Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Triumphant Return

1 Samuel 6:13-7:1
Easter Sunday
by Daniel Harrell

Any preacher will tell you that the hardest sermons to preach are at Christmas and Easter. It’s not that the Christmas and Easter events themselves are hard to preach about. What makes preaching Christmas and Easter sermons so hard is that everybody already knows how the stories turn out. This being the case, you’d think that if people were going to skip church, today would be the Sunday to do it. I take for granted that nobody woke up this morning wondering, “Gee, you think they’ll find the tomb empty this year?” But instead, even with the Easter story now in its 2010th season of syndication, people pack out churches today more than any on other Sunday. Of course it could be that you’re thinking, “Hey, a predictable sermon beats a bad sermon.” At least if you go to church on Easter you know what you’re going to get.

But not this Easter! At least not here at this Church. That’s right, if you’re visiting with us here at Colonial you are in luck. No resurrection reruns for you. As you’ve already heard, instead of empty tombs, dazzling angels and befuddled disciples, we’re bringing you a cart, two cows, five golden tumors and five gold rats. Oh, and the Ark of the Covenant too—which if you ever saw the Indiana Jones movie you know is almost as exciting as Easter.

What made the Ark so exciting was that it represented the actual, palpable presence of God Almighty among ancient Israel. As long as the Ark was around you never had to ask “where was God?” His glory filled it up. The Ark was a gold covered box, carried by poles containing the Ten Commandments inside—that’s the Covenant part. Atop the box sat the mercy seat, a replica of God’s heavenly throne. Wherever the ark went, God was there too.

Now on the one hand, having God in a Box sounds terribly humiliating—makes you wonder why God did it. But on the other hand you have to admit it also sounds terribly convenient. So convenient in fact that you can now purchase your own personal deity online, handily stored in a small comfortable container. There’s a website (of course) called “” where you can select characteristics from a list of well-known divine attributes—keeping those attributes you like, while dispensing those less-becoming of how you think a deity should behave. The website guarantees your GOD-IN-A-BOX© to [quote] “work in the exact same way as gods do in general and your satisfaction is virtually assured. Your personal GOD-IN-A-BOX© can be tailor-made to suit your every need, designed to help you make your life more comfortable and to take some weight off your shoulders.”

One virtually satisfied customer named Sue liked hers. She wrote, “I used to think my god wasn’t really listening to me when I prayed but after I got my GOD-IN-A-BOX© I’m absolutely sure I’m being heard.” Ed Jr., added, “You won’t believe how much my life has changed after I got my own GOD-IN-A-BOX©. Now, since my god has attributes that fit my lifestyle, I don’t have to worry about going to hell anymore.”

This would be so funny if it weren’t so sad. For the ancient Israelites, having God so tangibly present should have been a good thing. It should have meant joy and blessing and security and hope. Freedom from fear. It should have motivated them to live better lives. It should have made them grateful. But human nature being what it is, it wasn’t long before their gratitude gave way to entitlement. God’s presence was treated as insurance rather than incentive; a cover for bad behavior rather than catalyst for change. With the Ark in their hand, they figured they had God all boxed in.

I’ve spent the entirety of Lent in 1 Samuel 4-6—as hard as that is to believe. Just in case you’ve missed out, forgotten, or been glazed over by the whole thing, a brief review is in order: The ancient Israelites found themselves up against their longtime nemesis, the nefarious Philistines—the epitome of all things evil. Presuming God in a Box was theirs to control, the Israelites rolled the Ark of the Covenant out onto the battlefield, rightly expecting instant victory. After all, God always triumphs over evil. Right? But instead, to everyone’s utter bewilderment, God lost. Israel’s army went down to catastrophic defeat, and the Ark was captured and hauled away, leaving the Israelites without hope. The glory of the Lord was gone.

What are to make of this? It’s one thing in the face of catastrophe to ask “where was God?” It’s quite another thing to account for catastrophe when God is manifestly present. Israel’s arrogance may explain the army’s defeat, but how do you explain God’s defeat? Could it be that Almighty God is in fact not so mighty? Is He not in control? Or does He not care? Can He not be trusted? Or even worse, are death, defeat and failure parts of his plan? What kind of God responds to evil by subjecting himself to ridicule and humiliation?

The evil Philistines buried the defeated Ark deep within the shrine of their personal deity, a ugly stone statue named Dagon (I have a picture but didn’t want to scare the kids). The Philistines ceremoniously ridiculed and humiliated God by situating the Ark subserviently beneath Dagon’s idol. But here’s the Easter part. Early on the morning of the third day, the Philistines returned to Dagon’s shrine fully expecting to find the Ark as it had been left, displayed in submissive defeat. Just like those weeping women who came to Jesus’ tomb, fully expecting to find Jesus as he’d been left: dead and buried, displayed in submissive defeat himself. But again, to everyone’s utter amazement, a reversal had occurred. The women discovered the stone covering Jesus’ tomb rolled away, and the Philistines discovered the stone idol of Dagon rolled off its pedestal, broken into pieces before the Ark of the Lord. God’s glory was back with a vengeance.

In the case of the Philistines, the vengeance came in the form of tumors and rats. Just as the Lord plagued the evil Egyptians in another movie (I think it was on last night), so he stuck it to the wicked Philistines. Frantic, the Philistines concluded that the Ark had to go. On the advice of their religious leaders, they packed it up with gold molded to look like tumors and rats. An odd recompense to be sure, but nevertheless one that unmistakably cried uncle. They then loaded it all on a cart pulled by two milk cows with no driver. It didn’t need a driver because the Lord himself drove it home. God demonstrated his own relentless determination to be back among his people. Despite their long history of resistance and arrogance, God never could give them up because he loved them. He has a thing for sinners. The downtrodden Israelites looked up to see coming a fairly modest victory parade of two cows, one cart and one Ark. But as anyone bereft of hope knows, the return of hope, no matter how modest, is a sight like nothing else. They erupted in praise and welcomed God back into their lives. They never expected nor deserved such grace.

