January 9, 2011 ~ Tom VanderPloeg
In 1960 Tom Monaghan founded Dominos Pizza in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Monaghan eventually built it into a multi-billion dollar business. Monaghan was once asked how he was so quickly able to grow his pizza business amid fierce competition from other national competitors like Little Caesars and Pizza Hut. Monaghan replied, “I don’t sell pizzas; I sell delivery.” Dominos’ “30 minutes or less” guarantee remains a hallmark of its business yet today.
What Monaghan had figured out is that Americans in particular have an obsessive relationship with efficiency. If people could get their pizza more quickly and with less effort, Monahan knew they would buy it. He’s right. We love pretty much anything that holds the promise of saving us time and effort – we love efficiency.
I don’t mean to suggest that the ark of the Lord is analogous to a pepperoni pizza; but there is something similar going on in this story from Old Testament Israel. It had been twenty years since the ark had been carried into battle against the Philistines in hopes God would help Israel win that day. Ironically, even though Israel lost the battle and the ark was captured the philistines were struck by such horrible plague wherever the ark went that they eventually decided they had no choice but to return it to Israel along with a guilt offering to Israel’s God. So the philistines built a cart and put the ark on it. They harnessed a couple cows to the cart and sent it on its way down the road back to the Israelites. When the ark arrived to the Israelite people it was taken to the house of a man named Abinadab. The ark stayed there in Abinadab’s house for the next twenty years, through the entire reign of Saul.
Before David’s coronation banquet is even over David is thinking about going to retrieve the ark. David is determined that this will not be an individual venture. He intentionally solicits and gathers the advice of others representing all twelve tribes of Israel. David makes sure that everybody is on the same page with him; they all know what’s going on and he sends word for all Israel to join him getting the ark from Abinadab’s house.
In all the commotion and excitement of this event—all the festivities that were being planned and prepared for—it seems that everyone overlooked a rather important detail. They put the ark on a new cart—exactly the way it had been sent to Israel by the Philistines twenty years earlier. Maybe they simply forgot the instructions of Moses in Exodus 25. Or maybe they didn’t think it was really an important detail. Either way, the ark was not carried by Levites by putting poles through the loops that were on each corner of the ark. It was set on a cart. And the whole carry-the-ark thing was so old fashioned anyway. Wouldn’t it be much quicker and take so much less effort to ride it on a cart. I mean, it’s a ten-mile hike; and all uphill! Jerusalem is becoming the capitol city of all Israel. It’s important that the ark—the symbol of God’s presence—be in Jerusalem. Is it really that important how we move the ark just as long as it gets done?
So the ark makes its way up the dry dusty road from the house of Abinadab toward Jerusalem. The music and noise of the thousands of people celebrating is electrifying. Everyone was letting loose. It was a huge party. Then it happens. So imagine that one of the wheels of the cart hit a rock in the road. The oxen that were pulling the cart jerk back—one of then slips. The cart jolts to one side and the ark comes sliding toward the edge. Lucky thing someone was there to catch it. Uzzah was one of Abinadab’s sons. Uzzah had grown up with the ark at his house. It had become quite commonplace to him; he was pretty familiar with it. For Uzzah, being in the presence of the ark was really no big thing. But the moment Uzzah catches the corner of the ark to keep it steady, he collapses right there on the road. His bother comes over, “woah, Uzzah, you alright?...Uzzah?” Uzzah’s not responding; he’s not breathing. There are no paramedics to call. Nobody’s thinking massive heart attack or brain aneurysm. No, everyone there was crystal clear on what just happened. They messed something up big time. Party’s over. Who’s going to dare take the ark any farther toward Jerusalem now? We better leave it here till we figure out what went wrong.
Was it wrong for David to want the ark in Jerusalem? After all, the ark was a very real representation of God’s very presence on earth. And it seems that David wanted God to be central in Israel’s life. You see, there’s something in this story that bothers us, isn’t there? Was Uzzah’s crime really so severe that it warranted the death penalty? I mean, the guy was just trying to help! The sin of David, Uzzah, and all Israel here was one of misplaced control. In Uzzah’s case it was about how to handle the ark. God had clearly instructed that the ark was to be carried only by Levites placing poles through the corner rings. Moving the ark in any other manner than that was forbidden. Instead of following the proper way of transporting the ark, it's transported in exactly the same way the Philistines had delivered it back to Israel twenty years earlier. You see, Uzzah is treating God in exactly the same way that the pagans treat their gods. Uzzah takes God—the almighty, holy, creator and sustainer of all that exists—and treats him according to the same values, standards, and conditions as the world would dictate. And it's not that we need to see God here through lenses clouded by fear and anxiety. We don't need to approach God as though we are walking on eggshells, constantly fearing his burning wrath if we take the slightest misstep. Uzzah's mistake is something much more basic; it has to do with control. Uzzah ignores God's standards in favor of his own set of rules. Uzzah attempts to control God his own way.
