God in a Box
by Jack Wald | September 30th, 2007

I Samuel 4-5

It is amazing what you can find on the internet. I did a google search this week for God in a box, the title of this week’s sermon, and found this website: www.god-in-a-box.com.

Do you know where your god is?
Due to recent interdisciplinary theological, philosophical and scientific research, we are now able to offer for sale personal gods conveniently stored in a small comfortable box.
(With a footnote that says there is only one god to a box.)
Your personal GOD-IN-A-BOX© can be tailor-made to suit your every need, designed to help you make your life more comfortable and to take some weight off your shoulders.

The website includes testimonials inclucing this one from Mark S. “Now I can take my GOD-IN-A-BOX© with me wherever I go, this is simply amazing.” And from Ed Jr. “You won’t believe how much my life has changed after I got my own GOD-IN-A-BOX©. Now, since my god has attributes that fit my lifestyle, I don’t have to worry about going to hell anymore.”

The site offers pre-configured gods from mono-theistic gods like Yahweh and Allah to African gods, Nordic gods, Greek and Roman gods and on and on. If you are not happy with any of these, you can design your own GOD-IN-A-BOX© from a long list of available attributes beginning with abstract, abusive, alien and arrogant all the way through to wicked, wise, wrathful and wrong. There are three attributes in the list that come with every god that is purchased. All gods purchased are unreal, imagined and blue.

It only seems natural to want to create a God that does everything we want. A powerful genie in the sky that answers to me. A book that I could open up and pray and have things my way. A religion that makes all things acceptable, that approves of the things that come naturally to me. To make a God that works the way I want one to work.

This is natural and even when the god is not imagined or unreal or blue, even when the god is Yahweh who demonstrated with mighty miracles his power and authority, it is in our human nature to put him in a box and think we can get him to do what we want.

This is what Hophni and Phinehas, the two sons of Eli, did when they took the ark of the covenant into battle against the Philistines. What they did was not extraordinary; it was common for armies to take their gods with them to help them fight. Nearly every army in the ancient Near East included priests and diviners, prophets and portable sacred objects. In this way the god or gods could be consulted on the battlefield or called on to lead the soldiers to victory.

The ark was an impressive looking box. You can see a picture of what this must have looked like on the cover of the bulletin. The writer of Hebrews described it: (Hebrews 9)
Now the first covenant had regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary.  2 A tabernacle was set up. In its first room were the lampstand, the table and the consecrated bread; this was called the Holy Place.  3 Behind the second curtain was a room called the Most Holy Place,  4 which had the golden altar of incense and the gold-covered ark of the covenant. This ark contained the gold jar of manna, Aaron’s staff that had budded, and the stone tablets of the covenant.  5 Above the ark were the cherubim of the Glory, overshadowing the atonement cover.

As boxes go, this was an elaborate and impressive one but it was still just a box – although this is not how Israel or the Philistines viewed it..

They brought the ark of the covenant to the battlefield and in the ensuing battle, Israel suffered a major defeat and the ark of the covenant was captured. This is where our story begins this morning.
After the Philistines had captured the ark of God, they took it from Ebenezer to Ashdod.  2 Then they carried the ark into Dagon’s temple and set it beside Dagon.  3 When the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the LORD! They took Dagon and put him back in his place.  4 But the following morning when they rose, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the LORD! His head and hands had been broken off and were lying on the threshold; only his body remained.

We read this and know the story but now let me go a bit deeper and tell you what this meant to Israel and the Philistines.

Dagon was the grain god and the chief god of the Philistines. When Samson was captured he was taken to Gaza and (Judges 23)
the rulers of the Philistines assembled to offer a great sacrifice to Dagon their god and to celebrate, saying, “Our god has delivered Samson, our enemy, into our hands.”
24 When the people saw him, they praised their god, saying,
“Our god has delivered our enemy
into our hands,
the one who laid waste our land
and multiplied our slain.”

Dagon defeated Samson, even though while they were singing and celebrating, Samson pulled down the pillars and the temple collapsed, crushing himself and the Philistines.