Yet shockingly, the Israelites’ exuberance quickly gave way to arrogance again. They misinterpreted God’s grace as license to go back to the way things were before. They presumed that the return of the Ark meant that its power was theirs again to control. Some went so far as to peek inside and bask in the glory—which you Indiana Jones buffs know is a bad idea. The LORD “struck down seventy of them” as a consequence, leaving the survivors traumatized. Who can to stand before the LORD, this holy God?” they asked, followed by, “How can we get rid of him?” The Philistines didn’t want Him, and now neither did his own people. His glory was simply too hot to handle.

So God abandoned the Ark and decided to show up in person instead. Human like us, flesh and bone. It sounds terribly humiliating, but God did it to demonstrate his own relentless determination to be back among his people. Despite their long history of resistance and arrogance, God never could give us up because he loves us. He has a thing for sinners. The Lord’s coming in person was initially greeted with exuberant palm-waving—following Jesus always seems like fun until you read the fine print. Once everybody realized God hadn’t changed—that he still desired obedience and holiness—it wasn’t long before they wanted to be rid of him again, this time by hanging him to die on a cross. Could it be that Almighty God is in fact not so mighty? Is He not in control? Or even worse, are death, defeat and failure parts of his plan? What kind of God responds to human sin by subjecting himself to ridicule and humiliation? Precisely the kind of God we gather to worship on Easter. Through his own death in Christ, God kills our resistance and our arrogance, he buries our hostility and sin. And then by raising Jesus from the dead, God redeems death itself, and suffering too, so that we don’t have to be afraid of anything anymore. He gives us joy.

The weeping women who showed up at the tomb that first Easter fully expected to find a dead body. Jesus was gone and their despair was complete. Suppose that instead of an angel, their minister was there, wanting to comfort them with that kind of canned comfort we so often lamely dole out. Suppose the minister said, “He’s gone to a better place.” Or “his spirit will live on in the hearts of those who loved him.” Or “we have to just move on and make the best of it.” It’s hard to make good Easter music out of any of that. Nothing much worth coming to church for.

I had a chance to visit a longtime member of our congregation in the hospital last week. Feeble and frail, her spirits were strong, especially at Easter, she said. Because the night before Easter was when her husband of many years had died. I asked her to please explain, and she described how she woke up on that Easter morning years ago with no idea what to do now that the love of her life was gone. Her son talked her into coming to church. It was Easter. And she figured, why not? So she came to this church, as a visitor, and sat through the service where the preacher probably preached the actual Easter story. On her way out she was enthusiastically accosted by our pastor Jeff Lindsay, as many of you have been likewise accosted over his long tenure here. A wide grin on his face, he beamed, “Happy Easter, welcome to Colonial Church! The Lord is Risen! How are you this wonderful day?” And this weeping woman replied, “I’m actually quite sad, for you see, my husband died last night.” “Well, then you came to the right place,” Jeff replied, without missing a beat. He enveloped her in his arms, prayed for her and gave her the only assurance that makes today worth coming to church for.

The despondent women arrived at Jesus’ grave with the stone rolled aside, an angel sitting on top, his legs dangling in delightful disdain toward all the canned ways we deal with death. A wide grin on his face, the angel beamed (quite literally I’m guessing—the gospels describe his appearance like lightning and his clothing white as snow). The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know who you are looking for! Jesus who was crucified, right? But He is not here. He has been raised! Just like he said. He told you so!”

He has been raised. The passive voice is crucial here. Jesus didn’t get himself up because dead people can’t do that. Human beings do not survive death. Death annihilated us. It is our end—unless God does something. And God did do something. The women saw it. The disciples saw it. Hundreds of others saw it. And billions more have had their lives—and their deaths—changed by it. God raised Jesus. And the assurance of Easter is that God will raise us too.

 That the angel sat on the stone intended to keep Jesus down was a witness to God’s triumph. Here in 1 Samuel, the Ark of the Covenant sat by a stone too, as a witness to God’s triumph. We read that the stone remains as a witness—serving the same purpose as all stone monuments do. Monuments mark and remind of important events, to make sure that they’re never forgotten. But alas, the stones are gone. So is the Ark. And so is Jesus’ body. But the witness—the witness remains rock solid. As the apostle Peter put it, an eyewitness to it himself, all we who have been changed by the resurrection are “living stones.” We are rock solid witnesses to the effects of resurrection in our own lives: diseases healed, marriages restored, relationships reconciled, sins forgiven, enemies loved, the poor fed, hardships and suffering endured with joy, grief eased, hope assured, fears gone—all in advance of our own resurrection made real by Jesus who was raised from the dead.

Is the resurrection for real? It’s a question asked every Easter by believers and skeptics alike. In our modern age of scientific fact, how can a man dead for three days possibly be raised back to life? He cannot—and we cannot—unless God does something. And God did something. What God did—and does—resides at the center of our faith; a faith that gets us to church on Easter, even on the day after we’ve lost the love of our life and our despair is complete. Or maybe I should say especially on that day.

Is the resurrection for real? Kara Root, a local writer, answers this way:

It had better be real.

As real as the contractions that ripped new life from my body.

As real as the rattle that strangled life out of his.

I’ve no use for a spiritual resurrection.

If Hope

for the drowned, damaged, disfigured, disowned,

is emotional ease,

if the pain of flesh and bones

is answered with mystical comfort,

if Guns are stronger than god,

then count me out.

But tell me that Death Loses, tell me that Life Prevails,

and not in the abstract,

but in pulsing blood, flowing tears, thumping heart,

then the Resurrection

is Hope

for us all.

