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To Dance with God

July 13, 2015

“To Dance with God” 2 Samuel 6:1-19 © 7.12.15 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

It was a magnificent celebration, such as the nation had not seen in years. Everybody was ready for a hero, a man who would embody all the traditions, hopes, and dreams of the people. He would lead the land into the glorious future that rightly belonged to it, bringing all the tribes together to pursue a common goal. This leader would rule from a shining city of hope, where the most revered of national artifacts had its home. The emergence of such a one called for an extravagant, loud, and emotional parade.

As David rode along at the head of an army of 30,000 men, he was sure God was with him and would bless all the new king’s plans. Whatever David did succeeded. Jerusalem had fallen without a shot being fired, as we would say. The Philistines, once so dreaded and fierce, had been defeated. As David put it, Yahweh had “burst forth” against them. Even the delicate matter of patching things up with the family of Saul, the rejected and dead king, seemed to be proceeding as David wanted. Michal, Saul’s daughter, was married to David, unifying the two families. The king lived in a fabulous palace, built for him by a foreign monarch. Life was good! God was blessing him beyond measure.

The throng arrived at their destination, the home of a man named Abinadab. They were there to pick up the Ark of the Covenant and take it to Jerusalem. As David watched his men load the sacred chest on a new cart, a little smile came to his lips. Deciding to bring the neglected and nearly forgotten spiritual icon out of the house of Abinadab had been a stroke of political genius. All the hard-line traditionalists who had complained about David’s lack of respect for history, for the old ways, would now think of him differently. Plus, if the tenured religionists wanted to see the Ark, it would be on David’s terms, in his town, Jerusalem. Besides, David genuinely felt something stir in his soul when he looked at the Ark; he was reminded of the presence of God in a fresh and exciting way. He could almost hear the walls of Jericho falling down with a mighty crash because of the power of the sacred box of God. It was right and fitting and proper that such an important national symbol should find an honored resting place in the new seat of government, the city of David.

As the procession began again, the emotional pitch rose higher and higher. The ark was going to its new home accompanied by celebration and joy and dancing and music and excitement! God was here! It was time for David and all the army to rejoice with all their might, to give their best to the Lord, who had been so generous and kind. The future was bright, the road smooth, the way prepared.

Then the unthinkable happened, an event David never anticipated in his worst nightmares. There was a great deal of noise behind him, and he turned in the saddle to see the oxen pulling the cart stumble. Everything seemed to be in slow motion as the Ark began to tumble off the platform. David heard his own voice, strangely distorted and distant, cry “Noooooooooo!” And then Uzzah lay dead under the sacred chest, the reward for his reaching out and trying to steady it.

In one terrible, surreal moment, the joyous dancing and merry-making had been replaced by deep sadness and anger. The confidence, by fear and distrust. The sense of control, by utter chaos. For David, as for everyone else on the scene, this had not simply been a senseless accident. No. God had killed Uzzah, struck him down in impetuous fury. Who could know why? Maybe in God’s inscrutable mind there was a reason. Could be he was throwing a tantrum, not wanting his precious sacred box touched by someone without the proper credentials. Perhaps he wanted to show David who was in control, and Uzzah was the hapless victim, a pawn in a power play between two kings, one mortal, the other divine. Whatever the reason imagined by believers ancient or modern, Uzzah was dead, David was scared out of his wits, and the whole party was over early.

With an emotional chasm yawning wide between David and God, the king decided some physical distance between him and the Ark was a good idea. So the procession dropped the Ark like a hot potato in Obed-edom’s lap. I can imagine the man standing there with his mouth open or else protesting that someone else should have the “honor” of babysitting the sacred chest. Of course, nothing he said or did made any difference. The Ark sat in his living room for three months.

On the surface of it, the story I have just told seems little more than a relic of a bygone era that has little to do with us. But if we listen a bit more closely, it’s about some of the deepest issues of our lives—anger, control, fear, blame, hope, restoration, expectation, success, blessing. In this odd story is our own. The dance of celebration David and his soldiers did because of their good fortune is not unlike those steps we perform every day, embodying in our hands and feet and heads and hearts our hopes and dreams and competencies and commitments. The rhythms to which they marched and pranced and waved their hands are not so different from the beat we hear that keeps us going. Some of us glide through life as if we were waltzing or approach each day with the grace of a ballerina or an agile running back. For others, life is more like one of those frenetic ‘60s dances or in a more modern vein, like banging our heads as we try to keep up with the beat. Still others are looking down at our feet, trying to remember which one to put in front of the other and in which direction as we do some halting little box step.

Whatever dance we’re been doing, though, we, like David, would like to do our thing in the confidence that somebody—especially not a divine Somebody—is going to put out a foot and trip us up, that we’re not going to stumble and bump into all the other folks crowded on the floor with us and knock them for a loop, too. We feel pretty good most of the time, confident enough to get through the day with whatever it might hold. We’re in the rhythm, things are normal and moving along just fine. Like they used to say on “American Bandstand,” the song we’re hearing has a good beat, and we can dance to it.

