2 Samuel 6:1-15 – Be Careful How You Celebrate

Ark of the Covenant by Isabel Piczek 1982, St. Norbert Catholic Church, Orange, California

David again assembled all the best men in Israel, 30,000 in number. David and all the men who were with him traveled to Baalah in Judah to bring up from there the ark of God which is called by the name of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, who sits enthroned between the cherubim that are on it. They loaded the ark of God on a new cart and carried it from the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were guiding the new cart. They brought it with the ark of God from the house of Abinadab on the hill. Ahio was walking in front of the ark, while David and all Israel were energetically celebrating before the Lord, singing and playing various stringed instruments, tambourines, rattles, and cymbals.

When they arrived at the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out and grabbed hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled. The Lord was so furious with Uzzah, he killed him on the spot for his negligence. He died right there beside the ark of God.

David was angry because the Lord attacked Uzzah; so, he called that place Perez Uzzah, which remains its name to this very day. David was afraid of the Lord that day and said, “How will the ark of the Lord ever come to me?” So, David was no longer willing to bring the ark of the Lord to be with him in the City of David. David left it in the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite. The ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite for three months.

The Lord blessed Obed-Edom and all his family.King David was told, “The Lord has blessed the family of Obed-Edom and everything he owns because of the ark of God.” So, David went and joyfully brought the ark of God from the house of Obed-Edom to the City of David. Those who carried the ark of the Lord took six steps and then David sacrificed an ox and a fatling calf. Now David, wearing a linen ephod, was dancing with all his strength before the Lord. David and all Israel were bringing up the ark of the Lord, shouting and blowing trumpets. (New English Translation)

The Christian season of Eastertide is a grand celebration of Christ’s resurrection and the new life we enjoy in Jesus Christ. Since God is the center of all things, celebrations need to be mindful. Nothing in life is a matter of doing whatever the heck we want to do.

Even celebration has its boundaries and limits.

The narrator who originally compiled, told, and wrote the today’s Old Testament lesson wanted to communicate something significant about God and how to relate to the Lord.

God put the big kibosh on David’s hoedown. At that time in the history of Israel, the ark was the foremost symbol of God’s presence with the people. Within the ark contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments (the symbol of God’s Word); the staff of the first priest, Aaron, (the symbol of God’s choice); and a pot of manna (the symbol of God’s provision). Thus, the ark was a holy object, pointing to a holy God.

The ark of the Lord was built during the time of Moses, when the ritual laws were established concerning offerings and how to approach God in worship. There were detailed prescriptions for how to construct all the sacred articles for worship. (Exodus 35:30-40:33) 

The ark was at the center of worship, representing the presence of God among the people. For nearly five-hundred years before David, the ark had become a familiar object in the life of Israel, always there, continually the symbol of God to the people.

I’ve been a Christian for many decades. One reason I refer to the seasons of the Christian Year in the present tense, is so that it doesn’t become old hat to me. Although I just presided over yet another Easter Sunday in my long tenure as a pastor, I am still in awe of Christ’s resurrection and am eternally grateful and full of joy over new life in Jesus Christ. I always want it to be fresh, as if I’m stepping up to the empty tomb for the first time.

Stained glass in the First Lutheran Church of
Washburn, North Dakota

Yet, we have all likely had the experience of something becoming so familiar, that we begin to lose sight of how important and valuable it really is. Not until we lose it, or something traumatic happens, do we wake up and take stock of its true significance. 

The Israelites had become lethargic and apathetic toward the worship of God, and it led to some disheartening and tragic circumstances. The people of God throughout the ages have always needed to be vigilant against the opiate of familiarity, dulling the senses to the importance of worship.

Moving the ark of the Lord to Jerusalem was one of the first acts David did as the king of Israel and Judah.  God was with David and brought him success against his enemies. David enjoyed a close relationship with God.  Even though David’s heart was in the right place, he made a huge miscalculation, which ended up offending God. 

David had the best of intentions in bringing the ark to Jerusalem and giving it a prominent place in the center of Jewish life. This was an exceptionally good plan. The problem, however, came in the manner the ark was carried from one place to another. 

