Raiders of the Lost Ark

(2 Samuel 6:1-19; Psalm 24) – J G White
11 am, Sun, July 15, 2018 – UBC Digby


How many Baptists does it take to change a light bulb?   “Change?!?  What’s that??”

This, really, is a sermon about change.  Though you might not guess that from the title.  Ever see the movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark?  It was a real fantasy blockbuster adventure, put together by Spielberg and Lucas; top grossing film of 1981.  The film tells the dramatic struggle between Nazi and American archaeologists, in the late 1930s, to find and possess The Lost Ark.

What is this lost Ark?  Well, we just read about it in the Old Testament, 2 Samuel 6.  But let’s hear how Indiana Jones explained it, in the film. Talking to some government agents, the archeologist says:
JONES: Yeah, the ark of the covenant, the chest the Hebrews used to carry around the Ten Commandments in.  
AGENT: What do ya mean the commandments, you’re talking about THE Ten Commandments?
JONES: Yes, the actual Ten Commandments, the original stone tablets that Moses brought down out of mout Hereb [Horeb] and smashed, if you believe in that sort of thing.  
Any of you guys go to Sunday School?…
Oh look… the Hebrews took the broken pieces and put em in the Ark. When they settled in Canaan, they put the Ark in a place called the Temple of Solomon, [in Jerusalem], where it stayed for many years, until, all of a sudden… whoosh, it was gone.
AGENT: Where?
JONES: Well nobody knows where, or when.

Raiders Clip

That’s a fairly accurate, brief description, coming from fictional film.  In fact, by the time of Jesus, very little is said or known of the Ark of the Covenant.  It is seldom mentioned in the New Testament.

You might well ask, what does this ancient piece of religious furniture have to do with me today?  It has been gone for almost three thousand years. What’s the point now? It can teach us about spiritual change in a community of faith.

The scene we read today has King David leading the way to bring the Ark into his new capital city, Jerusalem.  Famously, David dances with joyful abandon as it is paraded up to Zion. This is, in the history of Israel, a time of dramatic change.  Political change – they are firmly now in the age of having a monarchy; they are a united nation of tribes. This goes hand-in-hand with the religious changes going on. This city becomes the centre of their faith and worship, and this old Ark eventually moves to the centre of their holy space: their next king, Solomon, will build his Temple, and the Ark will be there.  

Looking back – way back – to these spiritual forefathers and mothers of ours, we may get influenced so we can handle changes in our lifetime better.  Can these ancient tales inspire and teach us? We are, after all, just looking at a piece of religious furniture. Yet we know so well how important things like this can be to us Christians.

We get very attached to our buildings.  Just a few of our fellowship remember the high, pointed steeple that once stood on our bell tower: how it was creaking; it was decided to take it down; but it turned out to be just as strong and stable as when it was first erected in 1876! That was a change for Digby Baptist.

I sometimes look at hymn boards in church sanctuaries.  I suppose they were very helpful back in the day before paper bulletins were available for services.  Today, do we need hymn numbers here?

We are all facing plenty of religious changes, in our nation, and in our churches, in our lifetimes.  Amid the things that shift, you and I can be agents of change for the good.

Catherine Booth, co-founder of the Salvation Army, said, “There is no improving the future without disturbing the present.”  (Claiborne, Shane, et al., Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, 2010, p. 56)  

To enter changes well we can do a few things.

Repurpose the old.  A building or room gets renovated for some new ways of doing things. The scripture stories we hold sacred get understood in fresh ways by oncoming generations. What used to be adult Sunday school now becomes small groups that meet during the weekdays. We repurpose the old.

This is what happened with the Ark of the Covenant.  It was a fancy large box, with handles so it could be carried. It moved with the people all over the desert for forty years. But once it got installed in Solomon’s Temple, it did not need to be moved.  And, in time, it was gone, and Judaism went on without it. Those were major changes.

In one sense I’d say, don’t be a raider of the Lost Ark. I mean, don’t live in the past, don’t strive to keep things the way they were, or bring back the ways that once worked.  But take the power and meaning of our past, and let it feed our growth and development now.

