One of my students once preached a sermon from Joshua that was, shall we say, downright “edgy.” He began by quoting a comedy routine done by a non-practicing Jew in which this comedian tackled—without knowing he was doing so—that great question long ago raised by Marcion: why does the God of the Old Testament appear so harsh (why does he come off like “a jerk” in the comedian’s stand-up routine) whereas the God of the New Testament appears downright mellow by comparison? Did even God finally mature and grow up a bit?
In his sermon, my student dealt with a harsh text in Joshua in which God wiped out Achan and company on account of his one sin. The student brought things around eventually to say that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament is finally the same God and we have to understand that that same God was all along dealing with something as deadly serious as it gets: viz., sin and evil. Still, the lingering Marcionite notion that there is a cleft between OT and NT remains, and passages like 2 Samuel 6 make sure that this continues for most thoughtful readers!
Of course, the Common Lectionary seems intent on distracting us from seeing the troubling aspects. You just know that when the Lectionary guts a half-dozen verses from the middle of a story—and stops four verses short of the story’s conclusion—that the really juicy stuff is in the deleted materials. It’s like telling one of your kids they may look at the whole magazine on the coffee table except for pages 23-27. The minute you’re out of the room, you know full well what the kids are going to do.
And indeed, in the case of 2 Samuel 6, when you yield to the temptation to read the deleted verses, you find lots of mayhem. A man named Uzzah does the seemingly laudable thing of keeping God’s holy Ark from sliding off the oxcart only to have God strike him dead for his “irreverent” act of intended reverence. This, in turn, ticks David off. David is actually said to get mad at Yahweh and so out of a combination of pique and fear, David mothballs the Ark at someone’s house, refusing to take so dangerous a thing into Jerusalem after all.
But then, in a reversal of fortunes, it turns out that the presence of the Ark in the home of Obed-Edom the Gittite (not even an Israelite apparently) serves to prosper that family in startling ways. Now David starts to think that maybe the Ark can bring blessing—and not just bane—after all and so he figures that if anyone was going to get blessed, it was not going to be any old Gittite but David himself and the household of Israel generally. So he fetches the Ark to Jerusalem after all and is so elated to have it there, he dances and leaps around like a newly born calf, thus earning him the opprobrium of one of his wives (who happens to be one of rival Saul’s daughters who may have been grinding lots of different axes for all we know). But before the chapter is finished (in another of those verses the Lectionary wants us to edit out of the story) Michal is struck barren on account of her not sharing David’s joy over the Ark’s presence in the Holy City.
Are we sure Spielberg did not write this chapter???
In the span of two dozen verses one man is struck dead, a woman is struck barren, and some foreigners get prospered all on account of something to do with the Ark of the Covenant, the presence of God on earth.
Not pleasant stuff. Puzzling even.
This Old Testament reading is paired in the Common Lectionary with Mark 6 but about the only obvious connection I can see is the dancing part. Neither the dance in 2 Samuel 6 nor the dance in Mark 6 led to particularly uplifting things. But if the dancing were the only connection between these two lections, it might be a point hardly worth making.
Perhaps a more useful way to view it is to say that the presence of God on this earth is always a dicey proposition. As I’ve quoted before, Fred Craddock once said of John the Baptist that John ushered people into the presence of God, which is what everyone wants and what no one wants. Like moths to a flame, we are both drawn toward the holy otherness of God and in danger of being consumed by that holiness, too. In Mark’s gospel when Jesus is baptized, the heavens are torn open, giving God access to us here on earth in the person of the anointed Son Jesus. When Mark concludes, the Temple curtain is torn in two, giving us access to the Holy of Holies where once the Ark was kept and so giving us access to God (and without the fear of being consumed that once gripped God’s people prior to the incarnation and sacrifice of the beloved Son).
But the intersection points of the divine with the human can be fraught. Jesus’ presence on this earth brought as much mayhem as immediate peace, and John the Baptist’s sad martyrdom in Mark 6 is one such sign of the difficulty that comes when God draws close to a sinful people. In 2 Samuel 6 and in a similar vein David brings the presence of God—via that Ark of the Covenant—close to the Holy City but ends up getting a bit frightened of what can happen when God gets that close. In the end, David is delighted to bring the Ark to Jerusalem (even as the gospel ends with the delightful ongoing presence of Jesus among his people) but the little coda to the story involving Michal is a reminder that even so, the presence of God makes a person properly mindful. We dare never be casual when it comes to the presence of God. We are right to be thoughtful about how we speak of it and approach it and ponder it.
