Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark was right – in places. That film, and today’s Old Testament reading agree: God isn’t magical – his power can’t be used at human will. And while his presence brings great blessing to those who worship him, it can also be very dangerous for those who lack humility.
The Ark of the Covenant was a wooden box. In it were the tablets of stone on which were written the 10 Commandments. The box itself was overlaid with gold. Between two carved statues on the lid was a special spot – the mercy seat. On this place, once a year, the High Priest would put the blood from a sacrifice. That was the only time anybody was supposed to go near the Ark, which was kept in the Holy of Holies, at the heart of the temple.
That was because for the Jews the Ark was a focus for the presence of God. It reminded them that the God they worshipped wanted to dwell with them. It taught them that he was also a holy God and that sinful people could not take his power or love for granted.
But sadly people forget what symbols mean, or imagine that they can manipulate God. The Israelites took the ark into battle, thinking that would make God win the battle for them. They lost, the ark was captured, and after many adventures David decided to bring it back to Jerusalem.
Which is where we join the story. Although it’s thousands of years old, and comes from a completely different culture, there’s much it can teach us about worship. Christians do not have an Ark, because Christ has fulfilled its meaning. He is God with us. God’s holiness is shown to us through Christ’s cross. That’s how God is both holy and with us – because Jesus deals with our sin there. Christian worship is very different, yet I think you’ll agree, the principles are remarkably similar.
Worship is essential. David wanted the ark back because it was used in worshipping God. And worship makes us complete: as St Augustine said: ‘You have made us for yourself O Lord, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.’ In worship we draw close to God, we drink deeply from the water of life, we’re fed with the bread of heaven.
What does worship do you for you? Does it fill you up? Set you up for the week? Put everything else in perspective? Take you out of yourself into the presence of God? Worship is a human instinct: we observe that if people don’t worship God they often worship other things.
But the worship of God is a great blessing. It can be individual – think of David the shepherd boy composing psalms on the hillside. And worship can be a whole community – as we see in v.5 where the house of Israel join in.
For many of us that’s when worship is at its best. When the whole community joins together in worshipping God for a particular reason. Remembrance Day, a baptism. Times like that have a really special feel to them.
So should our Sunday worship be more of an occasion? Should we be looking for other themes or special events? Songs of Praise, or Sea Sunday? Certainly if we want to include the wider community we do need to think about the words we use – what does Sung Eucharist mean to the average parent?
And we need to think about how church worship relates to a culture which is increasingly informal, and café in style. On the one hand people are quite consumerist – not many come to church out of duty these days. But on the other hand few are content just to watch a spectacle up front – they want to be engaged and involved. So we need to think about how our worship evolves.
Think about the best celebrations you’ve been part of… I bet they involve food. We couldn’t say goodbye to Phil without having puddings and wine. Religions have always understood the connection between food, community and worship. In v. 19 the day ends with David giving everyone bread meat and raisins. Whether it’s Harvest Supper, or mince pies and mulled wine after Carols, or good coffee, food and drink speak of hospitality and shared life.
At church the other week a child came in clutching a piece of toast. It’s a rush for families to get going in the morning. So we’re going to offer breakfast before the Family Service as part of our welcome.
It will be a nice breakfast too. Because everything we do in worship should be our best. God deserves nothing less. When we come together to worship the Lord of all creation, our Saviour and Friend, how could we offer something half-baked or indifferent? God deserves the best.
And of course, the more we put in, the more we get out. Singing is a great example. If you stand up, lift your head and sing out, you feel good. And it’s a virtuous circle, singing up encourages others to be confident too and creates a good feel in worship. Particularly if we’re sitting close enough to each other to create a bit of volume!
Offering our best also makes worship more appealing to visitors. Nowadays we all expect increasingly high standards in every area of life. We might wonder, what chance has the average parish church got? How can we keep up with society’s expectations?
For people can sink into the cushioned seat of their car, and adjust their desired temperature to ½ a degree. They can drive down the M4 listening to Kings College Choir singing Tallis while the children amuse themselves in the back seat with an iPad. You can stop at Cribbs Causeway, do your Sunday shopping and order a double macchiato with hazelnut syrup and chocolate flakes.
How can the church compete with that? Well actually we can. Home made cakes are better than any café. Building projects can improve our facilities. But there is one thing that society values even more than choice and quality. That is integrity.
Flash and technique count for nothing if there is no heart or atmosphere behind them. So many talented people have been brought down because they were not seen as genuine. And that is where the church can shine. In the warmth of our welcome, the reality of our community. In generosity which seeks no return. In an honest sermon and the engagement of the children. If what we offer in our music and our prayers is the best we can do, then that will speak of genuineness, and God rejoices in our best.
Our best also includes obedience. Remember that the Ark of the Covenant represented the presence of God? Because the Jews knew that God is holy and people are sinners, there were very clear rules about moving the ark. It could only be done by priests, carrying poles which were slid through loops attached to the ark. No-one could touch it.
So when we read verses 3-6 it all seems a bit slapdash. The Israelites load the Ark onto a cart. When the oxen stumble, one of the two men leading the oxen reaches out to steady it, and pays the ultimate penalty for their lack of reverence. David is angry at God, and fearful, and they decide to leave the ark in the nearest home.
Three months later it is clear that God longs to bless his people. So the Israelites return and this time they do it properly, with a sacrifice too. It’s a challenging story, and it’s included in our Bibles as a reminder that, although we do not worship in that way, and Christ fulfils the Old Testament, God is a holy God.
We could misunderstand this. We could be anxious to get everything right in worship, or imagine that it must be very solemn. We must remember that this account is from the Old Testament where worship was ritualised and laid down in law.
For us, Christ has fulfilled the temple law, so it is no longer needed. Our worship remembers him and how he reconciled us with God. He paid for our sins so that we can enter into God’s presence freely. If the ark were here, we could touch it, because of Jesus. This story does not tell us that our worship should be fearful, or sombre, but it does remind us of the price Jesus paid so that we could come to God.
Of course, Christians do have ways of organising their worship. We have a particular way of laying out the communion vessels, a pattern to our service. It’s good to have a way of doing things, otherwise we’d be starting from scratch each time. It’s good for that way to be shared with other churches, so if you’re somewhere new you know what’s going on. But we must always remember: these things are human traditions, they change and evolve. It doesn’t matter if we make a mistake. Stuffiness is not a virtue – reverence, beauty, joy and informality can thrive together. The worship of God is not a performance that we have to get right.
What we do need to try and get right is our obedience. Throughout the Old Testament and the New, God tells us there is no point in having wonderful worship if we’re not living his way. In Amos 6:23 ‘Away with the noise of your songs, let justice flow like rivers’. In Psalm 40:6 ‘Sacrifice and offering you have not desired, I delight to do your will O God.’
Worship must change our lives. When we draw close to God we become more like him. His love fills us. When we hear God’s word we are challenged to put it into practice. When we worship God we are inspired by his love. His Spirit fills us, and sends us out through that door. Worship changes lives to make a difference in the world.