Sunday, July 15, 2012

7/15/2012 God Did That?

God Did That?
2 Samuel 6.1-15 - David brings the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem

            My guess is that many of you have never heard this story from the OT before today. I encountered it in seminary when our earliest assignment was to read the Bible and outline it. That seems like an obvious assignment for a school filled with budding preachers, but the truth is that I had not read the Bible from cover to cover until that time. Like most folks, I had done Bible studies and Sunday School lessons, but they were all hit or miss affairs. I suppose that I have read the favorites many times, but more obscure passages like this one I had simply missed.
            This story began at Mt Sinai where Moses received the Ten Commandments carved onto two stone tablets. He immediately needed a way to carry these tablets. God gave Moses careful instructions on building the Ark of the Covenant. The ark was made of acacia wood and had long handles so the priests could carry it on the journey. This was a box designed to hold the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments – God’s covenant with Israel.
            The theology of the Ark said that wherever the Ark was present, God was present. If the Ark was being carried forward, then God was leading the people on the journey. If the Ark was at rest, then God was simply present among the people. For a people like the Hebrew Children on a journey from slavery to the Promised Land, it was a powerful symbol of God’s leading and presence among them.
            [APPLIC:] Where is our Ark of the Covenant? What stands among us as a sign of God’s presence and leading?

            As the years went by and the Children of Israel moved further into the Land of Promise, they often carried the Ark into battle. It remained a symbol of God’s presence and a reminder that these battles for the Land were God’s battles. Well, as events would unfold, the Children of Israel met at foe they could not defeat; these were the Philistines. The day came when the Israelites went out for battle with the Ark of the Covenant to remind them of God’s support and presence. But, instead of victory, they were defeated soundly. The Philistines captured the Ark of the Covenant and took it back to their city as spoils of war. However, they found that holding the Ark of Israel’s God as a kind of hostage a complicated matter, so they dumped it at the house of Abinadab. And there it stayed without much notice for 20 years.
            Time went by, and Israel asked for a King; this king was King Saul. He was an able King, but Saul was unable to recapture the Ark. David followed Saul to the throne. He was able to win much more land for the Israelites. He was able to defeat the Philistines and reclaim title to the Ark. About the same time, David captured Jerusalem and made it his capitol city. The journey to bring the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem is the task of the story we have read this morning from the scriptures.
            Until this point in Israel’s history, they have never had a capitol, never expected that the Ark of the Covenant should stand in any place in particular; David is only the nation’s second king. Even under David, there was still no Temple; worshiping God was done in small shrines scattered all over the land. King David brought many changes into Israel’s life.

[TEXT:]  The scripture follows David’s defeat of the Philistines. It is time for a victory march into his chosen city. David calls out 30,000 warriors; it appears that he is going to battle again. But, this time, he leads them to Baale-Judah to bring from there the Ark of God. He placed the Ark on a new cart and brought it out of the house of Abinadab.  Until now, it has been under the care of Abinadab and his sons, Uzzah and Ahio; by the time this story ends, it will be clearly under the care of King David.
            Suddenly, an interruption: As the cart crosses the threshing floor of Nacon, the oxen stumble and the ark teeters. Uzzah reaches out his hand to steady the ark. The anger of the Lord flares, and God strikes Uzzah DEAD. We are shocked. What has Uzzah done to deserve this? Uzzah may have wanted only to help, but his casual hand on the holy ark carries a terrible price. David is angry toward God. Our immediate response is outrage; Uzzah was just trying to help. Why the harsh punishment?
            Think about what has happened: It appears that there is confusion about who is in charge of this moment. David’s anger suggests that he assumed that he was in charge of this move, and Uzzah’s death is a direct challenge to his assumption. David must understand that too casual an attitude with things that are holy carries a terrible price. So, David can be angry or he can be humbled. He leaves the Ark in the care of someone else, and goes home to reflect on the power of the God who is symbolized by this Ark.
            [REFLECT:] Have you ever had an experience that sent you off to reflect on God’s role and work in your life? I hope so….
            The death of Uzzah STANDS AS A CAUTION to everyone among us who sets out to lead in this world that politics and religion can be dangerous to handle. They can give power and improve the lives of all in the nation; they can also blow up in our faces if handled too casually. The death of Uzzah is told as a reminder of the danger of trying to manage God’s holiness. What should be reverence and awe before God gives way to the notion that we can put our hands on God. In that way lies death -- perhaps not as dramatic, as Uzzah’s but just as fatal. As I recall, Jesus addressed his topic in the gospels. In Matthew, he called those who thought they could control God’s holiness by their own efforts “Whitewashed tombs… full of dead men’s bones” (Matt 23.27) (1).

