was a hard sell – he'd heard the stories, but hadn't been sure he really believed they mattered any more, not after centuries of abandonment to slavery. But if this Yahweh was ready to show himself, far be it from me – Nahshon thought – to doubt once he saw.

Reports began trickling into Goshen. Something had gone wrong upstream in the Nile, making the water putrid. The land outside their district was full of frogs, gnats, scorpions. Livestock were catching diseases, people were infected with lesions, storms pummeled the land, locusts invaded the fields, a sandstorm fiercely blotted out the sun. Nahshon would scarcely have believed it, if the reports hadn't been so consistent, because where he lived, he saw nothing of the kind. And still the diplomacy had few effects. Then came the day, early last spring, when Aaron came and got him, dragged Nahshon along to a secret counsel with Moses. Leaders from other tribes were there, too. Moses gave instructions for a new ritual – told them to butcher their lambs, smear blood on the doorframes, shelter their homes from a disaster to come that would steal every firstborn male of man and beast. Nahshon, eldest son of his father and father of an eldest son, took no chances. And he made sure not a house in his tribe lacked the same. They ate that night in haste, staff in hand, as a sign; and went to bed fully dressed.

Early in the morning, before it was yet light, Aaron gave Nahshon the news. Disaster had hit Egypt, they'd been called to the palace not long after midnight, their freedom was granted. You didn't have to tell Nahshon twice! He gathered his family and herds, they took whatever they could carry, and Nahshon was so bold as to venture outside Goshen and pester grieving Egyptian homes for gifts to send them on their way. The Egyptians, for their part, were all too happy to just be rid of Hebrews. No time for breakfast, no time for lunch – Nahshon ate unleavened cakes as he walked. They marched southeast to Tjeku and the Isle of Atum in the Great Black, then curved north to the Sea of Reeds – a thirty-one mile walk. Good thing Nahshon was used to being on his feet.

Nahshon was alarmed to realize they were so close to an Egyptian garrison. Alarmed even more when he heard the pharaoh had changed his mind, given an order to pursue. Nahshon remembered the panic, the urgency – caught in their peril, backed up against a body of water they couldn't swim. Nahshon hadn't cared – he'd started plunging in anyway, a desperate confidence driving him onward, trusting that this God Moses talked about was hardly about to let them get killed. And sure enough, a wind blew him back, blew the water back, held it in place so they could march across the lake bed. Their pursuers never knew what hit 'em. Safely on the far bank, Nahshon had danced and sang and danced and sang; his wife, his sister, danced and played tambourines with Aaron's sister Miriam. What a beautiful time!

They couldn't take the north road through the desert – not with so many Egyptian forts guarding the way. They had veered south. Days passed, sixty miles beneath their sandals. Their waterskins ran dry. Suddenly, Nahshon had seen it – water, water! But, getting there, he found it was the hated Bitter Lakes. No good at all. He found his own dry mouth murmuring as he followed Moses with a bit of resentment. Fortunately, it wasn't long 'til the desert expert led them to an oasis he knew, at the edge of a riverbed. At Elim, Nahshon drank, he gave to his wife and son to drink, he filled his waterskins. Their next travels took them close to the sea – he recalled good fishing, and digging shallow holes to let them fill with filtered water. Ah, the tricks of desert life! Still, he'd been hungry – until Moses bade them wait for a solution. Soon, all the shrubs were coated with flaky crisps, curious white... well, Nahshon never did figure out what that was. And common quail dropped from the sky as the sun got low. So with poultry and flaky crisps, he'd kept his stomach from haunting him, day by day.

Passing next through the turquoise-mining district – thankfully devoid of Egyptians during the summer months – and then through a few riverbeds – they found themselves thirsty in the desert once more. Nahshon watched, he remembered, in wonder as Moses skillfully looked for black bands in a rock and tapped them with his staff, and water began to pour out – praise Yah! Still, there wasn't much, and another band of nomads, the sons of Amalek, were jealous of it – they'd had to fight them off, there at Rephidim. It was there, Nahshon recalled, that Moses had seen the wisdom of not micromanaging every petty tiff in the nation. Moses asked Nahshon to handle some of the larger cases, and if he couldn't figure out a solution, then to bring them to him. Glad to help.

