Monday, June 24, 2013

Signs Negative and Positive

In 1 Samuel (4:10-11), we learn that the Philistines captured the ark of the covenant in battle against the Israelites. The ark was a wooden box covered with gold about  4.5 x 1.5 x 1.5 feet (1.5 x 0.5 x 0.5 m) in size. Small. On its lid were statues of two small angels in gold. Inside it were kept the stone tablets upon which God had written the Ten Commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai.

The day before today’s story, the Philistines had killed 4,000 Israelites in battle. The Israelites then got the idea that if they brought the ark of the covenant into battle, then God would be with them and they would beat their enemies the next day.

God never told them that. God’s words to them had always run contrary to this magical way of thinking. God is always free in relation to us. His presence is never fixed to a certain place or object. He is never tied to a building we build for him, a statue we make of him, a ritual we perform for him, or an object we dedicate to him. God only shows up where he wants to, when he wants to, as briefly as he wants to, and not otherwise. There is nothing we as humans can do to make signs of his presence appear in our midst. The Israelites forgot this.

When the Israelites carried the ark of the covenant into battle, the results were even worse than before. The Philistines killed 30,000 Israelites and captured the ark as well. Despite the presence of the ark of the covenant in their midst, there was no sign of the presence of God of the covenant in their midst.

Strangely enough, when the Philistines decided to take the ark to the city of Ashdod and to put it into the temple of Dagon (their name for Jupiter), only then did God freely decide to make the ark one focal point of his presence. Plenty of signs of his presence followed.

To begin with, God revealed his reality and Jupiter’s unreality. When the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, there was Dagon, fallen on his face to the ground before the ark of the LORD. So they took Dagon and put him back in his place (1 Samuel 5:3, New Revised Standard Version, here and following). As a sign of his very real presence, God easily knocked down the statue of Jupiter and, by doing so, revealed the absence of any true god beyond that statue. The people of Ashdod themselves had to put the statue of their unreal god back in his place.

Next, God emphasized his reality and Jupiter’s unreality. But when they rose early on the next morning, Dagon had fallen on his face to the ground before the ark of the LORD, and the head of Dagon and both his hands were lying cut off upon the threshold… (v. 4). God emphasized that Jupiter couldn’t think or act to save himself by removing Jupiter’s head and hands from the statue representing him.

Much more seriously, God then struck the Philistines with disease. The Philistines both knew it was God striking them and that Jupiter couldn’t help them. This disease continued until the Philistines returned the ark of God to the people of God.

In the book of Acts (5:12-16), God also shows he’s busy. There are many signs and wonders (v. 12) of his presence. This time, however, he is not acting alone. Instead, he is acting among the people through the apostles (v. 12). Truth be told, Jesus much prefers to do things with us rather than to us. This time he is not causing disease but curing it. A great many people were bringing the sick and those tormented by unclean spirits, and they were all cured (v. 16).

Today again Jesus invites us to affirm our freedom from magical thinking. He reminds us that he is lord and that we serve as his companions. He remains free to take the initiative and is not dependent on, or limited to, the places, buildings, statues, rituals, or objects we like to associate him with.

Today again Jesus invites us to affirm our freedom as people of hope. Hope is our joyful confidence that Jesus indeed remains with us and again today will enable us to discern and affirm the signs of his very active presence.

As in the days of Samuel, one sign of the presence of Jesus may be a wasting disease in the midst of our active enemies. Such outbreaks of disease may be a sign of the presence of Jesus, but usually they are not. The Holy Spirit, burning brightly in our hearts, will enable us to discern the difference.

As in the days of the apostles, a sign of the presence of Jesus may be the spontaneous curing of wasting diseases.

Jesus remains both Son of God and Son of Man. Today again we may live with joyful confidence that he will enable us to discern signs of all the freedom, truth, love, and vitality he is seeking to share with us and with others through us.

Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.