Monday, 16 July 2012

A God Too Hot to Handle

They’ve done it again! Like last week, the Lectionary gives us an Old Testament reading with the “nasty” bit left out. And once again, that bit has a salutary and necessary message. 

The story is of David bringing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6): an important story, because it is the point at which Jerusalem becomes “The Holy City”. It is described as an occasion of great joy and celebration – except for one thing, the bit the Lectionary leaves out. Uzzah, one of the guardians of the Ark, reached out his hand to steady it as the cart carrying it swayed over some rough ground, and he was struck dead on the spot for daring to touch the Ark of God. 

How many of us, when we hear of an act of outstanding sacrilege – like defacing a grave stone or vandalising a memorial – have not thought, “It’s a wonder God doesn’t strike them dead”? But we know that we wouldn’t really want a God like that, and stories like this belong to a more primitive and superstitious age. And in any case, poor Uzzah wasn’t committing a deliberate act of sacrilege – he only wanted to protect the Ark. We don’t want to believe in a God who could be so wrathful and unfair. 

So does the story have anything to tell us today? 

It could of course be just an incidental tale, originating in the need to explain the place-name Perez-Uzzah. However, in its context it is quite likely to be intended to make a point. It is interesting that there is no reference to the effect of this death on Uzzah’s brother and father, who were there when it happened. Whether he had a mother, a wife or children we are not told. The story is focussed purely on the effect of the incident on David, how it frightened him into temporarily calling off the whole idea of bringing the Ark into Jerusalem. 

What David was doing was a political move. The Ark of God was the most sacred symbol for all the Israelites. In fact, is was often identified with God himself. To have it in his new capital city would unify the kingdom and consolidate David’s power. Perhaps the point the narrator is making is that this incident was a warning to David that God was not there to be used for his political ends. 

That message is as necessary as ever. When Alistair Campbell, in 2003, made the blunt statement “we don’t do God”, some people were shocked. But perhaps after all there was a sound instinct behind it. Whether you are a believer or not, there is something hypocritical and essentially blasphemous about using religion to sanctify one’s policies or to catch votes. 

This applies in other spheres too. Religious people are always tempted to use God: to bring God to their aid when they want children to behave themselves and leave the adults in peace; to talk of “God’s will” in order to justify what they want to do anyway; to bring “the Lord” into the conversation to show how pious they are. Like David, we often forget what a serious and risky thing it is to deal with the real God. So much harm has been done, especially to sensitive young people, by glib evangelism and careless religious talk. In talking of God, we are dealing with people's souls, their deepest and most vulnerable selves. 

When we think about Uzzah rather than David, there is another important point. Uzzah committed sacrilege while trying to protect the Ark. What happened to him seems grossly unfair, but in a way it is symbolic of the wrong that religious people have so often done in their attempts to protect God. 

The central event of the Christian story is the greatest act of sacrilege ever committed, and that too was done by religious people. Yet, in contrast to the story of Uzzah, it is a window into the marvellous reality of the true God: the God whose response to rejection and abuse is expressed in the words of Jesus: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”.

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