A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on July 15, 2012.
2 Samuel 6:1-23; Psalm 24
An older lady who had no use for contemporary worship was complaining to a friend about a particular song used in the worship service at her church. As far as she was concerned, this newfangled song was totally inappropriate. But her friend said, “Why do you feel that way—the song is a very old song! In fact David sang that song to Saul 3000 years ago!” The older lady replied, “Well now, for the first time I understand why Saul threw the javelin at David as he sang.”
The reason pastors today hesitate to preach about worship is they know it is the hottest of all the hot potatoes in church. And if you are not careful with what you say and how you say it, an unhappy church member may be launching a javelin in your direction. The so-called “worship wars” are real, and we have the wreckage of divided churches all over America to prove it.
Several years ago I was reading an article about worship by a Gordon-Conwell Seminary professor named Gary Parrett about the purpose of worship. Parrett was very passionate as he made the case that our worship wars are proof we have forgotten worship is not about us and our preferences, but about our heart-felt praise and joyful adoration of the living God. Then as he concluded the article, I discovered why he was so passionate.
Parrett wrote, “When my first church home divided over musical issues and other aspects of our public worship, many hearts were broken. I remember the final act of our final service together. We were asked to form a circle around the sanctuary and join hands. Together we sang the chorus, ‘We Are One in the Bond of Love.’ Then we closed the service with prayer; many hugs and tears followed.”
“It was very emotional. It was also very hypocritical. We were not, of course, one in the bond of love. We were the victims of self-seeking from all sides. We had not obeyed (mandates of scripture) like Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others more important than yourselves. Each of you should look not to his own interests, but to the interests of others (Philippians 2:3-4) or make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3) or Jesus’ commandment to love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34).
Consequently, Parrett says, the church split.
Friends, this ought to be a cautionary tale for every church, including ours. These days we have a Worship Discernment Team struggling with how to strike the right balance in worship, and thread the worship needle just right so we can accommodate as many worship tastes with as little upset as possible. And the truth is this is “mission impossible.” And if we are not careful, we could wind up like the church I just described…all in the name of getting our way in worship.
If misery loves company, then I confess I get some cold comfort out of the fact that worship wars are nothing new. In fact, one of the first examples of a worship war appears in the Old Testament in 2 Samuel 6 when one of King David’s wives named Michal chews him out for the totally inappropriate way he worshiped God. Some might call this a marital meltdown rather than a worship war. And it’s true that David’s marriage to Michal was a mess. But it’s also true we see in this lover’s quarrel elements of the worship wars that have raged among God’s people over the centuries.
The occasion for this worship war, or David’s relocation of the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem, is one of the most theologically complex tales of the Old Testament. It raises a host of questions that we will not address today so that we can get to the meat of the worship matter.
The only way to appreciate David’s over-the-top celebration in this story is to review briefly the history of the ark of the covenant. It helps to remember that the precious ark, which contained among other things the two stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments, was the focal point of worship for the Israelites. In fact, God was present in and around the ark like nowhere else. And as we learn in this story, that means the ark must be handled with care, according to the will and instructions of God.
Tragically, the ark had been captured by the Philistines in battle, and the Israelites were beside themselves with grief. But the ark caused the Philistines nothing but trouble, and soon they were looking for ways to return it. Eventually David and his soldiers defeated the Philistines and recovered the ark, and the Israelites were ecstatic. Meanwhile David, in his desire to unify the kingdom of Israel, decided to move the ark to Jerusalem.
The procession assembled by David to transport the ark was quite a sight. Thirty thousand soldiers escorted the ark as it was carried on an ox drawn cart. David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the Lord with all their might, with songs and a wide array of instruments.
But in all their excitement David and friends apparently forgot that only Levites were to carry the ark of the covenant, and then only by rods that ran through rings attached to the ark. Anyone who touched the ark, or attempted to look inside it would die.
Regrettably, this oversight cost a man named Uzzah his life. When Uzzah reached out to steady the ark, he was struck dead by God on the spot. David was livid with anger. And most of us probably cannot believe that a man lost his life trying to prevent the ark from falling. Be that as it may, we are reminded again that God is a holy and mighty God, not to be trifled with. And those who ignore the will of God do so at their own peril.
As an aside, let me remind you that this explains why we are taking such pains these days to consult with God before we move forward as a church into our future. In some ways it would be easier and less time-consuming for me or for us to come up with an exciting plan that we could all line up behind. But we are not our own—we belong to God. And in these days, we are doing our best to listen to God together so that his will might lead us forward. If we discern and then follow his will with all our might, it will be well worth the time.
David is so distraught over what happens that he wants nothing to do with the ark. But when he sees that the family that has temporary custody of the ark is flourishing, he decides to try once again to move the ark to Jerusalem. This time David is careful to adhere to the rules, and the royal entourage pauses to offer sacrifices to God as the procession proceeds. Once again, the August king of Israel leads the way, dancing before the Lord with all his might, and girded only with a linen ephod. The best I can tell, this ephod was like a loincloth worn under a man’s robes, and if that’s all you were wearing much of your body would be exposed.
Now lots of commentators use this unrestrained display of David’s to make a case for expressive, contemporary worship as opposed to, dignified traditional worship. But frankly I don’t think David was making a statement about any worship style. I think he danced and leapt before God because he was man after God’s own heart; and because his flaws not understanding, he was fully alive in God; and because he understood that worship was so much more than a cognitive process. In fact, Old Testament worship involves the body in all kinds of ways, including standing, kneeling, clapping, lifting the hands, lying prostrate, lifting or bowing the head, playing a variety of instruments, and yes, dancing.
Meanwhile, Michal was not amused. As she looked out her palace window and saw David leaping and dancing before God, she despised (David) in her own heart.
Notice, if you will that Michal wasn’t a participant in worship. She was an observer, and a critical observer at that. In fact, she despised David, presumably because he created such a vulgar, undignified spectacle unbefitting a king. But David would later tell Michal that he would even become more undignified if necessary to truly worship God.
Now I wish I could stand before you today and say I primarily identify with my namesake, David, in this story. But that would be a lie. To my embarrassment, I have been more like Michal than David.
I grew up in a very conservative, very emotional Baptist church. And when I rejected that brand of Christianity I rejected the emotionalism that often went with it. For a while I didn’t go to church at all. And when I finally returned, the only kind of worship I respected was quiet, dignified, and highly liturgical, partly because I was more comfortable in my head than my heart, and partly because of my personal history.
If I heard somebody say “Amen,” I got nervous. If I saw somebody lift their hands during a song, I would stop singing and watch the person. And like Michal I would look down on that person as shallow and emotional, as a lesser person than me.
I’m confident that because I proposed we launch a contemporary worship service in the 1990s many in our church believe I have always been a big fan of contemporary worship. Nothing could be further from the truth. I went into contemporary worship very reluctantly, only because I thought it would help our church grow.
Over the years I have developed a taste for contemporary worship and other worship styles as well. But more than ever, I have learned that worship at its best is not about me, but all about God. And at its best worship involves not only my mind and my voice, but my entire body. And the moment I start judging other people who worship differently is the moment I look and sound like Michal.
It will be up to our church and not me to decide how we will worship going forward. And I will fully support whatever our church decides. But for the record, I dream of the day will come when we will come together as one body to worship God, that we might love and respect each other so much that we will gladly make room for a variety of worship styles, that we will be so consumed with joyful worshipping the Lord with all our might that it won’t matter what style gets used in what service, or how undignified anybody looks.
I have a worship dream, First Baptist. And that’s it.