Several months ago I went to a home to visit an aging woman and met her son for the first time. He's not the church going type which he freely admitted. Though he didn't add much to our conversation, he did manage to tell me as I was leaving that he had made a deal with God a long time ago: "I don't bother Him and He doesn't bother me." It was his way of saying to me, "If God doesn't mess with me there's no need for you to either, preacher; so don't bother coming back to look for me."

Like most people, this man knows enough about God to know that God's not satisfied with just being among us. God wants to be within us. If God moves in, that means we have to arrange for a moving day to move the stuff out of our lives that God doesn't want to share space with. This man doesn't not want to back the moving truck up to the door of his heart. To him, God represents a threat. To him, God is like a hot potato. The sooner he can get rid of God, the better.

In 1 Samuel 6, the story is told about the Philistines, a people who worshiped many gods. They even acknowledged the power of Yahweh, the God of Israel, but they did not want Israel's God in their midst.

God's presence was symbolized in the Ark of the Covenant which the Philistines had captured from the temple. The Ark of the Covenant was a portable sanctuary that Israel used in their days of wandering in the wilderness. It preceded them in the crossing of the Jordan River when they went into the Promised Land. It went before them into battle. It housed the Ten Commandments God had given to Moses. It was believed that the power of God could be felt and seen demonstrated wherever the Ark of the Covenant resided.

No opposing army had ever captured this Ark from Israel until the Philistine army captured it and carried it back to Palestine territory. There was one problem: strange things began to happen. They put the Ark in the temple of Ashdod and set it beside their god, Dagon. The next morning when they went into the temple, they found that Dagon had fallen on the ground before the ark of the Lord. So they set it back in its place. The next day, Dagon was again off its pedestal, on the ground in front of the ark. This time his head and his hands were broken off his body.

If this wasn't surreal enough, the people of Ashdod began to develop tumors. They quickly blamed the presence of the ark of God. They sent the ark from Ashdod to Gath. Tumors developed in the people of Gath. They sent the ark to Ekron and the people there developed tumors and the people of the city panicked.

The Philistines couldn't decide if they had a hold of the Ark of the Covenant or if the Ark of the Covenant had a hold on them. All they knew was that they needed to find some relief from the trouble it seemed to be causing. Their solution was to get rid of the ark--to send it back from where it came. If they got rid of the ark, perhaps they would get rid of the God it represented.

The Philistines never denied the existence of God. They never denied God's power. In fact, they believed God was both powerful and real. But they only knew God to be a God of anger and a God of judgment. So instead of worshiping this God, their plan was to get rid of this God.

Now before you laugh at these people, it is a fair question to ask yourself, "Have you ever tried to get rid of God?" Perhaps even today, God wants to move into your heart but you are not willing to open the door for Him to come in. Or perhaps there is sin present in your life and God's presence reminds you that you need to move that sin out. Instead, you may have been ignoring God, even trying to get rid of the voice of God that's been calling out to you.

The Philistines tried three different methods to get rid of God. First, they tried to placate God with a guilt offering. They decided to return the ark to Israel. They built a cart, hitched two cows to the cart, and loaded the cart with gold. The gold was a guilt offering. They were sending the cart back loaded with gold, not because their hearts had changed, but because they hoped their offering would convince God to put a halt to the diseases ravaging the people.

People try this all the time. They ignore God until something terrible happens. They make a bunch of promises to God about how they will change their lives if God will heal them or help them out of a bad spot. Their heart is never in the commitment and as soon as the crisis passes they are back living the same lifestyle as before.

The second thing the Philistines did was to soften their hearts in hopes of winning relief from their pain.

A man might finally give in and go see a doctor about a terrible, hacking cough. The doctor tells him that his cough is due to smoking. He needs to quit. He stops smoking and takes his breathing treatments. He gets better. But as soon as he gets better, he starts smoking again. He never wanted to change his behavior. He only wanted to get rid of his cough.

Life sometimes drives people to their knees. They are humbled, softened. They seek help from Almighty God to fix their health, solve their financial crises, overcome a difficult relationship. They may pray for the first time in months or go to church a few times. Then when the crisis is over, their hearts harden again. Like the Philistines, they equate God only with judgement; as soon as the crisis passes, they are ready to get rid of God. He's not needed any more.

Finally, the Philistines followed God only as far as the border. They loaded the Ark of the Covenant on a cart along with the gold and sent the cows away, believing that if the cows went toward the land of the Israelites, it was proof that God had sent the calamities on them. If they went a different way, it would mean all the bad things that had happened came by chance.

The cows headed straight to Beth Shemesh, the Israelite territory. The Philistines followed the cart but stopped at the border. Even though they had proof by their own standards that God was in their midst, they only knew Yahweh as a God of judgement and punishment. All they wanted to do was to send God back from where He came. Once the cart crossed the border, they turned and went back home.

The Philistines went back home the same way they came, unchanged. They had accomplished their goal, or so they thought, of getting rid of God. They didn't get rid of God. They only got rid of a physical object that reminded them of God.

The young man who walked me outside that day and told me he had an agreement with God, that God didn't bother him and he didn't bother God, was doing the same thing as the Philistines; he was getting rid of that which reminded him of God, the preacher. Sadly, this young man seemed to know that God is real but he can only see God as a God of judgement and punishment. Sadly, should he live his entire life with this as his only view of God, the irony is that on judgment day, this is the God he will meet.



The Rev. Michael Helms is pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Moultrie.

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