Is God on Your side?






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When I was a kid, I was a little bit scared of lightning. But somewhere I had heard that rubber or plastic could protect you from electricity. Now there is a kernel of truth in that. If the rubber is between you and the electric current, the electricity can’t hurt you. But as a child, I didn’t have the complete picture. I thought that simply holding something made out of plastic or rubber would protect me from electricity.

I had a toy tomahawk that was made out of rubber. It said so, right next to “made in Hong Kong” (which is where I got it). I believed without question that if I held this tomahawk, I was safe from electricity. In New Guinea it rained a lot, and puddles formed on the top of the ground very quickly. It wasn’t uncommon for a large area in a flat field to be covered by a foot of water or more, at least for a few hours. The rain was warm enough, and it was fun to swim and splash in the low areas and the ditches. Sometimes the rain would be accompanied by lightning and thunder. In those circumstances, I took my tomahawk with me. I would frequently stand up to my knees in water in the middle of a thunderstorm, secure in the knowledge that I wouldn’t be hit by lightning because I was holding my toy rubber tomahawk.

Now, I had a piece of the truth here. It is true that rubber won’t conduct electricity. I was close to something real. But even though there was something true about rubber protecting me from electricity, I had twisted that truth into a practical application that was nothing more than superstition. It is only by God’s grace that I was never struck by lightning.

1 Samuel chapters 4-6 describe a series of events where the people of Israel were close to something real and true about God, and yet they twisted it into mere superstition. Unlike me, they paid a difficult price for it.

As we go through 1 Samuel I want to occasionally point out some important thoughts for bible study and reading. The Jews in Jesus’ time divided the Old Testament into two parts: The Law (which was the first five books of the Bible) and The Prophets (everything else). That means that even though 1 Samuel is basically a history book, it was considered by the Jews to be “prophetic” in the sense that the history recorded here teaches us many things about God. I myself might call it, “prophetic history.”

We need to read prophetic history with a different approach than we might read most of the New Testament. The truths about God are contained in the telling of historical stories, rather than in a straightforward letter or in teachings given by Jesus. So when we we are looking at the New Testament, you may have noticed that we often spent a great deal of time on just a few verses. Now, as we study prophetic history, I think that generally we need to look at whole stories, rather than merely the individual verses within those stories. I think when we read this part of the Bible, we will miss the main meanings unless we consider things in the context of the historical story that is being told.

This week, the story happens to span three chapters – four, five and six – of first Samuel. You may remember that as a very young boy Samuel started hearing God speak. One of the first things God told him was that Eli and his sons were going to be judged for being such bad leaders. This is how that happened, and more.

I mentioned before that one of the problems that the people of Israel had at this point in history, is that they had not obeyed God and driven out all the pagan people who lived in the land. As a result, they were surrounded by people who worshiped false gods and demons. When the Israelites made friends with these people, they were led away from God into the worship of these pagan gods. When they refused to worship with their pagan neighbors, those people became enemies of the Israelites, and made war on them.

One of these pagan people groups were called the Philistines. They lived in an area along the Mediterranean coast of Israel, where they had five main cities, with five main Chieftains for each one. They worshiped two main deities: Dagon and Ashtaroth. During the time of Samuel and the history recorded here, the Philistines were the biggest threat to the people of Israel.

War broke out between the Philistines and Israelites, as it often did. The Israelites were defeated in battle. They asked an interesting question:

And when the troops came to the camp, the elders of Israel said, “Why has the LORD defeated us today before the Philistines? (1 Samuel 4:3)

Another translation says, “why did the Lord let us be defeated today?” They blamed God for their defeat. They didn’t come back and say, “we stink as warriors,” or “the Philistines are really good.” They said, “it’s God’s fault.

In a sense, I understand this. God could have given them the victory, but he did not. Since it was in his power, and he didn’t do it, they blamed him. But it isn’t exactly that God made them fail. He simply did not intervene to make them succeed.

They had forgotten something that happened centuries before, when the Israelites first came into the land. At that time, their leader Joshua experienced an interesting incident:

When Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in His hand. Joshua approached Him and asked, “Are You for us or for our enemies? ”

“Neither,” He replied. “I have now come as commander of the LORD’s army.” Then Joshua bowed with his face to the ground in worship and asked Him, “What does my Lord want to say to His servant? ” (Josh 5:13-14, HCSB)

You see the proper perspective is not “is God on my side or not?” but rather, “am I on God’s side or not?” In the battle with the Philistines, the Israelites blamed God for not being on their side. But they never confronted the idea that they were not necessarily on God’s side.

Isn’t this what people still do in so many situations these days? We moan and gripe: “Why didn’t God let me see the policeman before I ran the red light?” That one may seem a bit obvious – because you should not have run the red light!

But maybe our situation is more serious and complex: “Why didn’t God heal my mother?” I understand that those types of questions can be real and difficult. In some ways, they are natural. And yet, I think we have the wrong perspective if we think that God is obligated to help us and do what we want him to, rather than the other way around. The question is never “Is God on our side?” If you insist on thinking in that direction, the only appropriate question is, “Am I on His side?” Personally, I think the whole question of “sides” is counterproductive. We don’t want God to control us and make us do only the things he wants us to do. And God does not do that to us. So why do we think we should get to control him, and make him do only what we want him to?

Instead of confronting this, the Israelites did something to avoid it. They decided to ignore the problem in their relationship with God, and put their trust, not in God himself, but rather in a shadow of a him, a symbol: the ark of the covenant.

