“Keeping God at the Center”
Sermon preached by Jack Cabaness
Covenant Presbyterian Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, October 22, 2023
Sermon Text: 2 Samuel 5:1-5, 6:1-5
Please note: Due to technical problems with our sound system, we weren’t able to post the video or audio of the October 22nd sermon. The sermon manuscript is included below . . .
There are times when places and stories from the Bible seem like stories from Star Wars. In other words, they seem like something from a long time ago in a faraway place.
And there are other times when the Bible stories could be an item on our current news feeds.
Today’s scripture reading includes a reference to Hebron. Where is Hebron? It’s in the present-day West Bank.
Today’s scripture reading includes a reference to the Ark of the Covenant, which just prior to this reading had been in the custody of the Philistines. Where was ancient Philistia? It was on the Mediterranean coast, stretching up from present-day Gaza in the south to present-day Tel Aviv in the north.
Since October 7th our minds and hearts have been riveted by events in Israel and Gaza. Many of our neighbors once lived in Israel or Gaza. Many of them know people who were killed or taken hostage. Many of our neighbors feel isolated and afraid.
There are Presbyterian connections with the current conflict. The hospital that was bombed last week--which U.S. and Israeli intelligence states was most likely the result of a misfired rocket in Gaza—was a mission partner of a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregation in southern California. These are not just news events in a distant land.
As present-day Israel prepares for a land invasion of Gaza, we can visualize the columns of tanks that will lead the way, and we can juxtapose that image with the image of the Ark of the Covenant leading the ancient Israelites to battle.
The Ark had been built during the Exodus. It accompanied the Hebrew people as they journeyed through the wilderness. It was a visible sign of God’s invisible presence. When Joshua’s army circled the city walls of Jericho seven times, it was the Ark of the Covenant that led the way.
The Ark was dangerous. As I mentioned earlier, the Philistines had once captured the Ark in a battle. But they ended up offering gold to the Hebrews if they would only take it back because people kept dying and suffering from plagues when it was in their possession. No wonder the Hebrews hid the Ark for twenty years in Abinadab’s barn.
When King David wanted to establish Jerusalem as the capital, he took the Ark out of Abinadab’s barn and brought it to Jerusalem. We can see the political maneuvering on David’s part in wanting to bring the Ark to Jerusalem. He no doubt wanted a tangible symbol that God was blessing his rule.
When I think about how many groups today try to manipulate symbols for God to justify religious violence, I shudder. And there are subtler ways in which we try to manipulate God. Right after the verses we read in 2 Samuel 6 is the story of Uzzah, who was struck dead when he put his hand out to steady the Ark. I’ve always thought that was unfair. Why couldn’t Uzzah have simply gotten a mild electric shock or something?
But perhaps the larger point is that God doesn’t need our protection. Not from Philistines. Not from ark bearers who lose their grip on the Ark temporarily. Did Uzzah really think that God was confined to a box and that it was up to him, Uzzah, to protect God during the procession?
In the words of a pastor colleague of mine, “Putting God at the center requires us to remember that God is God, and we are not. When we pretend God shares our politics and our prejudice, it is time to take our hands off the Ark.”
When King David was at his best, he danced and sang before the Ark with wild abandon. David realized that God was the true center, and that everything that had breath should praise the Lord.
In our own lives, putting God at the center requires great care and attention. When we truly attend to what God is trying to say to us, we change our behavior, we order our lives around what is most important, we value the most important relationships in our lives, and we do all this with our actions and not merely our words.
In a time of grief, worry, and fear about the state of our world, putting God at the center means learning to praise God even in the midst of anxious times—not by ignoring the things that make us anxious or pretending they don’t exist, but by focusing our praise nonetheless on the God who is at the center.
Our Director of Music, Donald Dillard, played his own composition / arrangement of Be Thou My Vision for this morning’s prelude. As he played, I thought that the long, sustained, almost discordant, tones were symbolic of the anxious state of our world. But while these discordant chords were being held, the faint melody of Be Thou My Vision was being played softly.
I’d like to close the sermon with a musical prayer. There is a song called “Shalom Rav” (Abundant Peace) that is often sung in Sabbath worship. I’d like to share a video clip of this beautiful song being sung by the Stanford University Hillel. You’ll notice that the song was recorded during the pandemic since the singers and instrumentalists appear in small squares on the screen—once again reminding us how praise of God can be at the center even in the midst of anxious times.
[The video can be easily accessed on YouTube by searching for Shalom Rav and Stanford Hillel]