2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19
My problem with this story is that it belongs in someone else’s Bible, someone like my pentecostal relatives or someone whose DNA doesn’t match my taciturn Scotch/Irish solemnity. Unfortunately this story of King David kicking up his heels and making merry before God is in my Bible as well as in yours. For those of us who are the traditional veterans of “the worship wars,” here’s a text to ignore, or explain away, or do just about anything with other than learn from it. That’s all the more reason to linger over it with an open heart and mind.
For openers, it’s worth noting that David’s exuberant worship wasn’t that well received even by his wife. Whatever you may infer about possible tensions in their marriage as being the real issue in their worship disagreement, as the story is preserved for us, Michal’s complaint to David doesn’t sound too different from those I hear when Sunday’s “passing of the peace” becomes something more than a begrudged murmur of acknowledgment. Should Michal be understood as the first champion of traditional, decent-and-in-good-order worship? If so, she doesn’t come out of this incident as one whom God favors.
But on the other hand, we don’t need to be naïve about David’s ecstatic behavior on this occasion, either. It would be easy to infer too much about God-pleasing worship from this passage and also easy to ignore that perhaps David’s actions are fueled by something more than delight in God. As for the latter concern, David was savvy enough of a politician to know how desperately his new kingdom needed the legitimization that accrues to royalty when the holy can be housed next door. The relocation of the ark into his capital city was a regal coup for David’s control of Israel. Why wouldn’t he be leading the parade, and proud of it? And, as for reading too much into this passage about the kind of worship that pleases God (as opposed to Michal’s dour preference), one only need remember the highly liturgical patterns (see today’s psalm lection) that evolve in Jerusalem’s temple worship, a worship pattern that arguably bears David’s impress. One great story of exuberance does not a theology of worship determine.
But once we clear the field of all these obstructions, what remains to be seen in this unique story? Supremely, just one thing: it’s a pitiful thing when we’ve gotten too prim, too proper, too stuffy to make merry before God when something wonderful occurs. The fact is you don’t bring the ark of the covenant into Jerusalem every other month. Nor do you often have the opportunity to welcome a new leader blessed with vigor, devotion, skill, and piety. This is a momentous occasion and it deserves to be celebrated with silly party hats and horns and yes, even with the king doing a jig with his robe aloft!
Over the years I’ve attended (and even planned) my fair share of church anniversaries and celebrations. The truth is most were less than “kick up your heels and shout hallelujah” occasions. There we were with a budget-breaking mortgage note to be burned or a century or so of the faithfulness of God and people to remember, but a visitor might have mistaken it for one of those solemn assemblies Isaiah was underwhelmed by. On many of those occasions I knew enough about my fellow worshipers to know that they’d go bananas that afternoon over a Big 12 or ACC basketball tournament game. But put them in a church context and all the whoopee goes out of them. Why is that?
Well, put a positive construction on it first. Maybe we are restrained in church simply because here we see things through a different filter. It’s not so much that we aren’t as joyous as at a ballgame, as that here we recognize that life and all its blessings are interwoven with holy purpose. A home run to win the game in the ninth inning is one thing; a child’s baptism is another. Joy is appropriate on both occasions, but is it not a different kind of joy when by water and word a child of God is claimed for time and eternity? Maybe it’s not that our whoopee evaporates in worship; it just has a grateful hush of reverence about it.
But granted that this is the case, there still remains the awkward possibility that most of us mimic David so seldom because we’ve lost touch with the grandness of what we are doing. We mouse around because the wonder of it all escapes us. I know it to be true, that there are Sundays when the pastor sleepwalks through the service—even if she seems most animated. A gauzy film of the theoretical shrouds the action. But there are those moments when the awesome, absurd good news of what we are about comes crashing in like breakers on our stony shores. We can no more program those epiphanies than we can tally the stars. But we can be careful not to stifle them, and we can be quick to give them glad permission to soften the eye, catch the voice, and lead us to make merry before God.
I cannot ponder this story without thinking of Jesus’ story of the elder brother who would not join his father’s party. It was a time to make merry, but the elder brother didn’t live in that time zone. He was a permanent resident of Duty-ville, where neither the time nor the grimness ever change. Grace, those lovely moments when the unexpected holy/good descend upon us, is a gift we are privileged to see every now and then. That’s the time to put aside the balance sheet and even the prayer book and to kick up our heels, and with body and soul make holy fools out of ourselves, dancing an Alleluia to the giver of all good and perfect gifts.