Sunday, June 17, 2018

'The Lord looks on the heart' (a sermon on 1 Samuel 15.34 - 16.13)

‘I never knew a guy who carried a mirror in his pocket
And a comb up his sleeve just in case
And all that extra hold gel in your hair ought to lock it
‘Cause heaven forbid it should fall out of place
Oh-oo-oh you think you’re special
Oh-oo-oh you think you’re something else
Okay, so you’re Brad Pitt
That don’t impress me much
So you got the looks, but have you got the touch?
Now don’t get me wrong, yeah I think you’re alright
But that won’t keep me warm in the middle of the night
That don’t impress me much’.

Well, there’s a first time for everything, and that’s definitely the first time I’ve ever begun a sermon with a Shania Twain lyric!

And of course, what makes this song very apropos is that even after years and years of being taken in by shiny looking con artists, outward appearances still do ‘impress us much!’ The politician with the bright smile and the bubbly personality is likely to connect with people and win votes. The rock singer who conforms to the current expectations of beauty is far more likely to sell albums than the one who doesn’t. And, to frame the issue in the words of our Old Testament reading this morning, the Lord may look on the heart, but we human beings are still very, very taken with the outward appearance!

Today in our Old Testament readings we begin the story of King David, the shepherd boy who became the shepherd of God’s people Israel. Let’s give a bit of background.

For many generations after Israel entered their promised land they had no king. They didn’t even have much of a unified central government. They had twelve tribes dispersed throughout the land; in theory God was their king, and when they needed help, God sent them leaders. We’ve traditionally called them ‘judges’, and certainly hearing cases and giving judgements was part of their job. But they also led the people in battle against their enemies.

The last and perhaps greatest of those judges was Samuel, who was probably born around 1100 B.C. It was in his days that the people came and asked for a king; ‘We want a king like the nations around us, to lead us in battle’. On the face of it this was a smart request. All the other nations had kings, and that gave them a military edge: a strong central government with a unified purpose that could raise up an army and give it strong leadership.

But the request didn’t sit well with Samuel. To him, it was a rejection of God’s leadership (and his own as well). And the authors of 1 Samuel don’t seem to be of one mind on the issue too; I get the sense that the book incorporates several earlier accounts with different viewpoints on this subject. But eventually God agrees, and there’s a process by which Saul of the tribe of Benjamin is chosen as the first king of Israel. One thing we’re told about Saul is that his appearance was impressive. ‘When he took his stand among the people, he was head and shoulders taller than any of them. Samuel said to all the people, “Do you see the one whom the LORD has chosen? There is no one like him in all the people”’ (1 Samuel 10:23-24).

It’s not entirely clear how much territory Saul was actually king of; it may be that it was just the central area of Israel, the tribes of Ephraim and Mannaseh and their neighbouring clans. But what is clear is that he very quickly became a disappointment. His appearance might have been impressive but his heart was not obedient to God. I don’t have time to go into the story in detail this morning, and some of it is actually quite disturbing to us as Christians; it involves what appear to be commands from God to commit genocide against an enemy of Israel. These are tough passages and hard to reconcile with the teaching of Jesus.

Be that as it may, eventually Samuel speaks a word of judgement against Saul: “You have rejected the word of the LORD, and the LORD has rejected you from being king over Israel” (1 Samuel 15:26). But of course Saul still was the king, and so from that day forward Samuel’s position became more precarious; he was highly respected as a prophet and judge, but he was obviously on the outs with the king, and that’s never a comfortable position to be in.

And so we come to today’s passage, where God sends Samuel to anoint a new king. It seems like a foolish and dangerous mission: Saul is still on the throne, and choosing someone else to be designated as ‘the LORD’s anointed’ would be to make both of them a target of Saul’s hit squads. We can hear that fear in Samuel’s voice as he replies to the LORD’s call: “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me” (16:2). We can hear it in the voices of the elders of Bethlehem as they meet Samuel trembling: “Do you come peaceably?” (16:4). They don’t want to get involved in this power struggle!

But the narrative focus is on David, and there are four things we learn about him.

First, he was an outsider. Samuel went down to Bethlehem at God’s command, with explicit instructions to anoint one of the sons of Jesse to be the next king. God already knew who the successful candidate was: “I have provided for myself a king among (Jesse’s) sons” (16:1). But when Jesse and his sons came to the sacrificial ceremony, they didn’t even bother to bring David with them. Jesse brought seven sons – ‘seven’ in the Bible is the number of completeness, so there was no need for any more. David was outside the number – he was the youngest, and he was out in the hills looking after the family’s flock of sheep. No one thought he was of any importance. No one considered that his attendance at the sacrifice would matter one way or the other.

But the God of the Bible seems to have a soft spot for outsiders. There’s a long Bible history of God choosing the younger son over the older, or the less impressive leader over the more impressive. Even Bethlehem itself was a strange choice; it was far to the south of Saul’s domains around Ephraim and Manasseh. It was a little village in the tribe of Judah, which seems to have been only loosely connected to Israel at the time. It would be as if we were looking for a prime minister of Canada in the days before Newfoundland joined confederation, and we decided to elect someone from a tiny fishing port in Newfoundland who wasn’t even really a Canadian citizen!

In the New Testament, Mary the mother of Jesus sums this up in these words: ‘(God) has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly’ (Luke 1:51-52). So don’t ever say “I’m not important, so God wouldn’t choose me”. If the world thinks you’re not important, that makes you a prime candidate for God’s choice! God isn’t impressed with the corridors of power; that ‘don’t impress him much!’ God works from the grassroots, with ordinary people like you and me.

