The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.
*Originally preached December 27, 2020*
1 And the word of Samuel came to all Israel.
Now Israel went out to battle against the Philistines. They encamped at Ebenezer, and the Philistines encamped at Aphek. 2 The Philistines drew up in line against Israel, and when the battle spread, Israel was defeated before the Philistines, who killed about four thousand men on the field of battle. 3 And when the people came to the camp, the elders of Israel said, “Why has the LORD defeated us today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the LORD here from Shiloh, that it may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies.” 4 So the people sent to Shiloh and brought from there the ark of the covenant of the LORD of hosts, who is enthroned on the cherubim. And the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God.
5 As soon as the ark of the covenant of the LORD came into the camp, all Israel gave a mighty shout, so that the earth resounded. 6 And when the Philistines heard the noise of the shouting, they said, “What does this great shouting in the camp of the Hebrews mean?” And when they learned that the ark of the LORD had come to the camp, 7 the Philistines were afraid, for they said, “A god has come into the camp.” And they said, “Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened before. 8 Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness. 9 Take courage, and be men, O Philistines, lest you become slaves to the Hebrews as they have been to you; be men and fight.”
10 So the Philistines fought, and Israel was defeated, and they fled, every man to his home. And there was a very great slaughter, for thirty thousand foot soldiers of Israel fell. 11 And the ark of God was captured, and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died. – 1 Sam 4:1-11
The most important relationships in our lives are covenantal, and less important ones are contractual.
A covenantal relationship puts primary emphasis on the relationship itself; a contractual relationship puts the emphasis on the actions, the output. In a covenantal relationship, our main focus is on the other person, in a contractual relationship our main focus is on what benefit we can get from it. And we must discern which relationships in our lives should be covenantal or contractual.
But what about our relationship with God? Is our relationship with God primarily focused on God Himself, or is it focused on what God has to give us? Is it covenantal or contractual?
In the book of 1 Samuel we see story after story after story of what happens when people assume that their relationship with God is contractual. The story of our text today is simply illustrative of this bigger picture.
Why Am I Preaching on This?
Perhaps you are wondering why I have decided to preach this sermon. As we approach the end of 2020 and look forward to what God has in store for us in 2021 I want to take some time to calibrate our church’s expectations and unify us together in the mission that God has given our church: to create a covenant community who worships Christ above all. The end of the year is a time where we reflect on making new decisions, changes we want to make to our lives. And it is no different for a church. Emerging from 2020 and looking forward to what the future holds for Quinault can create an air of anticipation. This last year was shrouded by so much frustration…being unable to meet for months, Zoom calls, quarantining, cancelled small groups, seeing ones we love be put into isolation, not being able to have pastors make home visits on our members, seeing loved ones grow sick, and seeing many hopes and dreams of what we wanted the last year to be to go up in flames—all of that creates a collective sense of “ugh, let’s hope next year is better.”
But, perhaps the Lord knows what He is doing in giving us what He did in 2020. While we were unable to gather for a few months, in the last year we have been able to spend the majority of our Sunday’s together, singing, praying, and listening to God’s Word read and preached. We have been able to grow in our efforts to pray more regularly for one another through our prayer guides and membership directory. When I arrived here one year ago today, our church had 38 members. In the last year we have added 20 new members, which is more than a 50% increase. We have seen three brothers and sisters be baptized. We have seen new discipleship opportunities for men and women through men’s and women’s studies that started this Fall. We adopted a new Statement of Faith, and amended our membership covenant as well as our by-laws. We voted to support a new set of missionaries working in Bible translation, and ended the year coming in $10,000 over our expenses which we will use to install a new lighting system in our auditorium. And not to mention all of the tiny ways the pressure of the last year has caused us to lean more on the Lord, pray more, be more transparent with one another, reach out to one another for help, and practice hospitality more than we normally would have. We have much to be grateful to God for in the last year.
But what should we expect for the next year? While the exhaustion and frustrations of 2020 can lead us to an anticipation of “Man, let’s just do something,” so too can the blessings of 2020: “Should we anticipate that God is going to increase our membership by another 50%? Should we declare that God will baptize even more or balloon our budget to new heights? What do we do with this momentum?”
This, of course, isn’t only a question for our church. What should your family anticipate for the next year? What would you like to have happen in your marriage? In your parenting? In your day-to-day war against sin? We want to see real change in our lives, we want to see change in our church, we want to see healthy, positive steps be taken in 2021. I want to see our church grow in its different ministry opportunities in reaching out to the community around us; I want to see a culture of evangelism and hospitality take hold in our church; and I want to see new opportunities for discipling our children take shape. But how do we bring that about? How do we approach this new year?
Here is what I want to emphasize to our church: there is nothing more important for our church, for yourself and your families, for the next year than to prioritize your relationship with the Lord. Surely you have all heard of this from some podcast or leadership book, but if you take a jar and a handful of larger rocks and a good deal of smaller pebbles and place the smaller pebbles in first and then try to put the larger rocks in afterwards, the rocks won’t fit into a jar. But if you put the big rocks in first and then pour the smaller rocks in around the larger rocks, then, surprisingly, all of the rocks will fit into the jar. That analogy is used often to explain why you should prioritize first and foremost the big tasks in your life—because you will be able to fill in the small tasks around them. While that might be true for productivity and scheduling, it is certainly true for the Christian life.
