What Kind of House does God Live In? (a sermon on 2 Samuel 7:1-17)

Tent meetings have a long and honourable history in Christianity, especially in evangelical Christianity; a century ago, they were very common. A travelling preacher would come to town; he would find a public space, or perhaps a church would make some property available. The preacher would put up a big tent with room for perhaps two or three hundred seats, and he would post advertisements around town: “Tent meetings this week, Monday to Friday, at such and such a spot!” And people would come, night after night; hymns would be sung, and the preacher would preach the good news of Jesus and invite people to commit their lives to him. Some people would respond; maybe they would even come to the front of the tent to pray with someone and make a Christian commitment. After a week, the meetings would be over, the tent would be taken down, and the preacher would move on somewhere else.

Having the tent gave the preacher mobility. If he’d had a big auditorium, it would have been a lot harder for him to up stakes and move on to the next town. His tent was flexible; as long as he could find a patch of land, he could put it up anywhere. So a tent was ideal for the sort of ministry travelling evangelists were doing. However, most people would not see it as ideal for regular weekly worship, especially in North America. Imagine having tent services in Edmonton in the middle of winter! But even in warmer, Mediterranean countries, most congregations don’t want to worship week by week in a tent. A permanent church building seems to be something most people find appropriate.

So it comes as a surprise for us to remember that, for about four hundred years, from the time Moses led the people out of Egypt until the time of King Solomon, Israel had no permanent place of worship. When they were travelling in the wilderness for forty years, God told them to make him a tent. Of course, it was a bit more elaborate than an ordinary family tent from Campers’ Village! Most of it had no roof, because the priests were going to burn animal sacrifices in it, and it had to be big enough for them to be able to do their work. Right at the centre of this ‘tabernacle’, as they called it, was the place where they stored ‘the Ark of the Covenant’, the ornate box where Moses had placed the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, and there was also a ‘mercy seat’ where Moses and the priests went to offer prayers for the people, and an elaborate candelabra. All well and good – some of this stuff was made of gold, and pretty expensive, but still, at the end of the day, all this was stored in a tent! The people went to meet with God, and to offer sacrifices to God, in a flimsy, impermanent structure.

And God was entirely happy about this. In today’s reading, after King David proposes that he build something more appropriate for the God of all the earth, God reminds him that he’s never asked for anything more elaborate than a tent:

“I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’” (2 Samuel 7:6-7).

God, it seems, is quite content to live in sub-standard housing!

There are a couple of points to notice in these verses. First, what’s God been doing for the past four hundred years? He’s been ‘moving about among all the people of Israel’ (v.7). Temples, in the ancient world, tended to remove gods from the ordinary people; the gods were walled in, separate from the proletariat. And David’s plan to build a house for God in Jerusalem would no doubt involve God and David becoming neighbours; undoubtedly the house would be next door to David’s palace, and a long way away from the low-income housing! But God didn’t want that; God was quite content to slum it with the peasants! God has always been completely happy ‘moving about among the people’!

Second, what’s this about ‘a house of cedar’? Well, two chapters earlier we read that after David captured Jerusalem from the Jebusites and made it his new capital city, Hiram king of Tyre sent him a gift:

‘King Hiram of Tyre sent messengers to David, along with cedar trees, and carpenters and masons who built David a house. David then perceived that the LORD had established him over Israel, and that he had exalted his kingdom for the sake of his people Israel’ (2 Samuel 5:11-12).

David, in other words, had arrived! The youngest of Jesse’s eight sons, the little guy who used to look after his dad’s sheep outside Bethlehem, was now the mighty king over all Israel! Talk about a rags to riches story! And now Hiram, his neighbour king of Tyre, sends workers and materials to build him a house appropriate to his new status as King of Israel. You can be pretty sure that this house would be quite a bit fancier than the houses of the ordinary people of Jerusalem. David was the King, after all; God had exalted him over all Israel, and he needed a house that would emphasize that fact.

You see what’s happening here? David, a man after God’s own heart, a man the Bible calls ‘the sweet singer of Israel’, has been called by God to be shepherd of his people. But he’s in danger of becoming a false, self-serving shepherd, one who uses religion to emphasize his own status and power among the people. He even consults his pastor about it! ‘Nathan, do you think it’s appropriate for me to be living in a house of cedar while God puts up with that ratty old tent?’ Nathan, of course, has visions of preaching in a beautiful new building, and he smiles and says, “Go, do all that you have in mind, for the Lord is with you” (v.3). Preachers, you know, have a weakness for this sort of thing!

