Who wants the ark?
by Jack Wald | October 7th, 2007

I Samuel 6

[I arranged for a couple men from the congregation to come forward when I asked and hold a box. The first one held it for a count of five and then dropped it and yelled as if he had been shocked. I then convinced a second person to come and hold the box. He held it for a count of ten and then cried out in pain and dropped it. Then I asked for a volunteer from the congregation to be the third person to hold the box.]

Why is it no one is eager to hold the box? It’s just an empty cardboard box. How could that hurt you? Really, it is just an empty cardboard box and Sangsoon and Mike played along with me to make this point.

Who wants to hold something that brings pain with it? Only mentally disturbed people or boys daring each other will hold on to something that will shock or hurt them. (Out of curiosity a few times I held on to the electric fence where we kept my pony to feel the shock that pulsated through but I did not do that every day and not for more than one or two shocks.) Normally we avoid pain. We do not seek it.

This is why I would like someday to know more about Eleazar, the son of Abinadab.
They took [the ark of the covenant] to Abinadab’s house on the hill and consecrated Eleazar his son to guard the ark of the LORD.

Let me remind you why the honor of having the ark of the covenant in your home was not something every Israelite fought for.

The ark of the covenant, contained the stone tablets of Moses, Aaron’s staff which had miraculously budded and a gold jar full of manna with which God had fed Israel when they wandered in the wilderness. The ark of the covenant was not to be touched; it was carried with poles that slipped in under the ark and it was placed in the temple in the most holy part of the temple.

This ark had been carelessly taken out into battle against the Philistines with the hope and expectation that the god represented by the box would help them defeat the Philistines. But instead, the Philistines defeated Israel and captured the ark.

They placed it in their temple to Dagon as tribute. Dagon had defeated Yahweh so Dagon deserved to have his prize in his temple. But on two successive mornings they came to the temple to discover Dagon lying in a position of submission to Yahweh, face down in front of the ark, and on the second morning they discovered Dagon on the floor with his head and hands cut off.

This was the topic for the sermon last week. Yahweh demonstrated that he was the one true God and this demonstration created problems for the Philistines whose chief god was Dagon.

This was not the only problem the Philistines faced. Not only was Dagon destroyed but a plague broke out against the Philistines. So now it was more than just a question of whose god had more power; now it was primarily a question of personal suffering. People began to suffer from painful tumors and boils and some of them died. So the people of Ashdod called together the five rulers of the cities of the Philistines and they decided to send the ark to Gath. But no sooner had the ark arrived in Gath when the city was thrown into a panic because the people, both young and old, were afflicted with tumors.

The people of Gath did not waste time calling together the rulers of the five cities, they decided themselves and sent the ark to Ekron. But news had spread and
As the ark of God was entering Ekron, the people of Ekron cried out, “They have brought the ark of the god of Israel around to us to kill us and our people.”

Now all the rulers were called together to decide what needed to be done with the ark. This was a huge crisis.
For death had filled the city with panic; God’s hand was very heavy upon it.  12 Those who did not die were afflicted with tumors, and the outcry of the city went up to heaven.

This story, from the time of the capture of the ark to the ruling council that met in Ekron to decide what to do with the ark, took place over seven months and after seven months the people were terrified and they demanded a solution be found. And they offered their own solution.
they called together all the rulers of the Philistines and said, “Send the ark of the god of Israel away; let it go back to its own place, or it will kill us and our people.”

It may seem to us that this was an easy decision to make and the logical decision, but there was more than just the welfare of the people to be considered. There was also a question of national pride. If the Philistines sent back the ark, they were conceding the superiority of Israel’s god and they were not eager to do that. For one thing, this concession would affect future battles. The Philistine soldiers’ morale would suffer if they knew that the god of the Israelites was more powerful than their god.

The Philistine rulers were clever men. They wanted to know if this outbreak of disease was a judgment of Israel’s god against them or just a coincidence. So they devised a clever plan.

If this was a judgment of Israel’s god against them, they wanted to do what they could to make amends. So they consulted their priests and diviners who told them to make gold models of the tumors and the rats that were plaguing them and send those with the ark back to Israel. They prepared one set of tumors and rats for each of the five Philistine cities.