God’s law laid out in careful detail how the ark was to be transported. Uzzah and Ahio were Levites charged with the ark’s care. Only the Levites could handle the ark and the holy objects of worship that went along with it.

Since it was the job of the Levites for hundreds of years, they knew better than to carry the ark of the Lord on a cart. God clearly told Moses that the ark was to have two long poles of acacia wood overlaid with gold inserted into four gold rings of the ark. The ark was to always be carried on the shoulders of the Levites with the two poles.

We are not told why Uzzah and Ahio were pulling the ark on a cart with oxen instead of carrying it in the prescribed way. Perhaps it was because the ark was incredibly heavy and no easy task to carry.  Maybe they decided it would be easier and more expedient to have the much stronger oxen pull the ark on a nice new cart; it would save a lot of energy transporting it over a long distance.

Or it could be that they were tired of moving the ark in the same old way they had always done it. Maybe it was old hat to them, and they were ready for something different.

For pragmatic people, Uzzah and Ahio’s approach makes a lot of sense. However, God was not okay with this arrangement. When the oxen stumbled and the ark was in danger of falling off the cart, Uzzah reflexively reached out to steady it.  That was the last act Uzzah ever did on this earth. God immediately put him down for his “irreverent act.”

So, here is the not so good idea: Evaluating the worship of God by common sense pragmatism, what we think will work best, and how we feel it ought to be done. Everything about worship is to pay attention to the holiness of God through our obedience. 

Whenever we avoid the prescriptions of Holy Scripture, however best the intentions might be, is not a good thing and people will get hurt. One can never justify an action that goes against God’s Word because people are praising God. Just because the heart is in the right place does not mean what is being done is okay.

David’s first response was anger, then fear. He gave his best effort, and it resulted in God’s disfavor. Perhaps David took for granted that the ark could be moved any old way he wanted to move it. 

Trouble with God happens whenever we value efficiency and expediency over obedience and submission.

The great error of Uzzah, resulting in his death, was trying to manage God. We do not take care of God; God takes care of us. God does not bow to us. The Lord doesn’t allow the creature to manage the Creator.

God wants a pure, unadulterated, and obedient worship celebration from people in the way God wants it to be done, period. It is not up for negotiation.

Holy God, we confess that we have too often forgotten we are yours. Sometimes we carry on our lives as if there was no God and we fall short of being a credible witness to you. For these things we ask your forgiveness and for your strength. Give us clear minds and open hearts so we may bear witness to you in our world. Remind us to be who you would have us to be regardless of what we are doing or who we are with. Hold us close and build our relationship with you and with those you have given us on earth, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 – Parable of the Lost Son

Prodigal Son by Wayne Pascall

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming to hear him. But the Pharisees and the experts in the law were complaining, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

So, Jesustold them this parable….

“A man had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that will belong to me.’ So, he divided his assets between them. After a few days, the younger son gathered together all he had and left on a journey to a distant country, and there he squandered his wealth with a wild lifestyle. Then after he had spent everything, a severe famine took place in that country, and he began to be in need. So, he went and worked for one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He was longing to eat the carob pods the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. But when he came to his senses he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired workers have food enough to spare, but here I am dying from hunger! I will get up and go to my father and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired workers.”’ So, he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way from home his father saw him, and his heart went out to him; he ran and hugged his son and kissed him. Then his son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son. ’But the father said to his slaves, ‘Hurry! Bring the best robe and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet! Bring the fattened calf and kill it! Let us eat and celebrate,because this son of mine was dead, and is alive again—he was lost and is found!’ So, they began to celebrate.

“Now his older son was in the field. As he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. So, he called one of the slaves and asked what was happening. The slave replied, ‘Your brother has returned, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he got his son back safe and sound.’ But the older son became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and appealed to him, but he answered his father, ‘Look! These many years I have worked like a slave for you, and I never disobeyed your commands. Yet you never gave me even a goat so that I could celebrate with my friends! But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your assets with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and everything that belongs to me is yours. It was appropriate to celebrate and be glad, for your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost and is found.’” (New English Translation)

Lost people matter to God.

In the story of the lost prodigal son, that son hit rock bottom and rehearsed a speech he would give to his father when he came back. He never got to finish it, because the father interrupted his confession of sin and got the celebration going! 

