Sometimes, I think we get this crazy idea in our heads that church is somehow something we deserve.
We grew up under America’s stars and stripes, and Thomas Jefferson’s immortal words insisting that we all should be granted the right to life, liberty, and (here he changes the words of Locke) the “pursuit of happiness.” Which of course, we have now twisted to mean that anytime there is something that would make us happy, then it is our right to have that thing.
That sense of entitlement has permeated the church.
There are things in the church that would make us happy. So we think they are our rights. That we are somehow owed them, just by the nature of who we are, or most definitely based on the virtue that we too are Christians.
So we go to church and we expect to be comfortable. To be entertained. To be handed a free cup of coffee. And for qualified people to entertain and educate our kids for a couple of hours for free.
It’s ludicrous when you really think about everything we expect when we go to church. Where else would we bring those same expectations?
But this is not our worse offense. No, the worst thing we do is when we bring this sense of entitlement into the presence of God.
It’s not okay for us to expect other people to cater to our needs, but it’s understandable because people are our equals. When we come into the presence of God, all that sense of equality should completely disappear.
Yet oftentimes, it does not. We come into to church, and we sing songs that tell God how great we are. We tell him how massive our love for him is, as if we are doing God some gigantic favor by taking a couple of hours out of our week to come into the church building and grace him with our presence.
We have it completely backwards.
We are in 1 Samuel in our Bible reading plan, and recently read the story of when the ark was captured from the nation of Israel by the Philistines. In those times, the ark was a tangible symbol to the Israelites of the presence of God in their midst. It was housed in the innermost part of the tabernacle when the Israelites were in the desert, and later in the innermost room of the temple. It was gold-plated all over, and contained some of the most important objects in Israel’s history as a nation: the tablets with the 10 commandments, Aaron’s staff, and a jar of manna.
Above the ark were two golden angels, whose wings were spread out over it. This is what comprised God’s throne on earth. He told Moses, “There above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the Testimony, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites” (Exodus 25:22).
The ark meant God was with the nation of Israel. And it was captured by the Philistines.
I love this story because of what happens next. Not knowing where else to put such a sacred and obviously important object, the Philistines stick the ark in their temple. Inside the temple was a statue of their pagan god, Dagon, and when the Philistines come back the next morning, they find their god laying prostrate before the throne of the one true God. Assuming it’s a fluke, they reinstate their god into his place. But the next morning, they find him on the floor as before, and this time his head and hands have broken off.
What a stunning image of the supremacy of our God!
After the statue breaks, the Philistines in Ashdod, where the temple was, suffer a plague of tumors. They realize the ark of God is not something to be trifled with, so they send it to another town. The same thing happens there. So they send it on to another town. Wherever the ark goes in their kingdom, destruction follows.
Finally, they decide that they cannot keep the ark, and they put it on a cart with some offerings to appease God. They hitch up a couple of cows and hope that the ark, by the hand of God, finds its way home.
The people of Israel cannot contain their joy. And then right before the Bible moves on to the next chapter in Israel’s history, it makes this interesting note: “But God struck down some of the men of Beth Shemesh, putting seventy of them to death because they had looked into the ark of the LORD. The people mourned because of the heavy blow the LORD had dealt them, and the men of Beth Shemesh asked, ‘Who can stand in the presence of the LORD, this holy God?’” (1 Samuel 6:19-20)
I was thinking about this story during worship at church a couple weeks ago, as I sang about the greatness of God and the great things that he has done. When it comes down to it, God is terrible in his mighty, awesome power.
In this story, everywhere God’s presence went, death and destruction abounded, even in Israel. This happened because God is holy, and glorious, and all-consuming, and we are only sinful humans. And but for Jesus, our approaching the throne of God would result in the same death and destruction that it meant for the Philistines, and those who arrogantly looked into the ark.
But for Jesus.
Church, our sweet Jesus has made a way for us where there was no way – a way right into the presence of our majestic God. When we think of the great things that God has done for us, what even comes close to comparing to this?
And when we approach God with anything other than humility and awe at his grace and his love, are we not acting like those seventy men who were struck down in Beth Shemesh? We have no rights when we stand before God. And yet, he bends his ear to listen to our complaining, and our requests, tolerating our short-sightedness as we build our own kingdoms instead of His.
We must never lose sight of the awesome reality of who God is. Every Sunday, when we come into church, when we dare to ask God to show up in our midst, God has every right to strike us dead where we stand for our audacity in expecting to experience his presence.
Instead, he allows us to clothe ourselves in the blood of Jesus, and experience his nearness to us.
As the writer of Hebrews says, “Therefore, since we have the confidence to enter the Most Holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is his body, and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart.” (Hebrews 10:19-21)
We can draw near to God. What a privilege! Let’s come to church with that on our minds.