1 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. 5 That is why to this day neither the priests of Dagon nor any others who enter Dagon’s temple at Ashdod step on the threshold. 6 The LORD’s hand was heavy on the people of Ashdod and its vicinity; he brought devastation on them and afflicted them with tumors.[a] 7 When the people of Ashdod saw what was happening, they said, “The ark of the god of Israel must not stay here with us, because his hand is heavy on us and on Dagon our god.” 8 So they called together all the rulers of the Philistines and asked them, “What shall we do with the ark of the god of Israel?”
–1 Samuel 5.1-6 (NIV)
Don’t let the historical context of today’s story rob you of missing its significance. It’s what always happens when the profane meets the holy or when the Living God meets the various idols we construct. The results usually are not very pretty.
In today’s story, the enemy of the Israelites, the Philistines, have captured the ark of the covenant, the focal point where God’s dimension intersects with the earthly one (later that focal point would be the Temple in Jerusalem and ultimately in Jesus). God allowed his ark to be captured because his people Israel had themselves misused the ark for their own petty purposes (see 1 Samuel 4). But a funny thing happens when a major idol of the Philistines meets the real God of the universe. The Philistines are shown how utterly powerless and worthless their idols are. Now our idols today may not consist of the god Dagon, but our idols of money, security, power, sex, fame and prestige, and a host of others are equally powerless to help us live abundantly. The only way to live abundantly is to have a relationship with the one true God who can raise us from the dead and calls us into loving service on his behalf for the benefit of his broken and hurting world.
We may wonder why the Philistines didn’t realize the folly of their ways, especially after seeing repeated demonstrations of God’s power. But it really shouldn’t surprise us because we often do the same thing. We hear the promise of God in Christ to give us new life, but we continue to pursue other, lesser things (and people) that are bound to fail or disappoint. We see the power of God’s love made manifest in loving service through God’s called out (holy) people, and we tend to yawn. We would much rather respect power and the ways of the world. And like the Philistines, instead of welcoming God’s Presence in our very midst, we often see it as a threat and seek to send it packing.
So what should be an appropriate response when we are confronted by the holy? We can take our cue from folks like Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Peter, who, when realizing they were in the Presence of the Holiness and Goodness of God, fell prostrate and cried out to God to go away from them because they saw how unworthy they were to be in his presence. Now let’s be clear. I am not talking here about an exercise in self-humiliation. I am talking about having the proper humility to realize that God is God and we are not. This perforce leads us to be obedient to God’s will for us and to trust his goodness, love, and mercy for us and our lives in any and every circumstance. That’s terribly hard to do; in fact, it’s part of the curse of the human condition. But by God’s grace and mercy, as well as through the Power of his Spirit living in us, we are able to become obedient people.
How do we know God loves us and is for us? Because we have seen his symbol of justice. It is not that of lady justice. The symbol of God’s justice is the cross and the man we see hanging on it on our behalf so that we are made able to live forever in the direct Presence of the Holy God of this universe is God himself. We also have the Presence of his Spirit in us, testifying about himself and the truth of these things.
When we, by God’s grace, are given a right mind to see things as they are, and to see God as he is, it changes us forever. The change may be gradual and almost imperceptible at times, but it changes us nevertheless. The weight of the world is taken off our shoulders immediately as we realize that we worship and serve a God who is big enough for all our needs, hopes, and best desires, and who will help us overcome anything that evil can throw at us.
This, in turn, prepares our hearts to become Kingdom workers for God in Christ. We want to share with others, especially those who are most hurting and broken, the exquisite Good News with which we have been blessed. And because we have our minds right, living in God’s indirect presence here on earth is no longer is threatening to us. We want to remain in that Presence, not send it away, because we know that only when we are doing what God calls us to do can we find and live the abundant life.
What about you? When you are confronted by the Holy, do you want to run away or send it packing? Or do you recognize your radical need to be in its Presence and welcome it with a glad and humble heart? How you answer will be the deciding factor as to whether your life has meaning and purpose or whether it revels in self-centeredness and the profane.