If we focus on the things that are to flow out of our relationship with the Lord (our evangelism, church growth, marriages, parenting, etc.) over our relationship with the Lord itself, we will suddenly find that we have no room for God in our lives. And we will wind up being like those that Paul warns of, “having an appearance of godliness, but denying its power,” (2 Tim 3:5). We may even begin to treat God as if we were in a contractual relationship with Him rather than a covenantal relationship, like we commune with God only to get what we want from Him. This is the warning of our text today.
The Cautionary Tale of Israel
The book of 1 Samuel is a picture of what two different relationships with God look like: a covenantal and a contractual. Those in a contractual relationship with God (Eli, his sons, most of Israel, Saul) use God to get what they want, to bring about the changes and results in their lives that they desire. Those in a covenantal relationship (Hannah, Samuel, and David) want God Himself; they are those “after God’s own heart,” (1 Sam 13:14).
The book explains how God has risen up Samuel to replace the wicked sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, who have used their positions as priests to forcefully rob others from the offerings given to God and to sleep with the women who were trying to worship at the tabernacle (1 Sam 2:12-17, 22). We are simply told that, despite the fact that they are priests of God, “they did not know the Lord,” (1 Sam 2:12). How shocking: men who are intended to be mediators between God and men, to help others know God more clearly and worship Him more rightly, they don’t even know God. They have no relationship with Him. They are simply using God as a free ticket to money, food, and sex.
These two sons are set in direct contrast with the son of Hannah, Samuel. Hannah opens up the entire book of 1 Samuel with her prayers for a son. She is barren and wants a son more than anything. But she promises God that if He will give her a son, she will give Him back to God by devoting him to work in the tabernacle under Eli. God grants her request and gives her a son, and Hannah faithfully follows through with her promise. What does this tell us? God is Hannah’s highest priority. She offers up her son, the thing that she loves and desires most, to God. Samuel is an icon of contrast with Eli’s wicked sons, who use God to get what they want. One is a picture of a covenant relationship, the other of contractual relationship.
Sadly, most of Israel has followed the model of Eli’s sons. 1 Samuel occurs directly after the book of Judges. The time of the judges is a bleak one for Israel. Israel descends into a kind of moral perversion that is unparalleled in the Old Testament, making Sodom and Gomorrah look junior varsity in comparison. The constant refrain we are told over and over again is that, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes,” (Judges 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25).
Our text today, 1 Samuel 4, is a story that takes place before any of the kings have arisen and right as the sons of Eli and Samuel have been contrasted with each other. We are told of the Philistines arising to wage war against Israel. Earlier, God foretold that Israel would face enemies in the Promised Land, but He also promised that He would help them in their battles so long as they remained faithful to the covenant that they had entered into with God at Mt. Sinai. Every Hebrew there at that battle would have known that promise and they would have know of the great and famous stories of God’s deliverance from past enemies, where God would part seas and send fire from heaven to consume their enemies. That would have been a great comfort as the foot soldiers prepared to fight.
However, much to their surprise, the Hebrews were spectacularly defeated, leaving nearly four thousand men dead (1 Sam 4:2). “And when the people came to the camp, the elders of Israel said, “Why has the LORD defeated us today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the LORD here from Shiloh, that it may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies,” 1 Sam 4:3. They acknowledge that it is Yahweh Himself who has defeated them; they know something is wrong—the Philistines shouldn’t be able to defeat them. Didn’t God promise He would help them? Ah, that’s the problem! We forgot the Ark!
The Ark of the Covenant was a small box that God had commanded Moses to construct while up on Mt. Sinai. It held the tablets of God’s commandments and was to be kept inside of the holiest place in the tabernacle. It represented God’s presence, acting as a sort of footstool of God’s heavenly throne (it was where heaven and earth met). No one was ever allowed to touch the ark or they would be struck dead, so priests would carry it on poles that supported it. It had previously been carried into battle during the siege of Jericho, so why not bring it out now? “So the people sent to Shiloh and brought from there the ark of the covenant of the LORD of hosts, who is enthroned on the cherubim. And the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God,” 1 Sam 4:4.
Now, of course, the problem is not that the ark has been missing. The problem is that the nation of Israel has rejected God (1 Sam 8:7); they are all like Hophni and Phinehas and their presence with the ark is symbolic of what all of Israel’s standing before God is like: they do not know the Lord. But still, the arrival of the Ark brings a great deal of encouragement: “As soon as the ark of the covenant of the LORD came into the camp, all Israel gave a mighty shout, so that the earth resounded,” 1 Sam 4:5. No one present second guessed that the arrival of the Ark was a sure sign that God was going to bless them, no one stopped to consider that perhaps the problem was that the nation had violated the covenant that the Ark contained. No one even said that they needed the Lord Himself—what do they need? The ark of covenant! We don’t need God, we just need His firepower. The box rolls into the camp like an Abrams tank rolling in to reinforce the front. Israel isn’t the only one who interprets it this way; so do the Philistines.
