In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes. – Judges 21:25 (NRSV)
Then Samuel said to all the house of Israel, “If you are returning to the Lord with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods and the Astartes from among you. Direct your heart to the Lord, and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.” So Israel put away the Baals and the Astartes, and they served the Lord only.
Then Samuel said, “Gather all Israel at Mizpah, and I will pray to the Lord for you.” So they gathered at Mizpah, and drew water and poured it out before the Lord. They fasted that day, and said, “We have sinned against the Lord.” And Samuel judged the people of Israel at Mizpah.
When the Philistines heard that the people of Israel had gathered at Mizpah, the lords of the Philistines went up against Israel. And when the people of Israel heard of it they were afraid of the Philistines. The people of Israel said to Samuel, “Do not cease to cry out to the Lord our God for us, and pray that he may save us from the hand of the Philistines.” So Samuel took a sucking lamb and offered it as a whole burnt offering to the Lord; Samuel cried out to the Lord for Israel, and the Lord answered him. As Samuel was offering up the burnt offering, the Philistines drew near to attack Israel; but the Lord thundered with a mighty voice that day against the Philistines and threw them into confusion; and they were routed before Israel. And the men of Israel went out of Mizpah and pursued the Philistines, and struck them down as far as beyond Beth-car.
Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Jeshanah, and named it Ebenezer; for he said, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.” So the Philistines were subdued and did not again enter the territory of Israel; the hand of the Lord was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel. 1 Samuel 7:3-13 (NRSV)
Today’s reading takes us back to the end of the time of the Judges. At that time, even though God had put judges in place to govern the people, they responded to the judges’ instructions and warnings by getting their freak on with foreign gods, and by doing whatever they felt like. There was no king, and people did what they wanted to (Judges 21:25.)
We can take a cue from the Fall (Genesis 3) that when human beings decide to just do whatever they feel like (especially when it comes to things God specifically has forbidden) that it is going to turn out bad. It did turn out bad for Israel in the time of the Judges.
Samuel was in a special position. He was the last of the Old Testament Judges, and the one who would anoint the first two kings of Israel- Saul (who made a mess of it) and David, the unlikely shepherd boy who became the first great king of Israel.
Samuel starts out by reminding the people of what they should already know, and where their first priority belongs. False gods are exactly that- false. They can’t do anything for us other than separate us from the One True God. This is important for us to remember too even though our idols aren’t golden calves or fertility gods. Anything that we set up as first priority in our lives- the thing we turn our hearts toward- becomes our god. In today’s society we tend to worship at the altar of ourselves, and that never ends well.
Samuel also intercedes on behalf of the people. Sometimes we can’t face our challenges alone. Sometimes we are threatened and afraid, like the Israelites were terrified of the Philistines. We derive strength and courage in the prayers and support of other believers. Samuel, as the leader of the people, also offers a sacrifice, which is a foreshadowing of the sacrifice that Jesus has made for us. We don’t go around sacrificing lambs today because in Christ there is no more blood sacrifice, but there is still an element of sacrifice when we intercede for others. We give of ourselves and we make ourselves vulnerable when we genuinely act on behalf of others. When we come together in God’s strength we often find the impossible becomes possible.
Intercessory prayer- praying for and with others- connects us to God in a powerful way. Not only does God hear our prayers, but we respond to God and others when we pray for and with others.
It’s also important for us to remind each other of our place in God’s story and of our heritage. The word “Ebenezer” (not to be confused with Ebenezer Scrooge from the classic story A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens) means, “The Lord, Our Help.”
The memorial stone that Samuel set up was not meant to become an idol, but to remind people when they saw the stone that our help- our very existence and being- comes from the Lord. When we view sacred art or the beauty in nature we are reminded of God and how He is in, with and through His creation.
We can always look to our Ebenezer, God, Our Help, and set our hearts on Him.