Dagon had defeated Samson and now Dagon had defeated Samson’s god. Yahweh was brought to the temple of Dagon and set before him as a captured and defeated enemy.

Yahweh’s inferiority had been demonstrated on the battlefield and now Yahweh was positioned in front of the statue of Dagon to indicate that Dagon was his master.

The expectation was that as Israel and their god, Yahweh, had been defeated and humiliated, there would be future opportunities to further humiliate Yahweh and his people.

When the Philistine priests went in the next day and found Dagon lying face down on the floor before the ark of the covenant, this was highly disturbing. What did this mean? They pushed Dagon back up to his standing position and went away. But they were anxious about what had happened. You can imagine that they talked about this that night and when they rose the next day, they came to the temple and this time, to their great dismay, found Dagon, once more fallen on his face but this time with his head and hands broken off.

These two experiences of Dagon falling on his face in the middle of the night revealed to the Philistines three things:
1. Yahweh was not defeated, inferior, subordinate and about to experience further humiliation.

2. The cutting off of the hands and head of Dagon indicated his destruction. The head of a conquered enemy was displayed as evidence of his death. Hands of dead enemies were cut off to count the number of casualties in a battle. Count up the number of hands and divide by two and you knew how many enemies had been killed in the battle. Dagon had been defeated and proof of this was his disembodied head and hands.

3. The mutilation of Dagon indicated his powerlessness against Yahweh. He was reduced to a stump without a head for thinking and without hands for acting. He was helpless and powerless against Yahweh.

This demonstration of the power and superiority of Yahweh was followed by a plague that broke out among the people of Ashdod, where the ark was brought. Because of the symptoms of the plague and the fact that the Philistines sent the ark back to Israel with gifts of small gold rodents, it seems probable that this was an outbreak of bubonic plague. Not only had Yahweh demonstrated his superiority over Dagon, but now the people of Ashdod were being punished for their capture of the ark.

Ashdod had had enough so they sent the ark to Gath where the plague broke out among the people living there. The people of Gath acted quickly and sent the ark to Ekron but as the ark entered Ekron the people objected:
“They have brought the ark of the god of Israel around to us to kill us and our people.”

So the leaders assembled and the decision was made to send the ark back to Israel. We will pick up this part of the story next week.

We read this story; we examined what it says and now we ask what does this story mean?

Why did God instruct Israel to build an ark? How are we to understand the ark in God’s plan to build a people devoted to himself?

His original purpose for the ark was to make a special place where he could meet with Moses and the priests who would follow him. After describing the construction of the ark God told Moses
Exodus 25:22
There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the Testimony, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites.

This was the original purpose, but it is easily understandable that Israel began to think that it was the box that was holy. They could not see God but they could see the ark.

God allowed, God instructed that the ark be built because he knew the limitations of their minds. God took a people steeped in Egyptian polytheism with hundreds of gods that needed to be pacified and began to create a people who would worship the one true God. Israel was used to worshiping the objects that were the Egyptian gods and to go from a tangible object to an invisible God was too much of a step. The ark, the bronze serpent Moses held up on a pole as a remedy against snake bites; these were tangible objects God allowed because it helped people move toward faith.

The ark was like training wheels on a bike that help a young child learn to balance on two wheels. With the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the training wheels came off. Tangible objects like the ark of the covenant are no longer helpful to God’s followers in these last days when the Holy Spirit has been poured out, but it was helpful back then.

There are times when we wish we had something like an ark that would help us believe, but in God’s work to increase our faith, tangible objects work against this goal. We do not need an ark to help us grow in faith. We have the Holy Spirit who works with us to grow our faith.

A second question I asked as I thought about this story is why was God not more consistent in the way he responded to the way people treated the ark of the covenant?

For years Hophni and Phinehas were able to treat the ark of the covenant with disrespect and profit well from their use of it. They confidently picked up the ark and transported it to the battlefield without consulting God to see if this had his blessing. They were killed in the battle because of their evil behavior, but this happened only at the end of many years of abuse.

