Sermon - 15th July 2018
Journeying with God
Scripture - 2 Samuel 6
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
Last weekend, the biennial General Assembly [GA] of the United Reformed Church met in Nottingham. The theme of the Bible Studies was "Journeys in the Hebrew Scriptures". Today, we are going to be looking one journey, the journey of the Ark of the Covenant from its place in the countryside to Jerusalem.
At General Assembly last weekend, the business of GA was rooted each day in worship and Bible Study. These were led by The Revd Dr Cathy White, tutor in the Old Testament at Northern College [just a couple of miles away from us in Fallowfield]. It is one of the URC's three Resource Centres for Learning, where people are trained for ministry.
When we look at the arc of Scripture as a whole from Genesis to Revelation, we read about many journeys. Some journeys are physical, moving from one place to another place; others are spiritual journeys, as people come to new understandings of God. Some journeys are by choice or by God's call; others come as a result of exile, persecution and disaster.
The Bible itself begins in a garden - the Garden of Eden - and the people of God become urbanised, as they move to the city. For the Jewish people of the Old Testament, that meant the Temple in Jerusalem. For we Christians, we look forward to the city yet to come, symbolised as the New Jerusalem in Revelation [21:4], where: "Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away."
GA studied three journeys: Abram's call, Israel's journey out of Egypt to cross the sea, and Israel return from exile in Babylon.
Today, we are going to be looking at a different journey, the journey of the Ark of the Covenant from its place in the countryside to Jerusalem, as told in the Second Book of Samuel [in the Old Testament].
The Ark of the Covenant was a precious artefact, made at God's command in the book of Exodus. It was a box, covered in gold, 2.5 cubits wide, 1.5 cubits wide and 1.5 cubits high, with two winged cherubim, and carried by two poles [metric: 115cm x 68cm x 68cm]. It is said to have contained the two [replacement] tablets with the 10 Commandments, Moses' staff and a jar of manna [eaten by the Israelites in the desert].
While it is mentioned frequently in the Old Testament, the Ark disappeared from history with the fall of Judah to the Babylonians in 587 BCE. Theories abound as to what happened to it, or whether it might still exist somewhere. Its memory is kept alive in popular culture though Steven Spielberg's 1981 film "Raiders of the Lost Ark".
In our first reading, the Ark begins its journey. King David had united the tribes, had overcome Israel's enemies and had established his Kingdom. Bringing the Ark to Jerusalem was to be massive national celebration.
The text tells us that there were 30,000 men! That is under half of the capacity of Old Trafford football ground. The men were probably the army that had fought with King David. But this was not a football match, it was a religious event. Can you remember the last time so many came together in the UK for a religious event? In 1982, an estimated 250,000 attended an open-air Mass in Heaton Park when Pope Jean Paul II visited Britain.
Last Wednesday, tens of thousands came together in places all over England to watch the World Cup semi-final and an estimated 26 million are said to have watched it. The fans' passion for the game and the love of their country's team and the shared camaraderie brought people together - firstly, in hope; latterly, in commiseration.
How did David and the 30,000 behave? Did they take a solemn, religious procession or march from Baale-Judah to Jerusalem? No, they were dancing. And, they were not just dancing: they were dancing "with all their might". They were singing and playing instruments. This religious event, the start of the Ark's journey, could perhaps be seen as on a par with the celebrations last Saturday, when England beat Columbia in the quarter-finals of the World Cup.
Like this journey, many journeys in life start with a big celebration... a birth, a baptism, a wedding, a house-warming party. As we may know from our own personal journeys in life, sometimes life takes a sudden, unexpected turn for the worse, leaving us in emotional turmoil... in a way, just like England fans will have felt last Wednesday evening, upon losing in the semi-final against Croatia.
Those who compiled the Lectionary left out these verses, but I think to leave them out distorts our understanding of the complete journey, so this is why I chose to include them.
