Proper 10B: 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19; Psalm 24; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29
+ In the name of God Creator, God Redeemer, and God Sanctifier. Amen. Please be seated.
There are, by some estimations, somewhere in the neighborhood of 45,000 different Christian denominations in the world today. This includes some very recognizable groups such as the various provinces of our own Anglican Communion, the Roman Catholics, several varieties of Lutherans, several more varieties of Baptists, and so forth, to literally thousands of much smaller and less well-known groups such as the Plymouth Brethren, the Evangelical Covenant Church, and the Church of God Anderson, Indiana. All of these denominations are Christians; they all study the same Scriptures and all claim descent from the apostles gathered in the upper room at Pentecost. Other than those basics, there are obviously some huge differences between all these denominations, in terms of history, theology, leadership, liturgy, and more.
But one thing that unites many of the big denominational families, especially here in the United States, is that we are uncomfortable with this Old Testament passage we read today. What do you mean, we ask the Scriptures, that David danced before the Lord? And this was in the context of worship? Where I grew up, in the wintry upper Midwest, mainline denominations like Episcopalians and Lutherans are sometimes known as the “Frozen Chosen,” not just because of the weather, but because they prove they are good Christians–God’s elect—by sitting quietly in their pews and not making a big show of their worship. We Episcopalians really don’t want our worship to get too rowdy; going from kneeling to standing is the most choreography in church we do. One big exception, of course, is many of our Pentecostal siblings, who celebrate dancing and a lot of other things in worship that would make us Episcopalians squirm.
But here it is; David danced before the Lord with all his might. Now before we get too far, I want to assure you that this sermon is not really about dancing in worship. You can all breathe a sigh of relief. I’ll just say that dancing was a standard part of worship in David’s time. In modern Judaism, dancing in most worship settings has faded away, although there is still some ritualistic dancing at Jewish weddings. Kathryn and I have attended a few Sufi services, where there was rhythmic turning, flowing in circles, and choreographed steps. If you have seen some Sufi worship, especially the famous turning or so-called “whirling” of the Mevlavi Sufi order, you have some idea of what King David’s dancing here in our Old Testament passage probably looked like.
But we have some other Scriptures to consider, and turning to those helps us to see the shape of where this sermon is really going. If this sermon had a title, it might be something like, “A Tale of Two Kings.” We’ve already mentioned King David, but our Gospel reading talks about another king, and there is dancing in that story, too. But this time, the king is an observer. When his stepdaughter dances for him and his guests, King Herod makes a rash promise that ends with the death of John the Baptizer. We’ll talk more about this Gospel reading shortly, but first I want us to notice the key contrast our Scriptures this morning have set up for us. King David dances before the Lord, and worships. King Herod watches his stepdaughter dance, and he is forced to execute a prophet of God. Together, these Scriptures ask us, “Whose example do we want to follow? “Which king do we want to be?”
Now let’s take a step back, because it can be a bit abstract to try to see ourselves in the examples of these two kings. But our Scriptures do suggest that we who are followers of Christ enjoy a supremely royal identity. Our reading from Ephesians this morning points out that, among numerous other benefits, we who are followers of Christ have received an inheritance—a word the epistle mentions twice. In other words, we are heirs of God, the one the Psalmist identifies as the Lord, the King of Glory. We have been adopted and bequeathed all the benefits of heavenly royalty!
It is well within reason, then, for us to see in David and in Herod a contrasting pair of examples of what to do and what not to do, respectively, with our royal privilege. We can begin to think now about whose example we want to follow, which king we want to be.
At this point, you are probably saying to yourself, “Asked and answered.” Because we already know the example we want to follow, right? If we have been around the church any length of time, we know that David is one of the good guys, and Herod is one of the worst of the bad guys. We already know we’re supposed to be on “Team David.”
