“Speak unto the children of Israel
that they go forward.”
David McConkey finds inspiration and confidence and courage in being the first to move forward
I want to introduce you today to a Biblical character I daresay many of you will not have heard of. His Hebrew name is Nachshon, the son of Amminadab, and he is listed in the census of the book of Numbers as the head of the tribe of Judah at the time of the exodus from Egypt, when he is at least twenty years old. Later we find that he didn’t survive the wilderness years to enter the promised land, but died before he reached the age of sixty.
Also in the book of Numbers we learn about some significant relatives: Aaron, the first high-priest, was his brother-in-law; and Rahab, the harlot who made Joshua’s invasion of Jericho possible, was his daughter-in-law. Moreover, Nachshon is listed in the genealogy of the ancestors of Jesus in Chapter One of St Matthew’s Gospel: he was the father of Salmon, the father of Boaz, who was the father of Obed, who was the father of Jesse, who was the father of King David.
We have to depart from the Biblical text, though, to find what may be the most interesting story about Nachshon. This comes from what we may call rabbinic lore or legend. I will say immediately that I am cautious about such a source; and yet like rabbis both ancient and modern when I read a Biblical narrative, even a relatively fulsome one like the story of the crossing of the Red Sea, there are unarticulated details I’m keen to know. If you try to picture this episode what do you see in your mind’s eye? Do you think the Israelites formed an orderly procession to the mouth of the sea and then stepped forward two by two into it?
Well, perhaps the text is patient of such a reading: ‘The Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. And the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground: and the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left’ (Exod. 14:21-22), we read; and perhaps it was as straightforward as that sounds. But having behind me a few decades of leading well-meaning and well-intentioned people through difficulties and dangers of various sorts I have to admit to a degree of scepticism.
The rabbis, as they told the story, evidently had their doubts as well. They noticed the previous verses about the consternation of Israel as they neared the sea, their loud complaining and their reluctance to go forward. The rabbis, in short, imagined this not an orderly procession but a scene of chaos. Said they: ‘The Israelites stood at the banks of the sea and wailed with despair, until Nachshon entered the waters. Once he was up to his nose in the water, the sea parted. Then, only then, did Israel walk through the Red Sea as on dry ground.’
Well, we have to admit that their imaginative interpretation moves beyond the literal scriptural text. They justify it, by the way, by noticing that when Moses had set up the tabernacle in the wilderness and there was a liturgy of dedication of it, that it was Nachshon who carried forth the offerings: silver and fine meal, incense and a menagerie of sacrificial beasts. Why was Nachshon accorded this signal honour, they found themselves asking?
Surely it was because he had already distinguished himself, shown himself a leader among leaders. From this conclusion flowed their conjecture that out of a recalcitrant and refractory people Nachshon alone had the presence of mind to go forward.
‘Why do you cry to me?’ the text says the Lord God remonstrated with Moses: ‘Speak unto the children of Israel, that they go forward.’ Forward in faith. I’m not sure whether the founders of this organisation, in the confusing and bewildering days and months after the 11th of November 1992, had this verse in their minds when they gave their fledgling society this name, but it would form an admirable motto for the work to which we are called: ‘Speak unto the children of Israel, that they go forward.’ More than twenty years later, the mewling infant having found its voice and having survived its adolescence, more than a few of us wonder whether it can, whether we can, weather the wilderness years we know still lie before us.
‘Speak unto the children of Israel, that they go forward.’ I don’t know whether you take seriously the tale of Nachshon or not, but we all know that there have been men and women of clear sight and unwavering conviction who have helped us get where we are. Some of them have given up the fight and made their peace with doctrinal innovations they once opposed. Some are no longer in the church militant, and we shall remember them fondly and thankfully at the altar next month.
Some of our friends have been diverted, at least as we see it,
onto slightly different paths, and despite our differing apprehension of the
way forward we remember them also, fondly and thankfully. But what of us who remain? Not a few of us are battle-weary. I’ve been arguing the case for the apostolic ministry since 1976, and there are not a few others who have done the same for at least as long. Alongside us has grown up a new generation, including some who weren’t yet born in November of 1992. Whatever else we say to those un-persuaded by our position, we all know that there have been men and women of clear sight and unwavering conviction who have helped us get where we are we are bound to remind them that what we assert about the apostolic ministry is not just the moanings of superannuated die-hards.
Confidence and courage
‘Speak unto the children of Israel, that they go forward.’ That charge from God Almighty is as relevant to us as it was four millennia ago. Not so much different for us than it was then, the scene at the banks of the Red Sea is a picture of chaos. We’re not sure how to go forward, and our consternation issues in mutterings of various kinds. We’re unsure of our leaders; we’re tired of always being in the minority; we imagine that our parishes would get better treatment from our dioceses if we just weren’t so obstreperous. However, Forward in Faith is the vocation of every one of us: ‘Speak unto the children of Israel, that they go forward.’ We can be grateful that in our national leadership there is a voice akin to that of Moses that keeps sounding that call in our ears. But if we are to go forward, we need some Nachshons as well: men and women undismayed by the chaos, sturdy saints who will walk into the waters right up to their nostrils with confidence and courage.
God isn’t deaf to our need; the Kingdom belongs to him, and it is his will to share it with his faithful people. Even today, amongst us are those who will unperturbed go forward. I don’t doubt that Nachshon is the name of the vocation of every last one of us, and if we walk forward we don’t walk alone. A faithful God goes before us; a faithful Saviour fights the battles we are powerless to win; a faithful Spirit fills our hearts with the very life breath that animates all living things.
Nachshon stepped into the waters, walked out into the waters,
waded through the waters till they were as high as his nostrils. But then the
waters parted, and the children of Israel walked through them on dry ground; and
so may we. ND
This sermon was originally preached in All
Saints’ Church, Northampton, Saturday 5th October 2013, at the Festival of Faith
for the Diocese of Peterborough Chapter of Forward in Faith
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