Monday, 19 March 2012

God out of the Box - 1 Samuel 5:1-7:1

Here are my notes from last nights LightHouse with the discussion questions we spent some time thinking through:

We live in an increasingly polytheistic society where there are lots of religions and therefore lots of different gods, ways of worship, scriptures and so on. So it’s not uncommon to find people who have a pick n mix religion. They may take a bit of Karma from Buddhism so you get what you deserve, they make like some of the teaching of Jesus like love your enemies, they may like some of the integrity in business that is part of Islam. Each of these elements are taken and blended together to create something which they are happy with.

One of the by-products of our multicultural pick n mix attitude is that believing one thing is increasingly seen to be wrong, or narrow. To insist that God alone is God and that he reveals himself to us in scripture, or that Jesus alone is the way to be right with God, or to insist on grace as a way of salvation is viewed as fundamentalist, bigoted and increasingly is not tolerated. I wonder if you feel the pressure of that as you talk to friends and family.

It was the same for Israel, every other nation around them had lots of gods to which they periodically added new gods, or assimilated the gods of other nations as they conquered them. Joshua 3:4 tells us that these other peoples were left in the Promised Land deliberately “to test the Israelites to see whether they would obey the LORD’s commands, which he had given their ancestors through Moses.”

Would Israel live differently, would they worship Yahweh alone, would they be faithful to the covenant?

We’ve seen that the answer is no to each of those questions. Israel has violated and disobeyed the covenant, but now God will show them that he alone is God as he contends with Dagon, then with the Philistines and finally with his people themselves.

1. There is only one God (5:1-5)
Israel had been defeated by the Philistines and the assumption at the time was that therefore Yahweh had been defeated by the god of the Philistines, Dagon. And just as Israel was now subject to the Philistines so Yahweh was subject and must serve Dagon. So the Philistines take the Ark of the Covenant back and **put in where? In Dagon’s temple

But Yahweh is no-ones vassal or servant, as he proved in defeating the god’s of the Egyptians. Yahweh proves that as the morning after the Ark is placed in Dagon’s temple Dagon is found bowing to Yahweh. The writer mockingly adds “They took Dagon and put him back in his place.” It’s ironic isn’t it this God they claim gave them victory has to be helped back up into his place!

**But the next morning they come in and find what? Dagon is again fallen on his face before the Ark, but this time there are elements of execution about the broken off head and hands. Dagon doesn’t just bow before Yahweh he is defeated and destroyed by Yahweh. But (5)the Philistines still haven’t learnt the lesson, they just don’t step on the threshold because it is holy now Dagon’s head has touched it. They have not learnt the lesson that Yahweh is the only God! They won’t worship him despite his obvious defeat of Dagon, despite Dagon being shown to be no more than a statue, and one which now needs to be remade!

Yahweh alone is God. We need to hear that in our pick n mix spiritually diverse age which says God is who and what you want him to be and no-one can say any different. Yahweh is the one and only God, he is the living and true God.

For Israel here is a calling to come out and be separate from the people’s around them, not to adopt their polytheistic ways, not to mix Yahweh worship with anything else. God alone is God and he alone is to be worshipped. It is a lesson we need to learn, we must think of and worship the God of the bible as he reveals himself in all his majesty, not to allow our thinking to be moulded by society and our view of God to be altered.

It is a truth that we need to be prepared to stand for. Throughout the Bible, as here, God ruthlessly exposes the futility, foolishness, and dangerous nature of worshipping anyone else. We too ought to do the same; we need to stand for the truth and to proclaim Yahweh as God and Jesus as his Son and our Saviour and Lord, lovingly and winsomely but also without compromise, without compromising to fit in with societies views.

2. God doesn’t need saving(5:6-6:16)
The question post Dagon’s defeat is; ‘what should the Philistines do with the ark?’ clearly it can’t stay at Dagon’s temple. So the Ark is sent off to city after city but everywhere it goes God breaks out against the people of the city and they are afflicted with a plague and there is nothing they can do to stop it(6-11).

By the end of v11, after 7 months the Philistines just want to get rid of the Ark, they may have captured the ark but they cannot control or contain Yahweh. Dagon has been defeated and decapitated and the people plague ridden because Yahweh’s hand has been against them. God’s enemies can’t stand against him when he acts against them. The capture of the Ark was not a sign of Yahweh’s defeat but an opportunity for him to reveal that he is God over all creation and Sovereign even over Israel’s enemies.

