Toorak Uniting Church

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Worship a matter of life and death

2 Samuel 6: 1 – 19     Ephesians 1: 3 – 14
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
13 July 2003

The story of Uzzah, dropping dead after he touches the ark may have made you feel a bit uncomfortable and awkward. Not a story most of us would connect with easily I would think.
God striking somebody dead because they touch something holy.
That doesn't exactly correspond with the New Testament view of a loving and saving God does it? With a God, who as Paul says wants us to be his children and forgives us our sins through Jesus Christ?
And then, what message could there possibly be in this story for us, in the context of today?
Perhaps that is the reason why the lectionary skips the story of Uzzah and focuses on the happier parts of the story of the moving of the ark to Jerusalem.

Looking into it at some greater depth however I became more and more fascinated with the story of Uzzah and decided it actually does have to say some things to us at this time and in this place that might be worth taking to heart.

So let us look at the story.

David, who has only just become King over all the tribes of Israel, wants to move the Ark from a place near the border of his new state Keer-YATH Yeh-aw-REEM to the centre, his new capital, Jerusalem.

For a long time the ark, God's seat as it is called in the OT, had been in Shilo, put there by Joshua when the Israelites entered the Promised Land. Saul however had moved it from there to the battlefield to encourage his men. It was then captured by the Philistines who got little pleasure out of it. They quite soon had enough of it and returned it to Keer-YATH Yeh-aw-REEM where it had been ever since.

Now David decides it is time to bring the ark to the centre of the new formed kingdom, his new capital Jerusalem. Saul had never managed to bring all the tribes together under one central rule, but David does. A shrine, a place of religious importance, would add to Jerusalem's status and help hold the new alliance together. Bringing the ark to Jerusalem would help to do just that.

David gathers 30000 men to bring the ark to Jerusalem in style. There is music and the beating of drums, there is all the military pomp that can be expected of a victorious and newly crowned king bringing his God home. Pageantry galore!
The ark on a newly made cart, pulled by 4 strong oxen, surrounded by anybody that is important in the new order and a large army.
It is a great show of the power and might of David!
And a tribute to the Lord that gave it to him.

But it is not the way to do it.

David, in his desire to cement his new gained worldly power and show off his might to his neighbours forgets one important thing. He forgets that God is not part of his show, but a partner to be reckoned with. God not something that can be appropriated by the King at will and be used as a figure head at his convenience, but the one that is really in charge and on whom the King and all those who are with him are dependent for their well being.

It is this that makes God very angry. And when Uzzah reaches out to steady the ark when it threatens to slide down the side of the cart he dies as a result of touching the ark.

Now isn't that a bit childish of God? Wasn't Uzzah just trying to help? He could hardly have let the ark fall could he?

After God gets angry David gets angry, with God. And I think you and I could empathise with that. It is a completely different God that shows himself here from the God we meet in the New Testament. A loving God, out to save and full of compassion.

Nevertheless it is the same God.

And he has good reason to be so angry.
In Exodus and Numbers there are very strict rules describing how the ark should be moved if it had to be moved at all. None of these rules are respected at David's first attempt to move the ark. On the contrary. The whole show is an imitation of how the Philistines move their gods about. On a cart with oxen in full view of the people, surrounded by all the pomp and circumstance of a victorious King.

It is not because God is childish; it is because David has failed as King that Uzzah dies. It is because David failed to read Scripture and live by it, because David forgets his place in the scheme of things, because David thinks he can move God about at will and in the way he seems fit and makes the best impression on his neighbours.
That is why God gets so angry and why Uzzah dies. God refuses to be part of David's political games or of his showing off his power to the neighbours. That is why this terrible accident happens.
It is not because of God's childishness it happens but because of David's carelessness. He had not thought things through, had not reckoned with God as a power, never thought it would make any difference how he did it. Assumed he could handle God whatever way he wanted to, and that God would comply.

The ark has to be covered and carried according to Exodus and Numbers. These instructions were not just religious poppycock but they were there for a reason. Instructions to prevent just the thing happening with Uzzah when David gets on his way the first time.

