Saturday, July 14, 2012

God’s Presence: Blessing or Challenge?

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19; Ephesians 1:3-14

In today’s story from 2 Samuel, we read about David bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. Saul and Jonathon are dead, so there were no present threats to the throne. He was working to unite the Northern and Southern tribes into one Kingdom.
David had excellent knowledge of the area and chose the location for his capital city, Jerusalem. There was already a fortress on the mountain he chose, but the Jebusites lived there. David and his army conquered them and evicted them without destroying the fortress, and settled in.
At an appropriate time, David made plans to move the Ark of the Covenant into the city. The Ark had been built in Moses’ time and the tablets with the Ten Commandments were inside it. The Ark itself is described as a large box with a lid. It had loops through which long poles could be inserted so it could be carried without touching the box itself. On top of the box at each end were angels with open wings. The box could be used as a seat – a chair.
It is God’s mercy seat and it represents God’s presence with the people, from the time of Moses onward. It shows up once in a while in the stories of the people. It traveled through the wilderness, and was carried into Canaan with the conquest of the Promised Land. As a child, the prophet Samuel slept in the temple at Shiloh, in the room with the Ark.
The Ark had once been captured by the Philistines, but it caused the people so much trouble they returned it to the Israelites. Once it was returned, some men opened the Ark and looked into it, and seventy people died. It has been at Abinadab’s house and brought them blessings while it was there.
David wants to bring this national symbol to Jerusalem. They have a huge parade, with colorful costumes, banners, music, and high spirits.
You may notice that there is a gap in the text in our reading today – verses 6-12 are missing. They tell an interesting story: on the way from Abinadab’s house, there is some rough ground. The oxen stumble and the cart shakes, and it looks like the Ark is going to fall to the ground. Uzzah reflexively reaches out a hand to stop the Ark from falling – the same way that you and I would throw out a hand to stop someone from falling – and Uzzah touches the Ark to steady it. The Bible tells us that God is angry at this unauthorized touch, and Uzzah is struck dead instantly.
David is scared at the power of the Ark, and rethinks his plan. He sends the Ark to the home of Obed-edom. This family is blessed by the presence of the Ark. The text doesn’t say in what way the family is blessed, but this usually means that they had an abundant harvest and their animals were fruitful and multiplied. Perhaps more women became pregnant. Perhaps they had no deaths in childbirth during that time.
After three months David observes that the Ark brings blessing, and decides once more to bring the Ark into Jerusalem. Again there is a parade. This time, David has an animal sacrificed every six paces, a bit of insurance – just to make sure God is pleased with his plans.
Once the Ark is placed into the tent David has set up for it, they all have a party. All the animals that were slaughtered along the way are cooked, along with the appropriate prayers. The people are blessed, enjoy a feast, and return to their homes.
There is one curious note in the story. Michal is the daughter of Saul – who has just been deposed and killed in battle. She is also David’s wife, and not happy about it, since she was forced into the relationship. She has no respect for David, and especially in this case dislikes the fact that he is wearing only a linen loin cloth – in other words, his underwear!
After David died, Solomon built the temple, and the Ark was placed there. The Ark disappeared when the temple was destroyed about 400 years later. It does not appear in the list of items taken into Babylon, and its whereabouts are unknown. The Coptic priests in Ethiopia claim to have it, in the Church of Saint Mary of Zion. They believe the Ark was stolen by the Queen of Sheba, and brought there. Others speculate that the Ark is buried somewhere under the temple mount, where the Dome of the Rock mosque is now.
A well-known contemporary image of the Ark of the Covenant is the first Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indy sought to keep the Ark from Nazi hands. At the end of the movie, the Nazis had the Ark in a cave. They thought by owning it they could claim God’s power and glory for their own purposes, but they did not understand divine power. As the Ark is opened, Indy shouts to his companion Marion, “Don’t look!” They cover their eyes until the scene is over. The Nazis all look into the Ark and are melted by its power and glory.
The history of the Ark of the Covenant is one of both blessing and challenge, as we have heard in these stories. Those who would choose to use divine power in un-divine ways suffer serious consequences. That even seems to be the message of Uzzah – who sought to protect the Ark from falling. Perhaps he didn’t trust God to protect the Ark, and that’s the problem.
We certainly don’t like to think of God as violent, but there is scriptural evidence that God certainly has the power – and sometimes the desire – to use violence for divine purposes.
The Ark stories also demonstrate that those who revere the Ark as a sign and symbol of God’s presence are blessed by God. The ancient view of blessings was very much about material blessings – abundant harvest, many children, lots of land. But it was also about the relationship between God and God’s people.
Jesus made it clear that the true blessing is the relationship. The writer of Ephesians stressed this. The blessing is the relationship with God, the promise of the love of God, the grace of God’s forgiveness.
Yesterday at the auction, we raised cash so we could pass on both material and spiritual blessings to children who have very little. They receive some items we consider basic necessities – toothbrushes, soap, pencils and paper. They receive something fun. And they receive a copy of the story of Jesus, the greatest gift, in their own language. This booklet invites them into a relationship with Jesus and with Jesus’ people near them.

Please pray with me. God of mercy, we trust in your presence with us, as promised so many times in Scripture. We seek your blessing in our lives, the blessing of a grace-filled relationship with you, as witnessed by the life, death, and resurrection of your Son Jesus. Bless us this week as we also seek to pass on your blessings. Amen