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Sunday, 12 July 2015

Dancing before the Lord

David, we are told in our first reading, danced before the Lord! And if we are to believe his wife, he was really rather over-enthusiastic about it, especially given what he was, or was not, wearing! But what is happening, and what is this story all about?

Well, to answer that question, we need to go back some forty or fifty years, right to the story of Samuel in the Temple. Now, we call it the Temple, but it wasn't the Temple that we think of in Jerusalem, the one that Jesus chased the money-changers out of from. In fact, it wasn't in Jerusalem at all, but in a place called Shiloh. It was the place where the Ark of the Covenant resided.

The Ark had been built very soon after the Israelites had left Egypt. It was a box of acacia wood, gold-plated, and richly decorated. You can read about it in Exodus, if you've a mind to. It was designed to be carried, but you didn't ever touch it – it had carrying-rings through which two acacia-wood poles were pushed, and they were a permanent fixture, apparently. The Ark travelled with the Israelites during their wandering in the desert, and when they stopped, it had its own special place in the inner room of its own special tent. Only the priests were allowed to look at it – when it travelled, it was covered up with hides or material, and only the priests were allowed into the inner room of the tent. When the Israelites reached the promised land, the Ark was taken to Shiloh, and it looks as though a more permanent home was made for it, although we're not told when, or by whom. And it did still occasionally go with the Israelites into battle!

The Ark contained the tablets on which Moses had inscribed the ten commandments. Hebrews tells us it also contained a jar of manna and Aaron's staff that had flowered. But the thing about the Ark was that it was not only a sacred object in its own right, it also represented God.

Anyway, we rejoin the story in the days of Samuel, when Eli was the priest in the Temple.
Back then, being a priest was something that only certain families could do;
and if your father was a priest, you usually were, too.
It’s actually only within quite recent history that what you do with your life isn’t determined by what your father did, and back then, you followed in your father’s profession,
and if your father was a priest, as Eli was, then you would expect to be one, too.

Unfortunately, Eli’s sons were not really priestly material.
They abused the office dreadfully –
taking parts of the sacrifices that were meant to be burnt for God alone,
sleeping with the women who served at the entrance to the temple.
I don’t think these women were prostitutes –
temple prostitution was definitely a part of some religions in the area,
but I don’t think it ever was part of Judaism.
These women would have been servants to Eli and his family, I expect,
and considered that service as part of their devotion to God.
And perhaps, too, they helped people who had come to make sacrifices and so on.
Whatever, Hophni and Phineas, Eli’s sons, shouldn’t have been sleeping with them,
and they shouldn’t have been disrespecting the sacrifices, either.

There had been a prophecy that the Lord would not honour Eli’s family any more, and that Hophni and Phineas would both die on the same day,
and a different family would take over the priesthood.
Eli had tried to tell his sons that their behaviour was unacceptable, but they hadn’t listened, and one rather gets the impression that he had given up on them.
He was not a young man, by any manner of means.

And then Samuel hears God calling in the night, and when he answers, this is what God has to say. It was not a message of encouragement and reassurance, such as you might expect, but this:

“See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.
On that day I will fulfil against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end.
For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever,
for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God,
and he did not restrain them.
Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.”

There will be no escape for Eli;
he could, and should, have stopped his sons from being blasphemous,
from disrespecting the offerings of God’s people,
from sleeping with the temple servants.
I get the feeling Eli has rather given up, don’t you?
When Samuel tells him what the Lord has said, his reaction is simply,
“It is the Lord;
let him do what seems good to him.”

And sure enough, there was a battle with the Philistines, and because it was going rather badly, the elders decided to have the Ark brought from Shiloh because it would give heart to people and tell them that God was with them. Big Mistake. The Ark arrived, and all the Israelites shouted for joy. The Philistines were rather disconcerted by this, so they decided to attack again – and things went horribly wrong. About thirty thousand men were slaughtered, including Hophni and Phineas, and the Ark was captured! Eli, too old, too blind and too fat to fight, was so horrified when he heard the news that he had a heart attack or stroke and died. It wasn't so much his sons' deaths, but the loss of the Ark.