            When the story resumes in v. 9, David brings a new attitude of respect to divine presence: holy fear and awe. When the Ark is moved just six steps, they sacrifice an ox and a calf. Then, the journey continues to Jerusalem. David danced with joy before the Lord all the way.

[CHANGE:] Someone pointed out that this passage is about *change*. The big change David works in this passage is a change in the worship of God. By moving the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, David is claiming:
1. That the King should be the SOLE guardian of the Ark and therefore the guardian of Israel’s understanding of God.
2. That worship should be centered in Jerusalem rather than scattered in many shrines and practices. You see, if Israel’s worship is scattered throughout the many shrines, then Israel’s loyalties are scattered as well. David must bring Israel’s worship to one place so he can ask for these twelve tribes to become one nation.
3. That the King should be endowed with the blessing of God in a manner that legitimizes his rule. You see, the Ark was the symbol of God’s covenant with tribal Israel. It stands as the great symbol of Israel’s encounter with God at Mt. Sinai. If David can incorporate this great symbol into his kingship, then he establishes himself as the legitimate king over twelve tribes that never before knew a king.

[APPLIC:] This is a story about change. King David is bringing enormous change to the little land of Israel. From our vantage point, it may look like the obvious change that was needed; it may look like a good and useful change. But, at the time it was fraught with uncertainty, and support was not assured.
            David has moved Israel from the loose tribal confederacy that was soundly defeated twice by the Philistines, culminating in the loss of the Ark (1 Sam 4.2-7.1). Now, these tribes are becoming an organized nation with central leadership, a capital and a standing army which defeats the Philistines twice (2 Sam 5.17-25), They now find themselves in position to reclaim the Ark.
            B. But, even here we find a lesson in change. Even in reclaiming the Ark, David cannot bring Israel back to the nation it was when the Philistines first captured it; he can only bring it forward to a new place of beginning. Thus, this story, despite all the glory and accomplishments represents a confrontation between the old and new.

            C. Further caution: King David’s display is either (1) a genuine recognition and honoring of presence of God among us (as represented by the Ark) or (2) a manipulation of religious symbols for the sake of his own political power. Unfortunately, the line between these possibilities is extremely thin. More likely, David’s dancing is a blending of these possibilities that even he could not separate.
            More personally, King David’s display stands as a *caution* to us as we go about our life together as Christians and as we witness to the presence of God among us.
+For a long time, we at Church Street have carefully insisted that partisan politics stop at the church-house door. This insistence has been good for us.
+In our life together, we expect to see strong-willed candidates, who are vying for the same office, kneeling at the Lord’s Table, preferably side by side.
+In our exploration of faith, we assume that the call and the teaching of God stand above the policies of any human institution.
+And yet, in our search for faith, we stand humbly aware that any of us are capable of confusing our own priorities for the priorities of God.

            2. The reality is that political power and religious power must live together. On one hand, religious convictions are the surest confirmation and validation of political convictions. On the other hand, political power is necessary to make religious convictions visible and concrete. It seems that we are in bed together. To stand apart and pretend that there is no partnership is at best na├»ve, at worst blind.

[CONCL:] Still, David did lead Israel through this time of change. Looking back, we applaud the results of his leadership. Thus, this story stands as an inspiration to every one of us who carry the weight of leadership. We can lead those who follow us to a better place. It also stands as inspiration to everyone us that hears leaders around us calling for change. They may be God’s leaders for this season of change.

1. Based on “Reflections,” 2 Samuel Commentary, The New Interpreter’s Bible, pp. 1251f.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

