12 July 2009

preaching: Two Fear-full Kings

RCL Texts: Proper 10: 2 Samuel 6, Mark 6 Preached July 12, 2009 Allensville/Trinity UMC Charge Roxboro, NC

What makes a great leader?

Powerful presence? Personality? People Skills? Intelligence? Integrity? This question is unavoidable during election season, but also confronts us almost everyday whether we are leaders or whether our station and role is as followers and evaluators. Much money is spent and made in the book publishing, opinion polling, seminar, and educational industries trying to figure out and share some insight on just this question.

This Sunday our Lectionary texts provide us with a couple thought-provoking accounts of biblical “kings”. We are able to examine their mettle to see what they get right and wrong and try to understand, in a biblical framework, what God asks of us as followers of Christ and leaders of our selves, households, churches, businesses, and communities.

The Old Testament reading provides the story of good king David. We know all about David: from his shepherding days on the Judean hillsides, his unlikely defeat of the monstrous Philistine, his flight from Saul & friendship with Jonathan, his anointing as Israel’s king, his sinful rendezvous with Bathsheba and the subsequent slippery slope of deception and sin on to his repentance and the restoration of his legacy as a “man after God’s own heart” (1 Sam 13:14). Here we find David, just after taking hold of the throne (before the Bathsheba episode) bringing up the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem after taking it back from the Philistines. We may not grasp the importance of this ark, but for the people of Israel, it was of utmost consequence. The ark physically expressed God’s presence among God’s people in their travels- and eventually fixed their worship in the City of David- Jerusalem. It kept before them the God they knew, the God that was personal in their history: the God that created them, covenanted with them, blessed them, sustained them in the wilderness, and saved them from their oppressors. Most importantly, it constantly illustrated and reminded them of their God that loves them, perfectly and without condition.

David’s guidance and leadership of the People of God was resoundingly important in the salvation history of Israel. This morning though, we focus not on the act or event performed by David, the physical bringing of the ark, but on the way in which he performed it. The scripture says that he sacrificed in reverence, gratitude, and deference to the Lord. In the end it was not lost on David that the entire meaning of what he was doing in this grand event was for the worship of the Lord. How easy is it for us in our godly pursuits, both great and small, to neglect God, the one we pursue!

We recall Saint Paul’s famous warning & encouragement in 1 Corinthians 13 and imagine David tiptoeing both extremes: both speaking and acting in love and making a lot of noise and ruckus in the meanwhile! We are told: David danced before the LORD with all his might…David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the LORD with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet…[David was] leaping and dancing before the LORD. David’s wild celebration and dancing certainly didn’t spare the emotional fireworks, trumpets, gongs, and cymbals. But due to the unruly, intense, and to borrow Rev. Bogey’s phrase from last week: “Wildness!” in his love of God, his celebration and rejoicing was pleasing and celebratory of God.

We then fast-forward to our gospel reading where the evangelist plops us inside of King Herod’s court, who ironically was not even technically a king, but a weird Jewish/Roman ruling figure known as a tetrarch (who ruled ¼ of Judea, but in actuality had little sway apart from what Rome wanted: a figurehead of sorts). The fact that he is mentioned as a king seems not to be sloppy work by the writer, but rather a way of comparing and contrasting Herod to the one in question: Christ- The King of Kings.

Mark’s account retells what Herod had done to John the Baptizer: had him beheaded! It appears that John had two marks against him: he spoke up against a corrupt marriage of Herod and Herod’s daughter had a grudge against him. One curious little detail in the text is the phrase in verse 20: Herod feared John. Before all this, most of what characterizes John is his wardrobe and his diet: camel hair and locusts. In some ways this might strike fear into the hearts of posh royalty, I’m sure. I’m sure though that John’s truth-telling had more to do Herod’s fear than his kooky appearance. Knowing these two strikes against John (truth-telling and Herodias’ grudge) we find out two important things about “King” Herod’s fear. First, the gospel reading notes that Herod feared John “for he was a holy and righteous man.” Herod is actually pretty on track with this. He kept John safe because John was connected to God. Church tradition is pretty unanimous in John’s role as the voice crying out in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord (Is/Lk 3:4). Herod seems to recognize this. But where he goes wrong is when this healthy fear is superseded by the superficial fear that develops when he makes an unwise promise to his daughter and must face his guests and her. Quite simply, he allowed both personal convenience and selfish fear to overwhelm his fear of the Lord via John!

