Notes from a sermon preached at Turner’s Hill Free Church on 10.05.09
As I have already given away through the emblem on the front of my tunic from Sierra Leone I am an ardent Liverpool Football Club Supporter. Liverpool are the most successful English football club, and this season after a decade of waiting for a return to form, the glory days suddenly seem just a whisker away. In case you want to quibble with my claim about their greatness, how’s this for a record: they have won the European Cup 5 times, the top flight league 18 times, and on top of that 7 FA cups and 7 League Cups. This year it looks as if they may be pipped to the Premiership title by Man. Utd and a handful of points, but title number 19 is getting very close. When they win it, it will take pride of place on the trophy cabinet to underline their claim as the top team in English footballing history, and wheeled out to make the point whenever required!
I bought myself a new toy a couple of years ago in a bid to get my life organised, a Palm handheld computer. On it has a diary into which I can put my appointments, set alarms to remind me when to do things. It even synchronises to my PC at home too so that I’m never without my list of tasks to do. Putting in a new appointment or job to do is easy. You just tap the ‘new’ button, scrawl in the job or meeting, and chose the type of event or job it is from a drop down list of options. This way I can quickly locate all church events, or personal tasks or SLM related activities.
If you go to Google and look up ‘in a box’ the search engine will tell you that there are about 16,400,000 webpages that it knows of with this phrase. You can get ‘lunch in a box’, ‘a band in a box’, ‘a rocket in a box’, a celebration in a box’, ‘a monster in a box’, ‘a farm in a box’ and even ‘liposuction in a box’! Pre-packaged and prepared for ease of use, a thousand and one commodities are ready for our use in these readymade and convenient packages. All you need to do is open the box and within it discover everything you need to fulfil your wishes in one easy location.
You may be wondering what these three topics have to do with 1 Samuel 4-6, but be patient, all will become clear!
First of all, let me give you an overview of the three chapters – they’re a bit long to read out fully, but I do recommend that you go home and check them out, it’s a great story.
In 1 Samuel 4 the Israelites are beaten in battle by the Philistines, taking some 4000 casualties. This is a fairly desperate state of affairs. Like we may do here when the campaign in Iraq is finally finished, they held an enquiry to look into what went wrong. Blame games aside, the major question was what could they do to get their own back? It didn’t take long until someone pointed out the one big weapon that they had that the Philistines didn’t – God! They could take the Ark of the Covenant with them, and God would ensure that they were victorious. Men were sent to Shiloh where Eli’s sons were attending to bring back the Ark.
The shout that went up when the Ark was brought to the camp was earth-shattering. They were so excited, convinced that because God was now with them that they were invincible. Catch is, the Philistines heard the shout, and when they learnt what it was about, it focussed them all the more, stirring them on to greater acts of bravery and violence on the battlefield. This time the Israelites not only lost, but 30,000 of their men were slain. Total destruction. What’s more, the Ark was lost, captured as a trophy by their enemy. Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas killed. Hearing the news of the loss of the Ark Eli collapsed, breaking his neck in the fall and dying.
It would seem that not only were the Israelite’s weak, but their God was too… Back in their lands, chapter five tells us that they placed it in their temple to Dagon in Ash, like a trophy in their trophy cabinet. Look what we’ve won, look how great we are! Look how mighty our god is!
They didn’t feel quite so smug the next morning when they found the statue of Dagon lying prostrate before the Ark. Carefully they raised it back up to its rightful place, putting it down to an accident, or pesky kids or something. Next day Dagon was prostrate again, but this time shattered, only the body intact.
This left them with a quandary, what to do with the Ark? How should they respond to what God was doing in their midst? Does this change their view of Dagon and Yahweh?
In the end they decided not to abandon Dagon and switch to worshipping the Israelite’s God, but instead to move the Ark out of the temple and to a city called Gath. From there they moved it again to Ekron. In both places the people were afflicted with tumours, in Ekron many died as death swept through the city. Just as God had proved himself to be greater than Dagon, he proved himself to be more powerful than the people too. The chapter ends with the people calling out for the Ark to be sent away.
And that of course is exactly what happens in Chapter 6. The Philistines load up a cart with the Ark and gold gifts – gold tumours in fact, just like the ones God had given them, gold rats too as it seemed as if diseases were not enough – strapped it to oxen and sent it on its way.
