Monday, August 24, 2009

"God-Impacted Life: Spirituality"

Scripture Readings:
2 Samuel 6:1-27 (“The Message”, Eugene Peterson)
Matthew 18:1-6

There is this early memory I have. I am four years old; or just barely five. I am sitting on the floor in the corner of our living room. I have a wire coat hanger in my hand, and I am looking at the electric outlet on the wall in front of me.

All children are scientists, and I am conducting an important experiment of discovery. I know that I am not allowed to stick anything in a wall socket. I have been told that this will kill me. But I seriously wonder what would happen if I only put this coat hanger really close to the wall socket.

There! OK, nothing has happened. What if I put it still closer to that slot? What if I put it right on, but not really on; just as close as I can get to it, but without actually touching it?

The next thing you know I am a very lucky boy. There is a little pop; a tiny snap! I am screaming and crying bloody murder.

I see the red line of a welt across my hand, and my mom is filling a bowl with ice for the burn. I have never tried that experiment again.

In the parade of the Ark of the Covenant, the golden box, the Chest of God, there was a sudden surge of power, and Uzzah, the priest, was dead. Thousands were there and witnessed this, but they do not tell us what they saw, or heard, or felt, if anything.

A man was dead because he reached out to keep the Chest of God from falling off the cart, when the oxen stumbled. The NIV translation of the Bible says, “The Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah, because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down.” (2 Samuel 6:7)

But I don’t think it was irreverence, exactly. After all, David wasn’t reverent in the presence of the Lord. David lost his temper with God. He was angry with God for what God had done to Uzzah: angry and afraid.

And, when the time for the next parade came, he still didn’t act in a way that we would call reverent. David danced before the ark, wearing the short-kilted robe of a priest, and danced so athletically, leaping up and down with so much enthusiasm, that those who were watching the king could clearly tell that he wasn’t wearing any underwear.

David’s royal wife Michal, the daughter of a king, had higher standards of reverence than David did. When he came home from the parade, she accused him of irreverent and un-royal behavior. David told Michal that he would make himself as merry before the Lord as he pleased.

For a few years, when I was in college, one of my summer jobs was working in a cannery. We had red lines painted on the floor, around hazardous equipment, and we were required to keep those lines painted fresh and clear, because they were warning lines. They represented danger zones in the cannery.

Because I was young, I thought those lines were silly. The real grown-ups who worked there didn’t think they were silly at all. They took the dangers seriously.

The lesson of what happened to Uzzah is not that God is hazardous or dangerous, but that there are ways of relating to God, or responding to God that may be dangerous, and even deadly.

And this is not just an Old Testament issue. Jesus, himself, tells us that how we relate to God and how we respond to God may be a life or death issue. Jesus says, “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3) Whatever Jesus means by being childlike; in Jesus’ estimate, this is a life or death issue.

David was a trained warrior. He was a walking danger zone all by himself. But, in his heart, David was a child. He was a child under the influence of God. Whatever he did, he did with all his heart. He acted from the heart, even though his heart sometimes led him horribly wrong. (And our hearts will do that, sometimes.)

In the kingdom of heaven, the childlike life is a God-impacted life. It is easy for children to come to the truth about God, and be aware of the presence of God, and the love of God. The children who know God always live a God-impacted life. David lived this sort of life. We can see that he always lived aware, and honest, and out in the open, in the presence of God.

When David was angry at God, he gave a name to the spot where he thought God misbehaved, so that it would be a place where that behavior would never be forgotten. When he was afraid of God, he hid the Chest of God at a neighbor’s house, the way a child might have a quarrel with a doll and hide the doll in the closet. When David was joyful he danced and danced and gave no thought to what his dancing looked like. It is only when we get older that we worry about what our dancing looks like.

David was always completely himself in the presence of God. But he was able, like a child, to be himself without thinking about himself at all. He was thinking about the one he was with. If Michal had walked in the parade, in front of the Chest of God, she would have been thinking about herself and what she looked like, and trying her best remind everyone who saw her that she looked like a queen.

How we relate to God and how we respond to God is a life and death matter. Michal was barren. It is true that she never gave birth to a child, but that was not the only way that she was barren. Her heart and soul were barren because, even if she had walked in the parade of the presence of God, she would only have walked in the presence of herself. What she chose to be was a deadly choice.

