Dear Friends in Christ,
“Everyone loves a parade.” We’ve all heard that saying. But is it really true? Well, I suppose that would depend on whom you ask. Ask those who watch the parade and yes, probably every one of them would say that they do love a parade. Otherwise they wouldn’t be there. But ask those who are walking or marching in the parade and you might get a different response. At least you would have from me had you asked me that question when I was in high school. I played the trumpet in our high school band which was known as the Staunton Marching Bulldogs. Our summer uniforms consisted of white shirts, black shorts, red vests, red berets, and the one thing we were known for more than anything else, our red velvet shoes. And every summer we marched in multiple parades – from Hillsboro to Highland, from Murphysboro to Smithboro, from White Hall to Witt. Every week, sometimes several times a week, we’d board those hot, un-air-conditioned school buses, and travel to distant and not-so-distant communities to strut our stuff and showcase our talents.
But there were two days of the summer I dreaded more than any others. The one was Labor Day because on that day we would travel first of all to Pana where we would march in their big parade in the morning. Then, after we’d eaten a sack lunch in the Pana Park, we would head to a small town called Benld, where we would take part in their huge Labor Day festivities. Usually the day would be hot, the parades would be long, and we would be exhausted when we finally boarded the bus that would take us the 6 or so miles from Benld back to Staunton.
But that day was a cakewalk compared to the worst day of the summer. That would be the opening day parade for the Illinois State Fair in Springfield. That parade was 7 miles long and always seemed to take place on one of the hottest days of the year because it occurred in mid-August. I can still picture our band parents weaving in and out of our ranks with coolers handing out ice cubes to us to keep us hydrated and energized. But even then it wasn’t unusual for us to lose a band member or two along the way who would simply pass out because of the heat.
Well, today in our sermon we’re going to attend a parade. It’s a rather unusual parade. For it’s a parade that gets interrupted and then resumes 3 months later. In this parade we’ll find what I’ve referred to in my sermon title as “One Man Dead and One Man Dancing.” The one man dead will be Uzzah who was priest from a family of priests. The one man dancing will be David who was king of Israel and part of the family tree of Jesus Christ. It’s a fascinating story that has a lot to say about how we approach God in worship.
First some background information to set the stage. We’re told in v.2 of our text that the purpose of this parade was to bring the ark of God, sometimes called the Ark of the Covenant, to Jerusalem. Now remember that the Ark of the Covenant was a rectangular gold-covered box about 3 ½ feet long, 2 feet wide, and 2 feet high. It contained a trio of important spiritual artifacts from Israel’s history, namely, a jar of manna from their days of wandering in the wilderness, part of Aaron’s rod or staff that budded to single him out as the one God had chosen to serve as Israel’s first high priest, and lastly, the 10 Commandments, the 2 stone tablets that had known the engraving finger of God. The lid or top of the ark was known as the mercy seat which was considered to be the very throne of God himself. And overarching that lid there were 2 gold cherubim whose wings were extended and touching.
Now, would you say that the Ark of the Covenant was important to the Israelites? You’d better believe it! It symbolized God’s provision in the jar of manna; God’s power in Aaron’s rod that he had caused to bud even though it was severed from the tree; God’s precepts that he gave in the form of the 10 Commandments; but most of all it symbolized God’s presence among his people.
So as you can imagine, the Ark of the Covenant held a very prominent and cherished place among the Israelites. It would be somewhat similar to if we owned the very cross on which Christ was crucified or the very nails that pierced his hands and feet or the very manger in which he was laid the night he was born. Though we would not worship such a relic, would we not protect it? Would we not respect it? Would we not treasure it? Of course we would. Which makes us wonder what happened to the Israelites because for 30 years the Ark of the Covenant had sat in the house of a priest named Abinadab. You kind of get the impression that during that time it was forgotten. No reference is made to it after it had been captured by the Philistines and then returned to Israel after the Philistines experienced nothing but disaster and disease when the ark was in their midst.
But now David is king. He has taken the stronghold of Jerusalem and has established his throne there. And the first order of business that David wants to take care of now that Israel has a capital city is to bring the Ark of the Covenant, this chief symbol of God’s presence, into the city. So he invites 30,000 Israelites – and some of you parents thought the guest list for your child’s wedding was big! – but he invites all these people to meet him at the house of Abinadab in order that they might have a 7 mile parade and with great festivity and celebration usher the Ark into Jerusalem for the very first time.
Well, everything goes well at first. They gather at the home of Abinadab. They load the ark onto a cart. They hitch the cart to some oxen and the parade begins. Verse 5 of our text says: “David and the whole house of Israel were celebrating with all their might before the LORD, with songs and with harps, lyres, tambourines, sistrums and cymbals.” But a few miles into the parade, they hit a rough patch of road and the oxen stumble, the wagon rocks, and the Ark of the Covenant starts to slide off the cart. So Uzzah, who has been walking beside the cart, instinctively reaches out his hand to stabilize it. And when he does, v.7 of our text says: “The LORD’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down and he died there beside the ark of God.”
