26 July – The Lord of the dance

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Sunday 17

2 Samuel 6:1-23
Psalm 24
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Our reading from 2 Samuel this morning is a drama in two acts, both revolving around the ark of the covenant, but also having at their centre the theme of humility.

The ark stems from the time of Moses, perhaps 250 years or so prior to David’s reign, and was built to contain the stone tablets on which were written the Ten Commandments, and a few other holy mementos. It had an appearance in story of David in the time of Eli, the mentor of Samuel, when it was captured by the Philistines and carted away. Eli died at hearing the news of its capture, and one of his daughters-in-law gave premature birth to a son whom she named “Ichabod”, meaning “the glory has departed from Israel”. The story goes, however, that presence of the ark among its captors caused such havoc among them that they finally sent it back to Israel with gold offerings to Israel’s God (1 Samuel 4.10-7.1).

It reappears now in the story at the time when David is seeking to consolidate his position as king, and so reappears with somewhat ambiguous purpose. On the one hand, there is clearly what we might call a “religious” motivation in bringing the ark to Jerusalem. This is seen in the elaborate liturgy which surrounds its arrival, with sacrifice, music, and ecstatic dancing even by the king himself. The celebrations surrounding the ark are a celebration of the presence of God to Israel. In this sense, the focus is upon God and his faithfulness.

On the other hand, the presence of the ark in Jerusalem is a very important thing for David politically. In this way he brings the ancient and common religious heritage of the scattered tribes to the place where the now equally common but quite new political unity of the tribes in David as king. Although the division between the religious and the political was not as strong in David’s time as it is in our time, it is still the case that the bringing of the ark to Jerusalem was likely a part of a political strategy for David. Rule over the tribes will be easier when the political centre and the centre of religious devotion coincide. Kings do not need “meddlesome priests” (To recall the conflict between Henry II and Thomas Becket) in some distant centre, a kind of second government or court of appeal. It is smarter to symbolise and secure the unity of the religious and the secular orders by having them in the same place.

This double-edged – and so compromised – intention in David’s moving of the ark is, however, met in the fate of the unfortunate Uzzah, who was struck dead when he touched it. (Cf. 1 Sam 6.19 on the fate of the “men of Bethshemeth” who did rejoice at the return of the ark from the Philistines.) It’s a troubling story to modern ears, and not only modern ones: David himself was unimpressed with Uzzah’s death at God’s hand. Yet the important point for the story is not that Uzzah dies but that, as a result, David “was afraid of the Lord that day”. For God is shown here to be dangerous. Whatever David’s actions were intended to achieve, this God will not be a political instrument. “How can the ark of the Lord come into my care?” David asks; and the answer is that it cannot. The ark, or rather the God whose dangerous presence it symbolises, will take care of itself. David’s plans for the ark are challenged; he has been humbled by God.

So the ark is left at the home of one Obed-edom. And things go very well for him, which brings us to the second act. Hearing how Obed-edom has been blessed, David returns to collect the ark again. But now things are different. God has claimed for himself what David’s actions in bringing the ark to Jerusalem might have contradicted: that God is his own “man”, so to speak. God will come to Jerusalem, the “city of David”, and make it God’s own city.

This is grounds for celebration, and celebrate David does. The politics has now receded, and the focus is starkly on the approach of God in the symbol of the ark. And so we see David again as the one whose orientation – at its best – is to and from God. In ecstatic abandon David – apparently not even sufficiently dressed for decent public appearance – dances before God and before the people.

And then enters the unhappy figure of Michal. The daughter of Saul and David’s first wife, she was once deeply in love with David but ended up being tossed around as a political football by both her father and by David. Yet the role she takes here is not that of the unjustly-dealt-with. Here Michal is the accuser of David who has found himself in losing himself before God. She stands, at one level, as representative of the old order – perhaps contrasting David’s exuberance with the more staid character of her father’s kingship. So a contrast between Saul and David might be being drawn again here. But more important is the general moral offence against the propriety of office. She observes sarcastically, “How the king of Israel honoured himself today, uncovering himself today before the eyes of his servants’ maids, as any vulgar fellow might shamelessly uncover himself” (v.20). This is not how things are done.

