2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12-19
What religious symbols stir in you an awareness of God’s presence? Is it the communion table? The chalice and the bread that sit on the table? Is it an open Bible or a pulpit? For the people ancient Israel one of the most potent symbols of God’s presence was the Ark of the Covenant. This Ark, according to the book of Exodus, was a wooden box overlaid with pure gold. On that box sat the mercy seat and two cherubs with wings outstretched. This wasn’t a magical box, but it did represent the presence of God to the people (Exodus 25:10-22).
In modern times this sacred symbol became the centerpiece of a popular action-adventure movie. You may have even seen this movie titled Raiders of the Lost Ark! The setting of the movie is World War II. Adolph Hitler is trying to collect artifacts that can help empower his dreams of world conquest. One of these artifacts that he wants to find and control is the Ark, which according to the book of Hebrews contained the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, a jar of manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded (Hebrews 9:4).
According to the biblical story from the time of the Exodus until the time of the exile the ark accompanied the people of Israel. The question is – what happened to the Ark after the destruction of Solomon’s Temple? If you’ve watched the History Channel, you may have run across a show or two that attempts to answer the question. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and his colleagues discover the Ark in an Egyptian temple. Unfortunately, his competitor manages to steal it away from him. From there begins the chase. In the end, Indiana is captured and tied up. Fortunately for him, when his rival tries to open up the Ark and tap into its power, the divine power within destroys the enemy. If you’ve seen the movie, I need say no more! Divine retribution is visited upon those who dared to desecrate this treasure. You might say that the moral of this story is that it’s best not to mess with divine things.
In the reading from 2 Samuel David continues to consolidate his power in Israel. He set up a new capital at Jerusalem, but he needed something else to unite the people. He needed to bring God into the equation. The best way to do that was to bring the most important symbol of God’s power and presence to Jerusalem. So he gathered his soldiers together and they marched to the home of Abinidab the priest, which was where the Ark had been residing ever since the Philistines decided that the sacred relic they had captured from Saul was too dangerous to keep around. So they dropped it off just across the border at Abinidab’s house. Now it was time for the Ark to reside in a place of honor – in David’s capital – where it could serve as a symbol of national unity.
When you bring such an important symbol to a new home, you have to have a parade. So, David had the Ark loaded on a cart pulled by a yoke of oxen. With David in the lead the people of Israel began to make their way to Jerusalem. All along the way the people celebrated “with all their strength, with songs, zithers, harps, tambourines, rattles, and cymbals.” In other words, they made a lot of noise. Everything was going well until they reached the property of Obed-edom.
The creators of the lectionary decided that it was best to skip over the events at Obed-edom’s house. In the verses we skipped over, an accident occurred and someone got killed. You see, the oxen slipped and the Ark nearly fell off the cart. One of the priests who was accompanying the Ark, a young man named Uzzah, put his hands out, touching the Ark, hoping to keep it from falling into the mud. Unfortunately for him, you’re not supposed to touch the Ark. God got mad and as the King James puts it: “God smote him for his error” (2 Sam. 6:7 KJV). When God says don’t touch, don’t touch!
Raiders of the Lost Ark reminds us that sacred symbols carry great power, and you have to be careful handling them. There are prescribed rituals and ways of doing things, and apparently the priests didn’t follow directions in this case and tragedy struck.
This story reveals a side of God that isn’t very attractive. This vision of God doesn’t fit very well with our confession that God is love. Surely God isn’t so petty that touching the Ark deserved a death sentence. Passages like this can cause us problems. As for David, he wasn’t too happy with what happened either, and so he decided to leave the Ark where it was. This Ark was too dangerous to be handled.
After a bit of time passed David began to hear reports that Obed-Edom was being blessed beyond any reasonable expectation. So David decided that it was time to bring the Ark the rest of the way to Jerusalem. This time, however, David took precautions. He abandoned the cart and had priests carry the Ark as the Law prescribed. Priests placed two poles through the rings attached to the Ark, and they carried it the rest of the way to Jerusalem. Then, every six steps, David, who is wearing priestly vestments even though he’s not a priest, offered a sacrifice to God. Not only that, but he dances his way to Jerusalem.
There is a hymn that fits this scene. We’ve not yet learned it, but it goes like this:
I cannot dance, O Love, unless you lead me on.
I cannot leap in gladness unless you lift me up.
From love to love we circle, beyond all knowledge grow,
for when you lead we follow, to new worlds you can show.
(Jean Janzen, Chalice Hymnal, 290).
Yes, David dances before the Lord. He’s in a joyful mood. He doesn’t care what people think. He may be the king, but right now, he only has God’s glory in sight. Of course not everyone is pleased by David’s behavior. His wife Michal, who was the daughter of Saul, is a bit perturbed by this display. She doesn’t think it’s dignified for the king to be dancing around in the streets. I’m sure that Michal wasn’t alone in thinking this, and she probably would have supporters in our day. For some reason, it’s easy to cast judgment on people who are seeking to enjoy the presence of God.
When David finally reached Jerusalem, he put the Ark in a tent and he offered sacrifices in thanksgiving to God. He also distributed food to the people. Everyone in the city received a loaf of bread, a date cake, and a raisin cake. This display reminds us that worship and service go together.
When I started the sermon, I asked about which symbols help you experience the presence of God. When we think about these symbols, it’s good to remember that these ancient Israelites didn’t think that God’s presence was limited to the Ark. After all, while people do try, you can’t put God in a box.
Although people use religious rituals and symbols to manipulate God to do their will, the author of this passage will have nothing to do with such understandings. It’s not that religious symbols don’t have spiritual value, but more important is the attitude of the heart.
We don’t have an Ark of the Covenant, but we do have a Table. We set it each Sunday, placing the cross, the candles, the cup, and the bread on it. While there’s nothing special about either the bread or the juice, these symbols remind us that God is present and active in our midst.
Eugene Peterson writes this about religious sites and occasions:
Religion – religious sites, religious occasions – is a breeding ground for joyful openness to God. We’re never wholly ourselves until we’re open before God, attending to the reality of God, responding to the action of God in us, receiving the word of God for us. Worship is the strategy by which we interrupt our preoccupation with ourselves and attend to the presence of God. [Peterson, Leap Over a Wall : Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christians, p. 152].
Where then is God moving and shaking in your life? What stirs you to celebrate the presence of God? What will cause you to dance before the Lord? What symbols will turn your head and heart so you can celebrate in the presence of God?
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
July 12, 2015