When You Catch…Holiness

II Samuel 6:1-15
David A. Davis
July 18, 2021
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This summer we are tackling a few of “quite the bible stories”! Last week, poor old Saul. Well, how about Uzzah. Poor old Uzzah. A few Sundays ago, we read David’s ode to Saul and Jonathan after David had been told of their death on the battlefield. In the chapters that come after that in II Samuel, David becomes king of Judah and then king of Israel and Judah. With the desire to reestablish Jerusalem as the military stronghold and the political and religious center of the kingdom, David sets out to get the ark of God that been in the hands of the Philistines and return it to Jerusalem. With 30,000 of the chosen men of Israel, plus all the people, David went to get the ark. The ark was in the house of Abinidad up on a hill. As the bible tells it, David brought a new cart to carry the ark and Abinidad’s sons were driving the card; Ahio and Uzzah. Ahead of the ark bearing the ark of God, David and the people were dancing, singing, and praising the Lord with all their might. Quite the festive procession.

Until it wasn’t. When the ark parade comes to a threshing floor, a presumably flat smooth area, the oxen shook and the cart must have dipped. The ark started to tip. Uzzah, not wanting the ark to fall, does presumably, what pretty much anyone would do. He reaches out his hand to catch the ark. Right then and there, according to II Samuel, the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah and God struck him dead because he reached out his hand to the ark. The Lord wasn’t the only one angry. David was angry at God because “The Lord had burst forth with an outburst upon Uzzah” which must be biblical language for you killed Uzzah, God! David renamed the place where Uzzah died “Perez Uzzah’. Bursting out against Uzzah was now the name of the place.

What a puzzling, bizarre, harsh story that leaves the reader just sort of shaking your head. You come upon this sort of thing every now and then in scripture, right? Here someone will say, “oh, that just the Old Testament.” “That’s how it is in the Old Testament” someone says with a shrug of the shoulders and a wave of the hand. “That’s why we have Jesus!” someone else offers like Jesus is some sort of antidote for the Old Testament. But the bible also tells of Ananias and Sapphira. They sold property and didn’t share all the money with the community of faith. They lied about it. They died. And that’s after Jesus in the New Testament; the Book of Acts!

Uzzah reached out to touch the ark because it was starting to tip. And he was struck dead. Was it that bad? Did Uzzah really deserve it? Would it have been better for the ark to fall to the ground? If the Ark hit the ground maybe God’s outburst would have been directed at all 30,000 people. I guess his time was up? You can just hear people back then saying something like that. Just like you still hear people who take a similar approach when tragedy strikes. It must have been God’s will. You can’t tempt fate. His number was up. God must have needed an ark bearer in heaven. He’s in a better place. I wonder if anyone offered wisdom like that to Uzzah’s family that day somewhere outside of Jerusalem.

To be honest with you, scholars, biblical commentators, and writers are not all that helpful when it comes to preaching the story of Uzzah’s death. The writer of II Samuel is pretty clear when it comes to an explanation. “God struck him there because he reached out his hand to the ark.”  Okay then. Some blame it on how David chose to carry the ark. It was being carried in a cart pulled by oxen. The instructions for ark bearing in the scripture, however, dictate that the ark was supposed o be honored and carried by human means. Ark bearers with poles on the shoulder, carrying it like a king would be carried in the ancient world rather than being schlepped in a cart behind some oxen. So Uzzah died because David didn’t follow directions. Okay then.

Some interpreters offer the interpretation that Uzzah’s cause of death was an agricultural accident. The text reads that Uzzah reached up to the ark because the oxen shook it. Scholars of the language point out that a better translation of the verb would be that the oxen stumbled. Or even more accurately, that the oxen dropped. In plain language, the oxen reached the flat terrain of the threshing floor and decided to make some manure. Uzzah, according to this theory, just slipped, touched the ark, and with a stroke of bad luck, was gone. The wrath of God and an unfortunately placed pile of manure. Okay then.

