In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
A few months from now, something strange will start to happen in the PE classes in many Scottish primary and secondary schools. As the school Christmas dance approaches, school gym halls will no longer echo to the sounds of games or fitness routines. Instead, there will be dance music, as pupils start learning- dreaded words for many of them- social dancing. Boys and girls will be lined up on both sides of the hall, and have to pair off. And the PE teachers will start to initiate the embarrassed pupils in the secrets of the St Bernard’s Waltz, the Canadian Barn Dance, the Gay Gordons and the Dashing White Sergeant.
I remember all that from my schooldays. And I was fascinated to find that my own children still had to go through what is, at the time, a rather hideous experience for many of us. Yet, looking back, it occurs to me that learning Scottish Ceilidh dancing was the only think I can think of that I learned in the PE class which was of any use to me in later life. For if you live in Scotland, you will sometimes be required to dance a Strip the Willow at times.
I have never quite understood the pleasure of watching others dance. The ballet, and Strictly Come Dancing- are a bit of mystery for me. I tend to treat dancing as less an art, and more of a participation sport. I think the last time I went to a Ceilidh was in the grand ballroom of Crieff Hydro a couple of years ago, where my daughter and I took part in a very fun family Ceilidh for children and grown-ups together- very informal and great fun!
Dancing is a very natural human activity. Mozart wrote minuets for the aristocracy of Vienna. Today’s pop music is dominated by music styles such as hip-hop which is also music designed to be danced to. And some say that a better way to get children fit might be to reduce the emphasis on sport in PE classes have more dancing.
In the worship of the church, music is very important, but we don’t often, at least in our tradition, do very much dancing. We know little about the music of the ancient Israelites, but today we have a story about King David, the greatest king of ancient Israel, dancing in what seems to be a kind of worship.
In the first part of the reading, David has been made king of almost all of Israel. He went on to capture the city of Jerusalem (after which it became known as ‘David’s City’). He establishes the city as his capital, and one way he marks this is to bring the Covenant Box into the city. This box, often called the Ark of the Covenant, supposedly contained the two stone tablets which were given by God to Moses and the Israelites on Mount Sinai, on which were written the ten commandments. It was an object apparently possessed of awesome power and holiness. Israel’s enemies, the Philistines, who thought it was really a god (1 Samuel 4.6), captured it in battle with the Israelites. But it brought them no luck- we hear stories of their stone gods toppling in the arks presence, of mysterious deaths and disease, so that eventually the Philistines give it back to the Israelites (1 Samuel 5.1-7.1). A bit further on in our reading, as the ark is taken up to Jerusalem, an unfortunate man called Uzzah touches it by accident and is struck down dead.
Such is the strange background of the Ark of the Covenant. Whatever we think of these odd tales, they serve to tell us that with the Ark, David was dealing with something which was revered and even feared- an ancient relic, a powerful reminder of the Exodus from Egypt, the Law of God, and the awesome power of Israel’s God.
Jerusalem would be the Ark’s final resting place. Bringing the Ark into the city would seal Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and seal David’s power as king of Israel. And so they make a big deal of it. David leads a huge procession to the town where the Ark has been up until now, and as it is brought out the town there is music, singing, and even dancing. Later in the passage we read about how they brought the Ark into Jerusalem, in the most famous incident from this story:
David, wearing only a linen cloth around his waist, danced with all his might to honour the Lord. And so he and all the Israelites took the Covenant Box up to Jerusalem with shouts of joy and the sound of trumpets. As the [Ark] was being brought into the city, Michal, Saul’s daughter, looked out of the window and saw King David dancing and jumping around in the sacred dance, and she was disgusted with him. (2 Samuel 6.14-16).
This story of a king who dances almost naked in front of a box is, let’s be honest, a strange story. Well, it as a hot country, and it seems that what he was wearing was ceremonial priest’s clothing. Michal was, in fact, David’s wife- but she was also the daughter of the previous King, Saul, so that was always going to be a difficult marriage. She thought his behaviour unworthy of a king- when she gets him home, she complains, ‘The king of Israel made a big name for himself today!… He exposed himself like a fool in the sight of the servant women of his officials!’ But David explains that he was dancing to honour the Lord God, who had made him King instead of Michal’s father.
