Remembering To Turn Back To God | 2.14.21 | Missing the Obvious Pt. 6
1 Samuel 7:2-17
Pastor Chris Tweitmann
Have you ever been to Washington D.C.?
It is a beautiful, bustling city. For me, one of the most compelling things about Washington D.C. are all of the distinctive and evocative monuments and memorials that have been placed all throughout our nation’s capital. Over the last two centuries, these monuments and memorials have been erected to remind us of the pivotal moments
- experiences of immense heartbreak and sorrow,
- times of great courage and honor as well as the past sacrifices that we must never forget.
These statues, these monuments, these memorials tell a story – the story of what has shaped our history as a country.
They reflect not only what but who we choose to remember and value and those we do not – a painful but undeniable truth that is at heart of the recent controversy and protests about many of the monuments and memorials throughout the United States. At their best, when they are most inclusive, these statues declare to us
“This is it! This is where everything changed.
For better or worse, this is where history changed its course.”
They remind of where we’ve been so as to challenge us to keep moving forward in the right direction.
Not just in America, but throughout the story of the people of God, we find many different monuments that were raised up for the next generation to remember how the Lord intervened in the unfolding of their story, of how the Lord had brought them forward into the future.
One of the patriarchs named Jacob, for instance, marked the site, a place he called Bethel or the House of God, where the Lord first made His presence known through a divinely-initiated vision of a stairway to heaven.
Or there was Joshua, who followed Moses – Joshua, who after the Lord led the people across the dry river bed of what had only moments ago been the flooded Jordan River, built a monument out of some of large stones of that river on its bank. And there it stood at the entrance to the Promised Land so that the children of God would not lose sight of how far the Lord already had brought them and thus, continue to trust God to carry and guide even further on.
And today, as we turn back to 1 Samuel, chapter 7, we will hear the story of yet another monument being constructed in the aftermath of a surprising victory.
But as we’ll soon discover, more than a remembrance of what happened; this touchstone was created so that everyone would never forget who made it happen as well as how the people were able to experience that victory. With not only our ears, but our hearts and our minds open, let’s listen to the word of the Lord from 1 Samuel, chapter 7.
And please remember to keep your Bibles open as the passage we are looking at today goes beyond what will be read aloud for us…
When we last left the people of Israel, they had just suffered a surprising and crushing defeat at the hands of their rival, the Philistines.
In many ways, this defeat was the final nail in the coffin after several decades of open corruption and abuse by the religious leadership and a general spiritual apathy among the people.
The Lord God had become for Israel an idol – a means to their ends – rather than someone to whom they were devoted to through a committed relationship, rather than being the One who centered and shaped their life together.
All of this was epitomized in Israel’s last major conflict with the Philistines.
After experiencing an initial defeat, the Israelites, on their own initiative and without giving any thought to asking the Lord, trotted out the Ark of the Covenant onto the battlefield.
Supremely confident that they had God in a box, the Israelites were convinced they would win the day. But by day’s end, they left with their tail between their legs – leaving more than 30,000 of their own lost in the battle with the Ark of the Covenant having been captured by the Philistines.
And even then, even in the throes of their own blindness and failure, the takeaway of the people was the glory of the Lord had departed from them rather than realizing it was they who had departed from seeking God’s glory.
Eventually, the Ark of the Covenant came back to Israel.
Or, if we remember from last week, it was sent back by the Philistines – who though they painfully came to realize that YHWH is the Lord, chose not to bow before a God who won’t be held hostage.
Rather than submit before a God they couldn’t manipulate and control, the Philistines escorted the one, true God out of their lives and community.
This is where our story picks up. The Ark has returned.
And Samuel, the prophet of the Lord, reappears in the narrative.
He’s been out of the picture since just before that decisive battle against the Philistines back in chapter 4.
In the time that has passed – about 7 months, Samuel also has served as the high priest of Israel.
All the while, since their devastating loss to the Philistines, Israel has remained under the thumb of their mortal enemy.
Seemingly, it is this context, the ongoing reality of their oppression, that spurred all the people of Israel to come to Samuel and declare their need for the Lord God Almighty.
