THE ARK of the COVENANT

I will meet with you there and talk to you from above the atonement cover between the gold cherubim that hover over the Ark of the Covenant. From there I will give you my commands for the people of Israel. [Exodus 25:22 (NLT)]

Mt. Rigi crossYesterday’s devotion about Indiana Jones and the Ark of the Covenant raises the questions of what was in it and what became of it. Constructed by the Israelites during the exodus, the Ark held the unbroken tablets of the Ten Commandments (representing God’s law), a golden pot of manna (representing God’s love and provision), and Aaron’s rod that miraculously budded (representing God’s power and leadership). Built in Mt. Sinai and carried all the way to Canaan, nearly 500 years passed before it finally found its home in Solomon’s temple. By the time the temple was built and Solomon brought it into the innermost chamber, only the stone tablets remained.

A thing of beauty, the Ark’s design was revealed to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Constructed of acacia wood, it was 3.9 feet long by 2.3 feet both high and wide. It was plated, inside and out, with pure gold. On the bottom of the box, there were four gold rings through which two long poles could be inserted. Also made of acacia and coated in gold, it was by these poles that the priests carried the Ark. Covering the box was the atonement cover or Mercy Seat. Made of one piece of solid gold, it was hammered into the shape of two cherubim on each end. Facing one another, their wings were extended and touched. If we wonder how a people who had been enslaved for over 400 years had gold enough for a golden calf let alone this golden box, we should remember that Israel “stripped the Egyptians of their wealth” [Exodus 12:36] and took their clothing, silver and gold. In a bit of holy irony, the same gold and precious stones that adorned their captors and embellished Egyptian idols was used to make the Ark and outfit the Tabernacle.

As far as we know, the Ark remained in the Temple until Jerusalem’s destruction at the hands of the Babylonians in 586 BC. Whether it was destroyed, captured, or hidden then, nobody knows; its whereabouts have been debated for centuries. The Babylonians made detailed lists of their plunder and the Ark is not listed. The Ark simply disappeared and there is no mention of it when Zerubabbel rebuilt the Temple upon the Jews’ return from captivity. When Pompey conquered Jerusalem and entered the Temple in 63 BC, he reported that its inner sanctuary was just an empty room.

One Midrash in the Talmud states that King Josiah anticipated Jerusalem’s invasion and buried the Ark in a vault under the wood storehouse on the Temple Mount. Since that site is now home to the Dome of the Rock, a sacred Islamic shrine, archeologists have not been able to search there. According to Maimonides, King Solomon foresaw the eventual destruction of the Temple and set aside a cave near the Dead Sea for its protection and that is where Josiah hid the Ark. The Apocryphal book of 2 Maccabees claims that Jeremiah hid the Ark in a cave on Mt. Nebo and its location “shall remain unknown until God gathers his people together again and shows his mercy,” leading some Jews to believe it won’t be found until the Messiah comes. Some Ethiopian Christians assert that the Ark was taken to Ethiopia before the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem. They claim it is in the Church of Saint Mary of Zion and guarded by a monk known as the “Keeper of the Ark.” No one has been allowed to see it and it’s never been studied for authenticity. In 1982, an amateur archeologist, Ron Wyatt, claimed to have found the Ark beneath Golgotha and that Jesus’s blood dripped through a fissure in the rock onto it. No one, however, ever saw it and Wyatt’s many dubious claims have been thoroughly discredited by both professional archaeologists and respected Biblical scholars. Contrary to the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, I’m pretty sure this divine relic is not shut up in a box and stored in the recesses of a government warehouse.

Under the Old Covenant, the Ark was a sign of God’s presence among His people. Under the New Covenant, God’s law, love, provision, leadership and power are no longer contained in a box; they are found in Jesus. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, God doesn’t reside in the inner room of the Temple; He is in the hearts of all believers!

Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? [1 Corinthians 6:19 (NLT)]

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ICONS AND IDOLS

Then they said, “Let’s bring the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord from Shiloh. If we carry it into battle with us, it will save us from our enemies.” [1 Samuel 4:3b (NLT)]

Madonna and child - NetherlandsSorting through cabinets, I came across a video of Raiders of the Lost Ark. As I recall, archaeologist/adventurer Indiana Jones was authorized by the government to find the Ark of the Covenant before Hitler’s Nazis could obtain its supernatural powers and dominate the world. Indiana was told that the Bible speaks of the Ark’s power to level mountains, lay waste to entire regions, and that any army carrying the Ark is invincible.

The only other Indiana Jones movie I remember is Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Like its predecessor, it had equally poor Biblical history and theology. Indiana again found himself up against the Nazis when his father disappeared while pursuing the Holy Grail (the cup from the Last Supper). Since drinking water from the chalice would grant immortality, the Nazis wanted to possess it.