The ark of the covenant was a carved wooden box, overlaid with gold. Inside the box were the tablets on which Moses had carved the ten commandments. It was a symbol of God’s presence with his people, a symbol of the agreement that he made with them at Mount Sinai. The leaders of Israel decided to bring this box into battle with them. Many of the Israelites, no doubt, felt that if the Ark was there, God was there with them. They didn’t have to face the fact that they had turned away from him. They didn’t have to deal with all those uncomfortable ideas like repentance, and surrender to God’s purposes for their lives. All they had to do was bring a box into battle, and God would automatically fight for them.

Some of the other leaders, perhaps some of the priests, probably thought that by bringing the Ark into battle, they could manipulate God into fighting on their side. After all, if God didn’t fight and protect the Ark, it would send a message to the Philistines that God either wasn’t real or wasn’t very strong. So even if the Israelites didn’t repent and seek out a true faith-relationship with the Lord, he would still have to fight for them, to protect his own honor, to make sure the truth about him was known.

So they sent the Ark into battle. Along with it, went Hophni and Phinehas, priests, the sinful, unrepentant sons of Eli, the chief priest. Obviously, they did not take relationship with God seriously.

Here’s one lesson from this incident: never try to manipulate God.

The Israelites lost the battle. In fact, the writer records “a very great slaughter.” Among those killed were the evil priests, Hophni and Phinehas. When the news was carried to their father Eli, he fell and died. His daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas, went into premature labor, and she died. As she died she said, “The glory of the Lord has departed Israel.” This reveals what she and most of the people around her believed – that God lived in that box called the Ark. The deaths of this priestly family fulfilled those first words that Samuel had heard from God.

Now, God did indeed want to show the Philistines that he was real, and all powerful. But he could not do that through the Israelites, because they had rejected a true faith relationship with Him. He could not reward the Israelites for putting their faith in a gold-covered wooden box. He needed to reveal the poverty of their faith. So they lost the battle and the ark was captured.

Even so, once the Philistines had the ark, God began to confront them with their own false worship. They took it first to the temple of their idol, Dagon. The next morning, the statue of Dagon had fallen over, face down in front of the Ark. The Philistines put it back. But the morning after that Dagon had fallen again and broken into pieces. In addition to the problem with their idol, the Philistines began to get sick. Somewhat skeptical, they sent the Ark to a different Philistine city, but got the same results. Finally, they decided to see if God wanted the Ark back in Israel. They put it on a cart with some offerings of gold. They hitched the cart up to two cows that had never pulled anything. They took the calves of those cows, and penned them up at home.

We have a cow with a calf on our little farm right now. I can tell you, cows do not normally leave their calves behind. That’s why the Philistines did this. They really wanted make it hard for the Ark to go back to Israel by accident. But these cows walked away from their home pastures and their calves and went straight to an Israelite town on the border, a town that was originally set aside for the priests.

So God made it clear that he was real. He made it clear that there was significance to the agreement he had made with Israel, the agreement which the Ark represented. But at the same time, he did not affirm or reward the superstition and manipulation of the Israelites.

You see the Israelites were close to something real and true. God had made promises to be in a special relationship with them. That was true. God often intervenes to help his people. That was also true. But there were some other truths that they ignored – that the special relationship with God involves faith and surrender on the part of God’s people. By surrender, I mean that God’s people are supposed to make their lives available for God to use and work through. The old time language for this is “obedience;” sometimes that gives us the idea that we have to obey God in order to be holy, but that isn’t it. Through Jesus we have already been made holy. Our obedience is so that God can live his life through us.

These days, we are often as superstitious and manipulative as those Israelites. If you come from Lutheran, Presbyterian or Episcopal traditions, you might feel that if you just get baptized as a baby, confirmed as a teen and take communion sometimes, you will be saved. Baptism and communion and confirmation are all useful things, and they are engaged in true spiritual reality. But they are useless without faith. By themselves they won’t help you at all. If you use them and receive them in a way that strengthens your relationship of faith and obedience/surrender, then they will indeed be helpful. But if you do them for their own sake, without faith, you might as well forget it.

Those from the Baptist/Methodist/Church of Christ type traditions do the same thing, usually with an event called “getting saved.” I’ve met many people who “got saved” when they were twelve or fifteen years old. Since then, they’ve had nothing to do with God, but they are putting their trust in the fact that one day in their distant past, they walked down the aisle and “got saved.” I’m afraid this nothing more than empty superstition. There’s something real and true that can happen when a person is saved, but it must involve true faith and surrender to the living God.

Others do it with going to church. I think there are many positive reasons to come to church on a regular basis, but if you are doing it to try and get God on your side, or for him to do you a favor, I’m afraid you are in for disappointment.

All these things are like expecting a rubber tomahawk to protect you from lightning. There is something true about rubber and electricity, but it doesn’t work like a magic wand. The rubber and the electricity need to be in the right relationship to each other for the insulating power of rubber to work. There is something real and true about getting saved, baptism and the Lord’s Supper and coming to church, but it all has to come in the context of faith and surrender in relationship to Jesus Christ.

So what is the Lord saying to you right now? Have you been upset with Him because he’s not acting like he’s on your side?Have you been putting your faith in religious activity or a religious symbol instead of in Him alone? Take a moment right now to surrender your life to him in faith.

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