And so, Samuel calls for the loose confederation of the tribes of Israel, to gather together at a place named Mizpah, some two miles northeast of Samuel’s hometown of Ramah.
There at Mizpah, Samuel leads the people in big tent revival worship service. With not just their words but also through various physical, tangible gestures of reconciliation – praying and fasting, the people offer themselves back to the Lord God.
This whole offering of self is reflected through Samuel’s sacrifice of a lamb – a lamb that represented all Israel in the refocus and renewal of its relationship with YHWH.
Meanwhile, the Philistines having learned all of Israel is gathered at Mizpah, strategically decide to launch a surprise attack.
In response, the people of Israel begin to freak out and fear their annihilation, Samuel does not rally the troops to prepare a counter, defensive stand.
Samuel just keeps on leading the people in worship – in praise and sacrifice.
And the Philistines, as they advance, never make it through the front door to Israel’s camp.
Instead the Philistines run right smack into a little divine thunder and lightning – very, very frightening – as it is YHWH they encounter on the battlefield.
Baal, one of the chief gods of the Philistines, supposedly was the god of storms. But on that fateful, the Philistines learned the hard way who in fact was Lord over the weather, over all creation.
Thrown into confusion, the Philistine army is defeated before a single Israelite steps into the conflict.
They are routed as the Israelites pursue them in their retreat.
Victorious, Israel recaptures all their lands that had been previously taken.
To mark this crucial moment in Israel’s history and her relationship with the Lord, Samuel takes a stone and builds a monument that he calls, Ebenezer.
And the power and might of the Philistines remains decisively broken for the rest of Samuel’s life.
This appears to be a fairly straightforward story. However, we need to be clear about what happens here and why.
First, let us look more closely at Samuel’s response when the people come to him seeking to return to the Lord. It’s taken many months and several losses for the people of Israel to confess there need for God.
Samuel, however, is initially unimpressed by Israel’s tears.
Because apparently in these last 7 months, the people’s initial problem of taking God lightly – of trying to make God into idol – has worsened into worshipping other, false gods – the gods of their oppressors, the gods of the Philistines.
For Samuel, while their crying out to the Lord is all well and good, what is needed is their repentance – letting go of their dependence and trust – their ultimate allegiance upon anyone or anything except for the Lord God.
Basically, what Samuel asks here is “Where will you stand in relation to YHWH?” “How far are you willing to go in following the Lord – this God who is committed to going the distance – to the ends of the earth and beyond – for you?”
And so, the people of Israel cast aside all their idols – all their other priorities and extracurricular interests, all their other time commitments in their busy schedules, all their other fail-safes and back-up plans, all their divisions and differences, and gathered together in unity.
While confession is a necessary and right starting point in our relationship with Jesus, this by itself doesn’t mean we are following Christ.
Being sorry, acknowledging wrong, confessing we need help, means nothing – it is nothing more than mere sentiment – without repentance.
Sorrow itself is not the same thing as repentance.
Repentance is more than a feeling.
Repentance is more than words.
Repentance is a choice, a decision, a response.
Repentance – biblically – is turning AWAY from beliefs, words, and actions that are counter to, offensive to divine love, truth, and justice and turning TOWARD the way, truth, and the life our Creator intended for all of us, for all creation – as definitively revealed in the person and life of Jesus Christ.
Repentance is more than changing one’s mind; repentance is yielding to the Holy Spirit’s changing of our heart and transformation of our character.
Initially, it would appear the people of Israel are repenting when they come to Samuel. After all, it says, “Then all the people turned back to the Lord,” doesn’t it?
But Samuel will have none of it. Why?
Because the people are turning to the Lord because they perceive their problem to be the Philistines, the force opposing them on the outside.
Notice, however, how Samuel redirects the people to see that, in fact, all their trouble, what they need to turn away from, is the enemy within – the false sense of health and prosperity, security and comfort they were attaching to the idols they were worshipping.
Beloved, sometimes our life is under siege because of forces external to us.
