sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 06/30/2013
video available July 1st at www.sundaystreams.com/go/MilanVineyard/ondemand
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Want to talk today about how human beings respond & relate to the presence of a living God among them. You might say this message is ultimately about something called “worship,” but it will take us a bit for that to emerge. Entitled: Afraiders of the Lost Ark. Which will makes sense, maybe, later.
Imagine two circles. Circle one: the churchgoing world. Bumping up against it, circle two: the secular world. Presumably, God’s presence – if there is in fact a living, real-deal, divine person / force / something – God’s presence would be encountered and experienced in both of those circles from time to time, right? Perhaps, if churchgoing as a venture were doing what it’s supposed to do, that divine presence might be recognized more frequently and readily in the churchgoing circle. But certainly, that presence would sometimes be recognized in the other circle, too – maybe especially among those in the secular world that think just maybe there is something out there.
Regardless of which circle you find yourself in, if you encounter or experience God’s presence – a living divinity at large and at work – you’ll have to relate and respond to it somehow. So that’s the big question today. How? How do we respond to and relate to the presence of God among us when we become aware of it?
Here’s the thing. Both the churchgoing world and the secular world make a set of common mistakes in relating to and responding to God’s presence.
The churchgoing world has a tendency to religify God’s presence. To treat it as somehow magical and unapproachable. To stay at arm’s length, to keep it compartmentalized and set aside because of its troublesome, demanding, untamed nature. They have a certain kind of fear of it that they give religious language to – they understand its holiness, but use that holiness as a way of manipulating others into adjusting their behavior so that they can have access to the power of God’s presence. In the end, this amounts to a form of trying to control God’s presence, and so they come to see it as reduced in power and somehow needing their help. They come to see their own holiness as a function of the ways in which they help God. As if their God is fundamentally helpless and in need of their help.
The secular world – at least that portion of it that thinks just maybe there is something out there – sees the churchgoing world’s God, and thinks to itself, well if God’s like that, that’s a weak God indeed who would relate to his followers that way, and require them to relate and respond to him that way. And so if they do encounter or experience something out there that just maybe is divine they don’t have anything to anchor their relationship or response to those divine encounters, and so they tend to respond to the divine among them a bit like a novelty or mystery that they have no hope of having personal engagement with, at least not beyond the way Luke or Obi-wan had personal engagement with the Force.
But what if God were in fact a deeply personal God – in the sense of actually being a distinct person – not a force as typically perceived in the secular circles, and not a religified, diminished deity as typically perceived in churchgoing circles? And what if he was a particular kind of person, such that how we responded to and related to him made a difference to the kind of access we had to the transformative power of personal engagement with him?
Let’s look at a somewhat obscure story from the book of 1 Chronicles (it’s told in a parallel fashion in 2 Samuel, also). It’s a story about the Ark of the Covenant and a guy named Uzzah and a king named David, and it has a lot to teach us about how the living God wants to relate to us, and how best to respond to him if we want to experience the full, abundant life Jesus tells us God desires to give us.
Background: David, a great warrior growing in leadership and stature in Israel, wants to have the presence of Israel’s God returned to the heart of their nation. And the ark of the covenant, which contains the Ten Commandments, and at that time, in some way both literal and mysteriously, the very presence of the living God, has been in a house in the countryside of Israel. So David wants to return it to Jerusalem. Eventually, it is in David’s heart to build a temple to God, where he can have a more permanent home in the capital city. As it says in the text, it seemed right to all the people.
5So David assembled all Israel, from the Shihor River in Egypt to Lebo Hamath, to bring the ark of God from Kiriath Jearim. 6David and all Israel went to Baalah of Judah (Kiriath Jearim) to bring up from there the ark of God the Lord, who is enthroned between the cherubim—the ark that is called by the Name.
7They moved the ark of God from Abinadab’s house on a new cart, with Uzzah and Ahio guiding it. 8David and all the Israelites were celebrating with all their might before God, with songs and with harps, lyres, timbrels, cymbals and trumpets.
9When they came to the threshing floor of Kidon, Uzzah reached out his hand to steady the ark, because the oxen stumbled. 10The Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah, and he struck him down because he had put his hand on the ark. So he died there before God.
This is a bit disturbing, isn’t it? I read this story, and something in me says – and maybe in you too – really?? God strikes him down? For reaching out to steady the ark? Surely there are worse things, with worse motivations, that human beings have done – heck, that I have done – and they’ve come away unscathed.
What is going on here? I mean, we know this story is written for an ancient audience, who wouldn’t have had the same level of shock we experience, the same sense of an injustice done, perhaps… but still. How are we to understand this?
I should mention that I’m indebted to Charles Park at the River Vineyard in Manhattan for his insights on this passage. Let’s dig into the story a bit, and let’s start by understanding a little history of how the ark ended up at Abinadab’s house.
