sermon on 1st Samuel 16:1-13
Picture this if you can: an elected leader has lost trust, leading to the conclusion that a farm kid from Nowheresville could probably do a better job.
The elected leader in this case is a king. He is elected, since the people said they wanted a king like other nations, even though God warned them that he’d misbehave, in taking their sons for wars, and taking their daughters for other things, and taking their property in taxes, and mainly looking out for his own ego.
That elected leader King Saul has, indeed, lost trust. So today’s reading is about that farm kid (or shepherd boy) from Nowheresville being chosen as a better possible leader. (We know the name of this little town of Bethlehem—even through the birth of Jesus—only because this farm kid was from there).
This reading, then, has a lot to do with the criteria for choice. Along with our Gospel window in your bulletins, where Jesus suggests we should judge with right judgment, there is the central line in our story, “The LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” So our question may be how to judge in that godly way, how we might go about not seeing what we see with our own eyes, but look at the situation or person as God would, to look with God’s eyes.
Now, when Saul was chosen as the first king of these Israelite people, it seems his physical outward appearance did matter. Twice Saul is described as standing “head and shoulders” above the rest. Maybe that means he was imposing, or a big guy and ready to lead a struggling nation into battle. It also says there was not a man who was more handsome. All of that seemed to make him a crowd pleaser as he would rile up the troops and put on a spectacle.
So there would be good reason to suspect similar traits and trends as a replacement for Saul is being chosen. For his part, Samuel (who often had the role of speaking for the Lord and was frequently spoken to by the Lord and who maybe should’ve had some clue of the sort of God we have), Samuel went to anoint the successor, to mark the next one as chosen by God.
Going to the family of Jesse, and judging with society’s standards and not with God’s eyes, Samuel presumes he’s going to anoint the oldest. In a patriarchal system, he would be the one chosen, the one to receive more inheritance, through whom lineage was traced, the power player.
Still in our time, we make presumptions of birth order, that eldest children are the responsible ones, the overachievers, the brightest and best, the shining stars of the family. Of course, I say that as an eldest child myself! So my assessments and judgments of my place, staking out of turf, my presumptions of grandeur are not unbiased. If you’re also an oldest child, you may resonate with my bias.
But, of course, God doesn’t, and so in discernment moves past the eldest.
Neither is God impressed with the handsomest or the strongest, though that continues to contradict our societal standards. These two categories remain gender confines. Boys are supposed to be strong. Girls, to be pretty. These so frequently become defining markers of judgment for or against us, the criteria we bask in or struggle against. A favorite song, introduced to me by my friend Alissa, is from the Canadian band Barenaked Ladies and begins with these lyrics:
When I was born, they looked at me and said
what a good boy, what a smart boy, what a strong boy.
And when you were born, they looked at you and said,
what a good girl, what a smart girl, what a pretty girl.
We’ve got these chains hangin’ ‘round our necks,
people want to strangle us with them before we take our first breath.*
Now, we don’t know if the sons of Jesse felt like they were good and strong and smart and pretty. Maybe as the pageant paraded past Samuel, each son was confident he bore enough of those traits to be picked, to measure up well by those standards.
But, of course, each is passed by at this special worship service, until seven are done and gone and none is left. Except for the youngest, who was so far outside of possibility that he didn’t even bother to show up, didn’t do his makeup or get slicked up and gussied up, because he was too down and out. He was out with the sheep, out working on his ruddy tan in the wilderness, out and about, and not about to be chosen.
Except that Samuel called a halt to the worship service and sent those big brothers out to find the runt and bring him in, because God won’t be confined by the likes of our judgmental criteria.
When young David arrives, we must note he’s described as having “beautiful eyes” and handsome. That’s an interesting detail, since earlier God specifically bypassed the ones who were handsome, tall, etc. etc. I’d say the point is that none of those characteristics either qualify or disqualify a person as God’s choice. Though we often aim for and select such qualities, God doesn’t just choose the opposite.