We are attacked, we are persecuted, we are oppressed by no fault of our own.
I don’t want anyone who is listening to this to understand that every time we face hardship, suffer abuse, or endure loss that it is always our fault.
Living in a broken world that is not the way it’s supposed to be, bad things can and do happen over which we have no control or blame.
At the same time, there are often situations and circumstances where we perceive the problem to be somebody else’s doing, someone else’s fault, to be “out there” rather than facing and admitting, the difficulty, the challenge is “in here.”
Not all – but many of our struggles, our battles in our relationships, in our work and play, and in our own personal health – of body, mind, and spirit – are problems within our own hearts, our own thinking and being.
Idolatry is not simply the worship of wood and stone statues. The problem of idolatry is setting the primary focus of one’s mind, heart, and will – on anything or anyone save God in Christ alone.
It is seeking one’s true abundance and fulfillment in relationships, possessions, experiences, and achievements that cannot bear the weight of providing our identity and security.
Our addiction to idols, our attempts to make other people and other things would-be Messiahs in our lives leads not to our blessing and salvation – but to our selfishness, our greed and our envy, our self-doubt and our fear – to competing loyalties, to divided selves, and fractured relationships.
Only in Jesus – following Christ – do we discover who we truly are – our value and worth that does not have to be earned or achieved by anything we do.
Only in Jesus – following Christ – do we also find out all that we can become – the best, whole version of ourselves – not by own strength or brilliance – but through yielding to the work of the Spirit both in and through us.
Repentance is an action – faith in action – submitting to – trusting – loving and honoring the God who love and honors us first – even when we fail and forget Him.
Crying out to the Lord for deliverance necessitates our intention to follow where and how the Lord leads us.
This leads us to something else we need to see in this story – who it is that fights the battle and wins it.
Notice at the battle of Ebenezer there is actually little military engagement on the part of the Israelites.
They pursue in the aftermath of the victory. But this triumph, this win, belongs not to Israel, not to Samuel, but to YHWH.
Beloved, we need to let the Lord fight the battles we face. This is a provocative statement that begs for clarification. So, let’s be clear, not every battle we face is of the Lord.
Some battles are ones we instigate and prosecute apart from God.
Some battles are not of the Lord even though we try to attach the name of God to our own personal or corporate crusade.
To say we need to let the Lord fight the battles we face is to trust the Lord to fight the battles that are worth fighting.
And more often than not, as we’ve previously discussed, they are the battles within – the struggle within the human heart and mind to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly before our Creator – to live in devotion to God that is reflected through being as devoted to the well-being our neighbors as we are devoted to our own well-being.
Letting the Lord fight such battles doesn’t mean we as the people of God don’t have a part to play.
Samuel leads the people not in fighting but in worshipping. The people confess and pray, they fast and sacrifice while the Lord accomplishes the victory on their behalf.
Let it be reinforced one more time, what we witness here is NOT some mechanical or magical formula, some ritualistic call and response.
It’s NOT that we repent, we pray, and God does whatever we ask – that the Lord fights the battles we initiate.
Rather we pray – this opens us up, makes us receptive and yielding – to what the Lord wills and purposes to do before us, the battles that God chooses to join not that we orchestrate ourselves.
And prayer as an armament in such battles is more of a defensive than an offensive weapon – designed to protect us from ourselves – to open us up to the refuge and strength that can only be found in the Lord.
And one more time, the battles the Lord is fighting are, more often than not, the battles within the human heart and mind.
Repentance is a choice, a decision, an action we must repeat daily.
The battle against idolatry is not a one and done sort of thing.
As works in progress, in following Jesus, every day we continue to face the temptation of giving our allegiance, putting our trust, devoting ourselves to another false god – to someone or something that promises us a quick and easy fix or a simple, three step, low-cost solution, someone or something that offers us someone else to blame, a scapegoat – all the while assuring us it’s not who need to be changed, it’s them – “they” are the one who need to change.
If we can’t recognize the constant threat of idolatry in our lives, then we haven’t been paying much attention during the past year of this pandemic and this election season.
