Reading: 2 Samuel 6:12-23 (Sermon Audio)
This summer I’ve had the chance to lead a seminary class with several guys in our church, and one of the things we’ve been studying the past couple of weeks is the question of what it means to be human. Which is a big question. And of course we’re asking that question from a Christian point of view, so we’re looking at Scripture for insight but also anthropology and sociology and what the church has said about human nature — about sin, being made in the image of God.
And if you were to compare us as human beings, to other species, there are many similarities, sure, but we all know there are some significant differences. One of the differences that’s often first cited is our ability to reason, and speculate, look far out to the future, and wonder about big questions, like “what does it mean to be human?” Your dog does not wonder about what it means to be a dog.
At the same time, animals do have the capacity to do some surprisingly human things: some animals mate for life, many animals have companionship and play with each other. There are types of primates like Gibbons even have their own social rituals. And they can even laugh.
Another thing we can do though that’s pretty amazing and that distinguishes us from other animals is that we can come up with really strange games, that you might watch during the Olympics (like synchronized swimming or handball!).
I actually love the Olympics. I probably have a rose-colored view of it though. The amount of money that’s being poured into it by a country like Brazil with all that it’s going through — it’s a mess. But there’s still something about all these countries coming together that seems to bring out the best in humanity. So I’ve watched it every night that it has been on, and I haven’t been getting enough sleep lately as a result.
Not only can some human beings just do spectacular things, but there’s always a special story or two. Swimming and gymnastics this past week have been especially exciting for the U.S. But early on, a German male gymnast, Andreas Toba, and a British female gymnast, Ellie Downie, both injured themselves during their floor exercises but continued to compete, because if they didn’t, their teams wouldn’t have been able to advance. And, they both were able to earn strong scores even after getting her. The German competitor did his full routine on the pommel horse, and the British female athlete competed on the vault and stuck her landing.
And again, despite our many similarities with creatures, and there are more than we even realize, stories like these nonetheless speak to the extraordinary uniqueness of humankind. Not only do we create games and sports, but we make stuff — we make things. And not just for function, but for the sheer enjoyment of being creativity. And appreciating beauty and aesthetics. Whether it’s art or music or poetry or whatever. Like the things it talks about in the Psalm that we just read.
And this really points to something. It reflects a deeper reality to our nature. There’s something in us, that longs for more, that reaches out, that wants transcend, or get beyond, in other words, the immediate horizon of our lives and what’s right in front of us. We’re searching for and expressing an desire to connect with what is ultimate and absolute. Something that truly lasts and is not confined to the limits of our material existence.
This is the clue, I believe, to the attribute of our nature that most distinguishes us from the rest of creation. And that is our natural ability to worship. And not only does worship distinguish human beings from other creatures, but it might even be the most important thing we do. In fact, as Christians, the case could be made that it’s the reason we exist.
Which, honestly probably sounds a little bit like a stretch. But it depends on what comes to mind for you when you think of worship. For many people, what we imagine is something like what we do on Sundays here at Saint Peter’s. And on the surface, this could easily be confused with the rituals you might go through at a show or some other speaking event. Or just in the words from a song on the radio. Think about what’s going on at a concert (e.g., Garth Brooks, Kendrick Lamar). So I think we first have to work a little harder at understanding what we mean by worship in the first place. So that’s what we’re going to try to do.
Saint Augustine famously asked, “What do I love when I love my God?” Which is similar to asking, “What do I worship when I worship my God? What do I seek and desire above everything else? What is that thing that I believe will make me happy if I could just have it, achieve it. What am I ultimately concerned about? It could be many other created or finite things: Wealth, power, status, a romantic relationship, the accomplishments of one’s children, and so on.
When given the place in our lives and in our hearts that should be occupied by God, the Bible calls this idolatry. Idolatry really just means misdirected worship — worship that has found its object in a finite end, that will not last, will not satisfy.
