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“The Danger of Casual Religion”

July 1, 2012 2Samuel 6:1-15


With summer’s soaring temperatures and holidays, there comes a strong temptation to slack off, to relax, to “chill out” and lean back with some tall cool beverage at hand. Yes, we do need holidays on occasion. But deep down we know that summer holidays ought to recharge us for attacking our work later with renewed enthusiasm.
    Similarly, in church life over the years there comes a temptation to take it easy, to slacken the pace, to adopt (shall we say) a more “casual” approach to faith. We may feel we’ve “done our bit” and it’s time for another generation to take up the baton and carry on. After you’ve been reading the Bible daily for a number of years, even the scripture stories may start to lose a bit of their freshness and “zing”. We may find ourselves paying less attention than we did at first. As 21st-century churches seek to become more “user-friendly” to our neighbours who have no church background, we abandon the formality of suits and ties and polished leather shoes reserved for Sunday; “casual” attire is now completely acceptable, we tell people “come as you are”. It’s not about what we look like on the outside anyway, is it?!
    But there’s a danger here – that with the ratcheting-down of dress requirements and a more relaxed attitude toward worship in general, we may risk coming to treat God with less respect, honour, and attention than He deserves. Jesus warned that a time in the future would come when, “Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold...” (Mt 24:12) In John’s vision of the Lord in the book of Revelation, Jesus told the church at Ephesus, “You have forsaken your first love.” And to the church at Laodicea He warned,  “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot.I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm— neither hot nor cold— I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” (Re 3:15f)
    So, summer is not a time to slack off in the spiritual department! We can become “casual” to the point of being cold and callous in our devotional life. In today’s reading we find even King David and the religious leaders at the “Golden Age” of Israel’s existence at times acted too cavalier or casually and met with a rebuke from God. He wants to bless us, but the path to that is through obedience and His mercy.


2Samuel 6 opens at the pinnacle of David’s career militarily. God has subdued David’s enemies: Saul who was trying to hunt him down is dead, and even the technologically-advanced Philistines are no longer a threat. David turns his mind to a pet project: he wants to bring the ark of the covenant to his new capital in Jerusalem. V1 tells us he brought together some 30,000 chosen troops to accompany him on this task. 1Chronicles 13 uses half a dozen verses to describe what a “big deal” David made of this: sending word “far and wide” throughout Israel’s territories, the whole assembly agreeing together to do this “because it seemed right to all the people.”
    It had been about a hundred years since Eli’s sons had made the drastic mistake of treating the Ark like a good-luck charm, carrying it into battle against the Philistines. They’d captured it but found it brought plagues of rats and tumours, so had sent it back (1Sam 5-6). Now for decades it had been housed at Kiriath-Jearim, about 10 miles west of Jerusalem (MAP). Not a problem! David set about bringing it back with a big crowd (at least 30,000) and impressive ceremony. V5,  “David and the whole house of Israel were celebrating with all their might before the LORD, with songs and with harps, lyres, tambourines, sistrums and cymbals.” Crowd, commotion – and a cart. That was the one snag. It seems somebody hadn’t been doing their homework. V3, “They set the ark of God on a new cart...” Isn’t that the way the Philistines had sent it back?


