You just never know who God’s going to choose next.
Actually, if there’s been a common thread running through these Old Testament stories we’ve been looking at this summer, that would be it: how God’s will and purpose gets played out through the actions of the most ordinary and unlikely of people. From Abraham and Sarah, who in their old age not only undertook God’s journey into the unknown, but also became parents of an entire nation; to Moses who became, albeit reluctantly, God’s spokesperson unto Pharaoh, God always seems to see the potential in people that more often than not you and I miss.
And lest we think that this is purely an “Old Testament” theme, understand that this truth is found all throughout scripture, right through the gospels and beyond: I mean, who would have thought that a rather motley assortment of fisherman, tax collectors and societal outcasts would comprise the first disciples of God’s own Son, or that a former terrorist, assigned to hunt down and to persecute Christians, would himself become the most passionate of evangelists and one of the first Christian theologians? Who knew; well, God knew, even on those very frequent occasions when we mere mortals just didn’t “get it.”
The old adage that “you can’t judge a book by its cover” would definitely seem to apply here; but friends, I would suggest to you that the truth runs much deeper than this. As a matter of fact, we’re concluding this sermon series this morning with a story that indicates that God’s choice of people throughout history is not as random as it would appear; and that perhaps the outward appearances of these biblical players have little or nothing to do with it!
Our reading today comes from the book of 1 Samuel, which begins the story of King David, who certainly ranks as one of the most important figures in the Bible. Not only is David’s story one of the longest and most involved in the Old Testament, the Psalms are filled with poetry that is attributed to David, and in the New Testament, David is mentioned at last 59 times! In fact, as Eugene Peterson has written,“you can’t understand Jesus fully until you first understand David.” And that’s not simply because there are historical and familial connections between David and Jesus (check out the first chapter of Matthew if you want to see the genealogy!); nor even that the great hopes held for David’s kingdom end up being fulfilled in the coming of Christ. It’s also because in David we see how the presence of God can make an ordinary human being come alive with joy and power; to put it another way, David was a man “after God’s own heart.” And therein lays the truth in God’s seemingly peculiar choices for leadership!
You see, at the time Israel was being ruled by its first king, a man named Saul; who, by all outward appearances, seemed to be the perfect candidate for the job: strong, good-looking, a proven military leader and popular amongst the people (all good qualities for a political career, right?). However, Saul was also an insufferable egomaniac, he was forever paranoid about losing his power, and somewhere in the midst of it all Saul had pretty much abandoned God! In short, Saul’s reign had proven to be an unmitigated disaster, and so God sends Samuel on a journey that takes him to, of all places, Bethlehem (!); and to the house of Jesse, in search of the one who the Lord would tell him to anoint as Israel’s next king.
And it’s quite a scene – and very telling – as Jesse proceeds to parade all of his sons before Samuel; every one of them strong, good-looking, strapping young men, all utterly “kingly looking,” seemingly just what the Almighty had ordered! But no… from the moment that Jesse’s oldest entered the room, God makes his meaning clear: “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him.” Or, as The Message translates it, “Don’t be impressed with his looks or stature… [for] God judges people differently than humans do. Men and women look at the face; GOD looks at the heart.”
Now what’s amazing about all this is not even that Samuel’s still making the call based on looks, especially given how horribly the whole Saul situation worked out, but that a total of seven of these manly men had come by and Samuel continues to believe that the right King of Israel is sure to be amongst them! I guess that shouldn’t surprise us, though; from the very beginning, we’ve been a culture obsessed by physical appearance, an attitude that has proven not only to be counter-productive but often downright cruel, particularly to young women. Look at any magazine for sale at the supermarket right now, and odds are you’ll see on the cover a picture of some beautiful, impossibly-thin young girl, with the message that somehow this “look” leads to fame, success or wealth. Never mind that the whole idea of such a thing is a lie bordering on idolatry; or that not even the women modeling for those pictures can live up to that image without makeup and airbrushed photography. The fact is, we’ve always had a tendency to equate outer, more superficial beauty with success and power; but the Lord looks deeper. For God, it’s not what’s on the surface, you see; but what’s in the heart.
And so Samuel is as surprised as anyone when it turns out that the eighth and youngest of Jesse’s sons – the ruddy-faced, poetry writing, guitar playing runt of the litter who’s been out tending the sheep – turns out to be exactly who God was looking for. Yes. Young David, this scrawny little adolescent destined to replace the handsome, charismatic Saul as King of Israel! “Rise and anoint him,” God says to Samuel, “for this is the one.” In other words, this one has the heart for the job. And it says that in this anointing (that, by the way, took place right there in front of all the other brothers, which you know made for some lively dinnertime conversation!) “the spirit of the LORD came mightily upon David from that day forward.”
The interesting thing here is that looking at David’s story as a whole, you find that he was far from the picture perfect ruler. Read on and you’ll discover that David was capable of adultery and even murder; he was, in fact, an ancient warrior king of the Middle East and to say the very least, a complex hero. Nor was he a person for whom destiny unfolded immediately – what’s the very next thing that happens to David after this anointing? Well, presumably, he goes back to the sheep, where he remains for the next 30 years, for that is how long it is before David actually becomes the king!
My point is that David was not chosen by God as a matter of immediacy, nor for his perfection of skills, nor even for the spotlessness of his character – David was chosen because of what was inside of him. Ultimately, what distinguished David from his brothers and most especially from Saul was that his heart was ready to be shaped, molded and developed into a heart for God and for the service of leadership. And then, just as now, it takes hearts such as these for the work of the Lord to move forward, incredible things done by ordinary people who’ve been touched by an extraordinary God!
Isn’t it true, after all, quoting Craig Barnes here, that “the most important decision[s] [we] will ever make is to what and to whom [we] will give our heart,” that “everything else follows?” The thing is that life is by its very nature, fleeting; and if we make our choices and change our course settings solely based on outward appearances, more often than not we find ourselves either flitting from one “big thing” to the next, or else helplessly floundering amidst the journey. What God reminds us, again and again, is that if you want to make the journey to have purpose and meaning and true success, then the choices are going to be made from the inside out; it starts, and abides within the heart.
When Martin Luther King, Jr., was a young seminarian, he was asked to write a paper on his religious development; and surprisingly, King wrote that he felt that his religious development had been, thus far, unspectacular. In fact, in all honesty, he said that his own Christian baptism had been less about a confession of faith than it had been about wanting to make sure he got baptized before his sister did! Moreover, King admitted that preaching was for him, more or less a means to an end: he wrote that he’d probably be in a parish for only a short while, and then maybe teach and eventually become president of Morehouse College.
But then, of course, as a young pastor in Montgomery, Alabama, King found himself caught up in the growing civil rights movement, which was not going well from without or within. There’d been bickering in the ranks of those involved, threats of violence from their enemies, and King himself had received many calls in the night that told him that he’d best leave town or else. That’s a lot for a young pastor who wasn’t even sure he belonged in a parish! King was tired, afraid, despairing and defeated; and, as he wrote later, he’d said to God on more than one occasion, “I can’t go on.”
But it was in one such moment that King heard a voice; a voice that said to him, “Martin, stand up for right, stand up for justice, and I will never, ever leave you.” A man, so young and full of promise, yet by all outward appearances completely ready and willing to give up; but God saw differently, because God saw this man’s heart. It was enough; and just a few years later, on a day on which its 50th anniversary will be marked next week, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave a “sermon” that is arguably one of the most famous ever delivered, the “I Have a Dream” speech: words that continue to resonate with a nation and a world that still has so much to learn about equality and freedom.
It was famously said at the time that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 only passed because “religious leaders got the idea that it was a moral issue.” (Sen. Richard Russell, D-Ga) That may be true; but it is also true that this awareness came about first because one person, and many others like him, had a heart for God and thus were willing to be shaped and molded and moved in ways they could never have imagined before.
I said it before: you just never know who God’s going to choose next. Or how… or for what. But it might well be, as King described us, “from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.” And it most certainly will be someone with a heart for God… maybe even someone like you or me. Who knows what the Lord sees when he looks at us?
The real question is, though, will we answer God’s call by truly opening our hearts unto his leading? Because everything hinges on our answer; indeed, a world can change with a willing heart. After all, with a heart for God, David was ready to slay a giant – there’s no telling what we’ll be ready for.
May the Lord bless us with willing hearts… and may our thanks always be unto God!
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry