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.

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