So while not selecting the eldest son, neither did God choose David simply just because he was the youngest. After all, those of you who are the babies in your family may be used to being the favorites, so that wouldn’t break apart our criteria much, either.
A further distinction is also important: when it says God doesn’t judge by outward appearances but looks on the heart, we’re liable to label that as some sort of internal characteristic. We’d claim that God doesn’t care how big your muscles are but does care how big your heart is. Or that God chooses those of the right disposition, the caring and kind and passionate, and that your outlook and attitude should match God’s view.
I disagree. This isn’t saying David’s personality or perspective was more in line with God’s and that’s why God chose him. After all, in the next chapter this little David is eager to suit up for battle so he can try to become a hero by killing the giant Goliath. And it’s not too long before he’s a womanizer, eventually having one of his soldiers murdered so he can satisfy his lust for the man’s wife. David will get in bitter disputes not only with foreign enemies but with his own sons. He’ll have such a violent reign that God will forbid him from building the temple, since he has too much blood on his hands.
And yet he’s chosen.
Not because he’s so right, either on the outside or the inside, but simply because God chooses him. This story of choice is just to remind us that God chooses differently than we would. God chooses abundantly, gracefully, lovingly. God is so eager to operate in this way that that adulterous relationship of David’s won’t be swept under a rug but will remain obvious tracing down to his distant descendant Jesus. Yes, the family tree of Jesus explicitly points out his genealogy as the son of another man’s wife (Matthew 1:6). Because God won’t be confined or limited by our sense of propriety.
Similarly, this week in our book class on Trouble I’ve Seen, about “changing the way the church views racism,” we were discussing how “social hierarchy enables a…group to make their values and norms dominant” and define what a respectable life looks like. That in America is the “trinity of money, power, and respect,” and also says the way somebody wears their pants can be wrong, or if somebody says “ain’t,” or gets a criminal record, that skin color can disqualify from respectability.** But those ways we put others down and elevate ourselves are not how God sees things. These judgments even come in to affect our systems of justice, which unjustly see some people as inherently worse. That system is not only broken, it is by definition ungodly, anti-christ, against the perspective of our God who refuses to judge by appearances.
Again, those of you on Facebook have seen or been part of the #MeToo campaign in these days, following the news about Harvey Weinstein’s horrible misbehavior. But it’s not just him. This movement shows far too many women (and some men’s) experience of sexual harassment and abuse, that society’s standards for men results in dehumanizing effects and pushing into the shadows. #MeToo isn’t only for women to say, “I’ve also been hurt by predatory men” but saying “I also have voice, have value, have vitality.”
Though that should go without saying, with that, we remember that the way society elevates your status or has cast you out is not how God judges. Judging a gender as weaker or inferior, as objectifiable or as objectionable—these types of human disapproval cannot be in line with God’s view. Instead, in such desperately critical moments, the times of crisis and prejudices and judgment, you have the overwhelming guarantee and unconditional promise that God sees you. God loves you. God chooses you.
It is not, is never, based on what sort of income you have or the status of your job. It’s not the car you drive or the cleanliness of your house. It’s not how you look, when you feel that your appearance is wrong, unattractive, old, of less ability than you wish you had, not how you’re living up to your potential. It’s not based on power or prestige, your insecurities or what displeases you about yourself. It’s not what the neighbors think or what your parents would say or how well you rate. You have the guarantee that God sees you to the core. And when God sees you, God loves you. God chooses you.
As David was seen by God, loved by God, chosen by God, as he was anointed for a role, so also you have been anointed in baptism. Even perhaps from the time you were an infant, that mark of oil makes you a messiah, a christ, one chosen by God, loved by God, seen all the way to your heart and judged as just right for who God wants you to be. It isn’t that you’re waiting to measure up, to improve until your characteristics are of a higher quality. It’s not and never can be that you aren’t good enough, because you have already been judged rightly by God, with the judgment that ultimately matters. God sees you. God loves you. God chooses you.
** Drew Hart, p132-137