2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12-19: David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. 2 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. 3 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 4 with the ark of God; and Ahio went in front of the ark. 5 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.
12 It was told King David, “The Lord has blessed the household of Obed-edom and all that belongs to him, because of the ark of God.” So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David with rejoicing; 13 and when those who bore the ark of the Lord had gone six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling. 14 David danced before the Lord with all his might; David was girded with a linen ephod. 15 So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet.
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.
17 They brought in the ark of the Lord, and set it in its place, inside the tent that David had pitched for it; and David offered burnt offerings and offerings of well-being before the Lord. 18 When David had finished offering the burnt offerings and the offerings of well-being, he blessed the people in the name of the Lord of hosts, 19 and distributed food among all the people, the whole multitude of Israel, both men and women, to each a cake of bread, a portion of meat, and a cake of raisins. Then all the people went back to their homes.
What a beautiful moment, picturesque, the kind of scene you might expect as an oil painting, bathed in glossy light. I wouldn’t blame you if you felt a strange warmth in your heart at how lovely this scene is: the king of God’s people bringing the ark of the covenant home to the Holy City after a generation without it. The people line the path with instruments and bang them together while they shout and sing, and the king, the mightiest among them, dances in the streets before the ark. And this king begins to praise God and offer sacrifices on behalf of his people, and then he distributes food so that everyone has something to eat.
Our story this morning is, in some ways, the high point of King David’s life. It seems like this is a picture of what a king, or a government, could be: someone who rules and worships, a priestly leader who sacrifices on behalf of the people, a good shepherd who feeds the sheep, this humble man who would become so undignified as to dance in the streets to praise God’s goodness. That’s the king!
This glorious scene—where David really establishes his rule—has become a dream for many: imagine a government formed and made righteous by worship, a church protected and supported by the state. This was the dream of the Emperor Constantine, who ended the persecutions of Christians, and his son Constantius who declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire; this was the dream of the emperor Charlemagne (who founded a Holy Roman Empire), and of course it was the dream of a group of Puritans who crossed the Atlantic Ocean to found a new society that would be a “city on a hill” because of the way law was informed by worship and worship supported by the law. The government and the church, the ball and the cross held together in the hands of the leader, just as King David ruled wearing the priestly garments.
It’s quite the picture, an integrated society, religion and government brought together in perfect harmony to make a godly nation. But it’s important to recognize thatthere are other things going on here, too. There are cracks in the painting. The writers of the Bible never give us perfect people or uncomplicated situations. In our Scriptures, there is always some light in the darkness, but in this world at least there’s also always a hint of shadow in the light. This is still the same writer who gave us 1 Samuel 8, where the Israelites demand a king because they lack faith in God to protect them.
There are cracks. It’s interesting that David offers sacrifice. Maybe this is a statement about his piety, his special friendship with God. But we have to remember that earlier in the story, offering sacrifice is one of the very things that gets Saul in trouble. That’s the priests’ job and Saul oversteps his role as king by taking on that task for himself. So this story, for all its excitement, should also open up some questions for us: why is it OK for David to offer sacrifice? Is this a pious king or a ruler consolidating his power over every aspect of life?
Maybe he’s just special and has the freedom to do this, but then the question becomes, doesn’t this set up a dangerous precedent? If kings can have their hands in worship, what happens when you have a wicked king? This is really the theme of the next books of the Bible, 1 and 2 Kings, where ruler after ruler worships the god Baal, and so the people of Israel fall into idolatry because the king has his hands in worship. What’s exciting in this scene becomes monstrous pretty quickly, even during David’s own life.
In this story, there are some goods and yet there are also some foreboding details. This heartwarming picture dramatizes some real tensions between worship and government. What is the authority of the church and what is that of the state? What do we owe to God and what do we owe to the king? As exuberant as the scene is, the rest of the Bible describes how the Jews become who they are in exile, as a people who always have an uneasy relationship to society; and Christians have always confessed that even though the kingdom of God is at work in the world, God’s kingdom is not from this world. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s, but also don’t forget that you can’t serve two masters, even when one master says they serve the other.
One early Christian put it this way: it’s like there are these two cities or societies, an earthly city and a heavenly city. But they aren’t in two locations, they’re mixed together like the wheat and the tares (or maybe like Duke fans among UNC fans in Chapel Hill). We all live in the earthly city, even when most of us are Christians: we’re worried about eating and busting a wheel in a pothole and what will happen if enemies invade our home. When the earthly city is at it’s best, it does the mundane work of justice, making sure everyone has what they need to live and thrive together, ensuring that everyone is free. At it’s worst, the earthly city is protective, full of rivalry and hatred and endless war, always in the name of safety. And again, this is the case, regardless of what religion your rulers are.