“And when the Philistines heard the noise of the shouting, they said, “What does this great shouting in the camp of the Hebrews mean?” And when they learned that the ark of the LORD had come to the camp, the Philistines were afraid, for they said, “A god has come into the camp.” And they said, “Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened before. Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness,” – 1 Sam 4:6-8.
The Philistines know what Yahweh has done to the Egyptians in the Exodus. They think that the god (or gods) of the Hebrews is now walking among them, so they are trembling in terror. This really seems to be working! The troops are heartened, the enemy is left quaking in their boots—what more could you ask for?
Only, this time, Israel suffers a defeat so severe that it utterly breaks the spirit of the nation. “So the Philistines fought, and Israel was defeated, and they fled, every man to his home. And there was a very great slaughter, for thirty thousand foot soldiers of Israel fell. And the ark of God was captured, and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died,” 1 Sam 4:10-11. Their defeat here is over seven times worse than the causalities from the first battle, plus Eli’s sons attending the ark are killed, plus the Ark itself is lost! The connection between heaven and earth, the footstool of God’s throne where His presence was made manifest…has been lost. When Eli hears this news he falls over and dies immediately (1 Sam 4:18).
Why would God let Israel lose so painfully? Why would He let a bunch of pagan Philistines march off with the Ark of the Covenant? Does this mean that the Philistine’s god (Dagon) is more powerful than Yahweh?
God is not a Genie
The Israelites viewed the Ark of the Covenant with the eye of superstitious folk-religion, not of faith. They did not know the Lord of the Covenant that the Ark was intended to represent. God was simply a force, a talisman of energy that they could appropriate for their own end. But God will not be batted around like some toy. He is not a tool we hold in our hands—we are held in His hands! Do you remember when Joshua was confronted by the angel of the Lord before the battle of Jericho and he asked him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” And he said, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the LORD. Now I have come,” Joshua 5:13-14. God is not another player on the field who chooses a “side” to be on. It is we who have the choice: are we on God’s side or not?
As you look forward to the next year and think of what you want to have happen, what resolutions you want to make—maybe you want to lose ten pounds, pick up gardening, or maybe you want to simply be more intentional in your relationships, maybe you want to spend less time on your phone—whatever it is, we should be cautious of treating God like a means to those ends, like we are in some kind of give-and-take, contractual relationship with Him: Okay God, I will give you my time and attention if you will help me become more self-confident, if you will help me grow my business.
We can even pursue spiritual goals this way. We can want to get rid of sin in our life or become more faithful in our spiritual disciplines, but pursue those things without actually pursuing God Himself. We should ask ourselves why we want to grow in those things—maybe you want to remove that habitual sin in your life not so much because it is keeping your from further intimacy with the Lord, but more because you are just embarrassed by it and it is making life more difficult.
Tim Keller helpfully summarizes the dilemma this way: “Religious people find God useful. Christians find God beautiful.” Is God primarily useful to you? Or beautiful? Do you desire Him, or what He has to offer you?
This temptation is present for our church as a whole as well. Why do we want to see our church grow, to see people become disciples of Christ, why do we want to create a covenant community who worships Christ above all? If our answer is anything other than: we want to see God and we want as many other people
God is not whatever you want Him to be
It is normal and natural for people treat God as useful. This is the ethos of our day: everybody needs something that helps them get along in life. Life is hard and we need something to give us purpose, meaning, something that helps us deal with demons we all fight. So, whatever “religious” pursuit floats your boat, go for it! For some people that is traditional religion, for others it is found in a more self-guided experience, and for others it is found in (fill in the blank). All that matters is that we find something that works for us. But, of course, this assumes that (1) God is ultimately unknowable, and (2) what is most important is our felt-needs being met.
But what if God wants to speak to us? What if He wants us to quiet our soul’s constant yammering and to reveal Himself to us? And what if that overwhelms and transcends every man-made conception we had of Him? God is not a pool of energy, He is not some distant and aloof grandfather, He is not a calculating lawyer waiting to twist the screws to you for every fault and transgression: He is the covenant Lord who wants to enter into a covenant relationship with you. Not because you have anything special to offer Him—He just wants you. And He has sent His Son to pay for your sins, to take your penalty, so that you may be forgiven.
God has revealed Himself, made Himself known, and He has not done so primarily to take our natural, worldly desires and satisfy them, shape-shifting into whatever form of a deity or higher power we want Him to be. God has revealed Himself so that we might have a covenantal relationship with Him, to love Him, to know Him. And, to be sure, when we love God for God, then there will be a great change in our life, in our marriages, in our homes, in our church. If we “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you,” Matt 6:33.
So, friend, as you look to the New Year, and as you look to your life, to our church, and think about everything you want to change, where you want to see growth, know this: there is nothing more important than prioritizing your relationship with the Lord. This should be the goal of everyone in this room: I want to know God more in 2021. Ask yourself: do I view God primarily as useful? Or as beautiful?