When We Make God Into Our Idol | 1.31.21 | Missing the Obvious Pt. 4
1 Samuel 4:1-22
Pastor Chris Tweitmann
We all have fears
– encountering things or finding ourselves in potential situations
that make us – at best, nervous or worse, extremely anxious.
There are our fears and but then there is our worst fear.
The envisioning of our nightmare scenario
– when anything and everything goes all wrong
– when the thing we most dread – that terrible, potential outcome
– the very thought of which can sometimes keep us up at night
– becomes a hard and cold reality.
How are we to respond when that happens?
What can we do when our whole world
– the life we’ve created – completely falls apart?
Today, as we continue our series on 1 Samuel,
Israel’s worst fear is about to be realized.
What happens here
– as Israel experiences arguably the greatest defeat yet in her storied history,
may at first seem surprising – perhaps even shocking.
After all, when we last left this story,
God had called and raised up in a young boy named Samuel
His first, official prophet or spokesperson in centuries – since Moses.
And the Lord’s inaugural message through Samuel was a promise
to do something that would catch the attention of everyone in Israel.
As we’ll soon see, God is going to make good on that promise
but definitely not in the way anyone expected.
Today we begin a sequence of four stories that
tellingly don’t even mention Samuel but instead
focus on the Ark of the covenant,
we are going to learn what can happen when God’s people take God lightly.
We will come to understand how just going through
the routine of worship without taking God seriously,
daring to broadcast our beliefs without being willing
to actually yield to the Lord’s direction,
results in our greatest fears being realized.
At the same time, we also will discover
how the grace of God is revealed
even when we bring out about our worst nightmare.
With both our minds and our hearts open,
let’s hear the word of the Lord from 1 Samuel, chapter 4.
After the reading of scripture is completed, please keep your Bibles open
as we will looking beyond what is read aloud today.
The story shifts from the tabernacle of the Lord in Shiloh
to the battlefield as Israel’s centuries old rival, the Philistines
begins to stir up trouble.
If go back to the historical book before 1 Samuel, the book of Judges,
we discover, the Philistines have been Israel’s primary enemy to the west
since the days of the long-haired Nazarite named Samson.
The Philistines were a warrior people,
advanced in the military strategy and weaponry
– including iron chariots and known for their ferocity in battle.
Originally from Greece – primarily by way of Crete —
the Philistines first surfaced in Israel’s history
when they caused Moses as he led the Israelites out of Egypt
to turn south into the Sinai wilderness to avoid encountering them.
Later on – roughly a hundred years before today’s story
– the Philistines settled on the flatter coastal belt of Canaan
(what we know today as the Gaza Strip)
while the tribes of Israel had taken possession of the hill country.
Once again, the tension between these two neighbors comes to a head as the Philistines declares war against Israel by making camp in a place called Aphek.
The town of Aphek, which was a little north of Joppa (or what is today, Tel Aviv), stood on the border between Philistine and Israelite territory.
Some 20 miles to the west of Shiloh, Aphek was in close proximity
to where the tabernacle of the Lord resided.
Clearly, the Philistines initiate this attack as a first strike
in a longer progression towards the religious and political center of Israel.
In other words, the aim of this declared war by the Philistines
is to shatter and destroy Israel’s national identity.
And as the conflict begins, in Israel’s first encounter with the Philistines,
somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,000 Israelite men are lost
on the battlefield.
Israel’s defeat leaves the people perplexed.
As their mortal enemy continues to advance upon them,
the elders of Israel collectively wonder aloud,
“Why did the Lord bring defeat on us today before the Philistines?”
But even before this question has time to be reflected upon,
Israel’s leaders come up with their own novel answer.
They decide on the solution to their problem.
They devise a counter strategy they just know will ensure success
as the battle against the Philistines continues.
Their answer to their loss is, “Let’s bring God to the fight!”
The Israelites send to Shiloh for the Ark of the Covenant.
The Ark of the Covenant was a large, rectangular box
created by Moses at the Lord’s direction. (INSERT PIC)
Covered with gold, the Ark contained relics to remind the Israelites of
God’s faithfulness in their journey through the wilderness
– items such as a pot of manna, Aaron’s budded staff, and the tablets
containing the Ten Commandments that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai.