So let us ask a more probing question. If we already know whose example we should follow, are we actually willing to do it? Because our Scriptures suggest we need to make some purposeful, hard choices in order to be like David, and to avoid being like Herod. Are we willing to make those hard choices? By asking, “Which king do we want to be?” these two Scriptural examples are really asking us a follow-up question, “What are we willing to lose in order to get there?” Which king do we want to be, and what are we willing to lose to get there?
Let’s take a closer look at what David had to lose—had to purposefully give up. David chose to make God an abiding passion and a top priority in his life. One of his first acts as king is to secure a place for the Ark of the Covenant, and then to bring the Ark to that place with all the pomp and ceremony of an intense worship service, including the dancing we talked about earlier. And David deliberately gave himself up to worship. The phrase “David danced before the Lord with all his might,” suggests that David was able to completely forget himself, to let his ego go in order to be lost in the wonder of God’s presence. And note, too, David’s linen ephod. An ephod was a religious garment, most commonly worn by priests when leading worship. The point of such a garment is to symbolically hide the person underneath in order to allow God to be foregrounded. It’s the equivalent of the white alb that worship leaders in our church wear so that no one person stands out and distracts from worship. And in this worship procession and dance that David was part of, there would have been numerous people wearing ephods. David would have blended right in. In other words, David willingly set aside his royal robes—the most visible mark of his office and his importance—and wore something that everyone else was wearing. He literally allowed himself to be lost in worship. And he could do this because he had already decided that God—not himself—was the most important focus in his life.
By setting aside his royal robes and joining in with everyone else as just another worshiper, David was deliberately giving up some of his royal prestige and authority, as well as the opportunity to consolidate his own power. He could have simply watched the proceedings from his royal box, dressed in his royal robes and surrounded by his retinue, allowing the majesty of the worship and the presence of the Ark of the Covenant to burnish his own glory. It would have been a chance for David to demonstrate his absolute authority over all aspects of life in Israel. I suspect that this was the true reason David’s wife, Michal, was so upset. The Scripture reminds us that Michal was the daughter of King Saul, thus a royal princess. Growing up in Saul’s household, Michal would have been familiar with all the royal protocols and known all the important power-brokers in the kingdom. Michal knew what royal authority was supposed to look like. And I think that when she saw David throwing off his royal garments in favor of a linen ephod, she was disgusted at the way he was so easily tossing all that authority and prestige aside. Just after our reading for today, the book of 2 Samuel goes on to tell us that Michal confronted David afterward, accusing him of losing face and damaging his royal reputation in front of the household staff.
None of that mattered for David. It is important to note what our Scripture tells us: David danced before the Lord with all his might. David had no interest in making himself look good, in establishing his royal bona fides, or demonstrating his authority and prestige. David’s only desire was to worship God, and he was willing to lose everything else that others would have considered important in his life just for the satisfaction of being in God’s presence. That is the example of David. If we want to be like him, what are we willing to lose to get there?
There is another example, of course, that is, frankly, a lot easier to follow. For Herod, God was just a curious hobby—nothing he had to sacrifice for, nothing he had to lose anything for. Notice in our Gospel that Herod recognized God’s presence in John the Baptizer; Herod saw, in the Gospel’s words, that John “was a righteous and holy man.” Herod even like listening to John; he was curious about what John’s message was all about. But it was just an idle curiosity; it didn’t lead Herod to make any major life changes, like, say, setting John free.
And because God was just a curious hobby, Herod saw no problem with glorifying his own image. For his big celebration, the occasion of his birthday, Herod decided to spend it not listening to John the Baptizer, but to throwing a lavish royal party for all the local bigwigs and movers-and-shakers. He wanted them to be impressed with him, to see him as the important person he thought himself to be. God was the last thing on his mind. Because God was not central in Herod’s life, he, Herod, became the central figure in his own life, and his image, his prestige, and his pleasure became the most important things for him. And thus when Herod tried to play the role of magnanimous ruler and lavish entertainer, and rashly promised to give away up to half his kingdom, he was forced to make a terrible choice. The Gospel tell us that Herod was afraid of his guests; he was not willing to lose his own power and prestige and reputation, not willing to lose face, in order to heed God’s exhortations through John, and so in the end he was forced to silence the voice of God in his life altogether.