I like that. Resurrection is hope for us all. I also like the simple way our Scripture passage ends, literally taking this message home. It says that the people of the Kiriath-jearim came and took up the ark of the LORD, and brought it to the house. Again God demonstrates his own relentless determination to love us. He comes home with us. And because the resurrection is real, he stays with us forever.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Enough of God

1 Samuel 6:1-12
by Daniel Harrell

A Facebook friend posted last week about her Bible getting hung up in security. The TSA guys said it was so dense that it looked like an explosive. Made me think about these sermons from the Bible I’ve been preaching during Lent. 1 Samuel can be pretty dense. And it’s pretty explosive too. So far we’ve had family curses and bloody battles, toppled idols and bubonic plague. And now here on a Sunday traditionally devoted to palm laden processions and songs of Hosanna, I’m rolling out a parade of golden tumors and rats. We thought about having the choir process in waving a few rats, but we decided to not completely freak out the visitors. We didn’t want you thinking we’d gone completely off the deep end. Besides, golden tumors and rats were only part of the 1 Samuel 6 parade. We’d have needed a couple of oxen too. Granted, we do donkeys and sheep at Christmas, but oxen would be taking things too far even for Colonial. Besides, we’d need the Ark of the Covenant too. Anne-Marie, our Minister to Children, tells me we do possess a replica. However she also tells me that its something of a duct tape and cardboard box job—hardly suitable for transporting the glory of the Lord.

Trying to come up with a suitable contemporary analogy for the ancient Ark is not easy. Though it was just basically a box, it packed some serious heat. With a copy of the heavenly throne on top and the Ten Commandments inside, it signified the omnipotent power of God wherever it went. To what can we compare it? The answer came on Jeopardy. “The USS George HW Bush.” The question? “What is the name of the tenth and final nuclear powered super-aircraft carrier of the US Navy.” Nickname: Avenger. Though just basically a boat, this thing packs serious heat. It stretches 1,092 feet and displaces over 100,000 tons, making it one of the world’s largest warships. It’s powered with two nuclear reactors and can operate for more than 20 years without refueling. It hauls ninety top gun attack planes and helicopters, as well as surface to air missiles and close-in weapon systems with a firing rate of 3,000 rounds/min and a range of a mile.

Reporters given a tour of the carrier were easily overwhelmed by what appeared to be the lopsidedness of American military superiority. Just the very fact of the carrier itself: No other country has one like it and the US has 10. However according to one reporter, what fully conveys the carrier’s uncontested might is not just its sheer size and strength, but its operational efficiency as evidenced in, of all things, the preponderance of delicious grilled chicken sandwiches available in the middle of the ocean. Not only does the Navy give each of its incredibly well-trained pilots one of the fastest, most expensive planes in the world to fly as well as the most accurate bombs in the history of warfare to drop, it also feeds him at any hour of the day with more chicken sandwiches than he can possibly eat. As one reporter concluded, “other countries don’t have a chance.”

Reporters would have drawn the same conclusion about the military might of ancient Israel. Expectations of dominance would have been similarly sanguine. Stronger than a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, Israel possessed the carrier of Almighty God. It’s mere presence evoked panic and dread from Israel’s enemies. Yet for the Israelites, the Ark only made them arrogant. They treated it like some heavenly remote control, presuming that merely positioning it onto the battlefield meant certain victory. And yet, as recent history attests, just an aircraft carrier is no guarantee, neither was the ancient Ark. Despite sending out the vastly superior carrier to eliminate the Philistines, the Lord lost the battle and the Ark was taken as plunder. 1 Samuel 4 ended with a dying mother’s Good Friday-like lament: “The glory of God is now gone from Israel for the Ark of God has been captured.” All hope was now gone.

Was this part of God’s plan? Perhaps. As the story progressed, the Ark went from aircraft carrier to Trojan horse. Deep within Philistine territory, inside the shrine of their chief deity Dagon, the Philistines got cocky and displayed the Ark submissively beneath the idol of Dagon as a sign of God’s failure and defeat. Yet as the Bible demonstrates time and again, no more so than this Holy Week, it is always amidst defeat and failure that God does his best work. On the morning of the third day, the Philistines discovered Dagon deposed, his heads and hands cut off. In Easter-like fashion, God’s dearly departed glory rose from defeat an avenger. Not only did the glory bring down Dagon, it did a number on the Philistines too, plaguing them with tumors and rats just like the LORD plagued the cocky Egyptians so many years before.

The Philistine rulers and religious leaders quickly concluded that the Ark had to go. But how to send it back? The Philistine religious leaders insisted it be sent back with a guilt offering—although no military conventions had been broken and the Ark had been taken fair and square. Say you’re sorry even if you don’t know what for. So the Philistines molded gold into the shape of five tumors and five rats. An odd recompense to be sure, but nevertheless one that unmistakably cried uncle. Gold ascribed worth and value. Five, the total number of Philistine cities, articulated total submission. The shapes of tumors and rats communicated both an awareness that God was the maker of their misery as well as an entreaty for God to kindly refrain from any more misery-making.

Today’s Palm Sunday passage focuses on the Ark’s mode of return delivery. We read of the need for “a new cart and two milk cows that have never borne a yoke, and yoke the cows to the cart.” Another odd set of specifics. As it turns out, for all the Philistines’ positive identification of Israel’s God as their Perpetrator of Grief, traces of uncertainty remained. If you’re going to surrender something as powerful as an aircraft carrier, you want to make absolutely sure you have to do it. So the Philistines cleverly devised a way to deferentially send the Ark back, but at the same time allow for an out just in case their infestation with tumors and rats had been some coincidental plague of chance. They utilized a new cart and two rookie cows as genuine gestures of reverence. A new cart assured no previous profane usage and cows that had never been yoked meant they were free from human influence or contamination. However the rookie cows they picked were also milk cows which meant they were mama cows. The Philistines then separated the mama cows from their un-weaned newborn calves and put the calves in a pen.

