by Daniel Harrell
Our prayers go out to those suffering the immense devastation, loss of life and now nuclear threat after last week’s massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan. We inhabit a very powerful planet that like the God who made it, shows no partiality. The redeeming news is that human loss of this magnitude mobilizes compassion from across national and geographical boundaries—all the more rapidly with the capacity to text and email donations. And yet despite huge outpourings of concern, recovery from natural disaster remains slow even for a country as well prepared as Japan or as developed as the United States. A good friend heads down to the Gulf Coast this month with members of his church to continue helping with the clean up from Hurricane Katrina which struck almost six years ago. If recovery is this slow in America, how much worse for a country like Haiti still deep in the rubble from its own earthquake of more than a year ago. In an effort to help there, our church launched an effort last night to partner with an organization called Impact Lives that will pack and deliver close to 300,000 meals from us for those who remain hungry and displaced.
It is appropriate to begin Lent with loss. This season of the church year has always been about human desolation and despair. And yet, paradoxically, as I mentioned on this past Ash Wednesday, the word Lent derives from the Middle English word meaning spring. Lenten desolation gives way to resurrection every time. The ashes rubbed on our foreheads reminded us that we are but dust and to the dust we shall return. But that the ashes took the shape of a cross also reminded us that through Christ death paves the way to eternal life. This is the Christian hope.
Wednesday was the first time I’d ever had ashes imposed on my forehead in a Congregational Church (though all those other Congregational churches still called it Ash Wednesday). Most Congregationalists don’t do ashes due to Jesus’ warning against practicing your piety in public so to be seen by others. Of course these days wearing ashes on your forehead feels less like displaying your piety than it does displaying a lack of hygiene. It can be kind of embarrassing. But this too is appropriate for Lent. Donning ashes has historically served as a mark of shame and humility rather than pride, attitudes essential to the Lenten disciplines of self-examination and repentance.
Every Christian links Lent with repentance. All are sinners who deserve to wear ashes. Yet as the apostle John thankfully wrote, “If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” But forgiveness is only one side of grace. Grace comes as free gift, not as a free pass. As John goes on to write, “By this we may be sure that we know God, if we obey his commandments.” The ultimate aim of a grace-filled life is not one on the hamster wheel of sin and forgiveness and sin and forgiveness. The ultimate aim is righteousness—or at least learning to sin a little less.
The last time I had dust on me in a church, the dust was on my feet. You may remember my telling you last fall about a trip to Mozambique Dawn and I took a few years back. Like Haiti, Mozambique is among the poorest countries on earth. It possesses a per capita annual income of $210, an average formal education of 2 years and a life expectancy of around 43. I preached in a church there quite different from ours. The roof was thatch and the floor was dirt and the walls nonexistent. The 200 or so people gathered crammed onto short, hewn wooden benches and mats on the ground. That so many people were there was in part due to curiosity. For Mozambicans living in rural bush communities, visitors from America are rare occurrences. I actually wasn’t planning on preaching, but they insisted because the way they had it figured, anyone willing to come so far to visit must have something to say.
My mediocre sermon was vastly improved in translation. My interpreter, a longtime missionary, was impressive in his ability to translate not just the words but also the idioms and nonverbal aspects of the local language. Still, I strove to make it easy as I could, attempting to keep my sentences simple and clear of American colloquialism. Not that I succeeded. Dawn and I had departed for Mozambique the day after a blizzard, so I mentioned to the Mozambican church how happy we were to be able to enjoy the warmth of their climate, adding that we were also happy to enjoy the warmth of the people. My interpreter commenced to spend about five minutes translating this one sentence. As it turned out he was trying to explain to the perspiring congregation why I was so glad they were hot.
I learned a couple of interesting things about Mozambican Christianity. I learned that their favorite Bible stories are Noah’s ark and Sodom and Gomorrah, stories generally unavailable in print. They like the emphasis placed on God’s judgment. Given a Mozambican’s short life expectancy along with their daily acquaintance with death due to malaria, AIDS, high infant mortality and poor access to health care; the need to have your affairs in order for heaven in a very present concern. Stories of judgment serve as spine-tingling incentives to shape up and get right with God. However, getting right with God in Mozambican Christianity places little emphasis on grace, stressing instead the necessity of good works and paying your dues. This meritorious tendency might be blamed on the residues of colonial Portuguese Catholicism; but a bigger culprit is probably Mozambican Christianity’s infusion with traditional African spiritual values and customs. It’s not at all unusual for a Mozambican Christian to say their prayers in church only to make a donation to the local witch doctor on their way home, simply to make sure all the bases are covered.
