St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

God in a box

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.’

 

Philip Brad­ford