The more the form of our idols change, the more the root of them stay the same.
Through not just confession but repentance, we must repeatedly – daily – choose against other forms of peace and health, security and prosperity – and decide to worship Christ – to move and follow Jesus’ direction as He fights for us.
Samuel, however, knew something – one final observation we need to make about this story.
That we are a forgetful people.
That in the absence of our memory about God, we always end up taking the credit.
And when we take the credit, that becomes the starting point that gives root to all our problems with idolatry – the worship of ourselves, putting ourselves at the center of the universe rather than the Lord.
Therefore, Samuel sets up a commemorative stone between Mizpah and Shen, and he names it Ebenezer.
Now, if you’re like me, the first thing you think of when you hear the name, Ebenezer is Ebenezer Scrooge, the friendless miser who is profoundly transformed after being visited by three spirits on Christmas Eve.
Or, maybe this name, calls to mind a line you’ve always wondered about whenever we sing the familiar and classic hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing / Here I raise mine Ebenezer, hither by thy help I’ve come.”
If we’ve ever scratched our heads at what this verse means, this story gives us the answer.
Samuel erects this monument and calls it Ebenezer because Ebenezer means “stone of help.”
Samuel underscores this when he says in naming the monument, “Thus far, the Lord has helped us.”
Why did Samuel call it Ebenezer?
Because if we look back to chapter 4, it was at Ebenezer that the Israelites were camped when they lost so badly, when the Ark of the Lord was taken.
And now, when they look to this Ebenezer, this monument of stone, they will remember their sin, their sheer, unmitigated folly that got them into their situation in the first place, but now also the grace of God, that saved them from themselves, that fought the battle they couldn’t win on their own.
Why did Samuel call this stone memorial, Ebenezer?
Because, beloved, in our walk with Jesus, there is not only the need for God’s grace, there is not only the experience of God’s grace, but there is also the remembrance of God’s grace.
We are a forgetful people. We so easily forget thus far, the Lord has helped us. We so quickly turn away from the Lord rather than realizing we daily need to repent, to turn back to Christ, so that the Lord can help us go even further – through today and into tomorrow – beyond, eventually, even death itself.
As you look back on your life, your journey of faith with Jesus, where and when has it been abundantly clear that Christ became real to you, that the Lord was intervening on your behalf?
If you are struggling to recognize or remember those moments, ask a trusted family member or friend to reflect with you on this.
Keep in mind, the reality of God’s presence in our lives isn’t always mystical and awe-inspiring.
It can be that but it also can be evident in small, subtle but profoundly defining breakthroughs that might otherwise seem or feel pedestrian.
For me, there are Ebenezers – monuments to Christ’s ever-presence and abiding faithfulness – all over my life.
But I didn’t always recognize those places in the moment or even right away in hindsight.
Many of them became visible to me only when I turned back to the Lord after getting ahead of God or just purely trying to go my own way.
Now though, as I daily remember those places, I find myself less prone to wander – to navel-gaze and start worshipping myself and instead better able to keep my thoughts, my words, and my actions focused on Christ.
May you remember your Ebenezers and may the Lord God give you and all of us many more as together we follow Jesus.
For a posture of repentance becomes more than an act of religious obligation; it becomes an orientation of an eager, joyous life of worship of Christ, when we look to the Ebenezers in our life and remember how far the Lord has brought us.
For deliverance is what the Lord offers us when we cannot help ourselves.
But we cannot be delivered when we aren’t willing to be rescued, if we are still trying to save ourselves.
The resurrection life we can have in Christ begins not with confession but with repentance – with turning around from trying to avoid or cheat death and following the work and voice of Jesus who rolls away the stone and calls us forth from the tomb.
Victory follows repentance because as we turn toward Christ and follow Him, we are moving towards the winning side
- the only direction that brings new life, a life changed for the better
- the only path that can transform what was once a place of our former defeat into a touchstone of our victory in Jesus and a sign of our eternal redemption.
For once we see how far Jesus has brought us,
we can continue to look forward and go where
Christ wants to lead us. Amen.