Indivisible?

During this annual summer series, we read a children’s story as an additional “scripture” lesson. This week’s story is Hugs from Pearl, by Paul Schmid.

Scripture Reading: Romans 8:35-39

Separated?

In our scripture lesson today, Paul writes to the church at Rome, where it feels the world is spinning off its axis. 

Tensions are mounting between Christians and Jews…

Christians are getting kicked out of the synagogues where they’ve had their faith home…

and the politics of their city and nation are absolutely out of control. 

In all likelihood, Nero is emperor, and the burning of Rome and his casting blame on Christians is less than a decade away. 

The Christians of Rome are in a toxic environment—one that is filled, quite literally, with “hardship… distress… persecution… famine… nakedness… peril… [and] sword.” This describes daily life for them.

Paul wants them to know with certainty that this reality does not indicate God’s displeasure with them—that they are not experiencing hardship because of a lack of faith. God’s love is indeed with them. And not only can these physical realities not separate them from God’s love, here (offers Paul) are a list of immaterial realities that also cannot divide them from God’s love: 

not death, not life;

not angels, or rulers;

neither things present, nor things to come;

not powers, not height, not depth;

not anything else in all creation (Romans 8:38–39 NRSV)

Nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” 

Period.

Lovable?

But you know, I believe Paul is also speaking to Christians here who (like many of us today) struggle with whether we are very lovable to God. 

From my experiencing listening over the years, I know there are many of us who just don’t feel like it is possible for even God to love us. 

We know some of the struggles inside ourselves all too well. 

We know our failure to reach perfectionistic heights. 

And more often than not, we were taught explicitly or implicitly that perfection is precisely the God-ordained minimum. 

So how then can God love us at all?

 

Now while I’m talking to Christians here, I have to point out that I’ve heard some of the same things from folks who haven’t yet decided to follow Jesus. 

How can God love me given my past? 

How can God love me given my struggles with addiction? 

How can God live me given the things I’ve done? 

How can God love me given the things I’ve let others do to me? 

How can God love someone as messed up, broken down, and untrustworthy as me?

The truth is, I don’t always know how to respond.

I don’t know how, because I do not understand God’s love for me. These struggles are my struggles too. But life with God has taught me that whether I feel lovable or not, God has loved me—and does love me—and will love me with a deeper, more real love than any I have ever known.

Christ is the proof of this, at least in the eyes of the New Testament writers. 

Just a few verses before where we started reading this morning, Paul defines God’s love for us: it is because God “did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us” (Romans 8:32 NRSV). 

Or as Jesus put it in John 15:53, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13 NRSV). 

Or as 1John 4:9 offers, “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him” (1John 4:9 NRSV).

Wherever we pull from in the scriptures, we cannot get around the fact that Jesus demonstrates for us God’s radical love of us. 

We do not deserve it…… That’s why it’s called grace.

We cannot earn it…… That’s why it’s called grace.

It does not rest on what we do…… That’s why it’s called grace.

God’s love is an unorthodox, unrestricted, and incomprehensible gift…… And nothing we can do can cause that love to be diminished, divided, or erased. 

Period.

 

To be clear: our human embodiment of that love may be even more incomprehensible (if that’s even possible). But the nature of love remains the same. 

“Love is patient; love is kind;
love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. 

It does not insist on its own way;
it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice in wrongdoing,
but rejoices in the truth. 

It bears all things,
believes all things,
hopes all things,
endures all things.
Love never ends.” (1Corinthians 13:4–8 NRSV)

Indivisible?

I know I’ve used this illustration before, but when we were expecting our second child, I was truly concerned: I loved our first child so much that I was genuinely worried that I wouldn’t have enough love for another one. My fears, however, were quickly put to rest; love, it seems, is a bottomless well, an endless stream, a cup that always flows over.

Maybe saying love is “indivisible” isn’t quite right. 

Love is divisible, it just doesn’t diminish when divided. That’s what we get wrong about love, I think: It actually has infinite divisibility. 

