A day for extravagance

A day for extravagance

Sermon for the seventh Sunday after Pentecost
2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 and Mark 6:14-29

And so, the story of David continues. In last Sunday’s episode we heard of how David had captured the Jebusite stronghold city of Jerusalem, and secured it as the centre of his newly consolidated nation of Israel. It was a canny move, in that none of the Israelite tribes could claim any strong identification with Jerusalem, and so it could be called “the city of David”; a fresh start in a strongly fortified city free of any particular tribal claims. David has also added wives and concubines to his household, along the way managing to father eleven—eleven—more sons. In recognition of David’s rule, King Hiram of Tyre has sent a delegation to Jerusalem, “with cedar trees, and carpenters and masons who built David a house.” (2 Sam 5:11). He has once again defeated the Philistines, this time rather handily (2 Sam 5:17-25). Again and again the storyteller notes that all of this has come by virtue of the Lord’s presence with David, yet it remains abundantly clear that the reader is to take enormous delight in this king; this man of tactical brilliance, virility, and strength.

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A brief aside regarding the story we heard read aloud from the Gospel according to Mark, recounting the death of John the Baptist. The lectionary has us reading our way through a series of accounts from these two biblical books, with no expectation that they are in any way related, yet in this case what we can glimpse is a king in whom we are not to delight. As ruler of Galilee, King Herod claimed to be an heir of David, yet his claim was a false one. He was in fact little more than a puppet of the Roman Empire, whose illicit marriage to his brother’s wife had scandalized his Jewish subjects and outraged John the Baptist, who rather publically denounced Herod. This episode unveils Herod as being precisely the sort of king that the prophet Samuel had warned against; one whose power is exercised for his own gain; one who makes rash vows in the midst of parties, and who in the name of that sort of vow will behead John and have his bloodied head displayed on a platter.

The writer of 2nd Samuel would have us see a very different sort of king. As tonight’s reading opens, we discover that David has made the decision to move the ark of the covenant from its rather obscure resting place at “the house of Abinadab” to a more suitable and dignified new home in Jerusalem. The ark held the item most treasured in Israel—the tablets on which the Law was inscribed—and though it did not contain God, it did embody something of the holiness of God. So holy, in fact, that in a brief episode that was not included in tonight’s reading, someone touches the ark and immediately falls dead…

And so, with considerable liturgical fanfare, “They carried the ark of God on a new cart, and brought it out of the house of Abinadab… David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the Lord with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.” “[W]hen those who bore the ark of the Lord had gone six paces, David sacrificed an ox and a fatling.” That’s an extravagant sort of liturgy, isn’t it? Every six paces, and a sacrifice is made. And “girded with a linen ephod”, “David danced before the Lord with all his might.” Again, an extravagant thing, this dancing with all of his might. This is a day for extravagance!

Another brief aside. Many interpreters suggest that in his linen ephod, David was basically clothed only in a loin-cloth; that he was dancing in his underwear. Thing is, that may not be at all what is going on here. The ephod was a priestly garment, which all of the Levitical priests who were part of this procession would have been wearing. The point being made here could be that for this landmark celebration David has shed his royal robes and set aside his military gear, instead clothing himself as a priest. His kingship will also have about it a priestly quality, and though he dances wildly, that too embodies something priestly; his dance offers to the community a dramatically embodied expression of praise.

There is one more extravagance to this celebration. Once the ark was placed in the tent that David had pitched, and after he had offered yet another series of burnt-offerings, “he blessed the people in the name of the Lord of hosts, and distributed food among all the people, the whole multitude of Israel, both men and women, to each a cake of bread, a portion of meat, and a cake of raisins.” Once the liturgy with its procession, sacrifices, singing and dancing and blessing was done, it was time for the whole community to feast. Feasting is so embedded in the faith and culture of the Hebrew tradition; feasting in celebration of God’s goodness and abundance, and feasting in anticipation of all that God has yet to do. That kind of feasting has to include everyone; room must be made for all.

Again, notice how different was the banquet that Herod hosted. That was a banquet thrown by Herod to celebrate his own birthday, and the only ones invited were “his courtiers and officers and the leaders of Galilee.” At Herod’s party the only dancing is a performance given by his daughter, which, Mark says, “pleased Herod and his guests,” resulting in his rash vow: “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” What the mother of this girl has her ask for is his the head of John the Baptist, which Herod has delivered on a platter. In a kind of stunning contrast to David’s feast, in the end Herod’s exclusive banquet delivers only death.

But did you notice that one verse tucked in the middle of the reading from 2nd Samuel, in which we see that not all was well in David’s life? “As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal 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.” She despised him in her heart. Michal was the daughter of Saul, and David’s first wife. She had fallen in love with him while he was yet a young man, serving as a leader in her father’s army. Together with her brother Jonathan, Michal had been instrumental in helping David to flee when Saul had hatched his plot to have David killed; something that so enraged Saul that he gave Michal to another man as his wife. Michal’s love for David has been costly, in other words, yet here we find her despising him. In the verses that follow, we discover that when he returned to his house after the feast, Michal “came out to meet David, and said, ‘How the king of Israel honoured himself today, uncovering himself today before the eyes of his servants’ maids, as any vulgar fellow might shamelessly uncover himself!” Shamelessly uncovering himself; that’s the origin of the notion that the linen ephod was little more than a loincloth. Yet as the Hebrew scholar Susan Pigott contends, in all likelihood David had been “dressed as a priest and dancing in a twisting, rollicking manner in front of the commoners in Jerusalem’s streets. This was what Michal was upset about. David was not acting dignified like a king should. He was strutting his priestly/kingly stuff in front of everyone in the biggest parade of his kingship. It was his ‘coming out as king’ party, and Michal felt he should have done it in a dignified, cultured way rather than dancing in the streets as a priest-king.”

And to this Richard Nysse adds, “Before we judge Michal too harshly, we should remember that she earlier had loved David,” and yet once he had become a fugitive

“he never seems to plot to return to Michal until negotiating with Saul’s surviving general, Abner, and son, Ishbaal. In the intervening years, David has wooed and married other women.” 2nd Samuel first “reports six sons from six different wives,” and then goes on to “mention eleven more sons from additional unnamed wives and concubines.” And of course, “Bathsheba is yet to come.”

Why was it that Michal “looked out of the window” to see David dancing? Why wasn’t she out on the streets, joining in this liturgical celebration and taking part in the feast? There is something sad and heavy about this woman Michal; something quite tragic in the disdain with which she looks at her husband. Yet even in her biting sarcasm she is perhaps telling David something he needs to hear. Not something about his ephod or his dancing or his celebratory enthusiasm, but rather something about his own family, and how in building up this nation he can so easily shatter the very ones who love him. Just a heads up: that theme will appear again and again as the story moves forward.

For tonight, though, set that all to one side, and hold with delight the picture of a dancing, worshipping priest/king who invites all to feast in celebration of the goodness of God. And in your own life, maybe find some way to do a little dancing, worshipping, and feasting over that same goodness.

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