Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.
In a fairly recent survey, a random group of Americans—probably approached on the street—were asked if they believed that they were living their lives in accordance with the Ten Commandments. A vast majority of them answered yes. However, when asked to list the Ten Commandments from memory, the average response was only 4. It would appear that the average American—probably the average Christian, maybe even the average Jew—knows only 40% of God’s basic instructions to humanity!
It sounds, then, that perhaps humanity’s interest in following God’s rules in this postmodern world is much like humanity’s interest in doing just about anything else: whatever is convenient, whatever I agree with…anything else I’m not going to bother with!
It’s possible that many people these days don’t necessarily have anything against rules—as long as they’re not inconvenienced! If a rule or code of conduct is inconvenient, tough to follow, or maybe just plain weird, then it seems like many people will just disregard it altogether. I’d be willing to bet, for example, that the four Commandments that most people remember are the “no-brainers:” don’t steal, don’t kill, to lie, and don’t covet. Those that most decent people would have as second nature. But the other ones—putting God first, remembering the Sabbath, not having idols—those are the ones that might seem to today’s ears as inconvenient—I’m sure we’ve all had to work a Sunday or two in our lives—or strange—not having idols? What’s that about? Martin Luther, by the way, described such idols as anything that gets between us and God.
Now, to be fair and honest, it’s not just people in today’s postmodern times that have half-learned or half-obeyed rules out of convenience, rationalization, or maybe even to justify ulterior motives.
It’s probably just plain human nature—and it has been since humans have first been around—to want to try to do just enough to get by, just enough to pass for sincerity, just enough to think that they’re pleasing God.
As we see in today’s Old Testament reading, King David seems to be doing the very same thing. In the Lectionary reading, unfortunately, we miss out on an entire section that I think is kind of the point to this whole story. In our story today, King David wants to bring the Ark of the Covenant—that most sacred object of the Israelites—to his newly conquered capital of Jerusalem. The ark had been captured by the Philistines for almost 100 years, and now through David’s military victories he has repossessed it and wants to bring it to his political capital…this would now make it the religious center of the Israelites scattered around the area, as well.
So, we don’t really want to think the worst of David, but it’s believed that he had more in mind than just honoring God by bringing the Ark back among God’s chosen people…it’s believed that he may have been seeking some political, military, and even religious power with this move. Were his intentions bad or selfish? We don’t know, but if we think of David in human terms—like us, in other words, there probably were some self-serving, convenient motives going on in his mind during this episode. Of course, we also don’t want to rule out that he also wanted to serve God…serve God is his way, but with his own motives getting in the way.
So I’m sure that there was sincerity in David’s heart, but I think that, like us today, it was shaped with his own intentions, perceptions, and limitations.
There was also the fact, however, that like the average American, David was serving and worshiping God, but without all the instructions that God has given.
You see, when David started to transport the Ark to Jerusalem, he just loaded it onto a cart—it was a new cart, which probably meant that it hadn’t carried anything “unclean” in it, but that didn’t matter; he wasn’t transporting the Ark in the manner prescribed by God in the Law of Moses. According to the Law, it was supposed to be carried by a group of Levites in a reverent manner, not just dumped onto an ox-cart. And David himself assumed the role of high priest during the journey—which again may have had selfish motivations: establishing himself as a religious as well as political and civil leader of the Jewish people.
And so what happened? When a man named Uzzah reached out to touch the ark when it was becoming unbalanced on the cart, the story says that God struck him dead on the spot! That doesn’t usually sit too well with us today, and I think that’s why the Lectionary left it out. But it’s there, and I think we miss out on an important truth if we leave it out. Can we explain why it happened? Some people have tried, but I’m not going to be so bold as to try to go there today.
What I think is important is the lesson that David—and the whole Jewish people—learned from that troubling incident. David became angry, then fearful of God. But then he realized what was happening. God was not being honored—the real reasons behind this procession were human-serving, not God-serving. So David stopped the procession immediately and began to re-think the whole thing.
He took the Ark to a man’s house: the house of Obed-Edom, who was a Gittite—not even a Jew! But the story says that God blessed Obed-Edom because of the Ark. Why would you think this? Probably because Obed-Edom’s intentions were sincere. At first, he probably felt that he had nothing to gain—and perhaps everything to lose—by storing this most sacred of objects in his house. He probably did it of love and kindness…he was helping to get David out of a jam! So his intentions weren’t selfish; I think they were selfless.
After three months, David finally took the Ark from Obed-Edom’s house and renewed the procession to Jerusalem. I would think that, in those three months, David did quite a bit of prayer, study, and consultation about the Ark. I mean, I guess we have to cut him some slack. After all, the Ark had been held captive by the Philistines for 100 years. The Jews had probably forgotten a few things—like how it was to be carried.
This time, however, I think David got it right. Not just the right method, but the right attitude, the right motives. He now realized that God was more powerful than he had ever imagined; that God was not to be controlled by one man for political ambitions. Sure, Israel was still God’s chosen people, but God was going to use them for His purpose and on His terms, not David’s. And throughout this story we continue to see the theme that runs throughout the Old Testament: God wants to use the Jews to bless all of humanity. I mean, the only real protagonist in this story is Obed-Edom the Gittite.
That should have demonstrated to David and the Israelites that they did not have exclusive claims on God and His blessings. Rather, everyone is blessed when attitudes and worship are sincere and done according to God’s instructions.
And what about the dancing and music and joyous celebration that was going on? Was it displeasing to God? I don’t think so. Because they danced and played music during both processions—the first one that ended in disaster and the second, more successful, one. Nowhere in the Law—or the entire Bible, for that matter—does it say that to dance, play music, sing, and have fun is irreverent and displeasing to God. Once David’s motives for moving the Ark were in line with God’s, God was pleased with the joyful celebration that surrounded this occasion. God Himself must have been pleased that the sacred symbol of His presence would be back among His chosen people. God must have been pleased that He could bless a Gentile and thus show that He is the God of all people, not just the Israelites.
So, what can we get out of this somewhat strange story, a story that even the compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary wanted to do away with? I think the over-riding ideas here are responsibility and forgiveness. But it’s important to see the order in which these two ideas occur in this story. David wasn’t forgiven because he was responsible and did the right thing—it wasn’t an “if/then” thing; he was shown forgiveness even after he abused God’s power and presence for his own motivations and his own gain. It was a “because/therefore” situation. That’s the key; that’s what these Old Testament writers were trying to explain—it’s the same loving and forgiving God that we encounter and worship today!
But does knowing that we’re forgiven give us leave to act irresponsibly? Of course not! Just as in the David story, if we act selfishly, we might end up hurting people—often innocent people—if we try to pass off our own motivations for God’s true instructions. And God’s instructions are here for us. Just as David needed to go dust off an old, discarded copy of the Law, so we need to get busy and learn the instructions God has given us.
Knowing only 40% of it isn’t going to cut it! We need to learn it all! And we have even more today! Not only do we have the same instructions that David had, we have more: Jesus Christ, the Law fulfilled. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as recorded in the Holy Gospels is also instruction for us as we encounter and worship the one true God. Given all that, I don’t think it should be too difficult for us to figure out when we’re truly following God’s instruction and when we’re trying to just get by to fulfill our own motivations of convenience.
So like David, let us go out in joyful confidence that we’re forgiven, and because of that forgiveness, let us fulfill our responsibility according to God’s instructions: taking the Good News—the presence, power, and blessings of God to all people. Like David found out, it’s just too much to try to keep for ourselves!