When we speak of the “good life,” we're not merely talking about an ethical or a moral life. Ethics and morality are important, but they only carry us so far. The real question is: How can we make the most of this gift of existence and live a life that is truly worth living? This sermon considers one of the most difficult and unsettling passages in the Old Testament—2 Samuel 6—and what it tells us about what worship is not, what worship is, and why it matters.

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    Luc Ferry is a French philosopher and a self-proclaimed Atheist. Even though I reach very different conclusions about the nature of reality than he does, he has a fascinating way of describing the complexities of life in the modern world. For example, he offers this thought experiment: Imagine we could wave a magic wand and then instantly everyone living today began treating one another perfectly with equal dignity and respect. There would be no more war or genocide, no racism or xenophobia, no rape or theft, no domination or exclusion. There would be no need for a police force or a standing army. Our judicial system and prisons would eventually disappear. That thought experiment just goes to show how far basic morality could carry us, how essential it is to our common life as human beings, and yet how far we are from realizing it. And yet, Ferry suggests that even if we were to wave that magic wand, the most profound existential challenges we face would still not be resolved. This is how he puts it, 

    “Still—and here I have to weigh each one of my words—none (I really mean none) of our most profound existential problems would be resolved if this came to pass. Nothing, even in a perfect realization of the most sublime morality, would prevent us from aging; from witnessing, powerless, the appearance of wrinkles and white hair; from falling sick, dying, and seeing our loved ones die; from worrying about the outcome of our children’s education or from struggling to achieve what we want for them. Even if we were saints, nothing would guarantee us a fulfilled emotional life.”

    The point is that morality is indispensable to human life. And yet, it's not enough. We need something more. 

    We're engaged in a series focused on the question: What is the good life? But that only raises another question, which is: What do you mean by “good”? When we speak of the “good life,” we're not merely talking about an ethical or a moral life. Ethics and morality are important, but they only carry us so far. The real question is: How can we make the most of this gift of existence and live a life that is truly worth living, even in the face of the existential problems we are confronted with? 

    We're seeking to answer that question through a close reading of the story of David in 1 and 2 Samuel. As we've seen, David is far from perfect, but that's not what matters. What matters is that whether winning a great victory or committing an egregious sin, David lives his life before God. He lives a life of repentance and faith, meaning that he turns away from all known sin, and then gets back up on his feet and believes again. Whether in triumph or defeat, hope or despair, David doesn't run away from God. He runs towards God. That is what fills his life with enduring meaning and value and purpose. Despite those existential challenges. David lives his life before God, and that is the key to the good life. 

    Today, we focus on an episode that highlights the importance of living life before God, living a life of worship. And yet, this is one of the most difficult and unsettling passages that we will find in the Old Testament. As we turn to 2 Samuel 6, I'd like us to consider what it tells us about what worship is not, what worship is, and why it matters. Let me invite you to open up a Bible to 2 Samuel 6. I'll be reading verses 2-16. 

    2And David arose and went with all the people who were with him from Baale-judah to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the Lord of hosts who sits enthroned on the cherubim. 3And they carried the ark of God on a new cart and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. And Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new cart, 4with the ark of God, and Ahio went before the ark.
    5And David and all the house of Israel were celebrating before the Lord, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals. 6And when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled. 7And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah, and God struck him down there because of his error, and he died there beside the ark of God. 8And David was angry because the Lord had broken out against Uzzah. And that place is called Perez-uzzah to this day. 9And David was afraid of the Lord that day, and he said, “How can the ark of the Lord come to me?” 10So David was not willing to take the ark of the Lord into the city of David. But David took it aside to the house of Obed-edom the Gittite. 11And the ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-edom the Gittite three months, and the Lord blessed Obed-edom and all his household.
    12And it was told King David, “The Lord has blessed the household of Obed-edom and all that belongs to him, because of the ark of God.” So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David with rejoicing. 13And when those who bore the ark of the Lord had gone six steps, he sacrificed an ox and a fattened animal. 14And David danced before the Lord with all his might. And David was wearing a linen ephod. 15So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting and with the sound of the horn.
    16As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal the daughter of Saul looked out of the window and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord, and she despised him in her heart.

    This is God's word. It's trustworthy, and it's true, and it's given to us in love. 


