Nov 13, 2022

The Scripture

1 Samuel 7:3-13

So Samuel said to all the Israelites, “If you are returning to the Lord with all your hearts, then rid yourselves of the foreign gods and the Ashtoreths and commit yourselves to the Lord and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.” So the Israelites put away their Baals and Ashtoreths, and served the Lord only.

Then Samuel said, “Assemble all Israel at Mizpah, and I will intercede with the Lord for you.” When they had assembled at Mizpah, they drew water and poured it out before the Lord. On that day they fasted and there they confessed, “We have sinned against the Lord.” Now Samuel was serving as leader of Israel at Mizpah.

When the Philistines heard that Israel had assembled at Mizpah, the rulers of the Philistines came up to attack them. When the Israelites heard of it, they were afraid because of the Philistines. They said to Samuel, “Do not stop crying out to the Lord our God for us, that he may rescue us from the hand of the Philistines.” Then Samuel took a suckling lamb and sacrificed it as a whole burnt offering to the Lord. He cried out to the Lord on Israel’s behalf, and the Lord answered him.

10 While Samuel was sacrificing the burnt offering, the Philistines drew near to engage Israel in battle. But that day the Lord thundered with loud thunder against the Philistines and threw them into such a panic that they were routed before the Israelites. 11 The men of Israel rushed out of Mizpah and pursued the Philistines, slaughtering them along the way to a point below Beth Kar.

12 Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer,saying, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.”

13 So the Philistines were subdued and they stopped invading Israel’s territory. Throughout Samuel’s lifetime, the hand of the Lord was against the Philistines.

The Sermon

Both of our lessons today talk about times of crisis – times when life was falling apart.

Our first lesson – which Barbara read, from Luke 21 – is set some 2,000 years ago, before Jesus’ death & resurrection. The disciples are trying to enjoy a moment of awe & wonder looking up at the Temple in Jerusalem.

It was a beautiful, impressive building some 20 stories high with huge stones, each weighing tons- polished – lovely.  For the disciples – this was what we used to call a Kodak Moment, “Someone take a picture – so we can show our friends. . .”

And Jesus – well, he ruins it.  He ruins the moment. The disciples are getting lined up for the camera, and Jesus says, “See these stones – lovely you say? One day soon – it’s all coming down – to a pile of rubble.

(Thanks a lot, Jesus)

Later the disciples ask Jesus about this and when this will happen.  Jesus explains, not with a date and a time, but a sense of how awful and distressing it will be. False messiahs will come, promising quick fixes, wars, earthquakes, famines, plagues, and scary weather events (any of this sound familiar?)  There will be persecutions, arrests of believers, trails before authorities with opportunities to testify.  Betrayals – even by family & friends. It all sounds scary and awful – a coming crisis when life may well fall apart.

Historically, we know this is exactly what happened.  In 70 AD, some 40 or so years after Jesus speaks of this, the Roman army, already an occupying force, burns Jerusalem to the ground, & destroys the Temple and persecutions started across the empire. Scholars tell us that Luke’s gospel was written around the year 85 AD.  So, for the early readers of Luke’s gospel, this was a present crisis.

How did our ancient Jewish cousins face all of this?  How did they deal with their current reality when life was literally falling apart around them?

We find a similar situation, faced by our more ancient Jewish cousins, but now back some 3,000 years ago. Life at that time in the Middle East, was violent & dangerous.  It still is in many ways, but it was much worse than particularly between Israel and the Philistines – they are often at war with each other.  These foreign influences led many in Israel to follow other gods like the gods Ba-al and Astartes – Canaanite deities, fertility gods, and gods of war & conquest, not the Holy God, the God of Moses and the 10 Commandments.

And Samuel, who wants to call the people back to the true God, he says, “I think it is time for a covenant renewal ceremony.”  If Samuel were a Southern Baptist, he’d said, “Time for a Revival.”  The whole people of Israel gathered at Mizpah, a city north of Bethlehem, south of Galilee.

