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.

Revelation 3:1-6 – Remember, Hold On, and Change

Ruins in the ancient city of Sardis (present day Sart, Turkey)

Write this to the angel of the church in Sardis:

These are the words of the one who holds God’s seven spirits and the seven stars: I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, and you are in fact dead. Wake up and strengthen whatever you have left, teetering on the brink of death, for I’ve found that your works are far from complete in the eyes of my God. So, remember what you received and heard. Hold on to it and change your hearts and lives. If you don’t wake up, I will come like a thief, and you won’t know what time I will come upon you. But you do have a few people in Sardis who haven’t stained their clothing. They will walk with me clothed in white because they are worthy. Those who emerge victorious will wear white clothing like this. I won’t scratch out their names from the scroll of life but will declare their names in the presence of my Father and his angels. If you can hear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. (Common English Bible)

Many Christians reflexively think of good old Apostle Paul when it comes to biblical epistles (letters) to churches. Yet, contained within the first three chapters of Revelation are seven succinct letters to seven different churches. These letters are short and packed with a punch – and they don’t come from Paul.

What makes these short bursts of exhortation so powerful is that they come from Jesus himself. Yes, that Jesus – the Lord Jesus Christ, the head of the church. So, it seems to me that Christ’s observations about the church ought to carry more weight than anybody else’s thoughts.  

Christ was concerned about how far the church was from completing the work of God. So, he gave a pointed admonition, almost like a parent trying to awaken a teenager in the morning. “Wake up!” said Jesus because he found the church’s obedience incomplete and lacking strength. If this were the Apostle Paul talking, he would likely have framed it this way: “You have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)

Our Lord went directly to the heart of the church’s life… and it’s death. The stark reality is that these statements from Jesus remain penetrating and relevant for today’s church.

So, what is to be done about the situation of spiritual deadness in the church? 

Jesus did not leave the church hanging but in a few compact words let them know exactly what they are to do to remedy their spiritual malady: Remember. Hold on. Change. Keep the memory of sound instruction alive, always adjusting the life of the church to it. The Christian term for this is “repentance.”

Sometimes, if not many times, we may tend to forget the things we need to remember and remember the things we must forget. We are to follow God in a pattern of remembering and forgetting. God has said:

I wipe away your sins because of who I am. And so, I will forget the wrongs you have done. (Isaiah 43:25, CEV)

I will forgive their wrongdoing and never again remember their sins. (Jeremiah 31:34, CEB)

I will forget their sins and never again remember the evil they have done. (Hebrews 10:17, ERV)

Concerning those who have wronged us, we are to emulate God’s grace, mercy, and kindness through forgiveness. To “forget” does not mean performing a personal lobotomy but simply not to hold an offense against another by continually bringing it to mind. On the other hand, God remembers divine promises made to people. Likewise, we are to constantly bear in mind what God has put before us to remember:

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:23-26, NRSV)

We need an abiding remembrance of the Lord Jesus, the very person who spoke to the church hundreds of years ago. It is in those times when we become distressed that we must center our memory on Christ:

We must focus on Jesus, the source and goal of our faith. He saw the joy ahead of him, so he endured death on the cross and ignored the disgrace it brought him. (Hebrews 12:2, GW)

Remembering Jesus Christ sets us on the path to fulfilling the work of God and completing that which has been given us to do. This is precisely why I choose to follow the Christian Year and remember time by having it centered around the life and ministry of Jesus.

Always think about Jesus Christ. He was brought back to life and is a descendant of David. This is the Good News that I tell others. (2 Timothy 2:8, GW)

I have been a constant example of how you can help those in need by working hard. You should remember the words of the Lord Jesus: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35, NLT)

Let us remember together in prayer:

Awesome Lord Jesus, your words penetrate to the core my being. Strengthen me by the continuing presence of yourself through the Holy Spirit so that my every thought, word, and deed is done in your holy Name. Kindle in my heart a vision of your love and shine the light of your victory over sin, death, and hell over this dark world. Continually take me to yourself. Keep me in your wounds and mindful of your presence so that I shall fulfill all the will of God for my life through your divine enablement. Amen.

