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!

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