July 8, 2012 - The Healing Service

Healing - God’s Strength, My Weakness
2 Corinthians 12.1-10

            Forty years ago, about an hour east of Raleigh, NC, stood a rural crossroads church named Corinth. That spring, we held the third great sacrament of Methodism: the revival. On that particular night, the sermon was over and the altar call had begun. We were into our third or fourth verse of “Just as I Am,” and the altar rail was pretty busy with people coming forward to ask for prayer. My job as the resident pastor was to meet each member of my flock at the altar rail, kneel down across from each one, and there to ask, “How can I pray with you tonight?” Such moments were sweet and often life-changing.
            On this particular night, the altar rail was pretty busy. I was on the right end of the altar meeting the first one who had come forward -- with several more, kneeling in the center, waiting their turn. I noticed an older woman of the community being pushed in her wheel chair to a place on the far end of the altar rail by her granddaughter. Actually, I’m not sure how old she was, arthritis had so crippled her body that she looked older than her years.
            At the same time, another woman came up beside her. I knew these two women to be old friends. As I said, I was busy with others who had already come to kneel, so all I could do was watch what was about to unfold.
            The crowd was singing as the piano carried the familiar tune: “Just as I am, thou wilt receive, wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve; …” The altar rail was filled with people who had come for prayer. And these two women began to pray together – one clearly praying aloud for her friend in the wheel chair. As they prayed, the woman in the wheel chair had the most blissful look on her face. And occasionally, she would flinch -- as if struck by unseen electricity. There was clearly an experience with God unfolding for these two women in that prayer. By the time I had worked my way through the others who had come to pray, they were quiet in a loving embrace. When I approached, they said with a look of absolute peace on their faces, “God is so good!”
            It had struck me as I watched them pray together that this had been a time of healing for the one in the wheelchair. So, I was disappointed that she was still in the wheel chair as she left the altar. But, as they left the church that night, they were anything but disappointed! They were radiant with a quiet, strong confidence.
            I thought about that experience for a long time afterwards. It seems to me that it was a healing moment – though not for the joints twisted by arthritis; they were to my eyes unchanged. But, joy had replaced worry, friendship had taken the place of isolation, and the confidence that God was present displaced all doubt.
            If a pile of castoff crutches in the corner is the only way we know how to measure healing, then we are most to be pitied. Healing happens in many ways, on many levels. We just need to learn how to see it.

            I want you to think about the healing of God with me today. I believe that God is still in the healing business. I believe that we still have much to learn about the healing that restores our lives and our souls.

            For every one of us, sooner or later, there is going to be what I call a *front porch issue*. A front porch issue is that one issue (or maybe two) from which we cannot back down.
+You may be quiet about your politics at the family picnic, You learned a long time ago that discussing politics with certain members of your family is the surest way to ruin an afternoon.
+You may give up your spot on the World’s Fair site on the Fourth of July when someone crowds in too close. You know the spot I mean – the one you get every year because it has the perfect view of the fireworks. But, you give it up to keep the peace when someone crowds you out.
+You may wash the dishes again even though it’s your brother’s turn (and he knows that it is his turn) because it will just start a fight.
You can give those things up without a second thought. But, there is going to come an issue from which you cannot back down because backing down would violate the one thing you hold most dear.
+In the movie, Brave, there comes a moment when the queen mother sees her family being attacked by a bear, and she takes the fight. She is going to protect her family.
+On the Fourth of July, we celebrate the founders of this nation, who, according to the words of the Declaration of Independence, pledged “their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor” to establish this nation. We inherited this great nation because they didn’t back down from that commitment.

B. For Paul, the one issue from which he could not back down was his insistence that he was called by Jesus Christ to be an apostle – to bear witness to Christ to the ends of the earth. The situation leading up to the passage we read from 2 Cor this morning is that Paul’s calling and authority to carry the gospel have been challenged.
+Some said that he did not walk with Jesus like the first twelve disciples; therefore he had no authority to challenge their decisions.
+Others said that his new ideas about faith in Christ were just wrong; he had no authority to teach them.
You can almost sense Paul bristling at such charges as he speaks out in this passage. Jesus Christ is Paul’s front porch issue. The gospel is too important and his call to proclaim Christ is too important to back down.
            [TEXT] Paul begins by making the case that he has seen visions and enjoyed encounters with holiness that give him all the credibility and authority he needs.
2 I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven--whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows.

Well, Paul is most likely talking about himself. He is using this indirect way of describing this experience because he is showing a little restraint. In his mind, these experiences – of being caught up into the third heaven, and transported to Paradise – are signs of his calling and his authority to bear witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
            So, he begins to boast of his authority, his call and his experience that stand as his foundation as an apostle of Jesus. But, just as quickly, he turns this boast on its head. And this is important because it prepares us to reflect on the matter of healing – which is where we started.
5b  I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. 8 Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, 9 but he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses.

Paul turns his claim of authority and experience and call on its head to point to his weakness. When I imagine myself in a similar situation, I confess that I’m not ready to make the same turn Paul did.
+You see, when I am at the peak of my game – ascending to the 3rd heaven or claiming visions of Paradise, I assume that everything else in life ought to be working, too.
+When the Bishop is telling me that I’m the best preacher he has, then to complete the moment my wife and kids are supposed to get all misty eyed when I come through the door.
+When the Governor is calling me for advice, then I assume that every area of my life ought to be clicking.
But, Paul tells us that at the points where he is strongest, this thorn in the flesh brings him back to earth. And, when he asks that God remove the thorn, then God speaks with all the shrouded language of a Greek oracle: "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." With all due respects, that does not sound like God’s assurance that healing is on the way. Instead, that sounds like God’s assurance that the thorn is going to stay.

