Don’t Judge by Appearances - Sermon for Lent 4A
1 Samuel 16:1-13
You’ve heard it said: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” There is great truth in this. I have first hand experience, because one of the reviewers of my first book, which was a revision of my dissertation, did just that. He made disparaging remarks about the book’s cover, and said next to nothing about its contents. Now, I will admit that the book’s cover is a bit odd, but I had nothing to do with the cover design. This lead me to think that he judged the book by the cover, and never read a page of what lay inside.
It’s easy to judge people based on their appearance. We do it all the time. But when we judge by appearances, we often get things wrong. I once took a man whom I knew fairly well to the ER. He looked dirty and disheveled, and was dressed in the blue overalls a car mechanic might wear. The ER staff looked at him and asked if he was homeless. I told them no. In fact, he probably had more money than all of us in the room. That’s just the way he lived. On the other hand, there was a homeless person who would come to the church for help, and he always wore a white shirt and a tie. Appearances can be deceiving.
According to Scripture, God regretted calling Saul to be Israel’s first king. Now, Saul looked like a king, but God rejected him because Saul “turned back from following me, and has not carried out my commands” (1 Sam. 15:10-11). So, God sent the prophet-priest Samuel on a mission to Bethlehem to anoint a new king for Israel from among the sons of Jesse. Samuel had anointed Saul, and served as his spiritual advisor, so he was saddened by God’s rejection of Saul, even though he agreed with God that Saul wasn’t fit to be king. Samuel wasn’t sure he wanted to go on this mission. After all, if Saul found out what was happening, he might have Samuel killed. But, when God calls, how can you say no? Besides, God had a plan!
God came up with a ruse to cover Samuel’s tracks. This is the plan: Samuel would go to Bethlehem under the pretense of inviting Jesse and his sons to join him in offering a sacrifice of some kind. That’s just what Samuel did. When he arrived in Bethlehem, he invited the family to join in offering the sacrifice, he blessed them, and then got down to the real business at hand—the anointing of Saul’s replacement.
This plan seems odd, even unethical. I like what Ron Allen and Clark Williamson have to say about this affair. On the positive side, this may simply be an example of God being “providentially active even before others are aware of the need.” But, on the other hand, they write that “the secrecy is troubling; it seems hardly fair to Saul for Samuel (and God) to anoint a successor to Saul without Saul’s knowledge.” [Preaching the Old Testament, p. 35]. If you’re going to impeach a leader, shouldn’t there be an open discussion? That wasn’t the case here.
Even though Saul would remain king for some time, God acted preemptively, by having Samuel anoint a successor who would have a heart for God. Since Saul had proven not to be that person, God was going to get it right this time (1 Sam. 13:14). So, Samuel had Jesse line up his sons, so that God could reveal to him whom he should anoint as king.
Jesse lined up seven sons, from the oldest to the youngest. Samuel naturally started with the oldest son—Eliab—since the brightest and best is always the first child! Or, so Samuel thought. But God didn’t care about seniority or about appearance or height. While humans focus on outward appearance, God looks on the heart. Not only did God reject Eliab, despite his impressive resume, God rejected every one of Jesse’s seven sons. Remember that Israel already had a king with an impressive appearance. Saul wasn’t only more handsome than everyone else in the land, “he stood head and shoulders above everyone else” (1 Sam. 9:1-2). But, as God said of Eliab, who seemed to have the same qualities as Saul, “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” (vs. 7). In other words, God doesn’t judge books by their covers. God reads the book and then makes the call!
By this time, though, Samuel must have been feeling a bit frustrated. He had taken a great risk coming to Bethlehem. Jesse had introduced him to seven sons, and he was under the impression that God would choose one of Jesse’s sons to be king. So, why hadn’t God chosen someone to anoint? Was God being fickle? In his desperation to fulfill his mission, Samuel asked Jesse if he had any other sons who might fill this role? Jesse did have another son, but he was the youngest, and he was out tending the sheep. Jesse hadn’t called him in, because never in a thousand years did he think God would choose David over his older brothers. Who would have thought that God would choose a young shepherd boy to be the next king of Israel? But, maybe God knew something that neither Jesse nor Samuel knew. Perhaps this young shepherd had a heart that was close to God.
Before we get to David’s arrival and his anointing, I’d like to stop and reflect on how we perceive people, especially people we embrace as leaders. Do we look to the heart or do we judge by appearances? Martin Luther King might have envisioned a day when the “content of our character” would be the defining measure of a person, but I don’t think we’ve arrived at that point in history quite yet. While the Disciples of Christ can be duly proud of being the first mainline Protestant denomination to call a woman to be its leader, why did it take so long? If eleven predominantly Muslim countries can choose a woman as their leader, why is the United States finding it so difficult to elect women to the highest offices in the land? Remember that during this last election cycle the two major parties put up more than twenty candidates to choose from, and only two, one in each party was a woman.
When David finally arrived, the first thing the narrator notices is David’s appearance. Even if God looks on the heart, the narrator informs us that David “was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome.” But isn’t that what we want in a leader? Don’t we expect truly successful leaders to “look the part?”
The narrator might have been impressed by David’s “good looks,” but is that why God told Samuel: “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one?” Or, were David’s impressive looks irrelevant to God? Did God see beneath even David’s good looks to his heart? Of course, according to the rest of the story, David had a heart for God, even if he had his share of faults. His marriages were problematic. His children squabbled and even murdered each other. But, unlike Saul, God never withdrew the spirit from David.
So, despite his faults, David was “a man after [God’s] own heart.” That was the testimony of Paul, when he preached in the synagogue in Antioch of Pisidia. According to Paul God rejected Saul and replaced him with David, because “in his testimony about him he said, ‘I have found David, son of Jesse, to be a man after my heart, who will carry out all my wishes.” Paul pointed to David, because he wanted to show that Jesus was David’s rightful heir, the promised Savior of Israel (Acts 13:21-23). Jesus also had God’s heart within him.
In the movie The Elephant Man, John Merrick is portrayed as a horribly deformed man who had been mistreated throughout his life. Everyone thought he was a freak and an imbecile; that is until a doctor overheard him repeat the Lord’s Prayer. In the course of the movie we discover that John is a person of sensitivity and intelligence. Here was a person who had a heart, but whose appearance masked his true character. At one point in the movie, Merrick cries out “I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being! I am a man!”
If God doesn’t care about appearances, why do we? Why don’t we look to the content of a person’s character? At one point, John shows Mrs. Treves, the wife of the good doctor who befriended him, a picture of his mother. As they talked about his mother, John confessed that he must have been a disappointment to his mother. Mrs. Treves responded to John’s lament: “No, Mr. Merrick, no. No son as loving as you could ever be a disappointment.”
Picture attribution: Anointing of David, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55312 [retrieved March 25, 2017]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Paris_psaulter_gr139_fol3v.jpg.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
March 26, 2017