What do you think of God? What do you really think of God? What sort of God do you worship? They’re the sorts of questions that face us today as we think about the reaction of 2 of the characters in this story of David and the Ark of the Covenant.
David is settled in Jerusalem. It’s become the City of David and now the time has come for the Ark of the Lord to be brought into the city. You may remember back to the early days of Saul, when he tried to win a battle by bringing up the Ark from Shiloh, but his ploy didn’t work. God isn’t a God who can be used or manipulated for our own ends. Instead the Ark was captured by the Philistines. But then, after a series of disasters, they sent it back to Israel.
The Ark went first to Beth Shemesh where some of the men there treated it with such disrespect that they died looking into it. This naturally terrified the people of Beth Shemesh to the extent that they asked "Who is able to stand before the LORD, this holy God? To whom shall he go so that we may be rid of him?" (1 Sam 6:20) Well, they got rid of him by sending the Ark to Kiriath Jearim, where it remained for the next 20 years. There it stayed until this moment in Israel’s history, when David goes with a huge army of chosen leaders of Israel to bring it into his newly established capital.
You see, David hasn’t forgotten that his reign is dependant on the God of Israel. He’s a king who remains subordinate to the King of kings. And if he’s to rule from Jerusalem, then God must be seen to be ruling from Jerusalem as well. No longer will Shiloh be the centre of the worship of the LORD. From now on Jerusalem will become both the political and the religious focus of the nation.
Now this may be just a strategic act on David’s part, to cement his place as king of the whole nation, but you realise as the story unfolds that it’s much more than that. David is a king with a God-centred view of the world. And if he’s to lead his people in the best way possible then God must take centre stage. It’s no good God being exiled to Kiriath Jearim while David is set up in his new capital. God must be there at the centre of the life of the nation.
It’s a lesson we could all learn isn’t it? What do we think of God? What place does he have in our life? Is he at the centre or is he exiled to the periphery, to Sundays and Bible study groups, while our life is lived mostly in other places?
Well, that’s not going to happen in Israel. David is going to bring the Ark into the new capital. And he understands the solemnity, the significance of the occasion. He gathers together 30,000 of the leading men of Israel. He has a new cart built as befits the ark of the LORD, the lord of hosts. Their procession is a procession of worship. There’s singing and dancing; the noise of loud instruments; loud rejoicing. It’s not very Anglican is it? But it’s appropriate for such an important occasion. Here is the central symbol of God’s presence among them, the Ark of the LORD, coming to Jerusalem. And worship is the appropriate response.
But then disaster hits. The oxen stumble and the cart shakes and as Uzzah puts out his hand to steady it he’s struck dead on the spot! This is totally unexpected. Everything’s being going along so well. And now Uzzah is dead. And notice how David reacts. He’s angry. Angry at God. Angry that God has done this to an innocent man.
I wonder is that how you feel when you read something like that? Does it offend you? Is it too much? Poor old Uzzah!
It certainly offended David. Perhaps he’d underestimated this God he worshipped. Perhaps he wasn’t as safe as he thought.
Of course he’s right. God isn’t a tame God. Look at v2: he’s ’the LORD of hosts who is enthroned on the cherubim’. He’s the Lord holy and mighty. It’s all too easy to forget that the Lord we worship is God almighty, the Holy one, enthroned on the cherubim and seraphim, surrounded by the fire of holiness, far removed from our ordinary lives. Our worship is sanitised in so many ways. We remember Jesus Christ who lowered himself to come and live among us as another human being. We sit in pleasant and familiar surroundings singing songs of joy. But sometimes we forget that God is also the almighty one, the one before whom every knee shall bow when he comes to judge the living and the dead.
David and his men were caught up in the joy of knowing that their God was with them. David’s kingdom was the result of God’s blessing. But perhaps he’d momentarily forgotten that God was also the living God who demands full obedience from his people. And that’s where Uzzah’s death comes in.
You see, there are a number of issues that arise in this incident. The first is the fact that the ark is being carried on a cart. Now the instruction God gave to Moses was that the ark should be carried by Levites on poles inserted through rings on the side of the Ark. But the Philistines had improved on that idea back in 1 Sam 6. They’d introduced technology in the form of a cart. Albeit a newly made cart, but nevertheless not the method prescribed by God.
Secondly, Uzzah thinks that it’s his job to take care of God. He’s hovering next to the ark, watching over it as if this is his role in life, almost as though the ark belongs to him. When it gives a bit of a shake he reaches out his hand to steady it, the way you would a baby’s pram. But the problem is that this isn’t a pram, it’s the ark of the covenant. This is actually an irreverent act on his part. It’s not his place to protect God. God is there to protect him.
This is an ever present danger for those who are given responsibility in God’s Church, I think. We can be so easily tempted to think that our job is to protect God. We get offended when people ignore God or take his name in vain. Now let me say that I’m saddened and perhaps offended when I hear Christians taking God’s name in vain or when I see them ignoring God in their daily lives, but when I see non-Christians ignoring God there’s no reason to be offended really is there? After all they’re basically pagans or worshippers of other gods perhaps. They don’t know any better. But there’s no offense towards me in their behaviour. God may be offended, but that’s for him to deal with - and he will. My job is to do all I can to tell them the gospel; to introduce them to this God that they’ve never known. I certainly don’t need to protect God.
