"PUTTING THE OLD ARK ON A NEW CART"
Sermon Preached by
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
On Sunday, September 12, 1999
at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church
TEXT: II Samuel 5:22-6:5
One more text for us to consider: a small one from John's gospel and a most powerful one. It is when Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene after the empty tomb. You'll see the connection with the passage from II Samuel a little later. Mary stood crying outside the tomb; she was still weeping when she stooped down and saw two angels inside, dressed in white and were sitting where Jesus' body had been. One was at the head and one at the foot. The angels asked Mary, “Why are you crying?” She answered, “They have taken away my Lord's body. I don't know where they have put him.” As soon as Mary had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know who he was. Jesus asked her, “Why are you crying? Whom do you seek?” She thought he was the gardener and said, “Sir, if you have taken his body away, please tell me so I can go and get him.” Then Jesus said to her, “Mary!”
The noted medieval and African historian T.R.H. Davenport was asked by a student to try and define what history and the study of history really is. Davenport thought about it and he said, “I suppose history is a study of the relationship between the old and the new. More especially, it's really about how the new corrects the old, and how the old can also inform the new.” You see, history and the study of it, is a dynamic thing. It is about change and the ever-present nature of change. It is about how the things that have been done in the past inform how we do things in the here and now, but also how we do things in the here and now effects things that have happened in the past and how we move on to the future. That is why I believe that the study of history is one of the most wonderful gifts that anyone can be given, because it really is a study of change.
The great Edmund Spencer wrote of this: “What man has seen the ever whirling wheel of change, the which all mortal life doth sway.” Change does affect every part of our lives. Nothing remains still; very little remains constant. Change is one of the most powerful things in our lives. I think as we gather at this moment in the Church's life, on this the final September of the millennium, the idea and concept of change is very much on our minds, just as it is on the minds of others in society. I think one of the great questions is: How, we as human beings, deal with the changes that take place in the world and our lives. How we relate the old to the new. How we relate the new to the old.
This was brought home to me over the past few weeks when I've had the privilege to travel a great deal throughout the eastern part of this great continent of North America and I've been in the Maritimes and have driven as far south as South Carolina and it has been a great eye-opening experience for me, particularly one moment when I revisited a town where I had stayed for awhile some twenty-five years ago. At that time my father was on a pulpit exchange with a church in North Carolina, so I had gone with my parents and spent some time in a delightful town just north of Charlotte. I was eager after twenty-five years to go back. You know how nostalgic you get about such things. As I was driving around down the Interstate with Marial who had never been to that place, I was getting so excited about showing her the beautiful southern town in which I had stayed. We pulled off the highway and I was absolutely shocked by what I saw. Where there had previously been D.J.'s gorgeous Chicken House that served the best pancakes in the South (or so they bragged) now there was a Wendy's . Where there had been a most delightful fish restaurant that even served grits that I could actually eat, there was a Macdonald's. In a beautiful park that used to have gorgeous pagodas and oleander and was one of those steamy southern parks that always seemed moist, now there was a parking lot for a building company. Even when I went into the town continually promising Marial that we would see something beautiful, we saw one big building that looked like every other building, even I felt disappointed to some extent. I know going back somewhere is a little nostalgic. You see things with rose-tinted spectacles, but even so, some of the southern gentility had worn off a little. It was fast -paced and flashing lights. I could have been in Detroit or Toronto or Vancouver.
I couldn't help but think…..twenty-five years is nothing! The rapidity of change! I just feel that if I could have said to this town: Please, before you build these things, think for a moment what you're doing. When I returned to England back in May, I often felt the same way, while driving along the road and seeing Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken. It just seems we are beset with what I call the ubiquitous problem of sameness.
You go to a shopping mall and look for a new store and it's the same twenty different outlets, you're just on another continent and paying in another currency! The nature of the world we're living in is the imposition of the sameness. We are living in a time of enormous change. Some of this, I know, is for the better. There are things I saw in Carolina that pleased me no end. We went to a real restaurant and there sitting beside me was an African-American black couple. Twenty-five years ago they might have been able to go there by law, but I never used to see them in this restaurant. So there has been some progress and wonderful changes. Not every change is bad, but things are changing and they're changing rapidly. Sometimes until you go back and see, you don't know how quickly things are changing.
Things are changing in the way we communicate with each other. Never in my wildest dreams, would I have believed it, if you told me fifteen years ago that you would punch in my extension number in a church, to get my voice mail! Never would I have imagined that I would write out sermon outlines and be testing them on Jean and John on e-mail, to see what they thought of them and they would send things back. Never would I have dreamt that we would communicate in such a way, or that I would be driving down the 401 in my car talking to a funeral home about the death of somebody we care about. It's amazing!
