Losing God in Religion

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1 Samuel 4:1-22 (The ark’s capture)

INTRODUCTION: Our series is called The Life of Samuel, but something strange happens in the next few chapters of 1 Samuel. Samuel disappears from the story. We see him in verse one of chapter four, but he does not show up again until 7:3. So what’s happening? Well we already know that the priesthood was in rebellion against God at this time, but we find out in chapter seven that this was a time when the people of Israel were also in rebellion. And so now the story shifts for the next several chapters from Samuel to the ark of God.

If you’ve ever read the Old Testament (or seen the first Indiana Jones movie), then you know about the ark of the covenant. The ark was a wooden chest overlaid with gold which contained the gold jar of manna, Aaron’s staff that had budded, and the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments. (Hebrews 9:4). Its cover was made of pure gold with two cherubim hammered out of gold on top. But this was more than just a chest. The ark was the visible symbol of God’s presence among the Israelites. So for the Israelites, to lose the ark was tantamount to losing God. (Read 1 Samuel 4:5-11)

The story is told of two brothers, ages 8 and 10, who were getting into a lot of trouble. Their mother brought them to see the pastor to see if he could help straighten them out. The pastor talked with the younger brother first. He looked at the young boy and asked him, “Where is God?” The boy’s eyes opened wide, but he didn’t answer, so the pastor asked him again, more forcefully this time, “Young man, where is God?” The boy began to squirm in his seat, so the pastor asked yet another time in a very loud voice, “Young man, answer me, where is God?” At that, the boy leaped out of his seat and ran out the door right past his brother who was waiting to go in next. The older brother chased him down and asked him, “What’s the matter?” To which the younger brother replied, “We’re in big trouble this time. God is missing, and they think WE did it!”

Is God missing in your life? Today’s message is titled “Losing God in Religion.” That might seem a little strange at first. If religion is supposed to bring us closer to God, then how is it possible to lose God in religion? It is very possible, and this incident in 1 Samuel 4 shows us how it happened to the Israelites, and how it can also happen to us today.

I. You can lose God by emphasizing ritual over relationship (verses 1-5)

So how can you lose God in religion? First of all, you can lose God in religion by emphasizing ritual over relationship. At its very heart, Christianity is not a ritual but rather a relationship with God. God created us to know him and to live in relationship with him. We sinned and broke that relationship. God sent his Son Jesus to restore that relationship. Christianity is all about living in relationship with the God who created you. So when you emphasize ritual over relationship, you can actually lose God in religion.

Now that does not mean that all rituals are bad. A ritual is simply a repeated pattern. Anytime we sing the same worship song a second time, we have engaged in some kind of ritual. Anytime we close our prayers with the words, “In Jesus’ name,” we have participated in some ritual. The question is, “Do we just repeat the patterns without regard for God?” Anytime we take the forms of religion and separate them from God, we are emphasizing ritual over relationship. So let’s look at some of the ways that Israel lost God by emphasizing ritual over relationship with God.

    A. Depending on human wisdom rather than God’s word

First of all, they depended on human wisdom rather than God’s word. Look at verses 1-3:

And Samuel’s word came to all Israel. Now the Israelites went out to fight against the Philistines. The Israelites camped at Ebenezer, and the Philistines at Aphek. The Philistines deployed their forces to meet Israel, and as the battle spread, Israel was defeated by the Philistines, who killed about four thousand of them on the battlefield. When the soldiers returned to camp, the elders of Israel asked, “Why did the LORD bring defeat upon us today before the Philistines? (1 Samuel 4:1-3)

Here is the picture. The Israelites and the Philistines both set up their respective camps. The troops move out to meet in battle, and Israel is soundly defeated by the Philistines. Four thousand Israelites die on the battlefield. Now to put that in perspective, since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, we have lost about 3,500 soldiers in combat (March 2003 through June 2014; source: http://www.antiwar.com/casualties/) In other words, Israel lost more soldiers in one day than we have lost in eleven years in Iraq.

Israel lost four thousand men in one day. That’s a pretty crushing defeat. You would think if you were Israel, you would perhaps go back and talk to God about it. Verse 1 even reminds us that there was a prophet available. God was speaking to Israel through Samuel at this time in history. But as we mentioned before, Samuel is strangely absent from the next three chapters. Israel has a prophet, but they are not using him. They are not talking to God. Instead, we find the elders conferring among themselves.

