A sermon drawn from 1 Samuel 16:1-13
This text is a story from the early history of Israel, which Christians sometimes think of as the prelude or the context for the life of Christ. A little background might be helpful. Once upon a time, the Israelites were simply people living together under the terms of their covenant with God, which they received after being liberated from slavery in Egypt. That didn’t always go well. Then the people want to have a king, a government like everyone else around them. To which God says, OK. Saul is the first king. But right from the beginning there are problems … and we’re coming into the story right at the point where God is about to make a change …
If we’ve been in Sunday school or spent much time in church, we’ve heard this story before, probably more than once, and that verse where God says “people look on the outward appearance, but GOD looks on the heart” is a memorable one.
It’s the scheduled reading for the fourth Sunday of Lent every three years, paired up with the gospel story of Jesus, healing the man born blind. So the emphasis of the day is on seeing, and what it means to see – we think, not only literally, to see with our physical eyes, but also spiritually, to see with eyes opened by grace, to see Jesus’ true identity – the Messiah, the “Son of David,” “God with us,” and so, to see God as savior and as love, and to see what that means for our own next steps …
Since we’ve likely had a chance to think about this story before … have we ever asked ourselves, what does God see, when God looks on the heart? In particular, on David’s heart? When God “sees for himself a king” among Jesse’s sons?
Have we ever wondered about that?
We may actually have been told “the answer,” by a Sunday school teacher, or a commentary …
And if we took a poll … on what people think … we’re likely to hear things like “loyalty – God saw that David loved God, was steadfastly loyal to the God of Israel,” or maybe “zeal,” that David was really passionate for God – or maybe that David was a poet, a psalmist – or was a good, caring shepherd of sheep, and so would be a good, caring shepherd of God’s people …
And maybe we’ll notice that all those ideas have something in common. They all zero in on one of the good things we know about David, that would “explain” or “justify” God’s choice here. Things that would give God a “good reason” for choosing David.
Which is, in a way, like trying to say what David had done to earn the prize of being picked by God to be king. Because we do seem to assume that was a prize. Like a promotion, from being a shepherd for his dad to being the king of Israel.
And people do often seem to think that what we’re supposed to learn from this story is what it was about David, that earned him that divine favor.
Even though, if we read our Bibles – and I’m a Bible study teacher, so of course I’m going to encourage people to do that! If we read the book of Samuel and the first couple of chapters in the book of Kings, so, not just the stories about David that we read in Sunday school and church, but the whole story that’s in our book – and if we read that story honestly, instead of with our preconceived idea that David is a hero so whatever David does must be right – we’ll notice that David is an extraordinarily complex, and terribly human character, far from ideal.
In fact, David is a particularly good example of something the Biblical scholar John Goldingay says – whenever his students ask him, in his Old Testament classes, “why does God pick these flawed characters to be part of God’s story?” and Professor Goldingay’s answer is always “Well, who else is there?”
That makes David a particularly good reminder that God’s choice, God’s calling – God’s grace – is not something we earn by our good behavior! We know this. All Christians know this. And Presbyterians, Calvinists, Protestants, especially have made knowing that a centerpiece of our theology, that we are “saved by grace, through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, so that no one may boast.” (Also in the Bible, Ephesians 2:8.)
We know perfectly well that we have God’s grace as a pure gift, thanks to the life and work of Jesus Christ. The usual definition of “grace,” in fact, is “unmerited – undeserved – favor.” Grace is, by definition, something we don’t and can’t earn! So we know that none of us can look at ourselves and say “yeah, this talent or skill or whatever, this is what earned me God’s favor.” On the contrary, when we are seeing clearly, we look at ourselves, and we see how everything in us that is good and kind and faithful comes from God. We just have to say, “Thank you, God, for this!” Thank you for who I am, for what I am, for what I have, for my life, thank you!
If we could talk to David himself, I’m confident that’s what David would say. [In fact, in Psalm 8, which is attributed to David, that’s exactly what David does say: “what are humans, that you, God, are mindful of them, mortals, that you care for them? And yet, you have made them just below God in the order of things, and crowned them with glory and honor …” How incredible and wonderful is that? Praise God!]
We know that, but we forget it all the time, too. Forgetting it is probably what makes us keep looking for what it was about David that made God choose him, and trying to figure out what we’d need to do to be more like David … thinking the lesson we’re supposed to learn from this story is “we need to be more like David.”
[We should not try to be more like David! If we’re going to imitate anyone from the Bible, we should pick Jesus.]
The Bible never does tell us, by the way, what God sees when God looks on the heart – we don’t ever really know what’s on David’s heart. The deeper lesson here is that God’s choice, God’s calling, itself, is what makes David the figure he is. As Thomas Aquinas said, God’s grace is a gift that makes us good. Not the other way around.
God makes us good. God and God’s grace come first. We love God because God first loved us. Everything we do is always already a response to what God has done and is doing in our lives.
We know that, but we forget it, maybe because it’s so difficult to accept. Because it is difficult to accept.
