Saturday, November 7, 2015

“Putting God at the Center” - November 1, 2015

Texts: 2 Samuel 5:1-5, 6:1-5, Psalm 150

I tend to be a political junkie, and I’ve watched at least a part of all the presidential debates of both parties.  It is hard to stay engaged all the time, but Zoe put me on to fantasy politics.  It’s like fantasy football, but you basically buy shares of candidates that rise and fall based on what all of the thousands of participants think that candidate’s chances of winning the debate are.  (And when I say buy, I mean using the virtual play money you get with the game – I don’t want you to think that I’m gambling on presidential debates.)

The share prices fluctuate wildly during the debate, and so even if you are not that interested in what the candidates are saying, you can be buying and selling and wheeling and dealing throughout the debate. 

Nerdy stuff, I know.  But watching politics is an age-old pastime, dating back to Biblical times and beyond.  We actually got a good dose of it in our scripture this morning.  

Last week we heard the story of Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth.  Ruth, you may remember, is from the country of Moab but she returned with Naomi to Naomi’s home town of Bethlehem, in Israel, after both of their husbands had died.  Ruth married Boaz, a relative of her deceased husband, and Ruth becomes the grandmother of Jesse and the great-grandmother of King David.

Ruth and Naomi lived in the time of the judges - leaders of Israel under a decentralized form of government.  A judge was not a hereditary position.  Some of the judges are fairly familiar names to us.  There was Gideon, who defeated the Midianite army with only 300 men equipped with trumpets.  There was Samson, of Samson and Delilah fame.  And there was Deborah, who judged over Israel and was a prophet and warrior.  It is amazing that around 1000 BC, a woman was chosen to lead Israel.  Three thousand years later, plenty of countries still haven’t done that.

But the people in time grew tired of judges.  Breaking tradition, Samuel in his old age had named two of his sons to succeed him as judges.  Samuel’s sons were corrupt, known to take bribes, and generally a piece of work, and that was it.  The people wanted to have a king, like all the other nations.

The people were warned that a king would take their sons as soldiers and their daughters as domestic staff, that he would take their best fields and olive groves and cattle and sheep and horses and that a king would tax them heavily to support his lifestyle.  It was a “be careful what you ask for” kind of deal, a warning to the people, but the people were insistent.  They wanted a king.  So God said, “All right, you can have a king, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Saul was the first king.  It started out all right, and Saul certainly looked the part, but in time he turned from God and proved to be a poor leader.  So God looked for a new king and chose the shepherd boy David.  As a youth, David defeated the Philistine giant Goliath.  He became a musician in Saul’s court; when Saul had a troubled spirit David would play the harp for him.  As he grew older David became a great military leader.  But Saul became jealous of David’s success and popularity.  Saul became paranoid and tried to kill David.  It led to a civil war.  In the end, Saul died in battle along with three of his sons, including Jonathan, who was David’s best friend.

David becomes king of Judah, the southernmost tribe, while Ish-bosheth, the remaining son of Saul, is installed as king of the northern tribes of Israel.  After protracted fighting, David is finally victorious.

This is the rather long back story to our scripture for today.  In the wake of Ish-bosheth’s death, the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah are united.  David then leads Israel in battle, capturing the Jebusite fortress of Jerusalem and establishing it as capital of a united Israel.

David consolidates power in the new capital and is a popular leader.  He is magnanimous toward Saul’s remaining family and supporters.  He is faithful and a person of integrity; the Bible describes him as “a man after God’s own heart.”  In terms of building national unity and encouraging faithful worship, there is one symbolic act remaining: bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem.  

If nothing else, you probably know about the Ark of the Covenant from the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark.  The ark contained the law – the Ten Commandments on the stone tablets Moses had brought down from Mt. Sinai.  But the ark was more than that – it represented the very presence of God.  It was the holiest and most precious treasure of the Hebrew people.

During Saul’s wars, the Philistines had won a battle and carried off the ark to the Philistine city of Ashdod.  But it had not gone well for them; the people of the city were afflicted with mice and hemorrhoids.  How’s that for a plague?  So the ark was sent to another city, but the citizens there suffered the same result.  The Philistines decided they wanted  no part of the ark and sent it back to the Israelites along with what was basically a “we’re sorry” offering of five golden mice and five golden hemorrhoids.  (Anybody who thinks the Bible is dull just needs to read it a little more.)

The ark was now on the fringes of Israel, basically just sitting on a farm.  David decides to retrieve the ark and bring it back to the center of Israelite life and worship, to the new capital city of Jerusalem.  It is an occasion of unbridled joy.  There is great rejoicing with instruments and singing and dancing and exuberant celebration, with King David himself leading the way. 

The story of David’s rise to power speaks to us in several ways.  First, it says something about the nature of leadership.  Just looking at things pragmatically, David was a shrewd politician.  The way that Ish-bosheth, Saul’s son who had been king of the northern kingdom, came to an end is that a couple of assassins took him out.  That is the way the long civil war ended.  Thinking that this would please David, they brought Ish-bosheth’s head to David.  

Guess what? David was not pleased.  He had never wanted this civil war, he had never wanted to fight Saul, and this is not the way the war was supposed to be fought.  There was an honorable way to do things and this was not it.  To him, Saul was more of a sad and tragic figure than an enemy, and even if Ish-bosheth led an opposing army, this was Saul’s son.  So rather than being pleased, he had the two assassins executed.

