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 Looking on the Heart

Sermon - 6/17/12
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

1 Samuel 15:34 - 16:13

We are continuing our journey through 1 Samuel that I began last week, as we seek to deepen our understanding of the roots of our faith tradition, and the relevance of the ancient stories recorded in scripture for our lives today.

Last week, we looked at the 8th chapter and the establishment of the monarchy, in which God (in essence) gives in to the demands of the clamoring of the people and grants them their wish for a King. But in the process, through that prophet Samuel, gives a stunning critique of the King, or the office of the King, and their power. Which I suggested has not just implications for the use and abuse of political power today, but also for how we understand Jesus as the Christ. For it calls into question any image of Messiah as victorious warrior who defeats our enemies as fundamentally flawed.

But that was last week, and in the text this week God now takes the initiative to pick the next King on God's terms, rather than on human terms. And so we pick up the story after God has become rather, shall we say, disillusioned with the job that Saul is doing as King. So, beginning at the end of chapter 15:

Then Samuel went to Ramah; and Saul went up to his house in Gibeah of Saul. 35Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel.’

The Lord said to Samuel, ‘How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.’ 2Samuel said, ‘How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.’ And the Lord said, ‘Take a heifer with you, and say, “I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.” 3Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.’ 4Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, ‘Do you come peaceably?’ 5He said, ‘Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.’ And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

6 When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, ‘Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.’ 7But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.’ 8Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, ‘Neither has the Lord chosen this one.’ 9Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, ‘Neither has the Lord chosen this one.’ 10Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, ‘The Lord has not chosen any of these.’ 11Samuel said to Jesse, ‘Are all your sons here?’ And he said, ‘There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.’ And Samuel said to Jesse, ‘Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.’ 12He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, ‘Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.’ 13Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.

There's some fascinating details in this story that I just want to point out before I get to the main point, hopefully to stimulate our curiosity and interest.

Saul is picked as the first King, right? By Samuel, much the same way here as in picking David, anointed with oil. And initially does very well. But then something goes wrong, causing God to reject him. And so the text says "God was sorry" that he made him King. Or in some translations: "God repented". I mean, that alone should make you stop and think! Does God make mistakes? Have you ever seen a duck-billed platypus? :)

So just what was Saul's great sin, that causes God to reject him? Well, God instructed Saul, as the King, to utterly destroy their neighbor enemy, the Amalekites. Men, Women, children, crops, and animals -- to annihilate them. All of them. Nuclear destruction. Only some of the troops don't obey, and decide to save some of the best of the flock for sacrifice later. They're just going to kill them later. Now, granted, when you sacrifice animals, you get to eat the meat, you have a big feast (at a public sacrifice).

We're talking here about genocide, and God is upset over a few animals? Does that make sense? I mean, what do we do with stories like this?

Mary Ronk, who is a member at the Springfield church, and a participant in one of our Thursday-morning groups, reminded me this week of an image from my childhood, which I very much remember, from a popular children's Bible. Some of you may remember this. The story of David and Goliath, right? We all know that story. Of course, in a children's Bible, you have to have pictures, so you have David with his sling-shot, right? And at the end of the story, what do you have? You have the triumphant David carrying the severed head of Goliath. I mean, that's gruesome -- and in a Children's Bible!

You know, you want to read a bedtime story to your children, you pull out your children's Bible, you're reading along -- oh, look, there's David carrying the head of Goliath. Isn't that sweet? Sweet dreams!

How am I supposed to sleep?! What were they thinking, to put that in a children's Bible?! We complain about graphic images and movies today. . . . .

Well, the truth is, life can be harsh. But that doesn't mean we should display it in all of its harshness for our children. It does mean that there is little that we face in all the ugliness of the world that has not been faced by our ancestors. And that is simply reflected in scripture. And so we read these stories to learn from them, and how they found God in the midst of all that ugliness.

And sometimes what we learn is how the name of God can be used --even in scripture--to justify the unjustifiable. For to portray God as sanctioning genocide as factual history, is one of the sins of the Bible (to use a title of a book by John Shelby Spong) that we perpetuate if we do not question its premise that God ever wills genocide, whether we're talking about the destruction of ancient Amalekites, or Hiroshima, or Dresden, or the like.

