Back when I was in college, I had a professor of American religion who gave us a really interesting assignment. He had us visit nearly every church in town—not on Sunday, just during the week. The assignment was to sit in each church's worship space and write down observations about it: How were the seats or pews arranged? What was the visual focus of the space? What symbols were there? What symbols weren't there? Then, based on our observations, we were to determine the theological beliefs of each church. (The most interesting cases were when the stated theology of a church was contradicted by their worship space—but that's for another sermon.)
The point is, what we think about God informs how we worship him. And how we worship him informs what we think about him. I want to talk about three different views of God, and three different approaches to worship. The first view is the one largely promoted by the church. The second is the view most common in our culture. And the third view? Well, that one is much harder to define, so thankfully we have an example of it in Scripture. We'll explore all three through an Old Testament story about King David: 2 Samuel 6:115. In this story we see how David's understanding of God undergoes a dramatic transformation. As a result, the way he worships also changes. In this one chapter, over the course of just a few months, David's faith matures—he actually moves through all three of the phases. This story will cause you to ask an important question: Which stage of David's development best describes your understanding of who God is and how you worship him?
Worship that sees God as the "Almighty Improver"
In 2 Samuel 5, some really good and important things happen to David. After a long, terrible feud with Saul, David finally becomes king over Israel, fulfilling what God had promised him. Then David conquers Jerusalem and makes the city his capital. Then David battles and defeats the Philistines through God's intervention—an enormous military victory. In chapter 5, everything—and I mean everything—goes great for David. It's all sunshine and happy days for the new king. So it makes sense that at the beginning of chapter 6, David decides to have a celebration.
Central to the celebration is the act of moving the ark of the covenant to the new capitol in Jerusalem, for which David arranges for an enormous procession of 30,000 men with singing and music. Now, what was this ark? The ark was a box made of wood and covered in gold. It was built during the time of Moses and carried by the Israelites everywhere they went. On top of the ark were the figures of two angels, or cherubim. The Israelites believed that the presence of God dwelt between them. In other words, the ark represented God's presence among them. It was considered the most holy, most sacred object on earth. For that reason no one—not the priests, not the king, not even an animal—was allowed to touch the ark. If they did, they would die. This was a way of showing how holy, how completely distinct and powerful, God was. In order to move the ark without touching it, God commanded that two poles be inserted into metal rings on either side of it, and the ark was lifted on the shoulders of priests. (If you've seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, you know what I'm talking about!)
Because of all the great things God has done for him—all the victories back in chapter 5—David wants to bring this ark, the presence of God himself, into Jerusalem. So, he orchestrates this enormous celebration to worship God. Verse five says that David and the whole house of Israel were celebrating with all their might before the Lord.
The scene set forth in these first five verses represents how much of the church in America views and worships God. We view God as the one who solves our problems—the one who wins our battles. So, we tend to view worship as a celebration. Music obviously plays a central part in that, just as it did for David. But that celebratory approach comes from our tendency to focus on all the good things God has done for us—all of the blessings in our lives.
If I've had a chapter 5 kind of week—a week where everything has been wonderful—it's pretty easy to come here on Sunday and celebrate. When my life is full of sunshine and happy days, rejoicing is the natural response. In general, I think that's how much of the modern church presents the Christian life. If you come to Jesus, your life will be full of chapter 5 victories. God will help you, defend you, promote you.
There's a blog I like to read called StuffChristiansLike.net. It's a journey into the church subculture, and it's pretty funny. The guy behind it, Jon, writes posts about what he observes in the church—things that Christians like. Here are a few examples:
#116: Using "Let me pray about it" as a synonym for "no."
#235: Confessing things around campfires.
#9: Comparing the movie Braveheart to Christianity.
#240: Kirk Cameron.
#176: Giving open flames to children on Christmas Eve.
#59: Watching Jon & Kate Plus 8.
#11: Thomas Kinkade paintings
#216: Precious Moments
#46: Super Happy Shiny Christian radio
#437: Living "better"
About this last one—"Living 'better'"—Jon writes:
My bookshelf is littered with self help books about focus and attitude and purpose and drive. I think a lot about changing my thoughts and trying to fix the way I look at the world and how I can improve myself. …
I want [God] to slightly improve me or enhance my existing life. … Sometimes I act like the Bible is a self-help book. I treat it like a self-help book for a better marriage, a better attitude at work, and an easier life.
Jon captures how many Christians think about God. God is the "Almighty Improver"—the one who helps make life better. He's the chapter 5 God. And if that's how we view him—if that's how we see the Christian life—then it makes sense that our worship will focus heavily, even solely, on celebration. It's about happy days and sunshine.