Even the workplace is changing. Whereas people many years ago would have a job for thirty years, now in the same period of time, they might have six jobs for five years each. Such is the rapidity of change. This was illustrated humorously in something that I saw in a Law journal that came for Marial. (I hope lawyers and plumbers will forgive me for this!) It was the story of a woman lawyer who had come home from work and found her bathroom was flooded. She had had a busy day and didn't know what to do about it and felt bewildered. She called the first plumber she saw in the book and he came and said, “Oh this is nothing. A few little widgets and gadgets and this will be done with no problems at all.” He was there for about an hour and fixed it. The next day she got the bill. The lawyer looked at the bill and phoned the plumber and said, “Excuse me but I have this bill that is enormous!” He said, “Yes, well, I'm sorry but that's our rate.” She said, “In all my years as a lawyer, I've never given a bill like this for one hour!” He said, “Oh I know what you mean. When I was practising law I didn't either!”
That's the nature of change. People are taking different jobs, doing different things. Society is rapidly moving. A lot of people are feeling a little ill at ease with it. Some are hiding behind a religion that is so frightened of change that they just want someone to end the world right now. When I was in the United States I would turn on the television at times when I normally don't get the chance to and it was frightening! There were people talking about the doom and end of the world and the coming presence of God and make sure you stock your pantries and fill your bathtubs, telling you to get ready because it's all coming to an end. They were talking about this with such joy! I was thinking that I won't even have my car payments made! Who's going to take that bill?
Now I don't know when the world comes to an end; that is God's business. That is in the counsel of the Almighty. But what I think we Christians need to address is how we live in the here and now with the changes that are taking place. What things do we hold dear that are old; what things that are new should we embrace that take us into the new millennium? Timothy Eaton, right now at this time in our history is wonderfully poised to have that discussion and I want to start if off today with a look at the Scriptures.
There is a wonderful moment in the life of the people of Israel when they too were struggling with change. As a people, they were continually on the move. They were a people who were migrants; they were nomads with no home most of the time. When they did get a home they had to then ask themselves what things they would bring into the home and what things they would leave behind? The moment that we read from the Book of II Samuel, we see one such moment. It is when David has defeated the Philistines and he realises now, that before him comes the opportunity to rebuild the great city of Jerusalem. So in coming into Jerusalem, he knows there is one thing above all else that he must bring into this great city and that is the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark of the Covenant over the last few years, with Indiana Jones and other things, has taken on considerable importance in the life of our culture, but often we don't realise what the Ark of the Covenant is all about.
If you read the Book of Deuteronomy there is a description of this Ark. In fact it is only one and a half meters by one meter by one meter. It is not a big thing. It has four gold rings on the bottom through which rods are placed in order that people can carry it. Inside it are three items: the Tablets of the Law, the Rod or Aaron and the Manna that had sustained the people of Israel in the wilderness. On top of it there is gold and the Mercy Seat. This Ark of the Covenant would continually go with the people of Israel. In the key moments of their lives, the Ark of the Covenant was there. In the crossing of the Jordan the Ark of the Covenant, in the walking around the Walls of Jericho, the Ark of the Covenant, in the celebration at Mount Ebal, the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark of the Covenant went with them to Gilgal, to Bethel, and to Shiloh . It was stolen from them in Ebenezer by the Philistines, but when bad things happened to the Philistines because they had the Ark of the Covenant, they handed it back to the people of Israel saying, “You keep it! It's too much for us to handle.” From that moment on, the Ark took on a very special role. It wasn't that the people of Israel worshipped it, although there was always that little bit of danger with idolatry, but that the Ark of the Covenant reminded people that where it was, the people must worship their God. So David was looking at the city of Jerusalem, the holy city, the place where he wanted to be, the centre of ecclesiastical, legal and spiritual life of his nation. He knew that they had to take this Ark of the Covenant into that city. We read, and they took the Ark of the Covenant and put it on a new cart.
There are profound lessons for any people of God from this moment from II Samuel. The first is the importance of the old sanctities. David brought the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem for two principal reasons: First, to remind the people that they would have in this city, something that would continually remind them of the presence of God. When all else changes, when his reign would end, when judges and prophets would come and go, still there was this living reminder, this present reminder of the presence of God first and foremost in the centre of Jerusalem.
Secondly it was to remind the people that God is an ethical god. That God has a law and purpose and will for the nation. The Ark of the Covenant is a reminder for everyone that here lies God, God the ethical and holy God, and that the people of Israel must be obedient. You see, it was for the people that David brought the Ark of the Covenant into the city. It was a reminder to them to be loyal no matter what might happen. It was a call to them to remain holy no matter what temptations might come their way. So he brought the Ark of the Covenant as a reminder of their old sanctities, of their history, of the great things that God had done for Israel. The Ark stood there to let the people know that God is in the midst of you; don't you ever forget it.
It also speaks about the very nature of God. There's a sense in which God is timeless in the midst of all the changing times. This is not a Greek imposition on the biblical idea; on the contrary. The people of Israel were constantly reminded that although they understood God differently at different times in their lives and for different reasons, sometimes for good and sometimes for ill, that God remained constant. That God's forgiveness, love and covenant with his people would never be broken, never change no matter what might happen. That is why the writer of Ecclesiastes says that God will not change one way or another from what he deigns to do. That is the nature of God. His purposes don't change. God's nature and character don't change. God's love and holiness don't change. The Ark of the Covenant was a reminder.