When change is to be made, Celebrate!

So we see the celebration in the days of king David, with David leading the way, dancing and offering worship sacrifices as the Ark is brought, in stages, into his new capital city.  

We sometimes need to honour the past even when certain things are out of date, over and gone.  We give thanks for a Sunday school that was filled with 100 children. We respect the ways our grandparents dressed in their Sunday best whenever they came.  We also rejoice that some of our old ways have ended; they needed to end. We celebrate how far we have come! How much we have learned. How new things and new ways are now part of our church.  When we can say a happy goodby to the old and a welcome alleluia to the new, we help make the changes.

Also, Take God seriously!  Take our religious ‘tools’ seriously.  Today I included the story of Uzzah, the man who reached out to steady the Ark of the Covenant, when he thought it was tipping over. Bam! Uzza died by touching the holy box inapprop- riately. The ancient Hebrews clearly understood Almighty God to be Holy and dangerous.  They knew the Ark as an object that brought the presence of Holy Power close to them. After this episode, king David is cautious about bringing the Ark into the city and into his care and keeping. He hesitates for three months.

The powers we are in touch with now have their blessings and their dangers.  The way Christians use or misuse the Bible can help or harm others, for instance. Our attitudes about being Church, and gathering on Sunday, can include or exclude others, and people get helped or harmed by how we act as a Church.  The changes in how we live out our spirit- uality can have great influence on those around us.

There is an oft-quoted dialogue from C. S. Lewis’ children’s novel, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  There are lots of talking animals in the story.  The children are going to meet Aslan, who represents Christ, in the story.  Mr. Beaver tells them, “Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion.”

“Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…

“Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

What we tell others about God matters.  It matters a great deal. And whenever we change things in our religious life, we must recognize the impact of the change.  There are some welcome changes we can make, in how we know and share the Good News of Jesus today. If there is real power in the Amazing Grace we sing about, we must pay close attention to how we give (or refuse to give) it away. To hinder some other person from being closer to God is serious.  One place in scripture, Jesus warns of ‘causing one of these little ones to stumble.’ (Mt 18:6)

And we face change best when we Do it together.  What I read today from 2 Samuel was a community affair, a national event, when this centerpiece of their worship was brought into Jerusalem. Together, the people were coming to terms with an exciting new time: with a king, a capital city, the return of this worship box, and eventually a temple would be built. The people gathered, they paraded, they celebrated, they worshipped, they partied.

Facing change together is important.  The revolution going on in spirituality, the reforms of Christianity, are everywhere.  It is fast-paced change. It is complicated and sometimes confusing. Together, as a faith family, we can face the challenges and change with the times.  Change as the Spirit leads us. Change for the better.

In his day and age, 1000 BCE, king David was a ‘raider of the lost Ark.’  It was retrieved from the enemy, and brought back to the centre of Hebrew religious life.  But it did not last forever. May we be blessed today to live into the challenging days we have, as people of faith in Christ.  Holding to and sometimes reclaiming the strong traditions that are good for us, and ready for amazing change.

Heavenly Joys on Earth

(2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10; 2 Corinthians 12:2-5) – J G White
11 am, Sun, July 8, 2018 – UBC Digby

Life is good?  Maybe not for every single person in the room, but for so many of us, life is good. And we strive for our lives to be as good as possible.  Tho we know plenty of people for whom life is a struggle today. I have been talking with some this past week. So it is, and so it has always been.

Picture England three hundred years ago.  Imagine a little man five feet high: a large head made bigger with a huge wig; a hooked nose; small piercing eyes; a frail and sickly body.  This was the illustrious Rev. Isaac Watts (1674-1748).  

Historian Albert Bailey tells us: A beautiful and accomplished young lady once upon a time fell in love with [Isaac Watts] through his poetry, having never seen him. When the two met, her disillusionment was instantaneous while he fell deeply in love with her.  The two remained good friends for more than thirty years. Watts never married. (Bailey, Albert Edward, The Gospel in Hymns, 1950, p. 44)

Watts has sometimes been called the Father of English Hymnody. He took the Psalms and composed Christians hymns from them. Such as Psalm 90: O God Our Help in Ages Past, and Psalm 72: Jesus Shall Reign, and Psalm 98: Joy to the World.  As well as beloved hymns such as: When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.  