For one thing, it forces us to see that what God sees in us is what God has put there, or can put there; or will put there; and this is something that God alone chooses. That forces us to see how completely at God’s mercy we really are –
And that would be scary, if we didn’t already know that God cares for us, because the truest picture we have of God is Jesus Christ – who shows us that what God sees in us is one of those little ones, precious to God, that Christ came, and died, and rose again, to save.
This is especially difficult for modern people like us to accept, because we have tightly embraced the idea of “autonomy.”
We tell our children “you can be whatever you want to be,” “you just need to believe in yourself,” “it’s not what happens to you, it’s what you do with what happens to you,” we have educational theories about the importance of “grit” and “resilience” and having a “growth mindset” instead of a “fixed mindset;” we’ve made the self-improvement market in the US a $10B industry.
We are practiced at ignoring the way injustice works in the world, and saying to the victims of injustice, “so, you’ve got a problem, what are you going to do about it?” We have learned to see ourselves as being in control of our own lives, having to make all the right choices, because who and how we are is on us.
I don’t want to deny all that, either, because I think we all know that when it comes to things like … getting through school; doing our jobs; learning a second language or how to play a musical instrument or taking up a sport … having those ideas can help us. They can work for us.
And if we’re ever in a position to hire someone for a job … we need to do things like ask about qualifications and experience and what people are calling “soft skills” these days, like being a self-starter and getting along with people and doing good problem solving and communicating, things like that. We need to do that, or we’re not doing our best to serve the cause and the goals we’re supposed to serve.
So our world keeps pushing us back to that vision of “meritocracy,” that idea that getting something good is something we have to earn. That makes it even harder for us to shake loose from the idea that there must be something we can do to earn God’s love, God’s approval, God’s favor, whatever it is we want from God.
Which is why we have to keep coming back and back and back again to the insight that no, really, God’s love, God’s approval, God’s grace, is all free – God gives grace and faith and gifts to whomever God wills, in whatever measure God wills. This is not up to us. This is up to God’s purposes, God’s designs, God’s creative genius …
The deep lesson in this story is that God is making something of David … and of Israel … and ultimately of humanity … the way an artist chooses materials, colors, design, … in the service of a vision … in the service of a creation that no one but the artist can see yet … and will even shape and work with those materials to make them “go” or “fit” or “work” right where they need to go in that spot … God’s work of art, God’s creation … which we know God calls “good,” which God sees through the eyes of God’s beautiful vision, past all the preliminary complexities and imperfections, to the good and beautiful reality it is becoming.
God has a vision for humanity and for humanity’s life with God, a good and beautiful vision, and is making that vision a reality, even now.
And that divine artist can and will work with any of us – not only the tall older brothers with their regal bearing, but the cute little brother they thought didn’t even count, the one they didn’t even think to call in for dinner, who could just about manage watching the sheep … whoever will say “yes” to God.
That can help us see that we ourselves will be happiest – most fulfilled, our best selves – when we say “yes” to God, and to our part in God’s project, whatever it is. This may be the biggest thing we learn from this story about David.
Most of us would point to our experience of saying “yes” to the invitation to be engaged in the life of God’s people as an example of that – we’d agree that saying “yes” to coming to church, being part of the life of the church, worship, fellowship, has added something to our lives, and is changing us, discernibly, for the better.
The same goes for being called into God’s service in a more specific way – what we Presbyterians call “ordered ministry.” Some job needs doing, God calls someone to that work, and God also equips that person with the gifts and graces necessary to do that work.
It’s almost a cliché, that “God doesn’t call the qualified, God qualifies the called.” And part of the fun – if that’s the right word – or at least the excitement in responding to God’s call is that very process of qualifi-cation – of learning, of growing, of becoming new in and through the process of serving …
We do need to accept the faith God offers us along with that call – the faith that God will give us what we need, at least by the time we need it, if not before. “Saying yes” is the first, next, step, always.
We really don’t know what God saw in David’s heart.
What we do know is that Samuel said “yes” to God’s call to anoint David; and David said “yes” to the call to be anointed; and when they did, those events became part of the story we read in the Bible, that brings us to Jesus, and to the clear vision of God we have in Jesus, a vision that still beckons us, that still moves us to say “yes” to the God who rescues us from sin and death, and saves us into new life, – a new life that challenges and transforms us, according to God’s vision for us.
So let’s learn from this story that saying “yes” to God is vital, and worthwhile, and when we do it, it’s the beginning of something great – whoever we are, great or small, whatever we’re saying “yes” to, whatever the next step in our life with God – because when the invitation comes from God, we know the good and beautiful God will, in the end, make something good and beautiful of us.
Images: “Open book 1,” by Alina Daniker alinadaniker, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons; “Dura Synagogue WC3 David anointed by Samuel,” reworked by Marsyas, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
2 responses to ““Beautiful Eyes””
Okay, HAT, I’m back. And to be fair and completely honest, I am still chewing on Cain and Able (Thank YOU very much.) And wrestling that angel. But it so happens I have a lot of thought on your chosen text today too.