David was only fully alive because he was fully alive in the presence of God, and he was in the presence of God all the time. This made him really alive all the time. Michal was not alive in that sense at all; never. The way of living that she chose, consciously or by default, was a matter of life and death.

Uzzah, as he walked beside the Chest of God, was not in the presence of God. He was basically guarding a religious and historical artifact; something like a sacred heirloom.

It seems perfectly innocent that he reached out to protect the Ark from falling. It would have been irreverent and (even worse than irreverent) it would have been irresponsible, to his way of thinking, to let the thing fall to the ground. How could he possible imagine that God could take care of his own stuff? Yet not being able to imagine that God can take care of his own stuff is a matter of life and death. When you are not able to imagine this, you have crossed a line into a danger zone.

Uzzah must have been very proud to be in that parade, up to the moment when he reached out to steady the Chest of God. He felt very alive, because he was taking care of important stuff for God. He was taking care of God, in that sense. He was in charge and had no living sense that it was God who was in charge and taking care of him. He had no sense that God could very well take care of himself.

We are not spiritually alive when we think that God loves us because he needs us, or that we are alive because we are doing important things for God. If our life, as religious people, is about taking care of God’s stuff, and not about being taken care of by him, then we are not being very childlike in our faith, and our souls do not have much life in them.

The Ark of the Covenant, the Chest of God, was not some kind of power cell, like in the Indiana Jones movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. It didn’t focus an energy that was capable of zapping people.

The Chest of God was a story book of the salvation of the Lord. It was a golden box that held the stone tablets on which Moses wrote the Ten Commandments. It held the staff of Aaron, Moses’ brother, which had been part of so many miracles in saving the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. It held a pot of the manna; the miraculous food that fed the people of Israel in the desert. The Ark, the Chest, told the story of the Lord who commanded them, and who saved them, and who fed them and provided for them. (Eugene Peterson, “Leap Over a Wall”, p. 148)

The thing that was an artifact and an heirloom to Uzzah was the story of the power and the salvation of the Lord to David. And the story was not a fairy tale, and it was not like an article in the news about something that happened to someone else. It was a living story, because David lived every moment in the presence of the living God.

The Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of God is also a story that takes us in. It is a living story and, when we become like children, we enter into it. It is the story of the Lord commanding, and saving, and providing for us.

But it is even richer than that because the Lord commands, and saves, and provides for us by becoming one of us. It is the story where he gives us life by sharing our life, and rescuing us from our darkness, and fighting and conquering two huge giants named Sin and Death.

By faith and trust we become part of the story as children of God. We live night and day in the presence of the God who reads the story to us.

The word “religion” comes from Latin and means a connecting thing. Religion is not an organization, or even a set of beliefs. It is all about connection with God. It is all about answering the question: how do you live in the presence of God? How do you respond? How do you react to God? Spirituality is another word for pretty much the same thing.

The life and death issue in our religious life or our spirituality focuses on the question: How do we respond to God? How do we live in his presence?
Uzzah and Michal had a religion or spirituality that was really all about them. It was about their being in charge of their own affairs, and being in control of themselves, and defining their responsibilities for themselves. Their religion and spirituality were essentially reverent but also essentially lifeless.

They wanted to save their dignity and not have to deal with majesty. There is an infinite difference (one that we often miss as religious people) between our dignity and God’s majesty. It is a difference of life and death.

David’s religion was one where God was in charge and might do anything, and could break out, or explode, at any moment, as he did with Uzzah; to set us straight or to give us joy. Whether David was angry, or afraid, or joyful, it never made him forget the presence of the living God. Whatever David was feeling, that went into his worship.

When you read the Psalms of David you see that everything in life went into David’s religion, and spirituality, and worship. There were no boundaries, no compartments: no places where God could be shut in, or shut out.

What we are doing here, in worship, this morning, is sort of our parade with David and his people. If we take the whole parade to heart, we can see that it is not a place for joy alone, but for honesty in everything we feel as we seek to live God-impacted lives.

And one of the most important parts of that whole parade, from beginning to end was a warning, when God broke out or exploded to show that how we choose to live in his presence is a matter of life and death.

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