We celebrate the things that are important to us. Lost people matter to God so much that it is a cause for a great celebration. God’s grace steps in and takes over, erasing past guilt and bringing radical forgiveness and reconciliation.

The Prodigal Son by Kaye Redman

Today there are literally tens of thousands of children who have walked away from their upbringing in faith, and even many times, literally walked away from their family of origin. Their parents know the feeling of standing at the window, wondering how their prodigal daughter really is, and longing for their prodigal son to come home. 

So, what do you do when you are the parent of a prodigal? How do you deal with the pain and the estrangement of a wayward son or daughter? 

  • Don’t expect a prodigal to be Christ-like. If the son or daughter is not a Christian, they aren’t going to act like one. Exhortations to stop drinking cheap wine, cease partying, not get a tattoo, or even go to church is not only useless, but it can also be harmful. Behind all the speech or behavior of a prodigal that might make a parent cringe, there is a world of hurt. The heart is sick or broken. Prodigals need to be treated as fellow humans and equals.

He was pierced because of our rebellions
    and crushed because of our crimes.
    He bore the punishment that made us whole;
    by his wounds we are healed.
Like sheep we had all wandered away,
    each going its own way,
    but the Lord let fall on him all our crimes. (Isaiah 53:5-6, CEB)

  • Welcome a prodigal home. It is possible (and necessary!) to remain connected in relationship, even if there are differing values or practices between parents and prodigals. In other words, don’t make it hard for a son or daughter to come home. Yes, there are instances when parents need to clarify and maintain boundaries, but those instances are actually rare.

In most cases, if a daughter smells like weed or an ashtray, just spray her jacket with Febreze and change the sheets when she leaves – but let her come home. If you find out she’s pregnant, then be with her and take her to her twenty-week ultrasound.

If a son is broke because he spent all the money you lent him on women and liquor, then forgive his debt as you’ve been forgiven; don’t give him any more money—and let him come home. If in doubt, always go with grace.

For God has revealed his grace for the salvation of all people. That grace instructs us to give up ungodly living and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this world. (Titus 2:11-12, GNT)

  • Point a prodigal to Christ. A prodigal’s real problem is not sex or addiction, laziness or crime, cussing or ill manners. It is very possible that they simply don’t see Jesus for who he really is. So much Christian dogma or traditional practice might be encrusted on them that they simply cannot experience Jesus Christ’s love. God’s grace is what draws us all to faith – not hellfire preaching or parental badgering.

At one time you were separated from God. You were his enemies in your minds, and the evil things you did were against God. But now God has made you his friends again. He did this through Christ’s death in the body so that he might bring you into God’s presence as people who are holy, with no wrong, and with nothing of which God can judge you guilty. (Colossians 1:21-22, NCV)

We are to all share the same heart of the father in the parable of the lost son – a heart of hospitable love, abundant grace, and open celebration.

Loving heavenly Father, thank you that Jesus showed us your heart of love for the children of this world. Help us to do everything we can so that they will know how much you love them and want them to know your blessing. Thank you for your compassion for those who have strayed from you. Thank you that you are always ready to welcome us back with mercy and acceptance. Amen.

Luke 15:1-10 – The Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin

Parable of the Lost Sheep by Sieger Köder (1925-2015)

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming to hear him. But the Pharisees and the experts in the law were complaining, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

So, Jesus told them this parable: “Which one of you, if he has a hundred sheep and loses one of them, would not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture and go look for the one that is lost until he finds it? Then when he has found it, he places it on his shoulders, rejoicing. Returning home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, telling them, ‘Rejoice with me, because I have found my sheep that was lost.’ I tell you, in the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to repent.

“Or what woman, if she has ten silver coins and loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search thoroughly until she finds it? Then when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who repents.” (New English Translation)

Lost people matter to God… a lot. They matter so much to the Lord that one lost soul who is found is the grounds for a big celestial party. 

Please note this simple observation of today’s Gospel lesson: If there is rejoicing in the presence of angels over one sinner who repents, then it is God who is doing the rejoicing. The Lord is absolutely giddy with joy over a lost person being found.

