It was a quiet, hot, dusty afternoon in the household of Obed. The servants and the women of the house kept themselves busy with their chores, but there was no rush, no hurry. Even the children were relatively quiet; it seemed like the flies made more noise than anyone else. All of that was about to change.
The Hebrews came streaming onto the grounds of the household, one after one at first, and then in bunches. Dozens, then hundreds, then thousands. They appeared out of nowhere, and every one of them had the same look on their face – terror, fear, and grief. Like they had just seen a ghost. People and animals were everywhere and the household was thrown into utter panic. There were soldiers, guards, royal attendants, and finally the King himself. Obed was completely confused. They didn’t seem to be attacking, or invading, but instead looked terrified. Obed’s first thought was that they were retreating from an attacking enemy, but no one was injured, at least not physically.
Finally, the royal guard began asking who was the master of the house, and with trepidation, Obed spoke up. They pulled him abruptly toward the young King, who tried to hide the fear in his voice as he spoke. “Good sir, we require the…use of your home. It appears that we have angered our God in the process of transferring our sacred Ark of the Covenant. This Ark is tremendously important to us and we require someone who will guard it for us until our God’s anger subsides.” Obed still looked dumbstruck at the King, until he moved his hands and the crowd split to two sides of the open yard. On a Philistine wagon sat the most beautiful box that Obed had ever seen. It was covered in gold, and upon the top was laid exquisite angels with their wings touching, forming the shape of a throne. Obed’s breath was taken away.
Still unsure of what to say or do, Obed nodded in the direction of the King, and the household was again thrown into utter chaos. Following the king’s lead, all of the soldiers and attendants left as quickly as they had come, almost as if they were trying to escape the box itself. And before he knew what was happening, everyone was gone. Everyone, save for one old priest who remained behind to tell the most amazing tale that Obed had ever heard….
“The Ark had been in hiding for many years, as the young King David fought in a civil war to unseat the current king, a man named Saul. Finally, after Saul had been killed and the new King was ready to claim his throne, he used the Ark to legitimize his authority. The old priest explained that this box held within it some of the most important relics to their faith. Ten commandments etched in stone by God. Manna from heaven that sustained them in their journey through the wilderness. A staff that miraculously budded as their people were saved from their Egyptian oppressors. Bringing the Ark to his new capital would give the king power and authority, and would appropriately bring honor and glory to God.
“Everything was going according to plan until this morning. The priest explained that God had commanded the people long ago how to construct the Ark, and even how to carry it. There were rings on the side, and there were poles that went into the rings so the priests could carry it. But it seemed that instead of following these rules, the priest in charge, a man named Uzzah, instead took a Philistine cart and placed the Ark on top, hooking up a team of oxen to carry it. So, when the inevitable jostling and bumping of a long journey began to shift the Ark around on the cart, it started to slip off and fall to the ground.”
The priest paused as he told the next part, as if he was asking itself was actually true. “Uzzah saw that the Ark was about to fall off the cart and he jumped to push it back up. Before anyone knew what had happened, God struck down Uzzah then and there, as soon as his fingertip grazed the gold. Obviously, it threw everyone into a panic. Even the King himself was shaken, and ordered his soldiers to find the nearest household in order to store the Ark. They found your home and flooded here, in order to leave the Ark in your care.”
The old priest paused knowingly and spoke slowly, “Our God is a God of mercy and grace. However, he is also a God of power and sovereignty and will not stand by as we treat him lightly. We are not meant to worship God with hearts of convenience, expediency, or efficiency – or especially manipulation, as Uzzah did. It is fatal to try and control God: with our words, our prayers, or in our worship. Ours must be hearts of humility and openness to the movement of God in our midst.”
Obed’s eyes were drawn to the gold box that suddenly caused his heart to seize with terror. He opened his mouth to ask why the King had left this one lowly priest in charge of such a precious relic. But before the words had formed on his lips, he realized that the Ark could take care of itself.
Obed took the priest’s words to heart and spent the next three months in an attitude of respect and anticipation and worship. They carefully placed the Ark in a place of prominence in their home, and worshipped God every day as they thanked him for the grace that he had given them. And before long, the King returned came to reclaim the Ark. He tried to give Obed gifts of thanksgiving, but he refused. “The presence of the Ark itself has been a gift.” And with honor and reverence and worship, the King removed the Ark from the household of Obed and left for the capitol with great dancing and revelry. On his way out to follow the procession, the old priest stopped to thank Obed for his hospitality over the last three months.
“You have taught us much,” he said as he bowed low. “About grace, reverence, and hospitality. You – a man who does not even share our faith – has worshipped our God more humbly and fully than even our ill-fated priest. Perhaps we needed the reminder that it doesn’t matter where we worship, or even what our worship looks like, as long as we have humble hearts of worship like you and yours. Thank you.” And he turned to follow the procession.
Little Jesse could hardly believe his eyes as he stared around at the transformation of the city. During the war, it was a place of drab, colorless quiet. But today, Jesse was amazed by the colors, by the music and laughter, and by all of the food that filled the streets. He told his parents, “I have seen a lot in my four years on this earth, but this is impressive!”
Today was the day that the King was bringing the Ark into Jerusalem, and there was the biggest party that he had ever seen! Jesse was named after the King’s father, and his parents told him often of the King and his heart of worship of their God. “King David is a wonderful musician – he has written many psalms of praise of our God. King David has promised to build a Temple for our worship that rivals the Temples of the pagan gods.” And just this morning, “King David is bringing home the Ark, and together we will worship God with our whole hearts.” And that they did.