And as I mentioned already, and we’re right in the middle of it, you could say that the natural propensity to worship is on full display during the Olympics, maybe there more than anywhere else — because the athletes are so great, and they’ve worked so hard. They’ve earned their chance for glory. There was a quote in the Alpha video that we watched a few weeks ago, that I’ve heard before, and that offers a sober reminder. It’s by the actor and comedian, Jim Carrey:
“I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.”
Now, maybe it’s hard to take that very seriously coming from someone who was made famous by movies like Dumb and Dumber, the Mask, and Ace Ventura, but, I think it still counts for something.
But the novelist David Foster Wallace, a much more serious person, who died a little while back, and who so far as I can tell would not have considered himself a Christian, said this in a famous essay and later commencement speech:
“In the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship…”
Pretty much everything most people worship: Money, your body, your intellect, power, success — ends up not only disappointing but controlling them.
So as we look at the passage for this morning, the question we need to ask is what prompts David to worship?
In 2 Samuel 6, it picks up right after David and his army have defeated the Philistines once and for all — a story we looked at about three weeks ago. And then they proceed to celebrate and worship God because they’re able to move the Ark of the Covenant — which contained the Ten Commandments — to Jerusalem, and to the place where Solomon would finally build their great Temple.
So David is dancing, with all his might! the Scripture says, and losing his inhibition in singing and praising God, even to the point of risking embarrassing himself, or at least making others feel uncomfortable. But he doesn’t care! And he doesn’t apologize for it. It’s a party, basically. David’s dishing out delicacies to everybody, not just his family and friends, but the whole people!
And David’s wife Michal, who is Saul’s daughter, is upset because, this isn’t how a king is supposed to act! She sarcastically ridicules him for fraternizing with commoners and making a fool out of himself, parading around and letting loose… physically, emotionally. Dancing with abandon, wearing his heart on his sleeve. In shame and honor cultures, this was unheard of. The king was supposed to be remote and intimidating. Not intimate with the people.
And here’s what David says in response to Michal:
21 David said to Michal, “It was before the Lord, who chose me rather than your father or anyone from his house when he appointed me ruler over the Lord’s people Israel—I will celebrate before the Lord. 22 I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes. But by these slave girls you spoke of, I will be held in honor.”
In other words, it’s not that David is being proud and bragging, actually — though it kind of sounds like it. Rather, he’s saying, look, because God appointed me instead of your dad Saul, God has set a new standard for what kings are supposed to be like! In other words, the kind of king David becomes in this story foreshadows the kind of king God will be to us through Christ.
And actually, rather than being embarrassed or humiliated in front of the lower class people — the slave girls that are mentioned here — David’s saying, they’re going to respect me even more for this, for worshiping by putting my whole self out there.
And what prompts David to worship besides the fact that the Ark of the Covenant is in Jerusalem and they defeated the Philistines? Again, it’s the fact that the Lord appointed this for him. He didn’t achieve it on his own. It wasn’t earned. It was a gift. And so he’s celebrating! He’s receiving it. He’s opening himself up in vulnerability and humility before God. This is what makes David’s worship true. It starts with acknowledging that every good thing he’s given came from God.
Now, what about the way David worships and this whole dancing around and singing thing? Because I think we have address this since we’re talking about worship. I grew up in a traditional Baptist church, and I had a good experience in church growing up. And it even helped me develop for me a love of music. But as musical as my early experience of worship was, it was not very expressive. We dressed up, and we didn’t move around when we sang. And people who did were weird. So it wasn’t until college that I had my first experience of charismatic worship in church, and it changed the trajectory of my spiritual life.
There’s a freedom you find when you first let yourself enter more fully into worship in that way. Something happens when you stop worrying about the people around you and you truly open yourself up — that’s the point of putting your hands out, or raising them — the bodily act can trigger a spiritual posture of receptivity, to receive and to acknowledge the sheer givenness and grace of God. That’s also why we have prayer benches. Connecting body and spirit in posture.