Did you notice here that David is trying to do the exact same thing? David has just been officially recognized and coronated as king of Israel. The chapter in Chronicles just before the one we read tells all about the amazing warriors that David holds in his command. David uses intricate precision to arrange the hierarchy of his political cabinet so that he can maintain absolute control in this time of transition from Saul's reign to his own. David is setting up a chessboard arrangement here that will insure his control. And David's sly maneuver in chapter 13 to take the ark to Jerusalem is an act that takes God himself and treats him as another pawn on the chessboard of David's kingdom. David's attempt here to control Israel as the new king goes one step too far when David tries to control God himself. You might be thinking, “hang on, did David really intentionally treat God this way?” Did David actually, consciously think he could control God now that he was king? I don't think so. It just kind of happened. It wasn't intentional, but it did happen and God was not going to allow this to go any further. God would not allow himself to be controlled by anyone. God stops the action here so that David and the people of Israel get a wake-up call. God wants them to realize what's happening and stop it.
The writer of Chronicles wants his readers to be unmistakably clear on this point. Jewish tradition holds that Chronicles was written by Ezra—one of the pioneers that first brought Jews back to Jerusalem from Babylonian exile. The book certainly dates being written during Ezra’s lifetime anyway. As previously exiled Jews are making their way back to Jerusalem in order to rebuild her walls and re-establish the City of David as the place of God’s very presence to be among his people, the chronicler reminds the people that they under no circumstances could treat God’s presence in any old way they wanted. The Israelites could again fall into the mistake of placing God on their terms.
We have to admit that we have a problem with this. We're not Babylonian exiles; we're not kings of Israel, we don't have an ark of the covenant. But we do have our own subtle ways of trying to control God. And like Uzzah and David, we don't necessarily do it intentionally. It just kind of happens. Today, let's just talk about one of the ways that we do this; because I think that if we're honest we are all guilty of trying to control God's presence and favor in our lives. And it's exactly what Tom Monaghan figured out years ago with pizza. We love efficiency. We try to control almost every inch of our lives by rules of efficiency. And without meaning to do so, we try to make God more efficient for us too.
We live in a culture that consistently subjects itself to the all-powerful grip of the day-planner. We have places to be and things to get done, so our calendars are packed full from morning till evening. We’ve reached a point where we need to micromanage our time or else our lives will melt down in complete chaos. And what happens then is that we endlessly search over the minutes of a day to fit God in somewhere. Maybe we can get out of bed a little earlier to have a quiet time with God. Maybe we join that prayer group from church that commits to meeting once a week. Maybe we look for a devotional book that condenses God down to a daily five-minute dose of spirituality. There is actually a book available at popular Christian bookstores called “The One-Minute Bible.” Think about that; of the 1440 minutes in a day, this Bible allows you to get your fill of God’s Word and still have 1439 minutes to spare. Now that’s efficient! Like a Dominos pizza, we try to have God delivered to our door; thirty minutes or less…guaranteed. And then we wonder, why does it seem like God is so distant? Why does it seem like we just cannot clearly discern his will for our lives in this world? Christ came to earth so that his kingdom might be established, and it just seems like we at times have trouble finding our place in it.
Problem is, God doesn’t work that way. Israel could not have God’s presence placed on a cart and hauled up to Jerusalem. And we cannot neatly tuck God into the convenient corners of our day-planners and expect to find a clear path of where it is we belong in working for his kingdom.
Yet in all these shortcomings God does not leave us or abandon us. In the Gospel of Mathew the author tells of his calling from Christ to be a disciple. Matthew was a tax-collector; despised by other Jews and branded by the religious leaders as a “sinner.” The religious leaders who were there that day were appalled that Jesus would associate himself with those who were seen as sinners. Jesus quips back to them “it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” The religious leaders of Jesus’ day wanted to confine God to their terms. They wanted God to fit into their categories, their system, their schedules. And in this case God does not make a show of his judgment by striking the Pharisees dead—as in the case of Uzzah—but rather Christ calls people back to God in love. Jesus drives this point to the Pharisees by giving them a line from Hosea 6. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Jesus’ reference is clear. Those Pharisees knew the Jewish scriptures well. They knew what Jesus was quoting from. They knew that in the story of Hosea, Hosea’s wife Gomer is again and again unfaithful to him; and each time Hosea is instructed by God to go get her and take her back with him. They knew also that Hosea ends with these words from God to Israel, “I will heal their waywardness and love them freely, for my anger has turned away from them.”
