God in a box 2018
Sermon preached at Enmore, 8th Sunday after Pentecost, 15th July 2018
Readings: 2 Samuel 6.1–5, 12b-19; Ephesians 1.1–14; Mark 6.14–29.
The story of David dancing before the ark is one of those rather strange stories that we find in our Old Testament. David is the figure who dominates the two books of Samuel: the first describes his rise to power and the second his reign and his decline. The background to this morning’s reading is that David has now been recognized as the king by all the tribes of Israel, he has defeated the most potent rival power, the Philistines and in a bold move he has established a new political capital in Jerusalem- a city which he makes his own. David fills Jerusalem with all the trappings of power, a palace, a regular army, bureaucracy and a large harem. In this position of power he suddenly remembers the Ark of the Covenant.
The Ark of the Covenant first makes an appearance in Exodus 25.10–22. God instructs Moses to make a large box out of acacia wood, overlaid with gold and with gold rings at the corners so it can be carried on poles. On top of the ark is to sit the mercy seat which is a kind of throne also overlaid with gold and at either end a golden cherub with out- stretched wings. Into the ark was placed the two tablets of stone containing the Ten Commandments. After the law was given at Mt. Sinai the ark traveled wherever the Israelites went. It was a symbol of God’s presence with his people and also a reminder that they were to keep his covenant. During the early years of settlement in Canaan, the ark was located at Shiloh (about 30km north of Jerusalem where the prophet Samuel lived.) During one of the many wars with the Philistines the ark was captured and fell into enemy hands. But the ark brought great trouble to the Philistines who became afraid of its apparent power and they finally sent it back into Israelite territory laden with various gold offerings to placate Israel’s God. For twenty years it sat forgotten in a place called Kiriath-jearim, just 10km west of Jerusalem, looked after by the household of Abinadab.
What makes David think of bringing the ark to Jerusalem? 1 and 2 Samuel make it clear that the Lord has chosen David and rejected Saul’s right to the throne. At the same time David’s rise to power is accompanied by human intrigue and cunning. David’s motives are not always pure and he has an eye for what is politically expedient. Bringing the ark to his city will enhance his prestige and make Jerusalem the centre of both the religious and political life of the nation.
David forgets that God’s symbols are powerful and not to be trifled with. Nor are they to be used for political ends. That I believe is the meaning of the rather shocking episode which has been excised from our lectionary in verses 6 to 11. These verses describe what happens when David first attempts to bring the ark up to Jerusalem. David descends on the house of Abinadab with a great entourage of 3,000 men and with a brand new cart to carry the ark. The ark is loaded onto the cart and with great celebration the assembly moves off with much singing and dancing. Then disaster strikes, the cart tilts and one of the bystanders, the hapless Uzzah, grabs hold of the ark to steady it. In the words of the ancient narrator, “God struck him there….and he died beside the ark.” The modern reader finds such an understanding of God very confronting and we may be comforted by the fact that David is clearly shocked as well. The incident puts a real damper on the festivities and David is both angry and afraid of God. He declares, “How can the ark of the Lord come into my care?” David has painfully learnt that God cannot be bound in a box. He cannot be domesticated and contained within walls or even words and formulae. David decides to abandon his attempt to take the ark into his custody and it is taken to the house of Obed-edom where it remains for another 3 months.
God knows that we need symbols. He has created us a people who respond to sight, smell, sound and touch. The ark was given to the Israelites as a sign of God’s presence with his people- like all symbols, it pointed to a greater and deeper reality than itself. David’s mistake was to think he could manipulate this symbol for his own ends. Poor Uzzah died, partly as a result of David’s desire to add to his own power and prestige. Symbols can be dangerous when we forget what they stand for and become fixated on the symbol itself. Aware of this danger, over the centuries some Christians have tried to get rid of all symbols. The Puritans, for example, rejected stained glass windows, organs, feast days including Christmas, and all forms of ritual and some of their contemporary followers even downplay the importance of the sacraments. However, to do this, I believe is to deny something of our humanity and to reject gifts provided by God himself.
Chastened by his first encounter with the ark, but encouraged by the news that the house of Obed-edom has prospered while the Ark has been in their midst, David sets out a second time to bring the sacred box into Jerusalem. This time he takes more care and the movement of the ark is accompanied by sacrifice and liturgical ceremony. When the ark finally arrives in the city David offers further sacrifice and blesses the people in the name of the Lord. He acknowledges that there is a greater name than David. The gifts distributed remind the people that the land they now occupy is a gift from God and provided in fulfillment of his promises.
The day of rejoicing in Jerusalem has one sour note. Michal, one of David’s wives is not impressed with his liturgical dancing. She believes his uninhibited enthusiasm has made him look cheap and has demeaned his office. Michal has other reasons for harboring ill feelings towards David. She was David’s first wife and was given to him by her father King Saul as a present for his killing one hundred Philistines. When David fell from favour and was expelled from Saul’s court, Michal was then married to another man named Paltiel who loved her deeply; a love she returned. When David came to the throne he insisted on having Michal returned to him even though by then he had acquired many other wives. It was an unhappy episode and it revealed an ugly side to David’s nature. At his best David recognized that all he possessed came from God. Yet, at the same time he was often prepared to use his own ruthless power to achieve his own ends. The Bible’s so called ‘heroes’ all have feet of clay and remind us that we are all flawed and fallible. All of us depend on the grace of God.
God’s grace is Paul’s great theme in the opening chapter of the Letter to the Ephesians. Verses 3 to 14 make up one long prayer of thanks to God for the blessings that he has lavished upon us: adoption as his children, redemption, forgiveness, the gift of the Holy Spirit are just some of the riches given to us. Each of these is worthy of a sermon in its own right and may I encourage you to read and re read this great passage and reflect on the gifts God has provided for us. Paul also speaks of “the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things in earth.” For Paul the gospel was never just about me and God. Yes, the gospel has something to say about each individual and his or her relationship with God but it is much bigger than that. Paul’s gospel was about the transformation of all creation, all things in heaven and earth through Christ. The mystery Paul speaks of is the astonishing news that God’s plan of redemption and recreation is not just for one group of privileged people but for all people and for all of creation. On the road to Damascus Paul, the Pharisee was given a vision of Christ which blew apart all his previous assumptions and turned his theological framework on its head. From that time on Paul’s aim in life was to share the good news of Christ with as many people as possible. He wanted all to know the riches of God’s grace and forgiveness available through Christ.
David danced before the ark of God rejoicing that God had blessed him and given victory over Israel’s enemies. Paul would have us understand that we who have met God in Christ have far more to celebrate than David had. We have been given a glimpse of the mystery, the wonder of God’s plan for all people. Let me close by reading Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of verse 11, “It’s in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for. Long before we first heard of Christ and got our hopes up he had his eye on us, had designs on us for glorious living, part of the overall purpose he is working out in everything and everyone.”
In response to all that we have in Christ let us, in Paul’s words, ‘live for the praise of his glory.’