Or simply because God is holy?
This August I’ll be doing a sermon series on the stories they never taught you in Sunday School. To get ready, I thought I’d post some old sermons I’ve preached on the bible’s random stories. You might never have heard of Uzzah in Sunday School but Indiana Jones did: ‘Marion close your eyes…’
2 Samuel 6.1-11
During my first year of seminary I served as an intern at a small Methodist church pastored by Rev Carol McCallum.
That church celebrated communion not with a loaf of bread and a single chalice but with trays, the ones with the tiny pieces of bread and miniature cups. Normally those little cups were filled in the sacristy by a volunteer the day before.
On one Sunday those trays were apparently jostled while being transported from the sacristy to the altar table, spilling the juice out their little cups and, overnight, sealing the lid to the tray; so that, when it came time for the Great Thanksgiving and Rev Carol lifted the lid off the tray, it instead stuck and for a few seconds that felt like a lifetime the communion tray hung suspended a few inches above the altar until it came crashing down, spilling the blood of Christ all over the table.
That’s when Almighty God smote Rev Carol, struck her dead, right there on the floor of the sanctuary…
The first time I ever preached this scripture text from 2 Samuel 6 I began with that anecdote. And the congregation just kind of stared at me, stone- faced.
It was my first summer as the pastor at Linvale United Methodist Church. I was about 23 years old. I was still a student in seminary and, when it came to life, I still had a lot more to learn.
It was a sticky hot morning in July- dew was still burning off the grass in the parking lot as people trickled into the sanctuary.
Because Irma, the organist, wanted to take a break that Sunday, the morning’s music was led by her husband Les, who was as deaf as anyone I’ve ever met and played the accordion. I can say with hindsight that that was not a good idea.
According to the lectionary, Methodism’s schedule of assigned passages, the scripture that Sunday was the same one given today: this story of the ark and David dancing, half-naked, and Uzzah struck dead. It was not a text I would have chosen and for nearly 8 years I’ve been waiting for a do-over.
I was new to my role then. I hadn’t found my preaching voice or style. And I didn’t trust my ability to target a sermon to where people were in their lives. So I stuck to what I did know, to what I did feel comfortable with. I just explained the text. I took it at face value.
My opening illustration about Rev Carol having fallen flat, I just dove in to the text.
And I explained to those gathered at Linvale Church that Sunday morning how David is delivering the ark to Jerusalem in a shrewd move designed to legitimate his claim to the throne.
I explained how the ark symbolized God’s protection of and presence with the people Israel, and with the ark in Jerusalem, the city of David, everything the ark symbolized David’s throne now would as well.
I even described the ark for them, how it was a gilded box of acacia wood cornered by winged angles, how the ark was a pedestal for the invisibly enthroned Yahweh and how the dance that David and his 3,000 men do is a victory dance- because with God seated on the ark in the city of their King no one could defeat them.
Now the people at Linvale Church- they listened politely, but I could tell…I could tell from Sheldon sitting in the front pew and from Bob seated halfway back and from Andy all the way in the back by the aisle…I could tell they didn’t care much about that, about the ark, about Kingdom history or about David’s political maneuvering.
I could tell. They wanted to know about Uzzah.
At that point in my ministry I wasn’t a very observant preacher, but that morning I could tell that ever since Pam had read the scripture aloud everyone was wondering: ‘Well, wasn’t Uzzah just trying to help?’
According to 1 Samuel 6, I told them, the ark was supposed to be carried on poles by Levites, Israel’s special caste of priests. But that’s not what happens
here. Either everyone had forgotten or, in their rush to get the ark to Jerusalem, they didn’t care. So instead of on gilded poles, it’s put on a wagon. Instead of being carried by priests it’s pulled by oxen.
In other words, according to this interpretation, Uzzah dies because he didn’t follow the directions. His haste to catch the ark is actually his trying to avoid the consequences of his actions. In other words, he had it coming to him.
Or, you could say that, at this point in the story, the ark’s been neglected for 20 years. For 20 years it’s been forgotten in a backwater valley. For 20 years no one has mentioned it or wondered about it or gone searching for it. You might think it’s vanished altogether.
But when David needs it to lend creedence to his crown, when David needs the symbol of God’s protection and presence to legitimate his own power, he knows exactly where it is. So you could suggest that God’s anger had been kindled already (for being neglected and used) and when the ark begins to fall, well, Uzzah just gets in the way.
I watched the faces in the sun-soaked pews following along. Perhaps it’s an issue of purity, I said. Maybe Uzzah had not made himself ritually clean for the ceremony, for the procession to Jerusalem. He wasn’t ritually prepared to come before God’s presence much less touch it.
It’s not that Uzzah did anything wrong, that’s just the way God’s holiness is. It’s like Fire: you can’t come close to it, you can’t touch it, you can’t catch holiness.