Afterward we are told that Herod is “exceedingly sorry” for having to carry out such an awful deed, and we must assume that that sorrow sprung from his realization of his own weakness, betrayal, and cowardice. How often do we submit to people and situations of which we are ashamed? We choose against our intuition, against the fear of the Lord and choose to fear men. How often do we let convenience dictate our actions? We seek the wrong things not necessarily because we want them, but because we feel trapped by our options, or intimidated by the consequences.

God, grant us the strength, purity of mind and purpose to fear you. Not humans, not ourselves, but You alone. Grant us patience and endurance. Sustain us in the difficulties and trials we may feel by following you and seeking Your Kingdom and not our own.

We return to the reading from 2 Samuel. If we’ve really paid attention we may realize that the lectionary text omits a crucial aspect to understanding the connection between these 2 stories. David’s success in bringing the Ark up to Jerusalem is actually his team’s second attempt. The first one went wrong in a big and tragic way.

We are told, that David instructed Uzzah and Ahio to bring the ark up. It seems that they chose somewhat of a short cut, or maybe more accurately: an innovation or convenience to do this. They assembled a cart, probably a fancy and well-built cart, to bring the ark up. During their attempt however, it seems they hit a bump in the road and an ox stumbled, in order to save the ark from falling and crashing, Uzzah did what most of us would do and lunged to save it. Then we are told (and its no wonder we don’t read this because it is curious at best) that because of his error Uzzah was struck dead by God (for the KJV purists: Uzzah was smote by God).

What was David’s reaction to this? Following this, David was both angry at and fearful of the Lord. Honesty. Uncertainty. Fear. Recognition of a power beyond his own. Someone else is calling the shots! The narrative then moves on to the second, successful attempt in which they bring the ark up, by hand, to its resting place in the city.

So what are we to make of this? All that anger, fear, and uncertainty gone? The text says that David danced joyously before the Lord with delight and worship- indeed with all his might (echo of Deut 6:5?). The loss of Uzzah was unfortunate, no less than tragic, but it seemed to be a method by which God got David’s attention and redirected the mission of David’s office. It purified David’s work. It stopped David’s work dead in its tracks. The initial failed episode portrayed David as enthusiastic and willing, but careless. In delegation and haste, he lost the essence of his mission. That essence, the primary purpose of his work was the personal, deliberate, and painstaking care of the representation of God- the Ark. Personal, deliberate and painstaking like loving the Lord with heart, soul, and strength! As soon as David had his eyes opened, as soon as his carelessness cost a life, David, being after God’s own heart, reevaluated, angrily struggled, and eventually regained the fear and reverence he never should have forgotten in the first place.

To answer our original question, we may conclude that David’s leadership strength boils down to one thing: fear of the Lord. This strength is the same almost-strength of the almost-king Herod. Herod thought to be afraid; to stop and wonder at the holiness of the Baptist’s person and mission. Then he shelved such an all-important notion in favor of self-preservation and social esteem. Herod’s fear was misguided. Herod’s love was certainly incomplete.

My OT professor over this past year stressed to the point of annoyance that, when we read, we must pay attention to the beginnings and endings of stories; that the main point is often revealed up front or rehashed at the end, and can change the way you look at the rest of the story. Heeding that wise instruction that we find that the whole of the book of 2 Samuel in fact ends with a symbolic display of David’s fear and reverence of God by building an altar to the Lord. Also, in a classic case of fatherly wisdom passed down, we find that Solomon’s first proverb instructs us that “fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” No doubt, David learned to fear the Lord, learned to bend the knee to God out of reverence and out of humble respect. It is in this fear that he ruled over the people of God with justice and provided them and us an example of what it means to lead people by following God. This fear is not a fear of tears and terror though, for we see the profound movement in David’s emotions: from anger→fear→joy. We too must understand that it is in our honest interaction with God, and our fearful reverence of God’s majesty, power, and might that we eventually may rejoice in the salvation and freedom that God provides. So David dances, wildly and without regard to even the disdain of his own wife, because his dance is before the Lord alone and marks the resolution to his intense struggle with his God. We find David not embarrassed, not timid, not trying to be tough or dignified, but utterly joyous and able to act in true, unruly, and wild praise of the God of his salvation.

Theologian Karl Barth once preached of where this came from, the wisdom and fear to which David clung, Herod abandoned, and we seek by explaining, “The fear of the Lord springs from the discovery that God calls us unto himself and that his calling urges us to wake up, to arise, and to begin to live as his children.” It is as God’s children that we jump awake, rise in a joyous Davidic dance together, and live fearful and wonderful lives as created beings of a living, loving God. Amen.

(David painting: Caravagio, John the Baptizer painting: Luini)

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