David has been called a man after God’s own heart. However else that shows up in his life, it most certainly shows in his devotion, as we see in our first lesson for this Lord’s Day. David has fought his decisive battles. God has given him rest from all his enemies. The boundary lines have fallen for him in pleasant places. Now that he is at rest, now that he has the throne that God has given him, he wants to celebrate.
This is a normal, healthy human impulse, especially after a victory or a personal triumph. Last month I noticed signs in yards announcing graduation parties. The completion of a degree after a long, patient struggle is the occasion for celebration. Parents then appropriately have an open house, to which they invite the family members and friends of their graduate.
But David is a man after God’s own heart. Therefore this cannot be a celebration held in his honor. Or rather, it can be held in his honor only insofar as it is held in honor of his God, who has given him the victory.
Parenthetically, should we not also see our worship as an occasion to give honor to God for the victories he has given us? Can we recall a long, patient struggle through which God has brought us? In retrospect, we can see how God moved in our lives, and in those around us, to bring us to the other side. He deserves our thanks and praise for giving us the victory. Worship is the occasion to celebrate the victories that God gives us.
To make it clear that God and not David is the theme of the celebration, the ark of God has to be retrieved. David sent out thirty thousand of his best men to bring up from the house of Abinadab the ark of God. Its new location is to be Jerusalem. As one Bible student puts it: “When David brings the ark to Jerusalem, he literally brings God into the center of his kingship.”
Before we continue, we need to give a brief refresher on what is meant by the ark of God. The ark is a gold-covered wooden chest that contained the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, Aaron’s staff, and a jar of manna. On the top of the lid stood two cherubim, angels of splendor, facing each another. With their wings outstretched, they shielded the cover, which is called the mercy seat. The ark became the focal point of Israel’s worship, the site of God’s presence, and the pledge of the people’s devotion.
Given its significance, it’s not hard to understand the behavior of the people. For this special occasion, they bring out the finest musicians, skilled in all the instruments used at the time. The musicians play vigorously, and the people rejoice with singing and dancing before the ark of God.
We have already mentioned that worship ought to be the occasion for giving thanks to God for the victories he has given us. If that is the case, then that ought to be reflected in our mood, our emotional state, our frame of mind. This is not to suggest that we should be shouting and dancing in the aisles. But the joy of our celebration can and should be expressed in our liturgy–how we sing the hymns, how we recite the responses, how we move. Worship is the occasion to express our joy.
What’s remarkable here is that David is right there with them, dancing before the Lord with all his might. David is king, but he is not above the people. He’s not ashamed to be among them, even to dance and celebrate with them.
This would have been most unusual in the ancient near East, where the king would have been revered as a god. He would not have admitted the common people into his presence, let alone dance with them. No doubt this explains in part the negative reaction of Michal, the daughter of Saul, to the spectacle she witnesses from her window. She despised David in her heart when she sees him leaping and dancing before the Lord. To her that kind of behavior does not befit a king. It’s not in keeping with the dignity of the royal office. Dancing before his servants, David is behaving as any vulgar fellow would, at least in her mind.
But here David the king is a picture, a foreshadowing, of David’s greater Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, who occupies the throne of his father David forever. Even though he is king of kings and lord of lords, Jesus is not ashamed to associate with us, to call us his brothers and sisters. That is why Scripture says of him: “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise” (Heb. 2:12). Jesus is here among us. He perfects our praise of God. We need never worry that our worship is somehow deficient. In him our worship is acceptable before God.
Let us now shift scenes. In our gospel lesson for today, there’s also dancing. Only it’s a very different kind of dancing. It is not a liturgical dancing before the Lord. It is not a celebration of the which the occasion is to honor the Lord for the victories he has given. It is the erotic dancing of a stripper before the lustful eyes of a king on the occasion of his birthday. It is an exclusive event, to which only the elite have been invited.
Mark chooses to tell us this rather lurid story to give us an account of the death of John the Baptist. Of course, we know John as a great prophet. During Advent we meet him as a voice crying in the wilderness, as one appointed to prepare the way of the Lord. We remember that his special role was to be forerunner of Jesus, the one of whom all the prophets testify.
