“And Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God.” ~1 Samuel 4:4
Eli’s unholy sons represent the unholy people of God in 1 Samuel 4. Their actions and their disregard for the Lord and for other people reflected the fact that God’s people at this time were all doing what was right in their own eyes. And when the Lord sends the Philistines in to defeat his people, the Israelite elders decide they just need to go get the ark of the covenant, the visible symbol of the presence of God, out of the Tent of Meeting and parade it into the next battle.
They had the box. But they didn’t have God. It never occured to them that God’s not in the box. God is outside the box. And he cannot be bought or sold. He cannot be persuaded or tricked or controlled or managed by manipulating a symbol or a ritual or a set of words and motions.
The lives of the people did not reflect the glory of God. The lives of the leaders were in open defiance of the covenant of God. And it didn’t matter if they brought in ten thousand thrones of God, he was not going to give them victory under these circumstances. It’s not wherever the box is, God is. God’s not in the box.
The Israelites were putting their faith in the symbol of their relationship with God instead of in the God of the relationship.
Whether I’m stealing meat that belongs to God or not using the gifts he’s given me; whether I’m taking things from people by force or not giving them what they deserve; whether I’m having sex with temple prostitutes or not changing the channel when I should. I can do what’s right in my own eyes as long as I have the box. I’ve got the symbol. I’ve got the ritual. I’ve got the building. I’ve got the proper interpretation of church government. I’ve got the right name. I’ve got the correct order of worship. I’ve got the box.
How arrogant and foolish. Why do we do this?
We build this box. We’ll take the name on the outside of the building, support it with one songleader (acappella), elders and deacons (in that order), weekly communion, baptism by immersion, and then we’ll close it with the lid of our favorite songs and favorite Bible translation. And before you know it, we’ve got God in this box. This is where he is. And we take this box into all our battles: our battles against Satan and our battles against each other. And pretty soon, when everything that’s right about God is in our box and everything outside our box is wrong, you open it up and it doesn’t matter what I do on Saturday night as long as I’m in here on Sunday morning.
Or worse, it doesn’ t matter how pure and genuine my neighbor’s relationship is with God and others, if he says the words out of order at the Lord’s Table, he’s wrong.
Don’t misunderstand me. Some of the things I’ve mentioned are important. Very important. And we uphold these things and teach them and stand strong for them. But just because we take ownership of certain doctrines and practices never means for one second we have a monopoly on God. We don’t. He’s not in the box. He acts in ways we’ll never understand. He moves in ways we cannot comprehend.
There’s an old story about Augustine walking along the beach one day when he came across a little boy running back and forth pouring water from a bucket into a hole in the sand. Augustine asked him what he was doing, and the boy replied, “I’m trying to put the ocean in this hole.”
Who are we to try to contain and control an infinite and eternal God in our finite minds and limited understanding?
Who do we think we are? Our God’s not little. He’s huge.
He’s outside the box. Way outside the box.