It was the start of a third month, the first day of Sivan, beneath a new moon, when their eastward turn brought its dividends. They'd come out on a fine plateau beneath a looming mountain. That was the one, Moses said, the one where it would happen. And there was water here, and some patchy grass for their famished livestock, and all in all, enough room to pitch their tents for a while. Nahshon was glad to have a chance to finally wash his clothes – after a month and a half of sweat, he could barely stand their stink himself! And then it happened. On the third day of Sivan. He... even all these months later, he scarcely could figure out how to describe it. But it was what Moses had said. Fire from heaven. Trumpets of angels. Smoke and burning and tempest winds. It all settled up on the mountain; there, it rested. Nahshon whispered what he knew. Yahweh... it was Yahweh up there, in the fire and darkness. Nahshon had quaked in his sandals at the sight and smell and sound. A long trumpet blare summoned them close, but knowing that touching the mountain meant death, Nahshon and the rest held back, begging Moses to be their human shield. So Moses went up, down, brought words to live by.

Nahshon remembered a day not so long after that one. A day when Moses read the covenant to them, sprinkled them with blood – some had fallen on Nahshon's lip, its iron tinge tainting his tongue – as they vowed to live for Yahweh, their only God, who would accept no rivals and no divided loyalties. And then Nahshon got that awe-inspiring invitation. To go up. Up into the dark cloud. Up to... to... Well, up he went, climbing after Moses. His brother-in-law was there. So were his two oldest nephews, Nadab and Abihu. So was his cousin Hur. The most venerable and respected Hebrews climbed up, piercing the cloud. And Nahshon... Oh, he could barely believe his eyes! He looked up, and it was like a shield of blue, like the lid of the sky, but... but like sapphires and sunlight and... and... beyond description, but so perfectly clear! And on it, he knew there was a throne, and he could... he could see the feet of Yahweh over the sky, and he dared not look any higher, lest the flames all around bite him to shreds! But there, his heart pounding, surrounded by unquenchable brightness, he and the other men unloaded their bags of provisions... and held a picnic lunch. They ate and drank on the lower slopes, sharing a feast, in some unspeakable way, with the God of infinite glory.

And then Moses told them to wait, there in the cloud. And he went up, up, up further, climbed into the light... and left them alone, those seventy-odd men. They waited for a while, but got impatient – Nahshon certainly had – and then, amidst the people, as days turned to weeks and there was no sign of Moses... Well, Nahshon did not like to think about what happened next. But when Moses showed up after forty days, Nahshon had never seen a man so furious in all his life. Nahshon recalled the bitter taste of gold flakes in the water – the penalty for turning so quickly from Yahweh's laws of worship. Nahshon recalled hundreds or thousands dropping like flies – some slashed by Levite blades, others getting sick and never getting better. Frightful times.

Later, Nahshon remembered, he'd gone to hear from Moses, after Moses had gone up and come down again. And that same light, that same captivating and terrifying light, beamed out of his eyes, his cheeks, his mouth. Nahshon could scarcely believe that the echoes of glory could be that bright down below. Moses explained that it was time to bring Yahweh's fire and cloud down from the mountain, and into their midst. They needed to give what they could, and labor, and build a tent to receive him. And so they had. The son of Nahshon's second cousin Uri, a bright upstart named Bezalel, co-ran the project. Nahshon was mighty proud of the boy, though he admittedly felt a twinge of jealousy it wasn't his son or grandson in the lead.

Still, it took less than six months to harvest the wood, overlay some with gold, weave the fabrics, and so on. It was done by the end of the year, set up as spring rolled 'round again. Nahshon remembered. He remembered as his nephews – what fantastic nephews – washed and had themselves anointed with oil. As the nephews and their dad Aaron secluded themselves in the outer skirts of the tent for a week, Nahshon donated, on behalf of his tribe of Judah, a pair of oxen and a cart, to help with transporting this big tent when it was time to move. And then, for twelve days, each tribal leader gave gifts: a silver plate, silver basin, gold dish, fine flour, oil, incense, a bull, six rams, five goats, six lambs, two oxen. Nahshon felt privileged to make his presentation first, with all the ceremony he could muster. As he directed the tribesmen physically carrying the objects, as he surveyed the people of Judah looking to him for leadership, he couldn't help but remember Jacob's blessing on his ancestor: “Judah, your brothers shall praise you..., your father's sons shall bow down before you,” Jacob said. “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.” Nahshon felt it. He felt like a king that day.

Then for the next eleven day, he watched as the other tribal chiefs, the princes, stepped forward for their own tribes and gave the same gifts – from Nethanel of Issachar through Ahira of Naphtali. Then, at the end, the altar was anointed by the newly minted priests as they were fully consecrated and installed. The glory of Yahweh shone out from the tent, Nahshon and his kin had fallen on their faces and shouted praise as the fire of Yahweh devoured their offerings on the newly dedicated altar. What a day!

