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The Faulty Formula: How The ‘Return To God’ Sermon Isn’t About God

The formula is now concretized to the point that it takes almost no imagination to preach or teach the “return to God” sermon. Here’s how it goes (as if I need to explain it to you): 1. The world/culture/country is in terrible shape. 2. Here are all the aspects where the world/culture/country are out-of-whack. 3. It didn’t use to be this way when I was a kid. We used to have a better world/culture/country. 4. Here’s a list of all the people responsible for the shoddy state of contemporary world/culture/country. 5. The only way to fix it is for our world/culture/country is to “return to God” (which, just coincidentally, coincides with “the way things used to be when I was a kid”).

You’ve heard this sermon? If not, I can send you some URL’s. As a matter of fact, my ears were recently assaulted by a sermon by someone stating when he grew up he didn’t know any gay people (and no, it was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad).

One reason you’ve heard this sermon before is because nearly every motivator is deployed. First, selective nostalgia drawn from fuzzy memories — which all memories are — are employed as the ideal world. Second, disdain for cultural phenomenons we dislike or don’t understand, are positioned as evil on the basis of our own lack of understanding. Third, a clearly identified enemy (which is never the hearer, but always “those people”) is at fault. And finally, the power of God is offered as the magic wand for everything the speaker dislikes.

Without reflection, this sounds like a pretty good homily. In fact, in certain circles, this sermon formula produces a defined and predictable response: standing ovations. After all, who doesn’t have a fairly good list of things they wish are different about our world? I do. And what a relief to know that if enough of us performed the right religious dance steps everything would return to the way we think we remember it.

But there’s a problem: This sermon formula mocks God.

We Should Have Learned This Already

In 1 Samuel 4, the Israelites are fighting their archenemies, the Philistines. We use the word Philistine as an insult, the truth is they were an advanced nation whose chief business was metal-work. That means the Israelites were fighting with sticks and stones against an army using swords and spears.

[In those days, the Philistines warred against Israel,] and the warriors of Israel went out to fight them. They camped at Ebenezer while the Philistine forces made camp at Aphek. The Philistines lined up against Israel; and when they advanced, they defeated Israel, killing about 4,000 of Israel’s warriors on the battlefield. 1 Samuel 4:1b–2

The Israelites go out to war and get CRUSHED! In the aftermath, the generals get together to recalibrate.


What went wrong? They are Israel, right? They’ve had a long history of going to war and winning. They conquered the Egyptians. God was with them. They know about all the conquests when Joshua led them.

And it’s then they remember. They went out to fight the Philistines without the Ark of The Covenant.

Remember the ark? Or at least the movie? For Israel, having the ark means having God. In all the details of the ark, we need to remember; it was literally believed that God sat, enthroned, on the two angels on the top of the ark. It was the physically manifestation of God. And the Israelites had forgotten it.

So this is what they say:

Elders: Why has the Eternal One let us be defeated by the Philistines today? Tomorrow, let us take His covenant chest from Shiloh and carry it before us into battle, so that the chest may be among us and save us from the power of the Philistines.

So the people sent messengers to Shiloh and brought back the covenant chest of the Eternal One, Commander of heavenly armies, who is enthroned between the winged guardians. 1 Samuel 4:3–4

“I know where we failed,” they reason. ”We forgot about God. If this nation will just go and get the Ark we’ll be okay.”

The Philistines had metal. The Israelites had the ark.

The Israelites believe, “the reason our nation is failing is because we’ve forgotten about God.” But that’s an easy fix. Just go get God. Get the ark and everything will be fine.

And that’s what they do.

The Problem Continues

But there’s a problem. The Israelites take the ark into battle and get beat worse with the ark than without the ark.

So the Philistines stood their ground and fought and won a great victory. The people of Israel were crushed, and the soldiers fled from the field of battle back to their homes. It was a horrible slaughter, with the Israelites losing 30,000 foot soldiers.

But more importantly, they lost the covenant chest of the True God. The Philistines captured the chest, and Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were killed. 2 Samuel 4:10–11

The first time they lost 4,000 soldiers. The second time, they lost 30,000, including, the priest, Eli’s sons.

When they go back and tell Eli that the army lost, that his two sons are dead, and the ark has been captured (you’re going to think I made this up) Eli falls over backward, breaks his neck, and dies because, as the Bible says, “he was an old man and heavy.”

Not only that, Eli’s pregnant daughter-in-law is so stunned by the news that she goes into premature labor and gives birth right before she dies. But before she dies, she instructs the midwife to name the child, “Ichabod,” which means “the glory of God has departed from Israel.”