So they come up with an elaborate scheme to send the Ark back so Yahweh stops afflicting them but also so that they know for sure whether it was his hand or not. And they stack the cards against God, the cows have never been yoked, and the lure of their calves would normally mean the cows turned towards their calf not went to Israel.

But (12-16)the Philistine rulers are left in no doubt that it was Yahweh, not coincidence. God is at work to reveal himself to the Philistines even in Israel’s defeat. And he works so that his people know he was not defeated but remains sovereign as Yahweh ensures the Arks return to Israel.

**What do Israel do to get the Ark back? Nothing. There is no daring SAS raid, there are no talks aimed at returning a valuable artefact, no political deals, no release of prisoners or paying of a ransom. God displays his power and his glory as he works without his people to bring the Ark back to Israel. Yahweh is not helpless like Dagon who needs helping back onto his pillar, Yahweh is powerful and Sovereign and does not need his people’s praise or actions.

God is not weak and feeble, God is not incompetent or bumbling, God is almighty, powerful and sovereign and he rules and reigns. And God does not need us! It is not that God is incapable of acting unless we act. Rather he saves us by grace and calls us to serve him by grace and for his glory. There is no boasting in our ability because it humbles us that he would use us, that he allows us to be part of his plan to unite everything to bring him glory.

3. God contends with his people too
**As the Ark returns how do the people react (13)? They rejoice at the sight, offer sacrifices and have a bit of a party. So far so good and so expected, but then comes the unexpected in (19)”But God struck down some of the inhabitants of Beth Shemesh, putting seventy of them to death because they looked on the Ark of the LORD.”

Instinctively we feel that this shouldn’t happen, these are God’s people. Contending against Dagon and the Philistines is one thing but contending against his own people is quite another. Israel shouldn’t have to be afraid of God should they? The challenge with these sorts of passage is not to write them off or airbrush them mentally out of our bibles. We can’t for example just say this is the God of the Old Testament and in New Testament he is different, less capricious, because the Bible tells us God does not change, and what about passages like Acts 5 where Ananias and Sapphira are put to death for lying. These passages are here to help us understand who God is, who we are and how we are to relate to God.

Again the covenant context is key to us understanding this event. Just as Israel lose the battle because they have broken the covenant so here Israel break the covenant and seventy die. Turn to Numbers 4:1-20; (6)the Ark was a symbol of the holiness and majesty of God, it was not to be treated lightly. The Ark was always to be covered when it was moved, (20)they must not look on it.

Come back to 1 Samuel 6. I think this still seems a little bit harsh, were ordinary Israelites expected to know all these details? **Which town does the Ark go to? Beth Shemesh, that detail matters because it is a town given to the Levites and the Levites were responsible for worship and proper care of the Ark. And (15)makes this point, it is Levites who take the Ark down from the cart and put it on a large rock. It is one thing for the Philistines not to know how to transport the Ark, but Levites had been privileged and called to look after the Ark and lead the people in right worship.

Their question in (20)is a good question “Who can stand in the presence of the LORD, this holy God? To whom will the Ark go?” But again the answer is wrong, again the answer assumes God is the problem not their sin or wrong actions. God’s people without God’s word teaching them, guiding them, informing them of what God requires are in danger from a holy God because sinners cannot stand before God. As the chapter closes Israel desperately need a prophet, one who will be a covenant enforcement mediator, calling them back to God’s word and teaching them how to live as God’s people rightly.

But what about us, surely this is Old Testament thinking? Turn to Luke 5:1-11 when Peter comes face to face with Jesus his reaction mirrors that of these Israelites “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man.” He realises Jesus is God made man and he knows that he cannot stand before God because of his sin. And Peter is not a notorious rebel, he is a Jew, he is devout, he is a family man, he runs his own business, he has friends. Yet he knows that he cannot stand in the presence of a holy God. So what hope is there?

Jesus words provide hope “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.” Jesus comes to deal with the fear of coming face to face with God in all our sin, because he comes to pay for our sin and to teach us to live our lives properly when it comes to God. To know God as our Father whom we serve in reverence and fear.

We are called to know God intimately in Christ but not to be familiar with God. We need just like Israel God’s word to guide us in how to live and serve as his people for his glory.

1. What are the dangers and advantages of living in a multi-faith society? What help is there for us here as we seek to avoid compromise?

2. “In Christ we are called to intimacy with God but not familiarity.” Do you agree or disagree and why?

3. God is totally self sufficient and yet he graciously calls us to serve him, what ought this to mean for the way we serve him?

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