I'm talking here about the Ark of the Covenant and not the large vessel Noah built and has become the subject of heated debate with the release of the film, just to save any confusion!
The story of the the loss and return of the Ark in 1 Samuel is still in my mind as I think about the implications of the story. There are plenty of theological books available that will discuss the Ark, it's significance and meaning. What I've been doing is thinking about why Israel took it into battle and why, when it was captured, the events unfolded as they did. Perhaps some of the answers lie in the relationship between God and Israel and God and the Philistines. Perhaps not so much.
I guess some of the problem lies in the simple fact that we can make what was sacred into something far more superstitious than sacred. There's an almost logical reductionism that causes us to interpret and then reinterpret things to the point that they bear little resemblance to the original. And it has to be said that whichever side of an argument you present, you face the danger of interpreting texts and objects in line with your presuppositions and prejudices. It's only natural.
So, without this turning into an in-depth bible study, what does the Ark represent? What is it's significance? Well, at it's very heart it is the resting place of the God-given law code for Israel. That law describes life under the covenant between God and the people. It's a treaty document you might say, and it describes the responsibilities of both suzerain and vassal, master and servant. Failure to live up to the terms of the covenant brings consequences.
But there's something else at work with this particular covenant. There's an escape route if you like for when things go wrong, for when the people fail to meet the expectations of the code. A rite takes place and blood is sprinkled on the Ark. Now, I happen to think that Ark contained both copies of the law. Typically treaties of the era would be written out in two copies, one for each party. I think both god's copy and the people's copy are in the box. both people and Lord have only one reference point, the Ark and so when the blood is sprinkled both copies are "covered" by the blood of the sacrifice.
Now, when God looks at the law he sees the blood first. There law is "hidden" beneath the blood. It does not disappear. Rather than being judged against the law, the people are now judged against the sacrifice. Mercy, and grace, triumph over judgment, to paraphrase James.
Perhaps that's why the Philistine statue falls over, because there is no blood to cover the law and so judgment prevails (You shall have no other gods...). But even where judgement might prevail. God remains gracious and even the Philistines work out a way to send the Ark back. Even in their misdirected faith and practice, God seems to find a way to be gracious towards them. Perhaps this is a symbol too of what is to come when he will make a covenant that is wider than a nation.
You see, I find it fascinating the way that God interacts with people. The way he seeks to save and not destroy. The way he works with where they are rather than where they ought to be if only they knew better.
Missional church life is not just about doing more mission or doing more social action. Part of the missional DNA is to inhabit the neighbourhood not just visit it. To find ways of incarnating the gospel, living the grace of God n the mists of a community that is mixed up and messed up. To find a way of demonstrating a better way to live from within. We are in the community, we are for the community and are with the community as together we journey with and towards God. This is not a universalist position before someone accuses me of such. It is an assumption that everyone is somewhere on a journey with God. That God is at work in my community.
For the record, I think God loved the Philistines just as much as he loved Israel. I think he wanted to show them a better way, to bless them in ways they couldn't imaging. It was just that the example he longed to set for them through the people he had set apart wasn't working.
You might be tempted to say the same is true today.