Sunday, July 8, 2012

Steady On

 Steady On
2 Samuel 6:1-15         
2 Corinthians 8:7-15         
Vancouver, Washington, July 8, 2012
Our Old Testament text is hard to read. I don’t mean that the names are difficult to pronounce, though they are. I mean it is hard to read because it appears to be a story we might wish wasn’t there in the first place. We have come to believe in a gospel about a God who wouldn’t do capricious things like tossing lightning bolts at someone who just casually touched a religious object. Presbyterians emerged from a Puritan type of tradition, so we don’t put too much stock in the religious significance of inanimate objects in the first place. Come on up here any time you like, touch the communion table, dabble your fingers in the water on the baptismal; you will not need to fear being smitten by God in the chancel of First Presbyterian Church for touching any of the furniture! So what was this Old Testament story in 2 Samuel about, anyway?
To answer, we have to begin by remembering that one of the problems with Sunday readings of little snippets of scripture at a time is that often we may miss, or be unaware of, the context, the background of the stories. The 2nd Samuel reading is an excellent case in point. The little portion we read seems to be a narrative account about moving the Ark of the Covenant – a religious artifact once famously (but rather grotesquely) celebrated in one of the Indiana Jones movies – from a temporary resting place to David’s new capital city of Jerusalem. On the way, an unfortunate but well-intentioned man gets himself killed by touching a sacred object. The story is bigger than it appears. It turns out not to be a story about how innocent people used to suffer in Old Testament times before God decided to become loving, but rather a story about the ways in which the headstrong political maneuverings of people can get them into deep trouble even when they least expect it.
David, having recently become king, decided that if he was going to unite his kingdom into a single people, the way other kingdoms around them were united, he needed to find a city in which to establish unquestioned political authority, a capital city. Some people were not so excited about the idea. One morning he awoke with a thought: What about the old Ark of the Covenant? It had been neglected, languishing, almost forgotten, out behind Abinadab’s carport for about 20 years. The old traditionalists still remembered it and all it represented since the time of Moses.
In the old days, the one who possessed the Ark of the Covenant could lay claim to an authority over the people that was sanctioned by God. What a brilliant move it would be to go get the old box, and carry it to the new capital! In one deft maneuver, David would capture the imagination of the progressives who wanted to be more like the other nations with a king and a capital city, and the loyalty of the traditionalists, the conservatives who wanted nothing more than the religious reminder of the good old days dating back to Moses.
As political symbols go, it was as brilliant as wrapping yourself in an American flag, kissing babies, and then sitting down to a big piece of apple pie. It was a surefire public relations winner. I remember from my brief study of Oklahoma history as a youngster growing up in that lovely state, that one dark night in 1910 the city fathers in Oklahoma City sneaked up the road to the new state capital in Guthrie, purloined the state seal, and took it away to protective custody in Oklahoma City. These days we might think that would have little to do with the location of a state capital, but in those pioneer days, without the official state seal, Guthrie couldn’t function as the capital, and with it, Oklahoma City could. The capital has been in Oklahoma City ever since. The ark of the covenant functioned a bit like that for David, and his initial intention in acquiring it for Jerusalem may have been as cool and calculating as the motives behind that midnight raid to Guthrie, Oklahoma.
One of the mistakes we make when we read this story is to assume that the human motives behind all the action were pure. Anyone who has studied David and his followers even a little should know better, but we forget. David’s faith was continually tested by a temptation to try to be God rather than to serve God.
As the ark was being carried on its new cart toward Jerusalem, a man named Uzzah, casually reached out his hand to steady it the way you might steady a ladder for a friend heading up to the roof. We would read that as a straightforward gesture, but in doing so we fail to read the religious significance that lies behind even casual actions. Uzzah’s gesture was an impulsive confession of faith in the power of human beings. The ark of the covenant was treated just like a regular box, calculatingly included among plans for political consolidation without sufficient thought as to God’s hopes for Israel. It was being handled with a familiarity that suggested that David and his supporters had begun to consider God to be their God, belonging to them, more than they saw themselves as God’s people who belong to God. Israel was forever getting the covenant turned around that way, and that is what this story is really about.
God’s graciousness toward Israel was really God’s own graciousness, not some commodity they could elicit on command and use to further their own ends. We are not meant to use God for our purposes, God intends to use us for God’s purposes, and when we have that straight, we are much more likely to live in an appropriate relationship with God.
Uzzah’s gesture represented that too-familiar attempt to manipulate God to serve human purposes. The result of Uzzah’s death was that David was forced to reconsider what he was doing, he had to send the ark to another storage site for three months while he got the proper order of things straight again. “How can the ark of the Lord come into my care?” he finally asked himself. If it was to come, it must come through a power not entirely his own, and he would have to give heed to that reality. The renewed procession into Jerusalem took on a whole new spirit when David remembered that he had been anointed to serve rather than to be served.
The last word was and is to be the power of God’s graciousness, not the human ability to seize what it wants. God’s grace, not our grip, is our central source of authority. This isn’t a bad thing to remember on the Sunday following our biggest national holiday.
Paul reminded the Corinthians of this grace of God in a wonderful way. The 7th verse of our 2nd Corinthians reading used to be translated: “You excel in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness...” When we hear lists of things like this, what we expect to hear next is, “Since you excel in this, this, and this, why not excel in this?” And that’s the way the verse used to end, does in fact end in older translations of the Bible. But having taken a more considered look at an ancient Greek text, the New Revised Standard Version gives us what makes more theological sense. Now the passage reads, “You excel in faith, in speech, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you.” Our love for you? How can you excel in the fact that someone else loves you? The new translation makes so much more sense. The final word in the phrase is now grace. You excel in these things that you do, but you also excel in our love for you, that is, in something which is in no way beholden to your own effort.
We always need reminders that the gospel of Christ is not about doing good things, but about doing grace-filled things, walking the extra mile, giving a shirt as well as the cloak, turning the other cheek, offering what is not expected because the power under which we operate is not of our own devising. We are free to respond at the Spirit’s direction rather than by the counsel of human calculation, because the freedom of Christ has set us free.

© 2012 Robert J. Elder 1st Presbyterian Church