But not the next day. The next day, Nahshon heard the awful news. Aaron's cousins Mishael and Elzaphan had been seen carting Nahshon's nephews – well, the eldest two, Nadab and Abihu, the ones who'd shared the meal on the mountain – carting them away by their clothes. Dead. They'd... Why had they died? Nahshon had a hard time wrapping his head around it. But they'd introduced coals from their private supply, mingled them in a way they weren't supposed to, tried out an inventive ritual at the altar, and God had struck them down. Dead. Nahshon could hardly believe his ears when he heard it. Nahshon's other nephews, Eleazar and Ithamar, and their dad were too terrified to even eat their portion of the offering. But they were forbidden to cry. Later that day, they struggled to hold back their tears as, with traumatized faces, they told Nahshon what they'd seen – how the fire had lashed out before their eyes, striking from Yahweh's holy tent, and consuming their brothers.

Nahshon was under no law not to weep. He wept, he wept profoundly for his wayward nephews who'd earned themselves such a fate. He wept for the pain of his brother-in-law and two living nephews, for the weight they had to carry, the terrible and awful and burdensome pain of priesthood and loss and grief. He wept for his people. He wept with God. A day or two later – it was all a blur of tears – was their first Passover in the desert. Nahshon's heart was heavier than most as they celebrated the anniversary of their freedom. Hadn't seen hide nor hair of an Egyptian since. Good riddance, Nahshon thought as he ate lamb and bitter herbs in the evening, readying himself for a week of eating unleavened bread after that. Most of Israel ate with them, though Mishael and Elzaphan, still just barely unclean from burying Nadab and Abihu, were told they'd eat theirs next month.

A couple weeks passed. Nahshon spent more time, when he could, with his surviving nephews, though priests were a busy lot, ministering daily on the same ground where their brothers had died, standing at the same spot. Nahshon couldn't fathom how they found the strength to do it. But God gave it to them. They were just very careful to be as meticulous and exact as they could be. Imprecision had no place in what they did. Nahshon was still wrestling with his emotions when, the day of the next full moon, the first day of Iyar again, Moses and Aaron came to visit him. He'd embraced Aaron in consolation as Moses explained Yahweh had given orders for every tribe to count all the adult men, twenty and up, anybody able to fight and defend against the other nomads and nations in this part of the world. Somebody from each tribe had to help – the tribal chiefs. Yahweh had handpicked Nahshon for the job. So as the entire tribe gathered, Nahshon went forth and organized them by clans and fathers' houses, and wrote down the name of each one, counting them off head by head. It was a long day – there were thousands of names to write! But by nightfall, a long and hungry day's work, Nahshon had final figures to report to Moses and Aaron.

Not quite three weeks went by. Nahshon greeted Mishael and Elzaphan as they ate their belated Passover lamb. And six days after that, it happened. He'd been waiting. Waiting for the day the cloud and fire that rose up from over the dwelling-tent of Yahweh would be on the move. Nahshon had been listening every morning for Eleazar or Ithamar to blast their newfangled silver trumpets. And now the day had come, the twentieth of Iyar, putting an end to just a week or so shy of a year spent at the foot of Mount Sinai. Nahshon, at the head of Judah which was at the head of the three tribal encampments eastward from the entrance of the tabernacle which the priests guarded, had the banner hoisted high – and, as we said before, marched energetically into the desert.

On that day, too, Nahshon felt like a king, just like Judah heard from Jacob. And rightly he did. Because we're told that from Nahshon and his son came a grandson, then a great-grandson, and so on, onward through the days and years and generations, to the family of Jesse in Bethlehem, and a youngest son named David, raised up as king of all Israel, and whose son Solomon reigned after him, and so on, and so on. By ancient prophecies that Nahshon knew, his blood would become royal blood. Every king of the Jews, from David down, looked back to Nahshon as their forefather in the wilderness, whose son or grandson lived to inherit the land of promise. And yet Nahshon's sister was the mother of every priest, starting from his nephews Elezar and Ithamar, to his grandnephew Phinehas, down through generations – the good like Zadok and Jeshua, the bad like Annas and Caiaphas, all of 'em. Every one, thanks to Nahshon and his sister, a distant cousin of the royal line.