Of course, we should never get our religious education from popular movies. As for an army being invincible when carrying the Ark, the opposite actually happened. Thinking God’s power was in the Ark, the Israelites carried it into battle and were defeated by the Philistines; 30,000 of their soldiers died and the Ark was captured. As for drinking from the Holy Grail, the disciples all drank from it and they all died. Belief in Jesus is the only way to gain eternal life.

While it seems silly to think that merely possessing the real Ark would bring world domination or that drinking water from a cup used by Jesus would bring immortality, the Israelites made the same mistake of venerating some of God’s things rather than God. Instead of reminding them who to worship, objects like the bronze serpent became what was worshipped. When approaching Canaan for the second time, the impatient Israelites spoke against God and Moses. In judgment, God sent poisonous serpents into their camp. As people began to die, the people confessed their sin, and begged for mercy. God then commanded Moses to make a bronze serpent, telling him that all who looked at it would be healed. The Bible makes no more mention of Moses’ bronze serpent until some 700 years later when King Hezekiah began to rule Judah. When he eradicated idolatry throughout the country, Hezekiah destroyed the bronze serpent because people had started to worship it rather than God. Instead of being a symbol of God’s mercy, forgiveness, and healing, the bronze serpent became an idol.

Power comes from God, not from things. Central to the Israelites’ faith, the Ark was a sign of God’s covenant with them. Even though it symbolized a holy pledge, the Ark was no more worthy of worship than a rainbow, the symbol of God’s covenant with Noah. Although it contained precious relics, it had no more power than does my jewelry box. The Holy Grail had no more power than my coffee cup and the bronze serpent possessed no more power than the bandage on my knee.

None of those items were graven images nor were they made to be idols and yet people turned them into objects of worship. While we have no ancient artifacts tempting us, let us never make the error of turning respect for a religious symbol into the worship of it. While worthy of reverence, the cross in the sanctuary or on the chain around one’s neck, the Communion chalice, a statue of Mary or picture of Jesus, dried palms from Palm Sunday, or a mezuzah at the doorway have no more power than a rabbit’s foot or a lucky penny. While they may aid in prayer or worship, salvation comes from God—not from any of His things!

You must not have any other god but me. [Exodus 20:3 (NLT)]

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SEEKING ADVICE

Fear of the Lord is the foundation of true knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline. … Fools think their own way is right, but the wise listen to others. … The godly give good advice to their friends, the wicked lead them astray. … Pride leads to conflict; those who take advice are wise. … Walk with the wise and become wise; associate with fools and get in trouble. [Proverbs 1:7,12:15,12:26,13:10,13:20 (NLT)]

Jenny Lake - TetonsUnder King Solomon’s reign, the temple and palace were built in Jerusalem. Unfortunately, to accomplish this task, the people were severely overworked and heavily taxed. When Solomon’s son Rehoboam became king, the populace pled with him to reduce their taxes and ease up on the labor demands. The sacrifices they’d endured during the building of the temple could not be sustained forever. They pledged to be Rehoboam’s loyal subjects in return for his lightening their load.

Rehoboam asked for three days to consider their request. First, he conferred with his father’s experienced advisers who suggested honoring the people’s request. They counseled that a king’s subjects will remain loyal to a ruler who shows concern for them, saying that, if the king served his people well, his people would be his servants. Motivated by power and greed, however, Rehoboam disliked their farsighted advice; he was not about to serve anyone. Ignoring his father’s proverb about walking with the wise, he asked his friends for counsel. While the elders served the needs of the people, these young men only served Rehoboam (and themselves). Echoing Pharaoh’s response when first approached by Moses, they recommended making even greater demands on the populace, which is what Rehoboam did. As a result, the already unstable kingdom of Israel became divided into Judah in the south and Israel in the north and the two nations remained at war throughout Rehoboam’s reign. That wealth that was so important to the new king? Within five years, Judah was invaded by the Egyptians and all the treasures that had been accumulated by Solomon were lost.

Like Solomon’s son, there are times we need advice. The most knowledgeable counselor available is God and Scripture. Since God often speaks to us through others, however, we need to choose our earthly advisers wisely. Unfortunately, like Rehoboam, we often go to the people who will tell us exactly what we want to hear and not what we need to know. We need the good judgment to know when we are hearing wise or foolish advice.

Father, remind us to come to you when we have a question and give us the discernment to recognize your answer.