How important that is for us. How many changes come upon our lives? How many things over which we have no control beset us? We don't know what tomorrow will bring, never mind the next millennium! There are so many people who are struggling with changes in their lives, changes in relationships, changes in their health, changes in society and workplaces and marriages and family. They say: How can I go on in the midst of these changes? How do we deal with this? Herein lies the constancy of God. Here the Ark is a reminder that there is something solid, a foundation on which to build, a rock of our salvation and that that rock will never be moved.
There is also secondly something else: you will notice they put the Ark of the Covenant on a new cart. Whenever Israel moved somewhere they made sure they had a new cart on which to move it. Why they did this I don't know. Whether the oxen got a little unruly and kicked the living daylights out of the cart or whether it got stolen or whether the wheels went from round to square, we don't know, but they always had to put the Ark of the Covenant on a new cart to get it where it was going.
In many ways even with our faith in God who is the rock, there is at times a time for some new things. New ways of being able to talk about our God, new ways of being able to reach the world with the grace and the love of our God. After all, the Christian faith is always about something new. It's always about a new covenant in the blood of Christ and I think one of the moments that symbolises the relationship between the old and the new is actually the empty tomb. If you look at the passage from II Samuel you see that on the side of the Ark of the Covenant there are two angels, two cherubim. If you listen carefully to the text from John's gospel when Mary goes to the empty tomb there are what?, two angels, two cherubim standing outside. They are living reminders of the presence and the power of God. What happened at the empty tomb is not the work of another God but of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and Sarah and the God of our Lord Jesus Christ risen from the dead. Something new happened in that tomb. There was a new form to what was going on. The same substance, the same God liveth and liveth forever. It was a reminder of the eternal power and grace and triumph of God. But it was also something new.
So we shouldn't be frightened of things that are new. We shouldn't be frightened by changes that take place in the world and in life. On the contrary. There is a need in this society and this world to hear from Christians about their concern for the new issues that might face them in the world in which we live. I am particularly concerned for young people in this continent. When one of the things that I have seen over the last few weeks in cities like Halifax and Charlotte and in Raleigh and Toronto and elsewhere are young people just aimlessly walking about. I know they are on vacation and I know they are not at school, but many of them are homeless and have found that the rock of their family was not solid enough and they had to go elsewhere. Young people just walking the streets at night, late at night and into the early morning. I'm thinking that we have a generation of young people who are searching, who are uncertain, who don't know what the rock of life should be and don't know on what they can trust and have peace. I think one of the great burdens of our church is to continue to reach this generation and young people with the message of the God of the Ark of the Covenant and we might have to sometimes put it on new carts to get it there. But it's the same God, the same message of hope.
There is also one final lesson in all of this. The people of Israel put the old Ark on a new cart but you will notice they did not change the Ark. There is sometimes the temptation when you change the cart you will change the Ark also and there are real dangers of that. There are the dangers of thinking that the form is more important that the substance and may that never be! The substance of our faith is that God is at the centre. The Ark of the Covenant, in being brought into Jerusalem, was a reminder of that very thing. The tomb, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is our constant reminder of the living presence of God in the centre of our lives. I know that there are many people who have been critical of the form of the church. There are many who want to see great changes in the form ? some of which are timely, some of which I think are irrelevant. But the point is that it is the substance that must always be held on to. I think some of the criticisms of the church's form are valid. Some of society's concerns about what we've done are perfectly right. We're not perfect. We need not to be defensive. We don't need to be like one of my great heroes, Lord Soper He was an English Methodist minister who used to stand in Hyde Park on a soapbox and preach to passers-by. He had a deep social conscience, a deep love for people and was critical of business, government, and unions. It didn't matter; if the word of God spoke to him, Lord Soper had the courage to do it. One day he was getting a little testy and he would have hecklers around him as he spoke and one got to Lord Soper and finally drowned out the minister. He said to Lord S. “For two thousand years we have had the Christian faith and look at the state of the world!” Lord Soper paused for a moment and said, “Ah yes, my dear friend, and for two million years we have had water but look at the state of your neck!”
It's all a matter of application. It is not just a case of saying here is truth and here is life and here is the rock of our salvation, if we ourselves don't do something new with it. If we are not new creatures ourselves. One of the dangers is that if God is not at the centre, then all manner of things fill it. Life and Nature have no vacuums. People will elevate themselves and their own pride, or the worship of things and materialism, or power. This is what we're seeing in East Timor right now. Isn't this just dreadful? It should be a source of outrage for the whole world! It's been going on a long time ? people abusing power and imposing their will by force. What a contrast that is from the holy God, from the law that says: Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not covet. Thou shall honour thy mother and thy father. Thou shall have no other gods before me. That's what was in the Ark of the Covenant. That's what should be at the centre of the world. That is God's original purpose.
The great P.T. Forsythe, the Congregationalist preacher, who preached so passionately at the beginning of this century, once wrote If within us we find nothing over us we succumb to what is around us. May that wheel that keeps on changing, change in our lives, but always under the sovereignty of God. Amen