The lid or top of the Ark featured carved cherubim with outspread wings. (INSERT PIC)
Known as the Mercy Seat, this is where Israel’s high priest atoned once a year for the sins of the people. At that time, the Ark of the Covenant reflected the very presence of God among His people. Therefore, the Ark normally sat in the Holy of Holies, the central and most sacred place in the tabernacle, — a location that only the high priest could access and only once a year on the Day of Atonement.
However, there had been certain occasions when the Ark of the Covenant
was carried by the Levitical priesthood before the people
– particularly whenever they fa ced an enemy in battle.
If we’ve ever seen the original Indiana Jones movie that features a search for
this very same Ark of the Covenant, we might remember a scene where one of the characters remarks, (INSERT SOUND CUE)
“An army that carries the Ark before it…is invincible.”
This captures the mindset of the Israelites as they grab the Ark of the Covenant and have the priesthood carry it ahead of their troops into their next battle with the Philistines.
No doubt the people of Israel were recalling the famous battle of Jericho
where the Ark played a very visible and important part of Joshua’s victory
against that city.
Seemingly looking to duplicate the circumstances that provided that outcome,
as the Ark arrives in their camp from Shiloh, the Israelites shout loudly
– loud enough to shake the ground, loud enough for the Philistines to hear.
And the Philistines, as they see the Ark of the Covenant
arrive into Israel’s camp and as they hear the loud cries of the people,
in a sense confess their faith in the Lord as they draw the analogy
between the battle they are about to fight against Israel
and the humiliating defeat of the Egyptians in the Exodus story.
The Philistines momentary belief in the Lord God, however,
quickly gives way as rather than yield and submit before
what they perceive as the presence of the Lord,
the Philistines double down and commit to be strong and fight on.
But as the next battle unfolds, Israel soon discovers this is no Jericho moment.
Their plan does not go as they expected.
While they lost thousands in the earlier battle,
the Israelites experience an even more staggering defeat,
as they now see tens of thousands fall in this battle.
Instead of the divine deliverance of the Exodus,
the people seemingly witness their God being taken
into captivity by the Philistines as the Ark of the Covenant is lost.
As the army of Israel is in retreat, a messenger from the tribe of Benjamin
runs ahead – the twenty miles back to Shiloh
– to spread the word of Israel’s massive and absolute defeat.
As the bearer of bad news, he wears the customary signs of mourning.
Therefore, his appearance, even from a distance, as he is fast approaching,
already would indicate the word he is bringing is not good.
As the people of Israel cry out – not with a shout of anticipated victory this time but one of deep mourning, Eli, the high priest, the judge, the leader over all Israel – who is so old now that he cannot see anything now – Eli pulls this messenger aside and asks, “What has happened?”
What Eli hears next will cause him to drop dead on the spot.
Eli is told that his two sons, the priests, Hophni and Phinehas,
who accompanied the soldiers into battle,
who were carrying the Ark before them, have died in the conflict.
This was the sign the Lord had given to Eli long ago that Eli’s house and their corruption of the priesthood, their abuse of their spiritual leadership would not go unreckoned but would be judged severely.
But this is not the news that breaks Eli.
No, the writer of this story carefully records it was the news
that the Philistines had captured the Ark, not that his two sons had died,
that shocked Eli and caused to drop dead.
Likewise, the news of the loss of the Ark is what most distressed
Phinehas’ pregnant wife more than the news of the deaths of her husband
– her father-in-law and her brother-in-law.
The fall of Israel in fact jolts her into labor.
As she dies in childbirth, she memorializes the tragedy that has befallen her people through the name she gives to her newborn son: Ichabod. (Insert v. 21)
Ichabod a name which typically means “The glory has departed”
but can also mean, “Where is the glory?”
Either way, the point remains the same.
For Eli, for Phinehas wife, for the people of Israel,
their worst fear has been realized.
Their army has been routed.
The priestly line of Eli has been extinguished.
And the Ark of the Lord has been taken captive.