The Lord says, “I will guide you along the best pathway for your life. I will advise you and watch over you.” [Psalm 32:8 (NLT)]

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A WORKER’S PRAYER

For we don’t live for ourselves or die for ourselves. [Romans 14:7 (NLT)]

Lord, speak to us, that we may speak in living echoes of your tone; … Oh, lead us, Lord, that we may lead… Oh, feed us, Lord, that we may feed… Oh, teach us, Lord, that we may teach The precious truths which you impart;… [Frances Havergal]

campionAt last Sunday’s worship, we sang Frances Havergal’s beautiful hymn “Lord, Speak to Us, That We May Speak.” First published in 1872, the hymn originally had the heading “A Worker’s Prayer,” and made reference to Romans 14:7: “none of us lives to himself alone.” It is a simple prayer that God will speak to, lead, feed, teach and fill us so that He can use us in the service of His kingdom. Busyness had taken over my days and, having fallen behind in my writing, my supply of devotions was running dangerously low. Indeed, I needed Him to speak to me so that I could speak!

As we sang Ms. Havergal’s straight-forward and expectant prayer, I felt the Spirit’s convicting voice. Rather than prayers asking God to speak, lead, feed, teach, or fill me, I’d simply been pleading for more time to get everything done that needed to be done. I realized my problem wasn’t lack of time, but how I was spending that time. We certainly can’t hear the news without turning on the TV, learn French without attending class, get to a new destination without consulting the GPS, be nourished without sitting down to eat, or recharge our phones without plugging them in! How can we expect God to speak to us, let alone lead, feed, teach or fill us without spending quality time in prayer or taking the time to read more than a few Bible verses? Yet, that is exactly what I’d been doing. I recalled the words of Martin Luther who, when asked what his plans for the day were, is supposed to have replied, “Work, work, from morning until late at night. I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.” I came to understand that, by putting God at the top of my day’s “to-do” list, I’d be more productive rather than less.

Last Sunday’s sermon was about fulfilling our God-given purpose of communicating the hope and love we have in Jesus and, while all Christians share that purpose, the way we fulfill it differs from person to person. Nevertheless, none of us can accomplish God’s purpose without His speaking to, leading, feeding, teaching and filling us! He’s more than willing to do His part; the problem comes on the receiving end—we must be available to listen, follow, eat, learn and receive. Often, we’re not! So distracted by the business and busyness of life, God ceases to be our priority.

Havergal’s hymn is, indeed, a worker’s prayer. As we submit our lives in worship and service to God, let our morning prayers echo her beautiful words: “Oh, fill us with your fullness, Lord, Until our very hearts o’erflow In kindling thought and glowing word, Your love to tell, your praise to show.”

It’s not enough to splash a little prayer on in the morning or to run through a sprinkler of God’s mercy now and then. It’s not enough to double our spirits in an hour of worship on Sunday or to dash into a drizzle of teaching every month or so. Our souls need to soak in God’s presence. It’s no luxury, this time we spend in the healing waters of God’s grace. It’s neither excess nor indulgence to immerse ourselves in communion with our creator. It’s a spiritual necessity if we want to become the people God has created us to be. [Penelope J. Stokes]

Why spend your money on food that does not give you strength? Why pay for food that does you no good? Listen to me, and you will eat what is good. You will enjoy the finest food. Come to me with your ears wide open. Listen, and you will find life. [Isaiah 55:2-3a (NLT)]

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ONE BOX AT A TIME

Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes. [Matthew 6:34 (NLT)]

Steamboat SkiA few years ago, while skiing, I got lost during a snowstorm and ended up on a double-black diamond run. In knee-deep powder, I faced a narrow steep trail that was covered with ferocious-looking moguls. Looking down at the daunting terrain, tears filled my eyes. Picturing all that could go wrong, I wanted to quit but, unless I planned on staying there until the spring thaw, I had no option. If I wanted to get to the base, I had to get down that run and so I prayed for guidance. Words spoken by a ski instructor came to mind: “You can get down anything if you take it one turn at a time.” While I couldn’t picture doing the whole run, I could picture making just one turn and so I made that turn. Then I made another and another and got down that intimidating slope simply by taking one turn at a time.

I thought about taking life one turn at a time as I looked at the pile of boxes in our garage. How will we fit them all into the pod and cars, let alone unpack them at the other end? Even though I know the answer, the task is daunting. Nevertheless, I know it can be done—one prayer and one box at a time!

Sometimes, looking at the big picture is overwhelming and we end up conceding defeat without even trying. For example, we have friends who desperately want to down-size but, apprehensive about the enormity of the task, still remain in the house they want to leave! When they wonder how to get rid of all their furniture, shred years of old files, clean out every cupboard, pack up and move, my answer is to do it one chair, one stack of paper, one shelf, one trash bag, and one box at a time.

It’s not just moving that can seem overwhelming. “How will I ever get through the terrible twos?” cries the frustrated mother; she does it one temper tantrum at a time. “How will I ever get the Bible read?” asks the new Christian; he does it one page at a time. “How will I get through several months of chemo-therapy?” asks the patient; it’s done one session at a time. How do we climb to the top of a mountain, get through a lifetime of sobriety, face the loss of a spouse, or endure chronic pain? We do it one step, one day or even one hour at a time. As insurmountable as any challenge may seem, it is merely a succession of small manageable bits and pieces. How do we do it? We do it one prayer at a time.