This would help them if it was a judgment of Israel’s god. But then they made sure that the ark with the gold tumors and rats would be delivered to Israel only if it really was a problem of judgment.

They made a new cart and got two cows that had just given birth and that had never been yoked to a cart. You can see a picture of this on the bulletin cover. They took the calves away and penned them up. Then they put the ark on the cart with a chest beside it in which they put the gold objects and then sent it on the way toward Beth Shemesh, Israeli territory. This was an uphill road.

Do you see all the natural obstacles they placed in front of the ark getting back to Israel? Cows that have given birth want to go to their calves. It is painful for a cow not to have her calf drink milk from her udders. The natural thing would have been for the cows to head toward their calves. Only divine intervention would cause the cows to walk away from their calves.

The cows had never been yoked together. It takes some training for cows to pull a cart under a yoke. This was a second obstacle. The road to Beth Shemesh went uphill. The natural thing would have been for the cows to stop pulling the cart uphill or to turn around. This was a third obstacle. Only divine intervention would get the cart into Israeli territory.

So they set the cart off toward Beth Shemesh and the five rulers followed from a distance, watching to see what would happen.
If [the ark] goes up to its own territory, toward Beth Shemesh, then the LORD has brought this great disaster on us. But if it does not, then we will know that it was not his hand that struck us and that it happened to us by chance.

The cows did not turn to go toward their calves. They managed to work together pulling the cart. And they went up the hill toward Beth Shemesh. The rulers of the Philistines followed them all the way to the border, watched what happened and then came back to their cities to report or perhaps in modern political terms, to spin what they had seen.

It was clear to them that this had been Yahweh’s hand against them and I imagine that there were long discussions about the implications of this when they returned. But that is not part of our story.

When the ark arrives in Israeli territory, the story shifts to how the Israelis related to the ark because this is not a story about the Israelis or the Philistines. The ark is the star of this story and the action follows the ark wherever it goes.

When it arrived in Beth Shemesh the people were harvesting wheat. They rejoiced when they saw that the ark had returned. They must have rushed to get some priests to come and they did the right thing. They used the wood of the cart to make a fire and burned the cows as a sacrifice to Yahweh. They honored God properly.

But then curiosity took over. The ark had always been in Shiloh in the temple, guarded by priests and their servants. When people went to Shiloh, they brought their animals for the sacrifice but never had the opportunity to see the ark itself. Very few Israelites had ever seen the ark of the covenant. The ark was hidden in the most sacred part of the temple but now it was right in front of them.

“I wonder what is inside it?” Someone who knew told them about the stone tablets, Aaron’s staff and a gold container of manna. “Wouldn’t it be cool to see the tablets? How many times have we heard about Moses receiving the law from God and God writing the law on these tablets? Don’t you want to see them? When will we ever have a chance again to look inside the ark? The priests will arrive and take it from us. Let’s go take a look.”

So one man gingerly approached the ark, lifted the lid and took a peek inside. Then a second and a third until seventy men had taken a look inside the ark. There is an expression that says curiosity killed the cat and this curiosity had the same outcome. The Bible does not tell us how they died, only that seventy men died and this created a bit of a panic.

Word of what had happened to the Philistines had spread. Israel had heard of the plague that had hit the Philistine cities. Was this just a rumor? Proof that the rumor was true was that the Philistines had sent back to Israel this war trophy. Their suffering must have been severe for them to do this.

Everywhere the ark went, people died. People died in Ashdod. People died in Gath. People died in Ekron. But from Israel’s perspective, that was to be expected. The Philistines had captured the ark. Israel had been defeated, but Yahweh continued to fight for them. This is what should happen.

But when Israelites, Abraham’s descendants, the people God had chosen were killed, this put real fear in the hearts of Israel. The Philistines had asked:
What shall we do with the ark of the LORD?
And now it was the turn of the Israelites to ask a similar question:
“Who can stand in the presence of the LORD, this holy God? To whom will the ark go up from here?”

Any volunteers? It was not easy to get volunteers to come up and hold the empty cardboard box this morning. How much more difficult it must have been to get someone to take the ark of the covenant and guard it.

Who wants the ark? Who wants to keep something so unpredictable and dangerous?