The idea was that since these mama cows had a] never pulled a cart before and b] would have no human driver to whip them forward and c] instinctively loved their babies; their natural mothering impulse to shirk the yoke and return to their calves would have to be overridden by supernatural power for them to pull the Ark-laden cart over to Israel. The Philistines left no chance for chance. Just like the Romans who placed armed guards and rolled the massive stone in front of Jesus’ tomb. If the glory of God was going to make a encore appearance, it would have to be the glory of God. For this cart to make it back to Israel with the Ark, there would have to be some seriously sacred intervention. The Philistines needed to know for sure.

Now if this whole enterprise sounds like seeking a sign from God, it was. Jesus will later contend that only a wicked and adulterous generation ever asks for a sign, and that applied to the Philistines. They were both wicked and adulterous. Of course there are plenty of moments when we can be Philistines too. Our need to know “for sure” can sometimes be more than we can endure by faith alone. Pastor’s couches are frequently occupied by people (and pastors themselves) agonizing over the need to know “what God wants” regarding some big decision in our life. “If only God would give me a sign,” we say. Bad enough that we lack faith, but that’s not really the wicked and adulterous part. What’s wicked and adulterous is when the sign we seek is really a sign to cover a decision we plan to make anyway. That way when we go out and buy the new car or gadget we can’t afford or decide not to associate with somebody that gets on our nerves or talk about them behind their backs, we can say it was OK with God. My advice is that if you’re really need such a sign; at least be Philistine enough to rig it. Fill up that new car up with tap water and try to drive it or leave an anonymous gift for the friend who bothers you and wait for a personal thank you. Make it mandatory for some seriously sacred intervention to occur and if it does, then you can blame God.

That’s how the Philistines knew their miseries were God’s fault. The cows took off with the Ark in a beeline straight back toward the Israelite border town of Beth Shemesh, keeping straight on the highway, mooing “loudly as they went, they turned neither to the right nor to the left.” That the cows made such a racket for their calves as they moved away from them indicated that they moved counter to their instincts. The Philistines needed no further proof. They were now only too glad to be rid of the Ark—a gladness surpassed only by the Israelites’ gladness at seeing the Ark triumphantly return. The people of Beth Shemesh were reaping their wheat when they looked up and saw two crying cows, one cart and one Ark— frankly a modest parade for transporting the fullness of God’s glory and Philistines’ guilt. But as anyone bereft of hope knows, the return of hope, no matter how modest, is a sight like no other. The people of Beth Shemesh immediately dropped their scythes and their baskets and ran to welcome God back into their lives. They could have never expected such grace. Nor did they deserve it.

In this way the humble return of the Ark is very much like Palm Sunday. The triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem is but one new colt and no cart, ridden by an unassuming carpenter who likewise carried the fullness of God’s glory and all of humanity’s guilt. He carried it not only into Jerusalem but onto a cross. And just in case there remained any doubt, God rigged it so that Jesus would do what only a sure Savior could do. Defeated and a failure—crucified, dead and buried with Roman guards and a rock to be sure—Jesus nevertheless rose from the dead triumphant. It is always amidst defeat and failure that God does his best work. We too could never have expected such grace. Neither did we deserve it.

But that’s next Sunday’s sermon. As far as this Sunday goes, like in 1 Samuel 6, the arrival of God on Palm Sunday drew unrestrained praise. The crowd immediately dropped their cloaks and their branches and shouted “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” When the Ark returned to Israel, the people celebrated mightily. They set up an altar and offered sacrifices of thanksgiving to God. But apparently they also misinterpreted God’s move of grace as an indulgent wink. They knew he’d come back. He couldn’t stay mad forever. He’s God, he has to forgive us. Love always wins. He has to give us whatever we need whenever we want it. Just ask and ye shall receive and move mountains and all that. Presuming the power of God to be once again theirs to control, most translations report that some of the people opened the Ark to bask in the glory—which if you’ve seen the movie you know is never a good idea. Scroll down to verse 19 and you’ll read that “the LORD killed seventy men of them (though plenty of manuscripts bump the number up to fifty thousand and seventy).”

The survivors were traumatized: “Who is able to stand before the LORD, this holy God?” they say. And then, astonishingly, “To whom shall he go so that we may be rid of him?” The Philistines didn’t want Him, and now neither did the Israelites in Beth Shemesh.

Nor did the Israelites in Jerusalem for that matter. Just as the festal shouts that welcomed the Ark spun into shouts of “get it out of here,” so Palm Sunday’s unrestrained “Hosannas!” disintegrated into the unrestrained fury of “crucify!” Upon arriving in Jerusalem, Jesus had made a beeline for the Temple, the well-established House of God’s glory (made so by the presence of the Ark centuries prior). But rather than bless it, he cleaned it out and repossessed it for God, evoking all sorts of hostility and resistance from the religious leaders who had thought God’s House, like God’s Ark, was theirs to control. “My house is a house of prayer for all nations,” Jesus said, citing the prophets, “but you have made it into a den of robbers.” The gospels report that from that point on, Jerusalem’s leaders looked for a way to get rid of him.

For the Philistines to want to be rid of God is one thing. But his own chosen people? Why is it that over and over again, those whom God loves most treat him most contemptuously? Why is it that we refuse to trust God when things are hard, and blame God when things go bad? Why do we fail to forgive when we’re hurt, drive by the poor, pile up our stuff for ourselves and never pray for our enemies? Why do we hail Jesus as King of kings on Sunday only to be done with him come Monday? It’s a perennial question made especially poignant on Palm Sunday. Which may be why in liturgical traditions, the Ash Wednesday ashes spread on foreheads for repentance come from the branches waved on Palm Sunday. Just in case we forget, Jesus’ death is our fault.