While easy to criticize such practice as primitive or unenlightened, the truth is that Christianity’s infusion with local customs and values crosses all cultures. Here in America, our Christianity is plainly entwined with political allegiance, celebrity worship and consumerism—all despite Jesus’ emphasis on the Kingdom of God over political kingdoms, humility over celebrity, and generosity toward others over storing up treasure for yourself. The funny thing is that we recognize the contradictions, but hey, grace is free, why not stay on the hamster wheel? At least we’re getting our exercise. Grace serves as a cover rather than as a catalyst for change.
In 1 Samuel 2, two sons of Eli the priest—and thus priests in their own right—used their priesthood to cover their bad behavior. Hophni and Phinehas were indicted as “scoundrels who had no regard for the Lord.” Their embezzled offerings intended for God; compounding this with sexual misconduct as they “slept with the women who served at the meeting tent.” Then as now, the sins of greed and lust characteristically come as a matched set.
Eli sternly rebuked his sons, but they would not listen. Therefore the Lord pronounced judgment: “a time is coming when I will cut off your strength and the strength of your ancestor’s family, so that no one in your family will live to old age. … The only one of you whom I shall not cut off shall be spared to weep out his eyes and grieve his heart. The fate of your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, shall be the sign to you—both of them shall die on the same day.”
Evil and its consequences provide the backdrop for 1 Samuel 4-6, atypical fare for Lent to be sure, but nonetheless apropos. 1 Samuel is primarily devoted to the elevation of David as King of Israel, but in these three chapters which we will examine through Easter, the central actor is not human but wooden: that 2x2x4 foot box known as the Ark of the Covenant, now an indelible part of popular culture due to its starring role in a Harrison Ford movie thirty years ago. Not to be mistaken for an ark like Noah’s, the Ark of the Covenant was covered with gold, carried by poles and contained within it the Ten Commandments, the covenant code for living a righteous life. Atop the box sat the mercy seat, the symbolic throne of the Lord modeled after his throne in heaven. The Ark signified God’s assured, palpable covenant presence guiding and governing Israel. Throughout its earthly sojourn; wherever the Ark, God was there too.
Presumably, having God in your midst could only be good. His presence could only mean blessing and protection from harm. However, human nature being what it is, it didn’t take long before presumptions of divine presence warped into presumptuousness. Gratitude gave way to entitlement as the goodness of God became treated as insurance rather than incentive; a cover for sin rather than catalyst for change. After all, if I have the Ark in my hand, do I not have God in my pocket?
1 Samuel 4 opens with the Israelites encamped at a place called Ebenezer. A short distance away were their pesky adversaries, the nefarious Philistines—paradigmatic of all things wicked, profane and irreverent. As usual, the Philistines were ravenous to expand their territory at Israel’s expense. The Philistines picked a fight and the Israelites, confident of God’s presence, stepped out to take on the big bully face to face. Yet to their shock and dismay, the Philistines won the fight, killing four thousand Israelite soldiers.
Back at camp, tails between their legs and licking their wounds, the Israelites did not for a second ascribe their defeat to the Philistine army’s superiority. There was but one obvious explanation: God had not shown up. The elders of Israel asked: “Why has the LORD put us to rout today before the Philistines?” Some translations prefer not to place blame so squarely on God’s shoulders. The New Living Translation asks “why has the Lord allowed us to be defeated by the Philistines?” Either way the question’s the same: “Where was God?” It’s a question asked whenever inexplicable disaster or tragedy strikes; whether in the wake of monstrous tsunamis or the lesser yet no less distressing waves that pound our personal lives. Had God been with us we would have been safe, we would have succeeded because God never loses.
The solution was as easy as the explanation: Get God onto the battlefield. Haul out the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord Almighty, the undisputed guarantee of God’s presence and thus the undisputed guarantee of victory. So the Israelites brought out the Ark. And with it comes a flare of ominous foreshadowing, the text reads that: “Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the Ark.” The implication is that somehow these wayward priests were in charge of the Ark itself.
