In Rob Reiner’s 1992 legal drama A Few Good Men, Tom Cruise played a military attorney defending two marines in a court-martial for murder. In the climactic scene, he grills the colonel (Jack Nicholson) who commands base. He tells his witness, “I want the truth” about the extrajudicial punishment at the core of the case. Nicholson’s character commander responds, “You can’t handle the truth.”
When it comes to convincing myself of my power, prestige, and finely-honed ability to manage and control the world around me, I am remarkably capable of convincing myself that I can handle just about anything. I believe I can handle the truth because the truth mirrors my perceptions. In a post-modern culture where truth is regarded as mere opinion, my individual truth has equal importance to everyone else’s renditions of their own personal truth. Thus, truth is reduced to a small matter easily dispensed with.
I live in a world of evidence, including the evidence of Aristotle’s chain of causation I see on a daily basis. One thing is caused by something else, which is caused by something else in turn. So, I come to believe that all my exertions, large and small, can somehow control the future. I’m firm in my conviction that I can concoct what I desire—a little push here, a little pull there. I know I can handle what I face. All it takes is a little more effort, and the great realm foretold in the New Testament, or at least in the offices of Madison Avenue, will breakthrough.
The kingdom I seek is the lower-case realm ruled over by the almighty upper-case Me.
Of course, the breakthroughs are rarely, if ever attainable. And if they do happen, they’re not the Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed in the gospels. It’s because the kingdom I seek is the lower-case realm ruled over by the almighty upper-case Me. I wind up believing in myself as my own defense attorney, judge, and jury. I will render a verdict in my favor when faced with any trial. After all, at the very least, I have good intentions. And those good intentions are big-time trouble.
The same could be said about Uzzah, who had the good intention that he was helping God’s intended future to arrive: a good intention that destroyed him.
The Ark of the Covenant was placed in the house of Uzzah’s father, Abinadab, after it’s retrieval from the Philistines. Everyone knew that the gilded crate that contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments, a jar of manna, and Aaron’s staff was a powerful thing. They remembered how the Jordan dried up as soon as the priests transferring it across the river into Canaan put a toe in the water. The Israelite armies had carried it with them as they went into battle because God had promised to be where the Ark was.
Whenever the Israelites stopped in their wanderings and conquest of Canaan, you could find the Ark in the Holy of Holies at the back of the Tabernacle, “the dwelling place of God.” In the Tabernacle and in the later renditions of the Temple, the Ark’s presence made the Holy of Holies into an ancient version of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor core: too dangerous to approach. Only the priest could move behind the curtain for a brief moment on the Day of Atonement.
Now at long last, King David had issued the order for the Ark to be transferred by cart to Jerusalem. To keep from coming into contact with such a holy thing, the Israelites loaded it onto the cart using poles and kept it covered with a veil while out in the open. Abinadab’s son, Uzzah, accompanied the Ark. He discovered what all the precautions were for when the cart slipped in a rut and the Ark began to slide off the ancient flat-bed. Unfortunately for Uzzah, the coronavirus has nothing on the Ark of the Covenant when it comes to the need for social distancing.
Despite all the warnings about holiness and danger, Uzzah did what any of us would have done. He literally took matters into his own hands to prevent God’s Holy Ark from crashing to the Judean rocks. Uzzah touched the Ark. He lay his fingers on the presence of God and was struck dead on the spot. If he had had any brain cells working at the point, he might have given us the moral of the story: You can’t handle God.
There are a couple of ways to think about that. First, God didn’t need Uzzah’s help. This is the divine being who came up with the idea of gravity long before Isaac Newton ever considered it. If God finds his Ark so precious, God had plenty of ways to circumvent what happened to Uzzah. A temporary halt to gravity would do nicely. So would simply letting the Ark fall and having the moving crew use those poles to get it back up on the cart again. However, what doesn’t work is thinking you need to save God from any peril to his own name, being, or power. In other words, Uzzah could have used a lesson from Jesus who taught us to pray against our own kingdom and will in the Lord’s Prayer. He might have followed the AA bumper sticker: Let go and let God.
Uzzah did what any of us would have done. He literally took matters into his own hands to prevent God’s Holy Ark from crashing to the Judean rocks.
Along with this comes the understanding that God’s utter holiness means that God will not be manipulated by sinful flesh. We don’t get to make just any demand on God or, worse, treat God like our own private lickspittle required to do our bidding. That would require a repeat of eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and would result in exactly the world the serpent tempted our first parents to believe would arrive by eating from the tree. Not handling God means not forming the Lord into whatever image we want to make of him.
Finally, not being able to handle God means that God has a problem on his own non-anthropocentric hands: How to make himself known, how to shift us from fear to love of God without completely doing an Uzzah on us in the process. It’s a big enough thing for me to think about maintaining six feet from others in the face of this pandemic; I can hardly imagine having God sidle up to me to whisper graces in my ear, only to have his proximity turn me to ashes and cinders.
What we have going for us is what Uzzah could have used: God’s arrival in our midst in a tangible way that not only doesn’t destroy life but gives it instead. We have Immanuel, God in the flesh: Jesus birthed into a stable, Jesus with hammer-pounded thumbs in his dad’s carpentry shop, Jesus with dirt under his toenails from walking to Capernaum, Jesus hangry and needing to pluck grains of wheat on the Sabbath, Jesus bloodied and hanging on the cross, Jesus dead and buried.
Here is God coming to you in a way that he fully desires to be handled. He wants to be grasped. He aims to have his body and blood placed in your hands and sliding down your gullet. And in giving himself to you, he allows you to make demands on him. He’s promised to give you life and give it abundantly. When it’s not happening because of a pandemic, injustice, or insolvency, you get to remind God that a promise was made and say, “Snap to, Lord. Let’s get ‘er done. I’m a-waiting.” That kind of handling is called for and regarded as ultra-faith.
Here is God coming to you in a way that he fully desires to be handled. He wants to be grasped.
One last thing, while we’re talking Uzzah and the Ark: The Holy of Holies where the Ark had been in the Temple remained wholly holy even after the Ark was lost. At Jesus’ last breath on the cross, the thirty-foot curtain enclosing the Holy of Holies was torn from top to bottom. No longer is God’s presence isolated in an ark, a curtained room, or the realm of ideas, hypotheticals, and speculation. Now God has a new dwelling, for the Holy Spirit has entered the world and on Pentecost entered us. It’s as if God has chosen to make all of us Uzzahs into new individual arks to bear his will into the world.
Now God places us on rutted roads for people to see and to give witness to what God has done. And God is sending people to us to grab us, to manipulate us, to handle us, because God wants to be known. Christ must be given in the flesh, our flesh. On account of Christ, God no longer has a use for arks that others shrink from. If Jesus says, “Come to me, ye wearied and disconsolate,” then our calling is to get down in the ruts of this path of life — and even into the grave — and risk the touch of the sinful and unclean.