Infinite disibility is just one more bit of wonky church math to add to your repertoire:

There’s the Trinity, where 1 + 1 + 1 = 1

There’s the dual natures of Christ, where 1 + 1 = 1

And now we get the infinite divisibility of love, where [love ÷ n (where n = any number) = LOVE]

 

I was thinking about this already, and then I came across a pretty remarkabe poem by Anita Atina called “The Heart of Love is Indivisible.” A couple lines near the end nearly took my breath away. She says:

If the heart of love is indivisible,
set free those you love

From the chains of expectation
and labels of the world…

For the heart of love expands,
when more is asked of it

“The heart of love expands when more is asked of it.” 

That certainly characterizes the heart of God that I have come to know through Jesus. And I believe that heart of love expands even larger than anything we might conceive. 

It is God’s love that brought Jesus into this world.

It is God’s love that is demonstrated in the world through Jesus.

It is God’s love that we embody, when we allow our hearts to expand large enough to set free those we love from the chains of expectation and labels of the world.

May God’s desires be fulfilled through us, for the glory of God and the advancement of Christ’s Kingdom.

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Goals

During this annual summer series, we read a children’s story as an additional “scripture” lesson. This week’s story is Leonardo the Terrible Monster, by Mo Willems.

Scripture Reading: Luke 6:27-36

Self-Discovery

Some years ago I happened across a TV show called “Who Do You Think You Are?” I didn’t realize until preparing for this week, but the series is still on the air today. The basic premise of the show is that they bring on a celebrity of sorts and perform genealogical research into their family tree. 

As you might expect and as ancestry-researchers have known for a long time, when you start digging around in the past you can’t help but discover some fascinating stories. So as each episode develops, the subjects learn of their connection to people of power and to criminals, of stories of hardship and triumph, and a lot of mundane stuff too.

The bulk of each episode is unveiling this deep look into the past, but one of the things I remember most profoundly is the way most subjects would talk about how their newfound knowledge would change how they lived in the future. Because of what they discovered about themselves, they aspired to be a somehow different person.

A World Without Stories

Learning about your family’s past can make you see yourself in a different light; it can’t help but do that–given the good, bad, and ugly that you will no doubt unearth. I think really listening to the stories of other’s lives always does this, whether or not you’re related to them. 

No matter how much we are around people, they tend to remain a bit two-dimensional in our imagination. And that can be isolating. 

When we struggle but don’t see the struggle of others, we think we are alone and perhaps faulty somehow.

When we fail but never see others’ failures, we may begin to imagine ourselves to be the personification of failure: it is not that we failed, but that we are failures.

When we only know of our own experiences, we often become narrow-minded, imagining that everyone’s experience is the same as our own.

And before long, we have lost our ability to show compassion, the responsibility that comes with being interconnected with others, and all touch with reality, really…… And in its place we’ve gained a delusional pride that sees only your way in everything, an inflated sense of self-importance and accomplishment, and hatred masquerading as love.

Confessing Stories

Maybe that’s why “remember and tell this story so they don’t forget” is such a common refrain in the Old Testament. For every experience of the ancient Israelites–good or bad–they are instructed to remember what happened, to tell its story to the next generations, and not to forget. For every time they do forget, they lose track of who they are and they wander far from God’s paths.

Jumping into the New Testament, maybe this is part of what undergirds the instruction of James 5:16 to 

“Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.” (NRSV)

When we share our stories with one another–when we pray for one another amidst experiences of praise and failure–we will truly find healing and hope in community. Those stories and struggles and celebrations of others cannot help but change how we see the world, just like those celebrities on the TV series.

#goals

I don’t know if this will surprise you or not, but I think some  of the biggest obstacles for Christians trying to embody Jesus’ love in the world are our own goals and expectations. We get these ideas in our head about who we are, or want to be; and we tend to define these things quite narrowly. Take a moment and think about the things you aspire to be. Maybe you try to be:

a good person (which whether we realize it or not is culturally defined and not the same for everyone around the globe; a caveat that applies to all our goals really)

a good American

a good employee

a good citizen

a good “Christian”

a good church member

Most of us wear lots of hats (so to speak), so we also want to be:

a good parent

a good child

a good brother/sister

a good neighbor

a good friend, and so on.

That’s a lot of roles already, and we’ve only just now scratched the surface.

