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Raiders of the Lost Ark

March 20, 2018

          During construction of Emerson Hall at Harvard University in 1905, president Charles Eliot invited William James, noted psychologist and philosopher who would have his offices and teach in the new building, to suggest a suitable inscription to be engraved above the main doorway.

          After some thought, James sent Eliot a line from the Greek philosopher Protagoras, “Man is the measure of all things.”

          James never heard back from Eliot and when he saw artisans working on the door, he went to see what they were inscribing. Instead of the words from a philosopher, Eliot had chosen instead the words of the Psalmist, “What is man that thou art mindful of him?”

          There is a huge difference between following what we think is best and what God knows is best. Are you man-centered or God-centered today? Noted physicist Stephen Hawking died this week. Hawking said belief in a God who intervenes in the universe "to make sure the good guys win or get rewarded in the next life" was wishful thinking. That is an extreme belief. Most people don’t say it that harshly but by their lifestyle they demonstrate they believe they are the center of the universe and not God.

          Our problem is we can look around at the beauty of the earth, the magnificence of the universe and the miracle of life itself and not see God. We are, like someone said, a man who can go out at noon on a cloudless day and not see the sun. Although the old song tells us “in the stars His handiwork I see,” we often live as if creation is nothing. God understood that and gave the Israelites a symbol to remind them of his power and majesty and to foreshadow the coming Messiah. The symbol is the Ark of the Covenant.

          The first thing most of us think about when the Ark of the Covenant is mentioned is the action adventure movie, “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” which was released in 1981.  That movie, which was nothing more than an updated version of the old serials from the 1930s and 40s, became the top grossing film of the year and even today is still one of the biggest money-making movies of all time.  It has become such a part of our culture that you cannot have a discussion about the Biblical account of the Ark of the Covenant without referencing that movie because even if I ignored it most of you would be thinking about it anyway, wouldn’t you?

          In the movie, Harrison Ford plays an archeologist from Indiana University who, in spite of his serious professor demeanor on campus, goes on great adventures seeking relics from the past.  The story is set during the rise of Nazi Germany and the U.S. government approaches Indiana Jones for his help.  It seems that the Nazi’s are looking for the Ark of the Covenant so they can harness its power to make an invincible army with which to take over the world.  Jones needs to find and retrieve the Ark before it falls into the wrong hands.

          Now there are some historic and Biblical inaccuracies in the movie and I remember discussing and reading about them when the movie was first released.  Still, I liked the movie and the visuals were stunning at the time. However, the movie completely missed the main point and purpose of the Ark.  The Ark is not some kind of magical genie that allows whoever owns it to have unlimited power, like the Nazi’s hoped for in the movie.  And the Ark is not just a priceless artifact from ancient history as Indiana Jones insisted.

          Rather, the Ark is a symbol of God.  And what the Ark really was for was to give us a preview of Jesus.  So this morning, let’s look at the history of Ark of the Covenant and discover what it can teach us about God’s presence along with his mercy and wrath.

          A definition is probably in order: when the word ark is used in the Bible it actually means box.  Now our first image when we think of an ark is what?  Noah’s ark, of course, and when you read God’s instructions to Noah on how he was to build that boat you will see that it is more like a giant box than a cruiser.  Another ark in the Bible is the one made for Moses when he was born.  If you read Exodus 2 the English translation is usually basket but it was actually a papyrus box, or ark, that Moses’ mother put him in to hide him from Pharaoh.  Do you see the thread here?  The arks of the Bible are more than boxes – it is the place where God shows his glory.

          Our text this morning is Exodus 25:10-22 and it describes how the Ark of the Covenant was to be made.  I’m not going to read the text this morning because it is just the blueprint on how the build the Ark of the Covenant (and to be honest, it is boring to read). So, instead, let me summarize the Ark of the Covenant.

          The first thing I noticed in the description of the Ark in our text was how small it actually was. Now a cubit was the length between a man’s thumb and elbow, so the measurement might vary slightly.  Our text describes the size of the Ark as two and a half cubits by one and a half cubits or roughly three and 1/4 feet by two feet.  When man builds monuments to God we generally build large ornate structures.  Think of the great cathedrals in Europe.  But when God built a monument it was a small box.  The reason is symbolic: God lowers himself to be on the same level as us.

          The acacia wood used to build the Ark was common wood easily found in the desert as the Israelites were wandering.  And the wood was covered with pure gold, the most durable metal known in those days.  The wood represents humanity and the gold divinity.  Together it is a perfect foreshadowing of the coming Messiah who, although he was God became like man and dwelled with us.

