Weekly Preaching: July 11, 2021

July 7th, 2021

2 Samuel 6:1-19. The ambiguities, the inescapable tensions that are the life of David are in full view this early in his reign. His dark, vicious side (falsifying any of the corny but popular devotional nonsense about David as a sweet lover of the Lord) is etched in the pained face of Michal – on whom I preached last time around.

Michal: her father and brother have died, then husband David is ice cold, belittling, even taunting her, fathering children with others while she is childless. Now she looks on as he revels in popularity and achievement while she alone knows his hidden shaming of her. At least she “gazes down,” like God in judgment. There is clear sexual innuendo in his dance – so even his piety is flaunting his waywardness. Sermons can do what 2 Samuel 6 does: simply lift up the harrowing experience of women who’ve been scorned. They are there in the Bible. The bad behavior of the men is there too, exposed for all to see, and shudder.

We have a surprisingly fitting movie version of this scene in the film starring Richard Gere as King David. This no-holds-barred, full-bodied worship will be cheered by many – perhaps rightly. What’s at stake? Robert Barron (in his magnificent Brazos commentary) wisely speaks of the importance not just of praise but of “right praise,” and connects David bringing the ark to Jerusalem with that other ark, Noah’s big boat: “The entirety of the biblical narrative can be read as the story of God’s attempts to lure his people back into right praise. When sin resulted in the destruction of the created order, God sent a rescue operation in the form of a great ship on which a microcosm of Eden was preserved. Noah can be read as a priestly figure presiding over a tiny remnant where right praise was practiced…”

Indeed, the ark in 2 Samuel 6 housed tablets of God’s law, the road of Aaron, and pieces of manna – reminders of the Exodus, and God’s eternal covenant. The larger ark narrative here verges on the comic – but the plot isn’t merely that Yahweh can beat up other gods. Rather, as Barron points out, “Human flourishing is a consequence of right praise. The central battle of Israel’s God is always against idolatry, for everything that is dysfunctional in the human heart and in society flows finally from that primordial skewing.”

We might recall Maggie Ross’s thought (in The Fountain & the Furnace, a treasure of spiritual thought!) – that way too often we prefer the experience of God to God. That is, we look at someone digging a spiritual song, or swooning over a devotional book, or caught up in the words of some inspiring speaker, and we conclude This is it! But the Bible presses us toward “right praise,” an adulation of the true God, not one we’ve manufactured or prefer or that makes us feel good (or even is such a good feeling!).

Psalm 24, I found during our Psalms series, proved a fruitful preaching text! Check out this video of how we read it responsively, as the Israelites might have, and my sermon, which spoke a pandemic relevant word of why physically processing into the sanctuary matters - and how other shared walks (Civil Rights protests, the Yellow Brick Road, a wedding) are a witness to and labors for justice.

Before exploring our epistle, let’s touch on the Gospel, Mark 6:14-29. Herod doesn’t dominate his wife. Violent and powerful as he is, he’s cowed (henpecked?) by her! And there’s another dance here. Not so ambiguous as David’s, this dance is utterly unholy, with a gruesome ending to the story. What's the sermon? Stick close to Jesus / Lose your head?

So, Ephesians 1:3-14. There is so much theology and wisdom packed into this 202 word sentence (yes, these 12 verses are one run-on sentence in the Greek) that I preached not just one but two sermons on it in September (on 1:3-6, then 1:7-14, which you can check out if they are helpful). Paul’s sentence would be a nightmare to diagram. You can feel Paul’s enthusiasm for God and for the people he loved spilling over, as if he just couldn’t stop rambling, unable to stop things with a period, with yet another Oh yes, and also…

Some fascinating details: God has “made known the mystery of his will.” That’s perfect (and the subject of my book, The Will of God). God’s will isn’t a hunch you feel. It’s been made known – and yet it’s still a mystery, not as in puzzling, you can’t figure it out, but mystery as in beyond the prosaic, something profound, mystical, beyond what we can reckon and just get done easily.

We read here of “saints.” Our folks think a saint is some superhuman spiritual hero, or someone who’s a bit prissy, avoiding earthly pleasures, or doing immense good. But the saint is someone whose thinking and living at least strives to be different, special, not blending into the mobs out there. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says holiness is simply making space and time for God.

It’s aspirational. We dream of being what Paul calls us: holy. Mary Oliver’s words always move me: “Another morning and I wake with thirst for the goodness I do not have. Oh Lord, grant me, in your mercy, a little more time. Love for the earth and love for you are having such a long conversation in my heart.” I love Richard Rohr’s intriguing suggestion: “We don’t have to make ourselves holy. We already are, and we just don’t know it.”

“Chosen”? Americans think of choice as limiting - as if you choose which cereal among many in the store to buy, or the bachelor choosing which bachelorette pleases him. Ephesians does this over and over: you aren’t on the outside looking in with God. You don’t have to go find God and get God. You can be confused or even uninterested. God chose you. God is in you. Preachers should and can boggle their minds with this: Want to know how amazing you are? God chose you “before the foundation of the world.” That’s right: when God thought, Let’s make a universe with galaxies and nebulae! God also thought of you, God decided you would be you. And for the noblest conceivable purpose: that you would live with God’s Spirit in you. Go outside tonight. Gaze up into the heavens. Billions of years ago, when God imagined the vast cosmos, God was already making plans for you.

The preacher can clarify that “spiritual blessing” isn’t otherworldly or invisible, but what is gifted and driven by the Spirit – very tangible stuff. Paul says we’re “chosen” – but for what? “To be holy and blameless.” So much for bland churchgoer piety that prefers a God who just loves. Period.

Paul loves the image of adoption. Do check out Kelly Nikondeha’s marvelous theological reflections on this! Adopted people often want to find their birth parents. Why? “We want that dark corner illuminated. We imagine our own transformation at the revelation of our true origin. What goodness might be unlocked, what possibility unleashed?” Isn’t church a quest to discover our true origin? Nikondeha offers a picturesque retrospective on what being adopted was about: “A woman scooped me out of the white-wicker bassinet in the viewing room of the adoption agency and claimed me as her own. Her physical emptiness prepared the way for my fullness.”

Does the birth mother “abandon” her child? Or is it a “relinquishment”? So different. Abandonment is unfeeling and cruel. Relinquishment may be the highest form of love – as Jesus, certainly feeling abandoned by God, relinquished his divine power and his life out of such love.

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