It is not clear from the text, but it does not seem Eleazar volunteered for this duty. It is not clear that Abinadab volunteered to take possession of the ark of the covenant. This was something forced on them by the rest of Israel. Perhaps a troop of soldiers came with the priests and announced to Abinadab that he had the honor of volunteering and who can argue with men with weapons in their hands.

Given the history of the ark, it is understandable that Abinadab and his son, Eleazar, might have questioned the honor that was given to them to keep the ark on their property. It may have been the ark of the covenant, a national treasure, but it was not safe.

What is the equivalent of the ark of the covenant today? As I mentioned in last week’s sermon, the church in these last days after Pentecost does not benefit from attachment to religious objects. It is true that Catholic churches in Europe and elsewhere have what are purported to be the chains of St. Peter or pieces of the cross or the bones of some saint, but I would argue that this weakens, not strengthens faith. We do not have an ark of the covenant in these last days nor are we meant to have something so material on which we base our faith.

What is the equivalent of the ark of the covenant today? Where do we meet with God? In the days before Pentecost, people came to the temple to meet God, to present their tithes and sacrifices. In the temple there was the Holy Place and then behind a curtain, the Most Holy Place where the ark of the covenant rested. This was where God came to meet with the priests of Israel. If you wanted to worship the Lord you went to the temple.

This is not the case today. At the death of Jesus this curtain that separated the Most Holy Place from the rest of the temple was miraculously torn in two. With the death of Jesus, the distance between God and his creation was removed. No longer was there a barrier between us and God. No longer did we have to go through elaborate ritual to meet with God.

And then when the long promised Holy Spirit was poured out at Pentecost, it was no longer necessary to go to the temple to worship God. God came to us. In the work of Jesus God removed the distance that separates us from him and in the work of the Holy Spirit God going to the temple was no longer necessary. There is nowhere we can go where we will be apart from God. The proper place to worship is wherever we are because we are the temple of the Holy Spirit.

When we come to Jesus and accept his work on our behalf, we are made holy in God’s eyes and the proof of the reality of this spiritual transaction is that we are filled with the Holy Spirit. Paul wrote in II Corinthians 1
Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us,  22 set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.

Because of the work of Jesus we are brought near to God and because of the work of the Holy Spirit we become the place we go to meet with God. We are the modern day ark of the covenant.

How does that make you feel, to be the modern equivalent of the ark of the covenant? Let me share a couple implications of this with you.

The first is this: To be the temple of the Holy Spirit is to be a blessing to those around you. There is no record of how the household of Abinadab was blessed in the seventy or so years the ark stayed there until King David came to bring it up into Jerusalem. But when David did bring it up and Uzzah died for reaching out to prevent it from falling, it stayed for three months in the house of Obed-Edom.
II Samuel 6
The ark of the LORD remained in the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite for three months, and the LORD blessed him and his entire household.

It was because King David heard that the house of Obed-Edom was blessed that he decided to try again to bring the ark up into Jerusalem.

As a Christian, as the temple of the Holy Spirit, you should be a blessing to those around you. People should want you to be with them because of the blessing that comes with you. Whether it is at your place of work, where you shop, where you live, anywhere you are should be blessed because you are the temple of the Holy Spirit.

This is unfortunately not always the case. But the temple was not always a blessing to those around it either. When the temple was being used for cultic prostitution and magicians and sorcerers set up shop in the temple walls, Jeremiah prophecied against it.

Jeremiah 7
This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place.  4 Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!”

In order for the temple to be a blessing the people worshiping and sacrificing at the temple needed to be obedient to God.

The ark of the covenant was not a blessing to the Philistines who worshiped Dagon. The ark of the covenant was not a blessing to the seventy overly curious men of Beth Shemesh.

Disobedient Christians are not a blessing to those around them. But when Christians live obedient lives they are a blessing to those around them. In Christian revivals when the church awakens and seeks with pure hearts a more devout relationship with God, the community who are not part of the revival benefit from the changes that make the culture a more pleasant place to live.

When you work in a company and work hard, are honest in your work and relationships, are sensitive to the needs of your coworkers, pray for those with whom you work, then the company is blessed because of your presence.

When you shop and treat the people who sell to you well, you are a blessing to them.

Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, you can be a blessing to those around you simply by being obedient to God and seeking out ways to serve others for him.

A second implication of being the modern equivalent of the ark of the covenant is that to be the temple of the Holy Spirit requires that you live a higher standard of holiness.

In many Christian circles, becoming a Christian is quite easy. You just pray a simple prayer and then you are saved, one of God’s elect, on your way to heaven. But is it really that simple?

We know you do not have to be perfect and without sin to be one of God’s children. We know because we are not perfect and it is the righteousness of Jesus, the perfection of Jesus that works for us and makes us acceptable as God’s children. It is not our righteousness that makes us acceptable.

But can we continue in sin and still be God’s son or daughter? Can we pray a simple prayer and continue on with our life as if nothing needs to change? Can someone who is living with their boyfriend or girlfriend continue to have a sexual relationship outside of marriage and continue on with their Christian life? Can someone who is cheating or stealing continue doing that and move on with their Christian life?

The ark was approached with great ceremony and respect. Those who treated it casually paid with their lives. Do you think we might need to show more respect for the fact that as Christians our body is the temple of the Holy Spirit?

Paul wrote in I Corinthians 6
Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body.  19 Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own;  20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.

There is a high standard we are held to because we have become the temple of the Holy Spirit.

Over my eight years in Morocco, I visited an elderly Scottish lady who lived in Ain Atiq, south of Rabat. She died in December but for my first seven years in Morocco, I went to see her each week and read to her. My relationship with her will be one of the most pleasant memories of my years in Morocco.

She made me co-executor of her estate along with a lawyer in London. As co-executor, she gave me the responsibility of distributing her possessions. She gave me some specific instructions but left me the responsibility of distributing her things.

There was one cabinet I very much wanted to have that had belonged to her grandfather, so it was built sometime in the middle 1800s. I really wanted to have it but she had told me it should go to one of her Moroccan friends. When she died, I looked at this and wondered if it would be okay for me to have it. I had the legal right to take it. I could justify it one way or another because I have a great ability to rationalize to get what I want. So I thought about why it was right for me to have it.

The house was closed up by the police for most of this year while her will was sorted out and then in July, when I was away, the house was opened and a friend moved her good pieces of furniture, including this cabinet, to our house.

When I came back from France, there it was, in my house, the cabinet I wanted.

The problem is that over the past nine months, whenever I preached or prayed or read in my Bible about something that related to sin in my life, I thought of this cabinet. And then I would struggle back and forth, back and forth and say at the end, “Well, let’s see what I decide to do at the end.” I could not let go of this cabinet.

A week ago I met with the Moroccan man and he reminded me he was supposed to have this cabinet. I asked him if he was willing to sell it but he said no, it was too personal for him.

So I told him he could come and get it when he wanted. This hurt. It was difficult for me to do, but it has also been liberating.

Because we are the temple of the Holy Spirit, we cannot live as others do. We are held to a higher standard.

Because we are the temple of the Holy Spirit, we cannot continue in sin. We must make the effort to break the hold of sin on us. Because we are the temple of the Holy Spirit, we dare not drag God with us to sinful activities. When we cheat, lie, steal, gamble, engage in sexual activity outside of marriage, we drag God with us.

How long will God be patient with us if we refuse to repent? God was patient with me over these last nine months and when the time came to make a decision, I was able to choose well. But if I had exercised my rights and kept the cabinet, would God continue to bless me and bless the activities in which I am involved? I am not proud of the pettiness of my heart and how long I resisted what I knew was right. But what matters is that in the end we choose well.

When you pray and ask God to reveal to you the areas of your live that need to be changed, what comes to your mind? When it is time to confess your sins in our services, what does God bring to your mind? Pay attention to what you hear. You are the temple of the Holy Spirit and cannot continue to live in sin and expect that God will bless you and those around you.

As we come forward to take part in the communion meal Jesus instructed us to eat, listen to the instructions Paul gave to the church in Corinth.
I Corinthians 11
For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread,  24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.”  25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”  26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
27 Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.  28 A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup.  29 For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.

As we pray and as we sing during communion, take the time before you come forward to reflect and pray and resolve to listen to the prompting of God.

You are the temple of the Holy Spirit. Honor God and bring honor to God with how you live your life.