Whoa! That’ll dampen a parade real quickly, won’t it? Needless to say, the festivities are immediately called off. David returns to Jerusalem, everyone goes back to their own homes, somebody buries Uzzah, and for 3 months the Ark is kept at the house of a man named Obed-Edom while David tries to sort things out and figure out what went wrong. Apparently he does figure it out, for after 3 months he calls everyone back together again and resumes the parade. This time there is no death, but there is something else that is worth taking note of. There is dancing. And David is the one who is doing the dancing. In verses 14 and 15 of our text it says 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.”
What a story, right? One man dead, one man dancing. It’s a story that I have to confess has puzzled me at times over the years. So what exactly can we learn from it?
Well, specifically this story leads us to ask another very important question and that question is: How can I invoke or bring the presence of God into my life? That’s what David really wanted here, didn’t he? He wanted God in Jerusalem. So in essence he was asking, “How can God come to me?”
We’ve asked similar question, haven’t we, especially those of us who take our Christianity seriously? Parents, you’ve asked, “How can we bring the presence of God into our children’s lives?” Husbands and wives, you’ve asked, “How can we bring the presence of God into our marriage?” We as a family of God’s people have asked, “How can we bring the powerful and peace-giving presence of God into our church?” Do we light candles? Do we follow a certain prescribed liturgy? Do we give barrels full of money? Do we organize committees? Do we go to the Jordan River and fill our baptismal font with water from there? People have tried all kinds of things to bring the presence of God into their lives and their churches. So what do we do?
I believe we find some answers to that question in this penetrating and puzzling story of one man dead and one man dancing. Let’s look first at the message that we find in one man dead. And that message is pretty clear: God comes to us on his own terms, not ours.
You see, the Israelites had been given very specific instructions on the care and transport of the Ark of God. Only certain priests could carry it, but only after they had properly prepared themselves and offered certain prescribed sacrifices for themselves and their families. Then the ark would be lifted up not with hands, for the ark was not to be touched by human hands, but with long wooden poles that would be run through rings that were attached to all 4 corners of the Ark. Then it would be set on the shoulders of the priests who would carry it to wherever it was being taken.
Uzzah was a priest. He should have known this. After all, he was from a family of priests, a family of Kohathite priests, the very ones whose sole responsibility was to care for the sacred objects like the Ark. They should have had those instructions memorized. But if you read between the lines, you kind of get the impression from this story that Uzzah wasn’t exactly taking his responsibilities very seriously, that the Ark wasn’t that big of a deal to him. When David comes looking for it at the home of Abinadab where Uzzah lived for he was Abinadab’s son, I can almost envision Uzzah saying something like, “The ark? Oh yeah. Now what did we do with that? I remember. It’s out in the barn. I think it’s covered by a tarp or something. Let’s see if we can find it.” And then when they do find it, instead of consulting God’s Word to see how he wants it transported, Uzzah says, “I’ll get a cart – I’ll even splurge and make it a new cart – and we’ll load it on there and take it to Jerusalem that way.” Do you see what was happening here? What was holy had become humdrum. What was sacred had become second rate. What was very important to God had become very common to Uzzah.
The image of Uzzah’s dead body lying on the road next to the Ark sends a somber and sobering message to Christians today. To those who think they can come to God on their terms, to those who think they can come to church only when they want to, only when it’s convenient for them, only when there’s nothing better to do, it contains a warning that we not allow that which is holy to become humdrum. To those of us who have Bibles in our homes that go days or months or even years without ever being opened and read, this story cautions us to not let that which is sacred become second rate. It seems to me that the story of Uzzah is a stern warning against casual worship and a casual or cavalier attitude toward God. It reminds us how high and holy the privilege of worship is and how high and holy God is. And that high and holy God will come to his people – in fact, he wants to come to his people – but only on his terms. And what are those terms? Well, he comes where there is reverence and humility, where there is honest and sincere confession of sin, where there is sacrifice and obedience, and especially where there is faith and trust in the atoning work of his Son Jesus Christ.
But, we ask, did Uzzah have to die to teach us these lessons? When one tour leader in the Holy Land was asked that question, he gave a great answer. He said: “The real mystery is not why Uzzah got zapped. The real mystery is how we get off not being zapped.” Maybe the great story here is not the severity of God toward Uzzah but the mercy of God toward us, who through the cross extends a rescuing hand to sinners like you and me who deserve wrath rather than grace.
Well, that’s the message of one man dead. What about the message of one man dancing? I’m afraid you’re going to have to wait 2 weeks for that till my next sermon because our time for today is up. Until then, may the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus at all times and truly reverent in your worship of him. Amen.