Crows Nest Uniting Church
Sunday 15 • 12 July 2015


2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19
Ephesians 1:3-14
Mark 6:14-29


Rev. Chris Udy


There are two dancers
in today’s lectionary readings,
and two significant gaps.

The first dancer is David,
bringing the ark of the covenant -
the symbol of God's presence and power -
into his new capital city,
and if you’d been following along in the Bible
as Lin read that story,
you’d have seen the first gap
was in 6 verses
that the lectionary reading leaves out.
I’m really not sure why the lectionary writers
decided those verses would not be included.
It might be because
they thought the reading was already too long -
but by leaving those verses out
they completely change the meaning
of that passage from the second book of Samuel.
Without those 6 verses
the reading sounds like a celebration,
a joyful homecoming for the ark of God.
But when we read those 6 verses in the middle
the journey takes on a very different tone.

As you probably know
from Sunday School,
or the Indiana Jones movie
the ark was the closest thing the Hebrew people had
to an image of God.
It’s detailed a little differently
in various parts of the Old Testament,
but generally it’s described as a box,
made of acacia wood,
about half the size of our communion table.
It was covered in gold,
and inside were the tablets of stone
Moses brought down from Mount Sinai,
a jar filled with manna -
the bread God gave his people in the desert -
and Aaron’s rod - a symbol of Aaron’s priesthood.
But the most significant feature of the ark
was on the top.
On each end of the lid there was a gold angel,
and between their outstretched wings
was a space that was called the throne of God.
So the ark was a symbol of God’s presence,
and it was carried wherever Israel went,
through the wilderness and across the river Jordan.
During the reign of King Saul
it had been captured by the Philistines,
but wherever they took it disaster followed,
so finally they gave it back to Israel,
and David decided to bring it to Jerusalem,
his new capital city.

So, as we read,
a new cart was built,
and the ark was lifted up on it,
and the long journey to Jerusalem began.
Thirty thousand people travelled with it,
and David and the people
played music and danced
“with all their might” - the text says -
which doesn’t sound particularly joyful,
the tone is much more … careful …
anxious to please.

Then come the verses our reading missed out.
The cart with the ark hit a bump
and the ark was in danger of falling,
so Uzzah, one of the men walking behind,
reached out his hand to keep it steady.
The text says
“The anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah;
and God struck him there
because he reached out his hand to the ark.
He died there beside the ark of God,
and David was angry
because the Lord had burst forth
with an outburst upon Uzzah.”
David then decided
that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea
to take the ark to Jerusalem,
and he took it to a house nearby,
the house of Obed-edom,
and he left it in Obed-edom’s care.

Three months later
David heard that the ark
had brought fortune and blessings
to Obed-edom and his household,
so David decided once again
to bring it to his home - to Jerusalem,
and very, very carefully,
with many sacrifices and lots of shouting
and again with that mighty dancing
David carried the ark to Zion.

David’s dancing wasn’t a dance
of joy and celebration;
it was a response to the power
David thought was in the ark.
David danced to win God’s favour,
to get blessings from God
for himself and his household
while protecting himself from God’s anger.
So David’s dance was a kind of seduction -
a dance of appeasement and desperation -
and when his wife Michal saw what he was doing
the writer says she was ashamed of him –
or maybe for him;
she despised him in her heart.
Michal's reaction to David's dance
is the first indication
that David's story in the Bible
is a classic tragedy,
and as in all classic tragedies
as the story of David’s life unfolds
his personal and private
flaws and fears and hungers
slowly undermine and ultimately destroy
his public and political achievements.
David begins so well;
a shepherd boy,
anointed by Samuel, defeating Goliath,
befriending Jonathan, winning battles,
marrying the king’s daughter,
expanding the borders of Israel …
but then it all unravels.
Michal, King Saul’s daughter,
never bears children for David;
David seduces Bath-sheba,
he kills Bath-sheba’s loyal husband,
so their children will be legitimate -
then he watches his children die and be killed
because they inherit his flaws and ambition,
and he sees his kingdom divided and in chaos
because of his misgovernment.
Although David is the one
who brings the ark home to Jerusalem,
he will soon be told
that he’s unworthy to make a home for God.
As we’ll hear next week,
Nathan the prophet,
who will be called to challenge David
for the way he mis-uses his power,
will also tell David that he’s not the one
who will build for God a temple.

