July 16, 2000

First Congregational Church, Anchorage

The Rev. Dianne O'Connell


II Samuel 6:1-5; 12b-19

Ephesians 1:3-14

Mark 6:14-29

King David and Michal

Good morning. It is good to be with you again. I don't know if Rick and Mary ever complaint about how hard it is to develop a sermon sometimes. For instance, today's scripture lessons talk about the beheading of John the Baptist, King David dancing virtually naked in the streets, and a passage about redemption, predestination, and so forth. And, I could also mention that I was at your beautiful church yesterday to perform a wedding, which has been on my mind, as well.

We'll start with David.

Do you remember the story of David? I'm not going to tell you the whole thing, of course, but you can find it in the books of I and II Samuel. The Lord, through his prophet Samuel, had chosen Saul as king of Israel. Things went along pretty well for forty years or so, but eventually Saul angered the Lord and the Lord chose a replacement King - the young David.

David was just a boy at the time, but he could play a mean harp. Saul was getting old, sick, and a bit paranoid. He sent for a harpist to soothe his soul, and it was David who arrived. David became a favorite in the household and best friends with Saul's son Jonathan.

The nation was in constant turmoil and at what seems to be continuous war. David becomes a leader of the Army and is so successful that people make an unkind comparison with Saul's military record, "Saul has slain his thousands, but David his tens of thousands."

Saul is livid. When he discovered that David would like to marry his younger daughter Michal, he sends word that the price was 100 Philistine, well, er, body parts.

At the next opportunity, David slays 100 Philistines and delivers the bride price. Saul gives his daughter Michal to David as wife. And the scripture tells us that Michal loves David. Which is significant.

Life in the Royal Family continues. We can skip a few chapters to the point where King Saul is formally at war with David. The two armies pursue each other through desert, mountain, and towns. At one point David is able to sneak up on Saul resting in a cave. He did not kill the king, but he did cut off a corner of his robe. Later, upon showing the cloth to Saul, David was able to convince him that he had spared his life.

Intrigues and campaigns continue against the Philistines, but eventually, Saul is cornered and takes his own life by falling on his own sword.

Following the death of Saul, David was anointed King of Judah - and the House of Saul and the House of David declare war against one another. The Bible tells us the war lasted a long time. Long enough for six sons to be born to David - but this doesn't tell us too much because they were born to six different wives, none of whom was Michal. Remember Michal, daughter of Saul? As soon as that dispute was resolved, both sides went back to fighting Philistines.

In the meantime, David took a few more wives and concubines and became the father of eleven more children. And in the midst of all this domestic activity, David was finally able to completely defeat the Philistines.

It's at this point in the story that our Scripture for the morning begins.

David and 30,000 men have gone to recover the Ark of the Covenant, the holy box in which the Ten Commandments were supposedly kept. To bring the Ark safely back to Jerusalem was a symbol worthy of a major celebration. The long, long war was over. The march back home with the holy of holies was a time of major celebrating.

We are told that 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.

David, wearing a linen ephod, danced before the Lord with all his might, while he and the entire house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouts and the sound of trumpets.

For some reason, the reading stops there. Okay everybody is happy and celebrating like crazy. But the next verse is interesting:

"As the ark of the Lord was entering the City of David, Michal daughter of Saul watched from a window. And when she saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord, she despised him in her heart."

When David gets home that night, a major domestic battle breaks out. Michal shouts at him that he made a fool of himself, disrobing in the streets and dancing with the slave girls. Vulgar. Vulgar. Vulgar. She said.

Hey, says David, the Lord chose ME over YOUR father. The Lord didn't even pick anyone in your family. I'll do what I want. Be as undignified as I want. And the slave girls, they LIKE me says the man with 17 children and at least that many wives and concubines.

And Michal daughter of Saul - and first wife of David -- had no children to the day of her death. Wonder why?

Sort of sad, considering that Michal had loved David in his youth, and David had loved her. But a lot of water had run under the bridge, a long war, a dead father, many dead brothers - not to mention the dead Philistines.

We'll come back to David. But since I was both trying to write a sermon and preparing for a wedding these last couple days, I digressed to the New Testament lesson for the day.

Strange passage from Mark that the lectionary pairs up with the Old Testament "dancing in the streets" story. Did the lectionary writers really want to compare David's dancing in celebration that the Ark of the Covenant was coming home, with Salome's dance before her stepfather King Herod??

There might be some Christian pastors who might draw that comparison - possibly focus on the evils of dancing - King David lost his head, became undignified and danced with the hoi poloi outside Jerusalem, and King Herod, if he didn't lose his own head, certainly set the stage for someone else to lose theirs - all as a result of asking his stepdaughter to dance for the nice visitors.

I'll be honest with you, I don't understand why the two stories were offered together. I follow the lectionary sometimes I think, just to make things difficult for myself.

The story of John the Baptist is also a story of a marriage gone sour, however. The first marriage was that of Herodias and Herod's brother Philip. Obviously, that marriage failed. Herodias then marries her ex-husband's brother - and draws down the condemnation of the local religious prophet. The Baptist found the divorce and re-marriage an abomination, at the very least unlawful, and wasn't afraid to say so in public places.

