Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 22, 2020
1 Samuel 16:1-13 Commentary
In our first reading for this Fourth Sunday of Lent, we are introduced to the most famous king of Israel, David son of Jesse. It’s a favorite passage for many Bible students because of the parade of likely candidates from Jesse’s family, each of whom is rejected, and then the entrance of the least likely candidate, the shepherd boy wandering in from the fields with burrs in his hair and the smell of sheep in his clothes.
Right at the heart of that delightful story of David’s anointing is the passage that has seized the imagination of millions. “The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” Verse 7 has been used to warn against judging a book by its cover and to justify wearing slovenly clothes and slurping coffee during divine worship.
But verse 7 is not really what this passage is about. It is about Yahweh’s continued campaign against sin and evil, a battle that began in Paradise Fallen and will end in Paradise Restored. The RCL is helping us follow that campaign during Lent by focusing on stories that feature “One for All.”
First, there was Adam (and Eve), the first humans, whose terrible choice ruined it for all of us. Then, there was Abram, the first patriarch, whose election by God as covenant head became the source of blessing for all the world. Moses came next in this parade of mediators, the great leader and prophet who led Israel into liberty and received the royal law of liberty on Mount Sinai. Now we come to the first king, by whom God will establish a line of royalty from which the greatest “One for All” will be born.
Of course, David was not the very first king. That’s why we find Samuel, the king maker, in deep mourning as our story opens. “The Lord said to Samuel, ‘How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel?’” That points us back to chapter 15 which ended in tears—the tears of Samuel, the tears of God, and, though unmentioned, the tears of Saul (see verses 14 and 15 of this chapter). He had been the very first king of Israel, a magnificent specimen of a man, a head taller than all of his people, much loved by them, and by himself.
That was Saul’s fatal flaw—he had a big head. He thought he knew what to do as King even better than God did. So, in a critical moment, he obeyed God, but not completely. When God commanded complete destruction of the Amalekites, a people who had continually opposed God’s great campaign to establish his kingdom on earth, Saul did only part of the bloody job of redemption. In the name of sound politics and sacrificial duty, he spared the King of the Amalekites and many of their flocks. God was so displeased that he rejected Saul as King, because if God’s representative on earth would not obey completely, how could he lead God’s kingdom.
That’s why our text opens with sorrow all around, but God is determined to continue his campaign. Two times before this, God had promised that there would be a new king. Now he shakes Samuel out of his mourning and sends him on a crucial mission– “be on your way—” which sounds very like God’s command to Abram and Moses. Like those great Ones, Samuel obeys. Unlike Saul, “Samuel did what the Lord said (verse 4).”
He went with a horn filled with oil. Indeed, filling that horn is God’s first command to sad Samuel, clearly hinting that this journey was all about anointing. And, of course, it was. The word “anointing” is found three more times in these few verses. As all students of Scripture know, the word “anointing” is the word from which “Messiah” comes. Samuel is commanded to go and anoint the next king, who will be the Messiah for his people and the type of the Messiah who became the King of kings and the Lord of lords.
But, like so much of the subsequent story of God’s campaign, this one is filled with surprises. God is always doing things in ways we do not expect. Thus, God commands Samuel to go the smallest clan of the smallest tribe of Israel. As God so often does, he will choose the least likely (I Cor. 1:26-29) to accomplish his great work. Jesse is a name we’ve heard before, in the genealogy at the end of Ruth. This mission is not a helter-skelter foray into the unknown. God knows what God is doing, even though we don’t, most of the time.
The surprises continue when Samuel expresses fear of Saul. Ain in itself, that’s not surprising, given that Samuel had told Saul he had been rejected as King. The surprise lies in the “pious ruse” God advises Samuel to pull off. “Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord’.” Now, Samuel did sacrifice that heifer, but the sacrifice wasn’t really the reason for Samuel’s presence at Jesse’s home in Bethlehem. He was there to “anoint for me the one I indicate.” This kind of subterfuge doesn’t seem to comport with God’s truthfulness. It’s surprising, unless we say that in war sometimes you have to bend the truth to accomplish your mission.
The central surprise in the story is God’s choice among Jesse’s sons—not the oldest, in accordance with tradition, not even the second or third, for which there is precedence in the long story, but the last son, the one out tending sheep, the most menial of jobs. “The Lord does not look at things man looks at… the Lord looks at the heart.” God was looking for a man “after his own heart (I Sam. 13:14).” The man after God’s own heart was, of all things, a shepherd, an unlikely choice that would shape Israel’s kingship and Israel’s Messiah.
So, it is surprising, again, that the writer of I Samuel would gush over David’s appearance—“ruddy, with a fine appearance and handsome features (verse 12).” He adds later, “he knows how to play the harp… a brave man and a warrior… speaks well and is a fine looking man (verse 18).” Human appearance doesn’t determine God’s choice, but human appearance isn’t the point of the text either. The point of this text is not verse 7. The point is all the verbs with God as the subject. It is God who rejects Saul. God who speaks to Samuel, God who sends, God who chooses, God who anoints through Samuel, God who sends his Spirit onto David after his anointing. Those last words of verse 13 are “the heading for the entire story of David that is to follow. He is the divinely designated ruler of Israel.”
This passage is all about God continuing his campaign to save the world, using One to save All. When one of his chosen Ones fails, God does not quit. Instead he keeps moving through history, determined to use even the weak and lowly and despised to accomplish his great purpose of saving the world. The war with disobedience and rebellion that began in the Garden will come to its climactic battle on the cross after a crucial moment in another Garden. And through many surprising turns of events, that war will come to its victorious conclusion in the New Heaven and the New Earth in which only righteousness dwells (II Peter 3).
This season of Lent is a time for mourning as we consider our sins and failings. But as we grieve our sins, we must hear the Word of the Lord telling us to “be on your way,” because our King has won the victory at the cross, reigns from his throne, and is coming again to make all things new. The sorrow of Lent is overcome by the joy of the Anointed One for All. So, keep marching with the new King, the Son of David who is the Son of our surprising God.
Consider these stirring words from C.S. Lewis’ classic The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Through a magical wardrobe four children have stumbled into Narnia, the Kingdom where the wicked White Witch has imposed a perpetual winter. Early in their explorations of Narnia the children meet Mr. Beaver, one of the talking animals in this delightful series of books. Mr. Beaver announces, “They say Aslan is on the move—perhaps has already landed.” (Aslan is, of course, the Lion who is the Christ figure in these delightful books.)
Lewis continues. “And now a very curious thing happened. None of the children knew who Aslan was… but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different. Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer.”
Aslan/Yahweh/Jesus on the move through history changes the way we feel about everything. That’s why we keep reading these old stories about God on the move.
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