    Let me provide a little background. At this point in the story, King Saul, the first king of Israel has died. Now finally, David has become the king not only of the southern tribes of Israel, but also the northern tribes of Judah. At that moment, he needed a new capital for his new government. Not unlike the decision to move the U.S. capital from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. in the year 1800, David realizes that he needs a neutral site that is located on the border in order to unite the southern tribes as well as the northern tribes of Israel. So he lands on the ancient stronghold of Jerusalem, which literally means "city of peace." From this point forward, it will not only be referred to as “Jerusalem,” but also “Zion,” which was the name of the hill upon which this stronghold was built, and "the city of David." This is the city of David. 

    Jerusalem will not only be the place from which David rules, but it's also going to be the place where God is worshiped in order to remind everyone that God is the ultimate King of Israel, and David is merely his prince. He's the prince of the city of peace. 2 Samuel 5:2 refers to David as the “shepherd of God's people” and the “prince over Israel.” That's why David brings the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. He is establishing Jerusalem not only as the seat of his throne, but also the seat of God's throne. 

    What was this Ark of the Covenant? I don't know about you, but when I was a kid, one of my favorite movies was the Indiana Jones movies. My favorite by far was the first one that came out in 1981, Raiders of the Lost Ark. In this first film, a very young Harrison Ford plays the role of Indiana Jones, the globe-trotting archaeologist who finds himself clashing with the German Nazis in 1936 because they're trying to relocate the long lost Ark of the Covenant. The Nazis treat the Ark of the Covenant like a powerful relic. Hitler wants the ark because he believes that if he has the ark, it will make his army invincible. 

    If you've seen the movie, you know what the Ark of the Covenant looks like. It essentially was a rectangular box, not quite four feet long, and just over two feet wide and two feet deep. This box was plated with gold, and it was the most sacred object in Israel's worship. It was contained in the inner sanctuary, the Most Holy Place, of the tabernacle. And the lid, the cover, of the Ark of the Covenant was made out of pure gold. It was called the “mercy seat,” or the “place of atonement.” On either end of the cover of the Ark of the Covenant was an image of two cherubim, two angelic beings, with their wings outstretched towards one another. This was the most sacred object in Israel's worship because Exodus 25:22 tells us that this was the place where God would dwell in the midst of his people. This is where God would be present. 

    In our passage, verse 2 tells us that the ark was, “called by the name of the Lord of hosts,” which suggests that there was a differentiation—this was the purpose—it was intended to differentiate between the Lord of hosts himself and the Ark of the Covenant. It was “called by the name of the Lord of hosts.” Then it goes on to say that, “the Lord of hosts sits enthroned on the cherubim.” The Lord is not contained in the Ark of the Covenant, rather, the Lord sits enthroned on the cherubim. The way in which we're supposed to think of the Ark of the Covenant is as if it were merely a footstool that was placed at the bottom of a throne upon which a king would rest his feet. The Ark of the Covenant is really just the footstool, and we're meant to imagine this massive, invisible throne rising above it. And that is where God sits enthroned above the cherubim. 

    That's consistent with the vision of the prophet Isaiah. In Isaiah 6, Isaiah has a vision of the Lord, and what does he say? He says, “I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up.” This throne was so massive that “the train of God's robe filled the whole temple.” His robe filled the temple itself. And he sees two seraphim, creatures associated with God's divine presence, with six wings, who fly and call out to one another, “‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!’” Do you realize that when David is bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, he is not merely setting up his throne in Jerusalem, he's setting up God's throne in Jerusalem. God is the King who will be worshiped there. That's the background. 

    What Worship Is Not

    The problem is that when David brings the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, somebody dies. This is one of those passages that makes us stop and ask: What is going on here? What is this all about? What you need to know is that 30 years prior to this moment, the Philistines, Israel's enemies, had captured the Ark of the Covenant, but then they later returned it. They send it back on an oxen cart. They get the Ark back, but they effectively just put it in storage. And it's been kept now in the house of Abinadab, a priest for nearly 30 years. Now David does the right thing. He sends for the Ark of the Covenant. He wants to bring it to his new capital. Abinadab’s two sons, Ahio and Uzzah, lead the Ark of the Covenant, which is being carried on a new oxen cart. 

    It's a celebratory moment. David is out there, along with all the people, singing and dancing, complete with not only harps and lyres, but tambourines and cymbals and castanets. But the party comes to a rather abrupt end when one of the oxen begins to stumble. It looks as if the ark is going to fall off the cart, so Uzzah reaches out his hand to steady the ark. But then in verse 7 we read, “​​God struck him down there because of his error, and he died there beside the ark of God.”

    This is one of those passages that creates so much confusion. A lot of people would say, “If this is what God is like, if God is this wrathful or unpredictable then I don't want to have anything to do with this God.” It's very hard to square a passage like this with the idea that God is a God of love and compassion. So why does God strike him down right then and there for no other reason than because he reaches out his hand to keep the Ark from falling? 

