Worship with all your heart
When there is a war over worship, does anyone win? It is truly a horrifying concept, isn’t it—the worship wars? It implies that when Christians go to battle over worship content and style that there will be victors and the vanquished and that somehow in the whole process God will be honoured. So much of it is a matter of taste and yet there is more to it than just that.
For my study break this year I attended the Festival of Homiletics in Atlanta, Georgia. Homiletics is just the 25-cent word for preaching. This event gathered more than a thousand preachers and teachers of preaching for four days of sermons and lectures. I know it sounds like a slice of hell for everyone but me; I thought it took me a little closer to heaven. Especially Thursday night, which was Ascension Day. This festival is rarely observed in most churches; it is ten days before Pentecost, therefore it is always on a Thursday. The church was packed—my guess would be there were at least 1500 in attendance. Ascension celebrates Jesus leaving earth for heaven and those who put the worship together wanted us to have a sense of being lifted up emotionally and spiritually. It certainly worked for me. Musical elements of worship were taken from works of Franz Joseph Haydn. The anthem was the Hallelujah from Beethoven’s Christ on the Mount of Olives, a glorious piece sometimes called the “other” Hallelujah Chorus. All of this was accompanied by not only the church organ but also by musicians from the Atlanta Symphony.
I was deeply moved by the experience, but on the way back to the hotel, an Anglican pastor from Winnipeg said it was a little too “high church” for him. I couldn’t help but think that perhaps my tastes in worship music were becoming just a bit too narrow. But surely the point of it all is that sense of being drawn closer to God. It seems to me that’s what is being said in the story of the Ark of the Covenant being brought to Jerusalem.
Let’s have a look at the story. Some background here will be helpful. Do you remember when we first hear of Samuel? As a child he is brought to the priest Eli in order to serve him at the tabernacle or tent of meeting. During this time Israel and the Philistines are at war and during one of the battles the two sons of Eli are killed and the Ark of the Covenant, the gold box that contained the two stones on which the Ten Commandments were written, was captured. When Eli heard the news he too died.
The Ark of the Covenant was briefly in the hands of the Philistines who then sent it back to Israel. It was kept by a man named Abinadab. The Ark remains with him for some 20 years. As far as we know Samuel never attempted to retrieve it; nor did Saul. It is David who thinks the Ark ought to be restored to its place as a focus for the worship of God in Israel.
The king takes a cart to the house of Abinadab. He must also have musicians with him because we are told David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the Lord with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals (2 Samuel 6:5). At some point in the journey to Jerusalem there’s a problem. All of us can imagine it: there’s a bumpy spot in the road, or the oxen pulling the cart don’t take a turn smoothly. It looks as if the Ark might fall to the ground. One of the sons of house; someone named Obed-edom becomes the caretaker for the Ark. It stays with him for three months.
Those were three months of blessing says our text. We don’t know exactly what David was doing during that time, but let me do some of that speculating that I enjoy so much. I think once David had allowed his emotions to cool down he said to his advisors, “What went wrong?” I suspect David was told something like this. When you made the decision to bring the Ark back to Jerusalem, you asked what method had been used to transport it to the house of Abinadab. You were told the Philistines put it on a cart pulled by two cows. At that point one of two things, I think, must have happened. Either David did not think to ask if this was the method prescribed by God for moving the Ark, or he did ask and decided the cart method was more efficient.
His emotions having cooled off, David now thinks either he should check out the method prescribed by God for moving the Ark, or he decides he should have never ignored God’s direction in the first place. You see, God had made it quite clear that the Ark of the Covenant was never to be touched. It was constructed with brackets through which poles were inserted. Once the poles were in place, those Levites entrusted with the task were to lift the poles to their shoulders and carry the Ark wherever it was going (Numbers 4:5–15).
David is now confident that he can bring the Ark to Jerusalem because he is now ready to do so in the way that God describes. But now we come to the part of the story that, if we are honest, we find quite troubling.