But during the night, things change. Like many pastors and priests since then, Nathan had made the mistake of speaking in God’s name without first consulting God to find out what he thought. Nathan thought he already knew what God wanted, and so he had no problem issuing the building permit in God’s name. But during the night, God speaks to Nathan, and the next day the prophet has to go back to the King with his cap in his hand and say, “Sorry, I made a mistake; apparently God’s got other ideas!”

What’s God saying to David, and what does it have to say to us today?

First, quite clearly, God’s saying, “Don’t get big ideas about yourself, David; don’t forget where I found you!”

“I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel” (v.8).

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that when David says to Nathan, “See now, here I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent” (v.2), Nathan and David both apparently assume that it’s God’s housing situation that has to change, and not David’s! Nathan doesn’t say to David, “Okay, then – when are you moving out of the house of cedar?” David is in danger of becoming a king like any other king – one who thinks he’s entitled to live in a splendid palace, with a vast expense account, surrounded by yes-men who will perform his every wish!

Of course, this is so common today that we hardly notice it. We assume that people who have high political office have a right to six-figure salaries and a sumptuous standard of living. The President should live in the White House, the Queen should live in Buckingham Palace, bishops and archbishops should live in bishop’s palaces (as they do in many parts of the world). There’s a verse in the old hymn ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ which we rarely sing today; it says:

‘The rich man in his castle,
the poor man at his gate;
God made them, high and lowly,
and ordered their estate’.

Of course, the idea that the rich man has a right to live in a castle while the poor man begs at his gate may have been very comfortable for Victorian aristocrats, but you can’t find a shred of support for it the teaching of Jesus and his apostles. Jesus told his followers to sell their possessions and give to the poor; he forbade us to store up for ourselves treasures on earth, and he condemned the rich man whose approach to wealth was to tear down his storehouses and build bigger ones while he ignored the poor.

So God is warning David, as he’s warning us, not to get big ideas about ourselves. God is quite content to slum it with the poor, ‘moving about among all the people of Israel’ (v.7). And the Church of Jesus Christ ought to be like him in this. It’s interesting to me how much attention Pope Francis has been getting for this very thing: he’s moved out of the papal palaces and into a small apartment, and he’s doing his best to get rid of the trappings of wealth and power and emphasize simplicity and solidarity with the poor. King David was in danger of forgetting where he had come from, but Pope Francis hasn’t forgotten that. He hasn’t forgotten his call to live in such a way as to remind people of Jesus, who ‘humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death’ (Philippians 2:8).

The second thing God is saying to David is “Don’t get so caught up in what you’re going to do for me, as if I needed your help! I’m the one who’s going to do things for you!”

 In verses 8-17 God spells this out to David. He says, in effect, “I’m the one who’s done all this for you; you didn’t do it for yourself. I took you from your dad’s sheepfold, and made you prince over my people Israel. I’ve given you victory over your enemies and made you secure on your throne. I’ve given my people Israel a place to live, and I’m going to protect them there and give them security, so that their enemies will trouble them no more. You want to build me a house, David? I’ve got a better idea: I’m going to build you a house!” (in Hebrew, as in English, the phrase ‘the house of David’ can mean ‘the house David lives in’, or ‘the family of David, including all his descendents’).

So God says to David,

“When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me… Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established forever” (vv.12-14a, 16).

 Christian interpreters of course have seen Jesus as the ultimate fulfillment of this prophecy. The royal line of David has disappeared today, but Jesus is a descendent of David, and God has anointed him, not just as king of Israel, but as Lord of all. David was messing about building houses of wood and stone, which one day would fall to dust, and all along God had this incredible plan in mind! “You think you’re going to build me a house, David? Wait until you see the house I’m going to build for you!”

Yes, of course we work hard for God, but it’s amazing how it’s often the things we don’t work hard at that come to fruition! One of the pastors I admire the most likes to say that the evangelism we don’t plan often seems to work better than the evangelism we do! We talk about working for the Kingdom of God, but if you read the gospels carefully you’ll see that the Kingdom is never talked about as something we build. We can seek it, we can pray for it, we can do our best to live by its values, but in the end the kingdom of God is something God gives. “Do not be afraid, little flock”, says Jesus, “for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom!” (Luke 12:32). And what does Paul say on the subject? ‘Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure’ (Philippians 2:12-13).