You know, the story we read from 1 Chronicles goes on. Even though God’s judgment pressed down on Israel that day and it cost Uzzah his life, still God kept his covenant with his people. Three months later the ark did come to Jerusalem. And this time the Israelites did it right. They did not put God on their own terms, but they came before God on God’s own terms. The ark was carried by the Levites, just as God had given the directions to Moses. And all of Israel had a huge party that day. They were overjoyed that God’s presence—his faithful, loving, and abiding presence—was with them.
We today know all too well what it looks like to put God on our own terms, fit God into our schedules and agendas. But we can see too what it looks like for God to break us free of that, and to see God on God’s terms as God would have us.
I remember one of the years that I took a group of teens backpacking in Colorado. On one gorgeous evening I sat with a group of teens on the ridge of a canyon high in the mountain wilderness. After hiking for two days we sat and chatted while watching the sun go down over the distant peaks of the next range one teen in the group noted how beautiful the sky and sunset was in Colorado. He was struck by how clearly the majesty of God was evident in this setting. He was thinking that maybe somehow the sun and sky of Colorado was different than the sun and sky of west Michigan. Truth is, the sunsets in the Colorado mountains are the same sunsets as in Michigan. The difference in how these teens experienced the majesty and holiness of God was not really about their surroundings. It has more to do with our attitudes about who God is and who we are. In the busyness of everyday life with our own schedules and agendas, sunrises and sunsets are often an annoyance that glares off our windshields while we’re trying to drive someplace that we’re already late to. But for this group of backpackers in Colorado sunrises and sunsets were something to stop for…to be enjoyed. God provides revelations of his majesty, beauty, and holiness like this every day for us. Every day is filled with opportunities to meet God on God’s terms, on God’s agenda, on God’s schedule. All we have to do is see God as he would have us see him.
In these moments we see God clearly and experience his presence more fully. Sometimes my family orders a pizza-to-go. After all, it’s quick and it’s easy. But there have been other times when we make our own pizza. My young children gather around the kitchen counter. We take flour, mix in the yeast, add water and a few drops of honey. Mix it up. Let it set to rise. We go out to the back yard. Scour the garden for the perfect tomatoes and some other vegetables. We pick through the herbs that grow along the back of the deck to find a few leaves of basil and some oregano. We dice and mix our sauce ingredients, add some sugar, and set it to simmer on the stove to a smooth paste. We take the dough and each of my children presses out their own perfect crust—one shaped like Mickey Mouse; one like a space rocket. We pile on the sauce and the cheese to overflowing and bake it up in the oven to our delight. The entire afternoon has been taken with this pizza project. Every inch of the kitchen is filthy with vegetables, sauce, and cheese. And the whole room is covered in a fine powder of baking flour. It’s beautiful. And it’s absolutely inefficient. But if you asked me about that pizza I could talk all afternoon about it. I could tell you why the crust is risen the way it has. I could tell you why it’s crispy on the edges and chewy inside. I could tell you how the sauce has that sweet flavor with a zing of tangy spice. I know every ingredient of that pizza and I know exactly why it looks and tastes the way it does. The experience of making pizza with my children is something to be cherished. We savor every bite. I couldn’t tell you much about the Domino’s pizza. It was pretty good I guess. I can’t really say much more about it than that. It was a quick and easy meal that best fit my schedule for that day.
Sometimes people ask the question, “so how’s your spiritual life going?” or “how are things in your relationship with God?” And sometimes people answer this question, “it’s pretty good I guess.” And they can’t really say much more about it. That’s ordering up a serving of spirituality like it was a carry-out pizza. But to be able to answer that question and talk all afternoon about God in our lives and about how we have seen his glory revealed to us in a way that shows we’ve been paying attention to every detail. We savor every moment. That’s what God is calling us back to.
The Israelites wanted to move the ark to Jerusalem because they wanted God’s presence to be at the very center of their lives. That’s a good thing. And we who love God desire the same thing: to have God’s presence at the very center of our lives. But when we try to manage that by squeezing God into our terms—on our conditions—we find it’s a dead-end road. Let’s thank God today and praise him that he does not leave us or abandon us there. He calls each of us to a life that is fuller and deeper than what we could ever imagine possible. That’s what Christ’s kingdom is all about. That’s what he came to earth to proclaim and to do. And God’s words spoken to Israel through Hosea are spoken to us as well. God heals our waywardness and loves us freely.