But let's go back to our story. There's a problem in a detail in the story I don't want you to miss. In verse 3, we're told that David moved the ark by putting it on a cart. It's a small but important detail. Remember how God had commanded that the ark only be transported with poles carried on the shoulders of priests? By putting the ark on a cart, David had ignored God's command. He didn't show reverence for God. He was so fixated on all of God's goodness, that he didn't acknowledge God's holiness. In a sense, David's celebration of God was casual, flippant. It was done without care or consideration for God's power—the way a child might play with fire. This lack of reverence leads to a tragedy—and the second approach to God and worship that I want to talk about.
Worship that sees God as seemingly unfair and disturbing
In verse 6, we're told that the ox pulling the ark stumbles, the cart tilts, and the ark nearly falls. One of David's men, Uzzah, reaches out, probably without even thinking about it, and touches the ark to prevent it from falling. Because of this, God strikes him dead.
When we read a story like this, it strikes us as incredibly unfair, doesn't it? Why would God kill a man for an innocent mistake? It wasn't like Uzzah deliberately touched the ark. He didn't mean to be irreverent or disrespectful. Now, I could stand here and come up with all kinds of explanations for why God killed Uzzah—theological reasons about God's holiness or pragmatic reasons about God wanting to teach his people a lesson—but I don't think that's the point of this story. In fact, if you are disturbed by this story—if it bothers you, even angers you, that God apparently killed someone for accidently touching the ark—then you're not alone. Look at verse 8: "David was angry because the Lord had burst forth against Uzzah." David was angry, too. He thought the whole thing was incredibly unfair. He must have thought, What kind of God would make me king, would defeat my enemies, would place Jerusalem into my hands, would do all of those good and wonderful things, and then kill my friend for an accident? Verses 910 tell us that David's anger soon turned to fear: "David was afraid of the LORD that day and said, 'How can the ark of the LORD ever come to me?' He was not willing to take the ark of the LORD to be with him in the City of David. Instead, he took it aside to the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite."
This is how David's joyful celebration ended. The plans were scrapped, because nothing kills a good party like God's wrath. Suddenly the Lord didn't seem so good to David. Things weren't happy days and sunshine anymore. David was now angry at God, afraid of him. Out of anger and fear, he decided he could not bring this God into Jerusalem, his home. Instead he took the ark aside and left it at the Gittite's house.
According to research gathered through surveys, we live in a culture in which about seven in ten Americans believe that God is "the all-knowing, all-powerful creator of the universe who still rules [the] world today." In other words, despite all the popular books being published about atheism, most people still believe in God. But a surprisingly small percentage—only about 14 percent—actually worship him on any given Sunday. Bottom line: most people believe in God, but most don't actually worship him.
I think David's experience in these verses is indicative of how many people view God. They believe he exists, but they just aren't sure if he's on their side. They're not convinced of his goodness. Because God sometimes does things or allows things that we just don't understand, we get angry and afraid. For David it was Uzzah's death. For people in our culture, it might be the events of September 11, Hurricane Katrina, or genocide in the Sudan. You might argue, Wait a minute! God didn't do those things! People did! Terrorists caused 9/11! But if you talk to people outside the church, one of the first things you'll hear them ask is, "Why does God allow bad things to happen? Why do innocent people die? Why is there such destruction in our world? Why, why, why?"
And we've only touched on global or cultural issues. Consider all the questions that come through personal pain. Russell Baker was a well-known newspaper columnist for the New York Times. He wrote a lot about his childhood. His father died when he was a boy. He wrote: "After this, I never cried again with any real conviction, nor expected much of anyone's God except indifference." He could not find any hope in the answers offered him.
Sometimes we have an answer. Technically we know why Uzzah died—he wasn't supposed to touch the ark. But sometimes even an answer won't help. It still won't seem right to folks. It still might not seem right to us! Our answer doesn't take away our anger or our fear. Because of the pain many have experienced, either on a cultural level or a personal one, many people have put God aside. Like David, they just cannot understand him. Either they doubt his goodness and become angry, or they fear his power and become afraid. In either case, they don't have any desire to worship him. Our culture, in general, has left God at the Gittite's house. We see God as seemingly unfair and disturbing, and we worship accordingly.