So God is telling David not to get big ideas about himself, and he’s telling him not to get so caught up in what he wants to do for God, so that he misses the amazing things God is going to do for him. Lastly – and this may be the most important thing of all – God is telling him that it’s not a house of wood and stone that God lives in – it’s a family and a people.

 What is the house of God? Is it the Temple that Solomon will build in Jerusalem? What a ridiculous idea! Solomon knew how ridiculous it was, even as he was building it! When he prayed the prayer of dedication for the Temple, he said,

“But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27)

The whole universe cannot contain God, so how can a house built by mere mortals ever do such a thing? House of God? What an astounding idea!

But there was a house that could do that. John’s gospel tells us that after Jesus drove the moneychangers out of the temple in Jerusalem, the religious authorities came to him and asked him for a sign from heaven to prove that he had the authority to do it.

‘Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up”. The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body’ (John 2:19-21).

Jesus is the temple where God lives. Paul says in Colossians, ‘For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell’ (Colossians 1:19). And in Ephesians Paul goes even further than this. Amazing though it may seem, he says, there is still a temple of God on earth today, even though we no longer see Jesus in the flesh. In today’s reading from Ephesians he says that we, the Church of Jesus Christ, are the new temple of God.

‘In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for the Lord’ (Ephesians 2:21-22).

Much as we love this church building where we meet, it is not the house of God. You are the house of God. In the New Testament God has never promised to live in a building; he’s promised to live in people, and especially in the people who gather together in the name of Jesus. Church buildings are fine as long as we treat them simply as convenient places where we can meet together for worship. But if we fall into the trap of making them more important than the people who gather there, then we’re in danger of the same error David almost fell into – treating the work of our hands as more important than the work God is doing among us.

God is building a house far more wonderful than anything we can imagine. It stretches through time and space; it’s made up of people of every tribe, language and nation. You are part of that house, and so am I. And as the psalmist says, ‘This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes!’ (Psalm 118:23). Amen!

Expecting surprises

In yesterday’s reading in ‘New Daylight‘, our Bible passage was John 11:38-44, which is a portion of the story of how Jesus raised his friend Lazarus from the dead:

Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. “Take away the stone,” he said.

“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”

Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”

So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”

When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.

Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.” (NIV 2011 translation)

In her comment on this passage in ‘New Daylight’, Veronica Zundel points out that, although Lazarus’ sister Martha was a woman of faith, she was nevertheless fairly sure she knew what would happen when that tomb was opened: there would be a stench! Common sense told her so; they lived in a hot Mediterranean country, and Lazarus had been dead four days.

How often I am like Lazarus! I’m a person of faith, but I protect myself from disappointment by not expecting too much. There have been times when I have been more expectant, but (like many people) I’ve often experienced the disappointment of not having my prayers answered (or at least, not in a way I wanted or recognized). If you live with this for long enough, eventually it becomes emotionally safer not to expect anything.

Except that then you don’t take risks. Then you live your Christian life on the assumption that it’s all up to you. And maybe you even stop praying altogether, except as a sort of Christian stress-reduction technique. Yes, I feel better after I pray, but do my prayers actually have any effect on the circumstances?

The subject of unanswered prayer is a big one, and I’m not likely to solve it in a short blog post this morning. I do want to come back to this issue of knowing what we’re going to find when we open the grave, though. Veronica says (and this really struck me) that a good definition of faith could be ‘expecting surprises from God’. And I think that’s exactly right.

I’ve seen people come to faith in Christ, at least in part because of words of witness I had spoken to them. What a beautiful surprise! Often I wasn’t expecting anything like that, but God did the unexpected, and it was lovely. Those experiences have made it easier for me to step out in faith and speak words of witness to other people, because, in that one area of my life, I have come to expect God to do the unexpected.

So, God, what you have done in one area of my life, would you please do in others too? Maybe I’m not at the ‘raising Lazarus from the dead’ stage yet, but it would be nice to walk through life with a little more hopefulness, looking forward to the next time when you will surprise me!

Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris: ‘Done with Bonaparte’

Sometimes Mark Knopfler comes so close to sounding like a traditional folk singer. His songwriting is truly brilliant, and this band is pretty good too. Not to mention the backup singer!