And yet as Luther Seminary’s Karoline Lewis writes, “we can kill the King of kings, but we can’t take away his sovereignty.” Despite our hostility and resistance, despite our own contemptuous treatment and hypocrisy and disobedience, our God reigns. The arrival of the Ark into Israel demonstrates a counter-intuitive determination on God’s part that resonates throughout Scripture. Enemies don’t surrender super-carriers fairly captured. Mother cows don’t abandon their calves. A Savior in his right mind never sacrifices his life for people who despise him. None of this happens unless God makes it happen. And God does makes it happen. God makes it happen He really does love you. Human arrogance, unfaithfulness and sin may be relentless, but not nearly as relentless as God’s grace. Against every natural instinct, it keeps coming and coming in a beeline for your soul. Never could you have expected such grace. Neither do we deserve it. But we are so thankful for it.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


1 Samuel 6:1-6
by Daniel Harrell

I was once in a small group where we’d kick off each fall by narrating our summer vacations. One year, a couple shared about taking a fascinating backpacking trip across Europe, another person enjoyed a relaxing trip to the beach. A family of five made the requisite trip to Disney World while I had taken a couple of bike trips out West. When we made it around to a member named Gary, he just shook his head sadly. He said he’d spent his summer on a “guilt trip.” Turned out that he’d devoted his summer vacation to mission work in Haiti. The poverty he’d hoped to ameliorate completely demoralized him. He felt horrible. How was he supposed to go on living in America when so many were suffering so awfully just a few hundred miles off our southern coast? The rest of us probably should have tried to console him, but by now we were too busy feeling guilty ourselves. None of us had even thought about spending our vacations helping other people.

Of course a guilt trip doesn’t require traveling to an impoverished country. For many people, just traveling to visit parents will do the trick. My favorite was a friend whose parents constantly warned how lying to them would make her nose glow in the dark. To this day she still can’t go to sleep in her parents’ house with the lights off. Not that kids can’t give as good as they get. One friend’s son managed hundreds of extra hours on his Play Station just by alluding to his dad’s busy work schedule: “Gosh dad, I could wait for you to come home early some day so we could play catch.”

Basically, guilt has two distinct aspects: actual guilt and emotional guilt. Actual guilt is that behavioral breach of conduct or code; whether violating law or social mores, it’s what the Bible commonly refers to as sin. Emotional guilt is the guilty feeling, the remorse, the regret, the responsibility that accompanies the bad behavior—or at least shows up once you get caught. Such emotional guilt is what induces the guilty to apologize, to make amends, to confess and seek forgiveness and reconciliation, to change behavior. We call people who respond to guilt in this way contrite. On the other hand, there are those for whom actual guilt prompts no remorse or regret; they refuse to admit any wrong. Their lack of emotional guilt may be due to cluelessness or denial, but in worse cases its cause is self-centeredness or downright nastiness. People who respond to their guilt in this way we call calloused. But then there are those who feel emotional guilt in the absence of actual guilt. They feel responsible, ashamed and bad about things that are not even their fault. People who respond to guilt even when there is none we call Christians.

Here in 1 Samuel 6 you’d call them Philistines too. The Philistines ostensibly possess no actual guilt, but nevertheless tender a guilt offering to God. After thoroughly and fairly thrashing Israel in battle, the Philistines seized what was legitimate booty; the venerable Ark of the Covenant—that gold-laden chest with the Ten Commandments tucked inside and a replica of God’s throne on top. The Philistines merrily made off with the Ark fair and square. However their spoils of war spoiled their lives. No sooner had their victory party finished than the Philistine deity was deposed and the populace plagued with tumors and rats.

We’re making our way through 1 Samuel 4-6 this Lent, an odd choice for leading up to Easter to be sure. The backdrop is the extortionate sins of Hophni and Phinehas, two sons of Eli the priest and priests of God in their own right. Their atrocities brought down God’s curse and infected Israel’s military, subjecting an army that relied on God’s power to disastrous defeat. The Philistines trounced Israel not once but twice. However the fault for their military failure was also due to Israel’s arrogant leadership. Deducing that the first loss occurred because of God’s absence, the elders presumptuously proceeded to treat God like a marionette, pulling the Ark as the strings to get God back onto the battlefield and guarantee victory. And yet to everyone’s shock, God lost—just as he would shockingly lose on Good Friday. Israel went down to defeat and the Ark went down to the Philistine city of Ashdod.

Chapter 5 opened with the gloating Philistines installing the Ark next to an idol of their chief deity, Dagon. Such placement ceremoniously displayed Yahweh’s proven inferiority. However the Lord of All played second fiddle to none, not even in defeat and captivity. In the dark of night, as the Philistines slept, the idol of Dagon was toppled from its pedestal and forced face down into disarmed submission before the Ark of the Lord, its hands and its head hacked off. We then read that “the hand of the LORD was heavy against the people of Ashdod.” The Hebrew word for heavy is the same word as glory—kabod. You may remember how at the end of chapter 4 the glory of the Lord was Ichabod, departed. But now the kabod was ka-boom, terrorizing the Philistines with tumors and rats, just as it exploded on the Egyptians in Exodus.

The Philistine rulers were frantic. What were they to do with their hot potato of a victory trophy? The citizens of Ashdod tried passing the Ark off onto neighboring Gath and Ekron, hoping perhaps it was something in the Ashdod water that had made them so sick. But when the people of Gath developed tumors too, Ekron refused to touch the Ark. The conclusion was obvious. The Ark had to go. But how do you send it back? What was the return policy?

Perceiving their dilemma as essentially a religious one, the Philistine rulers summoned the religious professionals. Was there an appropriately pious gesture of surrender? A devout way to clearly cry uncle? An unmistakably placating white flag? “By all means do not send it back empty,” the Philistine priests replied. “Include a guilt offering. Then you will be healed and ransomed—will not his hand then turn from you?” The Philistines had broken no rules of war or convention, but apparently some line had been crossed. Thus the Philistine priests recommended the guilt offering. “Give glory to Israel’s God and perhaps he will lighten his hand from off you and your gods and your land.”

