The ups and downs of royal life are rarely out of the news. Whether you’re a royal watcher or not, it’s difficult to ignore Meghan and Harry and the rift between the princes.
We have been following the life of the greatest of Israel’s kings in the Old Testament; David. He is first anointed king while still a shepherd boy. After slaying Goliath, he goes on to make his mark against the Philistine armies that were a constant threat to the tribes of Israel as they attempted to settle in the promised land. At first, David struggles to get everyone on his side, not least because Saul, the first king, is still very much at large. They key thing about David was that he listened to God and attempted to do his will. After the death of Saul, he receives a further anointing as king of the tribe of Judah and in last week’s reading, we saw him anointed for a third time, as king of all Israel.
At last, all the tribes have got behind David and given him their allegiance. To cement this, David captures the Jebusite stronghold of Jerusalem and begins to establish it as his capital. Two further critical battles with the Philistines then take place in the valley of Rephaim to the southwest of the city. The Philistines are unhappy about David’s power in the region. Militarily, he is at his weakest on this side of Jerusalem. He consults the Lord who affirms that he will win these battles which he does. They are kind of Trafalgar, Battle of Britain moments for Israel as their army wins against the odds ensuring the security of David’s reign.
Today’s reading is all about the ‘Ark of God’. Otherwise known as the ‘Ark of the Covenant’ that we first come across in the book of Exodus. It was a sacred box, covered with gold and topped by two golden cherubin facing each other. Inside were the two tablets of stone bearing the inscriptions of the ten commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai along with Aaron’s staff and a pot of mana according to the New Testament book of Hebrews. A tabernacle or tent like structure was made to house the ark. The ark was fitted with rings along each side into which poles could be inserted so that it could be carried rather like a sedan chair the important point being that the whole outfit was portable.
It would seem from Exodus that the ark became physical focus for the people of Israel after the golden calf incident when they all melted down their gold jewellery to make an idol to worship while Moses was up the mountain with God. But the ark was never intended to be worshipped like an idol, neither was God thought to somehow live in the ark. Rather, it was to be seen as a place where God would meet with his people and speak with them. (Exodus 25.22) In todays reading, you will see that the ark is ‘…called by the name of the Lord of Hosts who is enthroned on the cherubim.’ (2 Samuel 6.2) At this place, wherever the ark was, God would choose to meet and do business with his people.
The ark had a chequered career. It led the people over the Jordan into the land. It went around the walls of Jericho. It settled in a place called Shilho before being captured by the Philistines. They put it along side their god Dagon, but when he kept falling over, they thought it best to return it, so it ended up at Baale-judah.
Now that David has captured Jerusalem, he believes this should be the home of the ark. He organises a new cart to transport it along with a considerable band to accompany it from the house of Abinadab on the journey to Jerusalem. It’s a great occasion, a bit like the Notting Hill carnival with harps, lyres, tambourines and castanets. What could go wrong? The ark arrives in the city of David and David dances before the Lord.
But a chunk of the story has been omitted by the compilers of the lectionary. They often do this with Sunday readings, sometimes to make them short enough, but also to avoid the difficult bits which if read in public in church and allowed to go without comment could be misunderstood. So, I will fill in. When they get to Nacon’s threshing floor, the ark slips and is in danger of falling off the cart. Uzzah, one of Abinadab’s sons, steps forward to steady it. God’s anger breaks out because he touches the ark, and he falls dead beside the ark. The band stops playing, the song dies away. David is cross with God about this. the procession is aborted, and the ark parked in the house of Obed-edom. It is only after 3 months when Obed has been blessed by its presence that the ark continues its journey with more songs and sacrifices. No more is said of the cart. We can guess that the ark makes its way into Jerusalem carried as it should have been, born aloft by bearers supported on poles.
It is a sobering tale. We don’t like the thought of God being angry or acting on impulse in this way without giving Uzzah chance to repent. It is not the only such incident in scripture. Early in the Acts of the Apostles, Ananias and Sapphira claim they are bringing all the proceeds of a sale of land to the apostles when in fact it is only a part. Peter accuses them of lying to the Holy Spirit and both lose their lives. Yes, can call God Abba, Father, our Father, but Jesus added: hallowed or holy be your name. However close can and should feel to God through Jesus, we must never forget his holiness and purity. There should always be a sense of awe and reverence as we approach God in prayer. The privilege we have in Christ must not become a presumption.
There is another aspect of this reading we do well to reflect on and take to heart. The people of Israel were to be seen as a travelling light footed pilgrim people with no fixed place of abode, no capital city. The feast of tabernacles or booths known as Sukkot today when tent like structures are built, celebrates the harvest when farmers would camp out in their fields. But it also the reminds Jews to this day that their roots lie in the call of God to be a wandering people. The verse from Deuteronomy, ‘…a wandering Aramean was my father’ (Deuteronomy 26.5) is often quoted in worship along with the passage from the Torah: ‘When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.’ (Leviticus 19:33-34). They were called by God to live lightly on the earth with a ready care for all around them rather than seeking to put down roots, exploit the earth and guard their own territory and prestige. While there may be things here for the modern state of Israel to take note of, there are certainly lessons for Christians today, particularly those of us who live relatively wealthy settled lives demanding our rights and freedoms and claiming more than our fair share of the earth resources. We could do well to remember Israel’s roots which are ours too as Christians. We follow Jesus, the perfect Jew who said. ‘Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ (Matthew 8.20)
It is God alone who is holy and eternal. ‘Here we have no continuing city, but we seek one that is to come.’ (Hebrews 13.14) It is only in God and finding his perfect will that we flourish. David knew that, but he often still learnt the hard way. It does not have to be as hard as that.
Trinity 6 11.07.2021