This reading comes at the tail-end of one of the most bizarre stories in the Hebrew Scriptures. In it the Philistine armies who fought against Israel had stolen their ark of the covenant – the symbolic dwelling place of the God of Israel. Israel would carry it with them into battle as a way of reminding themselves that God alone was their king, and to trust in God’s power not their own. In the minds of the Philistines though, and possibly some Israelites, this box full of symbols of God’s covenant with Israel might have been thought of as God itself. Inside dwelled God, so if they took it away from Israel God could not protect them.
In taking the ark, suddenly the Philistine army was in bad sorts, hit by all kinds of disease and plague. (Hence the images of tumors and mice that plague Philistia). Ultimately they were so overwhelmed they chose to send the ark back to Israel.
When I read this story, I hearken back to the many tales in Scripture of individuals who bought, designed, or passed on to family members carved images of gods which were prized possessions. I remember the story of these gods being stolen, and carried away like gold or gems much to the sadness of the previous owner but with little effect to anyone else.
I think this story is to be read in contrast to those. In doing so it teaches a powerful message.
God is not the possession of anyone, not the nation of Israel nor America nor the church. God is free, powerful, and active. Unlike false gods created by our own minds and hands, the living God cannot be stolen from us nor is that true God helpless to protect God’s self. Instead, that God is free and able to intervene, to transform all situations, to create newness out of seeming disaster. God does not need us to protect God, but God does protect God’s own people when God is needed.
This is a good reminder to me. Every so often we will hear in the news about a great thinker challenging the Christian story. Or of Christians feeling the need to “defend” Christ against those who question the faith or, sometimes, their own version of it.
God is not an idol we possess. God has no need of us to defend God. When we present ourselves as “God’s defenders” against secularism, against science, against politicians, against new ideas, against new ways of being family, against new religions we unknowingly present God as if God is not living and real. God has not asked us to defend God, but to trust God is able to defend God’s self and what’s more to defend us from all we fear.
You never know. It may well be, as I have found so often to be the case in my life, that if you will trust God and remain open and looking for the living God in these places of would-be conflict, you might find God there too. You might find in the very people you had though were enemies to be combatted glow sparks of the Divine that, through the unique aspects of their experience, shed light on Christ in ways you never expected. Like I have said so many times, you may find their questions, new ideas, and new experiences help you know Christ more deeply if you give up the need to jump to the defense of a God who does not need a defender.
And I ain’t whistling Dixie,
Your progressive redneck preacher,