The Dance

by David Baer, October 25, 2015

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Text: 2 Samuel 5:1-5,6:1-5

Bodies matter. The physical stuff that makes up you and me matters. I once had a pastor who used to say, “We believe in the resurrection of the body, not the immortality of the soul.” And it’s true. When we say the words of the creed, we don’t talk about souls at all, but bodies being raised by God to live again. Jesus came in the body to live with us, in our world. He touched and healed and fed our bodies. He suffered in his body. He died in his body. And he was raised in his body. Sometimes when we come to church there’s a lot of emphasis on words—the words we read in the scripture, the words we sing, the words we pray. But we also celebrate two sacraments that point to caring for the body—washing the body in Baptism, and feeding the body in Communion. Our bodies matter. And what we do with them matters. The Second Commandment tell us we shouldn’t make images of God out of wood or stone, but why would we need to? Human beings are made in the image of God, and what this means is that we have sacred images all around us always, sacred images of God we can either disrespect and desecrate, or else honor and cherish. So bodies matter, very much.

Today we heard a story about a king who worshiped God with his body. He danced. It was a wild, joyful dance, and a risky, dangerous one too. It was a dance that ruined a marriage, a dance whose participants didn’t all survive. What moved David to forget himself and be so caught up in such powerful ecstatic worship? What moved the king to dance?

We meet David in today’s reading at the end of a long and painful civil war. Much like the American Civil War, this was a battle between north and south, as tribes loyal to Ishbosheth, the son of the old king, Saul, fought with those loyal to David, a shepherd boy-turned-military hero. Finally, after many years of bloodshed, Ishbosheth is dead. The elders of the northern tribes have lost their leader. They come to David and plead with him to make peace with them and become their king. “We are your bone and flesh,” they say. You might remember those words from earlier this fall—they were the words the first man spoke about the first woman, formed from his rib. We are meant to be united, they tell David. We’re supposed to be one family. We believe God wants you to be the shepherd of God’s people.

They anoint him as their king—and the word “anoint” in Hebrew, mashach, is a very important one. It’s from this that we get the word “messiah.” David is literally the Messiah, the one anointed as God’s chosen ruler, and later, when people want to talk about Jesus as a king, they often call him “Son of David.” David is not Jesus. He’s not without sin, for sure! But when the Israelites, and later the Jewish people, look back on their history, when they think about what a king ought to be, they look to David, the shepherd. Shepherd is what the leaders who come to David call him. Shepherd, not master. The shepherd-king not only rules the people—he loves them, protects them, draws them together, provides for their needs. We see that happening here, in this story. David has the power to impose his will on his defeated enemies, but instead, we read, he “made a covenant with them.” He made promises to protect and defend them. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, Jesus says. In other words, the shepherd puts his own body on the line to protect the sheep.

That’s how David got to be king over all Israel. But how did he come to dance so outrageously and dangerously?

As the king of two newly united factions that had been at war with each other, David needed a new capital city, some place that didn’t belong to either side. He gathered his army and conquered the city of Jerusalem and constructed a royal palace there. But what was going to be special about Jerusalem wasn’t just that the king lived there. David had something greater in mind.

The ark of God, the special ceremonial box that held the stone tablets of the law, had been neglected. For years it sat in someone’s home on the frontier, at the edge of the kingdom. Now David wanted to bring the ark to Jerusalem. Think about the symbolism of this. He’s establishing himself as king, and what does he do? He takes God’s word, God’s teaching, and the ceremonial symbol of God’s presence, and he brings it to the capital. He puts it at the center of his new kingdom.

Now, David didn’t get to be king without learning how to play the game of politics. It’s possible to look at this parade with the ark as a propaganda stunt. David is recovering a symbol of the shared history of all of God’s people right at the moment he wants them to come together. He knows what he’s doing. But that doesn’t explain the dance.

David’s procession with the ark is no stately, dignified march. For whatever reason, the oxcart the ark is traveling on gets jostled, and the ark slips. Maybe it had something to do with the dancing. Uzzah, the man walking behind the ark, lifts his hand to steady it, and when he makes contact with that sacred artifact, God strikes him dead, since only priests were supposed to handle the ark. There’s no easy way to translate or explain this in a way that is going to make sense to modern folk like us. It’s enough to say that holiness is dangerous, and you come close to sacred things at your own peril. But it’s because of exactly this sort of danger that you wouldn’t want to dance near the ark. If you got near it at all, you’d want to march, very carefully choosing every step, not leap and flail around in the presence of a deadly sacred vessel whose slightest touch might kill you! The holiness of the ark doesn’t explain David’s dance.

