1 Samuel 4:10-22, 7:7-12
So who shall it be? Ichabod or Ebenezer? What is at stake here is nothing less than the freedom of God. Are we to worship a God who is captive to our traditions and our ideas and our feelings about God? Or—and this is a huge or—are we called to worship the God of whom Scripture tells, the one who is gloriously free from us, the one who shatters our most sacred preconceptions about who God must be, and yet the one who chooses to be with us, and for us, in surprising faithfulness to all that has gone before?
Ichabod? Or Ebenezer? Diminishing Bible knowledge has made it difficult for us to see anything profound in the choice between these two weird-sounding names. It’s been a long time since Presbyterians could sing “Here I raise my Ebenezer,” that line from the hymn “Come, thou fount of every blessing,” without laughing. But it strikes me that the 100th birthday party of Austin Seminary is a grand occasion to take a fresh look at Ichabod or Ebenezer. To face again the huge question about the freedom of God. This is the watershed question that confronts the church of Jesus Christ in our time and place.
The story of Ichabod begins with Eli, the priest at Shiloh, a man who devoted his entire life to the worship and service of the Lord of Hosts, the one who was enthroned above the cherubim on the ark of the covenant which was enshrined in the temple at Shiloh. Imagine the shock Eli must have felt when the soldiers of Israel burst into the holy place, take up the ark of the covenant on their shoulders, and charge off to do battle with the Philistines. Thinking to use their God as a weapon of mass destruction. After all, the ark of the covenant means that God is with us, Emmanuel. Surely God will protect us against the evil-doers, against the enemies of God, that is to say, against those who threaten our politics, our security, our way of life.
Eli’s heart trembled as he awaited news from the field of battle. If the ark fell to the Philistines, then all was lost. If the ark is captured, then God is dead. And so is Eli, as soon as he hears the news.
Despair of this magnitude is not reserved for disillusioned old men. A young woman, Eli’s daughter-in-law, in the very act of giving birth, receives word that her husband has been killed in action. She experiences the same unbearable emptiness as the old priest. With the last of her strength she names the child “Ichabod” and cries out, “The glory has departed from Israel.”
All her young life she may have heard old Eli expounding the holy mystery of the glory of God—”kabod,” in Hebrew—which was enthroned above the ark of the covenant. The best definition of God’s kabod I have heard was given by old Johann Albrecht Bengel in the early eighteenth century. He called it “aufgedeckte Heiligkeit”—“holiness laid bare.” But the sheer cruelty of this unspeakable moment forces her to cry out, like a keening wolf, “Eeeeee”—“where?”—“Eeeee kabod ?” Where is the famous “holiness of God laid bare” in this hellish time?
It occurs to me that this might have been a convenient place to conclude the Bible. When the crunch comes, God simply fails to measure up to anyone’s expectations. The word for that is “Ichabod.”
A convenient place to end the biblical story, except . . . except for a strange stirring abroad, a strange stirring that challenges us to think the story between God and the world may not be over yet. I find it fascinating that this strange stirring does not begin among the survivors in Israel. It begins in the camp of the enemy, the Philistines, of all people.
Apparently, there were two major mistakes you could make about the ark of the covenant: Mistake number one was that God was somehow contained in—or held captive by—that strange piece of ecclesiastical furniture. This was Israel’s mistake. Mistake number two was that God had nothing to do with the ark of the covenant or with God’s ancient promise to Israel to be radically present with them in their story.
The God we worship is not captive to any religious ideology, including our own. This is bad news for every form of religious fundamentalism, by which I mean the smug certainty that our ways are God’s ways.
The Philistines appear to have made mistake number two. Before you go to bed tonight, reread the hilarious story of how the ark makes its way back to the people of God. Not on the Philistines’ terms. Not on Israel’s terms. But on God’s terms, as a kind of declaration of God’s independence from all preconceptions about God, including the preconceptions of God’s own people. The Philistines and Israel alike are confronted with “the holiness of God laid bare,” in absolute freedom from all human efforts to make God conform to our own self-serving interests.
God is God, and we’re not.