The covering of the ark prevented it from becoming a spectacle. Something to touch and kiss and make a fuss about. Something to put on a pedestal (or a cart drawn by oxen) to show off and revere. That's what happened to pagan gods but it is not how the God of Israel wants to be treated. As a trophy.
The carrying of the ark was to put it, quite literally in the hands of the people. No need to steady it when it is securely held by loving hands already. No risk of it sliding off there, or of it becoming a show when everybody is busy holding it up and caring for it.
And last but not least, the people in charge of the ark should not be soldiers, nor the leaders of the tribes, nor the King himself, but the Levites. Special people put apart to handle the seat of God to make sure that the religious and the intrigues of world and court life don't get mixed up and stay separated.
30 000 soldiers, the exact number that died on the field in the last battle with the Philistines are hardly there for the reverence of God, they are a political statement: here I am, back and stronger than ever. And all the leaders of the tribes surrounding the ark say the same thing.

That is why Uzzah dies. Not because God is being difficult, but because quite serious accidents can happen when people forget God is not a soft toy that can be wheeled out at will and moulded to the needs of the government or the fashion of the day.
Even if it's for the great King David.
There is an end to what God will let people do with him, or what God will let people do in his Name.
He does not want to be a spectacle, part of a show; He wants to be in the middle of loving and caring people that respect Him in his majesty.

For a while the ark is put away. Some serious reading and thinking needed to be done. That David doesn't give at this point is a credit to him I think. It shows that he really is a great King and a true seeker of God. He doesn't turn his back on God when things go wrong, he searches his own conscience and tries to put things right.

After three months he tries again.

The second time around things work out a lot better. The ark is properly covered. The holy not on cheap display. And when we read the text very carefully we see how it is emphasised that David lays down everything that constitutes his royal dignity. He dances in a loin cloth, a priestly vestment for the Lord. He becomes part of the people who dance with him. The whole people of Israel carrying the ark, not just the leaders of the tribes or the soldiers. The whole exercise culminating in the sharing of bread and wine.

The report of the second time, contrary to the report of the first time, is full of warmth and involvement, is focussed on God and is no longer a display of power by the King but testifies of a complete abandon of the King and his people before God.

One however does not understand.

Mikal, David's wife and Saul's daughter, who grew up in the palace and knows all to well what is proper for a king. And the king making a public disgrace of himself is definitely not proper according to her views.

She calls David to account. His answer to her a rather nasty remark: "This is why I am King and your father is not anymore".
Theirs is not a happy marriage. And a lot of misery will come of this later. Even the great King David did not have it all, he makes ugly mistakes, nasty remarks and his domestic life was a mess. Let it comfort us that that did not restrain God in loving him more than any other King, nor did it prevent David from being a King after God's own heart.

David has learned from his previous experience that where the approaching and praising of God is concerned only true passion and affection, only total abandon will do. That when we approach God all our self importance has to be put aside, because God wants us as we are, to dance and rejoice for Him and only for him, leaving all thoughts of impressing others and giving the right appearance behind.

In the church of today worship has become a point of contention. How to worship properly a major question.
I think this story makes clear that worship can never be a matter of propriety and appearance. But that it always has to be heartfelt, real and focussed on God and his relation with his people.

Bad worship results in death, maybe not literally anymore after the death and resurrection of Christ, but certainly in a spiritual sense. Good worship ends in joy, sharing, and equality among people in the sight of God and brings blessing.

God wants to be taken seriously and when this does not happen, things go wrong. There is an end to the way in which we can appropriate God and use him for our own ends. If we go beyond the boundaries God has set out, accidents happen.

It is by the fruits one can tell the tree. It is by the fruits we can tell good worship from bad.

True worship of God results in a King stepping down from his thrones, and laying down all his royal paraphernalia to rejoice with his people. In all people rejoicing and sharing and barriers falling away, in equal and inhibited praising of the Lord by everyone. In pomp and circumstance making room for the whole people of God showing passion and true affection with abandon.
True worship results in the sharing of bread and wine, in abundance for everyone from high to low.

As Paul says in Ephesians: God has a plan, a wonderful plan with his people and he wants us to be part of it.
Sometimes however God has to take desperate measures to remind people that there are guidelines to be followed. And if they're not, things go wrong.
His most desperate measure of course the coming of Jesus Christ, taking that what angers God, our mistakes and bungling up upon him and bring it through death to new life.

God does not seek the death of innocents. If we ignore him and the rules he has given to guide our lives and our worship, if we become absorbed with our self-importance and try to run his show however, accidents are bound to happen. Not because of what he does, but because of what we fail to do.


© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2003

Comments or suggestions on this page appreciated by email, Thanks.