“Awe-full Glory, Awe-full Love”
Cassopolis/ White Pigeon, July 15, 2018
Text: Psalm 24; 2 Samuel 6:1-15; Ephesians 1:3-14
“It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.” If you recognize that phrase, you’re revealing your age. For you know that it’s the punch line of a commercial that aired in the late seventies and early eighties for Chiffon Soft Stick Margarine. In the ad, actress Dena Dietrich, portraying Mother Nature as a kind of Glinda the Good Witch figure waxes eloquent about how delicious Chiffon is, how it is truly pure and natural butter made with all her wonderful natural elements. However, she becomes informed during the commercial that Chiffon Soft Stick is not real butter at all, but margarine. To which she smiles sweetly and utters the tag line—“It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature,” as thunder and lightning begin to build up menacingly in the background.
It was a cute ad. And I am always reminded of it a little when I read the story from 2 Samuel about David’s experience of bringing the ark of God up to his new capital of Jerusalem, and especially about the fateful effects of that action on the priest, Uzzah. This story, however, is not nearly so cute, and it’s not intended to be. What it’s intended to do as it comes to us from scripture, is to remind us that we should not ever try to fool God—or even approach God with anything less than awe and reverence.
As 2 Samuel has revealed up to this point in the story, David has been acclaimed king over the united tribes of Israel following a long period of conflict with the now-dead King Saul. Politically savvy, David has chosen as his new royal city, not a town within the tribal holdings of his own southern tribe of Judah, but the city of Jerusalem, situated on the neutral border between north and south, thus placating all the tribal groups. The city even has the advantage of having not belonged to Israel up to this point—it had been the possession of the Jebusites whom David had to defeat in order to make it his capital, again making it neutral territory. But now, having established Jerusalem as a political capital to unite the tribes, David wants to go a step further and make it as well into a religious capital—the worship center for all of Israel’s people. And there is only important item in all the world that can accomplish that, David knows—the ark of God’s covenant—the physical sign of Israel’s invisible God.
For some twenty years the ark has been sitting by itself far from much activity in a city variously referred to in scripture as Baale-Judah or Kiriath-Jearim. The way it happened to end up there is quite a story in itself. Earlier, the worship center for the tribes had been the city of Shiloh where the ark was attended to by the old priest Eli and his sons. His sons, as we know from other places in Samuel, were not at all faithful as priests—in fact, they were downright corrupted. And in a very foolish move, unasked of God, and thus unapproved by God, they decide to send the ark out on the battlefield with Israel’s troops to rally spirit during a war with the Philistines. And everything goes wrong—the two brothers die, Eli himself ends up dying, and the ark is captured by the Philistines.
But as it happens, God can take care of the ark Himself. In a series of misadventures which undercut both the Philistines and their god, Dagon, the Philistines become convinced that they don’t want to have this symbol of Israel’s God anywhere among them. So, they put it on a wagon along with some penitential offerings and send it on its way to wherever the cows pulling it will take it. And it ends up in Kirath-Jearim at the house of one Abinidab. And there it sits for years under his family’s care until David now decides to go get it.
Here we pick up the story of today’s reading. And almost immediately, if the reader has any knowledge of the history of the ark and how it’s supposed to be handled, there should be a few misgivings arising in the reader’s mind. First of all in the passage, serving to give us a sense of eh ark’s importance, the ark is referred quite grandly and formally by what must be its full title—“the ark of God which is called by the name of the LORD of hosts who is enthroned on the cherubim”—a mouthful-title unused elsewhere in scripture, but which reminds us both that the ark is intended to be the throne of a king, and that it is something quite awesome, not to ever be taken for granted. And that brings to mind what we know about how the ark is supposed to be moved. It is never to be put up in a wagon for transport, even a new and consecrated wagon. It has poles and attachments for the poles and it is always to be carried by Levites without being physically touched, not treated like a piece of baggage. But that is exactly what David does here as he begins the process of moving the ark to his capital. Perhaps he thinks it is too far to carry such a thing, forgetting that Israel carried it all through the wilderness wandering years—it is so much easier to let oxen do the work. But as he finds out, easier is not always wiser or better.
