Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Ark (2 Samuel 6)


[By popular demand - due to the need to re-read this heavy sermon, here is Daniel Helbling's sermon from Sunday.]

It turned out to be a bad day for David. Worse for the family of Abinadab. It took David three months to get over it. How long will it take us?
Let’s look for understanding and insight that will help us find the value and present-day help in this scripture.
David was rejoicing; he was doing what he thought was the right thing in bringing the ark back to His own city. The presence of the ark in the king’s city would do even more to solidify and demonstrate the unity David had achieved among various factions after Saul’s death. David was careful about the things that he did; he sought the Lord's approval and help and wisdom when he would go out against his enemies in battle. Somehow, however, he didn't stop to review what the historical records would have shown: God had a clearly stated method for moving the ark. He had appointed a specific group of men to transport the ark on their shoulders with poles that went through rings on the sides of the ark. That's the way God had intended it, and that's the way it had been done every time God told Israel to move the ark. The Philistines put the ark on a cart. They had found the ark to be a curse, not a blessing. They just wanted to get rid of it as quickly and as painlessly as possible. Now David wanted the ark to become a blessing on his new reign.

The people of Beth-shemesh had blundered when the Philistines' milk cows pulled the cart with the ark and commemorative golden mice and tumors into their town. Maybe they thought, "We're gonna be famous now!" But God intended the ark of His testimony to be hidden and all but unapproachable; it wasn't a sideshow display for anyone curious enough to gawk. Seventy died. And Beth-shemesh wasn't a big town. 2 Samuel 6:21  "So they sent messengers to the inhabitants of Kiriath-jearim, saying, 'The Philistines have returned the ark of the LORD. Come down and take it up to you.'"
The people of Kiriath-jearim brought the ark to the house of Abinadab who was from the tribe of Levi. Uzzah's oldest brother Eleazar was assigned to care for the ark. That was probably more than 30 years earlier and now there is no mention of Abinadab or Eleazar. Maybe it was Uzzah's idea to carry the ark on a cart. Some commentators believe that Uzzah's father and oldest brother had already died, and that Uzzah and his younger brother Ahio were left to handle the affairs of the house of Abinadab. Certainly David allowed the plan to go ahead when he came to meet and accompany the ark. "And they carried the ark of God on a new cart and brought it out of the house of Abinadab...."
At least it was a new cart. But Uzzah was wrong about the ark. He made a choice. It was the wrong choice. His morals were not corrupt; he just didn't think to ask "What are God's standards for the ark of His testimony?" David, Uzzah and 30,000 men couldn't be wrong, surely. At any rate, Uzzah didn't have time to learn from the massive group error. David had time to learn. I think we should do our best to identify with David and try to gain some understanding for ourselves.
  David was first angry and then afraid. I can identify with David's anger. I don't like it when someone doing good is killed, especially if that person is killed by the very people he or she is trying to help. I think of Karen Woo, Korean father, British mother. Karen provided care for expectant mothers in Afghanistan where one infant out of five dies before reaching its first birthday. Early in August 2010, she was one of a group of eight aid workers and two Afghanis who were gunned down as they traveled through a remote area. Senseless death. Anger is easy.
Maybe we have a humanitarian sensitivity towards Uzzah's death. If we do, maybe we should stop praying "Your will be done on earth AS it is in heaven." What God did to Uzzah He did to Aaron's sons in Exodus chapter 10. It says there (verses 1-3)  Aaron's sons Nadab and Abihu each took an incense burner and put burning coals and incense in it. Then in the LORD'S presence they offered this unauthorized fire. A fire flashed from the LORD and burned them, and they died in the presence of the LORD. Moses said to Aaron, "This is exactly what the LORD said: 'I will show my holiness among those who come to me. I will show my glory to all the people.'" Aaron was speechless. 
Then in verse 6,  Moses told Aaron and his sons Eleazar and Ithamar: "Do not mourn by leaving your hair uncombed or tearing your clothes. If you do, you will die and the LORD will become angry with the whole congregation. All the other Israelites may cry over the fire the LORD sent, but you may not.
How’s that for humanitarian sensitivity? The Philistine cities got what they deserved, right? But the men of Beth-Shemesh were simply curious. David was angry. He dumped the box at the house of Obed-edom, a Levite. Hopefully we will not be so committed to our version of the universe that we will want to put God in a box and ship Him off to the next city. May our hearts and wills and understandings bend to His. God is holy. He is not like us. We don’t have holiness as a part of our character.
The hard part for us will be keeping open before God in our reading this narrative. Most westerners and quite a few non-westerners who’ve been trained in the western tradition will battle with the tendency toward reductionism.