Jesus told two short stories, each teaching the same thing, so that we will be absolutely sure to get it: A loving God has unbounded joy over lost people being found. These parables of Jesus give us a glimpse of God’s own heart. The Lord would do anything to find a lost person, to restore and reconcile that person to right relationships. 

God would go dumpster diving and wade through stinky nasty garbage to find just one lost valuable person.

Restoring lost people is such a high priority to God that the Father sent the Son to this earth. Jesus paid the ultimate price of a cruel death on a cross to reconcile a broken lost relationship between people and God.

I have not always been a devoted follower of Christ. I still remember what it felt like to be separated from God and estranged from the church – it was lonely and awful, like being in a deep black hole with no way of getting out and no one around to help. 

But God mercifully sent people into my life to share good news with me and help me out of my prodigal way of life. I once was lost. But now I am found. When I turned from my path of destruction and embraced Jesus Christ, there was a big party in heaven.

Lost Sheep Parable by Thomas Bertram Poole

God gathering wayward and lost persons is a gracious activity, seemingly free from criticism. But there was. And because there were complaints leveled at Jesus for purposely going after the lost, it therefore needs to be asked: 

Where do we locate ourselves in these parables? 

The two stories were downright offensive to many of Christ’s original hearers. Those upset with Jesus were so inwardly focused that they believed ministry ought to revolve around them and their needs.

And, what’s more, the religious leaders were offended because they thought all the fuss about sinners would only highlight their sin. In other words, there ought to be no party and no rejoicing for people who have lived an ethically and morally dubious life.

Preaching grace is always offensive to people who work for their salvation. It is scandalous to such persons to hear that Jesus did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. 

If we hear Christ’s parables and the concern for lost sinners who don’t know Jesus and say, “Well, all this talk about outreach is well and good, but what about us?  What about me? After all, I never went down a path of immorality or hurt anyone. I’m a good person. Where’s my party?” Then, we must locate ourselves as the lost persons in need of being found by God’s grace.

Consider for a moment the worst sinner you can think of – a person for whom you would label as being akin to the devil…. Now picture that person being found by God and becoming a follower of Christ….

Would you attend the party to celebrate that person’s repentance, reconciliation, and recovery? 

If any of us feels justified in our hate, then we are the lost one in need of turning from our sin.

In leaving the ninety-nine sheep in the flock and going after the one sheep, God gave preferential attention to the lost…. Can you live with that? 

These parables of Jesus have significant meaning for church programs, budgets, and committees. By most estimations, only one-in-five lost people in America even knows one Christian. Statistics like that are what keep me up at night; it deeply saddens me. It drives me to prayer.

God’s unconditional mercy and amazing grace is what makes all the difference. 

If we lose the sense of awe and appreciation for what God has done for us in Christ, then there will be no outreach. Finding lost people is not dependent on completing a class on evangelism or getting training in how to answer every question.

Outreach is fueled by passion and desire. Healthy Christians reproduce themselves. I assume you didn’t take a class on how to procreate – you just had the desire and the willingness; and then, you celebrated nine-months later, the birth of new life.

New life always needs to be celebrated because that’s what God does. Yet, the party cannot commence until the lost are found….

O God – blessed Father, Son, and Spirit – sanctify all believers everywhere with your abiding presence. Enlighten the minds of your people more and more with the light of the Gospel. Bring lost people to the knowledge of our Savior Jesus Christ; and those who are walking in the way of life, keep steadfast to the end. Guard those who are strong and prosperous from forgetting you and straying from the flock. Increase in us your grace and love so that we may participate with you in finding the lost. Amen.

Jeremiah 31:7-14 – A Restored People

Now this is what the Lord says:
“Sing with joy for Israel.
    Shout for the greatest of nations!
Shout out with praise and joy:
‘Save your people, O Lord,
    the remnant of Israel!’
For I will bring them from the north
    and from the distant corners of the earth.
I will not forget the blind and lame,
    the expectant mothers and women in labor.
    A great company will return!
Tears of joy will stream down their faces,
    and I will lead them home with great care.
They will walk beside quiet streams
    and on smooth paths where they will not stumble.
For I am Israel’s father,
    and Ephraim is my oldest child.