We know the results of the choices these two men made. Because David was willing to lose power, prestige, and reputation for God’s sake, he was able to bless others. Our Old Testament reading ends with David giving gifts to the people in order to bless them in God’s name. And if we look beyond this specific passage, we know that David is referred to throughout the Scriptures as “a man after God’s own heart,” and eventually as the ancestor of the Messiah. Herod was not willing to lose the things that made him important, and so not only did he kill John the Baptizer, but we know from the Good Friday story that Herod played a role in the death of Jesus as well. History tells us that Herod eventually was ensnared if a conspiracy initiated by his own nephew; he fell from grace and died ignominiously in exile. He was not willing to give up his own importance, and yet ended up losing everything.
So, which king do we want to be—and more critically, what are we willing to lose to get there? We can always take the easy way out, like Herod, focusing on making ourselves look and feel important, trying to impress others, and seeking the good life for ourselves. God can be just a hobby, someone we like to drop in and listen to every now and again on a Sunday morning, when we’re not busy doing other things. But we know that path eventually ends up hurting others and ourselves.
On the other hand, we can choose to live up to our royal inheritance, and become the people God has adopted us to be. That means putting God first in our lives, and choosing God over everything that the rest of the world considers to be important. Most often, that happens in a thousand little ways throughout each day, rather than in the dramatic events of David and Herod’s lives. And I don’t know what you may need to lose in order to put God first, worship God, and bless others. I don’t know what that looks like for you. That’s something each one of us has to answer in the quiet of our own hearts. So as you go about your week, I encourage you to check in with yourself regularly and ask, “Am I willingly losing other things in order to put God first?”
Again, I cannot say what that looks like for you, but I can give you some idea of what it looks like for me. Some time ago now, I sold my car to a coworker that I had frequently butted heads with. We did not like each other, and frankly did not respect each other. But there came a time when I was getting ready to move out of state and needed to get rid of this car quickly, and she needed a car at the time. There are a lot of complications to this story that I need to leave out for the sake of time, but the point of is that eventually, she refused to pay me, saying that the car had all kinds of mechanical issues and turned out to be basically undrivable. I knew it had a few issues; it was an older car, but I didn’t think things were that bad. It certainly seemed to be working when she took possession of it. And we had already agreed on the price.
And right there you can see the ego defensiveness kick in—the automatic human response of, “I am the one in the right; I am the one who is owed, I need to fight for what is rightfully mine.” That was certainly my co-worker’s position; she told me she had consulted with a lawyer, and was clearly gearing up to fight over the cost of this car. But I also recognized that she knew that at the same time she and I worked together, I had also been volunteering as a lay pastor in a little Baptist church (this was right after I got out of Baptist seminary, before I became an Episcopalian). She was suspicious of church people, and thought most we were all hypocrites. And so I decided that the best way to honor God at that point was not to fight with her. I invited her to keep the money she had agreed to pay me, and I gave her some more in order to cover the cost of the repairs she said she has already tried to do.
I am embarrassed to tell that story, because I am afraid that in some ways it probably makes me look more like a martyr or more “saintly” than I really am. Hopefully, it also makes me look like a fool, and that I allowed myself to be taken advantage of. Because when we start choosing to lose other things in favor of honoring God, that is what some people will think of us. I decided that it was more important to swallow my pride, to let down my defensiveness, to lose face, and to give up what I was owed so that this coworker would hopefully see some kindness, some grace, some generosity, and hopefully see God—at least just a little. I moved away, as I said, right at that same time, so I never saw her again, and have no idea how this encounter affected her. But I hope that that one time I chose to lose in order to become more like David—more like a man after God’s own heart—was a blessing for her.
Again, you have to decide what following David’s example looks like in your life. Our scriptures have held up for us this tale of two kings. Now we must each decide which king we want to be, and what we are willing to lose to get there. Amen.