I take this to be the first principle of Reformed Theology 101. The God we worship is not captive to any religious ideology, including our own. This is bad news for every form of religious fundamentalism, by which I mean the smug certainty that our thoughts are God’s thoughts, and our ways are God’s ways, that those who oppose us are the enemies of God.
It often goes unnoticed that there is not only a right-wing fundamentalism, there is also a fundamentalism of the Left. Anti-fundamentalism is fundamentalism still. With it comes the cocksure confidence, not only that right-wing fundamentalists are wrong about God, but that our own terribly sensitive and intelligent and open-minded and politically correct notions about God are correspondingly right. In short, left is right, and right is wrong. God is on our side, not on theirs. God has no choice but to place the stamp of divine approval on our peculiar version of political and social and economic and theology correctness. God simply must conform to our own best image of, well, us.
And that brings us to Ebenezer. The ark has returned to the people of God—on God’s terms, not ours. Israel is still locked in a struggle for survival with the Philistines. Against all odds, under the leadership of Samuel, Israel wins a skirmish with the Philistines. The future of God’s people remains as precarious as a fiddler on the roof.
But Samuel looks at all this in a different perspective. His strategy of battle did not include aiming the ark at the enemy as a secret weapon. Instead, his sole preparation for battle is to assemble the community for a time of repentance and prayer and fasting, a frank recognition that God is God, and we’re not.
For Samuel, then, the fact that God’s people have survived the day is nothing less than an act of God’s amazing grace. As Samuel sees it, a victory of this magnitude must be commemorated, not only in his own time, but in all future generations, including ours. To that end, he sets up a stone monument, and names it “Ebenezer”—eben etzer, stone of help. “Thus far—up until now, that is—God has come to our aid.”
How unmonumental this monumental statement sounds to contemporary ears. Not a word about our bravery in battle. Not a word about the sincerity of our repentance and prayer and fasting. And not a hint that this victory guarantees us a future of peace, and security, and prosperity. Such a future as we may have, wherever it may lead, will rest in God’s free hands, not in ours. We have no claim whatever on God’s future with us, but we do have this dazzling memory, one among so many others in the biblical story, that, when we had reached the rock bottom of our human resources, when we could only cry out “Eeeee-kabod!” God was there with us and for us, in ways that pass all human understanding.
To my ears, as a Christian, the desolate cry “Ichabod” resonates with Jesus’s cry of dereliction from Good Friday’s cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Does God love this heartbreaking and heartbroken world so much, that even the most profound human despair is taken up, and embraced, and experienced to the death, in the very heart of God, so that it cannot separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord? Is that what prompted the Apostle Paul to speak of “the glory of God”—God’s kabod, the holiness of God laid bare—“in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6)?
It has always been a dicey business to step into an unknown and often terrifying future supported by nothing more than memories of God’s free and always amazing grace—so far—up until now. Yet, in every generation, Christians have continued to see what we take to be sign after sign that God’s grace in Jesus Christ has been with us. We have seen it most clearly, I think, in the lives of highly problematical people such as we are, who—nevertheless—have been empowered to live in faith, and in hope, and in love, in something reminiscent of the way of Christ.
In microcosm, perhaps that is the story of Austin Seminary over the past century. Especially on this day, we are challenged to remember the signs of God’s irresistible grace that have emerged among us, here and there, now and then, throughout our history. I think now about kitchen workers and janitors, secretaries and administrators, students and graduates, many of whom won no great public acclaim, but of whom the world was not worthy, dedicated professors and deans and presidents, board members and benefactors who refused to give up on us even in tough times, thousands of Presbyterians who suffered the ministrations of our graduates gladly, and prayed for us anyway, and confounded us with their generosity. I also recall a distinctly nonapostolic succession of odd-ball characters among us, who would not let us take ourselves too seriously.
As Austin Seminary moves into its second century, our future is not at all clear. Past history warns us that Ichabod moments may yet lie ahead of us, times when it may seem to us that “The Holiness of God Laid Bare” has departed from us. But, insofar as we remain faithful to the God who has been so surprisingly faithful to us, our watchword for the future can only be Ebenezer—so far, up until now, God has come to our aid. Into God’s free and gracious hands we can commit our future of God’s so beloved world.