III. So what do we make of this conversation with God that Paul has shared with us? Was God’s response a put-off or a word of assurance?
            [A.] Sadly, we have reduced our understanding of healing to the narrow issue of physical healing. Worse, the only question we want answered is whether the bone is fixed, the fever is gone, or the cancer is cured. Christians have allowed the question of health to be reduced to the utilitarian question: Can you fix my hurt? Can you cure my illness? The question considers only the physical, missing so much more. The church only gets the call when all the doctors and hospitals have tried all their treatments; the patients are desperate; so they turn finally to the church. Is there anything God can do when the medical world has given up on me?
            The Christian Church needs to reclaim healing as one of those areas where we are uniquely prepared to work. The church knows
+how to build strangers into Christ-formed communities;
+we know about forgiveness and reconciliation;
+we know about releasing guilt and embracing hope.
+We know about caring for the whole person.
We already know that healing has to do with more than the physical. You see, the Christian faith has always linked love of God AND neighbor, health AND salvation, and healing AND caring. In addition, Jesus linked healing AND forgiveness of sin.
+Remember the story in Mark 2 when Jesus was presented with a paralytic by his four friends. Jesus began the healing by telling the man, “My son, your sins are forgiven.” Jesus was clearly connecting forgiveness and healing. The fact that he addressed the man with the affectionate, “My son,” indicates that Jesus was restoring him back into the community. The healing Jesus offered included the physical and then went much further.
+Remember that on the night of Jesus’ arrest, Simon took out the sword he carried and cut off the ear of the High Priest’s servant. The man had come to join in the arrest of Jesus. He was a willing participant in the arrest and crucifixion of the Lord. But, Jesus reached out to the servant and healed his ear. Beyond the physical, he offered an act of forgiveness for this man who came to do him harm. When Jesus healed, he did so much more than attending to the physical.
And so do we. Christians visit the sick in the hospital so that we might remind those we love that there is more to healing than the merely physical.
+When someone is feeling isolated by their illness, we remind them that they are not alone.
+When someone is feeling guilty for the accident that led to an injury, we remind them that forgiveness is possible from those they have hurt and possible from God.
+When someone has an illness that carries a stigma, we go to assure them that the community has not turned its back on them.

4. Brave. Pixar Animation Studios, 2012 .

Saturday, July 7, 2012

June 24, 2012 - Victorious Pipsqueaks

1 Samuel 17 – David and Goliath

I. People love the story of David and Goliath. The image of the young, little guy going up against the warrior at the peak of his power stirs our imaginations. In this story we discover the little guy is not without resources. He has what it takes to be the hero.
Illus: Remember that the heroes in the movie E.T. were children who used the resources of children to understand E.T. in ways that all the king’s horses and all the king’s men could not. Then, the movie ended with that great escape scene – kids using bicycles to escape the government’s siege.

This was a David and Goliath moment!

[Illus:] Some of you are too young to remember, but since it began in 1976, Apple Computer trailed Microsoft miserably in sales and capitalization. Apple has been the David; Microsoft a Goliath.

In April of this year, Apple Computer, for the first time, earned a quarterly profit greater than Microsoft. In just the past twelve months the market capitalization of Apple exceeded Microsoft for the first time. From their beginnings, Microsoft has been the Goliath of the computer world able to run over or buy out its competition. All this time, Apple has been the little guy. It has taken this long, but Apple finally has the products that people want to buy. It appears that Apple is the David that has finally won over the computer world.

We love the idea of the underdog who is willing to go up against the big, entrenched powerhouses. We have all known little guys who used skill and luck to win against all the odds.
In a way, the story of David and Goliath has become a paradigm for tiny Israel as it goes up against the much larger and more populous nations around it. This story is woven into the psyche of that nation. Because they are small in number; the people of Israel have to be smarter, quicker, more daring if they are going to succeed. And, against all odds, the nation of Israel has managed to do just that.
[Illus:] Remember the Raid at Entebbe? In July 1976 an Air France airliner bound for Israel, carrying 248 passengers was hijacked by members of the PLO and flown to Entebbe, Uganda. Shortly after landing, all non-Israeli passengers, except one French citizen, were released. The standoff went on for many days until a special forces team from Israel flew down, landed at Entebbe, attacked the hijackers and rescued the passengers. Little Israel, against hostile nations, great distances and terrible odds, pulled off the raid that set their people free. It was masterful. It was David and Goliath all over again.