You can even argue, I told them, because of the intricacies of the Hebrew text, that where your bibles read “the oxen shook it” a better translation would say “the oxen stumbled” or an even more precise translation could read “the oxen made manure” and when Uzzah reaches out to steady the ark…he slips in it. Too bad for Uzzah. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. It happens, I said.
Les, the accordion player, who was nearly deaf, was sitting on the piano bench with his head half-cocked not sure if I’d just said what he thought he’d heard.
The clock on the sanctuary wall and the restlessness in the pews signaled that it was time for the ‘application’ part of my sermon, the ‘what this means for us now’ part of the sermon.
And I looked up from my notes and I said:
You can parse this passage a hundred different ways. But the bottom line is that Uzzah’s death is meant to be a reminder of God’s holiness.
Uzzah’s death is meant to point out to us what it points out to King David- that this God is not One to trifled to be with or treated casually or taken for granted.
And from there I wound my sermon to a close with a litany of DON’Ts.
Don’t reach out to this God if you’re aren’t serious about it, if you don’t want an answer or won’t follow through.
Don’t live any way you want, just coming here once a week, taking God’s mercy for granted.
Don’t come to Christ’s Table if you’re not sincere about living according to his Kingdom.
Don’t. Don’t confess your sins if you’re not going to live a redeemed life. Don’t pray if you’re not going to heed the answer. Don’t come here on Sunday if you’re not here to worship. This God, I preached, this God is not One to be trifled with. This God has the freedom to be angry. And his anger has the power to knock you down. Faith in this God is not for the phony or feeble-hearted, I preached. Faith in this God is like playing with Fire. And if memory serves me right I even wagged my finger at them.
Looking back, I suppose it was a bit intense for what was only my second Sunday at that church. And it’s not that what I preached wasn’t necessarily true, it just wasn’t true.
You know? What I mean is…I didn’t know any of those people yet. That sermon was eight years ago now and I’ve been waiting for a do-over
I’ve been wanting a do-over because, that sermon, I preached it before I’d ever had to hold someone’s hand while a doctor issued news that would be hard to swallow and even harder to bear.
I preached that sermon before I’d ever had to knock on the door of a house where someone in the family wouldn’t be coming home that night. Or ever again.
I preached it before I’d ever had someone confide to me, ashamedly, that the reason they’d stopped giving to the church was because they’d lost their job a few weeks back.
Before a wife had ever cried in my office and told me how the drinking she thought her husband had knocked had snuck back on all of them.
I preached that sermon before I learned when and when not to answer questions like: how can God allow…why did god let this happen…?
I preached it, that sermon, before I ever had children of my own.
So this time when I come back to 2 Samuel 6 things are different. I’m different. Eight years later when I read about the ark and God’s bursting forth anger and Uzzah things are different.
And what I wonder this time, the question I have is: what about Uzzah’s mother? What about Uzzah’s wife, if he had one?
Did he have a best friend or kids?
What do you say to them: It’s all part of God’s plan, there’s a reason for everything, God’s ways are not our ways, he’s in a better place, God must have needed him in heaven?
Earlier this week I decided to try something. I read this story about Uzzah to my 6 year old son, Alexander. Actually I had to paraphrase it and tell it myself because Uzzah doesn’t make it into many children’s bibles.
‘What did happen to him?” Alexander asked me when I’d finished telling the story.
What happened? Well, he died.
‘Why did he died?’
Uh…he got too close to God, to God’s holiness.
‘Why did God make him die?
He’s in a better place. For a few moments I thought that was it, that was enough. But then Alexander gave me a toothy look of perplexity and he asked me:
‘Dad, does Jesus do that?‘
And isn’t that the question?
That’s why, when it comes to the ark and God’s bursting forth anger and Uzzah, I’ve been itching for a do-over.
Because eight years ago I spent so much time on this text, on these 11 verses, that I left out our Story (with a capital S). It’s not that what I preached wasn’t true. It just wasn’t the Gospel.
Because you and I we believe that God’s power and presence and holiness are found not in a gilded box that could blow at any time, but in the ark of Mary’s womb.
We believe that God’s strength it isn’t like a burst of dynamite. It’s found in that, while being equal with God, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.
We don’t believe that God’s anger can be so easily kindled against us. We believe that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.
We don’t believe that we’re so unworthy that we can’t come close to God. We believe that in Jesus Christ God has come close to us and counted us worthy and that nothing we do can separate us from that Love.
And as easily as the cliches can roll off our tongues, the fact is we don’t believe that God takes us from us for reasons all his own. We believe that God loved us so much that he gave…that he gives…that in fact in Christ he has joined our life so we might not suffer this life alone.
That’s our Story. And you better learn it because you’re going to run into Uzzah’s mother or wife or friend or children…all the time.
Eight years ago…that’s how I should have ended the sermon.