Now, I take time to point these out because I believe our understanding of the character of God has changed, as we compare our experiences of brutality and violence and war with that of ancient times, and conclude that such is not now, was not then, never never will be the will of God. And so we reject, at least I hope we do (for our sake as well as God's) any notion that God has ever or will ever sanction genocide. That includes, by the way, the book of Revelation.

It just does not ring true from our experience of God. Then, almost as if to offset such as stark portrayal of God as a brutal warlord, we are given another image in the story which does ring true. The God who judges not by outward appearance, but judges by what is on the heart. Now, to appreciate the power of this story, keep in mind that what Samuel is doing here is no less than treason. There is a King on the throne, right? And he's about to anoint another one? How is Saul going to view this? And that's the whole reason for the subterfuge, creating the ruse of going to Bethlehem for some sacrificial rite. Creates another little quandary -- does God engage in deception? Hmmmm

This is a dangerous mission. And the Elders of Bethlehem recognize the danger of the situation, not knowing Samuel's intent but knowing the reputation of his power. And they figure it could cause them all kinds of trouble with the King. For their peaceful little village ("Oh little town of Bethlehem", right?). Samuel, who is directed by God, invites Jesse and his sons to that sacrifice.

Now, we only know one thing about Jesse, that distinguishes him from all the other fathers of that time. And it is told in the book that immediately precedes this.  So if you know your books of the Bible, all in order, you'll have a clue -- so what is that one thing we know about Jesse? Ruth. Jesse is the grandson of Ruth. Now why is that significant?

Well, Ruth, of course, is a Moabite. She's a foreigner, she's an immigrant. And if you know your Biblical history, you know that immigrants then were about as welcome in Israel as undocumented immigrants are welcome in places like Arizona and Alabama today. Indeed, the story of how Ruth became accepted and welcomed, told in that book that bears her name, is the ancient equivalent of a Presidential decree giving undocumented youth permission to live and work in this country. Her famous declaration: "Your people shall be my people, your God my God" is the Biblical stamp of approval for all immigrants -- then and today -- who seek to become citizens in their adopted home. It was, and is, to quote a certain high official in the news this week "The right thing to do".

Without that declaration, you see, the greatest King in Biblical history would never have been. There's something to stop and think about.

So from the start, as the great-grandson of a foreigner, an immigrant, you know, David is at a disadvantage. Add to that, he's the youngest of the family. Eugene Peterson, in his paraphrase "The Message" calls him "the runt". See, his own father thinks so lowly of him, he does not even invite him to the feast. And to underscore this point, our storyteller informs us there are seven brothers from which Samuel has to pick. Seven, Biblically speaking, is the number of wholeness, completeness. 7 days in the week, right? To be number 8 is to be a left-over, an extra, unneeded, the odd-ball of the family, the one man out.

The point of all this is that no one, not Samuel (who thinks the oldest son looks pretty good to him), not Saul (who certainly doesn't think we need to pick any other Kings beside him), not even Jesse (his own father) could see what God sees. Here is the one who has the heart to be King, a great leader for the people.

So here's the challenge that I think the story presents for us: how do we learn to see differently? To see how God sees? Judging not by outward appearance, but by character. By the heart. To look past appearance, and to judge, as Martin Luther King Jr. so famously said: "Not by the color of skin but by the content of character".

We all remember Susan Boyle, right? That middle-aged, past-her-prime spinster who wowed Britain and the world with her bombastic voice. Well, the American version of that show (Britain's got talent), America's got talent, uncovered another Susan Boyle. This time not a quaint older woman who lives alone with her cat, but an unconventional youth, like David. The odd-ball. With, shall we say, a rather unusual appearance:

 

 

Not what you were expecting, was it?

What I love about that video is not that Andrew has such a beautiful untrained voice, but that he chose not to sing a pop song, or rock, or heavy-metal, but opera! And I'm not even an opera fan, but God bless him. And then to see the support of his family, and most appropriately on this Father's day, with the father embracing his son who had such courage to follow his heart.

So think about all the people we see, who appear to us to be odd, unusual, unconventional. Do we judge by that appearance? Or by character? Can we see in each person, a David, or an Andrew, or a Susan Boyle, can we see each child as their parents see them? Each person, as God sees, looking on the heart.

This, then, is our challenge: may it so be.

 


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