The God in Our Midst: A Sermon for the Seventh Sunday After Pentecost. Preached at All Saints, King City, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, 11 July, 2021.
Tests for Proper 15(B): 2 Sam 6.1-5,12b-19; Ps 24; Eph 1.3-14; Mk 6.14-29.
David and all the people with him set out and went from Baale-judah, to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the Lord of hosts who is enthroned on the cherubim. (2 Sam 6.2)
Returning to gathered worship, in what we devoutly hope is the endgame of Covid, is I hope a source of joy and elation to all of us. Perhaps not the tambourine shaking, dancing in the streets elation of the Israelites in our first reading (that would be rather un-Anglican!), but still an uplifting experience. I wonder though if, after long months of sitting in front of a screen to go to church, do we feel closer to God now that we are back in church? Today’s first reading from 2 Samuel invites us to think about how and where God is present with us, and what that presence might actually mean should we take it seriously.
Today’s story of David triumphantly bringing the ark into Jerusalem is a powerful story of feeling closer to God, even to having God in their midst. By this point in the story of Israel, the ark had long been the most powerful symbol of God’s presence among God’s people. The book of Exodus tells of how God instructed Moses to make the ark, as both a repository for the stone tablets of the law and the covenant, as well as a sort of throne for the divine presence from which “I will deliver to you all my commands for the Israelites” (Ex 25).
David, now the king of Israel, has just captured Jerusalem and brings the ark into his new city as a sort of capstone to his success, marking his partnership with God as the ruler of God’s people. Sadly, David’s reign goes wrong, as human endeavours do, his heirs don’t measure up, Jerusalem is captured and the ark is lost to history (thus paving the way for the film, Raiders of the Lost Ark plot). God does not abandon Israel, and sends his Son, the true heir of David, to be king and saviour of the new Israel, the church. This time there is no second ark, no physical reminder of God’s presence. The presence of God this time is spiritual, as found in the many spiritual gifts that Paul joyfully lists in our second reading from Ephesians. These gifts – blessings, redemption, adoption, forgiveness, redemption – don’t have a physical dimension, but they live within us just the same.
All that being said, as human beings, created of the earth, we seem to be hardwired to need physical connections with the divine. Certain things focus our attention on truths that we can barely express or articulate. To be sure, it’s not just churches that focus us on the transcendent – we are strangely moved by the beauties of nature, the innocence of children, and by music, art, and architecture. But churches have a special appeal to point many of us to the divine.
Throughout Covid I’ve considered myself truly fortunate that I could walk into our two sacred spaces here at All Saints and bask in their beauty and stillness. An empty church seems to whisper to us, saying something barely audible about the beauty of God’s holiness and the witness of generations whose prayers and hymns still seem to echo from the walls.
Of course, those of you whose ministries involve the maintenance and care of the church buildings and features may not have much time for mystical appreciations. Your thoughts go all too readily to wet drywall, aging wiring, fading fabric, leaking roofs, and a myriad of other cares and concerns. These practical concerns remind us that the church is just a building, and theologically we know that our faith is about far more than just buildings. Jesus, like the prophets before us, called us to serve the poor and seek justice, which is wy we leave church “to love and serve the Lord”. Church is thus a way station, a safe harbour where God’s people find their bearings and get supplies to continue their voyage.
So the church building, and the objects within it, like King David’s ark, is a physical thing that points God’s people to the divine. It’s like a hyperlink on a webpage that takes us somewhere else, as could be said of many sacred objects. But before we grow too dismissive and say, “Oh, holy things are just _things_, just symbols”, let’s take a moment to think, with some caution, of holiness itself. Do you remember towards the end of the Raiders of the Lost Ark film when the Nazis dare to open the ark and die horribly because they never understood it and thus profaned God’s holiness? The idea behind the film is the Old Testament theme of no one being able to fully see the holiness of God and live (Ex 33.20).
It’s worth taking a moment to think about the sheer holiness and awesomeness of the God in our midst. This God could never be confined to a church building, waiting for us to return after lockdown. This God is everywhere because this God is the creator of all things, the righteous one who hates evil and injustice, dwells among us. It’s fortunate for us that this God loves us. As I like to quote from C.S. Lewis, God is like Aslan the Lion in the Narnia books, loving and kind, but still a lion, and still potentially dangerous.
We know this dangerous and yet loving God in a different way than David and his Israelites did. As Christians we know God as Jesus, the Word who took flesh and lived among us as child and man, and who as Paul says in Ephesians rescues us and adopts us into God’s family. We should celebrate this God with fear and joy, mindful of this immense power which, “working within us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine”.