Here in II Samuel 6 we have another difficult biblical passage. It is allegedly a simple story of David moving the ark of God to a more prominent location. Earlier in the week, when I sent out the electronic version of our church’s order of service, I mentioned that I was having trouble with this passage. One person wrote back and suggested that I just follow David’s example . . . and dance.
Given the difficulty of this passage, I couldn’t help but take the suggestion seriously. Liturgical dance was a thing when I went to seminary. I didn’t take the class, but I’ve seen it done. However, in giving the idea some thought, it occurred to me (as it may have just occurred to you) that what got David in trouble was the fact that he danced in nothing but a linen ephod. Our denominational code of ethics doesn’t actually deal with this specific situation, but still . . . instead of dancing with this story, I think we are better off wrestling with it.
The story is as much about an object as it is about a person. The object is the ark of God. If you want to picture it, you can think of the Indiana Jones movie, or you can just picture a wooden box. It’s covered with gold and topped by two winged figures. The box is longer than it is wide or high. On each side are two rings and through the rings run two wooden poles. Each of the poles is also covered with gold. This is how the ark is described in Exodus 25. The rings and poles, the passage tells us, are so the ark can be carried.
The ark was meant to signify God’s presence. If you don’t believe that God is a physical creature, then you logically run into the question time and time again of God’s whereabouts. Some official residences raise or lower a flag to signify the presence of the head of state or an ambassador. The ark was a signal a little like that. Its presence said that God was present. The ark was a sacrament. In it the Hebrews encountered God’s grace.
Before the ancient Hebrews had the ark of God, great columns of fire or cloud served the same purpose. The ark replaced those natural signs. The ark was first kept in the tabernacle, which was a sort of fenced-in tent. Then in it was kept in the temple.
Where is God?
What is God like?
Look at the pillar of fire. Look at the ark. Look at the tabernacle. Look at the temple. At its most elemental this story in II Samuel 6 is about a sign of God’s presence. God’s presence, we learn here, is a terror and a blessing.
In our service we read 15 verses, three paragraphs straight through. The lectionary actually assigned only the first and the third paragraphs. It suggested that we skip the middle.
One of the items in our local news over the past few weeks has been the promise of a new Amazon distribution centre. City official are celebrating. I have realized that the massive warehouse will be built on a plot of land I drive by several times a week. What the news features didn’t show was the curious little place just down the road from the building site. It’s a small house near the road. The front yard is dominated by home-made signs with messages like, “don’t drink Ottawa city water,” or “call here for an alternative to hospice,” or “cancer is a government conspiracy,” or “supplements for sale.” None of these are exact quotes, but there pretty close. Sometimes the signs are hard to read because the writer seems to be running out of letters and makes odd substitutions: ‘$’ instead of an ‘S’ for instance. It isn’t surprising that none of the news features got this place in their pictures.
Isn’t this what we’re tempted to do with the Bible? We suggest to each other that we look away. We crop these hard verses out of our readings. Some of you might remember the Seinfeld sketch where Elain tells a story and then trails of saying, “yadda, yadda, yadda . . . .” George or someone accuses her of “yadda, yadda, yadda-ing” over the best part. The middle paragraph of our reading is the part we want to look away from. It’s where we want to trail off and mumble—and for good reason.
Here’s what happened: David and some others decide to fetch the ark of God from the house of Abinadab. Their goal is to take it up to the city of David. They are super excited. They’re singing and dancing, playing musical instruments (they were not Mennonites). The problem is that, instead of carrying the ark, they put it on a cart. They are going downhill when the thing slips . . . a fellow named Uzzah reaches out to grab it. God strikes him dead!
Yes, look away, take the picture from a different angle, yadda-yadda over this. It isn’t always wrong to skip over these challenging texts.
So they put the ark on a cart, instead of carrying it. So some well-meaning fellow reached out to steady it. What would be better? Should they have let the symbol of God’s presence slide into the ditch? David is afraid and therefore angry. He decides not to bring the ark into his city. He gives the place where the accident happened a special name. He calls it, “the place where God burst forth against Uzzah.” David was not a particularly good namer-of-places. In the previous chapter David named a battle site. He called it, “the place where God burst forth against my enemies.” Apparently God was doing quite a bit of bursting forth—a terror and a blessing. Apparently God is not a pet. Apparently God is not someone to be sentimental about.
A few weeks ago I offered some rules for reading the Bible’s bloody bits without losing your cool. Let’s apply some of those rules to this passage. First, let’s remember that the rule of thumb for biblical interpretation is that Jesus is our primary moral example. We read all these other stories in light of his life. Second, we should remember that a passage like this is a product of its time and place. Third, we should see where the story goes. Remember how I suggested earlier that the ark was a sign of God’s presence? Where does that part of the story go? Well, the ultimate sign of God’s presence is eventually the life-in-flesh of Jesus. For all that the ark may have tried to say about God’s character, Jesus says it more clearly.
But there’s another thing, a thought from Pilgram Marpeck. Marpeck was one of the early leaders of the Anabaptist movement. Professionally, he was a civil servant and an engineer. One of the concepts he taught in his capacity as a leader of a network of Anabaptist churches was the idea that the church community is an extension of God’s incarnate presence. Scripture says that the church community is the body of Christ. If we read scripture alongside Marpeck we see that the task of being a physical sign of God’s presence is now given, not to boxes or buildings, but to us.
When times are unstable, who or what helps us identify what God is doing? One answer should be in community. In the disciple community. It’s not about being overlaid with gold; it’s about giving of ourselves as a sign of God’s love. It’s not about smoke and fire; it’s about being people whose lives are always being refashioned by God’s purifying presence. It’s not about walls and special chambers; it’s about being the sort of people that value others as bearers of God’s image.
What Uzzah and David tried to do was manage the presence of God. They tried to make it happen. Modern Christians are tempted to do this too. Sometimes we fake miracles or turn the whole life of the church into a push for more members. Sometimes we think we need to polish off the rough edges of the faith. Sometimes we think we need to cover over the fact that scripture originated in a very different time and place. We want to make sure people are looking the other way when we talk about things that don’t fit the contemporary vibe. We yadda-yadda-yadda over the things that aren’t easily accepted. We get anxious. We think that God needs a hand. Like Uzzah we reach out and try to take hold of God’s presence. We want to manage it. We get defensive and cautious. We worry that everything depends on us.
Yet if the story of Uzzah is instructive at all, it is so as a reminder that we can relax. We can have faith in God. God’s presence in the church today might look strange. It might not match the tone or branding we would have advised—if God had asked us. God does ask us to care for others, to love our neighbours as we love ourselves. That is how we signal God’s presence. But God doesn’t need us to keep the ark on the cart.