Herod had the prophet arrested. Herod hadn't planned to kill him. He was a bit afraid of the prophet, and as strange as it was, Herod actually enjoyed listening to his message.

His wife Herodias was a different matter. She was incensed. Beware of a woman scorned.

The King had thrown a big birthday party for himself, inviting all his officials and military commanders. His stepdaughter was a gggreat dancer. He called for her to dance for his guests, promising her anything she wishes.

Herod was horrified when the girl demanded the murder of the prophet that Herod held in jail. She wanted his severed head for her mother.

Herod couldn't say "no". It would be too embarrassing before all these guests. So he ordered the immediate execution of the Baptist and his head brought to the party on a silver platter.

I don't know about you, but I sat before my computer in dead silence. What can I say about that. A completely senseless murder. But the Bible is full of what seems to be senseless violence to me. Life is full of senseless violence.

It helps to learn that the Gospel of Mark, the first and the shortest of the four Gospels, was written for those Christians in Rome who were about to suffer martyrdom. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were each written for a difference audience. Mark's audience was in intense crisis. It was written somewhere around AD 70. Peter and Paul had both perished in Nero's persecutions about AD 62-64. Countless other Christians were fed to wild animals and burned alive, and though the persecutions fell off for a time, they would certainly begin again.

Sometimes we forget that it wasn't always easy to be a Christian.

Mark emphasizes the fearless suffering and death of not only John the Baptist, but Jesus himself. The gospel tries to answer the question, "why does God permit those who love him to die for their faith?" Or in more simplistic, modern terms, "Why do bad things happen to good people?"

The gospel of Mark also focuses on every day life in Palestine, much more so than the other three books. We have fishermen and their nets, working people in the fields, vineyard, animals, food, clothes, and yes, angry, vindictive women and men who can't face losing face with their associates. Traits that we have all fought back in ourselves at one time or another.

The Bible is very Real. Darned few models for sainthood in our religious history. No perfect families, royal or otherwise. No perfect marriages. No perfect nation, no perfect human king. Each a mixture of strength and weakness, good and evil.

I turned to the reading from the first chapter of Ephesians. The passage is headed "Spiritual Blessings in Christ".

A good Presbyterian passage,

"In Christ we are chosen," it says. "having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory."

The trick, of course, is to have faith that this is so.

Sometimes it is hard to believe. Let us go back to King David for a moment. The Lord God chose Saul to rule over his people for 42 years. David, also chosen of God, was to rule for an additional 40 years. Saul's daughter Michal loved David. They were married. Wouldn't it seem logical to the human mind that a son of these two would be chosen to rule after the father and the grandfather?

And we know of at least 17 children of David by countless brides who were NOT to be the third King of Israel. It was the second son of a married woman whose husband David sent into battle for the express purpose of making Bathsheba a widow. Remember the woman taking the bath on the roof. David sees her and falls in love. He finds out the woman is married to Uriah, one of his commanders. David sends Uriah to his certain death in battle. And then David marries the "widow next door."

Now David and Bathsheba's first child dies. But the second son - that son was named Solomon.

Out of confusion, pain, death, lust, love, failed marriages, questionable marriages, comes the Wisdom of Solomon. Solomon is the king of Israel who completes the temple and brings the nation to its greatest heights.

Can anything good have come from the death of John the Baptist? "It's a stretch," you might say.

But maybe not. We often learn as much from Bad Examples as we do from good ones. And Herodias' murderous anger and Herod's cowardly compliance are two bad examples from which Christians have been learning for generations.

Perhaps, more importantly, as we learned earlier, it is the example that John himself gave for those who followed him. He fearlessly preached his understanding of God's will. He died for his efforts, but not before imparting his faith, his strength and his determination to countless men and women to follow.

What has really changed from the time the Bible was written. Our universe today appears to be in a tragic state of endless discord, strife, division, and conflict. Elements in the world of nature are in conflict with one another, persons cannot seem to live in harmony with one another, families and houses are divided against themselves. There is growing strife in our churches caused by growing doctrinal disputes which threaten to split us all into groups lined up "for" and "against" other groups of people seeking to be a part of and serve the church.

In the midst of all this confusion, the author of Ephesians discerns a secret divine plan, a "mystery" of creation now made plain through Jesus Christ. "For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth."

Specifically, God's plan is for all the discordant elements in the universe to move toward unity in Jesus Christ.

While we are in the midst of the tragedy or in the midst of the crisis, God's greater plan is hard to discern. In fact, it is sometimes offensive to even bring it up.

In the overwhelming excitement of the celebration that the Ark of the Covenant was returning home, we frequently don't even notice that this was the day that marked the end of the last bit of love between David and Michal. Michal looked out the window and despised David - on the day of his great triumph. But before judging her, we need to review the history between the House of Saul and the House of David. And the next King of Israel would not be a son of Michal - but the son of a woman not yet even on the scene.

In the overwhelming horror of the martyrdom of John the Baptist, we must remember that it was his witness and martyrdom, and the witness and martyrdom of many to follow, that enabled the faith to take root and spread through the ages.

Yes, there are many things we are not privy to understand. And thank heavens, no one expects us to understand them.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding.

His purpose will become clear when the times have reached their fulfillment to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, Christ the Lord.

And then we will understand. Praise the Lord. Amen.

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