Their greatest nightmare has seemingly come true as in such a defeat
– the fall of the priesthood and the absence of the Ark of the Covenant
– the Lord God has been conquered.
YHWH has abandoned His people.
Israel has not only lost God’s blessing, but also His presence.
While 1 Samuel 4 tells us what happened,
nothing here makes explicit the reason for why this happened.
However, if we consider the story of Israel at this point in time
as recorded in the book of Judges and as we’ve been reading
in the first three chapters of 1 Samuel
– and if we also notice something a pretty glaring omission in this chapter,
we can put the pieces together and hopefully benefit from the insight.
What do we know prior about the state of the community of Israel
prior to these battles with the Philistines?
The people remain separated into their own tribes
– only coming together when facing a common enemy.
In the time of the judges, we witness the Lord raise up
great military leaders to deliver the people
and lead them in temporary reform – only to then watch them
fall deeper into a spiral of ignoring and forgetting God.
By the time we get to the story of 1 Samuel,
the community is increasingly divided and privatized,
with each person looking solely to their own interests.
Things are so bad that corruption and abuse have overtaken
both the spiritual and political leadership – the priesthood of Israel.
Everyone knows it.
And while they complain about it,
the overall impression is the people aren’t doing anything about it.
All of this – this collective malaise,
this communal practice of going through the motions
but not really committing to the Lord – is evidenced
by what transpires in the conflicts against the Philistines.
After their first defeat, the people of Israel start
by asking the right question, “Why did this happen?”
But then, the people never waited, never bothered to ask for answer.
Even though Israel has a newly inaugurated
and recognized prophet of the Lord among them
– their first divinely designated spokesperson since Moses,
the Israelites never talk with the one person
– the only person who could answer their question of “Why?”
Notice that Samuel basically exits stage right
for this and the next two chapters.
And there is no declaration here that it is Samuel
who disappeared or somewhere went into hiding.
No, Samuel apparently is still around – but in what unfolds next,
no one in Israel ever bothers to consults with him at all.
And not consulting with Samuel, the prophet,
really means the people weren’t interested
or didn’t think to ask the Lord
– the very God whom they are speaking of
when they ask, “Why did the Lord bring defeat on us today?”
– Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,
the Lord of all creation.
Instead, the people quickly grab hold of what they think
is an easy and obvious solution to their troubles.
In the plan the people come up with – did we notice? (insert verse 11)
– they look to Hophni and Phinehas, two corrupt and abusive priests,
to lead the charge.
Anyone who knew – and thanks to Samuel’s first prophecy from the Lord
– everyone had heard of God’s coming judgment declared against Eli,
his sons, and his house – the Israelites should be concerned by
the ones who are commanding this battle.
They don’t ask or talk to God for wisdom or direction.
Instead, in reaching for the Ark,
they purport lay claim to the Lord
— to use God as a defensive weapon
as if the Lord were some sort of magical charm.
Rather than seeking the Lord to provide an answer to their question,
the Israelites seek a symbol of the Lord, which was the Ark of the Covenant,
to be the answer to their question.
In other words, the people attempted to make the Lord God into their idol.
The Israelites saw the Ark of the Covenant as equivalent to the Lord.
The people could see the Ark, and the presence of the Ark was their hope.
Their belief was in the power of the Ark rather than in the person of God.
In this way, the Israelites revealed their faith was no different
than the faith of their enemy, the Philistines.
The religion of the Philistines was one that equated symbols and idols with gods.
Notice this is how they respond to the Ark coming into the camp of Israel
– as the presence of Israel’s God.
And as we’ll see next week, in the aftermath of their win here,
the Philistines will perceive their “victory” over Israel
– in the capture of the Ark – as the defeat of YHWH.
But they will painfully learn their lesson in this making this assumption.
The Israelites believed bringing the Ark to the battlefield was the same thing
as seeking and yielding before the Lord in leading the battle.
In the results – the tragic defeat that follows – however,
the people still don’t learn how wrong they were.
Whereas before the battle, the people of Israel were convinced
through the presence of the Ark that the Lord was with them,
now in the aftermath of losing the Ark to the Philistines,
the Israelites lament that the Lord has abandoned them.