Decades earlier, Israel’s main national enemy, the Philistines (you remember Goliath, right?), captured the Ark in a battle, because they noticed that Israel always seemed to have success when their God was present with them in the Ark.
However, they hadn’t accounted for the fact that whatever sort of presence was in the Ark wouldn’t be thrilled about being captured. And all kinds of problems developed wherever the Ark was held in Philistia. People were getting sick and dying of tumors, and rats would infest the cities.
So the Philistines came up with a pretty brilliant plan to test their theory and solve the problem at the same time. They placed the ark on a cart pulled by two cows who had just given birth to calves. They separated the cows from their calves, placing the cows with their calves in one direction and Israel in the other direction, and set the cows free to go where they wanted. Their theory was that naturally the cows would return to their calves, since the calves were still nursing. But if there was a genuine deity present in this Ark thing who had some preferential connection to Israel, then it might direct the cows back to Israel, ridding the Philistines of this troublesome problem. And sure enough, the cows headed directly back to Israel, carrying the Ark and of course a large amount of gold to say we were very, very sorry. The townspeople who discovered it eventually settled on having Abinidab and his sons take care of it.
Saul was king at the time, and he had a troubled relationship with God, the Ark didn’t seem to have been that important to him, plus, there were all sorts of unpleasant things happening around the ark – it was hard to handle, you know? and so the Ark gets left there for at least 20 years or so, until King David comes to the throne, and David loves God. He’s called a man after God’s own heart. And he wants to bring the Ark to Jersualem, which brings us up to the point in the story where we see Uzzah struck down.
Now, some would say Uzzah died because he violated God’s command not to touch the Ark. Because the Ark is holy, and there should be reverence and awe about God’s presence. Which makes sense, I’m sure. But I’m not sure that’s the whole story.
Because it’s not like Uzzah didn’t have reverence for it; presumably that’s why he wanted to steady it in the first place, so it wouldn’t hit the muddy ground.
And surely the Philistines had to touch the Ark at some point to put it on the cart in the first place, and they didn’t die from that, as far as we know.
And it seems a little strange that the God who judges by the heart, not by external appearances, would be so harsh, doesn’t it? Uzzah was trying to help, not do something against the ark or something irreverent.
So what else could it be?
Abinidab and his family, at least according to the ancient historian Josephus, were Levites, which meant that their whole job was taking care of the holy things in Israel, the holiest of which was the Ark. And there were some very particular rules about how the Ark was to be transported. Their whole family business was knowing how to take care of the Ark. They had it for 20 years, after all. Surely they talked about it. And the ark was designed to be carried by people, on poles that went through rings on it. It’s totally obvious from its design, even if you didn’t know the “rules” about it.
It’s understandable that the Philistines put it on a cart. They were deathly afraid of it. They just wanted to get rid of it as quickly as possible, have nothing more to do with it. And it’s not like they could hand carry it back to Israel – they might have been killed when they set foot in Israel’s territory.
But why should the people of God use the same method? Adopt the same attitude of the Philistines? Later, in fact, David himself says that was the reason. They didn’t carry it personally; they put it on a cart.
There’s a big difference between putting it on your shoulders and putting on a cart. On your shoulders, you might touch it. Even if you’re not meaning to. The method God wants is intimate, dangerous even. The cart speaks of distance, safety. Reverence yes, but no intimacy at all. Hands off.
Think about what attitude Uzzah must have had about God’s presence in the ark, about God himself. On the one hand, God is so great, so powerful, so awesome that he must remain at a distance. Don’t go to near! Terrible things could happen. And on the other hand, his attitude is that God is so helpless. He might fall! That would be so embarrassing. We’ve got to help him out, make sure he’s OK.
But what had God demonstrated? He’d demonstrated his ability to free himself from the Philistines and make his way back to Israel, unassisted. In a wooden box. He can take care of himself, can’t he?
What a weird combination of attitudes Uzzah must have had to do what he did! God is so powerful we can’t go near; God is so helpless, we have to help him out.
This is the most common mistake people make when it comes to responding to God’s presence in the world. It’s the difference between religion and faith. It’s a deadly mistake.
People have done this throughout history. We ourselves do it.
We keep God at a distance, in a mix of reverence, fear, and awe. We are anxious about our obedience to him. We think about him mainly when we think about if what we are doing is right or wrong, if what we are doing will keep us in his favor or not.
And from time to time, we help him out. We come to church. We give some money. We help out in a ministry. We defend his reputation on Facebook or something.
This is not a recipe for life in all its fullness. It’s easy to get there – God doesn’t answer a prayer, something bad happens to you even when you are in the right, there are all kinds of reasons to keep God at a distance, and still try to do what you can to help him from time to time. It even happens to David in this story, at least for a while.