Luke 11:24-28 – Human Nature Abhors a Vacuum

Photo by Rene Asmussen on Pexels.com

“When an evil spirit leaves a person, it goes into the desert, searching for rest. But when it finds none, it says, ‘I will return to the person I came from.’ So, it returns and finds that its former home is all swept and in order. Then the spirit finds seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they all enter the person and live there. And so that person is worse off than before.”

As he was speaking, a woman in the crowd called out, “God bless your mother—the womb from which you came, and the breasts that nursed you!”

Jesus replied, “But even more blessed are all who hear the word of God and put it into practice.” (New Living Translation)

You have likely heard the old adage, “Nature abhors a vacuum.” This idiom is used to express the idea that empty or unfilled spaces are unnatural as they go against the laws of nature and physics. Jesus expressed a similar statement, not about physical nature but human nature.

People experience emptiness whenever something, or someone, has been expelled from our lives, creating a vacuum. In today’s Gospel lesson, the expulsion is that of an evil spirit. The bad spirit is kicked to the curb, so it goes looking somewhere else to settle, with no success. Then, the spirit decides to go back, check, and see if the person is occupied, or not.

Everything in nice, neat order. Cleaned up, looking good. But empty. For the spirit, this is ideal. So much space in such an organized environment that it becomes the ideal spot for a party of peers to turn the order back into chaos.

Yet, if there had been something to fill the void, the spirits could never have come and occupied the space.

It’s a pointed lesson about truly hearing. There’s the kind of hearing that goes in one ear and out the other. There’s also a type of hearing which listens yet does nothing to act on what is being heard. That seems to be the kind of hearing Jesus was talking about.

To hear God’s Word is one thing. To make it stick by putting into practice, is another thing altogether. It’s akin to the difference between having an attractive and expensive goatskin leather Bible adorning a coffee table in the center of the house. Looks great. Problem is, it never gets a genuine hearing because the cover rarely gets cracked open.

Once, in my first church as their Pastor, a man had a bevy of family issues which seemed endless. At first, I didn’t understand it. He seemed like a really nice guy. Every Sunday he was there, without fail, and always brought his Bible.

Then, one Sunday, after everyone had left, I found a Bible sitting in the pew where the man always sat. I opened it, and sure enough, it was his, his name written inside the cover. It appeared to be a brand spanking new one, until I looked at the publication date and inscription from when it was given to him: 1949.

In returning the Bible to the man the next day, I discovered that he indeed never read it. In fact, I quickly found out that in the thousands of sermons he had heard over the decades, none of them seemed to ever stick. He heard but didn’t really hear. Instead, he spent most of his life trying not to be involved in much of anything as a means of protecting himself from hurt.

Hearing God’s Word without putting any of into practice isn’t ever going to end well.

Obey God’s message! Don’t fool yourselves by just listening to it. If you hear the message and don’t obey it, you are like people who stare at themselves in a mirror and forget what they look like as soon as they leave. But you must never stop looking at the perfect law that sets you free. God will bless you in everything you do, if you listen and obey, and don’t just hear and forget. (James 1:22-25, CEV)

The Word of God has not been truly received until it is put into practice.

The person who only hears is like a Mr. Potato Head that is only ears. He can’t stand because he has no feet.  He cannot do anything because he has no hands. Mr. Potato Head needs some feet so that he can follow Jesus wherever he goes.  And he needs hands so he can do God’s will.

Listening to the Word without obedience is just that – it is mere hearing. 

Profession of faith in Jesus means nothing without a practice of that faith.

Learning the Bible is useless without living it.

Acceptance of the Word is nothing more than a mental exercise without action to back it up. 

Christianity is a vital love relationship with Jesus, and, so, is not merely a matter of hearing and affirming orthodoxy; it also involves orthopraxy, that is, having right practice, the doing of truth.

Good hearing leads to a good response.

When my firstborn daughter was still in her mother’s womb, I constantly talked to her. I was in seminary at the time, and I would come home and read her fairy tales in Hebrew. I spoke to her when I got up in the morning and when I went to bed. I told her all about how God was going to bless her and do great things through her. I told her of Jesus and his love for her. I practiced my sermons and Sunday School lessons on her – all before she was born.

