by Gerrit Scott Dawson, Pastor
July 25, 1993
First Presbyterian Church, Lenoir, North Carolina
Text: I Samuel 7
So the men of Kiriath Jearim came and took up the ark of the LORD. They took it to Abinadab's house on the hill and consecrated Eleazar his son to guard the ark of the LORD.
It was a long time, twenty years in all, that the ark remained at Kiriath Jearim, and all the people of Israel mourned and sought after the LORD. And Samuel said to the whole house of Israel, "If you are returning to the LORD with all your hearts, then rid yourselves of the foreign gods and the Ashtoreths and commit yourselves to the LORD and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines." So the Israelites put away their Baals and Ashtoreths, and served the LORD only.
Then Samuel said, "Assemble all Israel at Mizpah and I will intercede with the LORD for you." When they had assembled at Mizpah, they drew water and poured it out before the LORD. On that day they fasted and there they confessed, "We have sinned against the LORD." And Samuel was leader of Israel at Mizpah.
When the Philistines heard that Israel had assembled at Mizpah, the rulers of the Philistines came up to attack them. And when the Israelites heard of it, they were afraid because of the Philistines. They said to Samuel, "Do not stop crying out to the LORD our God for us, that he may rescue us from the hand of the Philistines." Then Samuel took a suckling lamb and offered it up as a whole burnt offering to the LORD. He cried out to the LORD on Israel's behalf, and the LORD answered him.
While Samuel was sacrificing the burnt offering, the Philistines drew near to engage Israel in battle. But that day the LORD thundered with loud thunder against the Philistines and threw them into such a panic that they were routed before the Israelites. The men of Israel rushed out of Mizpah and pursued the Philistines, slaughtering them along the way to a point below Beth Car.
Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer, saying, "Thus far has the LORD helped us." So the Philistines were subdued and did not invade Israelite territory again.
Throughout Samuel's lifetime, the hand of the LORD was against the Philistines. The towns from Ekron to Gath that the Philistines had captured from Israel were restored to her, and Israel delivered the neighboring territory from the power of the Philistines. And there was peace between Israel and the Amorites.
Samuel continued as judge over Israel all the days of his life. From year to year he went on a circuit from Bethel to Gilgal to Mizpah, judging Israel in all those places. But he always went back to Ramah, where his home was, and there he also judged Israel. And he built an altar there to the LORD.
It was a bleak time for Israel. The God who spoke to Samuel seemed horribly absent from the rest of his people. And having the ark of the Covenant seemed to make no difference. The Philistines had sent back the sacred chest which contained the tablets of the Law. But God's presence and power did not return with it as expected. So the Ark sat, in a corner of the country, for twenty years while the people despaired. Something was wrong. The people mourned the departure of their Lord. They sought after God, but to no avail. The country created by God as a promised land now faced the terrible vacuum of his absence. Where was he? Why had he left his chosen people?
Then the word of the Lord came to Samuel again. Samuel gathered the people and spoke with his usual precision, "If you are returning to the Lord with all your hearts, then rid yourselves of the foreign gods, and the Ashtoreths and commit yourselves to the Lord and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hands of the Philistines."
Suddenly it became clear why God seemed so absent. The people were living with divided hearts. The Lord had been perfectly clear from the beginning, "You shall love the Lord your God and him only. You shall have no other gods before me." That seemed fine out in the desert. But once they moved into the promised land, there were people there who had all kinds of gods and various ideas. You can almost hear them saying to each other, "Well, one has to be broad minded about these things. One needs to cover all the bases." Baal and Asherah were deities of fertility. The Hebrews didn't know much about growing crops, so when the locals told them they needed to pray to Baal and keep a statue of Asherah in their homes, they went right ahead. It was convenient. What could it hurt?
But soon their energy was gone. The edge was taken off their faith. Their sophistication in adapting to all kinds of religious ideas made them dull to the reality of the one God. The spiritual strength left the nation, and the Philistines used the Hebrews as their whipping post. Until Samuel put his finger on the problem. I suppose he could have been polite. He could have spoken with twentieth century church lingo: "I don't want to offend you. I'd hate to ask you to change your lifestyle. I don't want to infringe upon your freedom of choice. But, if you have time, you might just want to check and see if there are any relational difficulties between the local theological constructs and your inherited ones. The way you are imaging the deity may be influencing the exterior manifestations of spirituality in our national social fabric. Just a suggestion."
But that had never been Samuel's way. I think he sounded more like this: "The problem is, you've got foreign gods on your shelves. Your attention to these idols is sucking the life out of the nation. If you hope to have a prayer of surviving the Philistines, if you ever want to experience God again, get rid of the Baals and return to God with your whole heart!"
The language was offensive. But the threat to their nation was greater. So the people got rid of their idols and met Samuel at Mizpah. There they cried out in brutal honesty, "We have sinned against the Lord." They fasted and prayed. They drew out water and poured it before the Lord. It was a ritual of pouring out their souls in devotion. The people continued to implore Samuel to pray for them as the Philistine army drew near. Samuel offered a lamb in sacrifice, and cried out the people's repentance and need to the Lord.
And then their strength returned. Then they had energy for the problems facing the nation. God thundered in the heavens and the Israelites routed the Philistines. Samuel turned up a stone at that place, and called it Ebenezer, the stone of help. He said, "To this point, God has helped us."
So, what do we make of all this? Samuel was a brutal prophet of the truth. The people had foreign gods on their shelves and it drained the life out of them. Instead of becoming a beacon light of hope to the world, Israel simply became just like all the other nations. They sank to the level of those around them. And that proved to be their undoing. God's people don't make good pagans. The inner conflict, no matter how far we repress it, just sinks us.