    What I would suggest is that there's far more going on in this passage than we may realize at first. This episode provides us with a window into the nature of false worship on the one hand and true worship on the other. It gives us a window into what you might call “religion,” false worship, on the one hand, and the “gospel,” true worship, on the other. 

    Let's first consider what worship is not. The problem with religion, what I'm calling “false worship,” is that in this instance, religion can quite literally kill you. The problem with religion is that it leads you to think that you can put God in a box. That's what God's ancient people have done here. They literally think that God is contained in a box—the rectangular box of the Ark of the Covenant—and they treat this box like the Nazis did in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. They treat it like this powerful relic or talisman that they could manipulate and control. They treat the Ark of the Covenant like a genie in the bottle. They assume that God is in a box, and God is simply there to give them whatever they want. They can rub the lamp and out will pop God to grant them their wishes. 

    The problem oftentimes with religious people is that they not only think that they can manage and control God, but they also think that through their religion, they can manage and control other people. In commenting on this passage, the author Eugene Peterson writes, 

    “Religion is a breeding ground for this kind of thing. Not infrequently these God-managing men and women work themselves into positions of leadership. Over the years the basics with which they began, the elements of reverence and awe, the spirit of love and faith, erode and shrivel. Finally there’s nothing left. They’re dead to God.”

    “Uzzah is a warning. If we think and act as he did, we’ll be dead men and women, soon or late. Dead in our spirits. Dead to the aliveness of God.”

    Jesus called such people whitewashed tombs, full of dead men's bones. Religion kills the spirit. 

    What I need you to understand is that Hebrew narrative is incredibly sparse. Whenever you're reading the Old Testament Scriptures, you need to realize that Hebrew authors never waste a word. Every little word counts, which means that you have to pay very close attention to the details. That's what unlocks the meaning of the passage. Verse 7 refers to the "error" that Uzzah committed. God struck him down because of his "error." What was the error? The error is that he took hold of the Ark of the Covenant. But God cannot be managed or controlled. We can make the same mistake. We may not literally try to put God in a metal box, but we most certainly put God in a mental box, where we think that he can be managed and controlled. We think that God is simply there to help us when we need him, and otherwise, he stays in that tiny little box. And he only comes out when we call upon him for help. 

    That's how religion works. You think that God is there to serve you, to fulfill all your dreams, to make you feel good about yourself. We assume that if we're good enough, if we're pious enough, if we're zealous enough, if we're devout enough, if we say all the right prayers, if we observe all the right rituals, if we keep all of the right rules, then God is obligated to bless us, and to make our life go well because we did our end of the deal. We put God in a box. We think that he can be managed and controlled to give us what we really want. 

    That is a fatal mistake because in that case, you're not really interested in God for who he really is, you're merely using God to get whatever you really want. And if God doesn't deliver, if God doesn't give you what you want, then it will make you angry and bitter and resentful towards God because that's what you thought religion was for. That's what happens to David. Look at verse 8: “David was angry because the Lord had broken out against Uzzah.” David effectively says, “Look, God, I did everything I was supposed to do. I did the right thing. I brought your Ark of the Covenant out of the storage. And this is the thanks I get? This is how you repay me? Forget it. I don't want to have anything to do with you.” 

    How do you know if you have put God in a box? The poet W.H. Auden and once wrote that a Christian is someone who says, 

    “I believe because He fulfills none of my dreams, because He is in every respect the opposite of what He would be if I could have made Him in my own image.”

    Isn't that an amazing statement?

    So how do you know that you're dealing with the real God, rather than a mere figment of your imagination or a projection of your own desires? The real God is going to challenge your dreams, not merely fulfill your dreams. David learns a rather important lesson the hard way. He learns that God is not here to serve us. No, we're here to serve him. In fact, in Hebrew, the word “worship” and “serve” are the very same word. God is not here to worship us. We're here to worship him. God is not supposed to follow us according to our terms. No, we're supposed to follow God on his terms. If we do, then he promises that he will bless us, not because he's obligated to, but rather as a sheer act of his grace. 

    Christianity offers this unique view of salvation. God relates to us on the basis of sheer grace, which means that a relationship with God is not something that we achieve for ourselves through our own efforts. No, we only receive it with empty hands. 