But in view of God’s promises and revealed plans for Israel,
spoken first long ago to Abraham and repeated and reaffirmed
through Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and Joshua, the people should have known better
– that the Lord never abandons His people or breaks His promises.
The people had forgotten that despite YHWH’s accommodation
through structures like the tabernacle and the Ark,
the presence and power of the Lord God is not like any other god
– limited by space and time or bound by objects or geography.
That God is in complete control here is evident
by the Lord declaring this would happen. (insert 1 Samuel 3:11-12)
The Lord, through Samuel, had declared the reckoning
that would come to Eli and his house.
Specifically, God announced He was going to do something
so unexpected in the history of Israel that
it would catch the attention of everyone that
He, the Lord, would expose the futility of Israel’s leaders and liturgy.
Therefore, the defeat of Israel’s corrupt, abusive,
and therefore, barren leadership
is less of a victory for the Philistines
and more of a demonstration that
what God has declared has indeed come to pass.
But Israel missed recognizing all of this because Israel was too busy trying to make the Lord into an idol. Both the leaders and the people together attempted to domesticate God rather than to yield before God’s will and direction in their live. They tragically confused bearing the name of God’s people and possessed the symbols of God’s presence as being in command of God’s power.
We often speak today of others not putting us in a box – defining and limiting us according to their own perceptions or purposes. Here in this story we witness the people imagining that God was literally in the box they were carrying – that they had the Lord at their beck and call rather than abiding and trusting in God’s lead.
This won’t be the last time this is a problem for Israel.
It’s a costly mistake that will surface time and time again in Israel’s history.
Prophets of the Lord long after Samuel will regularly protest against
the people’s presumption of coopting the Lord for their devices, for their ends.
Israel will rise and fall – split in half and end up in exile
– because of her repeated practice of treating the Lord like an idol
– some charm or talisman that can be manipulated and controlled.
Time and again, the people will mistake external ritualism
– going through the motions with God with a living, abiding faith in the Lord,
a faith that obediently yields to one’s mind and heart being reshaped
– to having one’s life transformed by the Lord’s grace.
If we look carefully and honestly at the Israelites in this story,
we may see something of a reflection of ourselves.
Don’t we sometimes border on attempting to make the Lord into idol?
Many Christians become very attached and fixated
– and not merely for sentimental reasons
– to the specific cross they were or the translation of the Bible they read.
There is, of course, nothing at all wrong with these and other
physical, religious objects, just as there was nothing wrong with the Ark.
They are tangible symbols and tools for the exercise of our faith.
However, when we begin to place our focus and our trust in these items
—as if God is with us, that the Lord will bless us
because we possess or elevate them, we are turning God into our idol.
Just like the ark, the true value of these religious items rests only in their use
to move our hearts and minds into a closer relationship,
a deeper dependence upon the Lord – on His terms and not ours.
This clarification about idolatry relates not just to religious objects
but also to our spiritual practices.
Sometimes even well-meaning and sincere Christians put their faith and trust in the practices of attending Sunday worship, reading the Bible, and praying.
Again, there is nothing inherently wrong with any of these actions.
They are prescribed actions that we should take but again as tools – as practices – gateways to cultivating our understanding, our growth and maturity in following Jesus through compassionately and graciously serving others.
But if we place our trust and our faith in the tools – in the practices – they will become idolatrous for us. We will presume that the Lord is only present if we sing the right songs, say the proper prayers, read the correct translation of the Bible, and/or attend the best worship service – all of which not coincidentally end up being the ones we like and prefer!) Instead of worshipping the Lord and serving others, we will end up worshipping and serving our own likes and preferences – what fits our schedule and comfort level.
Beloved, Sunday worship, reading our Bibles, singing and praying, fasting – all of the various spiritual practices of the Church – are not some kind of magical formula for us by which we lay claim to the Lord and have God fit into box – our agenda; this wide tapestry of tools are our privileged means by which the Lord lays His claim upon us – by which God fashions us to understand and follow His agenda for our lives and for all creation.
We all have our idols – the hardest sometimes to recognize
are the ones draped in religious tradition and spiritual purpose.
But trust me, they are there.
We can be especially numb to those kinds of idols.