I think most of us struggle (at times–if not most of the time) figuring out which hat to wear when. And like with Leonardo the monster (in the children’s book), we sometimes find the different roles we fill (or the different goals we have) create conflicts within us and outside us. Some of those personas we aspire to become prove to be mutually exclusive.

As an example that’s sure to be provocative, I think the Christian role of “follower of Jesus” is increasingly at odds with the über-patriotism that some today define as being a “good American.” 

Our Christian ancestors throughout history suffered and died because their allegiance to Christ trumped their allegiance to their nation. If following Christ is seen by some (even by some Christians these days!) as un-American, I know with certainty where my allegiance is pledged.

But these are not easy realities to navigate. Each of us, after all, have considerable expectations placed upon us: by our families, by our friends, by our church, by society, and so on. More than anything else, I think the greatest expectation placed on us is that we will not change……that we will remain comfortably predictable, so as not to rock the boat of life.

A Disruptive Jesus

But the Jesus that we follow is thoroughly disruptive. From before he was even born, Jesus was upsetting the apple carts of expectation and predictability. In Jesus, God does something new (cf. Isaiah 43:19) that changes the world forever……and new is not something we do well as humans.

Take this section of teaching that we’ve read today, for example. Within these ten verses, Jesus destroys their expectations of how to respond to those doing you wrong, he jettisons the basic moral principle they have been following, and he presents a model of behavior that (quite frankly) looks like a recipe for failure.

Love your enemies,
do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you,
pray for those who abuse you. 

Do more than is required–even when it comes at a cost:

If anyone strikes you on the cheek,
offer the other also;
and from anyone who takes away your coat
do not withhold even your shirt.
Give to everyone who begs from you;
and if anyone takes away your goods,
do not ask for them again. 

Abba Macarius Gets Burgled

That reminds me of a story of abba Macarius in Egypt–he’s one of those voices of early Christianity called the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Anyway, Macarius returned to his residence to find a stranger there. The man had brought a pickup (of sorts) and was stealing all of Macarius’ things. Macarius went up to the man as though he were a traveler who did not live there, helped him load the animal with his own things, and led the man on his way in peace.

Why? The story says it is because Macarius was reminding himself that “We brought nothing into this world,” that all things are a gift of God, and that God deserves praise in all circumstances (in Daily Readings, p.35).

I’m not saying we should respond as Macarius in all circumstances in our lives–nor, I suspect, would he–but I do think he fulfills these words of Jesus in a challenging and remarkable fashion.

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 

If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.”

Which Hat to Wear?

In a world of competing goals, responsibilities, and aspirations, I find these words of Jesus have a way of cutting right to the heart of things. Who am I to be in this moment? How am I to respond? Which persona gets priority? Which goals should be pursued?

“Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

It is a rule that was taught to most of us when we were young, whether or not our parents or guardians were religious. But it continues to be one of the most daring, revolutionary, disruptive things we can live out in the world. 

Because when we do to others as we would have them do to us:

we show love to those who do us harm

we are generous with those who would steal from us

we bless when and whom others would curse

we respond to violence with non-violence

When we follow this simple teaching of Jesus, we live more completely in the now-but-not-yet Kingdom of God; we choose to follow God’s ways in a world where such things look foolish. And these, I do strongly believe, are goals worth pursuing.

Tell Me Why

 

For three years now, I have preached a summer series using a children’s book as a second reading in our worship service. We read the book in whole and talk about it specifically in the children’s sermon, and then it is referenced to varying degrees in the main sermon which closely follows the theme of the book.

Today’s book is The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessor, by William Joyce.

 

Deuteronomy 6:4–13, 20–25

 

Tell Me Why

“Start with why.” That’s the advice of business guru Simon Sinek in his book by the same name. He looks through history at leaders of corporations and social movements who were able to not just be successful, but built a movement among their followers, employees, and consumers. In a nutshell, he dissects what it is about great leaders that allow them to inspire so many to take action. And over and over again, he finds that the way they both think and communicate starts with a statement about why they do what they do.

This is the graphic Mr. Sinek uses to illustrate his point.

sinekgoldencirclee1378664887408

On the outside, we have WHAT: this is what we do. For a business it is their products or services; for a church it might be things like bible studies or missional activities.