As He did with manna for the Israelites, God will give us what we need for the moment and that’s all we really need. We don’t have to become anxious about finishing when what we need to do is just get started and, once started, move forward, a step at a time. We aren’t alone; He’s right there with us and, when we tire, we can rest in God’s presence until He strengthens and restores us enough to continue. Our progress may not be fast or graceful and there may be a few stumbles or setbacks along the way. Nevertheless, with faith in every step, it will get accomplished, whether it’s one turn or one box at a time.

If you’re running a 26-mile marathon, remember that every mile is run one step at a time. If you are writing a book, do it one page at a time. If you’re trying to master a new language, try it one word at a time. There are 365 days in the average year. Divide any project by 365 and you’ll find that no job is all that intimidating. [Charles R. Swindoll]

God is striding ahead of you. He’s right there with you. He won’t let you down; he won’t leave you. Don’t be intimidated. Don’t worry. [Deuteronomy 31:8 (MSG)]

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JUST STUFF

“Take nothing for your journey,” he instructed them. “Don’t take a walking stick, a traveler’s bag, food, money, or even a change of clothes.” [Luke 9:3 (NLT)]

While packing for our move, I considered Sarah and Abraham; they always seemed to be moving from one place to another. After starting in Ur of the Chaldees, Scripture mentions seventeen places through which they passed, sometimes more than once, including Haran, Bethel, Egypt, Dan, Salem, Gerar, and Beersheba before finally settling in Hebron. They did it all without cardboard boxes, bubble wrap, U-Hauls, pods, moving companies, pack-and-ship, or car transports. Of course, they didn’t have things like food processors, business files, Christmas decorations, picture albums, waffle irons, books, or electric toothbrushes! In all of Sarah’s 127 years, she probably never had as many sandals as I have shoes in my closet and, in all of Abraham’s 175 years, I’m sure he never had as many robes as there are tee-shirts in my husband’s. Because they were nomads, if it wasn’t necessary and easily transported, they didn’t have it.

Having recently cleaned out my mother-in-law’s home after her death, my husband and I are acutely aware of how little our stuff means to anyone else. Load after load of Mom’s clothing, furniture, and household goods went to charity resale shops and more bags than I could count went directly into the dumpster. Now, it’s our possessions that need disposal. While our children have taken some things, they have more than enough stuff of their own and don’t want more!

Every day, we make the rounds of resale shops. As I carried several boxes of clothing and household items into the Bethesda Communities’ store, I felt remorseful. Granted, my discarded items would benefit a faith-based organization serving people with disabilities but I wondered how much more Bethesda and other charities could have done with all the money I’d spent on that frivolous stuff in the first place! When people were going hungry, homeless, or in need of health care and support services, had I really needed another tablecloth or handbag, fashion boots, decorative pillows, and Christmas mugs?

When I remember Jesus’s words to the disciples to take nothing for their journey, I must admit to taking far more than I ever needed or could possibly use for mine. I’m not advocating an ascetic lifestyle but there is much in our lives that is unimportant and truly unnecessary. Abraham and Sarah weren’t encumbered by excessive stuff simply out of necessity. It is out of obedience to God that we should not become encumbered (or possessed) by our stuff. God, however, did give us the ability to enjoy our possessions and enjoy them we did!

The bright side to the move is finding the right home for our surplus things. It’s not just more blessed to give than receive; it’s more fun! A single mom received the dollhouse and play kitchen for her little girls, Gigi’s Playhouse (serving those with Down Syndrome) got the Tinker Toys and Lincoln Logs, a new grandma appreciated the crib, Habitat got our tools, the church has my books and music, some of our art work will be auctioned off for a scholarship fund, and a woman going through a divorce has our glassware, vacuum and kitchen appliances. One friend asked for the spinning wheel while another needed luggage for her children going off to college; a green-thumbed neighbor has our decorative pots and an avid sportsman received the fishing gear. We’re happy that someone else now will be enjoying our stuff!

May we always remember that possessions are temporary; we were empty-handed when we came into the world and we’ll be empty-handed when we leave. U-hauls aren’t part of a funeral procession and there are no storage units in the hereafter. We must learn how to appreciate and enjoy things we don’t own without wanting to own them (or something like them) for ourselves.

Lord, keep us from envy, covetousness, discontent and greed. Give us generous and appreciative hearts. May we always remember that it’s just stuff!

After all, we brought nothing with us when we came into the world, and we can’t take anything with us when we leave it. [1 Timothy 6:7 (NLT)]

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