Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost 07/15/2018

We perhaps have Steven Spielberg and his Raiders of the Lost Ark movie to thank for the inclusion of today’s first reading. My guess would be that not many people knew much about the Ark of the Covenant but the 1981 movie gave it new life with the story of Indiana Jones’ quest to keep the ark out of the hands of the Nazis. It does make for a good adventure story and maybe the movie even helped to make clear that this ark was not Noah’s ark, but was the container said to hold, among other things, the two tablets that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai, also believed to represent and house the presence of the Lord, the God of Israel.

Anyway, when the Revised Common Lectionary was developed and then released in 1994 it may have been thought that today’s somewhat obscure reading from Second Samuel could be included because, for anyone who had seen it, Raiders of the Lost Ark had provided some context. Then again the movie may have had absolutely nothing to do with the inclusion of this text in the lectionary but I needed a way to start this sermon so there you are.

It’s actually a surprisingly interesting text in that it raises questions about what David was up to, about what his motives were. Remember, David was now king of all of Israel, in charge, at the peak of his popularity. The question for him, as it is for anyone who reaches a position of power, is what was he going to do with his power? Was the shepherd king going to be a good shepherd?

The Ark of the Covenant had more or less been out of commission for about twenty years, on the shelf as it were after being returned by the Philistines who had captured it at one point but then became afraid of it. On return it was placed in the house of Abinidab, one of King Saul’s sons, but that was back in First Samuel, chapter 7 and here we are now in Second Samuel, chapter 6. One could ask though, why at this point would David want to dust off the ark and bring it to Jerusalem?

One school of thought says that what we get here is good David, that this was an act of great faith and devotion on his part, evidence that he wanted to make sure that the focus was not on him as king but instead was on the kingship of the Lord. Bringing the ark to Jerusalem then was an act of humility, a statement that David understood that his power stemmed from and was dependent on the kingship of the Lord. David’s dancing before the ark and offering burnt offerings are then seen as him losing himself in worship and praise in the presence of the Lord. In verse 19 there’s support for this “good David” school of thought as, following the dancing and sacrifices, David, being a good shepherd, distributed food among all the people, the whole multitude of Israel.

On the other hand…with David’s rise to power and the establishment of Jerusalem as the capitol, he had taken on the trappings of royalty, becoming greater and greater as it said at the end of last week’s reading, with multiple wives and concubines, a larger, more powerful army and an increased bureaucracy. None of this was part of the tradition of the people of Israel which would have been upsetting to those wanting to defend and preserve the tradition and for good reason there always are such people; tradition ought not be trifled with.

Knowing that maybe he was straying from the way of the Lord, was David bringing back the Ark of the Covenant in an effort to legitimize his regime, making use of the symbol that most exemplified the tradition of Israel? Is this really an act of devotion on his part or is he mostly trying to calm down those defenders of the tradition? By moving the ark to Jerusalem, the city would become not just the political center of Israel but also the religious center so those wanting to honor the tradition represented by the ark would have to come to Jerusalem to do so. Is this David being a good shepherd or is this David manipulating things, including religious symbols, in order to consolidate his power? Is this an act of faith and trust in the Lord, or is David mostly being self serving in what he does?

The text is ambiguous, probably intentionally so, leaving room for both on the one hand and on the other hand. Most likely there is a degree of legitimacy to both readings, that to some extent the faith of David is present in what he does, but also that there is a degree of self serving political manipulation of the situation.

I found myself thinking about Martin Luther as I worked with this text this week. I’ve mentioned before that Reformation 500 inspired me to read more Luther than I had in quite awhile and that continues here in Reformation 501, especially with the pace of the summer being a little slower thus giving me more time to read. This David text though, can be seen as an intersection of religion and politics and you can’t read or study Luther without acknowledging that he was dealing with the same intersection.

In particular, what I was thinking about was the Augsburg Confession probably because I’ve been using it for devotions at the three church council meetings I have to attend every month these days and because there was a nice article about it in last month’s Living Lutheran, written by Kurt Hendel who was here last year so a little Reformation history for you.

The Augsburg Confession is sometimes called the Lutheran Magna Carta as it was and continues to be a summary of what Lutherans say they believe. According to Kurt Hendel, it is generally viewed as the most important and influential confessional document, with the possible exception of the Small Catechism. Now if you were confirmed Lutheran, it’s safe to say that you’re at least loosely familiar with the Small Catechism but perhaps not so familiar with the Augsburg Confession.

What’s interesting though, is when Emperor Charles V convened what was called the Diet of Augsburg in 1530, the intent was to stop the spread of the Lutheran movement. A diet was a forum where two sides could negotiate but there was no real intent to negotiate on the side of the Emperor, a strong defender of the Catholic Church. His intent was to end this thing once and for all.

Having been declared a heretic by the church and an outlaw by the emperor, Luther himself was unable to attend the diet without risk of being arrested, so the heavy work in formulating and presenting the Augsburg Confession was done by Philipp Melanchthon, Luther’s most influential colleague. In a way though, what Melanchthon did was to take a page out of David’s book.

Melanchthon knew that it wasn’t likely that the reformers would be accepted by the Catholic Church no matter what he wrote or said; there was too much bad blood between Luther and the Catholic leadership. Some of the secular authorities however might continue to support the Lutherans if, while calling for reform, the reformers could demonstrate conclusively that they were being faithful to the tradition and they firmly believed that they were. Without political support, the Reformation would have been doomed from the beginning and Luther and Melanchthon and others had to know that, so there was always a political component to the Reformation. The Reformation was about religious truth, but it was never just about religious truth.

Unlike at the time of David, in Christian tradition, there was no physical symbol as strong as the Ark of the Covenant. What Christianity did have though, were written symbols, things like the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed and other doctrinal statements from the early church, statements that represented accepted Christian belief. From those creeds and statements, Melanchthon crafted a masterfully written, carefully reasoned confession of faith.

The fact that we’re gathered here this morning in a Lutheran church is an indication that the Lutheran side was successful or at least successful enough at the Diet of Augsburg. The Augsburg Confession was attacked by the Catholic forces of Rome, but enough dukes and princes signed on to ensure that the reforming church would continue to be protected in the areas that they ruled. For better or for worse, the Lutheran movement would not end once and for all but would continue to spread.

As was the case with David and the Ark of the Covenant though, one can ask to what degree were the motives of the reformers religious and to what degree were they political? As was the case with David, both sets of motives were probably at work. Depending on your perspective then, David could be viewed as either a saint or a sinner, the reformers could be viewed as either saints or sinners all of which is a reminder of one of Luther’s greatest insights, that we are, all of us, simultaneously saints and sinners. For any of us, our motives in whatever we do, are probably never entirely pure.

Recognizing that, what do we do? We go back to verses like those in today’s Ephesians reading that remind us that despite our less than pure motives we are still destined for adoption as God’s children. We’re reminded that when we are more sinner than saint we have redemption through the blood of Christ; we’re reminded that we have the forgiveness of our trespasses according to the riches of his grace. Somehow it always comes back to grace doesn’t it, and we’re reminded that we are the church that shares a living, daring confidence in God’s grace.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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