Whenever you depend on human wisdom rather than God’s word, you are emphasizing ritual over relationship. A relationship is built on communication and trust. The book of Proverbs says, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.” (Proverbs 3:5-6) But Israel didn’t do that. They relied on human wisdom rather than God’s word.

    B. Trying to manipulate God for your own purposes

A second thing Israel did is they tried to manipulate God for their own purposes. Look what the elders came up with at the end of verse 3:

Let us bring the ark of the LORD’s covenant from Shiloh, so that it may go with us and save us from the hand of our enemies.” (1 Samuel 4:3)

So what was the elders’ plan? They basically said, “Let’s bring the ark into battle with us. Then God will have to give us victory.” They didn’t consult Samuel. They didn’t seek God. Instead they were trying to manipulate God into giving them the victory by bringing the ark into battle.

Have you ever tried to manipulate God? Have you ever tired to strike a bargain with the God of the universe? We usually do it this way. “God, if you will do such and such for me, then I will do this for you. God, if you let my plane land safely at my destination, I will serve you for the rest of my life. God, if you let me win the lottery, I will give half the money to the church. God, if you help me pass this test, I will serve at Vacation Bible School this year.”

That’s not a relationship. That’s manipulation. And when we try to manipulate God, we lose him in the process.

    C. Focusing on religious objects rather than God

A third thing Israel did was they focused on a religious object rather than God. Look at verses 3-4:

Let us bring the ark of the LORD’s covenant from Shiloh, so that it may go with us and save us from the hand of our enemies. So the people sent men to Shiloh, and they brought back the ark of the covenant of the LORD Almighty, who is enthroned between the cherubim.” (1 Samuel 4:3-4)

Notice how the Israelites are depending on an “it” rather than a “he.” They do not say, “Let us bring the ark of the Lord so that he may go with us and so that he may save us from our enemies.” No, they say, “Let us bring the ark so that it may save us from our enemies.” The ark was supposed to be the visible symbol of God’s presence among the Israelites. But it was never meant to be a substitute for God himself. Deuteronomy 20:4 says, “For the LORD your God is the one who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies to give you victory.” (Deuteronomy 20:4) But the Israelites were trusting in the ark rather than God himself.

Any time you focus on a religious object rather than God you are substituting ritual for relationship. This can be a huge stumbling block for people even today. There are people who rely on cross necklaces, prayer beads, pictures of Jesus or statues of saints to help them instead of simply trusting God. Focusing on religious objects instead of God is superstition at best and idolatry at worst.

This is the mistake the Israelites made with the ark. They should have known better. The very name of the ark implies relationship. It was called “the ark of the covenant” as a reminder of God’s covenant relationship with Israel. Focusing on religious objects rather than God is another way we emphasize ritual over relationship.

    D. Expecting God’s blessing without repentance

And then a fourth thing Israel did was they expected God’s blessing without repentance. Look at verses 4-5:

And Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God. When the ark of the LORD’s covenant came into the camp, all Israel raised such a great shout that the ground shook. (1 Samuel 4:4-5)

That first line is very telling. Eli’s two sons Hophni and Phinehas were with the ark. As you may recall Hophni and Phinehas were the two sons who were abusing the priesthood. They were stealing from the offerings and sleeping with the women at the temple. And all Israel knew about it. Here are two individuals in complete rebellion against God – attending the ark which is the visible symbol of God’s presence among the Israelites. And what was Israel’s reaction when Hophni and Phinehas show up with the ark? I’ll tell you what they should have done. They should have torn their clothes and poured dust on their heads. Instead they raised up a great shout of celebration. Israel expected God’s blessing without repentance.

Repentance for sin is critical to maintaining fellowship with God. You can’t hold on to your sin and have a relationship with God at the same time. You need to confess your sin and receive God’s forgiveness. Anytime we hold on to the forms of religion without true repentance, we are substituting ritual for relationship. You cannot expect God’s blessing without repentance.

Once again, the Christian religion is full of forms and rituals. There are “high church” churches and “low church” churches, liturgical and non-liturgical churches. None of these are bad in and of themselves. But anytime we emphasize ritual over relationship, we risk losing God in religion, just like Israel did.

II. You can lose God by following a false religion (verses 6-9)

But there is another way we can lose God in religion, and that is by following a false religion. We used the example of the Israelites to learn about losing God within the true religion. Now we will use the example of the Philistines to learn about losing God by following a false religion. So how can you lose God by following a false religion?

