Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 15 July 2018.
There are some completely infuriating puzzles which invite us to stare at an image of some repeated pattern until a new and different image emerges.
I have to say that either I do not have the patience or the sense of lateral thinking to make any sense of these puzzles. Either you get the point or you don’t – and I don’t.
There is something quite subjective and personal about them, and that may be part of the point. The image is there if you see it, and even if you do not, it is still there to be seen.
But there is something quite different in today’s lesson from the OT in which King David determined to bring the Ark of the Covenant to its proper place in Jerusalem, the city he had chosen for himself. As he did so there was something totally solemn about this endeavour. This was a holy thing that they were transporting and nobody was to take liberties with it.
Our lesson carefully censors out the account of how as they proceeded, the oxen stumbled and Uzzah put out a hand to steady the cart. We are told that he was struck down for his pains, and for presuming to lay hands on the cart without being instructed to.
He had taken a liberty which was not his to take, and whether he had thought it through or was acting impulsively we are not told. But the presumption could not abide in the sight of God and Uzzah paid the penalty.
In panic David parked the Ark at the home of Obed-Edom the Gittite – not one of the House of Israel, before anyone else suffered. This must have been with Obed-Edom’s agreement in the light of what had happened.
And yet Obed-Edom prospered, having given place to the Ark at his home. He evidently overcame his probable anxiety at the presence of the Ark and was blessed so long as he accommodated it. Even though he did not worship the Lord, he was willing to take the Ark seriously and to honour it anyway.
In a way, Obed-Edom honoured God and was blessed in the light of that honour that he held for the Ark.
Writing to the Ephesians, Paul makes the point that the church is already blessed and honoured in the sight of God. Ephesus was a great and wealthy centre of Diana or Artemis, a fertility goddess whose devotion attracted many pilgrims.
But the church was not willing to bend to this cult or its exotic customs or practices.
They might have been a relatively small congregation, easily over-awed by the cult, but they did not compromise. And in this context Paul was telling them that they were already blessed and honoured in the sight of God.
Even when their stance cost them, excluded them, humiliated them and abused them, their faith was more important than life itself and they would not let go.
And so Paul reassured them that they were blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places. They were chosen, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in the sight of God. Unlike the pagans who surrounded them they already understood the mysteries of the atonement of Jesus Christ and the forgiveness of sins in Him.
For all their abuse and abandonment by society they stood mightily in the presence of God, who looked to their hearts and not to their wealth or status or power.
Even when surrounded by such committed idolatry the Ephesians could boldly approach the throne of the Highest, confident in their faith in and through Jesus Christ. The rest of the citizenry of Ephesus did not enjoy that privilege.
And then there is John the Baptist who had been outspoken in criticizing King Herod for his personal relationships and for taking for himself his brother’s wife. This was indeed adultery.
But Herod was in two minds and kept John like a pet. He enjoyed his talks with him, even when he was confused and dare not go back on what he had already done or release John.
And so King Herod tolerated John – now safely under lock and key, available on tap but no real threat.
Then that fateful day when Herod had to impress the neighbours. The feast, the liquor, the dancing and the buzzing excitement of Salome’s dance which seems to have been well received – too well received in fact if Herod’s rash promise is taken into account.
So: “Anything you like – just name it. Up to half the kingdom. John’s head? OK – if you insist.”
The killing of an innocent man, and a prophet of God, with no due process: to some the abrogation of the rule of law would amount to the very foundations of the kingdom – but Herod did not see it like that. An innocent who got in the way. Too bad.
It is easy to feel superior – until we also now take to presuming people guilty on the basis of the charge and not the evidence or their defense. Look at all our sexual allegations and tell me whether we really presume the innocence of the accused.
It is easy to be carried away by the emotion of the moment, and to react on impulse. But we are called to stand in the presence of the King of Kings, blessed with all the spiritual blessings of the heavenly places. But in truth we are also called to a reverent, sober and thoughtful faith, anchored in the glory of God and not in the enthusiasm of the passing spasm of fashion or opinion. It is a high calling.