Nor did God need Uzzah to protect him from stumbling. In fact the major issue is that neither Uzzah, nor, as it turns out, David, seem to comprehend the nature, the holiness of the God they profess to worship. And it’s this holiness of God that bothers David the most.
Now he wonders whether it’s safe to take the Ark into Jerusalem? What if something terrible happens in the middle of the city of David. What if some plague breaks out like it did when it was taken into those Philistine cities? Perhaps part of his anger is that he’s no longer sure whether he can trust the LORD, whether the LORD is safe to be near. In fact there’s something a bit superstitious about his response isn’t there?
He wants a God who’s predictable. Well, more than predictable. He wants a God who follows rules that he’s happy with. That’s the problem that most humans have isn’t it? We want God to obey our rules, to behave in ways that we think are fair and reasonable. We get a bit jumpy when God acts as though he can do what he likes! But that in fact is exactly what God can do.
I’m reminded of the scene in "The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe," when Mr & Mrs Beaver are telling the children about Aslan. Let me read you what happens:
’"Is--is he a man?" asked Lucy.
"Aslan a man!" said Mr. Beaver sternly. "Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion--the Lion, the great Lion."
"Ooh!" said Susan, "I’d thought he was a man. Is he--quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion."
"That you will, dearie, and no mistake," said Mrs. Beaver, "if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly."
"Then he isn’t safe?" said Lucy.
"Safe?" said Mr. Beaver. "Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? "’Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King I tell you."’
Well, as events transpire here, we discover that while God isn’t a safe God, he is a good God.
David decides to leave the Ark of the Covenant where it is for now. He finds someone who’ll look after it while he makes up his mind and he leaves it there.
Interestingly Obed-edom the Gittite would appear to be a Philistine since Gittite means he comes from Gath. But he isn’t afraid to have the ark stay in his home. And he discovers that God is indeed good to those who receive him gladly. God blesses Obed-edom and his whole household. We’re not told what form this blessing took, but it was sufficient that David heard about it and decided that he should bring the ark into Jerusalem after all.
So again David sets out to bring in the Ark. This time we discover in 1 Chronicles 15 he takes the Levites to carry it in. And not only do they sing and dance at it makes it’s way to the city, but this time they sacrifice as they go. He isn’t going to make the same mistake again, of hurrying the process. So after they’ve gone 6 paces he stops and offers a sacrifice. 1 Chronicles tells us he does this 7 times. How’s that for those of you who complain when our services go a bit long. 7 times they stop and sacrifice a bull and a ram.
They enter the city with dancing and singing and there in the lead is David. He’s dressed like a priest with a linen ephod and a fine linen tunic and he’s dancing for all he’s worth.
But Michal his wife, Saul’s daughter, remember, isn’t impressed. This display of enthusiasm by David is embarrassing. He’s making such a fool of himself! What sort of a king is it who makes a public spectacle of himself in this way? She’s embarrassed. She feels publicly humiliated by this behaviour of her husband.
Again, you can hear an echo of what some Christians feel about expressing their faith in public. It can be a bit embarrassing to admit you’re a Christian can’t it? It can feel foolish to admit you went to Church on Sunday instead of playing golf or sleeping in. And it’s all too easy to give in to this imagined peer pressure. To be ashamed of our Lord, ashamed of the gospel. But notice what David has to say about this.
Having placed the ark into the tent he’s set up for it, having passed out gifts to all the people as a token of what a great day it is for the whole nation, he returns to his home.
He comes in the door full of the excitement of the day, ready to bless his whole household and what does he find? His wife looking daggers at him.
What’s her problem?
She’s worried about what others will think of her. She’s worried that David has made a fool of himself before the serving girls. And she can imagine them laughing at him and therefore at her, behind his back.
But that sort of concern hasn’t even registered on his radar screen. David isn’t worried about what others will think of him. David is worried about what the Lord thinks of him.
He says: "It was before the LORD, who chose me in place of your father and all his household, to appoint me as prince over Israel, the people of the LORD, that I have danced before the LORD. 22I will make myself yet more contemptible than this, and I will be abased in my own eyes; but by the maids of whom you have spoken, by them I shall be held in honor." He isn’t going to be the sort of King that Saul was. He’s going to be a king who will always humble himself before the LORD. Who will gladly make himself a fool for God’s sake.
He’s learnt a lot about God lately, you see. He’s learnt that God isn’t safe. God is so much greater than any human king. But God is good. God can be trusted. And God is the one whose opinion he needs to worry about.
What do you think of God? Is your idea of God big enough to take in the things we discover about him in his word? Are you prepared to worship a God who can do what he likes with his creation even if you can’t understand why he does them; even if you sometimes wonder whether his actions are fair? Are you willing to trust him, to believe that he is good even if he isn’t safe? And are you willing to worship him even when others don’t? Are you more worried about what God thinks of you than what your peers think? That, it seems to me is the challenge for us from this reading today. What do we think of God? Is the God we worship the true and living God revealed to us in his word?
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