Or at least poor Uzzah finds out. The wagon moves over a bit of a rough patch on the road, and as wagons do, especially when the animals pulling them stumble, the ark probably shakes a bit, which causes Uzzah, with all good intentions, no doubt, to reach out a hand to steady it. And that’s it for him—because you do not touch the ark ever—ever.
Now at this point it’s probably worth considering why what happens here happens, first of all, why it’s so dangerous to touch the ark. For Israel, this box—for that is was it was— was the physical symbol of God with them—it was the sacrament of God’s presence, and because of that, was invested with the holiness of God. And since a human being could not come into the presence of God’s holiness, into direct contact with the God and expect to live, this God who had created all the world and all the worlds, well above the worlds and all created things, so one could not touch this symbol of God’s being and expect anything different. But there’s more to this story than just that. I’ve heard some people suggest that the ark is kind of like a huge electrical battery—touch it and you pay the consequence—it’s just the way of things. But it’s not that simple, nor mechanical. What is going on here is that David does not treat the ark with respect—and in so doing, he does not treat God with respect—with the appropriate awe that God’s glory demands. First of all, he tries to move it the wrong way. And second, he seems to almost want to throw himself into the limelight as much as the ark, as he dances and leaps at the head of his parade. At least one commentator, Kyle McCarter, has suggested that the procession David leads here in this chapter of 2 Samuel, seems to resemble some rituals of the Middle Eastern non-Israelite nations of the time, the Gentile nations around Israel. In those rituals, which celebrated the return of divine relics to their proper places, there would be two centers of focus to the event—one would be the religious item itself, whatever it was, that represented the god, and the other would be the king who would lead the whole affair. And part of the understanding of these processions was that the king in question was in real good with the god in question because the king had done so much for the god’s good—had made the pious act of returning the relic to its proper place—had, in essence, done a favor for the god, to which the king was owed a certain amount of blessing.
And if this was the case with David, that he was thinking that way, he should have known he was walking on thin ice. God had blessed him richly—had blessed him in the past and would promise yet more blessing. But this did not mean, would never mean. that David could take God’s blessing as his own by right—that God owed it to him. And when David acted as if God did, or tried to somehow appropriate the ark for his own use and the self-glorification and self-will, as the dead priests of Shiloh had done before him, tragedy was in the wings.
And judging by David’s response when tragedy did hit, one might assume that this was indeed the bad assumption David was operating under. When Uzzah is struck down—when God “burst out upon him”—the text tells us that “David was angry.” “How dare God do this to me,” he seems to be thinking—“How dare God rain on my parade!” But then David changes and moves into a more reasonable response—fear. Seeing what has just occurred, he makes the decision that the ark is too dangerous an item to have in his capital, kind of like keeping a bomb in your sock drawer. So he drops off the ark at the next road stop with the family of one Obed-Edom, who is identified, ironically, as a Philistine—a Gittite from the Philistine city of Gath. And David goes on his way back home, chastened and disappointed.
However, it isn’t very long before the king gets wind of the fact that the house of Obed-Edom is doing vey well with the ark—in fact, it is reported that they are “blessed.” And perhaps a little warily, David returns back to attempt again what had ended so badly before. But now perhaps, David has figured out that the reason the ark has been a blessing to the Obed-Edom family is because they have treated it, and through it, God, with the reverence deserved. And this time, when David goes, there are no wagons, only the proper Levite carriers, and sacrificial offerings of thanksgiving are given to God as is right. And this time, the ark makes it to Jerusalem.
It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature. And it’s not wise to treat God or God’s glory with anything less than the awe deserved. And if this story were the only one we knew about God, we might end up feeling that God was a being, the Being above every being, who we had to, above everything else, fear, as the Old Testament so often says—hold in awe for His awe-filled glory. We might even find ourselves trying to avoid God lest we accidentally aroused the divine wrath. And this would be a terrible mistake based on a terrible misunderstanding of the truth, far from the whole story. For as often as scripture says that God must be feared, and as much as God is glorious beyond all things and must be reverenced, it also says just as often and maybe more that God is patient and long-suffering and loving with a steadfast love that is unlimited and a faithfulness that is eternal. This is the truth. And that is the God we see in Ephesians 1, as Paul exalts “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.