Inside that is HOW. For a business, the HOW explains what makes their products different than the competition—be it design, efficiency, features, and so on. Think of it this way: WHAT explains what we might buy and HOW is what we would say to explain our choice. For a church, HOW might be things like the Golden Rule, or the Great Commission, or an understanding of the End Times—all of which would shape the actual ministry that is taking place in the WHAT circle.

The innermost circle is WHY. WHY is, quite simply, the purpose, cause, or belief that is the entire reason your company—or church—exists. It is the core identity from which everything else should come.

Mr. Sinek argues that most of the time, we begin our communication with WHAT we do, then move to HOW we do it, and we usually aren’t even aware of WHY we do it. But the most effective communicators, leaders, and companies work this the other way around—they start with WHY they exist, then move to HOW they live that out, and end with WHAT they do.

Or, put differently, “a WHY is just a belief, HOWs are the actions we take to realize that belief, and WHATs are the results of those actions” (Sinek, Start with Why, 85).

The Elevator Pitch

Now I realize this sounds complicated, but it really is quite simple. The easiest way to illustrate this is using the concept of the elevator pitch. The idea of an elevator pitch is that you should be able to make a pitch for your business in the time it takes you to travel a few floors in an elevator with a stranger. It is the answer to this question: In about a minute, why should someone attend First Baptist instead of one of the dozens of other churches in town?

If you haven’t ever considered what to say in a scenario like this, you’re going to be ill prepared when God directs someone your way.

So think about it right now. Imagine you are in conversation with a coworker, a family member, or even a stranger and the subject of faith and church comes up. Most of the time, our “elevator pitch” starts with WHAT. For this church, it might sound like this:

We meet on Sundays at 9:30 to worship God. There’s Sunday School for all ages. We have men’s and women’s groups that meet during the week, as well as an after school program and a youth group. We allow some community groups to share our space. I’ve been a part of the church for a long time now and it feels like a family to me.

That’s starting with WHAT. That’s beginning with the things we do.

Now listen to the difference when we start with WHY:

We believe that each person is someone God deeply loves, and that knowing Jesus is something that is freeing. The way we live that out is by practicing hospitality, learning to hear God and each other, and working toward the liberation of those who feel trapped and alone. We gather to worship God each Sunday at 9:30, we meet in small groups to discuss life and the Bible, and we partner with a lot of community groups who share our mission of breaking the cycles that hold people back.

It’s quite a difference in its impact—even though it communicates all of the same information as in the first presentation. Mr. Sinek argues that this second presentation will always be more impactful because it presents information in the way our brains naturally work. It inspires us instead of convinces us.

God Starts with Why

Starting with WHY as Christians and as the Church means we start with story instead of programming. It begins with “who we are” instead of “what we do.” And even though we have gotten this sooooo backwards over the last century or so, starting with WHY is really the example we see throughout the Bible.

When the first humans are created, God starts with why: “Let us make humanity in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish…and…the birds..and…the livestock…and over ever creeping thing” (Gen 1:26 ESV).

When God begins working through a specific family, God starts with why: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:1-3 ESV).

When the angel appears to Joseph, encouraging him to still wed Mary (his pregnant fiancée, the message from God starts with why: “That which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit… You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:20-21 ESV).

The whole Bible is a story of WHY—and it is filled with stories of WHY. When we start with WHY—when we start with story—we are not selling something. We are instead inspiring people.

Another author (Chuck DeGroat) talks about why telling stories matters (Faith Storytelling Kit PDF). Using the perspective of our Christian faith and the backdrop of the Bible, he gives seven reasons why telling stories matter:

1. We are hardwired for story: Science has shown us that this is how our brains work—and that “we thrive when we listen and tell.”

2. We are meaning makers. Telling stories has been the way we have made sense of our experiences and world for thousands of years.

3. We are honest. In telling stories, we learn there is more shame in the kind of radical editing that makes us look good than in telling the simple truth of our struggles, our failures, and and our suffering.

4. We are wounded. All of us have been hurt. Psychologists have discovered that telling stories of hurt actually help us take control of our lives and find healing from those wounds.

5. We are storied beings. Our Christian faith is one that roots our own individual, 21st century lives in the 1st century life of our Savior. The path of discipleship that we walk together is of finding the story of Jesus told through our own lives.