So… shooting off the cuff a bit, but relying heavily on past study as I can recall it shooting off the cuff…
The whole meritocracy/earning it dichotomy is not a necessary echo chamber for this text, and not one in which I listen to it, personally. That said, I think today’s church (across a wide swath of denominations) probably lives there and wants to listen in it. I just come to a different place to listen from.
What does God see in David’s heart?
As you point out, I cannot answer that – at least not with some pithy statement that will settle it. Nor am I inclined to think I need to ask or try to answer it. However, for my investment, I think God sees himself there… But let me unpack that.
If there’s two things I know about the young David, it’s these: 1) He’s a shepherd and 2) he’s little/insignificant, easily overlooked. Even his own daddy can’t think to produce him among the brothers for possible selection at the private anointing.
Saul, in a technical sense (Can I call it technical for expedience sake?) is God’s choice too, but he is the one pleasing to the eye of those requesting a “king like the nations.” David is a man after God’s heart, so we learn later, but God seems to have set this up almost like pitting “the people’s choice” (the one with all the outward appearance) vs. God’s choice (the one whose heart he favors).
You know what? I’m wondering if this isn’t something of an answer to the Cain and Able thingy (for me, anyway). God favors Able’s worship and has no regard for Cain’s though that seems so arbitrarily rejected. God has no regard for Cain’s offering.
(Tell ya what. Put that in your back pocket and pull it out later when we get to Jesus….)
In the meantime, Israel has rejected God as their king! This is so huge!!! To my mind, this overshadows EVERYTHING! In fact, I would suggest we have this unresolved issue lingering and languishing on the back burner through the rest of the Old Testament all the way to Christ. However, in my experience this goes largely unnoticed.
So, back to David for a moment, or more pointedly to God seeing God in David. David is a shepherd. God is a shepherd. “The Lord is my Shepherd…” and his people are sheep. This is the king the people rejected, which, come to think of it, was the little discussion God had with Samuel when all this came to a head.
Sam was the last of the judges in Israel. Not a king, but a leader of sorts. He was the judge appointed by God who, we learn in their little discussion WAS THE KING. He seems to have been king in some mystical sense. No palace. No throne. A king outwardly represented by judges, but he was their king.
Sam, the last of these judges, is approached by the people. “WE want a king LIKE THE NATIONS.” Wow! What a devastating development withing the redemption plan?
And if I were Sam, I would feel it PERSONALLY. I would TAKE IT PERSONALLY. It would hurt me that they would ask this. But when he discusses it with God, God sets that straight. It’s not you they reject, but ME from being their king.
Wow! That sheds a new light on it, and if I were Sam, I would get it, but then I would feel the urge to run back to these people and tell them, “YOU HAVE THIS ALL CATEGORICALLY WRONG.”
But here we learn it’s God rejected and no longer king of Israel.
David finally becomes king, but look how that goes.
Saul is “God’s anointed” too, and he is not the good king. He is jealous of David (echoes of Cain and Abel???). He treats David like a criminal, and puts him an Israel’s 10 Most Wanted list. He treats David like a criminal and unwanted king.
I don’t know how many years David lives on the run from Saul, but it’s 16 chapters of Samuel, I know that. There is so much ink spilled on his career as a fugitive this fact alone should stand out.
So, David is not only a shepherd, but insignificant, unlikely, almost invisible, and not attractive as king to the outward appearance. And in THAT God sees himself, room for his Glory to burst forth. The more marginalized the David, the more it was God at work in him when the dust settles. We all look back and say, Wow! That had to be God.
I mean, David is a major sinner for that matter! A scoundrel, really. Yet a man after God’s heart.
So, now move to Jesus, because in Jesus we have the answer to EVERYTHING. That bit about rejecting God as king of Israel all get’s it’s answer in Jesus. That languishing element of the saga there in the back part of the stage comes rushing back to the front and center. Jesus, the prophet, demonstrates God coming back to Israel to take his rightful crown despite the rejection.
And sure enough, it’s God we see in Jesus as we too look at his heart.
As a Christian, I see Jesus summing up the story of God’s choice over outward appearances.
And the old drama about two kings in Israel comes right back to the fore again too, though you have to read between a few lines. Herod is that OTHER KING OF THE JEWS. Herod who is king, not so much by popular choice, but because Rome says so. And Rome certainly has their own way of looking at outward appearances with no regard for the man’s heart. And Jesus runs around Galilee (and Judea too) like a criminal on the lamb. He is the rejected anointed who finally takes the throne by mounting a cross.
Here we see all heart and no outward appearance that isn’t first a suffering servant of Isaiah.
And to Cain and Abel one more time, it’s Pilate who sees Jesus is pushed forward for rejection as king due to… drum roll please… jealousy.
The story is simply divine.
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This could work. Especially if you feel comfortable liking David and drawing parallels between David and God.
I do think one of the classical Christian answers for “what does God see” when God says God “sees for myself a king among Jesse’s sons” is “Jesus.” Genealogically.