          Inside the Ark were items to remind the people of something. Our text calls those reminders the Testimony because they testified to who God was, is and forever will be.  Elsewhere we learn that the Testimony consisted of the original stone tablets that God used to carve the 10 Commandments; a jar that contained a sample of the manna that God had given the people daily to feed them on their journey; and the staff of Aaron that had budded. 

          When the Israelites broke camp during their wilderness wanderings, the Ark was carried by the priests about 1,000 yards in front of everyone symbolizing God leading them.  The Ark has also been called the Shekinah which means God’s Glory.  When they were encamped, the Ark was placed in the Holy of Holies, behind the curtain in the Tabernacle that we looked at last week, where only the high priest could enter and then only once a year, to offer a sacrifice for the atonement of sin.  Figuratively and literally, God was to be the center of all Israel did.   

          The Ark was carried with the Israelites when they went into battle and when it was brought out, the king or general or leader would pray before the Ark seeking God’s counsel and advice.  When they were ready to enter the Promised Land, Joshua had the Ark lead them across the Jordan River and when the Ark entered the water, the river parted and the people crossed on dry land.  When they fought the battle of Jericho, the Ark was carried around the city walls for seven days by the priests until the walls caved in.

          After the Israelites settled in the Promised Land, the Ark was left in the Tabernacle at Gilgal.  The Ark stayed there for around 300 years until the time of the priest, Eli.  At that time, the Ark was taken into battle against the Philistines.  The Bible says Israel lost that battle because of their sins and, to add insult to injury, the Philistines took the Ark as plunder. 

          Originally the Philistines placed the Ark in their Temple next to a huge statue of their god but their statue kept falling down.  It was considered a strange coincidence until the Philistines started to break out in painful boils or tumors.  Within seven months the Philistines begged the Israelites to take the Ark back. 

          When the Ark returned, it was placed in a field in Bethshemite and the people came out to stare at this strange artifact.  Some 50,000 people died because of their disrespect.  So it was decided they needed to store the Ark somewhere and a barn at the home of Eleazer was chosen.  They figured it would be safe there because Eleazer’s son was a priest who had been ordained to offer the sacrifice at the Ark.  It stayed there for twenty years and Eleazer’s family was continually blest.

          During those 20 years the Bible only mentions the Ark being used once.  King Saul took it into battle with him but instead of consulting God with it, he used it like a secret weapon.  The result was Saul lost the battle and the Ark was sent back the Eleazer’s farm.

          After David became king he decided the Ark should be in Jerusalem so he sent for it.  On the way, however, one of the drivers reached up to steady the Ark as it wobbled over a rough road and he was instantly killed.  Upset by this tragedy, David decided to cancel the trip and bought a storage area on the land of Obed-edom to left the Ark there.  Word soon reached David that Obed’s life was being greatly blessed because of the Ark so David, who desired those blessings from God, changed his mind and brought the Ark to Jerusalem. 

          After Solomon built the Temple, the Ark was placed there.  However, several hundred years later Nebuchadnezzar overthrew Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple.  Since then, the Ark has been missing.  Some say that Nebuchadnezzar took the Ark as plunder and eventually melted the gold for other uses.  If that is so then obviously God no longer “dwelled” there and the icon had become meaningless.  That makes sense because the very reason Nebuchadnezzar was able to overrun Jerusalem was because after years of sin and falling away from him, God left his people and allowed them to be taken into captivity.

          However, there are other theories about what happened to the Ark.  Sometime before Nebuchadnezzar invaded Jerusalem, Egypt had ransacked the city and there are those who believe Pharaoh took the Ark.  That was the premise, by the way, for the movie, “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and why they go to Egypt to find the Ark.

          Others think that a secret passage had been built in the Temple just in case an invading army overran Jerusalem and that the Ark was lowered underground before Nebuchadnezzar arrived.  Others believe that when the Queen of Sheba paid Solomon a visit he let her take the Ark back to Ethiopia. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church does claim they have they Ark but they refuse to display it.  Other theories include: God intervened and took the Ark up to heaven before the Temple was destroyed; or that it remained in Israel (maybe in that underground safe) until the Knights Templar found and took it during the Crusades of the Middle Ages (that is a theory mentioned in the movie, “National Treasure”) and the Ark is now hidden in London or France or Ireland. 