"Religious reductionism generally attempts to explain religion by boiling it down to certain nonreligious causes. A few examples of reductionistic explanations for the presence of religion are: that religion can be reduced to humanity's conceptions of right and wrong, that religion is fundamentally a primitive attempt at controlling our environments, and that religion is a way to explain the existence of a physical world. Anthropologists Edward Burnett Taylor and James George Frazer employed some religious reductionist arguments. Sigmund Freud's idea that religion is nothing more than an illusion, or even a mental illness, and the Marxist view that religion is "the sigh of the oppressed," providing only "the illusory happiness of the people," are two other influential reductionist explanations of religion." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reductionism)
There may have been a temptation for the people of Judah and Israel to think, “This ark is our god. This ark wrecked the Philistines’ god. Our god is stronger.” That’s how reductionism works. But the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob would not be reduced to an object that they or king David could use for political gain. Reductionism produces idolatry. Usually for us who are westerners, idolatry shows up in some form of thinking that values and exalts our own rationality. The fact that we can apply various theoretical and intellectual tests to any idea or event seems like a powerful capability. Tim Keller wrote, “When I first began reading through the Bible I looked for some unifying themes. I concluded that there are many and that if we make just one theme the theme (such as ʻcovenant' or ʻkingdom') we run the danger of reductionism.” (Talking About Idolatry in a Postmodern Age, by Tim Keller 2007)
God wasn’t going to allow the David and the people of his kingdom to reduce Him to something comparable to the god of the Philistines. God demanded that His people would understand things this way: God is God; the people are His. That’s the order of things. The people of Israel and Judah could not make a comparison of this God who made His presence known at the ark with any other gods. God broke out of any such categories of comparison. He did so with great power.
The same Wikipedia article tells us that some German theologians went to war against these barbarians of reductionism. Here’s more from the same Wikipedia article:
  "To insulate theology from reductionism, 19th century post-Enlightenment German theologians moved in a new direction, led by Friedrich Schleiermacher and Albrecht Ritschl. They took the Romantic approach of rooting religion in the inner world of the human spirit, so that it is a person's feeling or sensibility about spiritual matters that comprises religion." 
So basically these German theologians decided that it’s better to compartmentalize our religious experience than to allow non-Christians to rationalize it. It’s easy for us pull a Schleiermacher and say that religion is personal and fully internalized. We don’t want to talk about it. It’s too personal to argue about. David was angry at God. But he didn’t talk about it. Then his anger changed quickly to fear. What caused this change?
There’s a subconscious process (well, mostly subconscious) that happens in every one of us. It’s called “cognitive dissonance resolution.” When I have two simultaneously occurring understandings which logically conflict with each other, my mind will work to  resolve those cognitions somehow.  Dissonant cognitions will be resolved. When my dissonant cognitions suggest an outcome which will require that I lower my estimation of myself (such as, “I’m wrong about this”), then my mind will arrange the evidence to bolster my internal awareness of myself as a decent person after all. The problem is that, in order to build my own faltering self-esteem, I will have to take esteem points away from the person on the other side of the dissonance. 
If I can’t resolve the dissonant cognitions in my favor, I’ll begin to fear any situation similar to the one in which I had to lower my self-esteem. Fear is not a one way street. Fear inside of me activates my mind to form  fight or flight plans. 
For three months David worked to resolve his cognition dissonance about God and Uzzah and the ark. Things went pretty well for him in the new capital city. And during that same time period things went better than anybody could have ever imagined for Obed-edom. 
In Acts chapter 13 Paul says that God held David in high esteem. “I have found in David the son of Jesse a man after my heart, who will do all my will.” By the time word got to David how well things were going for Obed-edom, he had resolved his cognitive dissonance in favor of God’s interests.
David did not forget that it was this same God who had found him through the prophet Samuel. In 1 Samuel 16 God said to Samuel, “I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” David had been the youngest of Jesse’s sons and had done the sheep herding job. He spent a great deal of time as a youth contemplating nature and thinking about God. He had decided as a boy that God was someone he could talk to. Now, after all that had happened with the ark, David had that same heart to know and love and serve God. He had developed the response to adversity in his life when he “strengthened himself in the LORD his God.” (1 Samuel 30:6)
Has God done something we don’t understand? Has there been a break in our communication with God? Is it a little easier now to compartmentalize our faith than it was at some earlier point in our journey following Christ? Do we guard our minds against unexamined cognitive dissonance resolution? Have we kept our thought processes fully, actively open to the  one who knows us better than we know ourselves?
Let’s learn from David. God committed himself to being available to David and to the people that he led. David learned from God. Sometimes he learned the hard way, but he learned. We can do the same. We can learn to do things God’s way.
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