Just like fighting fire with fire, the best way to tackle kabod was with kabod. The heavy hand of God’s glory could only be stopped by giving God glory. “Offer your guilt even though you don’t know what it is,” said the priests. “Make five golden images of your tumors and rats.” Gold to articulate worth and value. Five, the total number of Philistine cities, to communicate total submission. The shape of tumors and rats to communicate that from which mercy was sought. Send them with the Ark, the sublime symbol of God’s glory. Give God back his glory and you may get back your life.

It’s an odd way to depict giving glory to God. Usually when we think of giving God glory we think of worship and praise and thanksgiving. We sing and pray and offer gifts of gratitude. King David famously sang before the Ark, “Ascribe to the LORD, O families of nations, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength, ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name.” However in just as many cases—like with the prophet Jeremiah as well as here in 1 Samuel— “giving glory to God” has more to do with guilt than gratitude. Jeremiah warned, “Give glory to the LORD your God before it's too late. Acknowledge him before he brings darkness upon you, causing you to stumble and fall.”

Now to give glory to God because he deserves it is one thing. To have him demand it? That’s something else. Why would the Lord of love and mercy need to threaten people to get them to praise him? Is he really some sort of Celestial Narcissist concerned for getting all the credit as his critics insist?

The problem of God demanding glory is due to the lack of any feasible analogies. Any person who needs praise so badly immediately solicits our suspicions. Dawn and I had a fancy dinner once with a couple of fairly famous people, former GE CEO Jack Welch (who attended our church at the time) and Purpose-Driven Life Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church (he prayed at President Obama’s Inauguration). We mostly listened as they shared their creative ideas, successes and impressive influence in both business and ministry arenas. For instance, Rick Warren described how he trained over 138,000 preachers every day over the internet in 62 countries and how 40,000 people show up at his church on Easter. (I was thinking, wow, who makes the coffee?) At the same time he mentioned how he’d personally advised then President Bush, as well as the Presidents of Rwanda and the Philippines, appeared on Larry King, consulted with Rupert Murdoch and forgot to call Mel Gibson. I whispered to Dawn how I thought all the name-dropping was really a bit much. But she whispered back how it could only be name-dropping if he had been talking to me—and not to Jack Welch who knew most of the same people as well as Rick Warren did.

If we’re honest, the trouble we have with anybody else hogging glory is that we really want to have it for ourselves. Among preachers it’s called “pulpit envy.” Attend any ministers’ gathering or read the blogs and twitter feeds and watch as we scrutinize attendance statistics, nitpick success stories and seek out specks in each other’s eyes, despite the fact that we all play for the same team. The early Christians would have categorized pulpit envy under the sin of vainglory. Vainglory is when you long for praise and prestige and are annoyed and even depressed when we do not get the recognition you think you deserve. You obey the Lord and do all the right things, but rather than thank God for his enablement and grace, you’re upset that nobody notices what a good Christian you are.

Vainglory is misdirected glory, and with disastrous results. Verse 6 of our passage mentions the Exodus and God’s plaguing Egypt because of Pharaoh’s hard heart. Had Pharaoh relented, “given glory to God” and let God’s people go, perhaps Pharaoh could have avoided all the appalling calamity that eventually ensued. Instead, we read that Pharaoh hardened his heart. The word for harden is again the word kabod, glory. Pharaoh’s hard heart resulted from glory Pharaoh tried to hog for himself. He absurdly believed that he himself was god. Therefore in Exodus 14, the LORD “hardened Pharaoh’s heart”—harden in that instance from the word meaning strengthen or embolden. God gave Pharaoh what he wanted, allowing Pharaoh to have his vainglory and eat it too. In the end the true glory ended up where it rightly belonged with the Lord.

The Philistines remembered this story. Which was why their religious professionals put forward Pharaoh’s prideful miscalculation as a caution: “Offer your guilt and give glory to God. Do not even try to keep any for yourself.” So the Philistines put together the golden guilt offering and sent the Ark back on a guilt trip to Israel. They gave God his glory. In doing so they foreshadowed that coming day promised in the book of Revelation when every nation, tribe, people and language will bow before the throne of the Lamb and give God glory. As the prophet Isaiah put it: “Violence shall no more be heard in your land, nor ruin or destruction; you shall call your walls Salvation and your gates Praise. The sun shall no more be your light by day, nor for brightness shall the moon give you light; for the LORD shall be your everlasting light and your days of sorrow shall end. Your God shall be your glory [too].”

Though analogies remain inadequate, God’s glory is kind of like nuclear power. Keep it where it belongs and it lights up a whole state. But try and bring it into your house and you’re dead before dinner. Which is why God insists we not try.

As Dawn and I sat over that fancy dinner, I felt some serious pulpit envy as I listened to Rick Warren go on and on about his packed out worship services and winsome evangelism and innovative outreach initiatives and worldwide effectiveness. Saddleback. What a goofy name for a church.

Why couldn’t I just praise the Lord for all the ways the gospel was having influence and effect around the world? Vainglory. Not that I felt I deserved equal praise mind you, I just wanted a little attention. Rick Warren wasn’t the only minister at the table, you know! As I was starting to get all righteous, Jack Welch startled me by suddenly asking, “Daniel, why don’t you do some of these things? I’d think as a pastor you’d want to have some success for Christ’s sake—you know, for Jesus.” And just like that, all my vainglory got vanquished by guilt. It was a good thing too. I needed to get jolted out of my little self-centered love fest.

Granted, to say guilt is good is not to say that guilt is always good. Guilt for guilt’s sake is a failure of faith: an unwillingness to believe that the Spirit is present enough or that the cross was powerful enough or that God is good enough or that grace is sufficient enough. Such guilt is no more than a refusal to trust God. There’s also fake guilt: the guilt you wear as a cover for not loving our neighbor or forgiving those who have hurt you. “I can’t help it,” you say, “I’m a sinner.” You pretend to be unworthy or unable when in fact you’re really hardhearted.