6. We are liturgical. What this means is that our worship is corporate; it is something that we do together. And as we move through the year, our worship reenacts the stories of Jesus’ Advent, birth, and baptism; miracles and parables; entrance into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, and the Garden of Gethsemane; his crucifixion and burial; the resurrection, and the ascension. The way we worship is driven by stories-told and stories-reenacted.

7. We are commanded. Over and over in scripture, we are commanded to remember and to tell the story.

Deuteronomy

Our scripture lesson is one such example. Here in Deuteronomy 4, the Israelites are in the midst of their wilderness wanderings—in between slavery in Egypt and nationhood in the Promised Land. Moses—following God’s lead (as always)—wants them to see that their willingness to tell the story of what God has done is directly connected to their ability to survive and thrive in the future. It’s a simple thing—storytelling—but if they don’t do it, they will not succeed. That’s why Moses is so emphatic:

Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates (Deut 6:7-9 NIV).

Moses wants to make sure that the ancient Israelites are never far from a tangible reminder of the story of God’s liberation.

In v.20 of our reading, Moses even makes it clear that when asked about their practices and their worship and this constant remembering, their answer needs to start with WHY.

In the future, when your son asks you, “What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees and laws the Lord our God has commanded you?” tell him: “We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. Before our eyes the Lord sent signs and wonders—great and terrible—on Egypt and Pharaoh and his whole household. But he brought us out from there to bring us in and give us the land he promised on oath to our ancestors. The Lord commanded us to obey all these decrees and to fear the Lord our God, so that we might always prosper and be kept alive, as is the case today. And if we are careful to obey all this law before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us, that will be our righteousness (vv.20-25 NIV)

Stories matter. The Bible—while a collection of stories—is itself one giant story of God’s loving and redemptive work. And the testimony we see in scripture is that storytelling is evangelism. Storytelling is how we communicate who we are, who God is, and that what we do matters.

That means it’s important to think about the story of your own life—and how to tell it. It’s not about making yourself look good—the bible stories we read each week do not paint sanitized pictures of flawless heroes; they depict deeply flawed, fully human beings. But it is important to start with WHY. If you’re talking about faith, or church, or anything else in this world that matters, I want you to tell me WHY it matters to you.

No, that’s wrong……it’s not about me. The world needs you to tell them why it matters. Everyone’s story matters, and the world needs to hear how God has redeemed you. And that is a story only you can tell.

Prayer

God,

We give you thanks for your Son,
our Savior, Jesus the Christ—
the Word of God who became flesh
and dwelt among us.

We give you thanks for his example and teachings,
and also for the path he marked for us:
a path that pursues peace, love, and hospitality
towards friend and stranger alike.

We give you thanks for the love you have for us,
a love that is self-sacrificing,
a love that is serving,
a love that is without strings attached,
and a love that survives—and even overcomes—death itself.

We give you thanks for the hope we have in you.
Hope that testifies that what was began in Jesus
will find completion in our own lives.
Hope that is certain our own brokenness,

and pain,
and hurt,
and death

can be resurrected,

resuscitated,
revived,
restored,
reconciled,
and renewed.

We love because you first loved us.

Give us the courage to tell of your love,
of your action in our lives—
be it provision or reconciliation,
liberation or welcome—
Help us to tell others why we need you.

Amen.

The Apple of God’s Eye?

 

Psalm 17:1-9

 

Living Stories

We talk about the Bible being a “living book.” But I wonder sometimes whether we realize what that means.

There’s a piece (in my mind) that is Holy Spirit driven—the Bible continues to speak in powerful ways to each of our lives, today. Unlike some other ancient texts, it transcends time and space to attend to the needs and challenges of this current era. That’s inspiration—happening even now through the work of the Spirit.

But there’s another dimension I see too. There are strong resonances between these ancient stories and our lives. They are our stories, too—told with other names and places, but entirely analogous to what you and I experience each and every day.

In the story of Adam and Eve and the first sin, we find a retelling of every time we choose our own way over God’s way.

In the story of Noah, we see a retelling of every time we think the world is going to hell in a handbasket and we find encouragement that God will be faithful.