The account of Uzzah’s death in the 6th chapter of II Samuel mentions his father Abinidab and his brother Ahio. Unfortunately…regrettably there is no mention of Uzzah’s mother. The reason the scholars, the bible commentators, and the writers are not all that helpful for the preacher when it comes to this story is that none of them have to go visit Uzzah’s mother. Perhaps an abstract theological perspective and rationale can be found that somehow helps it all make sense. But I have come back from the cemetery too many times with muddy shoes, and sat in too many waiting rooms, and hung up the phone too many times when I didn’t have a blessed thing to say. Over the Fourth of July holiday weekend in the United States there were more than 500 reported incidents of gun violence. 613 people were injured. 233 were killed. The statistic that wasn’t mentioned was the number of grieving mothers, fathers, children, brothers, and sisters. All the political rhetoric in the world can’t give and explanation to the grieving families. There have been more than 4 million COVID related deaths in the world and over 600,000 in this country. With all the statistics and metrics available related to the virus. I have not seen an attempt to estimate a number of grieving mothers, fathers, children, sisters or brothers. No medical expert, elected or appointed leader, or conspiracy theorist can give a rational that gives comfort. We have all seen and read those interviews with grieving, mothers, fathers, children, brothers and sisters family of the people who died in that building collapse in Florida. All the engineering explanations in the world won’t help it all make sense.

Anyone who thinks that the call to walk with God and follow Jesus is about always having an answer, demanding an answer, finding an answer, they may as well be playing catch with an ark. Because you and I are called to stand knee deep in the grey water of life and point to the presence of God, especially when the words are not going to be found. Anyone can rise to point to and rail on the sin and the darkness of the world all around us. But some are called to stand in the darkness of the world and bear witness to the light of God’s presence.

If you will pardon the pun, the arc of the story of Uzzah’s death points the reader to the holiness of God. The ark of God was believed to contain the untouchable, unapproachable, unseeable holiness of God. Think burning bush, take your shoes off, come no further. Think of Moses and the shine on his face after being in the presence of God. Or God telling Moses that no one can see God’s face and live and God telling Moses to hide in the cleft of the rock and that God would cover Moses with God’s hand as God passed by. When Uzzah reached up to catch the ark he was catching holiness. He was catching the untouchable, unapproachable, unseeable holiness of God.

As you and I just sit with the story of Uzzah this morning rather than try to explain it away, remember that we believe in the mystery of God’s plan of salvation, God making Godself known to God’s people, that God’s holiness, the presence of God Almighty is not in ark carried on cart. The very holiness of God came to the ark of Mary’s womb. Not only was the holiness of God not to be touched, the holiness of God was to be held, the holiness of God was heart to cry, the holiness of God nursed at a mother’s breast. The holiness of God, the presence of God there in the form of a child. This child, God’s holiness, the One who allowed a woman to anoint his feet, the One who healed the woman who touched his garment. The One who called out to the dead with tears in his eyes, the one who allowed the children to run into his knees. He allowed himself to be touch, and to be whipped and to be spay upon, and spread out on a cross. God’s holiness. God’s presence displayed not in the finest of artistry but splattered on a cross.

If we’re honest, you and I probably fall right in line behind the Old Testament writers you yearned for simple answers. We fall fight in line with King David who was angry and questioned God. We fall right in line with thousands of years of attempting to understand that which is not understandable. We fall right in line with all who wonder how a poor man could be struck dead after touching a museum piece that was starting to tilt. We fall in line with those who struggle to understand when the inexplicable happens and yearn to draw near to the God whose holiness we know best in Christ himself; a holiness defined by compassion and self-emptying love.

For the same God whose presence was acknowledged by the ancients with the Ark of the Covenant, the same God whose presence kicked around in the ark of Mary’s womb, the same God whose holiness is defined as “friend of sinners”, the same God whose love turned a cross of death into an arc of eternal life, that God is present with us, present among us. God with us. God for us.

Some demand answers. Some search for words. Most days, all you and I can do is lean into life, clinging to God’s promise and yearning for God’s embrace. God’s promise and God’s embrace. Most days, all you and I can do is lean into life, clinging to God’s promise and yearning for God’s embrace. And, oh, yes, and go to visit Uzzah’s mother.