8Then David was angry because the Lord’s wrath had broken out against Uzzah, and to this day that place is called Perez Uzzah.
9David was afraid of the Lord that day and said, “How can the ark of the Lord ever come to me?” 10He was not willing to take the ark of the Lord to be with him in the City of David. Instead, he took it to the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite. 11The ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite for three months, and the Lord blessed him and his entire household.
It’s understandable, and it’s the most common mistake we make with God. But it’s deadly because life in all its fullness comes from the presence of God. It’s deadly because distance chokes off the channel of life. It’s deadly because thinking God needs our help turns him into an idol of wood or stone that has no power and does need our help.
No, what we need is whatever the family of Obed-Edom had. They had the presence of God in their house and they were blessed.
12Now King David was told, “The Lord has blessed the household of Obed-Edom and everything he has, because of the ark of God.” So David went to bring up the ark of God from the house of Obed-Edom to the City of David with rejoicing. 13When those who were carrying the ark of the Lord had taken six steps, he sacrificed a bull and a fattened calf. 14Wearing a linen ephod, David was dancing before the Lord with all his might, 15while he and the entire house of Israel were bringing up the ark of the Lord with shouts and the sound of trumpets.
David eventually figured it out. Somebody told him that the answer is to come close, like God invites us. So he had Levites put the ark on their shoulders. And they brought it into Jerusalem with singing and dancing. David himself danced the most, in such an undignified manner that, we find out later, his wife was embarrassed about it. Because when we come close to God, he fills us with such life that everything we do is a response to his life-giving presence and blessing.
Yes, we end up serving him. Helping him. Joining with him in everything he is doing in the world. But not because he needs our help. No, because he lets us help. After all, isn’t that what the men carrying the ark on their shoulders teaches us? God lets us help! He could get wherever he wants to go on his own. But he wants us close. He wants us to carry his presence with us, wherever we go. He wants us to know his power and beauty and awesomeness, like a child in her Father’s arms knows it. As power that is for us.
There is no other life-giving way to relate and respond to him. Regardless of your spiritual upbringing or history or knowledge or experience. When you encounter God’s presence, his invitation is to come close, to be intimate with him. To bring him into the center of your life, and you into the center of his.
The reality is that the living God’s presence is experienced and encountered in both circles. God is present everywhere, all the time. The genius of Jesus was his mission to open human beings’ eyes – regardless of their religious / spiritual backgrounds – to God’s presence among them. And to teach us a way to respond that would open the door to the life the living God desires to give us.
So he’d say: Good news! The Kingdom of God is here. Good news! The Kingdom of God is near. Good news! The Kingdom of God is coming. Good news! Are you in mourning? God is mourning with you. Are you a spiritual zero? God is with you. Are you desperate to see justice done? God is on the move, setting things right. And so on.
And he’d act in revealing ways. He’d party with the low lifes and drop outs and outcasts, and demonstrate how God was present with them. He’d heal sick people, as a way of saying, see, God’s favor is with you even when you thought you were cursed. And so on.
And because he was in fact, God made flesh, he was the embodiment of God’s presence among us. So in his relationships with us, he was teaching us how to relate and respond to God’s presence. Listen to me. Follow me. Do what I’m doing – you can do it! Receive my embrace; embrace me in return. Bring me your doubts. Ask me for what you need. Receive what I have to give you. Join me. Let me wash your feet. Let me serve you. Serve others the way you experience me serving you. And so on.
God’s presence and God’s power are one and the same thing. Wherever you find the one, you find the other. Wherever you carry the one, you carry the other. Let’s not keep it at a distance; let’s shoulder it together, well aware of its awesomeness, and yet not afraid because he’s invited us to know him and be known by him.
Practical Suggestions (for UnAfraiders of the Lost Ark):
1. Ready. Set. Hug. Before you come to church, or as you start to sing, or as you come for communion, or as you come forward for prayer, or as you give, or as you get ready to serve the poor, or care for kids, or run the computer – any of these things that are connected to God’s presence or joining in God’s mission, imagine you are about to meet God personally, that his presence is about to show up, and ready yourself to embrace him. Like you would if you saw a long lost friend and you were about to greet him with a hug, expecting one in return. There is a vulnerability in it – what if the hug isn’t returned; you’d like a fool, right? But it’s the openness God desires from us. See how you experience any of those activities differently as you prepare your posture.
2. Return God’s phone call. Think to the last time you had an awareness of what might have been an encounter or experience with a divine presence. Did you respond by opening yourself to intimacy with it? Or did you keep your distance? If you kept your distance, think of it like God was calling you on the phone to hang out, and you let the call go to voicemail. And he’s waiting for you to call back if you’re ready. So call him back. In prayer, say “God, sorry I missed your call. I’m free now. What did you want to do with me?”