We’re prodded to wonder: Can the power of God be manipulated? Can his hand be forced? Would parading the Ark in battle compensate for the failure to obey the ethical commandments contained inside? Does righteousness conveyed by faith mean righteous conduct no longer matters? Jesus said ask and you shall receive: Does that mean that the Lord must do whatever I want? Can I expect goodness from God if I ignore or despise the good of my neighbor? If I tip the witch doctor on my way home from church; if I rely on popularity, political or purchasing power, can I be said to “trust in the Lord alone”? Can faith diluted by contrary cultural, social or personal practices still be called Biblical faith? As long as I have the Ark in my hand, do I have God in my pocket?
The Israelites thought so. They paraded the Ark into the camp and there arose such a celebratory shout that the ground shook. The Philistines heard the roar and were plainly rattled. “Gods have come into the camp,” they said with fear in their throats. The Philistines knew enough about Israel’s deity to know he had smote the Egyptians with all sorts of plagues. But though this scared them silly, it did not scare them off. “Stand up like men!” they encouraged one another, “lest you become slaves to the Hebrews as they have been to you; be men and fight!” And fight they did. Israel was whooped. Every man fled to his tent. Thirty thousand foot soldiers were killed this time. That first defeat had been decisive; this one was disastrous.
What to make of it? This disaster cannot be blamed on God’s absence. The Ark was on the battlefield. Hophni and Phinehas were among the casualties. We’d been set up to expect their demise; God’s promised justice came to pass. But was their punishment the cause of the other 30,000 deaths? Such justice would appear disproportionate. Better to lay blame for the greater slaughter at the feet of Israel’s national and corporate sin—their collective disregard for the Lord. But how do we explain the defeat of God Himself? As this chapter will further unveil, the incomprehensible slaughter of Israel’s army is dwarfed by the unthinkable. Five times in this chapter beginning here, heads shake in utter disbelief as the unspeakable is spoken: “The ark of God has been captured.”
Hophni and Phinehas reaped what they sowed. 30,000 battlefield casualties, while tragic, are outcomes of war we’ve begrudgingly learned to accept. From a faith perspective, we view it as due consequence for Israel’s arrogance. But how does faith make space for God’s defeat? How can such a Lord be regarded as reliable? Is He not in control? Does He not care?
These are familiar questions. As the marriage unravels, when there is no job to be found, when the kids are in trouble or something bad shows up in the blood work, we instinctively wonder where God can be found. Rather than 1 Samuel 4, the lectionary assigns the desert temptation of Jesus for this first Sunday of Lent. Better preachers preach this passage today and invite you to identify with Jesus. When you find yourself in life’s deserts, tested by Satan, rely upon God and his word and you, like Jesus, will prevail. Unfortunately for you, I’m not one of those better preachers. I’m not preaching about Jesus’ temptation, but if I was, I’d probably invite you to identify with the other main character in that narrative. Rather than the one being tested, I’d probably invite you to identify with the tester—for the sake of accuracy.
Don’t we put God to the test all the time? We say, “Jesus, if you are really there—if you really are God—then show yourself to be real. Help me. Get me out of my predicament. Do what I want. Fix my marriage. Find me a job. Fix my kids. Heal my disease. Repair my life. Do that and then I will believe in you. Show your power. Call forth your angels! Turn stones into bread! “He saved others,” they said, “can’t he save himself? If he’s the King of Israel, let him come down from the cross, and then we will believe.” What kind of God responds to evil and scorn by subjecting himself to it? What sort of God allows himself to be taken by his enemies as if his people’s sins were his own? C’mon Jesus. Stand up like a Messiah. Save me like you’re supposed to.
And Jesus replies, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” And then more forcefully, “Get away from me Satan.” It’s the same phrase Jesus uses to rebuke his closest friend, Peter who wanted Jesus to use his power for power’s sake. Instead of victory, heads will shake in utter disbelief as the unspeakable is spoken: “The ark of God has been captured.” “The Son of God has been crucified.”
Granted, as Easter people, we know that the defeat of Jesus is not the end of Jesus. Resurrection happens. And marriages get fixed. Jobs get found. Children come home. Diseases get healed. But even when they don’t—even with divorce and unemployment and trouble and earthquakes and nuclear radiation and poverty and hunger and death—even with all that, resurrection still happens. This is the Christian hope and this is what makes the gospel genuinely good news. When you totally and completely lose your life, that’s when, Jesus says, you find your life.