The True Meaning of Awesome (2 Samuel 6)

A sermon preached at St Augustine’s Anglican Church, Neutral Bay.

Fear or Familiarity?

Fear or familiarity?

We Aussies are, by reputation, an irreverent bunch. We don’t stand on ceremony. We prize familiarity over formality. We sit in the front seat of taxis. We avoid titles and prefer first names. In fact, we even shorten first names to nicknames, don’t we? Wazza, Gazza, Shazza…

Years ago that Aussie attitude of familiarity got Prime Minister Paul Keating into trouble, when the Queen visited Australia and during a meet and greet, Keating put his hand around the royal waist–breaking royal protocol, apparently, and kicking up a huge stink among the British tabloids.

Now I have to say I enjoy the relaxed Aussie irreverence. But what about when it comes to God?

How should you relate to God? Relaxed, or reverent? Familiar, or fearful? Is God your mate, or your master?

That’s the question that we’re faced with as we come to this Bible passage from 2 Samuel chapter 6.

Outline of 1-2 SamuelFirst, we need a little background. We’ve moved ahead some chapters in the story in our series on 1 and 2 Samuel. In 1 Samuel chapters 16-31 we saw the fall of Saul, the people’s choice for king, and the rise of David, God’s choice for king. In 2 Samuel 1-5 David is proclaimed king by the people. In chapter 5, just before today’s passage, David captures the all-important city of Jerusalem. He takes the stronghold of Zion nd calls it the City of David, his own military capital.

Now in this passage, we see David complete his conquest of Jerusalem by bringing in to the city the all-important ark of God…

The awesome God

The awesome God (1-11)

Verse 1:

David again brought together out of Israel chosen men, thirty thousand in all. He and all his men set out from Baalah of Judah to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the Name, the name of the LORD Almighty, who is enthroned between the cherubim that are on the ark.

What is this ark of God? It’s the special box that was made according to the instructions God had given to Moses on Mount Sinai (this picture of the ark is a model based on descriptions in the Bible). The ark itself is not God and God is not in the ark. But still this ark is very special.

The golden angels, the cherubim, symbolize spiritual power, and they are like the footstool of an invisible throne reaching into the heavens. God is transcendent, powerful and holy. God is above all. Yet the ark shows that he chooses to be specially present among his people.

And that’s of course why David realizes it’s important to bring the ark into his new capital. David is God’s king, and David needs God’s presence to be with him in his new city.

So they bring the ark in. How? Verse 3:

They set the ark of God on a new cart and brought it from the house of Abinadab

So again, to understand what’s going on here we need to recap the history of the ark’s travels so far.

Map of the ark's travelsIf you recall 1 Samuel 4-6:  Israel was fighting their enemies the Philistines. They thought they could use the ark as a kind of lucky charm to give them victory. But God wasn’t going to be used that way. The Israelites actually lost and the Philistines captured the ark and took it to their various cities. But God wasn’t going to let the Philistines win, either. Wherever the ark went, there was disaster for the Philistines. Their god Dagon fell over, the Philistines were afflicted with tumours and plagues…

1 Samuel 6:7-8So eventually the Philistines had had enough.

The priests and diviners of the Philistines said: “Now then, get a new cart ready, with two cows … Take the ark of the LORD and put it on the cart, … Send it on its way, …” (1 Samuel 6:7-8)

Basically the Philistines couldn’t handle the ark. They sent it back to Israel on a new cart And it ended up in Kiriath-jearim, in Abinadab’s house. It stayed there 20 years. And in this chapter, the time has arrived. God’s king has defeated the Philistines properly. He’s settled on a capital. And David is bringing the ark into its new home.

Slide7

But I just want you to notice something about how David decides to bring the ark back:

David and all his men … set the ark of God on a new cart and brought it from the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, sons of Abinadab, were guiding the new cart (2 Samuel 6:3)

What’s David doing with the ark? He’s using pretty much the same kind of transport that the Philistines used. He’s got a new cart, like the Philistines. He pops the ark on it. And he gets the guys who had been keeping the ark for the last 20 years to guide it. Which might sound like a pretty reasonable transport mechanism….