David is a complex character. Yes, he is seen as a hero by many of the Biblical writers. He’s remembered later as Israel’s greatest king. But he was a warrior and a politician. If he loved God, he also loved the power God gave him. Bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem was using religion to bolster his own power. The great procession, the music and dancing, are all meant to impress on the people the power of the monarchy. David was not afraid to use religion for his own ends. If he loved God, he certainly loved himself as well. So even although David claims that he is dancing to honour God, it’s also part of a ritual for impressing his people. David is showing off, even as he claims to be honouring God. But how very human that is- and how very much like all of us!
This reading about David bringing the Ark to Jerusalem is all about a celebration. It’s coincidence that that’s the reading set for today when in this church we have two celebrations.
We are shortly going to celebrate Holy Communion. Celebrate is the word we ought to use, for although we often think of it as a solemn moment, Communion is the great moment when we thank God and celebrate all that God has done for us. By dancing before the Ark, David was honouring Israel’s history- how their God had brought them out of slavery in Egypt, and had given them commandments to live by. When we celebrate Communion, we celebrate what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. We recall the story of Jesus- his life, death and resurrection. By dying and rising to life, Jesus sets us free- no longer slaves of sin, but open to the power of God in our lives. We probably ought to dance at Communion, for we are in the presence of something mysteriously powerful, a wonderful, loving God who is worth our celebrations
And today we also celebrate something else which we’re more used to celebrate with dancing. Some time ago, Sally and Frank asked me if they could mark their Golden Wedding here in the church- as it happens, on the very date they were married 50 years ago. I thought that was a great idea, and so later we will thank God for their 50 years together. It’s just lovely that they have chosen to celebrate, not just with their natural family, but their church family. Congratulations to you both!
If you Google ‘Dancing Vicar’ you’ll find a wedding in which the vicar and the wedding couple led the congregation in a disco number in the church right after the vows. And why not? A wedding is a celebration, of course it is. One of the best part of my job is that I get to do weddings. And there is something very special about a marriage in which those taking part have a sense of God’s presence in it all. It’s a very special day for bride and groom, and perhaps, like King David, we might be tempted to show off on our big day. Yet the fancy clothes, the flowers, the hairdos and the makeup don’t necessarily mean that God is not part of it all. God is among us in our celebrations, for marriage is a gift of God.
Usually we do our wedding dancing at the reception after the church service. And I think it’s interesting that in the only story we have about Jesus attending a wedding, we hear nothing about the religious ceremony. Instead, the Gospel of John tells us how Jesus helped out when they ran out of wine at the reception. And once he’d turned the water into wine, no doubt Jesus went back to the dancing.
Not every marriage is blessed. Sadly, sometimes a fancy wedding is followed by a messy divorce. And marriage is not for everyone- being single is also a state in which we can know the blessing of God. Yet although marriage is not always easy, is not for everyone, I’ve a feeling marriage is about to come back into fashion. For people enjoy a wedding- a great way to celebrate something very precious in human life. And we’re beginning to realise anew the benefits of marriage- of what it can mean to have a lifelong companion.
A Christian wedding, you see, is more than just a party, or a legal contract. It’s also, as our Gospel reading suggests, like a foundation. I often read the parable of the men who built on sand and rock at weddings, for it is a story about the importance of laying a foundation which is based on faith in the Word of God as we hear in Jesus Christ. A Christian wedding is where we hear Christ offering us a solid foundation for our lives, something which can stand up to the storms which life might bring. Those of us who have been married know that that is often exactly what our marriage can bring us- solid ground in the midst of whatever life throws at us. That’s worth celebrating, even with dancing.
David was not a perfect man, or a perfect King (and he did not have a perfect marriage). Yet even he could sense the presence of God, and we tried to worship and celebrate in the way he knew best. For God had been good to him, and to his people, Israel. Whenever we celebrate, whatever we celebrate, we should remember that, as the harvest hymn puts it ‘all good gifts around us are sent from heaven above’. Today, God, you can thank God for Sally, and you, Sally, can thank God for Frank. And around the table of Christ, we can all join you in thanking God for all God’s gifts to us- for family, for friends, for the solid foundation of our lives. Gifts that are certainly worth a celebratory dance sometimes!
Ascription of Praise
The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.
Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2015 Peter W Nimmo