But guilt that is good can jolt us out of our selfishness. It reinvigorates our trust and soften our hearts. It reorients us back toward God who alone deserves glory. Good guilt releases confession; as Jesus famously illustrated by contrasting a Pharisee and a tax-collector in Luke’s gospel. The vainglorious Pharisee crowed aloud in his prayers about what a good Christian he was; while the despised tax-collector could not even look up to heaven. Rather than saying, “I can’t help it, I’m a sinner,” the tax-collector prayed, “I’m a sinner, God, help me.” In offering honest guilt, he gave God His glory.

Good guilt releases confession and compassion too. This was the guilt my friend Gary felt in our small group that night following his trip to Haiti. Such guilt compels our prayers and spurs our loving service toward people in need.

The Westminster Catechism instructs that our chief end as humans is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Wouldn’t you know it? In Hebrew, the words enjoy and glory are both also kabod. To glorify God is to enjoy God. Good guilt releases confession and compassion, allowing grace to flow into and out from your soul. Indeed the sun need no more be your light by day, nor for brightness the moon by night; for the LORD shall be your everlasting light. The glory of the Lord is your glory too.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

A Heavy Hand

1 Samuel 5:6-12

by Daniel Harrell

Whenever I’ve traveled to Southern California (which would have been nice to do this winter), I enjoy attending a small Episcopal church located near the beach in Santa Monica. It’s sort of what I imagine church in heaven will be like: sunny, laid back and liturgical (even though I’m a hardcore Congregationalist, when it comes to worship I’m something of a closet Anglican). While visiting the church one year during Lent, the rector devoted a portion of the liturgy to “burying the alleluia” which he did by writing “Alleluia” on a card and hiding it under the altar. I’d never seen that before—but I liked it so much that I took the practice back to Boston. Folks there liked it so much that on my last Sunday, my Scottish fiddle playing friend composed an incredibly sweet farewell song she titled “The Last Alleluia.”

In Episcopalian, Lutheran and Catholic liturgies, “alleluia,” meaning “praise the Lord,” rightly shows up throughout worship. In our own communion service I’ve introduced common elements of these communion liturgies—which stretch back centuries—to bless the tie that binds us to Christians around the world and throughout history who likewise share this remembrance. As such, I recite 1 Corinthians 5:7-8: “Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us, therefore let us keep the feast”—bracketing it on each end with an “Alleluia!” However during Lent, the alleluias get omitted or “buried” until Easter to call attention to the departure of God’s glory on Good Friday. With the Lord crucified, dead and buried, there was little to sing alleluia about.

The same was true with the departure of God’s glory in 1 Samuel 4. An omission of alleluia during communion is only a liturgical move; but for the ancient Israelites it was literal. God bid Israel an incredibly bitter farewell as he went down to defeat to their enemies, the Philistines. 1 Samuel 4 is a grim as it gets. You have clergy failure: financial and sexual abuse on the part of two prominent priests. You have military failure: arrogant overreaching on the part of Israel’s army. And you have political failure: impertinence on the part of Israel’s elders and leaders who thought they could manipulate God. Like the retreating Libyan rebels who thought they could take down Qaddafi by getting NATO to launch airstrikes, Israel’s leaders figured they could take down the Philistines by maneuvering the Ark of the Covenant onto the battlefield. The Ark was the sacred symbol of God’s presence among his people. Wherever the Ark was, God guaranteed he’d be there too. And He was there, except that unlike NATO airstrikes, the Lord apparently misfired. The Philistines pushed back, and Israel, like the Libyan rebels last week, were forced to give up ground. Yet worse, the Ark of God was captured. The Lord lost—as unthinkable an outcome as Qaddafi taking out NATO.

When Israel’s chief priest Eli caught news of the battlefield disaster and the unimaginable failure of God, he keeled over dead. The same with Eli’s pregnant daughter-in-law. The horrific news of God’s defeat induced her lethal labor. The last word from her lips as she gave birth was to name her son: Ichabod, which means no glory. “The glory has departed from Israel,” she said, “for the ark of God has been captured.” The alleluias were buried for good.

Chapter 5 opened last Sunday with the cocky Philistines installing the Ark beneath an idol of their chief deity, Dagon. This humiliating placement of the Ark ceremoniously displayed Yahweh’s proven inferiority. However even in defeat and captivity, the Lord played second fiddle to none. After the Philistine victory party wound down and the lights shut off, the Lord rearranged the furniture. The Philistines awoke to discover Dagon toppled from his pedestal, lying face down before the Lord before whom every knee shall bow.

When the Philistines found Dagon face down, they evidently concluded that some clumsy partier must have bumped the idol during the previous night’s shindig. So they simply set the idol back up. But early on the third day, they found Dagon face down again, this time decapitated and literally disarmed. The message was unmistakable. Dagon was Da-gone and the Philistines were in trouble now. The Hebrew word for glory is the word kabod. Back in chapter 4, the kabod was despairingly Ichabod, no glory. But here in chapter 5, the glory detonates with divine vengeance. The kabod goes ka-boom!

We read that: “the hand of the LORD was heavy upon the people of Ashdod.” The adjective translated heavy is also kabod. The heavy weight of God’s glory bore down on the Philistines infecting them with tumors. The Greek Old Testament, called the Septuagint, tacks on rats causing some scholars to surmise that what happened was a primordial outbreak of bubonic plague. It was definitely a plague of some sort, intentionally recapitulating the devastation God wrought on the evil Egyptians of old.

