1 Samuel 7:3 – 8:9
“Where’s Your Faith?”
May the Lord be with you! (And also with you…)
Last week, we heard in 1 Samuel about what had happened to the Philistines after they had captured the Ark of the Covenant from the Israelites in battle. You’ll remember that following that capture they were hit by what we believe would have been an outbreak of the Bubonic Plague, which then of course would have affected the economic reality of the Philistine towns and then really every other aspect of life as well. I dare say that the plague was probably also affecting the Israelite communities too, the plague isn’t something that usually contains itself to one small locale. And I’m sure that the Israelites would have seen that as God’s punishment on them for the losing of the Ark to their enemies. Not a good situation overall for anyone. But then the Philistines, who certainly would have been blaming the Ark for the tragic situation they found themselves in – because the Ark’s arrival would have been the newest and biggest change that had happened for them before the plague itself had arrived – decided that they needed to return the Ark to where it had originally come from, this way they would hopefully then rid themselves of their tragic circumstances.
They do return the Ark to the Israelites at the Jewish town of Beit Shamesh, and so at least the Ark is back in Jewish hands. But the problem now is that those living in Beit Shamesh don’t really understand what the proper treatment and care of the Ark should be. Beit Shamesh at that time had been very much an agricultural community, it sits between Ashdod on the Mediterranean Sea and Jerusalem in the mountains. They wouldn’t have had any knowledgeable high priests living there from the Levite Tribe. (Today Beit Shamesh is basically a sleeper community for Jerusalem and Tel Aviv which are both large cities not too far away, although there is some agriculture in Beit Shamesh too.) And so after a handful of folks die trying to take care of the Ark – they weren’t realizing that they had to cover their faces when viewing the Ark – remember here Indiana Jones once again – they decide that they have to get it to someplace where not only would they not have to deal with it, but moreover, where it could be properly handled. Therefore, the people in Beit Shamesh contact their fellow Israelites in Kiriath Jearim, not too far away, and ask them to come and take it. Specifically, they get in touch with a man named Abinadab who they knew was living in Kiriath Jearim and was from the Tribe of Levi; remember it’s the Levites who had been the tribe appointed by God to be the priestly class. And so a group of men come from that town and bring the Ark to Abinadab’s home, they ordain his son Eleazar to be the priest in charge, and then hope that now all will be well.
BUT, it’s not, there’s still issue, the Philistines keep raiding and beating up on the Israelites, there’s constant problem and turmoil, and no matter who the Israelites are praying to, nothing seems to get better. Oh wait, what did I just say? I said, “No matter who the Israelites are praying to, nothing seems to get better.” And there-in lies the problem.
Think about our own society today. Our country itself was founded on religious liberty and freedom, a wonderful concept. BUT, the religious freedom and liberty that our founding fathers really had in mind was actually ‘religious freedom within the realm of religion that was found to be acceptable’. In other words, as long as you were some shade of Christianity, or the token Jew, you were generally just fine. The folks that subscribed to faiths and belief practices outside of that realm usually weren’t though, and there were at least a handful of other faith traditions being secretly and not so secretly practiced, things like divination, and Wicken; remember the Salem Witch Trials from our school books? And Lord knows it wasn’t too many that thought that the spirituality of the Native Americans wasn’t simply some belief system of savages. Overall though, the far majority of the European population of North America, up until pretty recently really, would align themselves with some tradition of Christianity if they had to, whether they were active in church life or not.
But now, today, think about where we are, and I’m really not trying to negatively criticize here so much, but today there really is currently something of a free for all when it comes to faith practices, and I really do have to question the societal health of this situation. Today, we in our country have every shade and color on the religious pin wheel represented, but to be honest, I think, most of it all seems to be really pretty superficial and/or ignorant – including lots of folks that claim some mantel of Christianity. And I’m not saying that everyone needs to think and believe and worship as I do, but I would like to put out there that people do need to be educating themselves about what it is that they say they believe in.. and that is, educating themselves on a real level and with real effort about what they say they believe in, because there really are so many varying ways of thinking about the same thing out there, that it doesn’t seem to be much of a surprise that we as a people really are as confused as we clearly appear to be, and that’s unhealthy, and the reason why it’s unhealthy is because it fractures us and shatters our community. It causes misunderstanding and misrepresentation that then leads to resentment, which then leads to conflict, and boy is that where we find ourselves today; in our families, at our jobs, in our schools, on our streets and clearly in our government. And I can’t believe for one second that God is looking down at this and feeling pride in his creation and joy about how it is that we are with each other.