“Listen to this message from the Lord,
    you nations of the world;
    proclaim it in distant coastlands:
The Lord, who scattered his people,
    will gather them and watch over them
    as a shepherd does his flock.
For the Lord has redeemed Israel
    from those too strong for them.
They will come home and sing songs of joy on the heights of Jerusalem.
    They will be radiant because of the Lord’s good gifts—
the abundant crops of grain, new wine, and olive oil,
    and the healthy flocks and herds.
Their life will be like a watered garden,
    and all their sorrows will be gone.
The young women will dance for joy,
    and the men—old and young—will join in the celebration.
I will turn their mourning into joy.
    I will comfort them and exchange their sorrow for rejoicing.
The priests will enjoy abundance,
    and my people will feast on my good gifts.
    I, the Lord, have spoken!” (New Living Translation)

Experiencing restoration is a beautiful thing. Sick and suffering bodies restored to health brings rejoicing. Estranged relationships brought together again elicits singing. Spirits broken by sin made whole again through restoring grace causes shouts of joy.

God is an expert in restoration. Dilapidated communities, broken individuals, and peoples in diaspora can find fresh hope amid challenging circumstances.

Take a look at the actions of God through the verbs in today’s Old Testament lesson:

  • “I will bring.” The Lord gathers scattered people together, as well as making the disparate parts of people into a unified whole again.
  • “I will not forget.” In the gathering action of God, no one is left behind. Attention is given to the stragglers, to those unable on their own strength or ability to journey on the road back to the Lord.
  • “I will turn.” The unfortunate are turned into the fortunate. The underprivileged become privileged. Grief, lament, and mourning give way to joy and a new lease on life.
  • “I will comfort.” A great reversal occurs with God’s intervention. Sorrow is transformed into praise. Goodness is found in abundance because the Lord is a good God.

God calls the people to action, to a response of experiencing the restorative powers of grace. The Lord encourages such behavior because it helps us never forget that no one and no circumstance is ever beyond the renewing grace of God. Notice the verbs which characterize that response:

  • “Sing.” No mumbling here, my friends. No timidity about being off tune. A lonely person, fragmented group, depressed community, polarized neighborhood, or scattered nation restored by God’s merciful grace becomes an exuberant people. Singing organically arises from them.
  • “Shout.” Even the rocks will cry out if the people don’t. A last second win in the sports stadium amongst thousands of fans doesn’t even hold a candle to celebrative shouts of believers gathered and restored.
  • “Listen.” Whenever hearing God’s voice results in restoration, then the desire and motivation to listen increases exponentially.
  • “Proclaim.” Proclaiming good news is a joy and privilege. And in anticipation of Epiphany, the gospel declared to Gentiles is a gracious message of inclusion and hope.

We are helped to picture the incredible restoration of people coming together and gathered by God with two metaphors:

  1. The Good Shepherd. Like a faithful shepherd over the flock of sheep, the Lord actively seeks the lost, brings them home, and continues to stand watch over them as a compassionate guardian.
  2. The Exodus. Just as God redeemed the people out of Egyptian slavery and took them to a good land of abundance, so the Lord shall return those persons exiled from that abundant place and restore them to the peace of settled rest.

The restoring action of God gathers the scattered. The lost are found. That which is fragmented is made whole. Those previously disabled become able. The weak become strong, the sick healed, the hungry fed, and the prisoner freed.

In times of famine, pandemic, poverty, hardship, and scant resources, there is hope. The Lord knows how to restore fortunes and bring untold abundance amid the most difficult of situations.

True joy comes through hard suffering. The pains of childbirth give way to unspeakable joy.

Today is the final day in the twelve days of the Christmas season. God, entering humanity through a woman, in the flesh, began the gracious work of ransoming, redeeming, and restoring a sinful world that had exiled itself from peace and abundance. In Christ, our lives are full of blessing.

Praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ for the spiritual blessings that Christ has brought us from heaven! (Ephesians 1:3, CEV)

“I am the gate. Those who come in by me will be saved; they will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only in order to steal, kill, and destroy. I have come in order that you might have life—life in all its fullness. I am the good shepherd, who is willing to die for the sheep.” (John 10:9-11, GNT)

May you know and experience the restorative grace of God in Christ today and every day. Amen.