Here are the pertinent parts of our text:
Verse 14: David danced before the Lord with all his might; David was girded with a linen ephod.
Verse 16: As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart.
Verse 20: David returned to bless his household. But Michal the daughter of Saul came out to meet David, and said, “How the King of Israel honoured himself today, uncovering himself today before the eyes of his servants’ maids, as any vulgar fellow might shamelessly uncover himself.”
There are likely a bunch of things going on here. Notice that the text refers to Michal as the daughter Abinadad, reaches out to steady the Ark. The writer is not sure how to describe what happened—there’s an outburst from God and Uzzah is struck dead. David is obviously stunned by this and becomes afraid. I assume he looked for the nearest of Saul. That particular designation strikes me as important because there is not much left of Saul’s family and Michal is David’s wife. I assume that part of what’s going on here is that as Michal sees David uniting the nation around both his leadership and the worship of their Lord and God, that she felt a bitterness regarding the rejection of Saul as king. Her sarcastic criticism centres, though, on the enthusiasm of David’s worship.
In The Message paraphrase, this is how Eugene Peterson interprets Michal’s greeting to David: “How wonderfully the king has distinguished himself today—exposing himself to the eyes of the servants’ maids like some burlesque street dancer!” There is no way we can know how much skin David ended up showing. Was it an arm, a leg, a bit of his thigh? No matter what it is, we are at very least surprised by the story. The Lord strikes dead a man who puts his hand on the Ark to save it from falling off the cart, but is somehow honoured by the uninhibited gyrations of the partially dressed king. Let’s face it, if you didn’t know the story and I told you only that one of the characters ended up dead, at least 50% of us would guess it was the dancing fool. You know I’m right. Had I arranged to have a dancer interpret today’s story for us, the Chairman of the Board of Deacons would have received at least one call this afternoon—“Hello, Marion, some of us at lunch were discussing whether that dancing was appropriate for worship. It’s bad enough that it’s in the Bible and we have to hear about it. No one wants to see that sort of thing.”
What then is being said in this story that we need to apply to our spiritual lives? Here’s the first thing: the core of our worship experience is a holy matter and needs to be handled with the greatest care. What was the Ark of the Covenant? It was a symbol of the intention of Almighty God to meet with his people. When David brought the Ark into Jerusalem, he was bringing that artefact which told every faithful Jew that the Lord God desired to be in the midst of his people. Is there something that tells a Christian the same thing? Yes and no. He’s not a something, he is a someone; Jesus, Immanuel, God is with us.
I take it then that in this story, God is trying to treat Jesus with the care, the respect, the awe and wonder which he deserves. Can we aim to always be honest about Jesus? With some shame I confess to you there have been times when I have given into the temptation to tell people that Jesus only wants a bit of their time, a bit of their talent and, “oh yes, if you can spare it, a wee bit of your treasure.” That is nothing less than dishonest, what my mother would call a “bald-faced lie.”
We need to take some care with what we sing about the Lord also. We need this care in both hymns and worship songs. A great favourite among gospel hymns is “I stand amazed in the presence of Jesus the Nazarene.” It includes this line— “He had no tears for his own grief, but sweat drops of blood for mine.” Friends, that is utter nonsense. Of course, he grieved for himself—“Father, if there is another way…” There are some worship songs that we do not and will not sing at Blythwood; Jesus is not my buddy and not your boyfriend. The gospel proclaims that Jesus is Lord!
Here’s the second thing: attitude is crucial. During the time we lived in Windsor the radio in my car was set most of the time to a classical music station in Detroit. One of their hosts would often begin his mid-day show with a selection from the sacred classical repertoire. It happened that on one of those days I was in the car as his show began with John Rutter’s setting of, For the beauty of the earth.
“Lord of all, to thee we raise, this our hymn of grateful praise.” I can’t tell you why but tears flowed down my face that day. A yellow Toyota Tercel is not much of a sanctuary, but that is where I might have come as close to worship as I will ever get.