Generations of rabbis in Jewish history have waxed eloquent on how great Nahshon was, even though we don't know how far forward throughout Numbers his story continued. Rabbis said he was the leading Israelite of his day, that his spiritual merit exceeded all the other tribal chiefs, that he was already a king, that he was known as God's beloved. One medieval Spanish rabbi, Bahya ben Asher, was fascinated that “the tribe representing royalty and the tribe representing priesthood formed a liaison through marriage,” and he imagined that when Nahshon brought his gifts to dedicate the altar, he must surely have been thinking forward to his two greatest descendants: Solomon and the Messiah. Even one modern Jewish scholar, Nahum Sarna, marveled at how the marriage of Aaron to Nahshon's sister “betokens the interrelationship of the priesthood and royalty.”

This fascinated them, Jewish rabbis and scholars throughout the ages. And they were right to marvel, and so should we! But we have even greater reason to marvel. You see, we know that Nahshon was an ancestor to David, but not to David alone. Through him, Nahshon was an ancestor of Jesus Christ. Matthew tells us that, right there in the first chapter of his Gospel, the first page in our New Testaments today – tells us that Nahshon is part of Jesus' family story. As we enter the season of Advent, this is the time we traditionally think back to the centuries and decades and years leading up to that first Christmas, the birth of the Messiah, our Savior. But we can also think back to the generations leading up to his. And that got me thinking: What if Jesus had gotten a subscription to Ancestry.com? Popular family history research website – I'm on it pretty regularly, ferreting out stories, putting the pieces together, digging up names and records and connecting people with the swirl of history around them. What if Joseph and Mary could've given Jesus an Ancestry.com subscription for his birthday one year? What kind of names, places, stories would those little hint-leaves have unfolded?

Sure, we know some of the famous ones: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Solomon. But what about the rest, the other leaves on Jesus' family tree? This Advent, I'd like to take us on a little journey, jumping down branch by branch through Jesus' family tree, hunting for the great stories he would've found and inherited – not the ones we already know, but the ones maybe we don't, the ones we have to ferret out. And as we leap from branch to branch down his family tree, as the gravity of God pulls us inexorably toward the Incarnation where his every promise is fulfilled, what this leaf, this Nahshon, tells us is that the family tree of Jesus binds kings and priests. We know that, because of tribal divisions, no one in the biblical history of Israel could really be both a Davidic king and a Levitical priest. But Nahshon's family ties foreshadow the stunning truth that the twin principles of kingship and priesthood couldn't keep their distance forever.

And they didn't. In Jesus, kingship and priesthood are finally united in a Divine Priest-King, who reigns as king and presides as priest forever (cf. Psalm 110:1-4). Like Gabriel told Mary, “The Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David” (Luke 1:32). Jesus is “King of kings” (1 Timothy 6:15). Yet, as we should expect from the foreshadowing of Nahshon and Elisheba, the prince and his nephews, Jesus the King is also Jesus the “high priest, one seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty of heaven, a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man” (Hebrews 8:1-2). A priest on a royal throne. A king in the heavenly tabernacle. Jesus, ruling and presiding for you. Right now. It would've made great sense to Nahshon. His curious life, perplexing story, paved the way for that beautiful gospel truth. Jesus grew up learning that perplexing story. We should know it too. Best of all, we should know the Jesus it pointed forward to – the Jesus who unites royalty and priesthood perfectly, who is always king over you and always priest for you, whose kingly rule is an act of ministerial service and whose priesthood is unhindered because he's enthroned on his Father's heavenly throne above the firmament. And that's what – and who – Nahshon was living for. Amen!

Sunday, November 25, 2018

A Throne to Thank: Sermon on 1 Chronicles 16

It had been almost three hours since the big Macy's parade had come to an end in streets not too many blocks away. A man pulled his coats firmer around him as he walked hurriedly down Manhattan's East Eleventh Street through the crisp air of an autumn afternoon, pitying in his heart the denizens of the Hooverville in Central Park – but that wasn't where he was headed. The man – let's call him 'George' – rushed – he didn't want to be late, of course – rushed to Webster Hall, a tall, red-brick building fully restored after the fire eighteen months earlier. A notorious event venue alternating high society and radicals, that was Webster Hall.  George ducked in and grabbed a seat just in time before the special service started. But, that famous last Thursday in November, maybe not quite the kind of service you'd imagine or expect.

At the front of the hall stood Woolsey Teller, 41 years of age, not too tall – maybe an inch taller than me – and slender of frame. His brown hair sat neatly atop his head; blue eyes peered out through his glasses at the three hundred people gathered for the service he was to lead. His skin was a bit darker than George expected – the curious case of Woolsey Teller, the white supremacist with a Nicaraguan grandmother and a Cuban wife. But there he was. As he opened the event, it wasn't long before he bade George and the rest to sing together the opening number. A “Modern Doxology,” the program for the service touted. And the lyrics began like this: “Blame God from whom all cyclones blow, / blame him when rivers overflow, / blame him who swirls down house and steeple, / who sinks the ship and drowns the people. // Blame God when fell tornadoes spread / disaster, leaving maimed and dead; / when dread volcanoes vomit death, / destroying towns with liquid breath.”