Slide10Except if you knew what God had actually commanded about how the ark was to be moved. Let’s look at the actual transport regulations God had laid down for the ark in the Law of Moses:

Insert the poles into the rings on the sides of the chest to carry it. The poles are to remain in the rings of this ark; they are not to be removed. (Exodus 25:14-15)

The ark has poles permanently attached. Why? Because it had to be carried! Deuteronomy chapter 10:

At that time the LORD set apart the tribe of Levi to carry the ark of the covenant of the LORD … (Deuteronomy 10:8)

The ark has to be carried in a special holy way by special holy people. Why is that? There’s a reason:

… when the camp is ready to move, the Kohathites are to come to do the carrying. But they must not touch the holy things or they will die. (Numbers 4:15)

You see, this ark isn’t just a ceremonial box. It’s dangerous goods. God chooses to be specially present with this ark. And the thing about God is, he is holy, perfect, wonderful. And he is rightly angry with sinful human beings like you and me. In fact, the whole ark and priestly system showed that sinful human beings can’t simply come into God’s presence. It’s dangerous for humans to be close to God.

So for anyone who knows God’s law, David’s actions here are a little iffy, aren’t they? Yes, he has good intentions to bring the ark into his city. But is he following the regulations? No, he’s not. It’s like he’s transporting explosives on the back of a ute.

And that helps to explain what happens next. David and everyone are celebrating, partying, enjoying the festivities, bringing God’s ark into David’s shiny new captured city. There’s music, dancing, singing, fun. But verse 6:

When they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled.
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.

Well, you can imagine the silence that suddenly fell over the dancing crowd, can’t you? How does David react? David first reacts angrily. Which is too often our first reaction when something goes wrong, isn’t it? Anger! Somebody must be to blame! It seems David is angry with God. Angry that God taking it out on Uzzah. After all, wasn’t God supposed to be on their side?

The name of the place is significant. The place is called “Perez Uzzah”. It means “Breaking out against Uzzah”

Projector: 2 Samuel 5:20

Slide13Back in chapter 5, there was another place with a similar name. Just after David had defeated the Philistine enemies:

David … said, “As waters break out, the LORD has broken out against my enemies before me.” So that place was called Baal Perazim. (2 Samuel 5:20)

So back in chapter 5, God’s wrath was breaking out against his enemies. Now—God’s wrath is breaking out against an Israelite! Against Uzzah. And in fact, Uzzah’s name also means something. It’s not his nickname like Wazza, Gazza or Shazzah. No, in ancient Hebrew, ‘Uzzah’ sounds like the word ‘strength’

Then David was angry because the LORD’s wrath had broken out against Uzzah, and to this day that place is called Perez Uzzah. (2 Samuel 6:8)

God is breaking out against Israel and David. Against the “strength” of Israel and David. David seemed to be at the very height of his strength here. A new king. New victories. A new city. But now David’s ‘Uzzah’, his strength, is cut down by God

So verse 9, when this sinks in, David’s anger turns to fear. He’s scared.

“How can the ark of the LORD ever come to me?”

This was meant to be David’s great day of celebration. God’s king, bringing God’s ark triumphantly into the city! But instead, it’s a disaster! One of God’s own people has died as a direct result of David’s failure in his duty as king. And this fills David with fear. He remembers, he realizes anew, that God is truly awesome.

Now I feel I need to reclaim the word “awesome”, because we need it to understand God. Unfortunately, the whole idea of awe has lost its currency recently.

Slide16Here is the top voted definition of the word “awesome” according to the urban dictionary

Awesome: Something Americans use to describe everything. “Oh wow it’s just awesome”

Now my apologies to Americans reading this.
I don’t think it’s just Americans, is it? It’s how we use the word. You can have awesome sunrises, awesome coffee. Indeed, according to the Lego movie, absolutely everything you do or think or say is awesome.

And yet that’s not what the word originally meant, was it? Here’s the top Oxford dictionary definition:

Awesome: Extremely impressive or daunting; inspiring awe: “the awesome power of the atomic bomb”

This is what God is like. He’s not just awesome as in “pretty cool”. God is awesome as in powerful, and holy … and dangerous.

David had experienced this amazing protection and special intimacy with God over the years. But now he’s overstepped that mark. He’s presumed on the relationship. He’s failed to follow the regulations. The regulations designed to protect human beings from the awesome holiness of the Lord God, enthroned on the cherubim.

