You’ve all seen, I’d guess, the Publishers’ Clearinghouse commercials with the reps and cameras rushing to the front door: “You’re the winner.” There’s more than a little of that spirit in the Ephesians reading, an over-the-top celebration of God’s generosity, providence, and glory. With God having covered all the bases we can go on auto-pilot? The second half of the letter gives a clear “no,” but rather than jumping ahead let’s go back to the other readings to see what we can learn about the intersection between divine and human glory. As you see, the theme of glory/honor from last week’s texts is still ringing in my ears!
In Imperial Beijing perhaps the two most important complexes were the Forbidden City, the emperor’s residence/court, and the Temple of Heaven, the primary place of worship. My biggest surprise the one time Elvice and I were in Beijing was that these two complexes are four kilometers apart. That’s an impressive expression of humility on the part of the emperors: they ruled by the mandate of heaven, and that mandate was not under their control.
Over to David. He’s now got his capital. The Ark, the people’s most important religious symbol, has been in Baale-judah ever since being returned by the Philistines, and David wants it in Jerusalem. He puts together an impressive military procession: the thirty thousand (v.1) match the thirty thousand slain when the Philistines captured the Ark. All goes fine until the Ark gets jostled, Uzzah grabs it to steady it, and God strikes Uzzah. It’s a strange story, but prompts David to ask the right question: “How can the ark of God come into my care?” Maybe being God’s patron isn’t as simple as it seemed. Is David God’s patron or is God David’s patron? David hits the pause button and the ark gets parked with Obed-edom the Gittite.
Over the next three months God blesses Obed-edom’s household in ways obvious enough to prompt David to resume the procession, this time in a more pious key. But the question of who’s sponsoring whom remains open: David dresses as a priest, David offers the sacrifices, David blesses the people, David distributes the swag. When the Ark was captured by the Philistines the cry was “The glory has departed from Israel” (1 Sam 4:21). The glory’s back, with David receiving an impressive share.
David’s exuberance is real; it’s also the tipping point for Michal. Michal, Saul’s daughter, had loved David and on at least one occasion saved David’s life when her father’s men came to kill him. But she’d been given to another, and then yanked away at David’s demand to be added to David’s collection of wives and concubines. So there’s a lot of history behind her proud verbal attack. She attacks David’s honor. David, with equal pride, attacks hers and claims the right to define his sexual honor as he pleases, a right demonstrated, sadly, in the affair with Bathsheba.
“And Michal the daughter of Saul had no child to the day of her death.” So the chapter has two deaths, Uzzah, encroaching on God’s honor, and Michal, encroaching on David’s. It’s profoundly sad, foreshadowing the split after Solomon between Saul’s old kingdom (Israel) and David’s old kingdom (Judah). David has a golden opportunity for reconciliation, but the price is David’s sense of honor. It’s a striking vignette on the price of weaponized honor.
And the price of the ambiguity in the coexistence of God’s and David’s honor. Who’s patron of whom? In next week’s reading that issue plays out over houses. David, builder of God’s house (the temple) or God, builder of David’s house (the dynasty)? As it turns out, Solomon builds the house, but, in contrast to the humility of the Chinese emperors, it’s right next to the palace, virtually a royal chapel. Location, location, location.
We can hear today’s Gospel reading in multiple ways. Still wondering about honor, Herod is a case-study of a rudderless man pursuing honor. He wants Herodias, so he takes her. John the Baptist challenges his honor, so he imprisons him, but his fear of him prevents him doing more. He’s swept away by Herodias’ daughter, vows rashly, and in a vain attempt to hold onto honor fulfills the vow—and Herodias gets John’s head. Rudderless.
“How can the ark of God come into my care?” David’s question is not a bad one to keep in mind as we read Ephesians. We are blessed, chosen, destined for adoption, recipients of a staggering inheritance for—the author repeats the phrase— “the praise of [God’s] glory.” The ark of God in our care, Jesus’ body and blood in our bodies. God our Patron or we God’s patron? Whose glory gets priority? Of course we hardly ever ask the question in these blunt terms! But if I’m effectively God’s patron, then my priorities stay intact and I’m free to channel Herod. But if God’s my patron, then at some point I might ask whether God has priorities I might need to pay attention to. And here’s where the Ephesians reading gets interesting, for the God portrayed there has the shirtsleeves rolled way up trying to bring this world to a truly beautiful dénouement.
“How can the ark of God come into my care?” How might “my care” transform my priorities? What might we learn from David?