Text: 2 Samuel 6:1-19
Over these past years of following the lectionary in my preaching I have learned to be curious, if not suspicious, when the lectionary skips over verses within a particular story or text. Such was the case this week when I read the assigned lectionary text 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19. What, I wondered, had been skipped over in verses 6-12a. Well, let’s see.
“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 YHWH 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 YHWH had burst forth with an outburst upon Uzzah; so that place is call Perez-uzzah, to this day. David was afraid of YHWH that day; he said, ‘How can the ark of YHWH come into my care?’ So David was unwilling to take the ark of YHWH into his care in the city of David; instead David took it to the house of Obed-edom the Gittite. The ark of YHWH remained in the house of Obed-edom the Gittite three months; and YHWH blessed Obed-edom and all his household. It was told King David, ‘YHWH has blessed the household of Obed-edom and all that belongs to him, because of the ark of God.’”
As I suspected, in leaving out verses 6-12a the lectionary skipped over the unsavory part of this story of King David. In an attempt to sanitize and clean-up this story of the great King David the lectionary had taken out the parts about God’s anger and David’s humanity and the opportunity for us to wrestle with a most significant question, “How we use God for our own purposes.”
There is a part of me that sympathizes with David in this passage. All of us, surely, have had those times when no matter how carefully we plan and orchestra events, things just have a way of going wrong. This story of David moving the ark of God made me think of a story about my father. Some years ago, I learned that dad had always wanted an old roll top desk. When I found out that this had been on his wish list for much of his life, I encouraged him to buy one. Dad often sacrificed his wish list for the rest of us so I wanted to support him in doing something for himself. I was so excited the day he called to tell me he had found and bought an antique roll top desk. I could hear the excitement in his voice and I was excited for him. He told me he was going to pick it up the following week after having negotiated with my mother about the placement of the desk. The following week I got another phone call from dad. I asked him about the desk. “Did you get your roll top desk home?” I asked curiously. There was a moment of silence and then he said, “Well, I had a problem.” “Oh no,” I said. “What happened?” Then he tells me this story. He had gone to pick up the desk by himself. The folks at the place where he had bought it had been kind enough to help him load it onto his truck but once again dad was going about a two person job all by himself. He said, “Nancy, that desk was so heavy.” Then he said, “Nancy, as I was coming down Hwy 74 through Shelby, right before you get to Ingles, the wind lifted that desk right off the truck and it landed in the middle of the road and busted into a thousand pieces.” It didn’t feel helpful at that point to ask the obvious question, “Dad, did you not tie it down?” He had already noted that the desk was “so heavy.” And I know my dad. He was thinking, “I only have several miles to go and I’ll go slow. It’ll all be okay.” But disaster was not to be avoided and Dad still doesn’t have an old roll top desk.
Maybe Uzzah, Ahio, and David thought the same thing. It’s not that far, just 4 miles, from Abinadab’s house to the city of David. We’ll go slow and everything will be okay. But everything wasn’t okay and disaster struck. The oxen stumbled at the threshing floor and Uzzah thought the ark of YHWH was in danger of toppling over. So he reached out his hand, as any of us would do, to steady the ark. And for reasons I don’t understand, touching the ark, even when it was in danger of crashing to the ground, was forbidden. And there, at the place where Uzzah touched the ark God struck him dead.
Despite many imaginative, and some less than imaginative, attempts to make some theological sense of this scene, it appears as nothing less than a bit of magic brought forth out of great divine anger. “Touch my Ark, will you, says YHWH; well, I’ll show you.” There does seem to be this biblical theme of the forbidden-ness to touch holy things, especially the Ark of YHWH. In fact, the story of Uzzah is the third story in the Hebrew scriptures where people die from touching the Ark. I will spare you all of those details but suffice it to say that it seems that the intended message in each of the stories has to do with treating holy things with reverence and respect. I guess not a bad reminder for us today.