What’s The Deal?

Israel must be asking, “What’s the deal God? Has this all been a lie? Because I’m pretty sure that I read in the scriptures that if our nation would turn to you; if we would put you in the center then everything would be good, that you’d bless us. That’s the memo I got. Because I thought the problem with our nation was that we had forgotten you, but when we let you lead us suddenly we’re orchestrating 30,000 military funerals.”

After the slaughter, the Philistines take the ark and place it in the temple of their god, Dagon. Since they believed Dagon had defeated YHWY, they placed the ark at the feet of Dagon and had a celebration. The next morning, though, they went into the temple to discover Dagon had fallen on his face before YHWH. Face down is a position of worship.

The priests of Dagon dust-off Dagon and prop him up and had another celebration. Well nighttime comes again and with YHWH left with Dagon, the same thing happens. Only this time, when the priests of Dagon enter, they find that Dagon’s hands and head appear to be severed and the rest of Dagon is bowing down.

And then YHWY gets serious.

The hand of the Eternal One came down hard with punishment on the people of Ashdod while the covenant chest rested there. He ravaged the people of Ashdod and the surrounding territory and struck them with swollen, painful growths like tumors. When the people of Ashdod saw how they were cursed, they said,

People of Ashdod: We can’t let the chest of the True God of Israel remain here because their God continues to punish us and our god Dagon. 1 Samuel 5:6–7

Ok, so you know sometimes Bible translators clean things up to makes more comfortable. A better connotation for “tumors,” might be that God gave The Philistines something like “hemorrhoids.” The KJV said they had the them in “their secret places.”

Well, you wouldn’t like that and neither do the people of Ashdod. They call a town meeting and decide to send the ark to Gath. When the ark gets to Gath, the same thing happens and the people of Gath decide to send it to Ekron, but the folks over in Ekron have heard about all this and they won’t even let the ark enter their city gates.

So the Philistine leaders come up with a plan.

They build a cart and hitch it to two cows who’ve never been yoked before and point the cows in the direction of Israel. And, the cows march the ark all the back to Israel.

God Will Not Be Mocked

You’ve got two groups of people that God is teaching the same thing: God will not be mocked.

It’s easy to see how the Philistines mock God. They don’t worship YHWH. They worship Dagon! And when they conquer Israel, Dagon has won and they mock God, placing the ark below Dagon . They want YHWY to yield to their god, their way of life.

What’s not as easy to see is that Israel, the people of God, want the exact same thing.

Do you see what they did?

Israel thought God existed to created the nation they wanted. When the Israelites wanted particular outcomes for their nation, they expected God to deliver their desires. Just give nod to God and everything will be okay.

We still do this?

Here’s how it typically works out: We want one thing (for our world/culture/country) and we trick ourselves into believing it’s God we’re after when it’s really the world/culture/country we’ve fetishized.

The Israelite version of mocking God, and perhaps our’s too, looks like this: We want victory for our nation and to secure our borders. We want to win a war and maintain a strong economy, as well. So when those desires come under threat we decide, “let’s return to God.”

The Israelites, and maybe us too, decided their nationalistic interest were at stake, their lifestyle was at stake, and it was then that God became mighty important.They said “I want God,” but we the really wanted was a useful God.

Since I’ve kinda taken the long way round to this point, I’ll just say it clearly: If you’re calling on God because you want certain things for your world/culture/country, you’re doing it wrong!

A Quick Story

Think of it this way. I have two daughters. When either of them gets sick and I call a friend, Terry, who is a M.D (because I’m cheap and wanna save money on an office visit). Terry, can be helpful. I love him, but I’m not calling because I’m concerned about Terry. I’m calling for Terry’s help. I’m concerned about my kids.

The return to God sermon formula works, in part, because we are all so naturally selfish. But it’s also easy because Jesus goes around saying things like, “I’m the great physician” and we think that means we’ve got God on speed dial.

But the same God who sent “the great physician,” also said, “I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other Gods before me,” and that includes the world/culture/country/ party that you really, really want.

God is not our individual, communal, or national puppet. God is not a lever to pull to when we want America to return to Leave It Beaver.

If that’s the world you want, it’s not God you want to return to.

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  • Mark

    Good stuff. What’s worse is when we delude ourselves into equating Israel with America. We think America is God’s chosen people. We say our pledge and read our currency as if they were incantations to force God’s hand.

  • This is so true. I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea as my mailbox continually gets deluged with “Restore America,” flyers. My fear is that they have made God a means to an end.

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