At the close of our service here today we will sing this lyric by Isaac Watts, from 1707…

1 Come, we that love the Lord,
and let our joys be known;
join in a song with sweet accord,
and thus surround the throne.

We will sing this to music by Baptist evangelist Robert Lowry, who also wrote the chorus, in 1867:

We’re marching to Zion,
beautiful, beautiful Zion;
We’re marching upward to Zion,
the beautiful city of God.

What is ‘Zion?’  Why do we sing it so much?  Read it in the Psalms so much?  9:11 Sing praises to the LORD, who dwells in Zion.  50:2 Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth.  125:1 Those who trust in the LORD are like Mount Zion…  Or Revelation 14:1?  Then I looked, and there was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion!  

Zion is a hill in the Holy Land, the easternmost of the ridges upon which the city of Jerusalem was built.  That famous city we read about today, as David becomes the second King of the Hebrews, and, in time, takes Jerusalem to be his capital city.  

In Christianity, with our Messiah, Jesus, Zion and Jerusalem become poetic language for the Kingdom of God.  Remember the dream John has in Revelation 21? The New Holy City comes down to earth. It is beautiful, perfect, and holy.  It has pearly gates, streets of gold, twelve foundations, and so forth. No temple needed: God is there and God is the light.

There is so much looking forward to this future, whatever it all means to us. Peace. Joy. Reunion. Rest.  We do know not to be so heavenly minded we are no earthly good! And, way back, 300 years ago, Isaac Watts did not overemphasize heaven.  Here are a couple more verses of his hymn, one familiar & 1 not.

The Sorrows of the Mind
Be banish’d from the Place!
Religion never was design’d
To make our Pleasure less.

2 Let those refuse to sing
who never knew our God;
but children of the heav’nly King
may speak their joys abroad.

A heavenly afterlife is often longed for.  Marching to Zion is marching to Heaven, and to the Celestial City.  Glimpses of that glory are amazing glimpses. Glimpses enjoyed in this existence.

Look again to that special experience Paul spoke of in his second letter to the Corinthian Church.  He’s actually talking about himself when he writes: I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven… 4 was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.

Beyond such glimpses of glory are the more common joys of life that are also facets of heaven, heaven on earth. What do we pray?  Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

The story is told of an evangelistic preacher who was getting a congregation excited, and shouted, “Everyone who wants to go to heaven, stand up!” The crowd stood up… except for one fellow.  “Don’t you want to go to heaven, young man?” the preacher asked him.  “Well, yes,” the guy said, “but it sounded like you were getting a group ready to go tonight.” 😉

Though a heavenly afterlife is longed for, we like this life; there’s real joy in this life, now! Watts asserts it, the scriptures illustrate it.  We speak our joys. Our religion never was designed to make our pleasure less.

A couple more stanzas from Watts say:

The Men of Grace have found
Glory begun below.
Celestial Fruits on earthly Ground
From Faith and Hope may grow.

3 The hill of Zion yields
a thousand sacred sweets
before we reach the heav’nly fields,
or walk the golden streets.

Pastor and author John Ortberg wrote: My main job is to live with deep contentment, joy, and confidence in my everyday experience of life with God. Everything else is job number two.

Adventurer Christopher McCandless said: The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.

Happiness lies in the joy of achievement and the thrill of creative effort, said US President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  

And actor Liam Neeson says: It’s an ongoing joy being a dad.  

What sacred, sweet things have you had in your life, here, before you reach the heavenly fields, or walk the golden streets?  