    What Worship Is

    If religion tries to put God in a box, if false worship treats God like an object we can control, what is true worship? What's the gospel? Look at what happens. We read in verse 9 that, “David was afraid of the Lord.” You'd be afraid too if you watched that happen. He doesn't want the Ark of the Covenant to come to Jerusalem because now he doesn't know what's going to happen if it does, so he sends it to the home of a man named Obed-edom the Gittite. If he’s a Gittite that means he's originally from the city of Gath. Do you know who else was from Gath? Goliath!—which means that Obed-edom was one of the hated Philistines. He was a member of the people that was Israel's enemy. And yet, somehow, someway, God chooses to bless Israel's enemy Obed-edom the Gittite, because the Ark of the Covenant is housed in his home. 

    David decides to do a little research and asks, “What's going on here?” He tries to find out, what exactly did Uzzah do wrong? After doing his research, David realizes that he has forgotten the holiness of the Lord. He has forgotten that no one can stand before the holy presence of God and live. Remember, the Ark of the Covenant was kept in the Most Holy Place, the inner sanctuary, within the tabernacle. No one could ever look upon the Ark of the Covenant, let alone touch it, except for one person—the high priest. And only he could enter into the Most Holy Place on one day out of the year—the Day of Atonement. Only then could he enter into the Most Holy Place if he brought a sacrifice of blood. The high priest on the Day of Atonement would literally sprinkle the blood of the sacrificed animal on the lid, the cover of the Ark of the Covenant. That's why it was called the “mercy seat.” That's why it was called the “place of atonement” because God had promised by pure grace that through the sacrifice of another, he would cover his people's sin. He promised that he would forgive and cleanse his people so that God could dwell in their midst. Because the fact of the matter is, in our sin, no one could stand in the presence of a holy God and live. The only way it's possible is through the substitutionary sacrifice of another. David realizes that God's holiness is not something to be afraid of. It's not something that we should fear, as long as we relate to God in accordance with his covenant. We can't worship God on our terms. We have to worship God on his terms. That's what this story is all about. 

    Where did David get the idea that he should transport the Ark of the Covenant on an oxen cart? You know who did that originally? The Philistines. When the Philistines wanted to send the Ark back to Israel, they sent it on an ox cart. The ox cart was a Philistine invention. This was their new technology. But that is not the way God had specified in his covenant that the Ark should be transported. The Ark was equipped with these rings on either side of that rectangular box. And what you were supposed to do is slide poles through those rings, so that it could be carried on one’s shoulders and no one would actually touch the Ark itself. 

    David figured it out. After he did his research, he knew how the Ark was supposed to be handled. Contrast verse 13 with verse 3. Rather than carrying the Ark on an ox cart, verse 13 tells us they, “bore the ark of the Lord.” The parallel passage in 1 Chronicles 15 makes it clear that it was the Levites, it was the priests, who carried the Ark on their shoulders with the poles. But they only go six steps before David offers a sacrifice, which reminds us that God relates to us not on the basis of merit, but on the basis of grace. Religion leads you to say, “I obey, and therefore, God accepts me.” But the gospel tells us, “God accepts me, despite my sin, through the substitutionary sacrifice of another, and therefore I obey. Therefore, I strive to serve and please and honor God. Not out of duty or an obligation, but out of gratitude and joy. Not as a way to try to win God's love, but in order to show that I already have it.” 

    David finally gets it. This time, nothing happens to rain on his parade or to spoil the party. No, now when he brings the Ark into Jerusalem, he strips down to a simple linen shirt, which means that he would have looked much more like a priest, as opposed to a king dressed in all of his regalia. The passage tells us that now, “David danced before the Lord with all his might.” David danced before the Ark of the Lord as it makes its procession into Jerusalem with all of his might, which gives us a snapshot of the nature of true worship. If you know that God by his sheer grace has done absolutely everything that is necessary in order to cover your sin and make you clean so that you can stand in the presence of a holy God and live, then that will infuse your life with insuppressible joy regardless of what your circumstances or your challenges might be. If you are someone who appreciates more expressive forms of worship, complete with singing and dancing and shouting and clapping and tambourines and castanets and cymbals, then you can thank David. David is the one who introduces a whole new mode of worship because he recognized that God is a God of grace. And when you come face-to-face with a God of grace, it fills your life with insuppressible joy. 

    Of course, there is a place for lament as we mourn those aspects of our lives or the wider world that are not yet in line with his purposes, and yet nevertheless, the bass note, the ground note of a Christian's life has to be one of joy. The English author G.K. Chesterton once wrote the following. He was writing at the turn of the last century, so you'll have to pardon the gender specific language, but listen to what he says: 

    “Man is more himself, man is more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial. Melancholy should be an innocent interlude, a tender and fugitive frame of mind; praise should be the permanent pulsation of the soul.”