Watch the way Israel works in the world. Despite their small size, they use David’s cunning in dealing with larger, better equipped enemies. They are good at it.
            [APPLIC:]  At a human level, we can all take encouragement from young David. We might be smaller and weaker than our adversaries. But, if we are smarter and willing to take risks, we might just beat the stronger, better established competition. All kinds of disadvantaged people have taken encouragement from this story:
            +small companies competing against bigger ones;
            +unknown candidates running against long-time favorites;
            +or even oppressed minorities striving for equal rights.
The Davids have to be quicker and willing to take risks, but the evidence is that they just might win the day.
            Let those among us who yearn to see a sidelined minority step forward to take its place find encouragement in this story. Pin it up alongside your mirror where you dress in the morning. Commit this story to memory.

III. Still, there is more to this story than the hope that the little guy might beat the bigger competition. David did not go up against Goliath merely claiming to be quicker and smarter than his opponent. He went up against Goliath convinced that this was God’s battle, not just his alone.
            Instead, this is a story mainly about God. As Bruce Birch said in the New Interpreters Bible Commentary on 1st Samuel:
The truth in this story is that God is ultimately in opposition to arrogant and self-serving power and its violence. *Trust in God* nurtures hope that there is a way into the future where there seems no way, that there may be a chink in the impregnable armor, that a well-placed stone of opposition can bring down seemingly impregnable systems of oppression that loom as armored giants (2).

            What David *said* at the battle with Goliath is just as important as what he did there. You see, Goliath wanted to set the terms of the battle. He wanted Israel to send out one champion to engage him in battle; the winner would take the day. Further, he wanted to use the weapons of his choosing: the spear, the sword, the armor, and the shield were his weapons of choice.
            David, on the other hand, stepped forward to speak out for God.
45 David said to the Philistine, "You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. 46 The LORD will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head; so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, 47 and that all this assembly may know that the LORD does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord's and he will give you into our hand."

Let every little guy who fights for the oppressed find the voice to speak for God.  What we fight for is not just ourselves but is for the God who calls us to freedom. It is not just to right our own wrongs; we fight so that all those who are oppressed can know justice. On that day when David fought against Goliath, the courage and the great principles of the little guy made this a victory not just for himself but for his whole nation.
            [EX:] When this nation was nothing more than a colony of the British Empire, patriots who came before us fought for this nation’s independence. They did not fight for themselves only; they fought for liberty and self-determination. They fought for generations that they would never see. We owe them a great debt of gratitude.
            [APPLIC:]  In 2012, the David’s who will stand up against oppression, who will speak out against injustice, who will work for Kingdom that God would build – those Davids are among us and our generation. If the coming generations are to receive a better world when they are born, it will come because we have challenged the giants in the name of God.

IV. And, there is more. Years later, the Apostle Paul will pick up one of the great themes from this story in his own understanding of the work of Christ. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 1:
22  For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23  but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24  but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength.

27  But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28  God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29  so that no one might boast in the presence of God.

We love the David and Goliath stories when we get to be the David who wins. But, the truth is that the underdog David usually does not win. In Jesus, God takes the form of the *little guy* - the one who catches the fury of this world insisting on its own terms. It was the world’s fury that took Jesus to the cross, where it held him until he died. Think about it: in Christ, God did not come as the little guy who was quicker and more agile. The powers of might and oppression worked their evil to the very end.
            Only then, when Christ was sealed in a borrowed tomb, God stepped forward, opened the tomb, and raised Christ from the dead. Thus, the ancient rule of *might makes right* is broken and Christ alone stands victorious. Instead of throwing the knockout blow, God in Christ uses humility and weakness to work a salvation for the entire world.
            The truth is:
+few of us get to be the victorious David in our battles with the Goliaths of this world;
+most of us will have to see our battles through to their bitter end.
            Does this mean that we somehow failed? Does this mean that God was not with us in our battles? Not at all. Christ also absorbed all the destruction and hatred this world can dish out. The world had every reason to believe that it had defeated the upstart Christ from Nazareth. But, when the world had spent its fury and claimed the victory, God raised Christ from the dead to declare that death does not have the last word over us. Like Christ, we may have to walk through the humiliation of defeat; the world may put an end to our dreams. But, in Christ our lives have not been spent for nothing. In Christ, we have worked and fought eternity’s battles. In Christ, our lives have already been counted as precious.


1. Peterson, Eugene. Living into God's Story
2. Birch, Bruce. New Interpreters Bible Commentary on 1st Samuel.