Well, for the Israelites, this is pretty much the same exact thing that was going on at that point in time from our Old Testament reading this morning. People were praying to various Gods in the hope that at least one of them had to be right, one of them had to be able to answer their questions and solve their problems. At this point in time also, you had a lot of mixing between peoples and ideologies …and with their theologies. This land where the Israelites found themselves was very much a cross roads of civilizations; ..that specific land is where people were crossing through on their ways to and from Africa and Asia and Europe. And because of that, the cross breeds of people in that land are really pretty amazing, and probably only to be compared with our own society’s level of mixing. (And once again I’ll say that I’m not seeing that as a negative.) But the end result of all of this, is that you didn’t have Israelites completely staying to themselves and living behind walls protected from everyone else, you had trade and relationship and intermarriages as well. All of the things that naturally happen between people that live within any kind of proximity to each other. But for their relationship with God? I know that we can pretty easily realize how this end result of mixing would actually affect that relationship. It was very confused and jumbled, superficial and yes, ignorant – because people didn’t stay focused on one way of being, and because of that they really didn’t know what it was that they were believing in or even should be believing in. And so even after the Ark of the Covenant goes form Beit Shamesh to Kiriath Jearim, the people are still feeling not as they once had and not as they believed they should, …they still feel pretty far from God, because they’re still allowing themselves to be pulled this way and that way by varying beliefs and causes that are in front of them.
Now, enter Samuel into the story line once again. Until it had been taken into battle by Eli’s sons, Samuel had been the essential caretaker of the Ark up in Shiloh which is pretty far north of where the Ark is now finding itself in Kiriath Jearim. People go to Samuel and ask him what they should do - he is known as a pretty wise minor judge of the time – and he tells them that they need to get rid of all of the various Gods that they’re praying to and falsely relying on, and he insists that they realize that it is their God, the God of Israel that is the only force that they should really be even considering as real and true and reliable and able to provide to them what it is that they need. Samuel is confronting the people and demanding of them that they finally all get onto the correct page and start realizing correctly just what it is that they have in front of them when in true relationship with their creator. He’s kind of calling them out.
If Samuel was amongst us today, he’d be clearly telling us to stop thinking that we can find all that we need at either the mall or at Walmart. He’d be telling us that in order to find real fulfillment in this life, that it’s not about the new car, or the new cell phone, or computer, or financial portfolio – that those are things that only give momentary, superficial, and often times, false joy and satisfaction. And that a real and honest and intelligent relationship with our God is truly what we need in order to stop feeling so often, so damn lost…
He then takes those who feel called to the hill town of Mizpah which is south of Shiloh but north of Kiriath Jearim, - why there no one really knows – and once there they confess to God for having allowed themselves to get so far from their God, for having spent so much effort on false things, and on superficial thoughts, and then Samuel prays to God on behalf of the Israelite community, praying for them to come together and to heal the fractures and lesions that have been allowed to grow up because of everyone being off in every other direction….and then after the people truly confess to being just so pig headed and stubborn, and self-centered and self-righteous, and start acting as really they know they should be ..things seem to start getting better, healing begins to take place and the people’s relationship with their one and only real Creator begins to solidify once again and starts giving them what they need…once again.
Samuel is then declared as the main Judge over Israel and things are turning around, the Philistines are being fought off, and any other groups too that think that they might be able to do something are also chased off. And the people get themselves onto the same page and stay aware of their relationship with God, they’re not off putting their priorities into superficial things as much as they had been. And things stay like this for quite a while, and as happens with all of us, Samuel starts to grow old, he’s seen as very much the leader of God’s people, and so he starts training his sons to take his place, like is the tradition. But then there comes about another big issue, and it’s essentially because people are not trusting God to deal with their concerns?
But I want to end now this week without going into the next big thing that first slaps God and then eventually the Israelites in the face. You’ll notice in the Scriptures of Samuel that the whole story of the Israelites acting as the spoiled child of God is now really very well cemented into place. The Israelites are getting well used to this relationship with God in which they know that if they complain and bemoan about something loud enough and long enough that they’ll essentially get their way. Yes, they get the occasional punishment, but what’s been put into motion is a way of being in which humanity – through the example of the Israelites – can never really seem to just put their faith in God instead of in their own abilities and things that are 99% of the time, completely superficial. Just when you think they – we – may be getting a clue as to our place in this creation, we change our minds and run off to where a better deal is perceived to be getting offered, and we do it all the time.
Where is our faith, in what do we put our faith and why? Should our true comfort and confidence be found in the things of this world, or in that which is far bigger and greater and beyond all of this that we have in front of us? That’s a really good question to be spending some time with, that’s the question that the Israelites were having to confront then and that’s what they and we are being confronted with today.
And I know what the answer is just as much as I know all of you know what the answer is, but how do we reflect that answer into our day to day living, our daily choices and reactions? Or will we always just be like the spoiled children of God?
In the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.