Cognizant of that Egyptian disaster, the leaders of Ashdod freaked out. They frantically convened the other leaders of the Philistine confederation and asked, “What shall we do with the ark of the god of Israel?” The Philistines of Gath, understandable cynical about the ability of a small wooden box to wreak such havoc, agreed to take the Ark. Yet once their own town broke out with tumors, the only thing to do was to chuck what was now a holy hot potato over onto Ekron, causing that town to break out and freak out too. “There was deathly panic throughout the whole city,” we read, “the hand of God was very heavy there.”

I have to admit that I laughed out loud the first time I heard this story. Partly this was because I was a teenager in a high school and partly because our youth group leader read the story from the King James Version which has God infecting the Philistines with hemorrhoids in their secret parts instead of with tumors. Predictably this led to all sorts of adolescent jokes about Preparation H and how the glory of God was a pain in the rear. Of course as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized that not only are hemorrhoids nothing to laugh at—but that the glory of God can be a pain in the rear.

To speak of glory is to speak of honor, and the Bible makes a big deal about how we are to honor God with our lives. But I remember one Christian woman pushing 30 and unmarried complaining to me about how sexual purity just wasn’t worth it anymore. Following Jesus limited her prospects too severely. Did God really want her to be alone the rest of her life? Another Christian was infuriated by a co-worker who sucked up to their boss and won a promotion the Christian himself had worked so hard to earn. And now he was supposed to just suck it up and get over it? He’d done the right thing the right way like Jesus said, and this was his reward? Another woman complained of being overwhelmed by the needs of the poor. “I know as a Christian I’m supposed to care,” she said, “but really, what can I do?” she asked. “All I can really do is feel guilty. What use is compassion if it’s only motivated by guilt?” And then there was another man I know who used to attend church pretty regularly but stopped. I asked him why. He said he felt he’d been sold a false bill of goods. “Reading your Bible, praying, being kind to everybody all the time, I just couldn’t keep up. This is supposed to be easy and light? To me the whole thing weighed a ton.”

I wanted to tell him that he had it all wrong, I wanted to tell him that that following Jesus didn’t have to be so heavy. But I couldn’t say that. I’ve read Leviticus. I’ve read the Sermon on the Mount. Seriously, who can follow that stuff? “Love your enemies?” What about the anger and the injustice? How are you supposed to set that aside? “Gouge out your eye that causes you to sin!” Even if this just hyperbole, you have to become a monk or Amish to get away from all the visual stimulation in our culture. “Give your shirt to the one who takes your coat.” Talk about doormat Christianity. “Sell your possessions and give the money to the poor.” Nobody does that. “Don’t worry about your life?” How about don’t take a breath? It’s about the same thing. There’s nothing easy and light about any of this. Such is the weight of glory.

It is a glory that bears down hard. It hammers and even hurts at times. But ironically, its intent is never to wreck us—but rather to refashion us, to reshape us into containers worthy of God’s glory. This is because the glory of the Lord no longer resides in a wooden box. The glory of the Lord resides in the flesh and blood bodies of his people—you and me. And yet it because we are sinners who resist shaping that the hammer is so hard. As Fuller Seminary President Richard Mouw rightly notes, our own spiritual formation “does not always proceed smoothly. We are sinners who are prone to self-deception. We must sometimes be forced to look directly at our own depravity. Often we need to be shocked into an awareness of the motives that really shape our thoughts and actions and to respond to these revelations by pleading for the mercy that will allow us to repair our ways.”

This is not only heavy but scary too. The Bible admits that “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” But in truth it’s more fearful still to fall out of God’s hands. This was Israel’s experience. The weight of glory was heavy, but the loss of glory was worse. God’s heavy hand offered redemption and freedom. Falling out of his hand was a freefall into emptiness and despair. Israel knew their identity with God in their midst. But who were they now that God was gone?

It was the dilemma faced by Jesus’ own disciples following the crucifixion. Like the capture of the ark, the crucifixion epitomized God’s failure and loss. The disciples had already left their families and livelihoods to follow Jesus. Now what? What else? All that was left was hopelessness and fear. But again, glory’s intent is to refashion and reshape—even amidst loss and defeat. The cross was God’s glory too. Even in the face of defeat, the cross, like the ark, topples human evil and sin. It’s heavy hand reshapes human identity into the likeness of Christ. As the apostle Paul will so poignantly put it (and experience it): “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” The loss of God is the gift of God. It is loss that makes his presence his possible. As the risen Jesus would explain to his disciples in another vein, “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if go away, the Holy Spirit will come to you.” As Paul again would affirm, “God who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit that dwells in you.”

The glory of the Lord now dwells in his people. And yet because we can still be resistant, God’s glory remains heavy handed in order to press its way into our hearts. It hammers and hurts, refashions and reshapes, it crucifies and raises so that in the end you may be redeemed not only into vessels that contain God’s Spirit, but bright and beautiful vessels that reflect God’s glory back to Him and to the world. Glorious vessels that see God’s beauty in others to.

Richard Mouw cites Saint Thérèse de Lisieux, a nineteenth century French nun who managed to generate much spiritual wisdom in her much-too-short life (she died before reaching the age of 30). In her own spiritual journal, she wrote how “one of the nuns managed to irritate me whatever she did or said. The devil was mixed up in it, for it was certainly he who made me see so many disagreeable traits in her. As I did not want to give way to my natural dislike of her, I told myself that charity should not only be a matter of feeling but show itself in deeds. I set myself up to do for this sister just what I should have done for someone I loved most dearly. Every time I met her, I prayed for her and offered God all of her virtues and her merits. I was sure this would greatly delight Jesus, for every artist likes to have his works praised and the divine Artist of souls is pleased when we do not halt outside the exterior of the sanctuary where he has chosen to dwell, but go inside and admire its beauty.”

For you and me, there are plenty of places, great and small, where God still hammers away. There are plenty of times when his hand feels heavy. But that’s only because the Lord remains determined to make us his home, an Ark in which his Spirit resides.