We’ve paid in hell since Moscow burned
As Cossacks tear us piece by piece
Our dead are strewn a hundred leagues
Though death would be a sweet release
And our grande armée is dressed in rags
A frozen starving beggar band
Like rats we steal each other’s scraps
Fall to fighting hand to hand

Save my soul from evil, Lord
And heal this soldier’s heart
I’ll trust in thee to keep me, Lord
I’m done with Bonaparte

What dreams he made for us to dream
Spanish skies, Egyptian sands
The world was ours, we marched upon
Our little Corporal’s command
And I lost an eye at Austerlitz
The sabre slash yet gives me pain
My one true love awaits me still
The flower of the aquitaine

Save my soul from evil, Lord
And heal this soldier’s heart
I’ll trust in thee to keep me, Lord
I’m done with Bonaparte

I pray for her who prays for me
A safe return to my belle France
We prayed these wars would end all wars
In war we know is no romance
And I pray our child will never see
A little Corporal again
Point toward a foreign shore
Captivate the hearts of men

Save my soul from evil, Lord
And heal this soldier’s heart
I’ll trust in thee to keep me, Lord
I’m done with Bonaparte

I’m an evangelical Christian because…

I get a little tired sometimes of evangelical Christianity being identified by what it’s against. “You know, they’re the ones who hate gays, and bomb abortion clinics, and oppose teaching evolution in schools” (For the record, none of those three describes me). I’d rather define ‘evangelical’ by what I’m excited about.

I’m an evangelical Christian because I’m excited about Jesus. To me he really is the light of the world; his life and teaching shine a brilliant light on what God is like and what human life is meant to be like. ‘Like father, like son’; I feel in my gut that if there is a God, God has to be like Jesus. As someone once said, ‘In God there is no unChristlikeness at all’.

I’m an evangelical Christian because I love the story of the Cross: it shows us how God treats his enemies – with love and forgiveness – and so becomes the the way of reconciliation with God for all people. I also love the story of the resurrection, which tells me that love is stronger than death (love wins!), and that God has made Jesus Lord of all.

I’m an evangelical Christian because I’m excited about grace – God’s unconditional love poured out on all people, the good, the bad, and the ugly, not because we deserve it but because God is love. Grace is the hope of the world; if there’s no grace, we have no hope. For me, this is bedrock; because God is graceful, I don’t need to be afraid.

I’m an evangelical Christian because I’m excited about the Bible, in all its mystery and wonder. Evangelical Christianity wants to get back as close as possible to the original story of God’s grace in the life of Jesus and the early church, and we believe that the books of the New Testament are the best window we have into that exciting and foundational time. I love the Bible, even though I often don’t understand it and it regularly infuriates me, because when I take it as a whole and understand it through the lens of the story of Jesus, it is indeed ‘a lamp for my feet and a light to my path’.

I’m an evangelical Christian because I’m excited about evangelism. Jesus continues to make a huge difference in my life, and as I talk to people who are spiritually curious, I love helping them come closer to the light of God in Jesus. And I love the fact that I can relax and enjoy this process, because at the most fundamental level it’s God’s work, not mine.

I’m an evangelical Christian because I’m excited about conversion. I have a conversion story of my own – the time when the light of Jesus first flooded into my life – and I’ve seen other people get converted too. To me, it’s a beautiful miracle, and there’s no thrill like being a part of it in the lives of others.

I’m an evangelical Christian because I love the vibrant community of people who know Christ and want to know him better, and who want to meet to learn more about him and to share his love with each other and the world around them. Small group learning and larger gatherings for worship with these folks are awesome experiences for me!

I’m an evangelical Christian because I love a simple approach to worship. I’m not against a written liturgy (I’m an Anglican, after all!) – in fact, I love the way a written liturgy gathers all the different elements of worship together in a way that all can participate in. But I don’t like it when it’s too wordy and too full of rituals. I don’t like crowded worship services; I love worship services that leave me lots of room to sense the touch of the living God.

I don’t think evangelical Christianity has everything right, and I don’t think there’s nothing we can learn from other Christian traditions. But at the end of the day, this tradition is my spiritual home, not because of what it’s against, but because of what it’s for. I’ve been blessed to be part of it, and it continues to bring great blessing into my life, and for that I’m very grateful.

Does God Strike People Dead? (a sermon on 2 Samuel 6:1-19)

2 Samuel 6:1-19

Today I’m going to talk about this strange story in the Old Testament of how a man was apparently struck dead by God for the simple act of trying to steady the ark of God when it was about to slide off the cart it was being carried on. What on earth is that all about? What sort of God would strike a man dead for doing a thing like that? In a world where there was child sexual abuse, slavery, misogyny and a host of other obvious evils, how could God be so petty? Didn’t God have bigger fish to fry?