Do you understand that our God who loves us is also truly awesome? Think of the Lord’s prayer. The first line expresses that beautiful intimacy of familiarity with God: “Our Father in Heaven”. But the second line reminds us that God is holy.

Never let your privilege as a Christian become presumption. Our relationship with God is close, but not casual.

So David doesn’t know how he’s going to bring back this ark which symbolizes God’s awesome part

He removes for a while to Obed-Edom’s house
Basically putting it in the too-hard basket

Projector: The humbled king

The humbled king (12-23)

The humbled kingAnd yet soon David realizes that he really does need God’s blessing. And so he decides to bring the ark of God in again. But this time, he does it properly. Humbly. With due respect and reverence for the awesome power of God.

Last time, David had been far too casual with God’s holiness, God’s name. He didn’t listen to God’s explicit instructions about how to worship him. And as a result, he became responsible for the death of Uzzah.

Now he wasn’t going to take any chances. No carts any more. He follows the regulations of the Law carefully. He’s got people carrying the ark with the poles. And as an extra measure to protect the people from God’s holiness, he makes sure there’s plenty of priest-stuff happening. Verse 13:

When those who were carrying the ark of the LORD had taken six steps, he sacrificed a bull and a fattened calf.

He wears a linen Ephod, the clothing of a priest. He celebrates properly. The Hebrew word for the shouts and the trumpets point to a more serious kind of celebration second time round.

In fact David’s attitude is very different to the attitude of the standard Ancient Near-East king. Kings normally showed their strength and leadership by fighting battles, raising monuments and dividing the plunder and spoils among the people. But here, David shows his leadership by dancing around like a priest.

And he gives showbag to everybody! But not a showbag of spoils of war. More of a take-home pack from the sacrifice. It’s like he’s including all the people in his own sacrifice and humility before God. He’s leading his people by sacrifice, rather than by battle. He’s a truly humbled king.

MichalBut there’s another character in this story, isn’t there? Saul’s daughter, David’s wife, Michal. And she’s not happy at all.

David comes home, and Michal gives him a good telling off:

When David returned home to bless his household, Michal daughter of Saul came out to meet him and said, “How the king of Israel has distinguished himself today, disrobing in the sight of the slave girls of his servants as any vulgar fellow would!” (2 Samuel 6:20)

What does Michael care about? Not God. Not God’s holiness. No Michal, like her father Saul, fears people. Michal had once loved David for his power. She loved the strong David, the warrior, the one who went out and smote the enemies, the one who gave her prestige and respect. But this new humble David—she’s not having a bar of it.

Does this hit close to home for you? How much time do you spend trying to keep up appearances? To look strong in the eyes of others? At work, at home, among your peers, your family? Do you know how to work out what you really care about in life? What makes you angry! That’s what you care about. Here is a woman who gets angry at her husband for looking like an idiot in front of everyone else. That’s what she cares about. No thought given to God’s awesome holiness at all.

Well, verse 21, David shows what he cares about:

David said to Michal, “It was before the LORD, who chose me rather than your father or anyone from his house when he appointed me ruler over the LORD’s people Israel– I will celebrate before the LORD. I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes…

 

I could at this point ask the women here: What do you look for in a man? Powerful? Tall, dark, handsome? Like Saul? Or a man willing to humble himself in service of God, even to the point of looking ridiculous? Like David. That’s a question you might want to ponder for later.

The more important question for all of us is this: What do we look for in God’s king? We’ll see in the next chapter that King David’s biggest claim to fame is that he’s the forerunner of the great king, Jesus Christ. So what do you want Jesus to be for you? The powerful one? The one who gives you power and prestige in the eyes of others?

What do you think about the humble king? The humiliated king, even. Jesus is the king who makes the ultimate sacrifice, his life. That means he was humiliated, doesn’t it? Mocked, naked, despised. But he saves us by that sacrifice. And he also calls us to join him in living that way, to be humble, to carry our cross daily, to serve.

That is how we are to worship God, according to the New Testament. Not by dancing or singing or spinning around like David, or sacrificing animals. Not by priestly regulations about the ark—they were temporary rules. But our worship is about acknowledging our deep sinfulness in light of God’s awesome holiness, throwing ourselves at God’s mercy, and living lives that put him first, in love for others.