Worship that acknowledges God's goodness and his holiness
So far we've seen the two dominant approaches to God and worship. On the one hand, the church emphasizes God's goodness. She is often fixated on a "chapter 5" day of sunshine and happiness, leading to worship that is celebratory and joyful. However, this worship often lacks reverence. On the other hand, our culture is fixated on a God who seems unfair because of the disturbing things that happen in the world. This leads to anger and fear. Rather than celebrating God, people leave him out of their lives all together.
Both are obviously lacking, so is there a third way to see God which leads to a third way to worship him? One that celebrates his goodness but does not trivialize his holiness? A way of worship that sees God's blessings but acknowledges that he is also a mystery beyond our understanding?
In verse 11, we read that the ark stayed at the Gittite's house for three months. The text goes on to say that "the Lord blessed him and his entire household." We don't know exactly what this blessing was, but we can conclude that good things came to him—the "chapter 5" kinds of blessings. Verse 12 says that news of these blessings reached Jerusalem: "Now King David was told, 'The LORD has blessed the household of Obed-Edom and everything he has, because of the ark of God.' So David went down and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-Edom to the City of David with rejoicing." In other words, David is reminded of why he wanted God near him in the first place. He's reminded of God's goodness. And because he wants the blessing of God for himself and for his kingdom, he decides to bring the ark to Jerusalem as first planned. Once again there is a huge processional with music and rejoicing. In fact, in verse 15 we are told that David "danced before the LORD with all his might while he and the entire house of Israel brought up the ark of the LORD with shouts and the sound of trumpets."
This looks very much like what happened in verse 5. This is a joyful, extravagant celebration of God's goodness, but this time something has changed. Look at verse 13: "When those who were carrying the ark of the LORD had taken six steps, he sacrificed a bull and a fattened calf."
There are two important details to notice. First, it says the ark was being carried. It wasn't on a cart anymore. It was being carried on poles on the shoulders of priests—just as God had commanded. David has learned the danger of irreverent, casual worship. This time he shows God the respect he deserves.
Second, it says David sacrificed a bull and a calf every six steps along the procession. In the Old Testament, animal sacrifice was a way of honoring God out of one's wealth. Herds of animals were the currency of the day, representing property and status. David was giving to God not just his songs, but his life.
What we see here is a worship that has matured. David's view of God has grown. There is celebration and sacrifice. Rejoicing and reverence. Worship that praises God's goodness and is humble before God's holiness. It captures both sides. Yes, God is good and celebration is wonderful. But this kind of worship sees the other side of God as well. God is also mysterious and dangerous, and we dare not approach him flippantly.
Annie Dillard writes about this missing side of worship in one of her books:
Why do people in churches seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour? … Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? … It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crass helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.
She's articulating what David learned. If the way we worship is a reflection of our view of God, then many of us fail to see God as dangerous—as holy. The writer of Hebrews calls us to "offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire" (Hebrews 12:289).
So, what should worship look like that acknowledges both God's goodness and his holiness? Well, I'm not sure. And I don't think this story about David should be taken as a how-to guide for worship. After all, we're not about to start slaughtering animals every few minutes in our services! This story pushes us to think about our attitude—how we, in our spirits, approach God. Do we come to flippantly, casually invoke the most powerful being in all the world—as if he were some divine deejay we look to for entertainment on Sunday mornings? Or, do we come with reverence and awe like Hebrews says? To use Annie Dillard's language, do we come in straw hats or crash helmets?
Worship is about both celebration and sacrifice, both rejoicing and reverence. At the end of this story, David is still dancing with all his might. He's still singing and shouting and playing his music. We should do the same. And all of that flows from seeing God's goodness in our lives. But consider the other side, too. There's a lot about God that we don't understand—a lot that doesn't make sense to us. We need to admit, especially in the church, that we don't have all the answers. We cannot explain everything God does or allows. He is still a great mystery—powerful, dangerous, a consuming fire. This other side should also be seen in our worship, through reverence and awe.
Let me end with a passage from C. S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Mr. and Mrs. Beaver take the children to meet Aslan. If you're familiar with the story, you know that Aslan is a great lion, the king of Narnia. He represents Jesus in Lewis's story. The children are surprised when they learn that Aslan is a lion. Lucy says:
"Oh, I'd thought he was a man. Is he quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion."
"That you will, dearie, and make no mistake," said Mrs. Beaver, "if there's anyone who can appear before Aslan without the knees knocking, they're either braver than most, or else just silly."
"Then he isn't safe?" said Lucy.
"Safe?" said Mr. Beaver. "Don't you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you."
Our God is good, but he is not safe. Let's worship accordingly.
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul?
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach?
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers?
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points?
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers?
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers?