Summary: As Israel found that after their defeat at Ebenezer the way to greatness was through repentance, prayer, and sacrifice, so also this church needs to build, using the same ingredients.
They were a good people if not yet a great people. They were a good people, with much to be proud of. Over the years they had faced many obstacles and had overcome them. There had been dangerous moments, but they had weathered the storms and gone on. They were a good people if not yet a great people.
In their earlier years they had done incredible things. With very few resources, with no traditions behind them, with nothing more than a compelling dream and some gifted leadership they had established themselves in a new community. There were others already there in that community, others whose beliefs and values were different from theirs. But they were convinced that God, their God, wanted them in that place, and so they went in. There they established themselves, little by little, household by household. There they planted themselves just a few among many others, but on their way. They were indeed a good people. But they were not yet a great people.
As the years went by, these good people developed the habit of celebrating their history. Once a year they would get together for an anniversary celebration, and speak about the days that were past. They would remember those who had passed away, they would recall those funny things that had been said. They would remember, but of course they would remember very selectively. They would remember in public those grand occasions of the past when everything had gone well; they would make pretty speeches about how God had blessed them. But then they would also huddle in little groups and in whispered memories they would shake their heads over the outrageous things that someone had done. They were a good people, but were rather afraid by now that they would never become a great people.
You see, there were some cracks in the veneer. There were some trouble spots. Over the years several issues had cropped up.
For one thing, they often found themselves fighting one another. They argued among themselves over small things, petty things, when they could have been defeating the forces of sin around them. They discussed policy when they could have been sharing their faith. They debated each other rather than engaging the paganism around them.
One aspect of this brother-to-brother fight was that really there were two different cultures being blended here. There were two different peoples trying to act as one. Sure, in some ways they were the same: they held the same basic religious beliefs, they gave allegiance to the same Bible, they shared to a degree a common language. But the truth is that they were two different peoples culturally, and even while they were talking about the great ideal of getting along together and understanding one another, there were powerful forces, emotional forces, pulling them apart. They talked sometimes about being an integrated melting pot, but they weren’t. They should have talked about being a tossed salad, in which each ingredient contributes to the other. They may have been a good people in many ways, and the world saw them as unusual: but they were not yet a great people, not yet an insightful, reconciling people.
In this atmosphere some of them lost sight of what their mission was. Some of them got so caught up in the business of settling down, after such a long hard struggle, that they just forgot about what they were really supposed to do. Like a traveler on a long journey who just wants it to be over so that he can get some rest, a lot of these folk just wanted it to be convenient and comfortable. They just wanted something to be settled. They just wanted the journey and the struggle to be over.
Unless something changed, they would likely become a good-enough people … a good-enough people, satisfied with the place they had come to, never seeking to go on, never stretching for what was beyond their grasp.
Unless something changed, they would become merely a good-enough people, in the words of T. S. Eliot, “a decent people, their only monument the asphalt road and a thousand lost golf balls."
It was at that moment that they suffered a serious defeat. It was just at the time when they had settled for good enough rather than great that something happened to rock them back on their haunches and shake their confidence.
At the little town of Ebenezer, Israel met a stunning defeat at the hands of the Philistines. They were unprepared, they were weak, they did not believe much in themselves and even less in their God. And they were defeated. At the little town of Ebenezer, whose name, ironically, means "stone of help", Israel got no help. And, as if that were not enough, Israel sent for the Ark of the Covenant, for that mysterious box which symbolized the presence of their God. She went into battle with the heavy artillery, so to speak.