I wonder, what foreign gods are on the shelves of the Presbyterian Church that are preventing us from experiencing the presence of God, that are stealing our vitality, and keeping us from being the light of the world?
Several appear to have prominent places on our mantles. We have raised the value of individual experience above the authority of Scripture. And so the vigor has been drained from our worship. Seminaries rarely teach a coherent, Biblical curriculum which empowers our ministers for leading. Our comfort with the culture has led us to avoid what Leslie Newbigin calls "the sharpness of the encounter between Christ and the world." We have allowed a third of our national membership to leave in one generation. The list goes on, but one particular subject seems to me to be symptomatic of the church's adoption of cultural idols.
I know that when I say the word, it will sound in your ears like fingernails on a chalkboard. Its a word made of broken glass and nails in the street. It makes our faces sour as if we drank a glass of vinegar. Our souls wince. But how long can I go without ever mentioning it? I feel called to say a word to you about abortion. But I want to say it in context of a remarkable conversation I had some time ago with a woman unknown to you.
"When you preach, preach right to me," she said. "Because I had an abortion years ago. And I've lived with the pain every moment. I don't wake up every night anymore, but I live with it even now. What struck me at the time was the callousness of it all. It was so easy. From the reception desk to the doctor, there was no feeling in it. Even when I was most radically pro-choice, I said it was murder. It was, I thought, the lesser of two evils, but it was the end of a life."
"Would it have helped you for me to tell you it was all right?"
"No, that wouldn't have helped me at all. I knew it was the taking of a life. I knew that. And I had a hundred reasons why I went ahead. A hundred factors to blame. But it was my choice. And it was wrong. Do you think less of me?"
"No," I said. "How can I think less of you when you so bravely confess? Not one of us who lives past childhood has escaped doing damage to someone. There is forgiveness when we own what we do and are. I think I would think less of you if you tried to rationalize it."
"I can't do that anymore," she replied. "I live with the pain. I know God has forgiven me, and I am trying to live for something redeeming to come from that wrong. But I will always have pain, and guilt, and questions. It was never right. It was never my right. So when you preach, preach the truth, but preach it to me with compassion."
I will try. And I am trying now, to see her face and feel her pain as she allows me to speak the truth, though it sears her. I believe that one of the most intractable foreign gods in the church and the nation is our relative silence in the face of some thirty million abortions performed since 1973. This reality is very hard to face. But it hurts us, as a nation and as a church. We are steeped in a national guilt worse than the destruction of the Native American cultures, worse than the enslavement of Africans, worse than Germany's Holocaust and Stalin's purge. In fact, the reality is so horrible that we have repressed it.
As she spoke, this dear woman tried to keep her composure, but for an instant, a window opened, and I saw her heart on her countenance. She yearned to know what this inconvenient, totally unexpected, life-ruining baby would have been like. She wondered what her life would have been like had she not dispensed with the child.
I didn't know what to say. What can you say when there is nothing that can be done about it? How do you respond to such regret? She did not want to be soothed; it took a long time for her to own the reality of her choice. But having owned it, she did not want to be condemned any further. Her own conscience was enough, more than enough. "Neither do I condemn you," said Christ as he knelt in the dirt with the woman. "All your accusers are silent; go and sin no more."
Every week we proclaim the love of God. God, we say, loved the world so much, that he entered it, wrapped in human flesh and walked among us. He did not avoid this vale of tears and life of hard work and pressing troubles. He did not come to take us out of the world but to love us in the midst of it. He wants us so much that he entered human eyes that he might see our pain as we see it. He smelled the disease and heard the cries, he tasted the sweat and dirt of rejection, he bled and cried in the agony of the human rage which nailed him to the cross. He did not avoid responsibility for the world he had created. He took it all on himself. For he wants us. In this world, in this life, he wants everyone of us.
He wants the children who go to school without breakfast or clean clothes. He wants the child who suffocated in a car. He wants the children who are so hurt and angry that they lash out at anyone who cares for them. He wants the children whose parents scream obscenities at them, and withhold care, and demand too much, and rape and bruise. All those little ones, he wants. And he wants the unborn to see the light of day. The little ones whose hearts are beating and limbs are moving before their mothers even know they're there. He wants them.
The Lord God help us that there are foreign gods on our shelves that keep us from loving Christ's little lambs. The idol of personal comfort keeps our tongues silent in the face of all this suffering. The god of convenience keeps us from taking these unwanted little ones into our homes and loving them in the name of Christ. The false god of choice keeps us from truly realizing that we are all connected, everyone of us, and responsible for each other. The Lord God help us that these gods are not just sitting on our shelves. They are riveted to the walls with inch long nails.
We hate to talk about this. We'd rather not disturb our calm waters. But the Philistines are at the gates. Our children, unborn and born, are suffering and dying. And we can't care for one kind without caring for the other. It all connects. The foreign gods are on the shelves, the Philistines are in the streets, and the church has lost its vigor to live, to engage, to love.
Samuel loved his people, and so he told them the truth. Return to the Lord with all your hearts, commit yourselves to the Lord and serve him only. Get rid of the foreign gods. And then you will find the strength to fight. Then you will find hearts large enough to love all his precious little ones. Then, only then, will you truly live as God's people.
The Rev. Garritt Scott Dawson is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Lenoir, North Carolina. (All Scripture quotations are from the New International Version.)