But I want shift from Uzzah to David. David, King David, was a complicated fellow. We all know the Sunday School stories – the shepherd boy going up against the Philistine giant with only a sling shot, five smooth stones and his trust in God. Being chosen to be King over his older and more favored brothers. David defending the kingdom against external threats. David, the one God called a man after his own heart. David is one of the most heralded characters in the Bible, maybe in all of literature. And we know that David loved God and was loyal to God. And yet, David doesn’t get a pass on humanity, either, does he? David commits adultery with Bathsheba, then, in a Jerry Springer twist, instead of fessing up, he kills the husband to hide what he has done. David also directly disobeys God by taking a census. And he isn’t exactly the father of the year, based on what we know from the Bible. David struggles with his own desires, his own greed, his own will, and his own pride. As one author writes: “David possessed every flaw and failing of which a mortal is capable, yet men and women adored him, and God showered him with many blessings. A charismatic leader, exalted as a man after God’s own heart, he was also capable of deep cunning and violence.”
In the story of David that we have read today, David finds it necessary to consolidate religious power in Jerusalem to match the political power he has gained there. He is reminded, or he remembers, the fabled Ark of the Covenant, created by Moses in the wilderness as a portable shrine for the moveable YHWH. And so, David takes a huge force of his warriors to a place called Baale-judah where the Ark now rests. Clearly, this ancient chest will serve David well as a hallowed symbol of the presence and power of YHWH, God of Israel. It will be an excellent feature with which to sanctify the new city of David. That is until disaster strikes and David’s friend Uzzah is struck dead for touching the Ark.
At this point, David immediately decides not to take the Ark to Jerusalem, but takes it instead to the house of Obed-edom, a Philistine ally, where it remains for three months. After David is told that YHWH has apparently blessed Obed-edom and his household, David renews his intent to bring the Ark to his city. However, the planned parade now has different rules. The ark will be carried on the shoulders of the David’s army, not on a cart. And every six paces, David will offer a sacrifice. It is as if David now takes the Ark’s power and mystery much more seriously than he did at first.
But David has hardly discarded his plans for the Ark completely; he still sees it as an important symbol both of YHWH and also of his own power. This time, he himself leads the procession up to Jerusalem, “dancing before YHWH with his full strength, wearing only a priestly ephod”—“a garment” one theologian writes, “that is in effect something like a glorified G-string, leaving little to the imagination about the lusty manhood of the king.” By the end of the story, David is again in full control of the scene; the Ark is in the tent in the city, and has become precisely what David wished it to be, namely a symbol of the presence and power of YHWH in the city named after him.
So what are we to make of this story? What is the headline or our “takeaway?” What relevance does this story have for us in 2015? I would suggest that it is this question: “In how many ways do we use God for our own purposes?” John Holbert, Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology answers it this way, “They are legion. From our politicians ending their speeches with a hearty “God bless America” to chaplains of the Senate praying that senators will think of the God of justice for all as they pass laws rather than calling on God to agree with what they have already decided to do, God too often becomes our lapdog, offering the divine seal of approval to our all too human desires. Like David, we imagine that God is ever with us, approving our actions, blessing our designs, shouting a divine Amen as we seek our own paths, which too often are far from God’s hoped-for realm and rule.”
How do we use God for our own purposes? That’s the question of the day. And I’m going to propose that we pick up a thread from last week in order to shed some light on this. I would argue that whenever we are attached to a specific outcome, we are in danger of using God rather than being used by God. I may be engaged in the most altruistic of endeavors, but if I insist in being right about how that endeavor must end, I wonder, I am using God. Or if I have a need to will it to go a certain way, I wonder, I am using God. Or even if I harbor a belief that “if I am doing this right, it will end the way I want,” then I wonder, am I using God for my own purpose.
The most prominent image in 2 Samuel is David dancing as he leads the processional of the Ark into Jerusalem. One might wonder why David is still dancing. The journey of moving the Ark of YHWH a short four miles has caused nothing but trouble for David, including the death of his good friend. So why rejoice? Why dance? Why would he even want to keep dancing with the divine? Here’s my guess. Because when we long to worship and serve God as David obviously did there is a joy within us that moves our souls and our bodies. It doesn’t matter how flawed we are or how many mistakes we make along the way. It doesn’t even matter what the outcome is. When our heart longs for God, we worship God. And when we worship God, our souls can’t help but dance with the divine.