“The House of the Lord”
So I should preface this reading by noting that this is a bizarre story. And more than anything else, it should remind us that the Bible is an ancient document, and sometimes there are things going on in it that reflect a world very different from ours. We can come up with a number of different reasons that Uzzah might have been smote when he reached out to steady the ark, but almost all of them reflect decisions other than his own. The ark had been ignored for 20 years, and suddenly David wanted it to consolidate his power. They were disobeying God’s orders for how to move the ark; it should have been done by Levites on poles, not pulled by oxen on a wagon. And this may have at one point been a cautionary tale about disobeying God’s rules for holiness.
But if you’re anything like me, you read this story and you can’t help but think, “What was he supposed to do? Let it crash down into the mud?” And as I’ve reflected on this story this week, I think, “Maybe.” Because whenever we read a story in the Bible we have to connect it to the larger story. And the larger story is not about how God is so holy that it is dangerous for us to approach God. The larger story is about how God approaches us. God came down in the form of Jesus, taking the form of a lowly peasant, and gave us his holiness, so that our ordinary, muddy lives would be filled with grace. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, because on the cross he united God’s holiness with the unholy terror of human tragedy, to show us God’s redemption of all things. God’s holiness is that God loves us enough to choose the mud and unite us with heaven.
I love stories like this, though. There is so much more to the Bible than Abraham and Moses, Jesus and Paul. We don’t always read stories like this because they are overshadowed by bigger, more important characters. Or because they run counter to our expectations. But I like to think of every Bible story as a window to God. Some are bigger than others, but none can contain the whole picture, and if we’re going to come around to see the divine in its totality we have to look from as many windows as we can. So I like to look through the little windows, and wonder what insights they might bring, and what we might see that we wouldn’t otherwise.
As I begin to pay attention to these characters I wonder what they might have to say to us, had the story revolved around them, and not some larger figure.
So today I want to offer what one character might have said, had there been room in the official narrative for him. I speak to you as Obed-Edom, a Philistine who is given the ark for three months before it is finally brought into Jerusalem. When David and those with him see God strike down Uzzah before their very eyes for trying to steady the ark, they are afraid, and move to get rid of the dangerous but holy ark as quickly as they can. Rather than risking God’s wrath himself, David leaves it with Obed-Edom, a resident alien, in Israel. This is what I imagine he might have to tell us, were the spotlight focused on him.
When David and his 30,000 came to my homestead with the Ark of the Covenant, I was afraid. No Philistine is ever all that comfortable surrounded by a Hebrew army. The ark stood before them. It was on a cart pulled by two oxen, and none of them would go near it with a ten-foot pole. I wasn’t particularly excited about it either, the ark had been in my hometown Gath, and it struck so many people with tumors and that eventually we sent it away. I couldn’t imagine what plagues it might bring to my door now.
Then David came forward and declared that he was leaving the ark with me. He acted like it was a great gift, but I could see in his eyes that he was scared and angry. They tell you not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but I asked one of the soldiers as they marched away. What was it that cause them to abort their celebration and bring the ark here?
When I heard what had happened, that Uzzah had reached out to steady the ark and was then struck down, I was even more terrified at the ark. But I guess I was more afraid of the army behind it. When they put it down in my courtyard, I barely protested. It was like they had placed an anvil above my head. That night as the sun set I watched it and wondered when it might crush me.
I didn’t know what to do with it, of course. I knew only that it was holy, and that armies trembled before it. I couldn’t think of anything else, so I knelt down and prayed. (I didn’t quite know how. I’ve never really been all that spiritual, but I mumbled a few words to the God of the Israelites, have mercy on me). I decided that I would do that every night, just in case. It became a rhythm for me. When the sun set, I would set myself down before it in prayer. And as the sun rose I would rise with it to pray before the ark.
At first I prayed in fear, but soon my fear turned into awe. I prayed in awe, and my awe turned into faith. I prayed in faith, and my faith turned into love. I prayed in love and was awakened to God’s presence. Each sun rise and sun set, I became all the more confident in God’s presence in my life. I told God my fears, I told God my worries, and I found my burdens lightened and my weariness lifted. I found comfort, and peace, in the knowledge that God was here with me. I told God my joys, and my spirit soared to share them. I found confidence, for to love God is to trust that God is on your side, in feast and famine, however your lot may fall. I and my house prospered when the ark was with us. Like Abraham my faith was reckoned to me as righteousness, and I was blessed.
Others noticed the blessings which I had received. Each day that I received mercy, I wanted to give it. They noted the confidence with which I walked, the comfort that I had in the knowledge that the Lord was with me. They saw the way it changed me, no one went cold or hungry on my watch anymore. I demand justice, and I give mercy. When word got out of my success, it was only a matter of time before David came to take it back. When he did he brought along another parade, and they went forth to Jerusalem with gladness and celebrations. I followed at a safe distance, quietly mourning as the nation cheered. God was coming to them, but God was also leaving me.
I ate at the king’s feast in Jerusalem, one last meal before I returned home to my old life. All of the people went back to their homes, and I started the journey back to mine. The sun set as I passed the last gate on my way out of Jerusalem. Out of habit, I dropped down on my knees and prayed. I prayed in fear, fear that I would lose this presence that had come to fill my life so deeply. I was afraid that God would be far from me.
But as I prayed my fear turned into awe, awe that God was with me even now. And my awe turned into faith, faith that God will go with me wherever I go. And my faith turned into love, a love rooted in gratitude, a love of God so deep that I will proclaim wherever I go, that the God of Israel, the God of David, Abraham, and Jacob is my God, and God has blessed me with his presence whether the temple is near or far, whether I feel it or not.
I don’t know what to tell you except to proclaim that the Lord lives, and in spite of the dangers we face, the fears we experience, the stress and the frustration and the exhaustion that life can bring with is, God’s presence is real, and it is available to you. You need only to let your fear turn into trust, let your awe turn into praise, let your faith turn into love. Humble yourself before the Lord and you will come to know him as I have.
The Lord dwelled in my house for three months, but I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.