Is that you?

Michal had no regard for God’s holiness, and so she despised David’s humility. As a result, she had no children, which apart from being the obvious consequence of despising her husband, is something far deeper. Michal is Saul’s daughter. The household of Saul represented human strength and pride. Saul was brought down. And now his daughter, who had the same attitude, cannot continue his line.

But David, on the other hand has learned that his humility, his humiliation even, is the prerequisite for being king. Which was true for David, and far more true for Jesus.

Fear and familiarity

So what about the question I posed at the beginning? How should we relate to this holy, awesome God?

Slide20At the entrance to the British Library in London there is a quotation from Nobel Prize Winner Marie Curie:

Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.

I’ve visited the British Library a few times and seen that quote there. It’s a nice sentiment, isn’t it?

But you know, each time I’ve seen that quote I’ve wondered. Marie Curie was the great pioneer of the study of radioactivity. But do you know how Marie Curie died? She died from aplastic anemia believed to have been contracted from her long-term exposure to radiation. In her attempts to gain knowledge about radioactive materials, she touched radioactive materials. She handled them, she kept them in her pocket. In fact, Marie Curie gained vital knowledge for us about the dangers of radioactivity. And that knowledge actually brings fear—a right kind of fear. To treat the materials with respect. To lock them away in lead-lined boxes, instead of popping them in our pockets

Marie Curie’s research actually proved that she was wrong on this point. Some things in life are to be feared. You fear what is dangerous and awesome. And if you understand it more, you fear it more.

And if you truly understand the holiness of God, you will fear.

If you are someone who does not know the Lord Jesus Christ, you need to be afraid. Because a sinner standing in the presence of a holy God without the sacrifice of Jesus to cover and shield him from God’s wrath is like a man who walks naked into the core of a nuclear reactor. God is the judge of all. You need to come to Christ, to humble yourself before him, like David, and clothe yourself in his wonderful, saving righteousness.

Hebrews 12:18-21But if you are someone who trusts in the Lord Jesus, how do you approach God? How do you relate to him? Hebrews 12 tells us what our relationship with God is like. Because of Jesus, it’s not actually a matter of pure naked fear any more:

You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; … “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned.” The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.” (Hebrews 12:18-21)

That terror, the kind of fear that Moses and David had, is not right for us. Why?

Hebrews 12:22-24But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. … You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant … (Hebrews 12:22-24)

There is a real change between the Old Testament saints and New Testament Christians. We know God truly as Father. We come before him as righteous and perfect. We can be fully sure that God loves us. Because Jesus’ sacrifice is full, perfect, sufficient, we are completely forgiven. We are not simply sinners before a holy God. And so we have great confidence.

Hebrews 12:28-29And yet—there is a still a kind of fear. A different kind of fear. Reverence. And awe. Verse 28:

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:28-29)

Sheer terror is no longer true for Christians. And yet—we must still have that reverence and awe. Why?Because we realise that even though God has forgiven us, God is still awesome and holy and powerful.

It’s not that God can’t judge us. Of course he can judge us. It’s just that he won’t. Because of Jesus. We know that we are safe in God’s hands as our loving heavenly Father. But we must never forget that the Father who loves us is also the Holy awesome God of immense power. So our response: Worship him acceptably, with reverence and awe. In the context, it’s talking about how we live our lives, about holy lives, about living peacefully with others, about watching our anger and our tongues, about running away from bitterness and envy, about holiness in our sex lives and attitudes.

Slide24So our Christian lives are in many ways like walking across the Harbour Bridge.

Is it dangerous? Is it something to be afraid of? Well no. It’s perfectly safe. And usually it’s quite wonderful. And you can be sure you’ll reach the destination.

But why is it safe? It’s safe because of the fence, isn’t it? Without that fence, the drop below is long and fatal
If you tried to climb over that fence, you’d be a fool.

Never forget, friends, that our God is truly awesome. Being a Christian is safe, and wonderful, and you can be sure you’ll reach the destination. But don’t be an idiot and try to climb over the fence, will you? Flirting with anger, bitterness, strife, porn—it’s trifling with the awesome holiness of God. Don’t be casual when it comes to sin. Instead,

since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:28-29)