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.