Lent 2 – 1 Samuel 5:1-12
Historically, the ancient Church, when conducting the worship service, would, after the Prayers of the Church, dismiss all those who would not be receiving Lord’s Supper that day. Once they were all outside the doors of the Church, the service would continue with only those remaining who would be receiving Lord’s Supper that day.
This practice sounds foreign to our ears, and yet, it does in fact have a good and worthwhile lesson, the same lesson that we follow today by our practice of closed communion. That purpose is to protect the unprepared, the uninitiated, and the uninstructed from something that can cause harm if taken carelessly.
In fact, we even go so far as to declare the Lord’s Supper to be poison to those who do not receive it properly. And indeed, while it is good and beneficial to those who believe, for those who do not, it is in fact deadly.
Let us keep that image at the forefront of our minds as we consider our reading for this evening from 1 Samuel. For the Ark of the Covenant is in fact a good thing, but when those who are not properly instructed and trained have it in their possession, it suddenly becomes poison, it becomes deadly, it becomes a horrible nightmare of death and destruction.
The Ark of the Covenant is the precursor to the temple. To the outsider, the Ark is just a very ornate old box, but for the people of Israel, top of this box is the mercy seat, on which the Lord Himself sits. The Ark travels with the people as they are making their way to the Promised Land, and even leads them into battle on occasion.
And today, we read that Israel loses the Ark of the Covenant in battle to the Philistines.
In a sense, Israel loses God.
Now in most cases, you would expect that Israel would be the one punished, that Israel would be the one who is reprimanded and cursed for their careless actions. After all, Israel brought the Ark out, not at God’s command, but rather as a good luck charm after they lost a minor battle. The Ark being captured turned the aftermath of a minor loss into a now catastrophic defeat, the news of which brings about the death of Eli the priest.
And yet, oddly enough, Israel is not reprimanded or scolded at all for losing the Ark of the Covenant. On the contrary, it is the Philistines who are punished for taking the Ark.
Every city that holds the Ark of the Covenant is afflicted with a plague of tumors; and this continues with one terrified city passing the Ark along to the next until the Philistines finally just send the Ark back to Israel for fear of what more might happen to them.
It is a most bizarre account.
But one might add that it is only truly bizarre for the Philistines.
What sort of God has such power? In our text, the statue of the false god Dagon falls face forward in front of the Ark; hardly the expected response.
As the Ark moves from city to city, it is not the conquering trophy one would expect, rather it is the curse that keeps on cursing its captors.
How can this be?
Our text ultimately serves as a warning both to the believer and to the unbeliever: take care of the holy things of God.
For the believer, for you and I, we come forward to touch and handle things that are unseen and unknown to us; we confess that the water, the bread and the wine are holy things, that when combined with the Word do incredible things, but how often are we like the people of Israel? Understanding the power of God, but using it carelessly, and ultimately losing it because of our selfish actions.
For the believer, this text is the stuff that dreams are made of; the unbeliever takes the holy things of God and uses them for secular purposes and are punished severely. But the Philistines of today do not just come in and take those holy things, they only come across them when the faithful are careless in their own responsibilities.
What is the Church’s responsibility when it comes to the Word and the sacraments and the forgiveness of sins? First and foremost to distribute freely to all who believe; to pour out the mercy, grace and favor that God so desires to shower upon His people at all times and in all seasons.
But the Church also has the charge to use those gifts responsibly, for the benefit of those who believe and confess Christ, but also for the admonishment of those who reject Christ.
The Philistines of today see the gifts that God offers as trophies to be conquered and displayed for their amusement, the Church must not let this happen. The Church guards and protects these gifts, for they are the true holy things of God.
When Jesus stands over the Jerusalem, and sees the temple, He sees a holy thing of God that the people have once more been careless with for their own purposes of gaining power and glory for themselves. Israel will lose the holy things of God once more, for in their effort to hold onto them, they in turn reject the one who delivered them in the person of Christ Jesus.
Today, the Lord showers His gifts upon you, He desires that you hunger and thirst for the righteousness that He now offers in His Word and sacrament; but He also desires that you approach the holy things of God with awe and reverence, fear and respect. For the holy things of God can bring life and salvation to those who believe, but they can also bring death and destruction on those who do not believe.
Here O Lord, we see thee face to face, here we would touch and handle things unseen; here we grasp with firmer hands the eternal grace. Here we approach your throne of grace, confessing the holiness that you alone possess.