It was a start to just the kind of service George had come for, that afternoon after the Macy's Parade – a service sponsored by “the 4As,” as they were popularly called: the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism. Woolsey Teller had been one of its co-founders six years before, alongside Charles Lee Smith and Freeman Hopwood. George was an atheist. Nearly everyone there was. He looked around, a smirk on his face as they sang their 'Modern Doxology,' and felt a sense of camaraderie in a lonely world and rough city. Nearly all the faces George saw were men, mostly about his age. He thought he spotted a teenager or two – perhaps members of the 4As' affiliate, the Junior Atheist League, a nationwide atheist youth network headquartered in a small Pennsylvania town called Gap. But few Junior Atheists were in Webster Hall that day; most were grown men.

The 'Modern Doxology' droned on: “Blame God for nature's brutal plan, / for jungle law of Kill, who can; / blame him for all the grief and pain / which hellish war brings in its train.” George thought back to the Great War.  Thirteen years and fifteen days had now passed since the signing of the armistice.  Now it was November 26, 1931 – with the Great War still in living memory for everyone, that was the day George and his fellow God-deniers gathered in frustration in Webster Hall. 

The plan had all started earlier that year, when the 4As held their annual convention in February in the Pythian Temple east of Broadway. There was little thought among the 4As to wage any sort of 'war' on Christmas. That wasn't the holiday that caught their ire – it was Thanksgiving they hated. (I get it.  You can be glad all on your own, but giving thanks requires a direct object, a Someone to receive the thanks no wonder atheist activists of the era wanted to overthrow Thanksgiving.) And how dare the president issue proclamations asking American citizens to spend a day in worship? An offense against the separation of church and state! – that's how they saw it. Much worse still to give thanks when so many people were suffering in their Hoovervilles 'midst the Great Depression.

So in February 1931, like the year before, they resolved to call on the president to make a change. Later, they sent President Herbert Hoover an open letter, calling on him not to issue a Thanksgiving Proclamation. But November rolled around, and as you'd expect, he'd ignored them. President Hoover said it had “become a hallowed tradition for the Chief Magistrate to proclaim annually a national day of thanksgiving,” a day “set apart to give thanks even amid hardships to Almighty God for our temporal and spiritual blessings.” So President Hoover, listing America's blessings, singled out November 26 as the day when he'd “recommend that our people rest from their daily labors and in their homes and accustomed places of worship give devout thanks for the blessings which a merciful Father has bestowed upon us.” It was almost more than the 4As could take. But they'd had a back-up plan. If President Hoover insisted on calling to give thanks to God, they'd hold a protest holiday committed to the opposite: not a Thanksgiving Day, but a Blamegiving Day – the same day.

And that's where George found himself singing the closing verses to their 'Modern Doxology': “For clergy who with hood and bell / demand your cash or threaten hell. / Blame God for earthquake shocks; and then / let all men cry aloud, 'Amen!'” And the long-winded service proceeded from there, organized as what the 4As had called a protest against divine negligence. They aimed to put God on trial, organizing a mock debate. Woolsey Teller, the 4As' vice-president, argued the prosecution against the God he denounced as “Public Enemy No. 1” (suspending, for the day, their disbelief in God's existence, of course).

Later, Woolsey ceded the stage for a while to the 4As' president, Charles Lee Smith. George had heard him a few times before – most recently in late October at Columbus Circle, where Charles had gotten himself arrested while advertising the Blamegiving Day service. Charles was a few years older than Woolsey, and not quite an inch taller, but over twenty pounds heavier – no mean feat, after a hunger strike three years ago while in prison on blasphemy charges. Similar pale blue eyes stared out through similar glasses, but Charles substituted a thin shock of white hair for Woolsey's brown. And as Charles spoke, George could instantly hear the telltale signs of his Arkansas birth and upbringing on a farm in Oklahoma. It was from there that Charles' parents had sent him to Epworth University to study for the Methodist ministry; but he'd only finished two years of college before his lost faith – haunted by his dad's death in 1909 – led him to drop out, study law, fight in Siberia during the Great War, return as a veteran to New York City, tour the country doing debates, and occasionally harass local pastors with dirty magazines in the mail. That was the notorious Charles Smith, pugnacious celebrity atheist of his day.