In contrast, in one of the more disturbing stories in the history of the ark, when David brought the ark up into Jerusalem, a man named Uzzah and his brother were guiding the oxen who were pulling the ark up the hill.
When they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled.  7 The LORD’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down and he died there beside the ark of God.

Uzzah was only trying to help and he was struck dead for reaching to steady the ark. Why were Hophni and Phinehas allowed to be so abusive over the years and live while Uzzah was instantly struck dead for  simply doing his job and trying to make sure the ark did not fall when the oxen stumbled? Why did it not make any difference that Uzzah did what he did with good intentions?

There were long poles used to lift the ark and carry it when it was moved so it did not need to be touched but if every person who ever touched the ark or misused the ark was instantly struck dead, then it would have been easier. But the ark was permitted to sit in Shiloh for many years, being abused by the priests and the ark did not make a fuss. Samuel slept next to it. Hophni and Phinehas took it into battle as a good luck charm without consulting God. There is no record that the Philistines who captured it were instantly struck dead for carrying it into Ashdod. Why was God not more consistent?

God is not concerned that he appear consistent to us and, in fact, consistency would work against God’s purposes. If God were consistent he would be predictable and if God were predictable, he would be able to be controlled. But God will not be controlled

We value consistency and are frustrated when God is not consistent. Why does God heal sometimes and not others? Why does God seem to help some people and not others? Why does God give some people dreams and not others? Why does God draw some people to faith and not others? Why does God answer our prayers one time and not the next? We think it is unfair that God does something for one person and not the other.

God is not consistent because God will not be contained or controlled. If God was completely understandable so that we were able to predict what he would do in any given situation, then God would not be God. God is, by definition, greater than we are and because he is greater we will not be able to predict how or when he will act. God looks at us and sees from an eternal perspective what is good or bad for us. God looks where we cannot look and knows what is helpful or unhelpful for us.

We are limited by space and time and intelligence but God is not limited. We may try to put him in a box and reduce him to the level of our limitations, but he will always burst out of that box and surprise us.

It is true that God has made promises to us and we are meant to rely on those promises. We hold on to the love of God for us, to his faithfulness, to his promise to never forsake us, to his promise to take us to be with him when we die and for these we are grateful that we can depend on God. But in the way that God fulfills these promises, in the way our life works out, in the way he works in our lives, he will seem to be unpredictable because we cannot know him or his purposes completely. We do not know what God knows.

God is unpredictable because he is a great God, mighty and powerful, all-knowing, all-loving. He is the God who preexisted his creation. Celebrate this truth because if we were able to understand God and his purposes completely, he would only be a blue god you can buy from GOD-IN-A-BOX©.

There is another reason God does not appear to be consistent in the way he acts.

From the beginning of our history with God, God has reached out to us to make himself known to us. God used the ark to teach people about himself, that he was a holy God to be worshiped above and to the exclusion of all other gods. God was inconsistent in the way he used the ark because his purpose was to teach, in each situation, about who he was, not to be consistent. Depending on what lesson needed to be learned, God responded differently.

Remember that God brought Israel out of Egypt where they were deeply steeped in the pantheon of Egyptian gods. These hundreds of gods were very human in their behavior. They had affairs, they raped, they cheated and stole, they killed out of envy and jealousy, they used their strength and beauty to overwhelm and seduce others to get what they wanted. Reading these stories is like watching a modern day soap opera.

It is against this backdrop that God worked to teach that (Exodus 20)
I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.  3 “You shall have no other gods before me.

When the ark was taken into battle by Hophni and Phinehas, he allowed the defeat of Israel as a way of teaching Israel not to take him for granted. When God sent judgement on the Philistines who had captured the ark, he taught the Philistines and the Israelites who heard all about what was happening, that he was not a god in a box who could be used for human purposes. When Uzzah died, all of Israel learned that God was not to be taken for granted. Even a casual act could have deadly consequences. Approach the Lord with holy fear!

God uses every situation in life to teach us, to help us understand eternal truth, to help us pull away from our attachment to things that will fade away and hold on to what will last for eternity.

We have read the text, looked at how the story was viewed by the people in the story, drawn some lessons from what the text means and now it is time to see how this applies to us.