David’s response, however, is remarkable:

“It was before the Lord, who chose me in place of your father … to appoint me as prince of Israel…that I have danced… I will make myself yet more contemptible than this, and I will be abased in my own eyes; but by the maids of whom you have spoken, by them I shall be held in honour” (v.21f).

First, he sets the voice of the old order in its place – it was God who appointed me in place of Saul. This much is more or less undeniable in the story, and probably recognised by Michal herself even if she’s not actually reconciled to the fact. More importantly, it was before God and not according to anyone else’s requirements that David has danced. But then David goes a step further to borrow Michal’s contempt and make of it a badge of honour:

I will become yet more contemptible, even contemptible in my own eyes, but the lowly maids of the servants will hold me in honour.

Perhaps the most notable thing here is that David does not seek to elevate or justify himself before God or before his accuser. This is because God has already elevated David; David’s self-abandon before the ark and the people is his response to this gift, and apparently one acceptable to God. Rather than justify himself before God, David allows that he might actually be further humbled – even to the extent of his own self-contempt. And the humble themselves – the maids of the servants – will honour David for it.

In our (off RCL) gospel reading today (Matthew 11.16-30.), there is a very suggestive parallel to what has happened here. Jesus gives an account of the charges made against him:

Matthew 11.18 ‘For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon”; 19the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!” (and, we might add, the maids of the servants).

Here, in the role of Michal, the accuser is “this generation”, which cries out:

17 “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.”

That is, it is supposed that there is already a rhythm in place according which Jesus ought to be “dancing”, and yet he does not. And because he does not, he seemingly shames himself before God and the people as a “drunkard” and a “glutton”.

But more than this accusation as a correspondence to the story of David there is also present the theme of humility. Reflecting David’s acknowledgement that he might yet be humbled further, Jesus speaks of a revelation not to the wise and the intelligent – not to cultured despisers, the accusing Michals of this world – but to infants. And he issues the invitation:

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

This is not an invitation to a life of quietude. The “rest for your souls” Jesus speaks of here is the freedom to dance as David did, or the freedom not to dance. What is spoken here is not a prescription for what to do, but simply – and most crucially – a contradiction of the voice of judgement spoken over those who know themselves as the children of God. That judgement Jesus notes in the comments made over his and the Baptist’s ministries:

‘For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon”; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!”

This is, in effect, to say that it is impossible not to be wrong, it is impossible not to offend someone, it is impossible not to transgress in the eyes of even those we imagine are on our side.

The danger in this kind of talk is that it might be heard as implying that therefore we might just as well claim free reign to do as we wish. The death of Uzzah as a sign to David and the resurrection of Jesus from the dead as a sign to his executioners are enough to show that this is not the case. There is a “too far” which is a true transgression of the limits God sets. This extreme is imagining that we can manipulate God, whether bringing God alongside our plans for the world or excluding God by crucifixion.

But the good news to be heard here is about a freedom to stand before God as we are, to do as we do, to offer what we can – to “dance”, so to speak.

There is an old Shaker song, “Simple Gifts”, which gives us the tune we sing to “The Lord of the Dance”:

When true simplicity is gain’d,
To bow and to bend – we shan’t be asham’d,
[think David dancing!]
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.

(The Shaker song was most likely a dance piece: “turn, turn… come ‘round right”.)

Simplicity – “rest for your souls”, David’s abandon in God – brings the freedom of humility, to dance through life before God, turning from presumptions to know God and judge each other and, in this turning, coming around right.

By the gift of his liberating Spirit, may God’s people respond once more with joy to the invitation to join with him, the Lord of the dance, fearing not the accusations of those who despise the freedom of God’s children, but presenting before them the fuller humanity to which we are all called.