In the story of Abraham, we find a retelling of every time we try to force God’s will into being through our own efforts and initiatives.

In Jonah, we have a retelling of every time we try to run away from God.

In Job and Ecclesiastes, we have a retelling of our struggle for answers in the face of senseless tragedy or injustice.

And so on. These stories are our stories. Part of why they have become scripture and Bible is because for so many hundreds and thousands of years they have lived in us—they have spoken the truth of who and how we are, and of what life in the world and with God is genuinely like.

Such is our story for today. In the episodes from the history of ancient Israel that we will look at this morning, we do not read ancient history, but current events.

Reflecting on a nation of God’s favored people, we find application for our own, oft-called “Christian,” nation.

Examining the hearts of ancient people of faith, we find our own hearts—and sin—revealed.

Living stories of a living book coming alive.

Psalm 17

While there’s much in the Psalm that could be applied in this way this morning, I want to focus on two adjacent lines, which have captured my imagination, mediation, and prayer of late: “you who save by your right hand those who take refuge in you from their foes” (v.7) and “keep me as the apple of your eye” (v.8).

You see, there is a connection between seeking refuge in God, being saved, and being “special.” These elements are interdependent, kind of like our Baptist churches. They are distinct from one another, yet also reliant on one another to form a functional whole.

And yet our propensity—as Baptists and as humans—is to emphasize the individual and neglect the whole; to amplify our independence and silence elements of interdependence. And when this happens, things never go well for us.

When we do seek refuge in God, we are saved, and we feel special. Perhaps, as we read here and other places in the bible, we are special—friends of Christ and children of God.

And yet…… The testimony of scripture is that when we associate too strongly with our specialness—when our whole identity is wrapped up in being “the apple of God’s eye”—when we are most convinced that God is on our side——that is precisely the moment when the bottom falls out, because that is also the moment when we stop actually taking refuge in God. That is the moment when we trust our identity for our protection instead of trusting God. That is the moment when our expectations of God actually become idolatrous.

History of Israel

There are no better illustrations of this than can be found in the history of ancient Israel. As descendants of Abraham, the people of ancient Israel know they are special. They are without a doubt “the apple of God’s eye.” Centuries of covenant relationship have proven to them that God loves them and pays them particular attention.

They were saved out of Egypt.

They were given the Law at Sinai.

Their battles for control of the Promised Land were fought and won by God alone.

For them God raised up righteous leaders—”judges”—to get them out of binds with the Canaanites.

And during generations of kingship, they were protected by God from invading powers.

But they began to think themselves invincible. They began to see God as a totem of protection—a cross to wear around your neck to ward off evil spirits, like the bloody lintels of Passover night in Egypt. As long as they maintained the symbols, they believed they could wield God as a weapon for their protection and benefit. Jerusalem could never fall, because God would never allow it.

Captivity of the Ark

Back in 1Samuel 4, there’s an interesting story along these themes. It’s one of those stories that should have stood as a warning against this kind of thinking to later generations. But like so many of the lessons of the past, we choose to repeat our errors instead of remember and learn from them.

In 1Samuel 4, the Israelites are once again at battle. If you read their story from the beginning, it seems like they’ve been at war for generations now. War appears to be something they’ve gotten good at, from the strategic brilliance of folks like Joshua and Gideon to the mundane brutality of others like Jael or Ehud. The Israelites are a force to be reckoned with, and they have dominated the Philistines for some time. And so, at this point in the biblical story, the Philistines are revolting, trying to escape the destiny of becoming “slaves to the Hebrews,” as we read in v.9 of 1Sam 4.

At the beginning of this chapter, however, a battle is fought, and the ancient Israelites are defeated (v.2)—four thousand Israelites die that day. But defeat doesn’t seem possible—How can they lose with God on their side? They are the people that God favors; it is inconceivable that any human power could triumph over that!!

But then some astute person recognizes a pattern. Patterns are our salvation and damnation. Sometimes patterns show us the rhythms of life that we must recognize to succeed. Other times, such correlation does not equal causation—what we see as a pattern obscures the real causes.

This story is one of the latter times. This astute person realizes that when they carry into battle the Ark of the Covenant—which for the Israelites (and their enemies) was a visible representation of their God—they won. Every time. Never fail.

