Asbury First United
Text: 2 Samuel 6:1-15
Look hard, next time, at a piece of work you admire. A building, perhaps a beautiful sanctuary like this one. An institution or company, perhaps a great university. A marriage, perhaps that one marriage you have secretly admired over time. A program, perhaps a school or chorus or ball team. A finely crafted painting, poem, song, sermon, or story. Look very hard, deeply inspect some fine work you admire, I say, and I guarantee you a discovery. Even a mildly surprising discovery. What you so admire was brought out of the mud of nothingness, was created, with forbearance. Forbearance.
I guess your reaction. One will say, “What is that?” Another, “Forbearance is patient restraint, the absence of action, it creates nothing.” Still another, “He must mean forgiveness, which is the dullest word in a religiously empty age”. Look real hard. Take a deep, broad high look at something good and I tell you, you are going to find that this Good, whatever it is, is made out of forbearance.
To forbear means to endure. To tolerate. To refrain. To keep oneself in check. To control oneself under provocation. This is forbearance. This is a great power for doing Good.
Which brings us to 2 Samuel 6, and the story of David and Obededom the Gittite, a unknown hero, a man of forbearance.
David was a builder. He made music with lute and lyre. He made war upon the Philistines. He made a nation out of warring tribes. More than all that, in the Psalms he made a language of religious longing and discovery that is without parallel. David was a builder. And the Lord loved him for it.
To crown his other achievements, David decided upon a risky project. In order to weld together the northern and southern kingdoms into one unmistakable union, David planned to move the “ark of God” out of the north country, and down into Jerusalem. It was a brilliant symbolic decision, daring and deadly, like most of David’s moves. David gathered 30,000 soldiers and went up to where the ark was hidden, in the house of Abinadab. (Those who have seen Raiders of the Lost Ark know something of the story.)
For all his accomplishments and talent, David was a profoundly fearful man, as the Psalms show us. So, when the ark, a holy and sacred object, was finally on the road, David was relieved, and casting off all restraint, had one wild party. 30,000 men singing, dancing, shouting, along the old Jerusalem road! Suddenly, one of the oxen drawing the ark slipped, and a poor bloke named Uzzah reached out to steady the wagon, and somehow fell down dead. The party ended abruptly. David’s great-hearted fears returned and he found himself quaking in the road, dying the thousand deaths of a confirmed coward.
Did God reach out and touch Uzzah and kill him? I do not believe such capricious destruction fits the Bible picture of God, the one to whom Jesus prayed. Such a God is not the one of Scripture, and is not the object of our worship. Who would worship such a beastly God? Yet, it appears, in the depths of his fear, David did believe that God had killed Uzzah.
David, that is, let his fear get the best of him and his thought about God became, what yours also can become, a mirror of our worst fears. A projection of our anxieties, our worries, our hatreds, our worst selves. Talk about God has long carried this danger. David, we know, was a guilty person, and sometimes, because of his guilt, his thought about God became fearful. God became David’s worst nightmare.
In this fear David stood frozen. Fear is freezing people today, too. David could not go forward, and could not go backward, and so he entered the lists of leaders, secular and religious, who, in a pinch, solve a problem by making the problem someone else’s problem. That is, he passed the buck. He went up the road a little bit and knocked at the door of an unsuspecting fellow, a poor sap named Obededom. I can hear David, kingly and cowardly, addressing the humble Gittite.
“Yes, Obededom, my friend, do you mind if I call you Obs, we have out here, what you might call a situation, a situation for which your own many talents, Obs, are sorely needed. Now, you see that little box over there. I want to leave that box over in your back yard for a while, and if, well, if nothing extraordinary happens for a while (That is, if Obededom the Gittite does not get scorched), then I will come back and get it.”
Perhaps you have never had the Obededic experience of having someone in authority over you dump a problem in your backyard. Somehow, though, I think most of us know the experience. And I even wager that right now, out in the back lawns of the lives represented here today, there are some little David deposits, some holy arks, bucks passed and dumped and left out of fear. David passed the buck and went home. Night fell on the village of Gath, and the ark lay there, ominous, dangerous, foreboding like all unknown things, especially like your future and mine.
Now the Bible gives us a remarkable, beautiful gift. It says nothing more about Obededom. The story of Obededom ends here. Obededom does…nothing. In the face of David’s bureaucratic haughtiness, all too human fearfulness, treacherous carelessness, in the face of these unpleasantries and dangers Obededom does…nothing. Obededom forbears, practices a little forbearance. Without his forbearance, the great city of Jerusalem would never finally have been built. Without his forbearance David would never have regained his courage, the ark would have stayed north, the kingdom would have been divided still, the great project of the Old Testament would lay in ruins. Obededom, the Gittite. Endured, tolerated, kept himself in check, controlled himself under provocation. Obededom taught David and teaches us forbearance, the power of patient restraint.
Oh, I admire Obededom, the poor sap. My natural reaction, in such perverse situation, call it life as we know it, is the contrary, not to forbear but to yell, to scream, to reject, to retaliate, to point out the injustice, to militate against the Powers that Be. All of which would have done no good, for David was not, shall we say, in the mood, to change his mind. No, Obededom could see what we so often miss, that something good, something good for God needs forbearance in its making. This is nearly without exception.
Look hard, next time, at something well done. It was made out of Obededic forbearance. That sanctuary you find so lovely got approved mainly because someone bit his tongue so hard it bled. That university you admire was started with the aid of someone’s heartfelt forbearance. That marriage you think so much of is based on a decision, down in the deep reaches of male and female communication, a decision to forbear a weakness, forgive a fault. That choir you love to hear came out of the ground on the shoulders of someone’s patient restraint. That work of art you admire was produced by a modern Obededom, willing to tolerate and endure the sacrifices required of any true artist. That school you support was created with lots of people forbearing one another. Hardly a decent thing ever gets done without the power of forbearance, patient restraint, the willingness to keep oneself in check, to refrain from retaliation. Look hard, look deep. If it is good, it was made with forbearance. Forbearance is prevenient forgiveness.
Nor is forbearance appeasement. Appeasement in personal or in global relations is pure illness. There does come a time when restraint no longer works, but let us admit that usually the time comes far later than our impatient, impetuous, imperious selves would think. David, and we so much like him, are not naturally forbearing. With David we love to prance, to twirl wildly in the loin cloth. With David we are all spit and fury, all energy, all readiness to build until our fears overtake us.
When you think about it, this is also the message of the cross and the hope of the church. We can admire Obededom because we know that his forbearance, more than David’s fear, fairly reflects God. We worship a God who has shown God’s own forbearance toward us, and shows it still. God’s patient restraint, God’s power made manifest in weakness, is the power of the cross. Shakespeare had it near to right, “Forbear to judge, for we are sinners all.” God forbears to become the God of David’s fears. God forbears to treat us the way we treat each other. Here too is a strange word: God even forbears to protect God’s self from us. God’s forbearance is the foundation of the world and of the church. It is the forbearance of God, at the heart of the universe, that gives life, makes life worth living and saves us from our ravenous selves.
Perhaps this week, recalling the cross, and remembering the example of Obededom the Gittite, we can practice a little forbearance. Sisters and Brothers in Christ, let us promise to forbear one another in love!