Which is good to think about too, because it’s a reminder that in spite of what it might seem like on the surface when we attend worship services at difference churches, worship isn’t about differences in tradition, style or taste of music — though it’s true, unfortunately, sometimes the church has made it into that.
And I acknowledge this as someone who loves musical worship, but music can be tricky, because we all know that sometimes what we really like is just the way the song sounds, and we’re not too concerned about the lyrics. You don’t have to sing to worship. Though church services can make you feel that way.
This is part of the reason why for a long time, many churches throughout history actually didn’t bring music into their worship. Which probably seems crazy to us, but their concerns were somewhat legitimate.
Because music really is one of those things that so easily can become a product or experience that we consume. We all have music on our phones that we’ve purchased or that we subscribe to. Music can make worship into this kind of thing where we ask, what am I getting out of this? As if that’s the main point, for me to take something away, to get something for ourselves or reach an emotional high. To be inspired. Which isn’t all bad, but we need to be aware of its potentially seductive influence.
In the mid-20th Century, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said this, long before contemporary worship music came on the scene:
“I wonder if anyone who needs a snappy song service can really appreciate the meaning of the cross.” — Reinhold Niebuhr
So I share that not to discourage us from musical worship, but just point something out: a lot of times, we aren’t even fully aware of what we’re worshiping. I want go back to the final part of the quote I shared earlier from David Wallace, because he speaks to this better than I can:
But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self.
What we worship determines where we’re going in life, and much of what determines where we’re headed is not something we’re conscious of. In fact, most of it is determined by habit more so than choice. Only a very small percentage is affected at the level of decision. It’s like we’ve been programmed.
A helpful example of this is driving a car. For us as adults, we can get in the car and everything happens by second nature. Not so with a 15 year-old. Everything for them is happening at the level of consciousness/awareness. Constant decisions are being made. Whereas for us, we don’t even think about it. And driving a car doesn’t become easy until you’ve done it enough to change your habits. It’s like anything else. Swinging a golf club or changing your diet. We behave our way to where we want to go.
This is what worship is all about. As Saint Peter’s, we’re all in favor of good music and good preaching, or at least we try to be. But one of the things that actually drew me here was how our worship doesn’t stand or fall with singing and preaching. Or it shouldn’t, anyway.
Everything we do in the order of our service has an important purpose, from beginning to end. Some of you aren’t here when we start, but at the beginning or worship, what do we say? To you all hearts open, all desires known… nothing is hidden! Which is to say, no more pretending in this place!
We confess our sins. We repent, and acknowledge and receive God’s forgiveness. We pass the peace, which stands for being reconciled to each other. The gospel is proclaimed, communion is celebrated — we’re connected to the body of Christ, so we can go out and be the body of Christ to a hurting and sinful world. Worship is empty if isn’t connected to mission. All of these components are like pillars that hold our worship up, so that if the music’s a little off or the sermon falls flat — that’s ok!
But you all know that doing this one day a week isn’t going to cut it. It has to be daily. We’re all loving and worshipping something when we start our day, and so as Christians we have to submit ourselves to a process by which God and the Spirit can re-calibrate and re-habilitate, re-habituate, our hearts and our minds.
The worship service is like practice for the game that is life from Monday through Saturday. It’s a model that you use in your own devotional time. That doesn’t mean you have to sing three sounds every day. I just means honestly, humility and gratitude before God. If you practice that posture, grace will abound and empower your for mission in your life.
So we attend to our worship — because we’re all worshiping something. Ask God to help you see and detect the idols. So you can name them. And start developing an awareness so that they don’t have as much power over you. Most of them probably aren’t evil. And you’re not going to overcome them in one day. But steadily, it’s like training for the Olympics. Not for our glory, or our nation’s glory. But for God’s. And you know what glories God the most? When our character reflects God’s! When the same love that is in him is in us. Then we will be true worshipers. Let’s pray.
Also published on Medium.