The service wound down – after the free-will offering, of course – with an invitation for the people to air their grievances. George thought about going up, but never got a chance. An intruding evangelist, John L. Mathews of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, briefly sermonized the crowd – calling most of their objections mere word-plays and trifles – “They are not important. What is important, brothers, is to be born again!,” he exclaimed. George was hardly won over, but he had to at least mildly applaud, in amusement, the evangelist's courage in boldly plunging into an atheists' den. 

And Rev. Mathews was, at any rate, more friendly and cordial than the other nuisance faction: the Communists, who'd been distributing handbills outside denouncing the 4As as “a lot of bourgeois” in the pay of capitalists.  Those Communists now used the opportunity afforded by grievance time to argue that all atheists should throw their allegiances to Soviet Russia and commit to converting America to atheism by exterminating the upper classes and by force, not by persuasion. And so, though some voiced their grievances and listed the things they weren't at all thankful for, the service rather degenerated around George, Woolsey, Charles, and the rest. Not that it was a pretty sight to begin with, I reckon, this whole Blamegiving Day affair in Webster Hall.

It really happened, that Manhattan autumn day. The day those particular zealous atheists assembled to make protest against God – on behalf, they said, of the poor. The same day, of course, when churches throughout New York City were working to mercifully provide turkey dinners for the poor, and when pastors preached a special emphasis on the need to do justice to the poor. Yes, that very day was, for a few hundred atheists in the city, not for thanking but for blaming. It really happened.

But nearly three thousand years earlier, another day really happened, far away from the future site of Manhattan and its Webster Hall. And I'd bid you picture that earlier day, too. A farm in the Judean countryside is a bustle of activity in the early hours of dawn. And then they set out. Leaving behind the farm of Obed-edom, a convert to the faith of Israel and a former neighbor of Goliath of Gath, the elders and priests and Levites march in a slow but steady parade. Asaph ben Berechiah, clad in a linen robe, clangs his cymbals joyously. He's a Levite, of the Gershonite line. With him, clanging their cymbals, too, are a representative from each other main Levite division. From the descendants of Merari, there's Ethan. And from the prestigious descendants of Kohath, next to Asaph stands Heman, clanging his cymbals. Heman only wished his grandfather Samuel, the great judge and prophet, were still alive to see this day.

Around these three percussionists, a few other Levites play strings – some on the harp, some on the lyre – while a few priests blow their trumpets. This band of holy musicians is next in the parade behind a set of six elite Levites, who grasp the poles. Between them – and Asaph and Heman can hardly believe it – rests the ark of the covenant. They can't see it – it's draped with a layer of goatskin and a blue cloth over that – but ever since their childhoods, they heard the stories from Exodus about how it was built, this holy wood box where the gifts of God rest, all overlaid with gold and topped with a pure gold cover flanked by gold cherubim, and over which the presence of God the King speaks to the high priest in the tabernacle.

Near the Levites who carry the ark by its poles – they dare not touch or even look at the holy thing – march two priests, Zadok and Abiathar, who pause the parade every six steps to sacrifice an ox.  Another six steps, another ox.  Another six steps, another ox. It's slow-going, to say the least. Asaph's not in a mood to mind, though. He's shouting and banging his cymbals. Out in front, he can see the back of the king – David, in a matching linen robe and linen apron, dancing his heart out with excitement. He can't contain his joy. Neither can the Levites and elders. It's infectious, a pandemic of Israelite delight. Not all the Macy's parades from first to last can compete with this.

The day wears on, but by afternoon, the parade of king and priest, elder and Levite, serving as an honor-guard for the God of all, approaches David's little citadel, the fortified city he captured on the lower part of an eastern hill. Mount Zion, they called it – not quite as tall yet as Mount Moriah, the higher peak where their forefather Isaac saw God provide Abraham with a ram to substitute for Isaac's life. But Mount Zion's slopes held the fortified city. There, near its top, was a grand cedar building, David's new palace. And not far away was a large tent he'd pitched. That was their destination. So as David's wife stared from the palace windows in disapproval and blamegiving, the thanksgiving parade made its way with loud hurrahs and hosannahs and hallelujahs into the city, and up to Zion's crest (1 Chronicles 15:1-29).

Once the priests and Levites had installed the ark in its tent, as the people gathered 'round, the priests began yet more sacrifices – burnt ascension-offerings and peace-offerings, olah and shelamim, by the dozens, as incense perfumed the air.  If you close your eyes and focus and imagine, can you see the bright colors of the procession, the gleam of the gold poles in the Levites' hands?  Can you hear their instruments and shouts?  Can you smell the fragrances mingling in the Jerusalem breeze?

