Sunday 15 July - Pentecost 8 - Eucharist - Stephen Holmes

Pentecost 8 – 2 Sam 6: 1-5, 12b-19; Eph 1.3-14; Mk 6:14-29


+ ‘O God, you have prepared for those who love you good things no eye has seen’


At the start of our second reading, Paul begins his letter to the Ephesians with a summary of the Christian faith, but these words from our collect tell us that at the heart of our faith is ignorance. There is a lot we just don’t know. We know stuff about God and Jesus and the Spirit and sacraments and how to live, but there’s a lot we don’t know. To be a Christian is to be ignorant. We know some of the answers but to other questions there is a big gap.

I, like a lot of my clergy colleagues, am preparing to move to a new post. I know enough about it to have said yes, and Izzy and I are very excited about the move, but there is so much we don’t know. If we knew everything life would be very boring. I wouldn’t have bothered watching the England-Croatia match.

That things are missing makes life interesting. What was missing from our first reading? Week by week we are following the story of David. Last week he captured Jerusalem and was anointed King. This week he takes the Ark of the Covenant, the most sacred object of the Jews, containing the stone tablets of the Law, the throne where God dwells between the cherubim. Donald Trump might say it is bigly the ‘highest level of special’. At the start of the story David takes it up to Jerusalem from the house of Abinadab and he and the others dance wildly before it with tambourines. When I am gone you could have tambourines in worship here. Ethiopian Christians still dance like that before the tabot. But suddenly in our reading the Ark is in the house of a chap called Obed-edom and because it has blessed him David takes it up to Jerusalem and again dances before it naked but for a loin-cloth. But why does the Ark suddenly appear in the house of Obed-edom?

Something has been left out. Those who prepared our lectionary want us ignorant of something. Something perhaps as shocking as the person sitting on your left dancing naked with a tambourine. In the missing verses, as the Ark was going up from the House of Abinadab, the cart it was on seemed to be falling over and a man called Uzzah put out his hand to steady it. God struck him dead for this, and David was angry at the injustice so he parked the Ark in the house of Obed-edom and refused to allow this dangerous God to enter his city; or rather he did until he saw this God blessed Obed-edom. Then Israel sang the psalm we have just sung – Lift up your gates and let the King of Glory enter in.

Do you want to worship this God who smites a man who wants to help? I suspect that many of us here might have big problems with the Old Testament. It can help to realise that it is the story of God’s education of Israel to prepare for Christ, if you are helping Iron Age tribes grow in the moral life you don’t read them the UN declaration on human rights. The Old Testament is not a treatise of absolute morality, though it does contain it in the ten commandments – much of it could have the health warning ‘do not attempt this at home’. But we shouldn’t be smug. Your problem with the Old Testament may conceal a problem with your own views. Smugness is the besetting vice of the Northern European Liberal. Donald Trump is not a pleasant person. It is right to protest against some of his policies and opinions, but do you get the same crowds out against the leaders of Iran or China? When people protested against apartheid South Africa or Israel, did we find them protesting against Soviet Russia or the Baathist regimes in Syria and Iraq. Generally not. Northern European Liberal indignation is selective and as controlled by prejudice as the mind of Donald Trump. Our own Scottish government inhabits this territory as it consorts with the new President of Catalonia who has been condemned for xenophobia by a Catalan anti-racist watchdog.

Some of you may think this priest is getting too political, others may think this is the wrong sort of political, but my point is that we are always limited. There is a lot we just don’t know and anything we hold can only be part of the truth. This is a call to moral and intellectual humility. We must be truthful, test things with the evidence, and keep open the possibility we might be wrong. It is sometimes those who pride themselves on being open-minded liberals who are the worst fundamentalists because they can’t allow the possibility of other views.

But, don’t worry. The Old Testament gives us an answer. Think back to the Ark of the Covenant, the centre of Israelite religion, made by Moses to a plan in heaven, carried by David into Jerusalem and placed by Solomon in the Holy of Holies of the Temple. What did it look like? It was a box, containing the stone tablets of the Law, but on top were the two cherubim and between them the mercy seat, the throne where God dwells. And the throne was empty. At the heart of the divinely revealed religion of Israel was an absence, a void. This might look like atheism to the surrounding peoples but it is a warning to dethrone your self-sufficiency.

Knowing this you might have expected Jesus to sit on this throne, but actually the throne he ascended was the cross, again subverting our certainties. The summary of Christian faith in our reading from Ephesians is worth looking at. Paul tells us that Christianity is about Jesus revealing to us the mystery of God’s will. And this will is not that God will kill those like Uzzah who try to help him, it is that we are chosen before the foundations of the world to be loved and to praise the glory of Christ. That defines us, love and praise, and that gives us hope when life seems an empty void.