This is not simply a case of our modern age having different standards; that may be true, but it’s not a complete explanation for this story. How do I know that? I know, because David was apparently as outraged as we are! Verse 8 says ‘David was angry because the LORD had burst forth with an outburst upon Uzzah’. David did not find this acceptable behaviour on God’s part! David was afraid, and he stopped the whole procession; “How can the ark of God come into my care?” he asked (v.9). ‘So David was unwilling to take the ark of the LORD into his care in the city of David; instead David took it to the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite’ (v.10) (lucky Obed-Edom!).

So how are we going to understand this? Well, let’s start by addressing an issue that might be a little easier to understand: flags.

When it comes to flags, there’s an awful lot of emotion tied up in a bit of cloth. That’s because it’s not just a bit of cloth, of course. To many people, the flag of their country symbolizes the country itself; to be disrespectful to the flag is to be disrespectful to the country. To burn the flag is sacrilegious, even if the country is officially on the side of free speech and free expression of opinion.

Flags have ceremonies attached to them. When I was a cub scout, all those years ago, one of the things I was taught is that you don’t leave a flag flying after dark; it’s disrespectful to the flag to fly it when it can’t be seen. So there are flag-raising ceremonies at dawn, and flag lowering ceremonies at dusk, and if you’ve got a bugle, there are appropriate tunes to be played, too.

If we understand the way people tend to see flags, it will help us to understand the way Israel saw the ark of God – or, to use its full title as in verse two, ‘the ark of God, which is called by the name of Yahweh of hosts who is enthroned on the cherubim’. Just as flags are symbols of the countries they represent, so Israel saw the ark as the most important symbol of God’s presence with them.

The word ‘ark’ is actually a little misleading; we’re not talking about anything like Noah’s ark here. The ark was a highly ornate ceremonial box in which Moses had placed the two tablets of the Ten Commandments. It was nearly four feet long, just over two feet wide, and just over two feet high; it was overlaid with gold, with two large solid gold angels, or cherubim, mounted on top of it (by the way, put baby cherubs right out of your mind; Old Testament cherubim were warrior angels, and they were scary, not cute); it had rings on each side to insert the golden bars by which it was to be carried by the Levites. By the way, many biblical scholars think it would have been extremely heavy, with all that wood and solid gold. If Uzzah had gotten underneath it and it had fallen on him, it could easily have killed him!

In the desert Israel did not have a temple; it had a moveable house of worship, a glorified tent, which our Bibles call ‘the tabernacle’, and for hundreds of years after they arrived in the promised land, Israel seems to have continued to house the ark in the tabernacle, or something like it. It wasn’t until the time of David, apparently, that anyone thought the ark might need something more elaborate; more about that in next week’s reading!

A few decades before our story took place, a calamity happened to the ark. In the days when Eli was acting as priest, the Philistines were attacking the nation, and they won a great victory against Israel. The Israelites thought they needed a little extra firepower, and so they sent word to Eli that the ark of God was to be brought from Shiloh, where it lived, so that God could lead them in battle against their enemies. You just know, when you hear this, that it’s not going to work out well!

And so it was. Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, brought the ark down to the battlefield, and the troops gave a great shout when they saw it arrive; now the Lord was really with them, they thought! But in fact, the arrival of the ark had the opposite effect. The Philistines heard about it, and they said to each other, “These are the gods who routed the Egyptians; we’re going to have to fight really hard to defeat them!” And fight hard they did, and they won again; Eli’s two sons were killed, and the enemies of Israel captured the ark of the covenant.

But the Philistines didn’t get to gloat for very long! Everywhere they took the ark, it caused trouble! People in their towns started getting sick. When they placed the ark in the temples of their gods, the statues of their gods started falling down and breaking in front of it. And eventually the Philistines said to each other, ‘we’d better send it home’. So they put it on a cart, hitched it up to a couple of cows, and off it went, across the border, to Beth-shemesh. From there it was taken to Kiriath-Jearim, also called Baale-Judah, and there the Israelites left it for many years.

Until David came along. As we read last week, David had been crowned king of the united kingdom of Israel and Judah; he had left his ancient capital of Hebron and had captured the Jebusite city of Jerusalem, which was close to the border between Judah and Israel, to be his new capital city. David was a man who loved God and genuinely tried to follow God, but he was also a man who had faults and character flaws, as we saw last week. And, like many kings before and after him, he wasn’t above using religion to increase his own power, if he could get away with it. And what better way to raise the prestige of his new capital city than to bring the ark of God there! Then everyone who wanted to consult with God would need to come to Jerusalem, the city of David!