The first application is easy. When we use God to get what we want, we put him in a box that we hope to control. If I want a car and so I give to the church and pray and read my Bible so I can get the car, am I being open to what God wants for me? No. I am merely trying to manipulate God to get the car I want. I am using God for my own purposes just as Hophni and Phinehas did. This applies to many things we want: getting into Spain, getting a wife or husband or child, getting a job or promotion, getting new clothes or a TV set.

We are supposed to pray for whatever we want but the goal is not to get what we want. The goal is to no longer be anxious but to be at peace. We are supposed to pray and then trust that God will give us what he knows we need.

Do you see the difference? We are supposed to pray, read the Bible, give to the church with the goal of drawing closer to God, not to get what we want. As soon as we do these things with a goal other than drawing closer to God, we put him in a box and are trying to manipulate him.

When we fast we are supposed to do this so we will put more of our focus on God and be better able to hear him speak into our lives. If we fast so that he will do something for us or give something to us, we put God in a box and are using him.

A second application is that when our ministry suffers a defeat, we may feel that God has lost the battle but that is not true. God was accomplishing his purposes when the Philistines defeated the Israelites. Israel did not know this and neither did the Philistines but God had not been defeated.

God who created all that is seen and unseen in the universe cannot be defeated by his creation. God will prevail. He allows ministries to rise and fall but his kingdom never does anything but grow. The kingdom of God is always growing, always and only gaining eternal members.

A third application is that God can take care of himself; he does not need us to protect or defend him. When the ark of the covenant was placed in front of Dagon, God did not need a sneak raid by the Israelites to come and knock down the statue of Dagon. God was able to send the appropriate message to the Philistines by himself.

When the Danish cartoonist made cartoons of Mohammed, the Muslim world rose up in protest, sometimes violent protest. Why? Is not Allah great enough to take care of himself and his prophet?

God is all powerful and is not so insecure that he needs us to fight to defend him. God will prevail. God will use us in his cause, but God will prevail because God is the all-powerful creator of the world. Let the world say what it wants. Let books be written that say religious belief is nothing more than our genetic code at work. Let books be written that celebrate the supposed intellectual superiority of atheism. Let movies be made that mock Jesus. Let theologians proclaim that God is dead. God will defend himself and we need not to be worried about him. All theologians and writers of books and makers of films will one day appear before him and then have to answer for what they said, wrote or filmed.

It is our responsibility to be salt and light and take the Gospel out into the world. We need not waste our time defending God.

A fourth application is that if our ministry is defeated in some way or in some way suffers a setback, our duty is to learn the lesson God is trying to teach us. The proper response for Israel would have been to go into mourning and fast and pray, seek God and see what it was he was teaching them through what had happened. God wanted Israel to learn that he was a holy God, not to be used as a good luck charm in a battle.

If our ministry is set back in some way, we need to discern what is the lesson God wants us to learn through this experience. The proper response is not Oh my goodness, what is going to happen to the kingdom of God now? Our hope and confidence is not in our ministry’s success or failure, our hope and confidence is in God whose kingdom is constantly growing and in each situation we need to learn from God the lessons he is trying to teach.

The theme through all these applications is that we need to grow in our understanding of who God is. We sang this morning a lot of songs about the power, majesty and wonder of God. We need to grow in the assurance and confidence that God will prevail because he is God. God is not a small blue GOD-IN-A-BOX©.

Isaiah 40
Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood since the earth was founded?
22 He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth,
and its people are like grasshoppers.
He stretches out the heavens like a canopy,
and spreads them out like a tent to live in.
23 He brings princes to naught
and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing.
24 No sooner are they planted,
no sooner are they sown,
no sooner do they take root in the ground,
than he blows on them and they wither,
and a whirlwind sweeps them away like chaff.
25 “To whom will you compare me?
Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One.
26 Lift your eyes and look to the heavens:
Who created all these?
He who brings out the starry host one by one,
and calls them each by name.
Because of his great power and mighty strength,
not one of them is missing.
27 Why do you say, O Jacob,
and complain, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the LORD;
my cause is disregarded by my God”?
28 Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.