          The latest theory, reported in Time magazine several years ago, is that a tribe called the Lemba’s removed the Ark from the Temple just before it was destroyed and took it to the southern part of Africa and today it is hidden in the basement of a museum in Harare, Zimbabwe, Africa.  When I read that theory, I e-mailed my brother Dan who was in Zimbabwe and he said he had not heard that story but that he did have a fedora and whip I could use.

          The only thing we know for sure is that the Bible says it will show up again.  Revelation 11:19, in describing the return of Christ, tells us, 19Then God's temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the ark of his covenant.

          There were very detailed rules and regulations regarding the Ark not to mention all the strange and weird things that happened around the Ark. The question is: why all this ritual?  The answer is because God is trying to teach his people a lesson.  With the Ark, God is trying to remind us of his magnificence and awesomeness.  This is a concept that we often forget today.  We have made God ordinary and commonplace and we forget who he really is.  However, we practice this lack of reverence at our own risk.  God is never changing so the mighty God revealed in the Old Testament is still the God we treat lightly today.  Do not be deceived: God will not be mocked.

          Yet, this very Ark that should cause us to tremble also reminds us of a unique truth about God.  The very fact that the Ark was there was to remind the people of God’s presence.  Think about that: the same God who created the universe and who reigns so far above and beyond us actually wants to be with us.  And all the ceremony surrounding the approach to the Ark and the offering of sacrifice should remind us that not only does God want us in his presence but he wants to forgive our sins as well.

          Charles Fuller wrote, “The Shekinah Glory was a local manifestation of the very presence of God, and since this presence was located between the Cherubim over the place where the shed blood was applied, we see once again the fact that it is impossible to come into the presence of God unless one comes to the Cross of Christ, humbly admitting his sin, his inability to save himself, and trusting completely in the finished work of Christ.”

          We don’t have the Ark with us anymore and that’s ok because we now have Jesus who reminds us that we worship God not in a place but in spirit and truth.  When we gather on Sunday morning, we are in the presence of God.  When we sing songs, we are singing not for our enjoyment but in recognition of our savior.  We are not praying to ourselves and the message is more than good suggestions to help us have a happy life.  As the song says, we are standing on Holy Ground.  We don’t have to be afraid because God wants us here but remember: we are here only by his grace – only by the blood shed on Calvary.

          Clearly, God’s wrath can be seen in the Ark.  Mess up one time and (POW!) that’s it for you!  Actually, that’s how we see it in human terms but in reality God’s wrath is simply a reflection of his perfect nature.  Since God is holy and righteous he cannot stand unholiness and unrighteousness.  It is against his very nature as a sinless God to be able to live with sin therefore sin must be banished from his presence.

          And that’s where our dilemma comes in.  We cannot even be in God’s presence because of our sinful state yet God wants to live with us.  The only solution is a sacrifice that will atone or forgive us of our sins.  That’s why the priests offered the sacrifice year after year - to push away the sins of the people.  Intentionally, the sacrificial system was flawed but it was flawed not because God messed up but it was flawed in order to show us a better way.  And that better way is God’s mercy through his son Jesus Christ. 

          Romans 3:25 & 26 tells us that 25 God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished-- 26 he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.

          The only question left is do you want God’s mercy or his wrath?  We get to decide. Remember the Matrix movies?  The plot is simple: the world we think we live in is actually a computer program and everything is run by computers.  Humans are actually in a state of unconsciousness and what we see is actually virtual reality. 

          Throughout all three movies the humans who had escaped would go see the Oracle who would tell them the future. Only, the Oracle never predicted what would happen.  Asked about this once she said, “I don’t know what will happen.  That is for you to decide.  The future is built upon the choices you make now.”

          There is a lot of truth in that.  We are not some puppet dancing to the whim of some god nor has God written us off as unworthy.  Rather, he gives us a choice.  The Ark reminds us of God’s wrath, it is real and it is extreme, but the Ark also reminds us of God’s mercy, he wants to dwell with us and is willing to forgive through the blood of Jesus.

          On the back of the bulletin, I have spelled out what the Bible teaches regarding the forgiveness of sins. Salvation is by Grace. Ephesians 2:8  says, “For it is by grace you have been saved…”  Through Faith: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith…”  -Ephesians 2:8. In Baptism: “…having been buried with Him in baptism and raised with Him through your faith in the power of God…”  -Colossians 2:12. For Good Works: Jesus Christ “…gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his own, eager to do what is good.”  -Titus 2:1

          The choice is up to you.  When you find your answer, you will be the true raider of the lost ark.

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