The cattle knew the way to go, and the Ark was returned to Israel accompanied by much rejoicing! When they found it, the Israelites broke the cart up and used to offer the cattle as sacrifices – sacrifices of thanksgiving and no doubt repentance too. Most of Israel celebrated that day, but not all, for some looked into the Ark. You’ve heard the phrase ‘curiosity killed the cat’? Well that was certainly the case here.
So what is going on in this story? What is it trying to tell us about God, the Philistines and the Israelites?
It doesn’t take much imagination to see does it! It’s all about who God is, how we see him and what we make of him. Remember those three topics I mentioned at the start? Three pictures of different ways in which we can see or treat God.
We can see him as a trophy. We are told that we should boast in our God. The Israelites certainly did – that’s just what they were doing when they brought the Ark into battle, ‘You think you’re good do you? Well just look at who’s on our side! Now do you think you’re the best!’ Thing is, we’re supposed to boast about him, not about ourselves using him as some status symbol that we possess. The Philistines did the same thing when they brought the Ark into their temple. They didn’t place it there to worship, but instead as a trophy, ‘Look what we’ve won! You thought you were the clever ones didn’t you!’ By placing it at the feet of Dagon, they were simply rubbing salt in the wound, ‘Our God is better than ours, we’re better than you…’.
This is why Eli collapsed when he heard that the Ark had been seized. Partly because he knew the prophecies about him and his family were coming true, but also because he realised that the thing he had gained his status from, his position of power and authority, had been snatched away. His trophy was gone. This was why God toppled the statue of Dagon, again he was saying I am not confined to a box or you narrow vision of who I am.
God is not some trophy to be wheeled out like the Premiership title in bragging contests between rival fans. God is not there for our benefit – although in his mercy he chooses to love us and care for us. No, we are here for his benefit, to bring him glory, to worship him through our words and deeds.
In what ways do we treat God as a trophy? As a status symbol? Do we use our relationship with him to look down on the world, to see ourselves as better than them as we have God? We may not articulate it that way, but I’ve observed it so often in the way we speak about ‘the world’ and our non-Christian neighbours, especially those we perceive as living sinful lifestyles. We are better than them because we have got God. No actually, we are no better than them, and that’s the point of the Gospel. We are all sinners, none of us are worthy of God. Our position in Christ has nothing to do with us, and everything to do with Jesus’ grace.
Do we use our relationship with God in order to gain special benefits in the world, to be treated differently as if it is our right? I think of some of the ways as Christians we have demanded our rights as Christians and I wonder sometimes if we have got our priorities right…
This leads onto the second picture I used. Why didn’t the Israelites take God with them into the first battle? Put aside the whole ‘God in a Box’ thing for a moment. Was it that they didn’t think they needed God then? Did they think that God was to do with worship, with sacrifices and priestly type stuff, whereas combat had nothing to do with him?
There are many occupational hazards with my job. Too many cups of tea when visiting! Strangers phoning me and knowing where I live. That feeling of being watched all the time, on show, under the microscope… I think the worst hazard though, is what it can do to my relationship with God though. On a Sunday morning I go to church to work. Mid week Bible studies are work. Reading the Bible is in order to get ideas for sermons. Prayer becomes about the church and its problems. Do you see what’s happening? The danger is that I end up relating God to my work, and so when I leave work behind at the end of the day, I also leave God behind too.
We live in a world full of competing demands. We’re all juggling too many things – work, family, friends, church, and so on. There is the danger for all of us that we add God to this list and make him something to be compartmentalised and fitted in like an entry in my electric diary.
We can treat him as ‘a god in a box’ to be bought out and used when it suits as, on our terms, for our needs. Freddie Mercury quote – made disposable pop, to be listened to and then thrown away. So easy to do this with God.
For the Israelites, they made the mistake of thinking that God was literally ‘a god in a box’, the Ark. They believed that God was contained within it, and that he was therefore in someway under their control. He went where they took him, and therefore if they took the Ark into battle, there god would come too and fight on their behalf.
In what ways do we wheel God out when it suits us, and leave him behind when we think we don’t need him?
The bottom line? Our God is no trinket to be trifled with, we cannot confine him to an Ark, a box or compartment in our lives..
We are privileged to be his children – but this is not through right or merit, but through his grace and love alone. This does not take away from who he is though. He remains the King of kings, the Creator of all things, the Beginning and the End, before whom all glory and honour are due. Let us learn from the mistakes of the Israelites and Philistines and give him the position in our lives he deserves – the Centre. He is not ours, ‘God in a box’, but instead we are quite simply his.