    David dances with all of his might before the presence of a holy God because he understands that God is a God of grace. But not everyone was happy that day. Michal, his wife, the daughter of Saul, peers out through the window, as David is making his way into the city. She sees him leaping and dancing before the Lord, and Michal thinks that he's making a fool of himself. “And she despises him in her heart,” which just goes to show that those who don't get grace just might despise those who do. 

    Why It Matters

    Finally, let's stop and ask ourselves why all this matters? What does this really have to do with us? The fact is the Ark of the Covenant is long lost. It's long gone. Those Indiana Jones films were fun action adventures, but we shouldn't draw any theological lessons from them. Despite the good storytelling, we're not going to find the Ark of the Covenant in some hidden location in Cairo, Egypt. But there is one thing that that film got right. Towards the very end, when the Nazis have actually got the Ark of the Covenant, they proceed to lift the lid of the covenant off the ark. And Indiana Jones says to his companion, “Don't look at it! Shut your eyes! Don't look at it no matter what happens!” Sure enough, all those who do look at the Ark of the Covenant as the lid is lifted die on the spot. Now, that's just a movie. But actually, that is tapping into a very deep, profound, spiritual truth. No one can stand before the holy God and live without the substitutionary sacrifice of another—unless your sin is covered by the sacrifice of another. 

    When Isaiah had his vision of the Lord seated enthroned above the Ark of the cherubim, he immediately says, “‘Woe is me! For I am lost’” Let me translate that for you. Basically, what he says is, “I'm screwed because I am a man of unclean lips.” He's saying, “I'm a sinner. I'm a guilty sinner. I'm a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Why then doesn't God strike Isaiah down on the spot just like he struck Uzzah down on the spot? The reason is because one of those beings associated with the Divine Presence, one of the seraphim, flies to the altar, the place of the sacrifice, and with tongs removes one of the burning coals, and then takes that burning coal and places it on the lips of Isaiah, and says, “‘Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.’” God has now made you clean.

    But that was just a vision. We get something far better. We get the real thing. There are only two places in the New Testament where the Greek word for “mercy seat” or “place of atonement” is used: One is in Romans 3 and the other is Hebrews 9. In both of those cases, where that word “mercy seat” or “place of atonement” is used, it is used not to describe a place but a person. Hebrews 10 tells us that the blood of bulls and goats could never do anything to actually take away people's sin. We all knew that. Hebrews 10 tells us this is just a symbol meant to prepare us for the ultimate high priest, who enters not into a Most Holy Place in some human constructed temple. But rather he enters into the presence of the divine being himself. There he offers not the sacrifice of an animal, but rather he offers up the sacrifice of his very own self, so that through his blood our sin might be covered, so that God in his mercy might forgive us and cleanse us, so that we can enter into his holy presence and live. 

    Do you realize Jesus is the mercy seat. Jesus is the place of atonement. Jesus is the true prince of peace, who rules over a new Jerusalem. He is the one who establishes peace between us and God. He is the one who makes it possible for us to approach the throne of grace and live. And the mercy seat is open still. 

    The gospel tells us that God is so holy, and you and I really are so flawed, that Jesus had to die. He had to die. There was no other way for us to be able to enter into God's holy presence and live. And yet at the same time, God is so loving, and you and I are so valuable, that Jesus was willing to die, willing to die for us, and he would have done it even if you were the only one. When those two ideas come together, when you take them deep into your heart and into your life, then that is what unlocks the joy. Then you, too, will start to dance before the Lord with all your might and that is the key to living the good life. Morality and ethics are essential and important, but they only get us so far. They're necessary but they're not sufficient to actually live a life worth living. 

    The Westminster Shorter Catechism, a historic document of faith from the 1600s, begins with this question: "What is the chief end of man?" In other words, what's the meaning of life? What is the good life? And the answer is short: "To glorify God and to enjoy him forever." As C.S. Lewis astutely observed, those two commands are actually one and the same. In commanding us to worship him, God is inviting us to enjoy him. The only way in which we truly learn to live the good life is through worship, by living our lives before the God of grace. And when we do, it will fill our lives with insuppressible joy. 

    Let me pray for us. 

    Father, we recognize that far too often, we are tempted by the false form of worship, which we could call “religion.” We try to put you in a box, so that we might manage and control you as well as others. But we pray that you might free us from that temptation and teach us to worship you in spirit and in truth, by worshiping you according to your covenant, through the gospel of your Son, Jesus Christ. Help us to live our life before you the God of grace so that we might experience your joy and dance before you with all our might. We pray in Jesus' name. Amen.