I’m not claiming that David’s motives were entirely political. As we’ve seen, even though he had very real character flaws, David genuinely loved God. I’m sure he felt that his capital city would not be complete unless it was also the national centre for the worship of the God of Israel. What could be more appropriate and more natural than that? But David would have had to be more than human if he had not also been keenly aware of the political advantages this would give him.

And so we come to this incident on the road that causes David – and us – so much grief. Kiriath-Jearim isn’t far from Jerusalem – you can actually see it in the distance – and so it would be a short journey for David’s triumphal procession. But then disaster strikes. As the ark approaches the threshing floor of Nacon, the oxen stumble and the cart teeters. Without thinking, Uzzah reaches out to steady it. And that’s the last thing he does.

What happened? Did God actually strike Uzzah dead because of his presumption?

It’s hard to tell, even if you take the story as essentially historical, as I do. The reason it’s hard to tell is that Old Testament people tend to ascribe everything that happens, whether good or evil, to the will of God. When bad things happen to Job and his wife mocks him for not cursing God, he says, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” (Job 2:10). And earlier in the story of David, we’re told that after his predecessor Saul was rejected as king of Israel, ‘the spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD tormented him’ (1 Samuel 16:14).

An evil spirit from the Lord? How can an evil spirit come from the Lord? Isn’t the Lord holy, and separate from all that is evil? Yes he is, and we can see as we look at the big picture of the Bible that the authors are struggling with an issue that we struggle with too: how do we relate the greatness and power and love of God to the obvious presence in the world of evil things? There is no explanation of that problem that crosses all the ‘t’s and dots all the ‘i’s! Generally speaking, the Old Testament writers tended to lean toward the explanation that somehow, mysteriously, it all came from God, whereas the New Testament authors tended toward the idea that ‘God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all’ (1 John 1:5).

So did God strike Uzzah dead? Or did Uzzah, who had been brought up with the idea that contact with a holy God was dangerous, suddenly realize what he had done, and have some sort of extreme physiological reaction to it, which the onlookers interpreted as an act of God? The text doesn’t specify exactly how Uzzah died. As Marci pointed out to me earlier this week, it’s entirely possible that when he was trying to steady the ark he somehow got under it, and it fell on him!

I expect different people will come up different answers to the question of whether or not this actually was an act of the God who Jesus describes to us as a caring father, the one who knows us so well he knows how many hairs we have on our heads. But what we do see for sure in the story is that at this point David was brought up short. He was angry with God, but he was also afraid. “How can the ark of the LORD come into my care?’ (2 Samuel 6:9), he asks.

So he leaves the ark at the home of Obed-Edom for three months. Strangely, only good things happen to Obed-Edom: ‘The LORD blessed Obed-Edom and all his household’ (v.11). So David decides to take the risk again. This time, though, he offers elaborate sacrifices along the way, treating the ark with all the respect he can muster. And the result is a happy celebration for everyone in Israel.

Everyone, that is, except for Michal. Who was Michal? She was the daughter of old King Saul. Years ago, when Saul had been looking for a man to kill Goliath, he had offered her as a reward; the man who kills this giant will have my daughter as his wife – he will become the king’s son in law. David, of course, had been successful against Goliath, and so Michal had become his wife.

We’re told in the text of 1 Samuel that Michal genuinely loved David (1 Samuel 18:20), but we’re never told that David loved her. Her father had used her as a reward for political and military service; later on, when David fell out of favour and had to run away from Saul, Saul took her back and gave her in marriage to another man, Paltiel, and she lived with him for many years. But after her father’s death, when his old general Abner was negotiating with David to make him king over all Israel and Judah, David made Michal part of the asking price: “Give me my wife Michal”, he demanded. Of course, his reasons were entirely political; Michal was the daughter of the old king, and marriage to her gave David dynastic legitimacy in the eyes of the old guard in Israel. Once again, there is no evidence that David loved Michal for herself; she was a political symbol. And understandably, she had no desire to be taken away from the husband she had lived with for many years, who loved her, and given once again to David. But her desires weren’t taken into account. Hence her bitterness toward David in this story: ‘she despised him in her heart’ (v.16).