As a prophet, John spoke truth to power. He had no fear of the great and powerful and confronted them when they were out of line, including King Herod, ruler of Galilee. Herod had taken his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias, and married her while she was still married to Philip. John had the temerity to call the couple out on their illicit union, condemning it as adultery. This enraged Herodias, who sought an opportunity to put John to death. Strangely enough, Herod sought to protect John from the fury of Herodias, a Jezebel-like figure, and placed him in custody.
But now an opportunity presents itself. Inflamed by lust as well as the wine that flowed in his veins, Herod is captivated by the dancing girl. He vows to give her anything she asks, even up to half his kingdom. The girl consults with Herodias. What should she ask of him? Herodias tells her to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. How do we make sense of Herod’s response?
Herod craves adulation. He seeks validation, which we recognize as a core need in people. But we also recognize that people who are dominated by this need are weak in character. They are people-pleasers. Thus they can easily be manipulated. Consider: King Herod is ruler over Galilee; there is none greater except his Roman superiors to whom he is subject. And yet a young girl manipulates him into doing her bidding. Herod reveals himself here to be not only a people-pleaser, but also a simp. He realizes immediately hers to be an outrageous request. He immediately regrets his rash vow. But he does not have the character to confess before his dinner guests his wrong. That would be too humiliating. He is the king after all. As king, he has the authority to make decrees that cannot be revoked. If he goes back on those, how would that look to the high officials and military commanders and leading men of Galilee? The last thing that Herod wants is to look bad in their eyes.
The gospel lesson portrays for us the snowball-effect of sin—a common biblical theme—from adultery through debauchery to murder. Herod had no malice toward his victim, yet his cowardice and desperation to protect his own image led him to the shedding of innocent blood. John the Baptist is the sacrificial victim offered to restore the honor of a failed man before his dinner guests.
Each character in this macabre celebration is complicit in the evil: the scheming Herodias; her lascivious daughter, the executioner, even Herod’s drunken guests, who raised no protest against the death of the innocent. It is a celebration that leads to death.
The first celebration leads to a very different outcome. David did not sacrifice an innocent fellow Israelite to restore his honor; on the contrary, he sacrificed his own honor in the eyes of his fellow Israelites to show his devotion to the true God. Subsequently, all that David does in this celebration is oriented around the worshiping and serving of Israel’s God.
In this connection, note that he establishes the ark in its tent in the holy city, thus anticipating the installation of the ark in the temple by his son Solomon. Next, he offers up burnt offerings and offerings of well-being, anticipating the institution of daily sacrifices made in the temple. Then, he blesses the people in the name of the Lord of hosts. Finally, David performs an act of a righteous king, feeding the whole multitude of Israel, both men and women, to each a cake of bread, a portion of meat, and a cake of raisins. It is a celebration that leads not to death, but to life.
Thus we have our tale of two celebrations. We might also call it the tale of two dances. Reflecting on the image of dance, Bishop Robert Barron remarks that sin is nothing but falling out of step with God, an insistence on dancing to one’s own tune. He adds that salvation history might be characterized as God’s attempt to restore us to the sacred dance, to get his human creatures to move with him, and not against him.
This is the entire purpose of the church’s liturgy, to restore human beings to right order, right praise, which leads to a harmony of self within, with God and with others. In the Bible this is the very essence of human flourishing.
That is why God is always against idolatry in the Bible. It is not because he is a petty deity jealous for his own praise. It is because he knows that proper devotion to him is tantamount to human flourishing.
All of life—marriage, family, community, nation and cosmos—all of these find their proper place and order when they are properly grounded in the praise of God. When worship is given to God above all things, then peace prevails among us. Human flourishing flows from right praise. But when people abandon the worship of God, then marriages, families, communities, and nations disintegrate. There is no peace but only turmoil. This is what we see everywhere around us today. We may diagnose the many problems in our world, but at their root is defection from the worship of God.
We are about to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. It is a celebration. Church tradition has always seen it as the central act of Christian worship. In celebrating the Lord’s Supper, we express our devotion to the God who has reconciled us to himself and to one another through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. In faith in him, David’s greater Son, there is joy and peace and true freedom. He is the liturgical leader of his gathered people. Through him our praise to God rings out. He is the righteous king who feeds his people. Every time we unite around his table, feasting on the abundance of his house, we portray the image of his kingdom, where there will be true human flourishing. Amen.