David wants to be
the agent and instrument of God.
He wants to form a community –
a people, a nation -
under God's guidance and blessing,
but his humanity betrays him.

David satisfies his private greed
by abusing his public power
and because he breaks the boundaries
between his personal, private desires
and his public, political, work responsibilities
everything falls into chaos and division:
his house - his family,
and his community, his kingdom, his nation.

The second dancer in today’s readings
is the daughter of King Herod's wife.
The Bible doesn’t give us her name,
but we know from other historical sources
that her name was probably Salome.
Salome also dances,
not for joy, and not in celebration,
but apparently in seduction,
hoping to win the favour and blessing
that comes from being close to power.
Herod is David's political successor
and just like David,
Herod is betrayed by his human hungers
and uses his public, political power
to satisfy his private greed.

Like David, Herod also had a soft spot for God,
and Mark says he liked to talk to John the Baptist -
even though John was critical
of his marriage and his life.
Herod had married the wife of his brother Philip.
Salome’s mother Herodias had divorced Philip
to marry King Herod,
and John had publicly condemned them both
for adultery -
something that Herodias bitterly resented.
So when his step-daughter, Salome -
seduced Herod with her dancing,
and Herod publicly promised her
whatever she wanted,
even up to half his kingdom,
Herodias told her daughter
to ask for the head of John the Baptist.
In that moment of weakness,
when his personal and private desire
compromised his public and political responsibility
Herod was revealed as David’s descendent,
not only in his failure as a king,
but in his failure as a person.
Herod is a tragic figure, just like David,
whose strengths and achievements -
whatever they might have been -
have all disappeared behind this grubby story.

Herod's private problem
had become a public shame,
and Herod lost
not only his private and personal contact to God
through John the Baptist,
but also the public and political support
of the many people in Israel
who believed, like him,
that John was a holy man,
a prophet sent by God.

Wherever people seek public positions
to satisfy personal need;
whenever people subvert political power
to protect their private interests
everything seems to fall apart -
both our call to leadership
and our sense of peace and integrity
dissolve into tragedy.

And where's the gospel – the good news – in all this?
It's in the second significant gap.

Mark tells the story of Herod and John
to fill the gap
between the disciples being authorised
and sent out on their mission
to proclaim that God was near,
and their return to Jesus,
(almost dancing in joy and celebration)
followed by so great a crowd
that none of them had time to rest or eat.
The disciples were sent out
to say that God was near -
not in a box of dangerous power
to be feared and appeased and seduced,
but as a person - their redeemer and healer -
someone who could touch and be touched
in trust and forgiveness and love.

The gap between the time
when the disciples go out
and when they come back with the crowd
is used to draw a strong contrast
between King Herod – King David's successor -
the man who betrayed his inheritance
to satisfy his hunger -
and Jesus, the son of David,
who looked at the crowd,
Mark says, with compassion,
like sheep without a shepherd,
and so Mark points to Jesus
as the one who exercised
the Shepherd leadership David had promised
but never delivered.

Jesus gathered the people together
and gave them fish and bread,
recognising and responding
to the inescapable truth
that as human beings
we all have needs and hungers.
We are human; we have hungers
that need to be addressed and satisfied -
but not at the expense of other people -
not by creating victims or misusing power,
not by threats of violence or abuse,
but by sharing what we have
and welcoming other people
into God’s hospitality.

When Jesus gathers all of us
into God’s hospitality
he fulfils the promise of human life
and brings us as close to the power of God
as it is possible to be.

Unlike Uzzah,
zapped by the ark, and burned by God’s presence,
whenever we gather around the communion table –
even when we don’t share bread and wine -
in our being together,
and in the stories of our community,
we break and hold
and touch and taste the bread of life
and find the power of God
revealed to us in brokenness and grace.

So when we come each Sunday,
and share the stories of our community’s life
and renew our communion with Christ
and with each other,
we’re nourished by the Bread of Life
and we become, each one of us,
the ark of God,
not confined to one place as David’s ark was,
but symbols of God's presence
everywhere in the world,
filled with manna - with God’s bread of life -
carrying in our hearts and minds
the promise of God’s grace
as well as the wisdom of God’s law.
We are the ark of God,
and we go out, as the disciples did,
to proclaim the presence of God,
not with threats of condemnation and punishment
but with invitations to come home
to share God’s hospitality,
and to be God’s blessing in our homes,
in our work,
and in our community.