As we saw last week, David was a real human being with huge character flaws, and he was living in a patriarchal society where misogyny was very common. We can be grateful for the mercy and patience of God, that God takes us as we are, loves us anyway, forgives our sins and gives us second chances and third chances and maybe even three hundredth chances. But we should never take that for granted and use it as an excuse to continue doing things that God has told us quite clearly are wrong.

It’s clear that David, a man after God’s own heart, a man who wrote many wonderful psalms that we still use in worship today, had a weakness for using things, and people, and sometimes even God, for his own ends. His motivation for bringing the ark to Jerusalem was probably not entirely pure; he wanted to honour God, but he wanted God to honour him too, and he wanted the ark in his capital city for that purpose.

And this is not just ancient history. Today there are still politicians, on the left and the right of the political spectrum, who want to use God to score political points against their adversaries. But God does not take kindly to that. God is not in anyone’s pocket; God does not belong to anyone. I like what Treebeard says in The Lord of the Rings: “I am not altogether on anyone’s side, because nobody is altogether on my side!” I suspect there are times when God feels that way too!

Our psalm for today says, ‘The earth is the LORD’s, and all that is in it, the world, and all who live in it’ (Psalm 24:1). God does not belong to us; we belong to God. So the proper attitude for us to take before the Creator of heaven and earth is not to enlist him to promote our own agenda, whatever it might be. Rather, we should be approaching him with reverence, which I think is what the Book of Proverbs means when it says ‘the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom’ (Proverbs 9:10).

And of course, there are still people who want to use other people as pawns or tools for their own ends, rather than loving them as human beings made in the image of God. Sadly, this was a lesson that David found it very hard to learn. Only a few chapters later, we find the story of his adultery with Bathsheba, as I mentioned last week, and then his murder of her husband so he could take her for himself. Once again, just as he had done with Michal, David used a woman for his own ends, and then mercilessly had her husband killed to get him out of the way.

It’s been observed that we were created to love people and use things, but far too often we have loved things and used people. This has a tendency not to work out too well, and that was certainly the case for David; as I said last week, his family life was always a mess. David needed to learn the age-old lesson: love your neighbour as yourself, and do to others as you would have them do to you.

I suspect we’ll never come to agreement about what exactly happened to Uzzah, although personally I lean toward the idea that it was an unfortunate accident of some kind that the Israelites interpreted as God’s punishment on Uzzah for touching the ark (an ‘act of God’, as the insurance companies say!). But if we take the story as a whole, there are lasting lessons in it for us. God is not to be used to serve our own agenda, and neither are people. God is to be approached with reverence and awe, remembering the words of the psalmist: ‘The earth is the LORD’s, and all that is in it, the world, and all who live in it’ (Psalm 24:1). God does not belong to us; we belong to God.

God is to be approached with reverence, and so are people. As C.S. Lewis once said, your neighbour is one of the holiest objects you will ever see. People are made in the image of God, and each of them is loved by God. So we should not use people as objects in our own selfish and self-centred plans. The Michal story reminds us that women have often been subjected to this throughout history, and we should be vigilant about that. But it’s not just a male-female problem: it’s a human problem. We have to learn to let go of our tendency to love things and use people, and learn to follow Jesus in using things and loving people.

Approach God with reverence. Approach human beings with reverence too. That’s the lasting lesson of this passage for us today. May God give us courage and strength to do that. Amen.

Why am I a Christian – Part 2

Yesterday I answered the question ‘Why am I a Christian?’ in terms of the process by which I became a Christian, outlining very briefly the story of my conversion as a young teenager. This is a very important story to me and I have no doubt that without it my life would have taken a radically different course.

But why am I still a Christian today? Why don’t I find the arguments of the new atheists persuasive? Why aren’t I so discouraged by the imperfections of the church that I follow the lead of many others of my generation and drop out altogether?

Quite simply, the most important answer is ‘Jesus’. It is the person of Jesus who is the centre of my Christian life, and it is the story of his life and teaching that keeps me in the faith today.

I find his vision of the Kingdom, or Reign, of God compelling. It’s so much more attractive to me than the Kingdom of the American empire, of the Kingdom of Google, or the Kingdom of Big Oil, of the Kingdom of ‘Whatever makes you feel good…’ The idea that the world is broken by evil but still loved by God, and that God is quietly working through individuals to spread his reign of justice and love, inspires me and gives me hope. And it makes perfect sense to me that this Kingdom is about love, justice, compassion and community, not about profits or power or ‘the one who dies with the most toys wins’.