But the Philistines learn the plans for this revival meeting, and their army leaders decide this would be a good time to attack and wipe out this large group of their enemies.

Word reaches the people of Israel, gathered at Mizpah, that the Philistines are planning an attack. So, they say to Samuel, “Do not cease to cry to the Lord for us.”  In other words, “Samuel, don’t stop praying”

In middle of worship time, while Samuel is preparing the offering, the Philistines decide “now would be a good time to attack.”

Two stories, one which Jesus tells of a time of crisis soon to come and

another story, even older, a time of war and violence, with an army about to attack.  Both stories about times with life was falling apart.

We ask the questions – how did our ancient Jewish cousins deal with this?

We would do well to pause for a minute here and ask ourselves the same question.

Now fortunately for you and me today, there is no invading army about to attack Chicagoland, and yet in our lifetimes, back 21 years ago, on 9/11

we witnessed tall building taken down by jet aircraft filled with people turned into missiles and killing thousands.  That was a time when life was falling apart.

Closer to home, in our own personal, family lives there are times when life was, and maybe is now, just falling apart. The unexpected medical diagnosis comes, the company downsizes on us or on our children, a pandemic ravages our world, and we face the loss, in our country alone of over 1 million deaths from Covid -19.

There are many evenings, too many in my home, and probably in yours, when Judy and I shake our heads listening to our local news – the number of people killed by drive-by shootings, innocent children in their own homes. Just this week some people forcing their way onto a bus with elementary children from a Jewish school and shouting antisemitic words, making Hitler salutes on the anniversary of Kristallnacht in Germany.

For us at times, and for others near to us, we experience and see and feel life falling apart. And we fear at times for the future of our lives, for our families, our work and for our church. How do we react? How do we face these times?

We could, as many do, face all of this with growing despair, with hopelessness and with cynical resignation.

Or we can choose to follow the example of Jesus and of Samuel and countless others who have gone before us, and some who are still with us – who know how.

For Jesus, this know how comes at the end of the story. As Jesus tells his disciples about life falling apart, He ends with these words – verse 19:

“But by your endurance you will gain your souls.”

Endurance, a stubborn holding fast to your faith come what may.  Eugene Peterson, in the Message Bible translates and tweaks verse 19 like this:

Staying with it—that’s what is required. Stay with it to the end. You won’t be sorry; you’ll be saved.

To do that, certainly today, we need to cultivate the quality of resilience, the ability to take what comes, difficult as it is, and then bounce back.

And your pastor, Pastor Barbara, she has taught many in our presbytery about this quality of resilience. It is a learnable skill.  Endurance and Resilience, these are ways how.

And if that is not enough – perhaps Samuel can help. Yes, in this story the Philistines did attack that day – but (vs 10) But the LORD thundered with a mighty voice that day against the Philistines and threw them into confusion and they were routed before the men Israel. 

In a time of crisis, when life was just about to literally fall apart, God acts, God intervenes and God becomes, once again, Oh God our help in ages past, our hope – for years to come.

Then Samuel felt the need to do something to remind the people what happened that day.  He took a stone – and set it up between Mizpah and Jeshanna and named it “Ebenezer” – for Samuel said, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.” 

“Thus far the Lord has helped us”– or, as I like to say, using an older word, from KJV, the one-word title for today’s sermon – Hitherto (old word – one we hardly use in modern conversation) Hitherto has the Lord helped us.

Friends, as in that day, I believe we need some Ebenezers in our day.  We need similar “stones of help”, reminders of God’s help in the past to encourage us, to help us endure and help us be resilient as we face today, and the future.

For me, I use this old word “Hitherto” – as an Ebenezer.  I say it, and there are people in my life, and I hope in yours who are Ebenezers – reminders of God’s help, God’s power.

We’re going to sing a hymn with these words – 2nd stanza –

“Here I raise my Ebenezer – hither (hitherto) hither by thy help I’m come (I’ve arrived)

And I hope by Thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home. 

Hitherto and into the future come what may. We have come thus far, with the help of God.

And all God’s people said – Amen.