Apparently, it was Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) who said ‘all the way to heaven is heaven, for Jesus said, “I am the way.”’  For so long this is what I have sought for people in churches, in our faith. A walk with God here and now that is wonderful. This is the way of Jesus, Good News. Dallas Willard put it so well:  Jesus’ good news about the kingdom can be an effective guide for our lives only if we share his view of the world in which we live.  To his eyes this is a God-bathed and God-permeated world…. It is a world that is inconceivably beautiful and good because of God and because God is always in it.  It is a world in which God is continually at play and over which he continually rejoices.  (The Divine Conspiracy, 1997,  pp. 61-62)

Another stanza from Isaac Watts:

4 Then let our songs abound,
and ev’ry tear be dry;
we’re marching through Immanuel’s ground
to fairer worlds on high.

These words here have clear biblical imagery.  With the dried tears we remember Revelation 7, or Rev. 21(:3-4), “ God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.” The title, Immanuel, takes us to Isaiah 7, quoted by Matthew (1:23) “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”

God is with us.  There is heavenly joy on earth.  Though it is a tough journey for so many in this life, we walk with God, around us and within.  

Dear little Isaac Watts had great accomplishments in his life, though it was not easy.  He managed to educate himself well. Friends offered to send him to Oxford University; but Isaac was not an Anglican, he was a Non-conformist; he could not attend.  He became pastor of a church at age 26. He soon became ill, but was provided with an assistant to do most of the work. Watts stayed 22 years there, at the Mark Lane Independent Chapel in London.  He was their brilliant but sickly pastor.

Then, a kind parishioner invited him to stay at his estate for a week.  ‘Theobald’ was in a magnificent park and had incredible gardens. Watts was given a lovely apartment there; he came for a week, and stayed with that family 36 years! The rest of his life.

Isaac Watts’ songs did abound: about 700 hymns, not to mention his other writing.  Like him, we have the same resources available. The Spirit of Christ in us.  Joy unspeakable and full of glory, as 1 Peter 1:8 says.  

We’re marching to Zion,
beautiful, beautiful Zion;
We’re marching upward to Zion,
the beautiful city of God.

For almost every hymn we sing, we use the first words as the title: ‘Come We that Love the Lord.’ But what did Isaac Watts originally give as the title of his hymn, back in 1707?  Heavenly Joys on Earth.

Seek the heavenly joys on earth.  They are to be found. They are to be celebrated!  Jesus preached: “Turn around! The Kingdom of the Heavens is nearby.”  Hallelujah! Amen.

The Point of Death

(2 Samuel 1:17-27; Mark 5:21-24, 35-41) – J G White
11 am, Sun, June 17, 2018 – UBC Digby

We started our time together with our anthem and our flag.  Celebration! 151 years! Of course, our history and the emblems of our nation remind us of the hard times, the troubles faced, the deadly sacrifices made.  
We end our morning together with the emblems of the Crucified One: bits of bread and grape juice.  Reminders of one death in history.

I read a Jesus story today.  A story of healing – or is it resurrection, or resuscitation?  Mark 5:23, NIV. Jairus “My little daughter is dying.” It raises for me a question: What happens to us when someone dies?  

It can bring out fear and anguish.  It brings out grief and sadness. It brings out both loneliness and community.

So we also heard a lament of David, from a thousand years before Jesus’ day.  David’s poetic eulogy over Israel’s first king, Saul, and Saul’s son, David’s best friend, Jonathan.  Oh, how the mighty have fallen! David cries, again and again.  Even though his connection with king Saul was complicated – at one time his armour-bearer, at another enemies and rivals.  David, indeed, would become the next king.  But at this moment he puts his opportunities aside, and mourns the great loss of the people.  He puts amazing words to the national disaster. David sings the words of all Israel.

Words do matter.  When someone dies and we hurt, or are happy; are shocked or relieved.  Words matter to our hearts. And words to be shared, songs, rituals, gatherings – all are important to community.  It is a real pity when someone dies and this request is honoured: no service, no visitation.

And, as Christians, in community, we should know well how to lament – how to pray our grief and complaint to God.  We have a lot of ancient material to work with – such as David’s own Psalms in the OT.

When someone dies, we mourn.  We gather and share the sorrow and the healing.  We share the hopes and fears we have. We can be honest.

