Saturday, July 30, 2011

Serious Business

N.B.: If reading some thoughts on a Biblical passage isn't your cup of tea, you can move along.
David and all the people with him set out and went from Baale-judah, to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the Lord of hosts who is enthroned on the cherubim. They carried the ark of God on a new cart, and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new cart with the ark of God; and Ahio went in front of the ark. 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.

When they came to the threshing-floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen shook it. The anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and God struck him there because he reached out his hand to the ark; and he died there beside the ark of God.
2 Samuel 6:2-7
If you aren't made uncomfortable by this story, then you aren't paying attention. If you aren't challenged by this story, then you don't really care. If you want to skip this story, then you are a coward. How is it possible that we Christians can proclaim in faith after this story, "This is the word of God"? How do we reconcile the murder of Uzzah with our profession of the boundless, unmerited grace of a God who wants only to live with us?

Rather than just skip over this story, or try to create some way of squaring a circle rhetorically, I think it is best just to let this story stand here and tell us what we are about as people of faith. When we are met by the risen Christ, the question we all must ask is, Who is this God, who has given all that we may live in blessed community together for this God? More than any profession of creation, more than any doctrinal statement regarding incarnation, more than any words lifted in song in praise of some abstract idea of "God", this story stands as testimony to the One who meets us.

When Moses encounters the LORD in the burning bush, he is commanded to remove his shoes as he approaches because Moses is now treading upon holy ground. When we proclaim, with the Psalmist, that the LORD alone is holy, we may if we give the word a thought, consider Moses' bare feet on the rocky hillside. Uzzah, however, his lifeless body lying next to the Ark of the Covenant, isn't much remembered or remarked upon. I contend, however, that this moment of Divine wrath and destruction tells us what we really need to know about holiness, about Divinity, about the God who meets us in Jesus Christ. The fire of the Spirit that warmed the heart of John Wesley, that kindles in our hearts when we sit in the quiet of prayer, is as nothing compared to the inferno that struck out at Uzzah, who, in his defense, sought to protect the Ark of the Covenant.

This needs to be kept in mind. Uzzah and his brother, Ahio, are in charge of chaperoning the Ark with the royal company and the army. As they are moving along, the Ark jostles. Uzzah does little more than any one of us would have done. He reaches his hand to the Ark to steady it, to keep it from falling, perhaps breaking. It is more than just a box holding the stone tablets of the Law. It is the throne of the LORD, traveling with the King and the King's army, Emmanuel, God with them.

For this perfectly understandable, all too human response, Uzzah is struck down because, as the author of 2 Samuel says, the wrath of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah.

This story seems to confirm the old, naive idea that in the two testaments of the Bible, we have to do with different gods. Even more than the Divine genocide in Sodom, the divinely inspired wars Joshua waged against the Canaanites in which whole cities were slaughtered and razed to the ground, the wiping out of life through the flood, this death of one man in Divine wrath indicates this is a God who does not regard human life as worthy. A sane person would be perfectly sensible in wanting nothing whatsoever to do with a god who views human life so cheaply. If we are, indeed, God's precious creation, it seems insane to insist this same God would strike out and kill a man who did little more than reach his arm out toward a wooden box.

I contend, however, that this is, indeed, the same God of whom the author of the first epistle of St. John could say, "God is love." This is the same God St. Paul proclaimed as being in Christ, proving God's love for us. This is the same God whom Jesus called Father, and in whose name and for whose purpose went willingly to die on a Roman crucifix.

God is love, to be sure, and shows us what this love is in Jesus Christ. We can never forget, however, that the subject of that sentence is not "love". Love is the predicate. While the true meaning of love is exhausted when applied to the subject, the subject is not swallowed up in the predicate. God is also holy. We can play around with doctrinal discussions of "divinity" and all the fun, Greek stuff about omnipotence and omniscience, play word games about the self-contradiction inherent in these words, and satisfy ourselves that we can therefore prove that God, as so described cannot exist. Without referring to who the Bible says God is, however, it is all meaningless drivel.

I will go further. God killing Uzzah makes us uncomfortable because it betrays the smallness of our faith. Far too often I believe that, if we think of "God" at all, we think either of a cosmic Mr. Fix-It, or an indulgent parent. In our decadent, bourgeois day and age, we have lost the memory that, once upon a time, holiness was about more than just moral rectitude or the clarity of personal faith. We in the western Protestant churches, for all our insistence on adhering to Scriptural norms by and large are little more than liturgical mimes, going through the motions of worship with no sound or substance. We use words like "God", and "holy" and we never consider these words have meaning, specific meaning, powerful meaning.

Deadly meaning.

I have said off and on over the years that being a Christian is serious business. The rampant shallowness, the silliness, the ignorance of so much of what passes for discussions about and the practice of faith boil down, for me, to either not knowing or caring that being a Christian has nothing to do with me. Or us. All of it, the whole thing, has to do with God. Not just any God, not some idea of God, not a set of definitions dredged up from somewhere. When we profess our faith in the God revealed in the fullness of Jesus Christ crucified and risen, we are professing our faith in a specific God, a very real God, a God with a history, a God who neither knows nor cares about how we choose to understand what "divine" or "holy" or even "God" may mean, because this God has already shown us, if we have been paying attention, what those words mean.

Being serious means, among many other things, paying attention. If we are paying attention, we may realize that the business of faith isn't easy, or pretty, or fun. It definitely isn't cool, you won't win friends and influence people. If we are paying attention, we may notice that God's love and care for us revealed in Jesus Christ, the God in whose sheltering wings we are cradled, who preserves us and sustains us each second of our existence, also calls us, in the words of Jesus in the Gospel of St. Mark, to hate our families. We are called, indeed, to hate our own lives. We are called to preach the love of God, pursuing God's justice even if it kills us. Unless I am mistaken, Uzzah is hardly the first person whose corpse can be laid at the feet of God. Nor the last.

The God we proclaim to follow, whose claim on our lives is total, is the God revealed in Jesus Christ. It is the God revealed, also, in the wrathful killing of Uzzah. This is a God whose holiness is defined not only by the life and love that flow out to all creation, but also on making clear that this holiness is for God. Our lives are not ours anymore. Uzzah, as a protector of the Ark of the Covenant, may well have thought he understood what that meant, but he did not. To his peril. We are no different from Uzzah, forgetting that words like "God" and "holy" and "obedience" actually mean things, things with specific referents. We need to remember, as Uzzah did not, that we are dealing with God.

This is serious business, folks. Having died and risen with Christ in our baptisms, our lives are not our own anymore. Being claimed by God is dangerous. The lifeless body lying next to the new cart carrying the Ark of the Covenant is mute testimony to just how serious.

Virtual Tin Cup

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