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.

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