If that was the pain, next is the point.  Mark 5:23, NRSV.  Jairus: “My little daughter is at the point of death.” AV (KJV). “My little daughter lieth at the point of death.”  What is the point of death, the meaning, the purpose?  What’s the point of it?  

Well, one thing we know about every single human being on the planet, through history: not one of us is getting out of this alive! 🙂  So everyone we care about will one day come to her last day and his last day. Including you, including me.

What is hard is wondering about any person in particular: what was the point of his death?  Of her death?  Sometimes is can be hard looking upon a group.  Victims of a mass shooting, or of a natural disaster, a preventable disease, or an accident.  Why God? Why? Some see Jesus’ power, and wonder why some are not rescued, yet He was willing to raise that girl from death, here in Mark chapter 5.  Why?

We must not blame ourselves or those who have passed.  In a different Bible scene, Jesus speaks of some people who died when a tower collapsed, and some who were victims of political violence.  Were they worse sinners? In other words, did they deserve it? No, He says. No. (Luke 13:1-5)

I also look to the figure of Jesus, the Man who wept.  Wept over Jerusalem when his own people would not be gathered by Him.  Wept when a friend died. Wept when He prayed before His own betrayal and execution.  I cannot give an answer for what the point is of any particular deaths. I can but point to Divine tears.

There is a modern Hymn by Shirley Erena Murray, of New Zealand.  I first heard it, and sang it, twenty years ago, at a Baptist Peace Fellowship conference, in Wolfville. God Weeps.  (c. 1996 Hope Publishing Co.)

God weeps
at love withheld,
at strength misused,
at children’s innocence abused,
and till we change the way we love,
God weeps.

God bleeds
at anger’s fist,
at trust betrayed,
at women battered and afraid,
and till we change the way we care,
God bleeds.

God cries
at hungry mouths,
at running sores,
at creatures dying without cause,
and till we change the way we care,
God cries.

God waits
for stones to melt,
for peace to seed,
for hearts to hold each other’s need,
and till we understand the Christ,
God waits.

Along with the pain of death, and coming to terms with the point of various deaths, is the path of death.  Mark 5:23, Msg. Jairus: “My dear daughter is at death’s door.”  What kind of a doorway is death?

It is a doorway. Not a wall. Not the end.  A door. A majority of people around us seem to understand this.  They either want this or know this. That death is a path to a new beginning. The way I describe it, or you describe it, the way someone else explains it, differs.  Not one of us has it all figured out. What did Paul write in his resurrection chapter, 1 Corinthians 15? 51 Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.

Just because something is mysterious does not mean it is not quite real.  The biggest real things are mysteries. The mystery we call ‘death’ is something we can be prepared for. It is a matter of faith and trust.  

A couple years ago I came across this poem, and liked it.  It is by Jan Phillips: When I Die(There are Burning Bushes Everywhere, 2016)

When I die
let them know I
was ready to go
that I’d had enough fun,
sailed enough seas,
smelled enough roses.

Tell them I had no regrets
I laughed all the way
and could hardly wait
to slip through the veil
and see what was next.

If they wonder
what advice I left behind
say: add some silence to every day
sit alone in a quiet room
and cry some tears of adoration.

If they wonder
did I believe in God
tell them every other week,
and the rest of the time
I bowed down to Mystery.

Let them know I died
saying thanks
and publish my papers
that say what for.

When I die, bring out the guitars
and weep for joy.
Let wonder run down your ruby cheeks.

I’ve folded back into Mind-at-Large,
my flesh becoming words
that may find your lips in time.

Death is not the end.  This brings us to Jesus, and His death.  What we acknowledge together at the start of each month.  The Lord’s Supper. The centre point of our gatherings, as the months and years go by, is this commemoration of a death.  Yet this is at the heart of our life, our living, our hopes. We do not remember Him with broken bread and spilled wine because Jesus is dead.  We remember in this way because He is alive – and we have discovered Life.

What’s the point of death?  It is a change, a transition, a doorway.  A finish line and a starting line both at once.  And all fear is gone. Amen.