October 18, 2015

1 Samuel 4:12-18

Some of you might not have ever heard of the Ark of the Covenant if it had not been for “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

Since the movie is 34 years old, let me tell you that it is about the mysterious housing that contained the Ten Commandments that we read about in the Bible, but for those who remember the movie, let me just say that the Ark of the Covenant has never been in the hands of the Nazis, nor the U.S. government, nor was the Ark ever opened by the Nazis to reveal the crushed remains of the Ten Commandments, releasing freed spirits which attacked the Nazis and then returned to the Ark and resealed themselves in it.  That’s just Hollywood.

However, some of the stories of the Ark of the Covenant in the Bible have about that much drama.

The Bible describes the Ark of the Covenant as a gold chest that could be carried on two poles.   It was used to lead the people into battle and was the reminder that God was their leader and was with them in their camp.

When the people camped, the Ark was placed in the tabernacle, which was a big holy tent where the people believe God resided.  The Ark was placed in the most holy place of the tabernacle called the Holy of Holies.  No one could go in there except the Great High Priest and he only went in there once a year.

Inside the Ark were housed the two tablets of the Ten Commandments, a jar of manna, and Aaron’s staff.  Each served great symbolic significance for the people.

The Commandments represented the moral law that God expected them to follow.

With each sight of the Ark, the people were reminded that God judged them through the Law because He was a holy God.

The mercy seat, the gold-layered lid on top of the Ark, reminded the people that God was also a God of mercy.

Once a year the mercy seat was sprinkled with blood by the High Priest who went inside the Holy of Holies, asking God to forgive the people of their sins.

Aaron’s rod was inside the ark, a symbol of leadership, a reminder that God chooses people with gifts of leadership. It was a symbol of the priesthood and a reminder of the importance that God chooses people to lead us to live holy lives.

Finally, there was a jar of manna inside the Ark. Remember, God fed the people daily in the wilderness with some kind of food that appeared daily called “manna.”  The people could only collect enough of it to eat each day.  If they became greedy and collected more than they could eat in a day, it would be spoiled by the next day.

Another miracle of the manna was that on the day before the Sabbath, the people could collect enough for two days.  On the Sabbath Day, the manna didn’t spoil.  This way, God made it so the people didn’t have to work for their food on the Sabbath, but could rest from their labors.

The jar of manna was a reminder that God was their source of life-sustaining food.  Each day they depended on God to provide for them the essentials of life.

The Ark of the Covenant was the most holy piece of furniture that belonged to the people of Israel.  In fact, it was so holy they believed that as long as the Ark of the Covenant was in their possession, God’s power and favor was upon them and no one could harm them or defeat them.

Now let me introduce you to a family that lived the closest to the Ark of the Covenant.

The family was a family of priests.  It was their job to take care of the tabernacle and all that was inside, and to receive the sacrifices the people brought to God.  They were like the pastors of their day.

The oldest in this family was Eli.  We don’t know his wife’s name but we do know they had two sons, Hophni and Phinehas.   Since Eli’s wife is never mentioned, it’s possible she died young.

In addition to his two sons, Eli also raised Samuel. Samuel was given to Eli around the age of three by Eli’s mother Hannah.  Hannah was blessed with a child in her old age and as a result of her promise to God for blessing her with a child, she gave her son to God, allowing him to grow up as a helper to Samuel in the temple.

However, the education that Samuel got in the temple was not one that his mother would have been happy about.  In fact, when Samuel was still just a boy, God came to him in a dream and revealed the fate of Eli and his sons.

In that dream Samuel was awakened on three different occasions.  He went to Eli to tell him what he’d seen.  Eli figured that God was trying to get his attention and so he instructed Samuel to answer the voice next time he was spoken to.

The next time God spoke to Samuel, he was instructed to deliver some bad news to Eli.  He did so reluctantly. Samuel did not want to tell Eli that God’s judgment was coming.

By this time, Eli had turned over the working of the temple to his sons Hophni and Phinehas.  Together, they profaned the holiness of their work as priests by taking all the food from the sacrifices they wanted, and they also took the choicest parts of the meat.

You see, when the families came to the temple and sacrificed an animal, the family ate a large portion of the animal, other parts were given to the priest for his personal use, and other parts were given to him to place on the alter to be burned as a sacrifice to God.

When the meat was boiling in a big pot, the priests were supposed to just take whatever they got when they stuck a big fork into the pot.  Whatever stuck to the fork was their payment for their services.  I often refer to this as the first potluck meal.

However, Hophni and Phinehas had decided, “Why depend on luck or divine favor when we can take what we want?” and they did.

In fact, even before the meat was put into the pot to boil, they demanded the choice cuts of meat from the worshipers. Don’t you know that left a bad taste in the mouths of everyone who came to worship the Lord? They got to the tabernacle and discovered it was ran by corrupt, greedy, gluttonous priests.

Young Samuel was there to witness this and unfortunately, he was there to witness more.  There were women who served at the entrance at the tabernacle.  Hophni and Phinehas used their position of power and took advantage of these women.

Eli spoke to his sons about these grievous sins but he did nothing to stop them.  In speaking to his sons, he implied that their actions had become common knowledge that had “spread among the Lord’s people.”

So these were the things that Samuel had witnessed and because of these things, God was going to judge Eli and his sons.

Samuel was afraid to tell Eli about the vision because it was a vision of judgment, but Eli insisted that Samuel not hold anything back, so he delivered the bad news that God was going to judge his family because he had failed to restrain them.

These words could hardly have been any surprise to Eli because God had also warned him about their sins through a man of God sent to him years before.

Then the day came when Hophni and Phinehas were killed in a battle with the Philistines.  Notice that when Hophni and Phinehas were killed and news came to Eli, it says that “Eli fell backward off his chair by the side of the gate. His neck was broken and he died, for he was an old man and heavy.”

This is likely a subtle reference to Eli’s gluttony.

In all likelihood, not only had Eli not stopped Hophni and Phinehas from taking choice portions of the meat, but he had been enjoying the choice portions himself—eating all he wanted.  He had a responsibility to keep the temple holy and he didn’t.   Slowly over time, the sins of his sons became his sins as well.

Not only was he unable to take action, but also he eventually participated in the same gluttony he once despised.

Perhaps you have heard that a frog will boil to death when placed in water that is heated slowly enough because the frog doesn’t anticipate an abrupt change.  Well, the metaphor has been used to make many points, even though the frog experiment is not scientifically accurate.

Eventually, the frog will jump out.  He’s not stupid.

But apparently, people don’t always have the same sense of the frog.  We get ourselves in situations like Eli did where we should have known that our ways are only getting us deeper and deeper into wrongdoing.  Even though at any point we can step up and repent, turning our backs on our wayward ways, we cast a vote of approval by our silence. We think we are going to go unnoticed. We think we have our sin under control and nothing of consequence will happen.

We do not become gluttons all at once.   It’s a slow process.  We take a little more and a little more of what the world is serving.   If we do not set up some kind of authority in our lives, usually our will power is not enough, because “I” is in the middle of “sin.”

The Ark of the Covenant represented authority, power and the presence of God to the people.  It represented the Presence of God in their midst.

The irony for Eli, Hophni and Phinehas is that the Ark of the Covenant was just yards from the same place from where they committed these sins with these women and took this meat from these people.  They broke the very commandments that were housed in their place of worship.

You and I can come to God’s house of worship and still be gluttons.  We can come here to worship week in and week out while we steal other people’s money.

We can come to worship while we take advantage of the poor. We can come to worship while we are having an affair or doing things that will often lead to one.  We can send flirtatious messages, spend time alone with someone we should not, say things that should not be said, send emails, texts, or photos that should not be sent, have thoughts we should not have, go places we should not go.

We can come to worship while we become gluttons of social media, television, or the Internet or some hobby and ignore spending meaningful time with the people we love.

We can come to worship even though we do not acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus in our lives on a daily basis.

We can come here to worship with greedy hands, trying to pick up more than our share as opposed to sharing more than our share, not even bothering to leave any meaningful amount of money in the offering plate for the ministries of the church.

If this is the case, we should be very careful and not become arrogant and think that we will always have the opportunity to repent and change our ways.

Eli should have known better.  He was a priest, after all. But we should also know better.  We hear the gospel preached on a regular basis.

In fact, Eli did know better.  Samuel’s words came as no surprise.  Yet he did nothing.

His sons Hophni and Phinehas seemed to believe that they were untouchable as well.

They had faith in God, but their faith was based on false pretenses–that God would protect them always.

God is a God of grace, but there are limits to God’s grace.

The message today is that we shouldn’t test those limits.

There is not enough room in our lives for gluttonous living and the Holy Spirit.  One pushes out the other.

Which one occupies more of your life today?