Yes, God’s presence in also the church yet today is a profoundly good thing, much to be celebrated and generally not to be feared. But in a day when lots of churchgoers want to view coming into the house of the Lord on a par with going into the house of Starbucks any other day of the week, maybe a little reminder of the searing nature of divine holiness would help people start to distinguish between a caramel mocha latte on Tuesday morning and the holy cup of the Lord on Sunday.
Church is not supposed to be your “third place.”
And anyway, as I pointed out to my student in his edgy sermon, we all find a passage like 2 Samuel 6 to be something of a scandal—a literal stumbling block—when it comes to forming an image of God. Harsh actions attributed to God are hard to parse (the Jewish comedian said it made God look like a jerk!). But what we Christians too often forget is that the shining center of the entire New Testament—actually of the entire Bible—is properly no less shocking (if only we can overcome our over-familiarity with it which blunts the shock value): namely, the Son of God hanging dead as a doornail on a Roman cross.
If that does not shock you and also remind you of how things go when God’s holiness encounters human sin, then something of both the glory and the scandal of the Gospel has been lost to you.
This whole sin and salvation thing: it’s serious business.
Is God easy to find or difficult? Is God close or remotely distant? Throughout history people have wrestled with such questions and have come up with diverse answers. Some Medieval theologians liked to talk about Deus absconditus, the “hidden God” who is so splendidly transcendent, so totally Other that we could never expect to encounter this Deity in average experiences. God, some claimed, is outside the flow of time–he’s above history, simultaneously and benignly aware of all events past, present, and future and so God lacks the kind of forward motion of expectation which is a defining characteristic of us.
On the other side are those who believe that God is actually close to us. Gandhi once stated that God is nearer to us than flesh is to fingernails. Pantheists try to locate God in everything. See a rose, it’s part of God. See a cloud, it’s part of God. See a Springer Spaniel, it’s part of God. Meanwhile a variation on this theme is panentheism which does not want to say everything just is God but which wants to say that everything is in God.
Orthodox Christians have traditionally come down somewhere in the middle. We’ve no wish to deny the Other-ness of God. We’ve no desire to skirt the Bible’s constant reminders of how holy and blindingly stunning God is in his sheer majesty. Then again a poem like Psalm 139 says there is nowhere we can go to escape God’s personal presence. “If I soar to the heavens, you are there. If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.” We’ve also got a long tradition regarding prayer in which we do not envision prayer as the ultimate long-distance call but see it as personal, close communication.
Is God near or far, close or distant? In a sense he’s both and neither. I once read a story about a four-year-old named Callum who asked his mother, “Is God everywhere, Mommy?” “Yes, dear” his mother replied. “Is he in this room, Mommy?” “Yes, Callum, he is.” “Is God in my milk mug, Mommy?” His mother was a little uneasy now but still replied, “Um, yes.” Callum then clapped his hand over the mug and declared, “Got ’em!”
According to the Bible, God is very different from us–mind-bogglingly so in fact. At the level of philosophical distinctions, that chasm of difference forces us to focus on God’s distance. But the Bible also makes clear that mostly what separates the Creator from his creatures now is sin. But God never wanted sin to mar his creation, and so God is intent on bridging this chasm himself. God wants to be not the Deus absconditus, the hidden God, but the manifest God who dwells very, very close to his beloved imagebearers.
As Donald McCullough has pointed out, we tend to envision God’s holiness as the burning, consuming fire that keeps God and us apart. But within the bond of Trinitarian fellowship as revealed in Jesus, we now see the flames of God’s holiness as a kind of bonfire burning against the world’s dark night of sin, inviting all people to pull up a log and join our God at the warmth of the fire.
We’ve got to know that this is who God is. We’ve got to tell people that he is this close. We need not compromise his holiness, splendor, righteousness, or justice to do this. We need not turn God into the friendly old man upstairs who benignly winks at human sins in order to help people recognize his nearness. Nor do we need to go in some pantheist direction of conveying God’s nearness by making God everything. The way to show God’s nearness, love, warmth, and utter holiness is available to us in the person of Jesus.
A passage like 2 Samuel 6 tends to focus our attention on the otherness of God, on the dangerous nature of his holy nature over against our sinful, fallen nature. It’s this kind of Old Testament passage that has led some to conclude the Bible is the story of two different gods: the fire-breathing God of the Old Testament and the kinder, gentler God revealed in the New Testament. But perhaps we’re better served if we see that the difference between the testaments is not God or even the nature of God but the incarnate presence of Jesus Christ, who has brought the holy God of the universe close and into intimate fellowship with us.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 12, 2015
2 Samuel 6:1-5; 12b-19 Commentary