Then something happens. The drummer starts playing a different beat that we find so unfamiliar as to be impossible to dance to. In other words, we can’t adapt. We shut down. We lose our balance and grace. We can’t remember what to do next. Our anxiety compounds, and everything becomes a challenge, all life a chore, as we trip over our own feet. The dance is over; no more celebration or good times or lovely music. What we hear now is noise, the shrieks that may be coming from our own throats in our sadness and fear, our longing and anger. A word spoken in the heat of the moment fractures a friendship or a marriage like so much delicate crystal. The boss says they’re downsizing, outsourcing, negative placing—some bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo that means you’re fired or indefinitely furloughed. The test paper comes back with a lower grade than expected, and you wonder why you even tried; you get a lower place in the competition than you wanted, and you’re discouraged . And if that weren’t bad enough, someone you thought would be your new best friend forever is ignoring you. Suddenly there is a major illness in the family, something out of left field, and no one is prepared. There are now arrangements to be made, care given, bills paid, even homes and cars sold. Abilities you once took for granted—everything from opening a jar lid to dressing yourself to driving a car or understanding your bank statement, walking without running out of breath or losing your way—none of that is there. A car accident or a crime or a storm claims one we love, and we just stand there on the dance floor, so to speak, angry at the musicians, wondering what happened to the music that was so sweet and flowing. To put it plainly: we wonder what God is doing and why. Is all this dumb luck or is God mad or does he exist at all or is this some perverse way he has of working his will, to toy with us, to kill us like Uzzah?

Like David, the feelings we experience put a great deal of emotional distance between us and God. We’re not sure we want a God like this, and we certainly can’t stomach the thought of dancing with him. We don’t feel safe around him, much less want the warmth of his touch, the embrace of his arms. It’s obvious that we’ve lost all control over our lives. We’ve moved from peaceful orientation where things made sense and we were having fun to the chaos of disorientation, where we can’t figure out what’s going on.

There’s a classic Irving Berlin song that describes dancing as being in heaven. Many of you will have heard it: “Heaven, I’m in heaven/And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak/And I seem to find the happiness I seek/When we’re out together dancing cheek to cheek/Heaven, I’m in heaven/And the cares that hung around me through the week/Seem to vanish like a gambler’s lucky streak/When we’re out together dancing cheek to cheek.”

That’s the way our relationship with God is supposed to be: heaven, dancing cheek to cheek, something to carry us through the week that surpasses all other experiences, that thrills us deeply. But when life hits us hard, how are we supposed to dance with God like that? Instead, we rush to put distance between us and him. Or is it the other way around? That God has left the floor? It doesn’t really matter, except to theologians, because the effect is the same. We don’t have a partner, but our neighbors are having success and fun and seem to be getting along just fine, never skipping a beat. In terms of the story, there sits the Ark in the living room of Obed-Edom. He’s getting blessed, while we only hear tales of what God is doing.

But one day long ago, the Ark came into Jerusalem, once again preceded by dancing. And it was none other than David who pranced before the sacred box. He was stripped of pretense, wearing only the most basic garment of worship. No royal robes. No sword. And on foot. Here was a man ready to yield to God, to be open before him, whatever it cost the king in dignity or the approval of his wife. A wiser, less arrogant, less controlling David. A man who had come from the crest of a wave into a deep trough to ride the new swell in the ebb and flow of life. A man who now knew that God would not, could not be taken for granted, but was always with him. For him. A man who was convinced that nothing in all creation could separate him from the love of God. And so David could dance with all his might and celebrate with his people, giving them food, inviting them to a banquet.

One day, we too somehow begin to believe again that God can be trusted. We notice the signs of his graciousness; we hear the tales and know they are our own stories. How is it that we start to dance with God again?

Maybe we have simply tired of not having God as our partner, of standing lonely against the wall while everybody else has a good time. So that loneliness drives us back, and we say we’re sorry for all the harsh words and the broken embraces. We’ve tried other partners, but they could not satisfy, their rhythm was difficult, the music strange and harsh. We repent. We go back to God, begging to be face to face and cheek to cheek again.

Or it could be we finally yield and let God lead. God’s commands now seem good to us; wise and practical, even. Our thought that we know better how to move to the music, the beat of the drummer, is gone now. God is moving us across the floor in smooth motions, and it’s exhilarating or at least satisfying.

Maybe we have learned new steps. That is, our theology has changed, been updated. We have grown. We have come to realize that the less we try to control and understand God the closer we are to a relationship to the true God. This is the One who is above all our categories. This is the One whose eternal dance, the perichoresis, the circle of relationship within the Trinity, is the Mystery of all mysteries. This is the One we worship.

However it happens, the distance closes for us, and we once again take the hand of God, to be embraced as we move together. As singer Kathy Mattea put it a quarter century ago, we hear “all creation asking us to dance” (“Asking Us to Dance, © 1991 Mercury Records). Indeed, we hear our Lord himself saying “Dance then, wherever you may be; I am the Lord of the dance….”

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