Ephesians 1:3-14, in the NRSV, is made up of six sentences, fairly long complex ones. But in Greek, it’s all one sentence which just keeps going on and on, phrase after phrase after phrase with only one point in mind—to show the Ephesians and us just how much God loves—how God’s love is as awe-filled as His glory—is in fact, the major component of that glory.
Paul begins by telling us that God “before the foundation of the world,” from the very beginning, not as an afterthought, intended us to be chosen ones, and, so chosen, to live “holy and blameless before Him in love”—to live wrapped in an environment of love, surrounded by His love and made able by that to respond lovingly to God and each other. In order to make this possible, to make us fallen creatures into those who could be “holy and blameless” before Him, God showed us what love was by adopting us, broken as we are, not as slaves, not even as creatures, but as “children”—made and adopted as children by the giving of His own Beloved—the Son—God’s own Self the second of the Triune, to come to us in flesh and give that very divine being for our good—for our redemption, which means literally, buying us back from the bondage we had sold ourselves into. God did all of this in love through Jesus, not only “lavishing us” with love and grace, but making it possible for us to understand what He was doing—“making known to us the mystery of His will” to bring everything in heaven and on earth, all that had ever been created, fallen as it had become, together in Jesus Christ. And because of that great love, we have an inheritance in Christ. Or as another possible translation says it, we have “become an inheritance of God’s own in Christ,” able to live and testify to God and God’s awe-full glory, but also God’s awe-full love.
And this is the whole story of God for us. That God is indeed the God of the whirlwind in Job, who cannot be understood and grasped by mere mortals, the God of the ark, who cannot be treated without awe and respect—the God who should and must be held in reverence and perhaps even a kind of loving fear. But it must be a loving, never a cringing fear. For even with this being said, God for us is also the One who loved the world so much that He sent the Beloved—loved the world so much that He entered into it in the body of a helpless child who was touched and seen and known by divine purpose, who called us children and who called the children to come to Him and not be forbidden, and who finally died for us. And this God we have known in Jesus, who is all glory but also all love, is the mighty God, the Lord of glory, by whom the worlds exist and for whom all gates and doors are thrown open in praise, but who opens arms to the world in grace.
There is a movie I sometimes recommend to people with about a million disclaimers thrown in because of all the problems the movie poses. I often tell people, “Don’t tell anybody I recommended it.” It is full of bad language, crude and profane situations—if it were any other movie I would never dream of suggesting it. It would probably offend you. But despite all its downsides, the film “Dogma” makes some surprisingly deep theological statements. And here’s one of them. In it, an archbishop, played by George Carlin of all people, has decided that the cross and all that bloody imagery of the church needs to be set aside—“We need to get in touch with the people,” he says—“To have a more positive image.” And to that end, he has decided to get rid of all the crucifixes and other such traditional regalia and replace them with “Buddy Christ”—a statue of Jesus with a broad grin and a stuck-out arm with the thumbs-up symbol. It is a ludicrous thing, and intended to be seen so.
And thus the film makes its point. Sometimes we can fall into a neglectful way of thinking about God—about Jesus—as our Buddy Christ, the One who slaps us on the back and gives us a cigar and tells us that whatever we do is okay. And we forget that God is the God who made us—made the worlds—and did so for a purpose—for God’s purpose. We forget that we owe everything to this God. And when we forget that we endanger our own spirits and indeed that of all creation. We can forget that while we have been given an inheritance in Christ, we have been made as well to be God’s inheritance in Christ, laborers for Jesus in God’s field, living for God’s glory.
And that is a danger. But it just as much a danger, perhaps even more, to forget that God is not only the mighty Creator of the world, not just brute power and force, but is also the Redeemer and Sustainer of the world—is above all, love—love in and within and outside of the divine Triune self. And when we hold God in reverence and awe and even fear that God deserves from us we may do so always knowing that God holds us in that love—in mighty, but gentle hands that lift up the faces of the young to feed them, hands that care for the whole world, and for each child in it adopted in Jesus—hands which reached out as God named all the stars and set their courses, but never forgets even one. This is the God who has bought our redemption for His praise, who as the song says, “is an awesome God—” awesome in glory—awesome in love. +++