Monday, February 05, 2007

Glory's Gone

Her life must have been tragic and her death even more so. I don’t even know her name. All I know is her politically well placed husband was a cheat and a crook. They lived in a small third world country at war. It was hard to believe her husband and his conniving brother actually ended up on the battle field. But they were. She was pregnant—almost full term. Then she heard the news. Her husband had been killed along with his brother. Her old father in law had heard it before and the shock killed him. The shock sent her into intense labor. There were no modern conveniences or surgical centers. The birth was too hard—the midwives knew she wasn’t long for the world. They tried to cheer her up: Look! Don’t be afraid, you had a son! She gave no indication she even heard what they said. Then she stirred, looked at the baby and said: Glory’s gone. Glory’s gone. That’s your name. The glory of God has been exiled…

But something curious is going on here. Something else happened with the deaths of these three men—something that drove this woman into labor. The story implies some other news caused the shock. And when she said “Glory’s gone” she wasn’t even talking about the death of her family.

The story starts in 1 Samuel 4. Israel was at war with the Philistines—the perennial enemy and oppressor of ancient Israel during the times of the judges. Israel set camp in a place called “Stone of Help” for all the help it did for them. In the ancient language it is called Ebenezer. The Philistines beat back Israel, killing 4,000 troops. The elders put their heads together and asked: “Why is God giving us such a beating at the hands of the Philistines?” Then they came up with this great plan: “We need a bit of magic here! Let’s get the Ark of the Covenant and bring it into the camp. That’s the presence of God! We’ll bring God-in-a-box and no one will be able to stand up against us!” And that is just what they did.

Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas accompanied the Ark and entered into the Israelite camp. The Israelites cheered and made such a noise the Philistines couldn’t help but notice.

"What’s going on?" they said. "Better check it out!" So they sent in their spies and to their horror they discovered the Israelites brought their gods to camp! Why that’s never happened before! "Wait, isn’t this the God who annihilated the Egyptians? Who can save us from such gods? Be strong Philistines! We’re going to have to fight for our very lives." And they did.

Israel was mercilessly crushed, Hophni and Phinehas were killed and the Ark was captured by the Philistines. It was this news that killed Eli and Phinehas’ wife. Eli was almost blind and he had become very fat in his old age. He was sitting on a stool waiting for some word. A young Benjamite soldier runs from the battle to give the news. He tells Eli of the route and of the death of his two sons. But when he tells him the Ark of God had been captured, Eli fell over backwards and broke his neck. Phinehas’ wife doesn’t go into hard labor at the news of her husband’s or her father-in-law’s deaths—it is the news the Ark has been captured that brings the pain washing over her. And when she names her child “Ichabod” or Glory’s-gone she says: "God’s glory has been exiled because the Ark has been captured."

How could things come to such a state? What was it drove the glory of God from Israel? Were the Philistines just that strong? Or was there something else?

A constant theme and understanding during this period of time was when Israel was defeated and under the control of the Philistines or the Midianites it was because God was displeased—it was judgment. And there was good cause for his displeasure.

From the very beginning of 1 Samuel it is quite clear there is a leadership crisis in Israel. Hophni and Phinehas, priests of God were abusing their position of power. They were addicted to sex and power it seems. They used their position to seduce the very women who served in the Tabernacle and they thought nothing of extorting the pilgrims who came to offer sacrifices. Eli, the high priest and a God-appointed leader did nothing to curtail his sons’ criminal activities. He refused to deal with their abuse of power.

There was another problem, too. The people themselves had come to view God as merely a tool to use for their benefit. They had put God in a box! They performed the rituals, made the sacrifices, but that seems to be all it was to them. Their relationship with God was closer to the magical view of the Philistines than the view of men like Moses, Joshua, Gideon, and Samuel. It was as if all they had to do was the right rituals and have the right stuff then God would automatically bless them.

How do we know when the glory of God has been exiled? I don’t know we can always tell for certain. But it seems to me when all we experience is defeat in our walk with God, when we can’t find victory from evil habits, when we find ourselves becoming ineffective in accomplishing God’s mission in our communities—then maybe we had better reassess our situation. The elders in Israel did one thing right. They asked: “Why is God defeating us through the Philistines?” But they came up with the wrong conclusions.

They thought they knew why the glory was gone. But they didn’t look at their own leadership as the culprit. The three main leaders were not leading Israel! Two were obviously abusing their power and one was living in denial and ignoring his call to be a shepherd of Israel. The elders were befuddled and confused. They weren’t in any better shape. I have to tell you, I don’t like the implications of this at all. This story leads me to ask of the church: are we in the middle of victory? Or are we in the middle of complacency or even defeat? Are we as a church truly making an impact in our communities and in the world? Are we strengthening each other or are we slipping away from each other? And if we are not experiencing victory—then what does that say to me as a leader? Am I part of the problem? This lesson challenges me as a leader in no uncertain terms and it should challenge all who are in leadership position: elders, deacons, ministers, and ministry leaders. Are we just going through the motions? Are we just wearing the titles and forgetting the roles we were called to? Is glory gone? Do we share in responsibility?

What about our view of God as the people of God? The magical view of God has always been a challenge among religious folk. Israel wasn’t always guilty of flagrant idolatry. Many of the prophets scolded Israel and Judah because they forgot the nature of God. They offered the right sacrifices in the right way. They followed the ritual, they believed the right doctrines! But the prophets continually would say things like: "God says: I desire mercy not sacrifice! I despise your religious festivals because you ignore the plight of the poor! Oh, I wish someone would shut the doors of the temple so you would not light useless fires on my altar!" And we face the same challenges.

How often have we viewed following Jesus as relegated to certain times and places: what we do on Sundays and Wednesdays? How often have we focused solely on right beliefs—thinking the right things, saying it the right way, observing the right rituals—but living ourday to day lives without much of a thought to God’s call for us to heal a broken world—without much of a thought to heal broken relationships and broken lives?

Reality check: when we get into disagreements and fights among ourselves—do we fight over helping people? Or do we fight over ritual and times and places? Do we expend all of our energy trying to bring healing to our communities; or is our energy expended in debates over styles and approaches?

These questions are disturbing. They may be offensive. Some may feel like I’m pointing fingers. I hope not, because that is certainly not my intent. I am equally challenged by these questions. Consider this: all I am doing is asking questions. Perhaps we shouldn’t be disturbed the questions, but by our answers.

Her life must have been tragic and her death more so. She named her child Glory’s-gone because God’s glory had left Israel. It was tragic then, it would be tragic if it were true for us today. Let’s pray God will give us the wisdom and discernment to see if glory’s gone—or let’s see how to prevent the glory from slipping away.

May you never take God for granted or place him in a box. Instead, may you experience his victorious power in your life as you live for his mission. May you involve yourself in God’s mission to heal a broken world and may you experience God’s glory growing in your life and in this community.

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