But when they did not bring the Ark into battle, they did not always win.

It seems obvious, doesn’t it? If they bring the Ark into battle every time, they simply can’t lose. All they have to do is bring the Ark into every battle and they will never be defeated.

Except…… this is one of those times where correlation does not equal causation. Bringing the Ark doesn’t lead to victory; trusting God for salvation brings victory. Or, to put it in the terms of Psalm 17, taking refuge in God results in salvation.

The ancient Israelites thought they were the apple of God’s eye, and that God would never allow harm to come to them. But they put their trust in a wooden box instead of into the Creator of the universe, and as a result, 30,000 Israelites died that day, and the Ark itself was captured by the Philistines.

Exile of Judah

Many years later, as the ancient nation of Judah is threatened by foreign powers, it again begins to overemphasize its “special” relationship with God, believing (as I mentioned earlier) that Jerusalem can never fall to a foreign army. After all, God had promised them “In this house, and in Jerusalem, which I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel, I will put my name forever. And I will not cause the feet of Israel to wander anymore out of the land that I gave to their fathers” (2Kings 21:7-8).

As a result, they believed they were golden; they were the apple of God’s eye—God’s chosen nation——to quote Psalm 56:11: “what can man do to me?” And so they trusted in their special status. And they trusted in their own political prowess. And they expected—genuinely expected—that nothing bad could or would ever happen.

Of course, they forgot about the second half of that promise: “if only they will be careful to do according to all that I have commanded them” (2Kings 21:8).

They remembered the “getting saved” and the “being the apple of God’s eye” part, but they forgot about the “taking refuge in God” part. They forgot that trust needed to be anchored in God, not their status or identity. They forgot that being the apple of God’s eye was a conditional state—favor to be revoked if conditions changed. And changed they did, as Israel took refuge in themselves instead of in God.

Israel’s downfall happened because they thought they were God’s nation and thus could not fall. In doing so, they made their identity into an idol, trusting themselves for their own protection instead of seeking refuge in God.

The Remedy

There is, of course, an easy and obvious remedy. In the words of the psalmist, “take refuge in [God]” (Ps 17:7). Or in the ancient confession of Christianity, live out the commitment that “Jesus is Lord.” The key to continually trusting in God alone for protection is to remember that God and God alone is king. God and God alone is able. God and God alone will save us.

Our allegiance is not to the nation of our residence. We are instructed in Leviticus 25:23 to live as aliens wherever we find ourselves. This is an image Peter develops further for Christians in 1Peter 2, urging us to both “fear God” and “honor the emperor” (v.17).

Our allegiance is not to a president, king, or ruler. The ancient confession that “Jesus is Lord” was a dangerous confession to make, as it implied that Jesus is lord and Caesar is not. By insisting that we live under God’s watchful eye instead of complying with the government’s demands, many faithful have experienced great suffering and even death, from the time of Daniel on through the present age.

Our allegiance is not to a party or a platform, but to the ethic and life initiated by Jesus Christ, who proclaims “good news to the poor… liberty to the captives…recovering of sight to the blind…to set at liberty those who are oppressed…to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor”—a Jubilee Year, the year of liberation and forgiveness when everything goes back to the way it was created to be.

As Christians, it has never been our dominance that drew people to Christ. Those drawn by power are those who are always drawn by power, and their purposes have nothing to do with those of the Savior of the world.

Instead, it has been our humble and quiet willingness to suffer for the good news of God’s love that has spread the name of Jesus throughout the world. The cause of Christ has been advanced the most when we genuinely take refuge in God, trusting in God alone for our salvation, whether or not anyone thinks we’re the apple of God’s eye.

Prayer (inspired by Psalm 17)

Hear my prayer, O Lord!

Probe our hearts
examine us and test us
see if there is any evil in mouth and intents.

Where, we ask, have we been bribed by the world?
Where, we pray, have we been implicit in violence against our neighbor?
Where, we implore, have our feet stumbled from your paths?

Remind us of the wonders of your great love.
Remind us of your salvation.
Remind us that you are a refuge from the foes and forces that work against your work of Jubilee.

Shield us from enemies without and within
And make us new again.

Teach us to follow Jesus your Christ. Amen.