    A. Not recognizing the one true God through Jesus

The first way is pretty obvious, and that is when your religion does not recognize the one true God through Jesus. Look at verses 6 and 7:

Hearing the uproar, the Philistines asked, “What’s all this shouting in the Hebrew camp?” When they learned that the ark of the LORD had come into the camp, the Philistines were afraid. “A god has come into the camp,” they said. “We’re in trouble! Nothing like this has happened before.” (1 Samuel 4:6-7)

When the Philistines heard all the whooping and shouting going on in the Israelite camp, they checked to find out what was going on. When they heard it was because of the ark, they were afraid. But notice what they say about the ark. “A god has come into the camp.” The Philistines did not recognize the God of the Israelites as the one, true God. The Philistines believed in many gods, and so they saw the Israelite God as just one of many.

There are many religions in the world today, but only Christianity recognizes the one, true God. Hinduism does not recognize the one, true God of the Bible. Buddhism does not recognize the one, true God. Paganism does not recognize the one, true God. You might ask, how about Islam and Judaism? Don’t they worship the same God who is revealed in the Bible? Yes and no. Both Islam and Judaism recognize the God of the Israelites from the Old Testament, but they do not recognize the fuller revelation that God has given of himself through Jesus.

The Bible says in the book of Hebrews: “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” (Hebrews 1:1) Apart from Jesus there is no access to God. Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) 1 John 2:23 says, “No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also.” (1 John 2:23)

How important is it to believe in Jesus? It is essential. The one true God is a trinity. He is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and those who do not acknowledge Jesus as Lord do not recognize the one, true God. They lose God by following a false religion.

    B. Holding on to misinformation

A second way you can lose God by following a false religion is by holding on to misinformation. Look at verse 8:

“Woe to us! Who will deliver us from the hand of these mighty gods? They are the gods who struck the Egyptians with all kinds of plagues in the desert.” (1 Samuel 4:8)

The Philistines knew some things about Israel’s God. They knew that Israel’s God was mighty. They knew that he had defeated the Egyptians. But they also had a lot of misinformation. For example, did you notice how they speak about Israel’s God in the plural? Previously they spoke of him as “a god,” that is, one of many. Now they speak of him as “gods,” as if Israel served many gods, or that his strength came from numbers rather than his very being. They also have the part about the plagues all mixed up. God worked the plagues on Egypt in their own country, not out in the desert.

You might wonder, “What’s the big deal? So what if someone doesn’t quite get it right?” But that’s the whole problem. So many people who reject God and Christ today do so on the basis of misinformation. They reject Christianity without really understanding what Christianity is.

David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons in their book unChristian report on research by the Barna group on what the present generation thinks about Christianity. The research showed that respondents viewed Christians primarily as:

    1) Hypocritical (saying one thing and doing another);
    2) Too focused on getting converts (viewing people as targets)
    3) Antihomosexual (bigoted)
    4) Sheltered (old fashioned, boring, and out of touch with reality)
    5) Too political (motivated by conservative political agenda)
    6) Judgmental (quick to judge others)

I looked at that list and thought, “That’s not what Christianity is all about! Christianity is about God’s love and mercy and grace. Christianity is about Jesus who died for our sins and rose again. Christianity is about loving God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and loving your neighbor as yourself.” But apparently that’s not the message we are getting across. People are losing God in religion because they are dealing with all sorts of misinformation. We need to do a better job of letting people know what Christianity is really all about.

    C. Believing you can fight against God and win

There is a third way you can lose God by following a false religion, and that is by believing you can fight against God and win. Let’s look at the Philistines again in verse 9:

“Be strong, Philistines! Be men, or you will be subject to the Hebrews, as they have been to you. Be men, and fight!” (1 Samuel 4:9)

The Philistines thought if they just fought hard enough, they could beat the God of the universe. Ironically, they did defeat the Israelites, and they did capture the ark, but trust me, they did not defeat God. God let them win. It was no contest. It’s like when your kids are four years old, and you let them beat you at arm wrestling. Job 23 says, “God stands alone, and who can oppose him? He does whatever he pleases.” (Job 23:13) You can’t fight against God and win, and yet so many people try. Some people are willing to do just about anything rather than serve God. They fight against him their whole lives, and they lose out on a relationship with God in the process.