Jesus has such a knack for getting right to the heart of the issue. When he asks, “What good is it for a person to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Mark 8:36), we know instinctively that he’s right. Ditto, when he says, “Life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 13:15), or “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?” (Luke 13:25). The way he sums up God’s commandments in terms of our primary relationships – ‘Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself’ – is so profound and yet so challenging (‘all my heart?’ ‘as myself?’).

I love the fact that Jesus walks around quietly ignoring the power structures and authorities of his day. His contemporaries assumed that the best place to meet God was the Temple in Jerusalem, but Jesus seems to assume that he is the Temple: if you want to meet God, be forgiven, be healed, come to him and ask! He reaches out to outcasts and ‘sinners’, heals even the servants of enemy soldiers, and forgives those who crucify him. He’s not above speaking harsh words to hypocrites and he’s not afraid to make it hard for people to follow him.

Jesus defies categories. He’s not conservative and he’s not liberal; he’s not capitalist, but he’s not socialist either. He’s not judgemental (except when he is), but he’s not a wishy-washy ‘come to me and carry on living just the way you were’ kind of guy either. Conservatives like to paint Christianity as being all about family, but in fact Jesus doesn’t have much to say on that subject (although what he does say is challenging, especially about divorce). Liberals like to paint him as all about inclusivity, and it’s true that he reaches out to people seen as ‘beyond the pale’ by the respectable, but he sets the bar pretty high for his followers too. He annoys me as well as inspiring me, and I like that. After all, if I think I agree with everything he says, then I’m probably following me, not him, right?

Quite simply, when I look around at the world today, I can’t seen anyone else who seems to understand the root causes of its problems the way Jesus does. I can’t see anyone else who has as compelling a vision for the transformation of the world as Jesus does. Deep down in my heart, I know instinctively that if there is a God, he has to be like Jesus. ‘Like Father, like Son’ makes sense to me; I believe that Jesus is the Son of God, because I believe the vision of God that Jesus gives me, and Jesus himself reminds me of that vision.

Why am I a Christian today? Because of Jesus. I believe that following him is the best way of being human and the best way of knowing God. And I have to say that every day I continue to live serves only to strengthen that belief in me.

Why Am I A Christian? – Part 1

A good question for all Christians to ask themselves sometimes is ‘Why am I a Christian?’

Atheist writers have sometimes challenged us by saying, “Your faith is predetermined by the fact that you grew up in a Christian country. If you’d been born and raised in Saudi Arabia, you’d be a Muslim”. Well, there’s some truth in this, of course, but it isn’t working too well these days. Anyone seen the church attendance statistics in the ‘Christian countries’ of the west lately? Yeah – that’s a thing of the past! Obviously the Christian countries were good at making people who went along with conventional Christianity, but not actual disciples of Jesus.

Being raised in a ‘Christian country’ (actually, I don’t believe there is any such thing) definitely didn’t make me a Christian. Being raised in a Christian country meant I was subjected to ‘Christian worship’ at school, much of which was led by people who weren’t Christian. My first year of high school Religious Education was taught by a man who self-identified as an atheist.

Nor am I a Christian because I was baptized as a baby. Many, many people were baptized as babies when I was growing up, and very few of them went on to follow Jesus. Infant baptism wasn’t enough to bring them to a living faith in Christ; something else was needed. Even those who went to church didn’t necessarily ‘catch’ faith; I’ve talked to many lifelong churchgoers who readily admit that they don’t really know God in any personal way.

No: the main reason I am a Christian today is that, when I was a young teenager, I had a conversion experience. It began with reading Dennis Bennett’s Nine O’Clock in the Morning, and reached its fruition a few months later when my dad gave me a gentle challenge: ‘You’ve never given your life to Jesus, have you?’ Later that night I sat on my bed in my room and prayed a simple prayer giving my life to Jesus. Not long after that my dad taught me how to have a daily prayer and Bible reading time, and I started attending a midweek prayer and study group.

These were the events that brought faith alive for me. I haven’t had dramatic mystical experiences in my faith life, but I do regularly experience a sense of the presence and peace of God. I have also experienced the guidance of God in terms of ‘hunches’ about what I should do (which have almost always worked out well). So I’m happy to say ‘God is a living presence in my life’ (although I don’t want that to sound more dramatic than it really is).

So far, of course, I’ve answered the question in the past tense – not so much ‘Why are you a Christian?’ as ‘How did you become a Christian?’ It’s a valid way to answer the question – how I became a Christian has a lot to do with why I am a Christian today – but there’s more to it than that. Come back tomorrow for the second part…