I know, the story is filled with violence and in places it reads like a movie script.  You can say whatever else you want, but what David does is politically smart.  This helped to bring Saul’s people on board.  For those who supported Ish-bosheth, David doesn’t have to be the bad guy.  David comes off as an honorable king.

Likewise, the move to Jerusalem was brilliant.  First, everyone said that Jerusalem couldn’t be captured, that it was essentially an impregnable fortress, but David captured it anyway, which made him look pretty good.  Moving the capital there showed political smarts.  It was a neutral site, so to speak, not identified with any of the tribes in particular.  It was a little like establishing Washington DC as our nation’s capital.  It’s not in any state but is its own district.  The move to Jerusalem would cut down on complaints of favoritism for David’s tribe, or any other.  It would be a shared capital, truly a national capital, and none of the tribes could claim special status or ownership.

And then bringing the ark to Jerusalem cemented this new capital as the center of national life.  The ark was a matter of national pride.  It harked back to the time of Moses.  It was a symbol of God’s presence with the people.  There is no question but that David was a shrewd political operative.  When it came to ruling, when it came to building a nation and getting the people on board, David knew what he was doing.  In fantasy politics, I would definitely buy stock in David. 

To say that David was a smooth political operator is not necessarily a bad thing.  We don’t have to view his actions in a cynical or opportunistic light.  David can be seen as truly doing what is best for the nation.  He was setting a model of integrity and fairness, a model of equality among people and tribes.  He is beginning a reign in which, at least at the outset, all people matter, a reign in which truth and integrity are front and center.  And above all, he is establishing a kingdom in which he will put God first.    

After Ish-bosheth died, the leaders of all the tribes of Israel came to David and said, “We are your bone and flesh.  For some time under Saul, you were really the one who led Israel.  The Lord made you to be the shepherd of Israel.”  And they anointed David king.

The people had been warned before that a king would take, take, take.  Take their sons, their daughters, their servants, their flocks, their fields, their horses.  This is what kings do.  But David is supposed to be a shepherd to Israel.  One who will give, give, give.  One who protects.  One who nurtures, shelters, provides food.  To be a shepherd of the people is a huge shift in what it means to be a king.  It’s a tough assignment.  David has royal power, but he has the responsibility to use that power not for himself but for the sake of others, for the sake of the nation, to further God’s kingdom.

David will struggle with the right use of power, struggle mightily at times.  Time and again, God will hold him accountable.  Because of choices that he makes, David will experience heartache and tragedy.  Because even the king is accountable.  Even the king has a king.

This leads us to the ark.  The Ark of the Covenant had been taken away by the Philistines.  It is in Israel, but barely, basically abandoned on Abinadab’s farm.  David brings the Ark to the center of Hebrew life, to the center of the nation.  Representing God’s very presence, the Israelites were reminded that in the end, God was the one with real power.  God was the one who was finally in control.

This confronts us with the question, “Where is God in our lives?”  Is God on the fringes, off to the side, out in the boonies at the end of a dirt road, as it were, or is God right in the thick of things?  Is God at the center?

Do we set aside an hour every Sunday for worship and then set God off to the side for the rest of the week?  Or do we see God as being with us in all times and places – with us in the good and the bad, both in times of joy and times of sorrow?

Putting God at the center means that we develop the values and the practices and try to follow the ways of Jesus even in the midst of thorny problems at work, even when dealing with painful situations in our family, even when facing disappointment, even in the midst of financial challenges and crushed hopes and broken relationships.  Or even when leading a nation, as was the case for David.

It’s not easy, to be sure.  But we can begin to put God at the center as we give ourselves to God in worship.

Psalm 150 is the last of the Psalms.  Some scholars think that it was added to the collection as a fitting conclusion of praise to God – a kind of capstone on the Psalms.  It is attributed to King David, who was not only a shepherd and military leader and ruler, but as we have said, a skilled musician.

Praise God in the sanctuary, praise God in the firmament, or the expanse of the heavens.  Praise is to be offered not only here within these walls as we gather for worship, but over all of creation.  Praise God with trumpet and lute and harp and tambourine and dance, with strings and pipes and cymbals.  Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.
The way we orient our lives toward God, the way we can move God toward the center of our lives, is through worship.   

This morning we will gather at the Lord’s Table as we share together in communion, celebrating God’s love for us and God’s presence with us.  Brian Wren is an English hymn writer – we sing some of his hymns.  He was leading a workshop on worship at a church in the U.S. that concluded with a communion service.  They were taking communion by intinction – tearing some bread off of the loaf and dipping it in the cup.

This was a church where things were done decently and in order – they cared about decorum and the dignity of worship.  As worshipers came to the front for communion, they were tearing off tiny little pieces of bread and then very carefully dipping them in the cup.  But a little girl was in line and it came her turn.  She tore off a big old hunk of bread and then kind of sloshed it in the cup and ate it. 

People were offended – they thought it was completely inappropriate.  But Brian Wren said that she was the only one who came admitting her need, the only one who expected to be fed, and the only one who found joy in the meal.

Worship can change us.  All of us - even kings.  We bring our need and we can find joy and hope and healing.  And God can meet the deep hunger in our hearts.

We are like the Israelites.  In worship we are reminded that God is at the center of our world and the center of our lives.  We are also like David – we are both broken and blessed, saints and sinners at the same time, and we are loved by God, the true king, the real power, who calls us to be the givers – who calls us to be the shepherds of this world.  Amen.

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