Rev. Teri Peterson
2 Samuel 5.1-5, 6.1-15 (NRSV)
20 October 2019, NL2-6
(For Cameron to preach)
Then all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron, and said, ‘Look, we are your bone and flesh. For some time, while Saul was king over us, it was you who led out Israel and brought it in. The Lord said to you: It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel.’ So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron; and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the Lord, and they anointed David king over Israel. David was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned for forty years. At Hebron he reigned over Judah for seven years and six months; and at Jerusalem he reigned over all Israel and Judah for thirty-three years.
6:1 David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. David and all the people with him set out and went from Baale-judah, to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the Lord of hosts who is enthroned on the cherubim. They carried the ark of God on a new cart, and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new cart with the ark of God; and Ahio went in front of the ark. David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the Lord with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.
When they came to the threshing-floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen shook it. The anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and God struck him there because he reached out his hand to the ark; and he died there beside the ark of God. David was angry because the Lord had burst forth with an outburst upon Uzzah; so that place is called Perez-uzzah to this day. David was afraid of the Lord that day; he said, ‘How can the ark of the Lord come into my care?’ So David was unwilling to take the ark of the Lord into his care in the city of David; instead David took it to the house of Obed-edom the Gittite. The ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-edom the Gittite for three months; and the Lord blessed Obed-edom and all his household.
It was told King David, ‘The Lord has blessed the household of Obed-edom and all that belongs to him, because of the ark of God.’ So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David with rejoicing; and when those who bore the ark of the Lord had gone six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling. David danced before the Lord with all his might; David was girded with a linen ephod. So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet.
Picture the scene: a political leader who needs to unite the country as they face some major challenges, creating a spectacle of a procession, with carriages and the military and all the trappings of power and prestige, including the symbol of their real monarch, the ark of the covenant—the box which signifies God’s presence. The parade wends its way through the countryside and the town, with some people in their formal ceremonial robes, and others playing music or dancing, and the whole thing takes ages to go from one place to another....and the purpose of the procession is both to honour God and give thanks for God’s presence, and also—perhaps primarily—to showcase the political leader’s power and rule. Some might even call it manipulating the public, or perhaps at least using the visual and emotional appeal of the pomp and circumstance to prop up an uncertain system and earn some points for the leaders.
Sometimes it seems as if nothing has changed in the past 3000 years, doesn’t it?
David had risen far, from his days as the youngest brother, keeping the sheep, to being a court musician for Saul, the first king, to being a military commander, and now king himself. At the beginning of the reading we heard about those leaders who had previously been loyal to Saul changing their allegiance, and then eventually David becoming the ruler of a United Kingdom, northern and southern tribes together. He needed something to cement that position, and the answer seemed to lie in this box that had not been seen in some time.
The ark of the covenant was originally built when the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness, and it was supposed to contain the tablets of the Ten Commandments, a jar of manna, and perhaps some other things that reminded the people of God’s saving grace and divine commands. It was decorative, covered in gold sculptures, and had a seat on the top, and it was the primary symbol of God’s presence. It isn’t that they believed God lived in the box exactly, though I think it would be easy for that to become the shorthand, especially given that wherever the ark was, divine things seemed to happen.
For years the ark had been kept in a home...and when it was brought out, the two young men who had grown up in the presence of the ark were the ones who stewarded its journey. Except they didn’t do it the way it was meant to be done. The ark was a holy object, representing God among the people. There were rules about how to carry it — always on poles, carried by four men, who touched only the poles, not the box itself. To put the ark on an ox-cart was already a wrong choice, perhaps signifying that the family who had kept it safe all this time either didn’t know the rules, or that they didn’t realise what they had.
When the oxen shook the cart, Uzzah — one of the young men who had lived with the ark — instinctively put out his hand to steady it.
It was an action that betrayed his familiarity with the ark, or perhaps his overly-casual treatment of this holy object. Or maybe he thought that the box containing God’s presence needed to be protected.
But here’s the thing: God doesn’t need our protection.
In that one fateful gesture, Uzzah put himself in the place of God, the protector and saviour. He forgot that God is far more powerful and more holy than we humans are. However close our spiritual relationship is — and we want to be close, of course — the reality is that God is God, and we are not. God isn’t meant to be treated lightly or casually, not carted around on whatever we have available, and then grabbed unceremoniously as if we were capable of saving God from disaster.
David named that place “outburst”, claiming that God had “burst forth” against Uzzah. But it wasn’t really against Uzzah, exactly. It was against the ease with which we get our relationships out of order, putting God somewhere other than at the head of the list. It was against the casual use of God has a prop in political theatre. It wasn’t about God punishing one person, it was about the whole of the situation.
It is true that God burst forth, though. Because the truth is that God cannot be contained, and will always be bursting out of whatever box we have decided to keep him in. Whether that box is made of wood and gold, or of our words and ideas and theologies, or of our traditions and desires and comfort....or even if it is a tomb sealed shut with a huge stone. God will burst forth, breaking all our preconceived notions, all our boundaries, and all our mind games and power struggles.
It is not possible to use God for our own ends. It is not advisable to treat God casually, like an object we can set down and pick up again when it’s convenient. And it is not our place to protect and defend God. Quite the other way around, in fact.
David wisely went away and left the project of using the ark as a symbol of his own kingly power. When he was ready to try again, he took the reality of God’s presence more seriously. It was carried appropriately, and with ceremonial reverence. Every 10 meters or so, they stopped to offer sacrifices, which also meant that the ark bearers would get a rest. And at the head of the procession was the king — dressed not in robes and crown, but in a simple priestly skirt and nothing else, dancing with all his might.
The language of this story is really interesting, because the word used for David dancing with all his might is the same word used when scripture says we are to love God with all our heart, mind, and strength—or “might.” To love God with all we have and all we are, with every ounce of our being. That is what David put into his dancing, or more accurately, “whirling.” He was spinning and jumping, with every fibre of his being.
This time, the procession was about honouring God and celebrating that God was present with them, not just in this pretty box, but in real and powerful ways. It was no longer about David, but about God. Their relationship was back in the right order.
In some ways, we might even say that God was no longer being confined to a box, but rather recognised and celebrated and praised as living and active in the world. God had indeed burst forth, and nothing can keep God separate from us again.
That sounds like good news. But as Uzzah and all those around him that day know, it can also be difficult news. God won’t be contained. And that means that God might just call us into a new kind of relationship too...and perhaps might call us out of our own carefully contained faith and life, to burst out into something that changes the relationship between God and the world. It isn’t just a nice happy ending to a difficult story, it’s a reminder that this is an ongoing journey that we cannot control.
Author Annie Dillard sums it up:
“Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? … Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.”
God cannot be treated casually, nor protected, nor contained. God will always burst forth, whether from our too-small boxes of comfort and tradition, or from the tomb, and calls us ever onward into a future with hope.
May it be so. Amen.