We can justify them. Rationalize them.
I’ve lost count of how many Christians have told me
they can’t worship the Lord – they can’t get experience the presence of God
– unless we are back in our sanctuary.
It boggles my mind and breaks my heart as we continue as the Body of Christ to argue and divide over the tools and practices of our faith – our preferences.
Through the work of the Spirit and the witness of God’s word here, let us dare to be transparent, let us truly lay ourselves before the Lord and ask the hard questions – but less also take the time, make the space to listen as our God answers, as our Lord reveals the true source of our faith, our hope, and our trust. And let us not be surprised but instead let us cast aside anything and everything that is getting in the way of our abiding and relying on Christ.
Right now, a lot of people in this world – particularly in this nation
– are invoking the name of God in order to claim that their way is right.
But what will learn profoundly here is we need to be very careful of deceiving ourselves into believing that just because we call ourselves God’s people
means that whatever we want for ourselves is what God desires for us.
Rather than an availability and surrender to be used by God,
the Israelites were trying to use God for themselves.
Rather than calling out to God and waiting to hear from the Lord,
the Israelites were attempting to force the Lord into action on their behalf
– to work for them on their timeline and in their way.
Beloved the presumption of Christ’s presence in our midst is
not our warrant to project or assert Christ’s power; it is rather our invitation
to humble receive and follow Jesus’ guidance and direction.
Beloved, the Lord doesn’t do our bidding, we do His.
If we want to call ourselves followers of Jesus, then we need to abide and live according to the rules of His Kingdom and not the kingdoms we try and build.
We need to honestly ask ourselves why do we not seek the Lord on matters
when we would rather do what we want to do.
Because like Israel in this story, we believe our way is best.
Samuel’s voice is missing because the Israelite’s thought
they could handle the situation. The presence of God was an afterthought.
They did not want to hear anything contrary to their mindset.
It sounds a lot like us sometimes. I don’t about you, but I sometimes can find myself planning or problem-solving apart from Jesus. I can get so caught up in my view of a situation – trying to look at from various angles and then just figuring out what I perceive is the best course of action to take that I can totally forget to look, to ask, to seek Christ’s perspective and direction on what is right in front of me. And if I’m honest, sometimes I don’t want to know – because I am so committed, so sure that what I’ve decided is right – that what I’ve determined to do Jesus just has to bless.
When we think we can handle a situation on our own apart from the Lord,
we will find ourselves worse off than when we started.
Something always goes horribly wrong.
Because even our best answers are never better than God’s.
The truth is, any answers as human beings that we come up with apart from the Lord – His revealed wisdom and declared truth – have and always will end badly – tragically. Humanity has a losing track record whenever and however it plays God.
It’s not about believing and trusting in what we might be able to do;
It’s about seeking and following what Jesus has done – what Christ is doing.
With this in mind, let’s reconsider exactly what God is doing here.
As I mentioned earlier, this isn’t so much a victory for the Philistines as it is exactly what the Lord purposed to do. But why?
Why did God allow Himself to be captured and seemingly defeated?
Why does the Lord go into exile
– bearing this humiliating blow struck against Israel,
the ones who have disobeyed and forgotten him?
Why does God take on the curse of the covenant failure His people.
The answer to the questions that cannot be found here
are presented to us on the Cross. For we worship the God who bears our humiliation and shame, who pays the price for the curse of our failures.
We are worship the Lord who embraces defeat and death – that we deserve – not as an indication that He has abandoned or forsaken us – but in order to clear the ledger, the clean the slate, to reset the table in order to set us free from our past and enable us to have a future.
The Gospel that is later declared in Jesus Christ will be revealed here in 1 Samuel as out of Israel’s defeat, devastation, and even death — the end of an old, barren, and corrupted era of Israel – the Lord will bring resurrection and new life.
This is the good news of God even in the midst of our loss. That in the midst the struggles of our own making – as the idols in God’s image we create fail us, as we turn to ask the Lord where He’s been, we discover He’s never left. It is only when everything else has been stripped away, that we finally come understand what God seeks from us is not checking off all the religious boxes but abiding and trusting always and forever – only in Him. Amen.