I have a feeling I might be getting a bit of a reputation for standing up here and using strange illustrations. We’ve had wellie boots and fluffy slippers. We’ve had baked beans, ravioli and tomato sauce. Today we’re having dunked biscuits. Stick with me, and it may make sense by the end!
Today we’ve reached a hinge point in 1 Samuel. It may have looked as if we’d never get there, but after four months, we have finally arrived at chapter 7. Chapter 7 is an important chapter, because it forms the hinge between the first 6 chapters, which tell of Samuel, and the loss and return of the ark; and the next few chapters, which tell of Israel’s first king, Saul.
What I’d like to do first, is to remind us of the story so far. So if you’re new, or have missed some of the previous Sundays, or if you just need a reminder, here is your chance to catch up.
God’s people were settled in their own land, Israel. They did not have a king – the idea was that God himself would be their king, and in that way, they would be a light and a testimony to the nations around them. But instead, they had degenerated into idolatory, injustice and near-anarchy. Do you remember how the book of Judges ends? ‘In those days Israel had no king, everyone did as he saw fit.’
Even the priests were corrupt. Do you remember the sons of Eli, who helped themselves to the temple sacrifices, and prostituted women in the temple itself?
As if all that wasn’t bad enough, in chapter 4 we hit a really dark point. Having taken heavy losses in a skirmish with the Philistines, the people of Israel decide to take the ark of the covenant to war with them. If they have God alongside them, they can’t be defeated, can they?
And you remember what happens. The Philistines panic when they see the ark, but then they rally their courage, and defeat the Israelites, killing 30,000. And – most desperately of all – the ark is taken. YHWH is apparently defeated.
In chapter 5 we read about how the defeated YHWH fares in the hands of the Philistines. How he does battle with their god, Dagon in the silent darkness of two nights, and how, at dawn of the third day, he flexes his muscles and definitively conquers his enemies. Sound familiar? This is certainly a picture of Jesus in the grave.
Then we move on to chapter 6. We haven’t covered this chapter, but it’s probably familiar to many of you. Life with the ark was not easy for the Philistines. The weight of the presence of God is not a blessing to them, and they shunt it from place to place like a hot potato. After 7 months they decide it’s time to send the ark back where it came from. So they put it on an ox cart, with conciliatory offerings, and let the oxen wander where they will. And in a straight line, they go back to Israel.
The people of Beth Shemesh, a village on the edge of Israel, are harvesting their wheat, and they look up and see the ark coming towards them. Great celebration! They make thanks offerings and start the party. But unfortunately, some of them decide to have a look inside the ark, and seventy of them are killed. The ark has become a hot potato again, and they send it off to a neighbouring village and appoint some random bloke called Eleazar to take care of it. And there it stays, for twenty years.
That’s the story so far. But what characterises the people of God in these chapters is the way they view God – the expression Mike used a few weeks ago is this: YHWH – lite. Their God had the appearance of the real thing, but none of the punch. None of the weight. None of the glory.
The ark of the covenant, as you know, was the place where God symbolically dwelt. It was the evidence of and reminded of God’s presence with his people. But when the people took it into battle with them, they are using it as a sort of talisman, like a four-leaf clover or a rabbit’s foot. God, the Almighty God, is not a lucky charm. The God who spoke the heavens and earth into being by the power of his voice does not care to be used as a good-luck symbol. They were not worshipping the true God, but YHWH-lite.
And after the ark returns, they still have not learned their lesson. They are delighted to have it back – who wouldn’t be pleased to find their mascot again? But then they decide to peep inside the box. They are using it as a side-show – as entertainment. It’s not the true God they are worshipping – it’s YHWH-lite.
Now we may not like that passage – we may feel quite uncomfortable to read about God striking down seventy men for looking into the ark, but let’s just stop for a moment and think about that. Do we want to worship a castrated god? Do we want to serve some sort of eunuch, bleating at us in a little high pitched voice from captivity in the ark? Or is he a real God,
· a potent God,
· a God who defends his own glory,
· a God who flexes his muscles and defeats the false gods,
· a God who is strong and powerful and mighty to save his people?
Did you notice, the Philistines in chapters 4-6 have a better grasp of who this God is than the Israelites? They are the ones who recall God’s mighty and dramatic rescue of his people from Egypt. In chapter 4v 7 – ‘A god has come into the camp! We’re in trouble…Who will deliver us from the hands of these mighty gods? They are the gods who struck Egypt with all kinds of plagues in the desert.’ In chapter 6, the pagan priests and diviners say, ‘v3 If you return the ark of the god of Israel, do not send it away empty, but by all means send a guilt offering to him… v5 Perhaps he will lift his hand from you and your gods and your land. Why do you harden your heart as the Egyptians and Pharaoh did?’
The Philistine were polytheists, pagans who represented all that was contrary to God. But they had begun to get the point. This God was not be messed with. The Israelites, on the other hand, hadn’t. YHWH was
- their pet,
- their pocket-sized deity to tout along into battle
- or provide a little entertainment after a hard day’s harvesting.