And it was a wild, careless dance David danced. Michal, one of his wives, saw him leaping and dancing from the palace window, and it looked to her like he had had one too many drinks and was making a half-naked spectacle of himself in front of the common people. She lost all respect for her husband, criticized him to his face, and for his part, David told her exactly where she could go. She never had any children, is all the Bible tells us. I think we can read into that that their marriage, for all practical purposes, was over. David dances wildly, with abandon. He dances for the Lord, he says, and in order to honor God he is willing to look ridiculous, to utterly forget himself in praise. This is an uncalculating, heedless act that costs David a marriage, that puts his royal dignity and even his life at risk.

The only explanation I can see is that the dance comes from David’s deep, joyous love for God. David loves a God who made and kept promises to him, who walked with him as he fought dangerous enemies and lived as a fugitive, who blessed him beyond his wildest imagining. Now he’s honoring that same God by bringing the ark to his new capital. Is this good politics? Yes. But in the dance–the dance!—we see that it’s so much more. The dance is a gratuitous excess. From an objective point of view, it’s totally unnecessary. It doesn’t do one whit to accomplish David’s political objectives. And yet David steadfastly, resolutely insists on dancing.

One of the questions the teacher used to ask us in my high school church school class was, “If you were put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” I’m not sure that’s a question I’d want to put to my own kids. If that’s how you frame Christian identity, it’s all too easy to think it’s about, for example, wearing a really big cross, shouting Bible verses through a megaphone, doing something, anything, to let people know that you’re a real, true Christian. Actually doing what Jesus commanded—loving God wholeheartedly, and loving our neighbor as ourselves—probably isn’t going to be loud or ostentatious. It’s not going to prove your real, true Christianity beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law. But maybe it’s possible to love God and your neighbor with such abandon, such self-forgetfulness, such a lack of concern for your own dignity or safety, that you find yourself in a kind of David’s dance.

Corrie ten Boom knew how to dance. Living in the Netherlands during the Second World War, her family hid Jews in their home. The Netherlands was a majority Christian country, and any number of other Christian families could have done what they did for their Jewish neighbors, but we remember the Ten Booms because they were the exception, rather than the rule. Plenty of other Christians in the Netherlands kept their heads down and endured the Nazi occupation of their country, and no one faulted them for it. The Ten Booms were imprisoned for their trouble, and one of Corrie’s sisters died in a concentration camp. So far as their standing in the community goes, it was totally unnecessary for them to do what they did. Now, they weren’t in the business of manufacturing evidence to get themselves convicted of being Christian. Secrecy was absolutely central to this particular way of loving their Jewish neighbors. If they could have made it through the war without anyone being the wiser, they would have chosen that. But the wild, risky dance they undertook out of love for God and neighbor meant that all but one of the Jews they hid survived the Holocaust.

What moves you to dance? What moves you out of the realm of the reasonable and rational to a risky, self-forgetful state? Have you ever been called to dance before God?

I said earlier that David was, for the Jewish people, the quintessential Messiah. And Christians too later came to see what Jesus did as a continuation and perfection of what God was beginning to do through David. David danced, but so did Jesus. We read today from the story of Palm Sunday, another wild, risky dance of a Messiah up into the heart of Jerusalem. Jesus didn’t have to come to Jerusalem. He didn’t have to come to the cross. He danced with wild abandon out of love for God and for us. He danced through death itself and out the other side. If we’re able to dance, if we’re able to set ourselves aside, it’s because he loves us so recklessly, so passionately, so completely. Dance, then, wherever you may be, says the Lord of the dance. You are loved from hurt into healing, from guilt into new beginnings, from death into life. My dance has made you whole. Come, dance with me. Dance for love, for God, for your neighbor. Make a fool of yourself. Dance dangerously. But dance with beauty and passion, the way I dance for you. Come and dance, says the Lord. Amen.