It was a deadly oversight. V6, things proceeded along well enough until “the threshing floor of Nacon.” These were often on hilltops, exposed places the whole community could use for threshing, because the prevailing wind from the west would help blow away the chaff from the grain. But something about the terrain here caused the oxen to stumble. Uzzah, a son or maybe grandson of Abinadab whose house the ark had been staying at, reached out and put his hand on the ark to steady it. V7,  “The LORD’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down and he died there beside the ark of God.” Golly! That got everyone’s attention VERY quickly.
    The news this past week showed many people in Elliot Lake gathered to watch the rescue crews retrieve the missing from the wreckage of the mall whose roof caved in. It’s as if it stopped people in their tracks. An event so startling it makes you pause and wonder. So God brought an abrupt halt to the ceremony that was carting along the ark to its would-be home.
    Are you just going through the motions day after day, in a rut, a religiously-mindless routine? What’s it going to take for God to stop you in your tracks and get your attention before it’s too late?
    When Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s sons, burned unauthorized incense before the Lord, He flamed forth and burned them up with fire. At that time Moses recalled God had said, “Among those who approach me I will show myself holy; in the sight of all the people I will be honored.” Hebrews 12(29) reminds us, “Our God is a consuming fire.” Acts 5(5) tells of Ananias and Sapphira being struck dead in the New Testament for conspiring to lie against the Holy Spirit. God will not be messed with – He is justly jealous for His honour!
    There had been a chain of presumption, thoughtlessness, and irreverence that added up to disaster. The Ark was a very special symbol at the heart of Israel’s religious experience and understanding. It was basically a box containing a copy of the Ten Commandments God had given Moses for the nation at Mount Sinai. Overtop of this box - almost as a separate item, because it was pure gold whereas the box was just overlaid with gold - atop the box was the “Atonement Cover” where the High Priest once a year sprinkled blood from a sacrificial bull the community presented. This was the place God was “enthroned” in a spiritual sense. For Christians, the Ark of the Covenant is a picture of Jesus, spilling His blood as an atonement for us sinners, so we sinners might receive forgiveness and reconciliation with a Holy God.
    Matthew Henry notes, “Matthew 28:20.Christ is our Ark; in and by him God manifests his favor, and accepts our prayers and praises.The ark especially typified Christ and his mediation, in which the name of Jehovah and all his glories are displayed.” If you think about it from this side of the cross, the Ark is a beautiful picture of God’s Son’s blood being shed in our place, so the righteous demands of the law we’d failed to keep could be satisfied, and we be granted access by grace to God’s “Mercy Seat.”
    The Lord had given very special instructions about the Ark back in Exodus. It was a capital offence to touch it! Before transport, it was always to be covered with material by the priests. Then the Levites, in particular the Kohathites, were tasked with carrying it on their shoulders by means of two long poles. But with all the religious noise and regalia for this occasion, David and the priests in charge had not bothered to check into exactly how the Ark should be moved. They’d just loaded it onto a cart as the Philistines had done. The Israelites had His instruction – they should’ve known better! All they had to do was look it up.
    Do we have a careful attitude toward God’s teaching in Scripture – or do we hurry on our way through the day, not giving it much thought? Anyone with the most basic knowledge of Hebrew history could have explained how the Ark had been moved in the past; why didn’t someone speak up, so Uzzah’s life might have been spared? Do we have Jesus’ words written on our hearts to spare us grief from stumbling?
    V8 says,  “Then David was angry because the LORD’s wrath had broken out against Uzzah, and to this day that place is called Perez Uzzah.” (Meaning “outbreak against Uzzah”) David was angry – a man was dead, and he the king was at least partly to blame. V9 adds that David “was afraid of the Lord that day” – He stopped treating God’s things casually! NIV Study Bible comments, “David's anger was accompanied by fear--not the wholesome fear of proper honour and respect for the Lord (1Sa 12:24; Jos 24:14) but an anxiety arising from an acute sense of his own guilt.” The Holy Spirit was likely convicting David of his spiritual carelessness.


