Putting God at the Center

A key part of our Old Testament story this morning is the ark of the covenant. So I’d like to open today with a film clip from “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” You may recall that in the movie, the ark of the covenant is coveted by the Nazis who want to use it as a weapon. In one dramatic scene, the Nazis open the ark to behold and unleash its power. If you’ve seen “Raiders” before, you know what happens next. It does not end well for those who attempted to use the ark for their own nefarious purposes. Oh, and don’t worry! This clip will stop before things get really serious!

When Steven Spielberg made this movie, many probably thought he was making everything up about the ark. The truth is, this scene is not entirely fictitious. The ark did carry with it an unspeakable power – a power that was mishandled and misused by some and they paid dearly for it!

Now, the ark of the covenant was significant to the Israelites for the following reasons: it housed the tablets with the Ten Commandments – literally, the Word of God. But even more than that, the ark symbolized God’s very presence. This might seem strange, but it was an early form of the idea of Emmanuel, which means… “God with us.” It was believed by God’s people that through the ark, God was present with them. And sometimes in fearsome ways, protecting them from harm. The power of God is always for good when people don’t try to use God or treat God with disrespect (see “Raiders of the Lost Ark”). We’ll get back to the ark shortly.

Now the ark had been around for a few hundred years, guiding and inspiring God’s people during their journey through the wilderness, and when they entered the promised land of Canaan. There they fought battles, settled in the area, had judges who led them for a while, but eventually the cry went out that they needed a king. Enter King Saul first, followed by the remarkable and towering figure of King David. You may recall from last week that Ruth and Boaz were ancestors of David. David is mentioned more than anyone in the Old Testament. It was David who was responsible for the unification of the northern and southern kingdoms of God’s people – at least until is split up again. It was David who knew best what to do with the ark and what God’s place was in the monarchy. It was King David who was used by God to establish the glory years of the nation of Israel. The idea of “kingship” came to be defined by David and eventually redefined by a king named Jesus. One can’t fully understand Jesus without knowing about David, the king and the shepherd of Israel.

The two key metaphors for understanding David as king are found in the verses in 2 Samuel 5:1-5 where it speaks of the role of king as “shepherd” and the one who restores the covenant with God. Remember when we talked about the covenant as simply, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” These two, then, shepherd and covenant, are embodied in David in many ways. Jesus, the good shepherd, is the ultimate fulfillment of king as shepherd who cares for his flock. Also, if David helped Israel restore God’s covenant with his people, Jesus completed and fulfilled God’s covenant with us by establishing a new covenant altogether. That’s what the New Testament is: a new covenant. The new covenant is that we are part of a new creation, so live accordingly!

Now, one must remember at this point that David – though a great king – was not a saint. Like every major figure that God works through in the Bible, they are flawed, sometimes deeply. Though often a shepherd to Israel, David could at times act like a stray sheep! For instance, he had that little incident with Bathsheba. One might call it an affair, yet Bathsheba had no choice. Then David had Bathsheba’s husband eliminated. This sounds pretty bad, doesn’t it? One of King David’s qualities was his capacity for passion and devotion. When these qualities are misdirected, though, you can have problems. But when passion and devotion are properly applied, the results can be great and benevolent. So, can God work through people like David? Yes! God works through deeply flawed characters by drawing on their strengths, just like we talked about with Moses. Leadership in the Bible and in the church is about what God does through the leaders, not the leaders themselves.

How about you or me? We’re all compromised and not what we should be, probably. And yet, what this story shows us is that it’s not about us. It’s about God. And in many ways and at many times, King David really got that. You’ll see.

Let’s get back to the ark during the days of King David. Enter the Philistines, a dreaded and powerful enemy of the Israelites who brought an end to the bronze age by pioneering the manufacturing of iron weapons. Plus, they had this guy named Goliath, who was a pretty bad dude, that is until an adolescent named David took him down. Anyway, The Philistines managed to steal the ark from the Jews in a battle. That’s recorded in previous chapters. But the ark proved disastrous for the Philistines because they didn’t understand it and only wanted to use it for their purposes, but God said, “no way.” So, they suffered from all kinds of afflictions until eventually, the Philistines just loaded up the ark on some oxen and sent it back to the Israelites!

Well, shortly after getting it back, one of the Israelites touched it and died, forgetting that it was forbidden to touch the ark. Then later some Israelites died when they opened up the lid to look into the ark. Just like in the movie! The ark housed a power sort of like the power in a power plant. Any Israelites who were not respectful of the power of God paid the price. Note to self: leave the lid on! Now, David becomes very concerned about the power of the ark and hides it at a farm under the care of a man named Abinadab. This was done to keep everyone safe and to try to figure out what to do with the ark.

After a while, David becomes convinced that he needs to move it to Jerusalem. Why? This is where the strength of David is evident. David does things passionately, including loving God. Remember that the ark houses God’s Word and symbolizes God’s presence. David has already discerned that the presence of God is dangerous when not respected or when it is used for one’s own purposes. But the ark is a gift when understood properly! God promised to meet people at the ark, form a relationship with them. And David’s kingdom will be healthiest if God’s Word and presence – in the form of the ark – is at the center of their communal life. David has just united the northern and southern kingdoms and this is a grand opportunity to further unite them by restoring God’s covenant with them by making the ark central to their life and promoting Israel’s religious life. David then creates a big procession to retrieve the ark of the covenant and return it to Jerusalem.

And so, bringing the ark into Jerusalem is the occasion of great celebration. It says David and all of Israel was dancing with all their might! Now that sounds like they are really partying, but in the best sense of the word. They are joyful about God being with them, about God’s Word being given to guide and shape them. Psalm 150 captures the spirit of this celebration:

Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty firmament! 2 Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his surpassing greatness! 3 Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp! 4 Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe! 5 Praise him with clanging cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals! 6 Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!

So, the ark means putting God and the Word at the center. This is something that we can emulate. Our mission statement is all about God’s Word: learn, live and share God’s Word! What would it mean to put God’s Word at the center of our meetings and gatherings? A major part of our vision moving forward is to recommit as David did long ago to putting God, the living Word, at the center of our life together.

Jot down an idea for putting God at the center of our church life, somethingthat we don’t already do…

We live in a world that tempts us to use other people and even to use God. There are religious people who conveniently value being religious because they think it will benefit them economically. Or maybe they join a church and play the Christian game because they think it looks good on their resume. Or maybe someone thinks the Bible is a manual to help them achieve more success. These would all be messing with fire, like opening the ark and trying to harness its power for gain.

When God is at the center, God’s purposes and God’s agendas are also at the center and command our attention. What does God want for the world and for NE Mpls? What does God want from us? Fortunately, we already know God wants life for us, the kind of life that results in dancing with all our might. But God not only wants that for us, God wants that for our neighbor, too. So, as we dance, we must keep an eye for those on the fringes and beyond, who might join our dance, whom God is calling us to.

God, help us to let you be our clear center. Then let us get busy celebrating and loving! Amen.

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Pastor John is Mt. Carmel’s Senior Pastor.

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