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.

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