May 14, 2017

“What a Great Opportunity” 5-14-17

I Samuel 5:1 – 6: 9, Ephesians 2:12 – 22
May 14, 2017

What a great story this is!  The Philistines had captured the Ark of the Covenant of Israel’s God in battle.  Since we have been reading this story from the Bible, which presents things from the viewpoint of God and the Israelites, we know that the loss of the ark was part of God’s punishments on the apostate nation under the guidance of the two bad Priests, Hophni and Phinehas, both of whom died in battle.
From the viewpoint of the Philistines, they had captured the God of Israel.  That meant that their god was superior to the God of Israel, and had given them the victory.  They understood that the ark, being a representation of God or his presence among his people, belonged in a temple or tabernacle.  Since he was thought by the Philistines to be a weaker God than theirs, they put the ark in the temple of their god, in Ashdod, one of their cities, so the God of Israel could serve and honor the god of the Philistines, whose name was Dagon, and was represented in that temple by an idol.
Then things started to go wrong.
The next morning, the idol of Dagon had fallen over and was laying face-down before the Ark of the God of Israel, as if the idol of Dagon was worshiping and honoring the God of Israel. 
Well, the Philistines took this as a happenstance and put the statue back up in his place, the place of honor in the temple.
The next morning, the statue was prostrate before the Ark again, only this time the statue was mutilated, with its hands and head cut or broken off.  They were lying on the threshold of the opening to the temple, the place where the dirt and dust from outside polluted the floor.
This would have symbolized the power of the God of Israel over the power of the god of the Philistines.
And then things got worse.  The Philistines in Ashdod began to get sick.  Since there is in this story mention of Tumors and mice or rats, some think the illness was the bubonic plague or a related illness.  The people of Ashdod asked their leaders to relieve them from the oppressive power of the God of Israel.
So the Ark was moved from Ashdod to Gath, another Philistine city.  And the plague moved with the ark, afflicting the residents of Gath.  Then the Ark was moved to another city, Ekron.  The people there immediately appealed to the Philistine kings to send the ark back to Israel.
So far, the ark had been among the Philistines nearly 7 months.
The leaders called the priests and diviners or magicians of the Philistines and asked them how they should go about sending the ark back to Israel.  They advised that the Philistines send a guilt offering or sin offering to Israel along with the ark.  This was not to appease Israel, but to appease their God.
The guilt offering consisted of 5 gold images of tumors and 5 gold images of mice or rats.  These represented the afflictions that had come upon them from God, and 5 represented the 5 kings or districts of the Philistines.  The entire nation was expressing its sorrow for offending the God of Israel.
Then the priests and diviners gave some interesting directions for returning the ark and sending the guilt offering.
They were to build a new wagon for the ark.  God’s ark was not to ride in a dirty, used wagon.  In fact, the commandments of God stated that the ark was never to be put in a wagon, it was to be carried with long poles attached to each side of the ark, But in this case, God seems to have made an allowance for the ignorance of the Philistines.
The wagon was to be pulled by two cows that had recently birthed calves, and the calves were to be kept back.  If the cows willingly went away from their calves, and took the ark to Israel, then they would know that God was leading the cows and accepting the ark and their offerings.  The offerings, by the way were to be put in a separate box in the wagon.
They got everything ready, and the cows took the ark back to Israel, and evidently the plagues stopped, and the Philistines were grateful.  And they were sure that they had offended the God of Israel and that he had accepted their guilt offerings.  But they would continue to be a problem for the Israelites, later attacking them again and eventually killing Saul, the first king of Israel and several of his sons.
I guess it is a good ending of the story, at least generations of Jews and Christians have thought so.
But I am this morning going to be bold enough to suggest another ending.
Let’s suppose that the Philistines in their acknowledgment that the God of Israel was stronger than their god, even in their own land, went a step farther.
Let’s suppose that they decided to follow and worship the superior God and that they got rid of the idols of Dagon and began to worship the God of Israel.
Let’s suppose that the leaders of the Philistines consulted Samuel as to where the Ark should go and how they should get it there.  And let’s suppose that since they now worshiped and followed the God of Israel, they formed an alliance with Israel.  Much of the future of the Philistines would have changed for the better.  Goliath would not have been remembered as the viscous giant who was killed by the youthful David, but may have become an ally and one of David’s great generals.
How would this change have come about?  The Philistines needed a change of heart, which can only come from God.  But they also could have used better advisors.  Advisors who could have seen the problem concerning the ark as more than a challenge, but as an opportunity.  An opportunity to serve and be protected by the greater God.
Since this is Mother’s day, we can be so bold to suggest that some wise mothers or grandmothers might have given this advice.  And the Philistines might still have existed as allies to Israel to this day.
All of this could have happened if they moved beyond their sorrow and fear of being punished because they had offended God, and decided to serve and honor God and gotten rid of their old idols of Dagon.
The advice of the Philistines still prevails among us.  It answers the often asked question “how do we get out of this mess?”  That answer is rather limited in scope, usually only seeking to return the questioners to the status quo, the way things were before the problem arose. 
Better advisors would have seen the weakness of Dagon to provide an opportunity to serve a better God.
Which is what has happened to us.  Our great advisor, the Holy Spirit of God has turned us to see the power and glory of Jesus, the Son of God.  We were not people of the promise; we were not descendants of Abraham.  We were descendants of idol worshiping tribes like the Philistines.  The Spirit of God directed our ancestors and us to the love and forgiveness of Jesus.  And we are now a part of the eternal kingdom of God.
But in our prayers to Jesus through the Holy Spirit, we are often more like the Philistines than we ought to be.  We are just seeking answers to solutions, we are not asking that God will guide us to see the opportunities in our problems and often we cannot see what God can really do for us if we trust him. 
Christians, seek the guidance of God to see beyond problems to the opportunities God has given you.
Moms (and dads) give advice to your children that go beyond their problems and guide them to see the possibilities that open up when we serve a God whose wisdom and power is infinite.


Pastor David Horner
Faith Presbyterian Church
West Lafayette, IN 47906