King David pronounced a blessing on the crowd, and gave an order for each man and woman there to get a round loaf of bread, a raisin-cake, and a portion of meat from all the peace-offerings (1 Chronicles 16:1-3). Ascension offerings, or burnt offerings, rose as smoke entirely to God, entering his heavenly presence on the nation's behalf. Peace offerings (or fellowship offerings), meanwhile, were shared, the classic way of showing thanks.

But David had more in mind. He'd been consulting with Gad the seer and Nathan the prophet, and saw it was time to take Israel's worship to the next level. It was time to get musical. It started with the parade, but now that the ark was on Mount Zion, it was high time for a concert. And so we read that “then David appointed some of the Levites as ministers before the ark of the LORD, to invoke, to thank, and to praise the LORD, the God of Israel. Asaph was the chief, and second to him were Zechariah, Jeiel, Shemiramoth, Jehiel, Mattithiah, Eliab, Benaiah, Obed-edom, and Jeiel, who were to play harps and lyres; Asaph was to sound the cymbals, and Benaiah and Jahaziel the priests were to blow trumpets regularly before the ark of the covenant of God. Then on that day, David first appointed that thanksgiving be sung to the LORD by Asaph and his brothers” (1 Chronicles 16:4-7). Asaph and his colleagues were to stay there at Zion with the priests Benaiah and Jahaziel, while Zadok the priest were to return to Gibeon to the tabernacle and altar for sacrificial ministry; but with them, they were to take Heman and Jeduthun to extend musical ministry there, too (1 Chronicles 16:37-42).

It was all so new! So fresh! Until this surprising day, the introducing of God to Zion, the liturgical revolution of David and his booth, music hadn't been a big part of Israel's worship. But this was new, different. Asaph was thrilled. Centuries later, people would look back on this time as “the days of David and Asaph” (Nehemiah 12:46). For his music ministry, they'd remember him as “Asaph the seer” (2 Chronicles 29:30). But for now, he was lost in the momentous moment. So was Heman. So were the rest of the Levite musical team. And at the king's direction, they'd prepared a song for their choir. So with the grandest musical accompaniment, they sang their song of thanksgiving.

They celebrated, appealed to the people: “Oh give thanks to the LORD; call upon his name; make known his deeds among the peoples!” (1 Chronicles 16:8). The choir called Israel to “remember the wondrous works that he has done, his miracles and the judgments he uttered” (1 Chronicles 16:12), and to likewise “remember his covenant forever, the word that he commanded, for a thousand generations” (1 Chronicles 16:15). They called Israel back to those days of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the days when promises were made that they'd since seen fulfilled, the days when God made a covenant and protected the patriarchs, God's very own band of roving prophets and messiahs (1 Chronicles 16:16-22). They called on Israel to call on the rest of humanity to give up their idols and meet the LORD as their Creator, Redeemer, Master, and Friend (1 Chronicles 16:23-29), “for great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised, and he is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols, but the LORD made the heavens” (1 Chronicles 16:25-26).

The song of the choir called on Israel to call on humanity to call on the whole creation to worship the LORD, the God of Israel: “Let the heavens be glad, and the earth rejoice, and let them say among the nations, 'The LORD reigns!' Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it! Then shall the trees of the forest sing for joy before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth” (1 Chronicles 16:31-33). Their song was living testimony that the LORD their God was and is on his throne, ruling and reigning over even a broken world, and would bring cosmic joy when he came down personally to set things right. “Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his love endures forever!” (1 Chronicles 16:34).

And as they heard it, the whole city of Jerusalem, that fortified town built around the slopes of Zion where King David had built his house – this whole city, and all the people who swarmed in with the parade, they shouted and sang, “Amen!”, and they give praise and glory and honor and thanks to the LORD their God (1 Chronicles 16:36). From there, after singing and celebrating, the people took their food back to their houses, with a song in their hearts. Even the king retreated to his palace to bless his house (1 Chronicles 16:43). But Asaph stayed at the tent on Zion. Heman went back to the tabernacle at Gibeon. There to make music. There to minister.

