Thursday, May 7, 2009

Victory at Ebenezer (1 Samuel 4-7)

The following is a devotional that I wrote for my church's Bible reading plan.

1 Samuel 4-7
This section of Scripture starts and ends with the people of God at war against the Philistines in a place called Ebenezer (“Rock of Help”). After being defeated in the first round of battle, the elders of the nation decide to bring out the Ark of the Covenant, the symbol of the presence of God. The presence of the Ark had brought victory to Israel before. (Remember that line in Raiders of the Lost Ark: “The Bible speaks of the Ark leveling mountains and laying waste to entire regions. An army which carries the Ark before it… is invincible.”) The presence of the Ark even terrifies the opposing army and convinces them that they are about to be destroyed (1 Sam 4:6-9). But it is not enough. The army of Israel is defeated, the two sons of the high priest are killed, and the Ark is taken captive by the Philistines. Eli, the high priest, falls down dead when he hears the news, and his newborn grandson is named Ichabod, “the glory has departed,” as a sign of mourning.

About a year later (after a number of fascinating and even humorous events that bring the Ark back to Israel), the army of Israel again fights the Philistines at Ebenezer. But this time, although they don’t bring out the Ark, Israel is victorious and casts off the oppression of the Philistines. What happened to make the difference? Why did the first army fail, and why did the second army succeed?

The first army suffered from fatal flaws. First, they thought that religious ritual alone could bring victory and blessing. There is no sign that they did anything else to honor God – just brought out the Ark. Like the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark, they thought that mere possession of the Ark would grant power. Second, Israel relied on immoral leaders. God had already warned Eli the high priest that they were in danger because his two sons were breaking the priestly laws, extorting gifts from worshipers, and sleeping with the women who were appointed to serve in the Tabernacle (1 Sam 2:15-25). These were not the men to carry the Ark and bring the presence of God before the people.

Why did the second army succeed? Samuel led the people into an inner transformation that went beyond just ritual. He helped them experience the real presence of God in their lives rather than trying to control God by bringing out the Ark. Samuel called the people to take inner and outer steps of repentance as they turned to God. They got rid of their idols to other gods, they fasted, prayed and confessed their sins; and when they went off to battle, Samuel remained behind, offering a sin sacrifice and praying for the people (1 Sam 7:3-10).

We cannot expect blessing, whether as a whole congregation or as individual Christians, if we think that religious ritual alone pleases God. We are sometimes tempted to think that God has to bless if we attend everything we are supposed to. We sometimes expect victory because we experience emotional worship or because we make great promises to God. But the story of the victory at Ebenezer reminds us that God delights in genuine repentance and utter faithfulness to him. Both Samuel and the sons of Eli used religious ritual – but it only Samuel’s that was acceptable to God. Samuel’s ritual (the sin sacrifice) was valuable because it was connected to genuinely transformed hearts. I believe that any ritual we participate in – whether it is worship, communion, baptism, laying on of hands, fasting or any other common Christian practice – only matters to God if it represents repentant and transformed hearts.

Lord, as a church, we want to please you and experience your blessing. Please help our hearts to match our Christian habits and rituals. Cause us to seek repentance and transformation, not merely empty ritual. And Father, we pray that all the rituals that we practice will be pleasing to you because they represent the reality of your presence in us.

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