THE ARK OF THE COVENANT
2 Samuel 6: 1-5
Like many of our Vacation Bible School children this week, years ago there was a little boy who attended another VBS where he was taught that God, who was invisible, was always with him. They boy thought about it as he was being tucked into bed. The night was dark and thunder was clapping outside and lightning flashing. He asked him mother if she would stay with him. “No honey,” I have to get your younger brother ready for bed. But remember: God is with you.” “ Yeah,” the boy said, but I rather have someone with some skin.”
All this week the lessons we taught were to secure the belief that no matter what times of trial we face, God will be with us, even if God is invisible. Mary Ann and I were just in Copenhagen as part of our 40th anniversary, and I made a point of going to Soren Kierkegaard plaza, a rather underwhelming place. On the plane over I was reading some of the writings of that famous Danish philosopher. One poem, likely penned by Kierkegaard, is called “Footprints in the Sand.” A man had a dream and his life flashed across the sky. He noticed two sets of footprints in the sand during most of his life, and believed they were those of the Lord and himself. But he was troubled when during the times in his life that were most difficult, there appeared to be only one set of footprints. So he questioned the Lord about it. The Lord said, “My precious, precious child, I have taught you that I will never abandon your or forsake you. When you saw the one set of footprints in the sand, it was then that I carried you.” A line in many hymnals imagines God saying to the singers: “When through the deep waters I call thee to go, the rivers of sorrow shall not overflow; for I will be near thee, thy troubles to bless, and sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.” That image, and the themes in our VBS stories this week, imagined a person rolling down the rivers of life, facing rapid places, calm places, cold place, and warm places. But many people—including the people of God—did not just float down a river; they crossed a river or other bodies of water. The salvation event for the Hebrew people was crossing the Red Sea at a place that God made dry, so they could escape slavery. Moses was God’s chosen leader. Later as Moses grew old during a terribly trying time wandering for 40 years in the wilderness, God created a tag team to cross a different body of water into his promised land. That body of water was the Jordan River. Moses was aloud to see the Promised Land but not cross over into it. That task was handed off to Joshua. Moses blessed him and God commissioned him. So Joshua led others from Mount Nebo across the Jordan River into Caanan to claim God’s promised land.
Those people, a bit like the young boy who wanted a God with skin, decided that they wanted to take God with them. But how? They couldn’t look at him; they couldn’t make any graven images of him or carry them in their robes. They decided the one thing they had from God was the Ten Commandments, words that they believed were cut by the finger of God. So the tablets on which the commandments were written became sacred; special; almost like a child’s security blanket for grown ups. They decided that they would feel safer if God traveled with them. And for good measure, they would feel best if God went first! Thus we come to the story of the Ark of the Covenant the details of which are in Second Samuel Chapter 6. Don’t we know what it’s like to want God close to us; God with us? Some believe God is in their Bible, or on a cross in their pocket, or around their neck, or in their sanctuaries or chapels. Today we learn that even in the days of the people of Israel, God was not just in heaven. God was with the chosen people. And later we learn how God dwelled on the earth in Jesus Christ, … and still is with us through the Holy Spirit! So let’s take the idea that God only resides in Heaven and set it aside! Let’s set aside the belief that people can only approach God in churches or cathedrals. Let’s not believe that we can put a memento of God on a knick knack shelf and think it means God is there! We say to our forbears: “We understand why you wanted to try to carry God with you! But through Jesus God is in the Temple of our hearts!”
This morning our sanctuary includes a replica of the Ark of the Covenant; The ark was a moveable box, built to exact specifications according to God’s instructions, that would contain the Commandment tablets Moses received on Mount Sinai from God. Israelites, and later the Jews, called those Commandments “God’s Law.” God’s people believed that God’s presence was with them when the Ark was in front of their journeys. This was not a box God lived in; it was an Ark that carried the reminder of God’s presence and protection. The Bible records that when the chosen people had battles with others, they honored God by keeping God present, not just with the Ark, but also in leather pouches lashed to their foreheads. They believed if they removed their sacred pieces from their bodies, or failed to put the ark in front of their battles, they could be defeated. In our day those who hear a message and believe it on a Sunday, but live as if they have not heard it on Monday, may struggle to find God’s presence on Tuesday.
The Israelites remembered, and put rituals into place, to honor God on the Sabbath: for Jews that’s from sundown Friday until Saturday night. They had times and places for honoring God. If ever they were delivered from a foe, they thanked God for it and erected boulders they called “altars,” or “standing stones,” saying to future generations, “God delivered us in this place.” How do you remember times when God has delivered or healed you? Do you have a ritual for remembering and thanking God?
The late German Theologian Gerhard von Rad describes “The Tent, the Ark, and the Glory of God” this way:
The tabernacle is not a tent in the full sense of the term….It consisted of a massive frame of boards overlaid with gold ….Here stood the Ark, a rectangular wooden casket, 2 ½ cubits long, 1 ½ broad, and1 ½ high, which could be carried by means of long poles. [OLD TESTAMENT THEOLOGY, Harper & Row, 1962, vol. 1, pp. 234-235]
The poles were a very important part of the set up. God had not just picked a place, called it holy, and said, “I will live here; you come to see me here!” No; God said, in effect, “Take me with you; I want to be where you are, and you will certainly want me to be where you are!” That’s why the poles are there. The Ark of the Covenant includes angels on top to indicate the presence of God. It’s called “the Mercy Seat.” The Ark was not intended to be mainly a shrine for people to travel to visit. It was so God could go with the people. Those who were thinking that God would just live in a tabernacle or a temple were limiting our limitless God! But, as the Jews settled around Jerusalem, they lost their need to travel and escape. So a Temple was eventually built to protect the Ark and invite the faithful to, symbolically, come closer to God. Likewise, even though our world has wonderful sanctuaries, cathedrals, and chapels where people can come for reflection or prayer, they are intended to point to God, be a catalyst for our spiritual lives and lift our drooping heads up! They become destinations in and of themselves. Yes, we can take God with us, in a manner of speaking, as we carry our Bibles, cell phones, crosses, or computers. But the worship of God has always involved a community! Some people say they can worship God on golf courses, in theme parks, or other places. They can; that is, if they set their clubs down, or their fast passes down, move to a corner of the property, gather at least three other people, set up a focal point of an altar, a cross, a bowl of water, or a table, and worship the God who is with them even there! It takes focus to honor God, not just a glib mention. Or you can go to a house of worship, where others come seeking God and community, and use that time for focused worship. Houses of worship are usually built carefully and prayerfully. In 1 Kings we read about Solomon constructing the Temple of God, a task David was not allowed to do. Solomon believed that it honored God to create a house for God. But the poles on the Ark should never be forgotten: God always wants to go with us into the world, not be left behind! Scripture tags we hand out to children and youth on our back to school Sunday remind them that God is going with them! An old hymn suggests: “Take the Name of Jesus With You.” But today’s text reminds us also that, through the ages, people have created inspiring places to honor God. That’s good too. Find the place, find the time, and find the words to honor God. It can happen at church, at home, at work, at play … or at school. Call on, and praise the Living God! We not only have streams to forge, we also have waters cross. In both activities of life, God will be with us. What joyous and comforting news! Thanks be to our very present God!
Jeffrey A. Sumner July 15, 2018