But you don't capture the Ark with impunity! The Philistines took it to their capital, Ashdod, and put it in the Temple of Dagon, only to find that the statue of Dagon had fallen down before it, as if in worship. And the next day, they found the same thing had happened again, only this time the statue was in pieces. And the townsfolk began to get ill, so after seven months the Philistines said they would send it back. Only how? Any couriers they sent with it would certainly be killed out of hand. So they decided to load it on a cart pulled by two cows, and allow the cows to take it where they would, assuming that if the Ark wanted to be back with the Israelites the cows would take it to the nearest Israelite town. They also put some gold treasure in a separate box and sent that, too. And, sure enough, the cows went straight to the nearest Israelite town. And eventually the Ark settles down in a place called Kiriath-Jearim, which is about 15 kilometres from Jerusalem, and a man called Eleazer the son of Abinadab is consecrated to look after it.

And the years go by. Saul is anointed king, and then David. The wars with the Philistines continue. David and Saul fall out. There are all sorts of adventures and battles and sadness and misery, and some happiness, too. And now, at last, we come to today's reading. David has now conquered Jerusalem, the City of David, and has decided to move the Ark there, too. So they all go down to Baale-Judah, which appears to be another name for Kiriath-Jearim, and the Ark is put on a new cart to be brought home with great rejoicing. But then, and this bit was omitted from our reading, something dreadful happens – the oxen pulling the Ark stumble, and someone rather thoughtlessly reaches out his hand to steady it. Now that is what you simply didn't do with the Ark, and the man, called Uzzah, fell down dead on the spot. David is very worried, and thinks, well, maybe I'd better not have the Ark in Jerusalem with me if this sort of thing is going to happen, and he leaves it in care of a man called Obed the Gittite for about three months. Until, that is, he learns that God has richly blessed Obed for taking care of the Ark, and he decides that, after all, it can come into the city. And so we see him leaping and dancing before it, bouncing all over the place and, just possibly, showing a little more of himself than perhaps was polite. Whatever, his wife, Michal, was most embarrassed on his behalf – imagine the King behaving like that! And to round off the story, when David gets home at the end of the party – because of course, when the Ark arrived, there was a huge party – Michal says rather snottily, “Oh my, look at this great king exposing himself before all the serving-girls.” And David said, “It was before the Lord, who anointed me King, and bother the servant-girls!” And Michal, apparently, remained childless, although whether that's because she was actually barren or because she and David didn't go to bed together again, I'm not sure. David did, after all, have lots of other wives and concubines.

So anyway, that's the story, and some of the background, but what does it have to say to us today? How is it relevant?

I think it's about sacredness, and about whole-heartedness. The Ark was a sacred object. David would have liked to have built a proper temple for it, but God said no, and in the end it was his son, Solomon, who did so. But wherever the Ark was, it was in its own inner room, and it was the most holy place. Only the High Priest ever went in there, and he would always take blood with him, so the letter to the Hebrews tells us. And, of course, Hebrews reminds us that it is Jesus who is our great High Priest, and the Holy of Holies on earth was only a copy, a shadow, of the real one in Heaven. And because of Jesus' sacrifice, we can enter with boldness into God's presence.

The Ark was a sacred object, and nothing and nobody unclean could touch it. It's long since vanished – after all, it was no longer necessary once Jesus had been raised from dead, and you may remember that when he died, the curtain covering the entrance was torn in two. But when it was there, it was a real, and present, symbol of God's presence, and you touched it at your peril. It does serve to remind us that God is holy, and we who are his people need to be holy, too. We can't achieve holiness, wholeness, if you like, by ourselves, but only through the power of the Holy Spirit working in us. But because we are now bound by the New Covenant, rather than the Old, we can enter God's presence with boldness. But we do well to remember, at least some of the time, that God is holy.

And the other thing is about whole-heartedness. David danced before the Lord with all his heart. He didn't care that his hair was all over the place, and his face was red and sweaty, and his loincloth had slipped. He was worshipping the Lord, honouring the One who had brought him from being a humble shepherd-boy to one of the most powerful rulers in the region. David was very far from perfect, as we know, but he never, ever forgot what he owed to God, and he worshipped God with all his heart, and soul, and mind, and strength.

And we? Do we remember what we owe to God? Do we remember that Jesus came to be one of us, to live among us and share what it's like to be human, and to die for us? Do we worship God with our whole being, forgetting to be self-conscious about what we are doing, focussing solely on God?

David danced before the Lord. Do we?