When the day finally came of her birth, the nurses took her, and she cried and cried. She cried so much and so hard that I finally said to them, “Let me hold her.” The minute I held her, I began speaking to her, and what happened next got the attention of everyone in the room: my little baby daughter immediately got quiet. It was like that the entire time she was in the hospital. The only time she was happy was when I was speaking to her.

We respond to God’s voice when we recognize it. If we are not in the habit of responding to God’s Holy Word, it is likely that we do not know the Divine voice. My baby daughter didn’t need a lesson on how to respond to me. She knew exactly who I was: her father. 

Do we know our heavenly Father? Can we distinguish God’s voice?

We need to be servants who hear and respond to the voice of God, and not soakers who just sit and hear without any response at all.

Human nature abhors a vacuum. Our own inner emptiness needs to be filled with practicing the words of life we hear. This is the true path of blessing.

Gracious Lord, you have caused Holy Scripture to be written for our learning: help us so to hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the Word so that we may do what it says and embrace the joyful hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

1 John 5:13-21 – We Know

I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him.

If you see any brother or sister commit a sin that does not lead to death, you should pray, and God will give them life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that you should pray about that. All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death.

We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the One who was born of God keeps them safe, and the evil one cannot harm them. We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one. We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.

Dear children, keep yourselves from idols. (New International Version)

In a world of constant change, the need for people to experience meaning and stability in their lives is more pronounced than ever. 

COVID-19 currently grips the world in a terrible reality of disease, death, and disruption. Just when we think there might be a light at the end of the tunnel, new strains of the virus arise. Meanwhile, life goes on with all it’s typical changes, losses, and devastating natural disasters.

There are people wondering if they will have a job tomorrow – or if they will ever get called back to one. Many parents are anxious about what kind of world their kids will have when they become adults. Others feel adrift in a fast-paced society, glutted with so much news and information that they have little sense of what is real or true. Discouragement and/or depression may seem to never end.

Whenever there are uncertainties all around us, it’s necessary to return to the knowable, to hang our hat on some solid bedrock certainties we are convinced are always there. That’s why the Apostle John wrote his letter, to remind the church of the known and the knowable:

  • “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.”
  • “If we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him.
  • “We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin.”
  • “We know that we are children of God.”
  • “We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true.” 

In English, we have only one word for “know.” Yet, in the ancient Greek of the New Testament there are two different words for “know.” Throughout today’s lesson, the Apostle consistently uses one of those words, then shifts to another at the end. 

All of the “knows” John used refer to an objective knowledge – an information-based understanding which anyone could discover, learn, or know. Then, the Apostle switched to a different word at the end – to know him (Christ) who is true. That particular word has to do with a subjective or experiential knowledge. In other words, it is an inner witness and knowing of objective knowledge.

In American society, we frame the distinction between the two words by saying we need to know something in our heart (subjective knowledge) and not only in our head (objective knowledge).

Cerebral understanding, combined with heartfelt experience, results in a new confidence in prayer, a new attitude toward the world, and a new awareness of God. These are the impact of knowing Jesus Christ, and him crucified, risen, ascended, and coming again.

Knowing God takes both the head and the heart. Only being concerned for sound doctrine creates theological eggheads who dispassionately connect with God and others as if they were merely brains on a stick figure. Conversely, only being concerned for how religion makes us feel causes a kind of spiritual schizophrenia which is unstable and constantly seeks for a new or better experience in worship.

Love and obedience are the sacred pathways to personal and corporate knowledge and peace. Whenever the supreme ethic of love takes place in the believer’s life, through receiving it from God and giving it to others, it brings a sense of divine assurance in a sea of worldly uncertainty. 

Security in God will always outdo the insecurities of life.

Loving God, I know that you listen to me. I pray your love and assurance will fill me to such a place that I have peace amidst the vicissitudes of this life. May I rest in Jesus Christ through the work of your Holy Spirit. Amen.