It does seem very unfair to poor Uzzah who only wanted to stop the Ark falling off the ox-cart. God strikes him dead. Things happen in life, often suddenly and unexpectedly, and sometimes seemingly without reason. If such things have happened in our own lives, we can probably understand why King David was angry.
David also experienced a second emotion: fear. When our lives fall apart, fear for the present and our future is a natural response. David went from the emotional high, dancing before the Lord with "all his might", to this. Fear can paralyse us into inaction, or even into giving up our journey: and this is what happened to David.
When things go wrong for us, taking some time out to reflect can often help. David took time out, too - three months. Maybe you have experienced a time of crisis in your life, but now that you look back on it, it was for best.
Once David had stopped being angry and stopped being afraid, once again, he saw God's blessing. And so, our journey with the Ark continues...
We have sayings after something bad has happened to encourage someone or ourselves to continue a journey... "to get back on your bike", "to get back behind the wheel", "to get back in the saddle", "to get back in the water"... David gets back to bringing the Ark to Jerusalem.
Sometimes when we return to something, we return to it with renewed strength and enthusiasm, and this is certainly what we can see in David. Again, David is described as "dancing with all his might". This time, the celebration is bigger than before.
Let us take a moment to look at verse 13: "When those who bore the ark of the Lord had gone six paces, [David] sacrificed an ox and a fatling." Six paces is not very far [=8 yards/metres]. Bible scholars are not sure where the house of Obed-Edom was, but the original starting place at Baale-Judah was about 20km [=12.5 miles] from Jerusalem. For every kilometre, that would have been 125 oxen and 125 fatlings. I doubt that we can picture that level of slaughter, a river of blood! That level of sacrifice would have cost the local economy dear.
Given the mess, it is perhaps no wonder that David stripped down to his underwear (the linen ephod), and it is at this point David's wife Michal enters the story. She looks at the scene of the approaching Ark as it finishes its journey into Jerusalem. She sees her husband, the King of Israel, in the street, dancing in just his underwear, covered the blood of hundreds of sacrifices. The text tells us that she "despised" him: now that is a very strong word.
We will never witness that level of religious fervour, and in most UK churches, we will not often find dancing, but the question that comes to my mind is the repeated phrase "with all his might". When or where do we allow ourselves to lose ourselves in worship 'with all our might'? Or, maybe, we hear the voice of Michel over our shoulder, fearing that others may disapprove or dislike or despise!
Once the Ark had safely completed its journey into Jerusalem, David attended to the well-being of his people: he blessed them, but also, he ensured that they were well-fed. The text emphasises that both men and women were fed, and that it was "all the people". When we come to God in worship, if the poor are left hungry, and if the needy go unfulfilled, then our worship is but meaningless. David's provision for his people is echoed in Jesus' message of social justice.
But, finally, once the public worship was over, David returned home.
A few weeks ago, the Lectionary Gospel reading spoke of how Jesus was rejected in His own home town. Something similar happened to David. His wife, Michel, is scathing in her attack. The text tells us that he had returned home to bless his household: it seems that the blessing will have gone unheard.
Finally, let us look on how David responded to Michel. He responds with passionate words that words that speak of what his love for God means and what his love for God motivates him to do. It is interesting that he does not refer to himself as 'king', but as 'prince of Israel', alluding to God being the true King. In the Statement of the Nature, Faith and Order of the URC, we declare that "[we] must serve the Lord Jesus Christ, [our] only Ruler and Head".
David clearly did not care what Michel or anyone else thought of what he had done or how he had done it. For David, the only thing that mattered was his devotion to God and that his devotion was served with "all his might".
Sometimes, we worry about what others might think of us: the truth of the matter is others are too busy worrying about what we might be thinking about them, and they are not at all thinking about us!
On our journeys, like on the Ark's journey with David, there will be ups and downs, and when our journey reaches its end and God welcomes us into our Eternal Home, will we be able to say to our Lord that we have "danced with all our might"?