III. Nothing is worse than losing God (10-22)

So, you see it’s true. You really can lose God in religion. You can lose him by emphasizing ritual over relationship. You can lose him by following a false religion. But there’s one last thing our passage teaches us this morning, and that is that nothing is worse than losing God. Nothing is worse than losing God.

    A. Losing God is worse than death or defeat

First of all, losing God is worse than death or defeat. We see this in the report of the ark’s capture to Eli. Look at verse 10:

So the Philistines fought, and the Israelites were defeated and every man fled to his tent. The slaughter was very great; Israel lost thirty thousand foot soldiers. The ark of God was captured, and Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, died. (1 Samuel 4:10-11)

This was in fulfillment of the earlier prophecy where God said that Eli’s sons would both die on the same day. Let’s keep reading.

That same day a Benjamite ran from the battle line and went to Shiloh, his clothes torn and dust on his head. When he arrived, there was Eli sitting on his chair by the side of the road, watching, because his heart feared for the ark of God. When the man entered the town and told what had happened, the whole town sent up a cry. (1 Samuel 4:12-13)

The Benjamite arrives at Shiloh with his clothes torn and dust on his head, a sign of mourning and repentance. Remember, that should have been Israel’s attitude earlier. Perhaps if it was, they would not have suffered this defeat. Eli is sitting in his chair by the side of the road, just waiting for news about the battle. Remember, I told you almost every time we see Eli he is either lying down or sitting down. He may have had some misgivings about Israel bringing the ark into battle, because we read that his heart feared for the ark.

Eli heard the outcry and asked, “What is the meaning of this uproar?”

The man hurried over to Eli, who was ninety-eight years old and whose eyes were set so that he could not see. He told Eli, “I have just come from the battle line; I fled from it this very day.”

Eli asked, “What happened, my son?”

The man who brought the news replied, “Israel fled before the Philistines, and the army has suffered heavy losses. Also your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God has been captured.”

When he mentioned the ark of God, Eli fell backward off his chair by the side of the gate. His neck was broken and he died, for he was an old man and heavy. He had led Israel forty years. (1 Samuel 4:14-18)

When did Eli fall backward off his chair? Not when he heard about the defeat of the Israelites, not when he heard about the heavy losses, not even when he heard about the death of his own two sons. Eli fell backwards and died when he heard that the ark had been captured. Remember, the ark was the visible sign of God’s presence among the Israelites. The very fact that the ark was captured meant that God had already left them to themselves. They had already lost God in religion by emphasizing ritual over relationship. The capture of the ark was simply a confirmation of Israel’s sad state at this time.

Losing God is worse than defeat; losing God is worse than death itself. When you lose God, you lose everything. “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36) Nothing is worse than losing God.

    B. Nothing can compensate for losing God in your life

Not only that, but nothing can compensate for losing God in your life. For this we look at the account of Phinehas’ wife in verses 19-22:

His daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas, was pregnant and near the time of delivery. When she heard the news that the ark of God had been captured and that her father-in-law and her husband were dead, she went into labor and gave birth, but was overcome by her labor pains. As she was dying, the women attending her said, “Don’t despair; you have given birth to a son.” But she did not respond or pay any attention.

She named the boy Ichabod, saying, “The glory has departed from Israel” — because of the capture of the ark of God and the deaths of her father-in-law and her husband. She said, “The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.” (1 Samuel 4:19-22)

Poor Phinehas’ wife is so upset when she hears about the loss of the ark that she goes into labor and gives birth, but she doesn’t make it herself. Her father-in-law is dead, her husband is dead, and now she is dying too. The women attending her try to comfort her saying, “You have given birth to a son.” But she names her boy Ichabod, which means “no glory,” saying, “The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.”

The birth of a child should be a happy occasion, but it wasn’t for Phinehas’ wife. Not because she was dying herself, but because the ark had been captured. The glory had departed from Israel, and nothing can compensate for losing God. Every time someone spoke Ichabod’s name, they would remember what had happened to Israel. Nothing is worse than losing God.

CONCLUSION: As we close out the message this morning, let me ask you. Do you have God in your life? Are you in relationship with God? Or are you losing God in religion – whether by focusing on habit and ritual instead of God, or by following a false religion that does not center on Jesus Christ? The Bible says, “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” (1 Peter 3:18) That’s why Jesus came. That’s why Jesus died. To bring you to God – to restore you to relationship with God. Nothing is worse than losing God. God is here. God is available through Jesus Christ. Trust in him this morning.

© Ray Fowler

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