Our Joy in God

Scripture can be found here...

Here are some of the things we know about David, the man who would be king… and who is recognized as king by God’s covenant people in this morning’s passage.

We know that, before the people anointed David king, God anointed him, through the prophet Samuel.

We know that David was the youngest son of Jesse, of the tribe of Judah. In fact, on the day when God sends Samuel to Bethlehem to find a king from among Jesse’s sons, we know that he looked long and hard at all seven older brothers before saying, “Are there any more?” And it was then that David was brought in from the fields.

We know that, before Samuel anointed him king, David spent his time in the fields. He was a shepherd. We know that this was hardly a high-profile, ripe-for-advancement kind of job. But shepherds had their own skill-set that was not entirely incompatible with leadership: toughness. Endurance. Attention to detail—remember the parable Jesus tells about the alert shepherd who leaves 99 perfectly good sheep in search of one that has gone astray.

We also know that David added to that skill set another talent: he was a maker of music. Tradition tells us that David composed many of the psalms in our bibles. Scripture tells us that, while he was biding his time, waiting to become king, his skill on the harp soothed and consoled the troubled Saul, the king he replaced.

Which brings us to some other, less lovely things we know. God’s work can be a messy business.[i] And David’s work in advance of the scene we have just read about was the ugly, bloody business of war. David was anointed king by God’s design. But Saul had also been anointed, and throughout 1 and 2 Samuel, we see David trying to walk a thin line of both stepping into the role God has chosen him for, and doing everything in his power not to directly harm the king who he has to depose. After all, God anointed Saul king, too. In the end, a lower-level functionary did the dirty work of killing Saul. He, in turn, was killed for his troubles. And after a long series of battles, betrayals, and murders, David unites the tribes of the north and the tribes of the south under one king, and one kingdom, and establishes Jerusalem as the holy city where God will be worshiped.

And we know this, and this is crucial: The leaders of the tribes see David as a great deliverer, on the level of Moses. They say, “For some time, while Saul was king over us, it was you who led out Israel and brought it in. The Lord said to you: It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel” (2 Sam. 5:2). David “led them out” of a different kind of bondage: the leadership of a king who had lost his way.

All these things we know about David, and more still. And they are all important to the story of God and God’s people. But when I read this passage, everything recedes into the background, and all I can see is the joy:

David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the Lord with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals. ~ 2 Samuel 6:5

And we can say, sure, the guy is relieved. The strife is over, the battle won. Now he gets to become the leader God has chosen him to be. Hallelujah!

But joy isn’t relief. Joy isn’t even, really, happiness. David is probably happy to be king; happiness is about your situation. The original meaning of “happiness” was something like: A pleasant and contented mental state. Good fortune. But joy is something different. Joy has its roots in something outside our own state of being. It is completely possible to be in the midst of real trials and tribulations, real struggle—and to still find joy. Joy is about taking delight in something. Joy is about recognizing something as being beautiful or wonderful—and usually, that “something” is outside ourselves.

David and all the people were dancing before God because they were bringing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem. David and the people were bringing their most holy object into the place that would become their holy city. They were coming home.

A brief excursus on the Ark: This Ark was a precious container that housed the tablets of the law, given to Moses by God. Yes, this is the same Ark that was the object of desire in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” And yes, spoiler alert, this, or whatever came out of it, is what melted the faces of the Nazis in that film. And, to be clear, face-melting is never claimed as a particular power of the Ark in the scriptures. I would wager that David has no plans to melt the faces of, say, the Philistines using the Ark. But I would also wager that David believed that the very power of God rested in the Ark, and that the very power of God was and should be central to the life of God’s covenant people. That power rested in God’s Word.

All this is the true source of David’s joy: God’s law, God’s Word, God’s central place in the life of the people. This is the cause for all the instruments, and all the music, and all the dancing. This is the cause for joy.

Thinking about the joy in this passage, I’ve been trying this week to notice what gives me joy. I find that I can take delight, without fail, in the wonder of the natural world. Last week when I was in Provincetown I was absolutely captivated by the sunlight on the water. All summer long I was enchanted by something as simple as morning glories growing on a fence outside my house. And now the fall leaves… they take my breath away. This is nothing new for me. When I was first pastoring a church, I went on and on about the leaves to such an extent, that the people in my bible study wondered whether it was safe for me to drive on country roads during autumn.

I wonder: could it be that, behind or beneath all joy, we find God? Only God can arrange for the sunlight to dazzle on an ocean gently lapping at the shore. Only God can work out an autumn color scheme that, no matter how old we are, strikes us as a brand new beauty every single year. God seems bound and determined to find every new ways to give us joy.

One of the most famous passages from Alice Walker’s novel, The Color Purple, is the passage that gives the book its name. (I’ll be paraphrasing some of her slightly stronger language.)

I think it [ticks] God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it. People think pleasing God is all God cares about. But any fool living in the world can see [God is] always trying to please us back.[ii]

What if we were to look at the world with the assumption that God wants to please us? That God wants to give us joy—the kind of delight that can lift us out of ourselves, even when we think there may be no joy left for us? How might that affect us? How might it change us? How might it open doors in our hearts and minds with a new sense of wonder?

I notice there is a lot of joy around Union Presbyterian Church. This week I walked into a restaurant for my weekly breakfast with other pastors, and heard a burst of laughter at a table. Would it surprise you to know that that table was filled with women of UPC? At our last session meeting, we worked diligently until after 9:00 PM, and somehow the work was always punctuated with laughter. Listen to people preparing food in the kitchen, or the bread for communion. Listen to the choir banter before church begins. Everywhere, there is laughter. Is this because the people of UPC are so unfailingly witty? Well, we can be a very funny bunch. But I tend to think we have a bit of that joy that had David and his people dancing through the streets. This is the same joy we have been asking God to bless every baptized person and new member with as they join the church. This is the very same joy we have been mentioning every Sunday in our “Assurance of God’s Unending Love”: joy in God’s presence.

Our first lesson this morning is from the letter to the church at Ephesus. It says, in part:

I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.   ~ Ephesians 3:18-19

Glimpses of joy are ways into understanding the breadth and length and height and depth of God’s love for us.

For David, God’s presence was cause for music and dancing.

We, too, can find joy in the ways God seeks to please us in the world and in our lives.

We, too, can rejoice at the presence of God, in this community of faith, and in the Word.

And we, too, can know that by God’s power at work within us, God is able to accomplish infinitely far more than all we can ask or even imagine. That is indeed something to rejoice in. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Image: Yes, that's Kevin Bacon, in his 50's, recreating his dance from "Footloose." Yeah!

[i] Roger Nam, “Commentary on 2 Samuel 5:1-5; 6:1-5; Psalm 150,” Working Preacher, Narrative Lectionary, October 25, 2015, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2563#post_comments.

[ii] Alice Walker, The Color Purple (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1982).