But then there’s also this other city, this other society, that lives within the earthly city like the Israelites in Babylon. And the goal of this other society is love, the love of God and love of our neighbors, not a protective love, but a love that pours itself out in generosity and extravagance. And the heavenly city has it’s own rituals, its own forms of belonging.
So there are these two cities, these two ways of living, that exist alongside one another, both of which can be good, but they’re not the same. The heavenly society is on pilgrimage in the earthly society, living here but always living like a better world is possible.
The two cities can work together. Love desires justice. If my neighbors don’t have food, then I don’t love them if I don’t feed them and do something about why they don’t have food. And it’s good to have networks and institutions that do that work, of making sure that people have food and medical care and housing regardless of their income. Governments are only God ordained to the extent that they do this work of justice, and that is the work they are supposed to do. The idea that private works of charity should be the only way we take care of the poor and the sick is utterly foreign to 1900 years of Christian tradition and the entire Bible. David feeds everyone, and that’s his job.
This is what’s really going on in Romans 13 where the apostle Paul says, “Be subject to the governing authorities.” That’s not a license for the state to do whatever it wants or for Christians to go along with whatever any state is doing. Paul would agree that “an unjust law is no law at all.” But not all laws are unjust, and so what Paul is saying in Romans 13 is to let the earthly city pursue justice, and part of how we do that, according to Paul, is by paying taxes: Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. 6 For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.So if you really do a close reading of Romans 13, Paul is saying “Hey actually taxes are good. Pay them so that the earthly city can do the task that it’s made to do: pursue justice, feed the sheep.” If there’s any element of David’s story today that we can take away, it’s this one. A good ruler feeds the people, makes sure that everyone’s material needs are met. I bet there would be a lot more dancing in such a world.
Now, at the same time, we know that governments don’t always pursue justice. They often pursue wealth and power and land and fame. The earthly city is more often at it’s worst than its best. And this is why the heavenly city also stands apart from the earthly city, to call our leaders back to the task of justice when they stray away. This is why so many heroes of our faith—like Sojourner Truth, John Bunyan, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day—are known most for how their faith produces resistance to the powers that be. They stood apart. One of our oldest traditions as baptists is the wall of separation between church and state, that to be a Christian is to stand apart from any earthly society. No government can compel you into faith (only the Spirit can give faith as a gift); but also no Christian should sidle up to the government so that we are blessing whatever the state does. When we worship we stand apart. Yes, an earthly city, like America, should pursue justice, and the earthly city should honor those moments when it has really done so and those people who have sacrificed their lives in that task, but Christians still need moments when we stand apart from our earthly city, to catch a bigger view of things.
So my friends, that’s where my concern about our symbols in worship comes from. I’m not trying to undo tradition; I want us to honor the much older tradition of the separation of church and state. I want us to ask hard questions about what is really sacred to us. Worship needs to be a place where we stand apart, where we remember our citizenship in the city of God, and that allows us to get involved without becoming chaplains of the status quo.
We have to be able to call the earthly city to justice. Justice is always possible, and justice is always fleeting, and so as Christians when we look at our nation we need to have what one writer calls “utopianism of the will, and cynicism of the intellect,” an imagination for what our governments could be doing and the honesty to say when even our favorite leaders aren’t doing that. And that clear eyed vision, which is hopeful and honest, only comes from standing apart even while we live within.
In the very next chapter of 2 Samuel, David, still glowing from this moment, starts thinking about what he’ll do next, and he decides that the perfect way to solidify his rule will be to build a temple to the Lord, a house worthy of the God who made heaven and earth. And at first, his advisor, the prophet Nathan, tells him “Yes, go ahead.” But that night the Lord comes to Nathan in a dream and says, “No. David will not build my house. I will build David’s house. I’m the house builder, not you. I don’t really fit within walls or borders.” David might offer sacrifice, but God won’t let David fit God into David’s plans. God is still king over the king.
So God appoints Nathan, the prophet, to reject David’s plans. And from this point on, that’s the prophet’s job, to speak oracles of truth to power, to hear the Word of the Lord and then to remind the king of his responsibilities. And that is the church’s job, too: to be separate and involved, standing apart (or better yet below, with the least of these) while making sure our nation remember there is only one Lord who is prophet, priest, and king, and his throne does not reside in any capital but at the right hand of God.
We can be that kind of community because in many ways we already are. That’s who our baptist ancestors were, that’s who our early church ancestors were, it’s who Jesus calls us to be. In but not of. So in the earthly city let us pursue justice and love mercy, knowing that as citizens of the heavenly city we are called to walk humbly before our God. May our life together and the symbols we exalt show that we are that kind of people. Amen.
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