So David was an outsider, and yet he was also God’s choice. Second, David was a shepherd. There are actually three different stories of David’s origins in 1 Samuel and all of them mention his role as a shepherd. Today’s passage has his father Jesse saying, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep” (16:11). In the next section David is chosen to play music for the king, to calm him down when he gets agitated; Saul sends a message to Jesse saying “Send me your son David who is with the sheep” (16:19). And the third story is the well-known tale of David and Goliath, where David specifically mentions his experience of defending the flock from lions and bears (16:34-35). Psalm 78 sums up this tradition:
‘He chose his servant David and took him from the sheepfolds; from tending the nursing ewes he brought him to be the shepherd of his servant Jacob, of Israel, his inheritance. With upright heart he tended them, and guided them with a skillful hand’ (Psalm 78:70-72).

So God didn’t call David to oppress or exploit his people; he called him to care for them like a good shepherd caring for his sheep and protecting them. This is a reflection of the character of God who is sometimes called ‘the Shepherd of Israel’ in the Old Testament. Jesus, of course, says “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).

Do you know how to care for people, to love your neighbour as yourself? In God’s eyes, that makes you a good candidate for leadership. God has had it up to here with leaders who are only in it to enrich themselves and their families; that ‘don’t impress him much’! He’s looking for people who know how to love others – not just in words but in actions.

So David is an unlikely candidate to be king – which, in God’s sight, makes him a likely candidate. David was a shepherd and he brought a shepherd’s heart to the throne of Judah and Israel. The third thing we’re told is that David’s heart was in the right place.

In the first few verses of the story there’s a funny scene as the seven sons of Jesse are brought before Samuel one by one, for all the world like a police identification parade! Samuel has apparently forgotten how easily he was misled by Saul’s impressive appearance. He sees Jesse’s oldest son Eliab and thinks “Surely the LORD’s anointed is now before the LORD”. But God rebukes this thought: “Do not look on his appearance or 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” (16:6-7).

The implication is that David has a good heart. Nowadays, of course, we usually use the heart as a symbol of the feelings: ‘You can’t make your heart feel something it won’t’, sings Bonnie Raitt, and we know what she means. But in the Bible the feelings are located in the intestines (hence the King James Version’s lovely term for compassion: ‘bowels of mercy’!). ‘The heart’ means the inner person, the choices, the will. In this passage it probably means the inner character. Despite being the youngest and the least likely candidate, David was a boy of good character, and so God chose him to be king.

The books of Samuel never pretend that David was perfect; far from it. He was a human being with a healthy dose of the human propensity to mess things up, and he did it spectacularly on a couple of occasions. But it was not in David’s nature to be stubborn about his disobedience. When he was confronted with his sin he confessed and repented and asked for forgiveness.

So when we say God looks on the heart, we’re not saying that God is looking for a perfect heart, a perfect character. God would have no one, if that were the case. But God is looking for a loving heart, a humble heart, a teachable spirit, a faithful character. He’s looking for someone who strives to be the same person when people are watching and when they aren’t watching.

Expertise is important, but it can be taught. Character takes a lot longer. A few years ago a friend of mine was contemplating a career change, and he went to another friend who owned an oilfield service company and asked about a job. “I don’t really have much expertise, though”, he admitted. The owner replied, “Will you come to work on time? Will you give me a full day’s work for a full day’s pay? Will you show up on time after your days off – and without a hangover? I can teach you what you need to know, but I can’t form your character – that has to be present already”.

This is what God prizes. He doesn’t favour the insiders – he’s far more likely to choose people from the margins. He places a premium on for a caring and loving way with others. He’s not impressed with outward appearances: he cares about your heart, your inner character. And lastly, David is filled with the Holy Spirit.In verse 13 we read, ‘Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed (David) in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the LORD came mightily upon David from that day forward’.

In the Old Testament there is no general promise that the Spirit of God will fill every believer. Kings receive the Spirit; so do priests and prophets and judges. The Spirit makes them God’s special servants, God’s tools, God’s mouthpieces. Ordinary people like you and me aren’t equipped with the Spirit; we experience his touch second hand, through God’s chosen leaders.

But that changes in the New Testament. The prophet Joel foretells a time when God will pour out his Spirit on everyone – young and old, men and women, slaves and free. This happens on the Day of Pentecost, when a group of a hundred and twenty believers – most of them unlikely candidates, just like David – are filled with the Holy Spirit and speak God’s word with boldness. From that point on, this becomes the birthright of the Christian: if you know how to give good gifts to your children, says Jesus, “how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” (Luke 11:13).

My dad was a working class boy from an industrial city in central England; he left school at sixteen and never finished a university degree. Lots of people would have dismissed him, but God didn’t; my dad was called to ordination in his thirties and became a highly effective pastor and evangelist. There are many people alive today who became committed Christians because of his ministry, and I am one of them. He was an ordinary human being with weaknesses just like anyone else, but the Holy Spirit filled him and used him to bless others, and he became a good shepherd.

Today I want you to ask yourself “What’s stopping me from hearing God’s call?” Maybe you feel like an outsider. Maybe you think “I’m no leader”. Maybe you don’t think of yourself as a particularly impressive looking person.

But in the end, none of that matters. God doesn’t look on outward appearances: God looks on the heart. God gives the gift of his Spirit to people just like you and me, so that we can do things we never thought we’d ever be able to do. Most of all, God gives us his Spirit to make us like his Son Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd is always looking for willing sheepdogs to join his team, bringing his love and compassion to the world. Little David the shepherd boy became part of that team. You can be part of that team too. So don’t let a sense of fear or inadequacy hold you back. When you sense God calling you to some new thing, check it out with others to make sure you’re hearing it right, and then step forward in faith and say “Here am I, Lord; send me!”

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