Now that’s a rather long introduction, but we turn to chapter 7.
Twenty long years have gone by. And something has begun to stir in the hearts of God’s people. I don’t know what caused it. Perhaps, as some suggest, Samuel was preaching from place to place, stirring up memories and hunger for God once more. Perhaps the presence of the ark, so near and yet so far, was awakening a desire for God’s presence once more. But whatever caused it, in verse 2 we read, All the people of Israel mourned and sought after the Lord. The word is ‘lamented’. They lamented after God.
Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t lament after many things. It’s an interesting idea. There are things I want, things I covet, perhaps, but not many things I lament after. Of course, we might lament after a loved-one who has died, or from whom we are estranged. It’s a pretty strong word, to lament after God. The idea we are getting here is of a real passion, a sorrowful yearning for what they have finally understood that they are missing out on. It reminds me of Jesus’ words on the sermon on the mount, ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.’ I guess when we look at the Jews of today at the wailing wall, we get an idea of what it might mean to lament after God.
The religion of ancient Israel recently hasn’t been running very deep. If you are worshipping YHWH-lite, it doesn’t. If you are worshipping YHWH-lite, the devotion is more about the outward form than the state of the heart. But now, God’s people have begun to lament after God. And the inner consecration has an outer effect. Look at verses 3 and 4. ‘If you are returning to the LORD with all your hearts, says Samuel, then rid yourselves of the foreign gods and the Ashtoreths and commit yourselves to the LORD and serve him only… So the Israelites put away their Baals and Ashtoreths and served the LORD only.
You can see why this is a critical point in the story. God’s people are turning back to him, and – for now – their devotion runs deep. The evidence of their genuine turning to God is four-fold.
- They lament after God.
- They confess their sins.
- They turn away from false gods.
- And when the chips are down – when the Philistines are attacking them – they demonstrate an utter dependence on God alone.
I wonder if you’ve made New Year’s Resolutions. I gave up on doing that a long time ago. They never made it as far as the end of the month. But the New Year is a good time for
- taking stock,
- for looking back and looking forward,
- for re-examining our lives and our priorities, and
- perhaps for repentance and renewal of our commitment to God.
True religion runs deep. It’s not an icing that sits on top of a cake, but doesn’t penetrate it. It saturates you, permeates you from the inside out. We need to be more like dunked biscuits than iced cakes!
Perhaps the key phrase is in verse 3. ‘If you are returning to the Lord with all your hearts’ says Samuel. I’m reminded of the verse in Psalm 86. ‘Give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name.’
What does it mean to have an undivided heart? Perhaps we get a clue in the words of Jesus. ‘No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.’
Of course it needn’t be money. But if we allow anything to squeeze God out of our hearts, then we have false gods in our lives; we have a divided heart.
Genuine conversion starts deep within, and then is evidenced externally. You can’t have inner transformation without external evidence. External signs of piety that are not mirrored deep in the heart, are shallow hypocrisy. If you try to have one without the other, or you end up walking with a spiritual limp.
But there’s one more thing to notice here. We read it in verses 5, 8 and 9.
‘Assemble all Israel at Mizpah,’ says Samuel, ‘and I will intercede with the LORD for you.’
‘They said to Samuel, “Do not stop crying out to the LORD our God for us, that he may rescue us from the hands of the Philistines.’
Samuel ‘cried out to the LORD on Israel’s behalf.’
God’s people have learned something very important from that incident where seventy men opened the ark and looked inside, and were struck down. They have learned that this God is not YHWH-lite. They have learned that this is a scary God. They have finally understood that they need someone to come before God on their behalf.
And it’s the same with us today. God is still a scary God. He does not tolerate people strolling into his presence. Even though love runs through Father God like the writing in a stick of rock, his holiness and his glory are utterly intolerable. No-one may approach God and live. We, just like ancient Israel, need someone to stand between us and God, to make intercession for us.
So thanks be to God for Jesus. The writer of Hebrews expresses it like this, ‘There have been many priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives for ever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.’
So if you are coming to God today for the very first time – or the hundredth – you need to know this.
- We may not stroll back into his presence.
- We may not come by our own efforts.
- We can not please him by the feeble virtue of our own hearts.
- This is not YHWH-lite were are approaching.
So the invitation is open today, as it was for ancient Israel three thousand years ago. Turn back to God. Lament after him. Grieve for what you know you lack. Let your turning be first a turning of the heart. And then let it spill out into your life.
- Let your turning be characterised by confession – by sorrow for your shortcomings.
- Let your turning be characterised by an altered way of life.
- Let your turning be characterised by an utter reliance on God – by a reckless gambling on him.
And do not presume to approach God on your own merit. Find the go-between you need. Ask Jesus. And he will make intercession. He will plead in the court of heaven and show the nailprints in his hands and feet. And you will find the approach and the welcome that you desire.
And then you will encounter the awesome, mighty God – not as YHWH lite – but as your Heavenly Father, glorious and tender and mighty to save.