Well, that sort of brought proceedings to an abrupt halt. The ark has shuttled to a nearby house belonging to Obed-Edom. David and his 30,000-man escort adjourned to do some research on how things should have been done.
    But anger is just one of God’s emotions; His wrath is reserved to be targeted against sin and injustice. His fundamental nature is goodness, love, faithfulness, and mercy. Over the next three months, v11 tells us the Lord BLESSED Obed-Edom and his entire household. David and his officials must have taken it as a good sign when he was told, v12,  “The LORD has blessed the household of Obed-Edom and everything he has, because of the ark of God.” The Lord is a God of blessing, not blasting! Back when Joseph was a slave in the household of the Egyptian official Potiphar, Genesis 39(5) tells us, “From the time [Potiphar] put [Joseph] in charge of his household and of all that he owned, the LORD blessed the household of the Egyptian because of Joseph.The blessing of the LORD was on everything Potiphar had, both in the house and in the field.”
    This time, when David goes again to bring the ark up to Jerusalem, he goes with a right attitude; v12 says, “with rejoicing” - not just “celebrating” as in v5. Joy is different from making a big noise and commotion. Joy is rooted not in our circumstances but in God’s unconditional and unwavering love for us imperfect people. Joy recognizes this mercy is sheer gift from God, and sacrifices thankfully in response. V13,  “When those who were carrying the ark of the LORD had taken six steps, he sacrificed a bull and a fattened calf.” Notice they’re CARRYING it now – they’ve been careful to find out how God wants it done, not casually pushing ahead to suit themselves.
    1Chronicles 15(13f) shows David understood where they’d been wrong the first time they tried:  “‘It was because you, the Levites, did not bring it up the first time that the LORD our God broke out in anger against us.We did not inquire of him about how to do it in the prescribed way.’So the priests and Levites consecrated themselves in order to bring up the ark of the LORD, the God of Israel.” They made inquiry, they followed what the Lord prescribed, they consecrated or devoted themselves to doing it HIS way.
    Obedience to the Lord’s teaching brings blessing: not necessarily wealth and prosperity - those can be a source of temptation, a curse. God will reward those who seek Him (Heb 11:6). Jesus promised,  “And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward.” (Mt 10:42)
    Doing things God’s way freed David to dance “before the Lord with all his might” as v14 puts it. On track, God supplied energy to serve Him full-bore. Deuteronomy invites us to love the Lord our God with all our might. Paul urges the Colossians (3:23),  “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men...” Obedience frees us to put our whole self into pleasing a loving, rewarding God.


It’s Dominion Day today, so in closing it seems fitting to acknowledge a Canadian Christian whose repentant obedience played a significant role in the building up of our country. Don Chapman in Michael Clarke’s book Canada: Portraits of Faith tells of William Black, 1760-1834, “The Apostle of Methodism in Atlantic Canada.” Black was an itinerant preacher, pioneer evangelist, revivalist, apostle, bishop, and superintendent of a region that now includes Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island. Black travelled a vast and generally sparsely populated area by whatever means possible, in fair weather and foul, dependent for food and shelter upon the kindness of those with whom he came into contact. He preached the first Methodist sermon in PEI, and was also a Methodist pioneer in New Brunswick. Late in the summer of 1791, a one-month visit to Newfoundland established Methodism there; it would become a main religious influence on the island.
    But William Black had started out with a pretty ‘casual’ attitude toward spiritual matters. Born in Yorkshire, he’d immigrated with his parents in 1775 to near Amherst in Nova Scotia. His mother, who’d had some religious influence on him, died shortly after the family’s arrival. Looking back on his years as a teenager, William confessed to a rather idle lifestyle: “In the fall of 1776 some people came among us, and raised all the disaffected...It was our usual custom at this time to sit up whole nights at cards and dancing...We would run to watch the flash of the fire from the guns; and as soon as it was over, return again to waste our time in sin and vanity.”
    How’s that compare with today’s culture? Cards and dancing, sin and vanity...Today we’d call it gaming, amusement, entertainment; so CASUAL!
    But three years later, nearly 19 years old, Black experienced conversion – an awakening within the earnest atmosphere of a class meeting (like our ‘small groups’ today), an awakening to one’s sinful state and a need for forgiveness. A biographer notes that as John Newton [author of Amazing Grace] gave out a hymn and another prayed, “Young William, for some time under deep conviction of sin, found peace one night in the spring of 1779.”
    From cards, through conviction, to caring. Chapman writes that Black had a “self-effacing nature.His journal entries reveal that a key ingredient of his success was that he CARED DEEPLY about each person he met.He was a man of the people, and he drew energy from his ability to have a positive influence upon them.”
    God got his attention – and transformed his life from one of idleness to lasting impact. Chapman concludes, “William Black, the first Canadian Methodist evangelist, revered and remembered by tens of thousands as Bishop Black, left a legacy of faith and perseverance that echoes still in Atlantic Canada.” Let’s pray.