Did you catch that job description David gave them? He appointed them, and other Levites under them, to this very kind of thing: “to bring to remembrance, to thank, and to praise the LORD (1 Chronicles 16:4). That was their job! Thanksgiving was a professional task of theirs. And let me tell you, they never ran out of things to sing about. That's not to say that everything was roses. Heman, the thank-artist of the tabernacle, wrote the very darkest psalm in the whole Bible. Some of Asaph's works remember harsh times, times Israel found itself at odds with the God they claimed to worship. Asaph rehearsed the poverty of the righteous and the prosperity of the wicked (Psalm 73:3). His songs wrestled with doubt, but then, he says, he “went into the sanctuary of God” (Psalm 73:17), and in that tent he came to realize, “For me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, that I may tell of all your works” (Psalm 73:27-28); “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:25-26). And one of Asaph's own psalms prophetically relays the voice of God saying, “The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me; to the one who orders his way rightly, I will show the salvation of God!” (Psalm 50:23).

Asaph and Heman knew well that there's a time for lament. But not for blamegiving. Even in dark days, even when crying out with lament and doubt and fear, even when heart and flesh fail and everything else on earth falls away, still God is strength, still God is a saving God, still God is a desirable refuge, still it's good to be near God, still he wants to be our portion forever. Still he's glorified by thanksgiving. Because God is on his throne. And their songs started that day with the parade – the day Asaph was appointed to give thanks on Mount Zion. And I'd bet you just about anything, it was a beautiful day that day.

Two days. Two scenes. One in November 1931 in New York City. The other in ancient Jerusalem in the days of David and Asaph. I've tried to paint you two pictures. I've spent a long time doing it. And there's a reason, a question. Where are we? Right here, right now, where are we? Which scene sets our geography? Have we moved to Manhattan? Have we entered Webster Hall? Or are we destined to be somewhere else?

The last book of the Bible paints a picturesque portrait, and I'd like to read you a couple verses from there, from the visions of John. John tells us, “Then I looked, and behold! On Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father's name written on their foreheads. And I heard a voice from heaven like the roar of many waters, like the sound of loud thunder. The voice I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps, and they were singing a new song before the throne...” (Revelation 14:1-3a). That's the geography of the Lamb: Mount Zion, where those sealed with his name sing as harps play.

And in a spiritual way, we're there already. Listen to the author to the Hebrews: “But you have come to Mount Zion, and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Hebrews 12:22-24) – and, I might add, speaks a better word than every ox offered along the parade route, a better word than every ascension-offering and peace-offering that was made that day in Jerusalem of old. In a better way than they, “you have come to Mount Zion” (Hebrews 12:22).

So we know where we are, what our geography of the soul is. It's Mount Zion. But given where we are, what are we building? Is it Webster Hall, brick on brick? Or are we pitching David's tent of praise? Which way of living is more beautiful to us, which holiday are we celebrating: Blamegiving Day, or Thanksgiving Day? The choice is ours. But only one choice fits our geography. It would be terrible to build Webster Hall atop Mount Zion, and hold a Blamegiving service there in the presence of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. And it would go against our job. You see, the prophet Isaiah heard God promise to adopt foreigners into his service in the days of the new covenant – foreigners, God said, “I will take for priests and for Levites” (Isaiah 66:21). People adopted as new Zadoks, new Hemans, new Asaphs, enrolled in the service of great David's greater Son, Jesus Christ, in whose resurrection the tent of David is raised up again for good (cf. Acts 15:16).

And that means that, when we read the Chronicler talking about Asaph and Heman and the Levites, when their job description is given, that's for us. Thanksgiving is our job description. Because we stand where they stood, cast in their roles writ large, to call all humanity to call all creation to give thanks to God and to the Lamb, who reign from one throne. If we bear the name of Jesus in our lives, if we are the ones who've come to Mount Zion where the Lamb is, then ours is the call to sing before the throne, to give thanks and praise to the LORD. Jesus is on his throne. Tomorrow may be the eighty-seventh anniversary of the 4As' ridiculous Blamegiving Day service in Webster Hall. But today, in the bright shadow of Thanksgiving Day, is the Feast of Christ the King.

No matter what cyclones blow, no matter what rivers overflow, he is King. No matter what disaster tornadoes spread, no matter all earth's volcanoes dread, he is King. No matter the outworking of nature and its brutal plan, he is King. In days of war as in days of peace, he is King. He is not negligent. Even when heart and flesh may fail, even when gloom falls like arrows from the skies, he is King, the Good King, and all creation can and rightly should give him thanks. And leading the way is the job of us honorary Levites for the Lamb. For us it is good to be near God. And he has brought us near at his Zion. So don't live a Blamegiving life on Mount Zion. That's not who you are. We are the People of Thanksgiving, called to lead the way in remembering, thanking, and praising God from Mount Zion, where it's Thanksgiving – year-round – in Jesus' name. Amen.