Little Jesse was amazed at the bright colors and the loud music of the festival. There were instruments that he had never seen before, and they played loud and happy music that made Jesse laugh and sing. There was food – so much food – and Jesse was so excited to watch it all being passed around. Throughout the war, they had had very little to eat, and some nights he went to bed with his stomach hurting with hunger. But today, he had more than enough to eat. The King had given out a loaf of bread, a portion of meat and a little raisin cake – that was Jesse’s favorite – to every single person there. Jesse just stared as he watched the party unfold. But the biggest surprise was yet to come.
As Jesse saw the procession coming into the city, and he saw the men carrying the little gold box on two poles, he saw a man in front of the box, dancing wildly. He jumped and laughed and sang out loud as he led the way into the city. As the man got closer, little Jesse’s father squinted his eyes as he peered across the crowd. “Why, why, that’s the king himself!” he proclaimed. And when Jesse pulled on his dad’s cloak, he put him on his shoulders and explained to him what was happening. “Look, son. That man dancing is our King. Every day he wears stately robes and a royal crown. Women and men come to him and give him honor and praise. But today, he is showing us that he is not worthy of our highest praise. He has taken off his robes and dances in praise and glory of our true King – our Lord Adonai. Our King is showing us once again that God alone is worthy of our worship, and showing us that that worship is meant to be a celebration. Son, I want you to watch carefully what you see today. This is a holy moment. Learn now to follow your King and celebrate our holy God.”
And late into the night, long after he should have been asleep, Jesse was awake and full of energy. But it was more than the raisin cake that kept him up. He was dancing, dancing the dance of the king that he had seen in the worship celebration. His parents started to put him back to sleep, but decided against it. After all, if the king could, then even little Jesse could dance before the Lord.
Michal shifted in the bed and her attendant rose to check on her. It would not be long now. Her days on the earth were coming to an end, and it made her attendant sad to watch her hurting at the end. It was hard to watch Michal wince, but she clearly had something that she wanted to say, so her attendant moved close to be able to hear.
“I want to dance like David.”
The attendant knew the story well. It was legend amongst the attendants, though all of them were too young to be present when it happened. When she was a young woman, Michal was powerful and brave. She was the daughter of the king Saul, but loved the man-who-would-be-king, David. She saved his life, and loved him deeply. However, her love was not meant to last. Michal became a victim of her circumstances, and of the men in power around her. She was given in marriage to David, but when his relationship with Saul soured, she was taken from him and given to a man named Palti. She began to come to love and make a life with Palti, but when Saul was killed, David demanded her return. Palti, weeping, ran down the road after her, as she was taken away. Grieving and hurting, a lifetime of being treated like a puppet by the men in her life, Michal’s resentment toward David exploded in rage at him one day.
It was the day that David brought the Ark to Jerusalem. As it entered the city, he danced and celebrated wildly. Michal, who was brought up to know how a king is supposed to act, and was already angry at David, attacked him out of her rage when he came home.
“How beautifully you danced for the servant girls today,” she sarcastically mocked. Her attendant, who knew the rest of the story, about his philandering, about Bathsheba, always wondered if Michal knew even then. Perhaps he had already begun to leave his wife alone at night. And so, she ridiculed him for his dancing – lewd, dirty, and unbecoming a king.
Yet, her words were Michal’s undoing. For David pronounced on that day forward that the daughter of Saul would never, ever give birth to a child in the royal line. And these many years later, his promise had been kept faithfully. And now, childless, sick, hurting, Michal remembered that day once more. Again, she repeated, “I want to dance like David.”
Her attendant thought that she must have been delirious. She had often spoken of David, but never in kind or glowing terms. And she certainly never wanted to emulate him. Until today. The attendant tried to calm her and offered her some wine to help with the pain.
“No,” she spoke more clearly and loudly than she had for weeks. “I know the pain that he caused. The grief that I bore these many years. It was unfair and undeserved. Yet, today, perhaps for the first time, I understand. I understand why he danced.
“You see, so much of my life has been wasted by focusing on what I don’t have. But now as my life nears its end, I think often of God and his love for me. How God has granted me life and love as I have raised so many children as my own. I think of what a gift you are to me, as you care for me as a daughter would care for her own mother. And I want to tell God ‘thank you.’ I want to sing and shout, and even dance before God in worship. And for the first time, I understand why David did it.
“Of course, David was a young and randy fool. But he was also a fool for God, a man with a heart of love for his Creator. And he did not care about decorum or etiquette when it came to worship. He just danced. And I know that know. I know that I spoke out of turn to reprimand him. He knew, better than I ever have until this moment, that to worship God with all your heart and soul and mind – and body – is the only way to truly thank God for his many blessings. And so, I want you to help me up, and I want to dance like David.”
Her attendant’s eyes glistened as she spoke, and she knew that she could not talk her out of anything in this moment. So she helped her out of bed. Carefully, slowly, with the grace of the daughter of the king, she placed one foot on the floor, and then another. And with movements much slower than David had used those many years ago, she began to dance. It was a beautiful, worshipful, holy dance.
And her attendant, the daughter that Michal never bore, laughed with tears in her eyes. As Michal looked to the heavens and danced to the unheard music, she knew that she was at peace with her God. That she had discovered a heart of worship. That she was home.
* This sermon was originally preached at The Temple in Ocean Park, Maine, on July 12, 2015.