Divine Criteria -- Sermon for Pentecost 3B

1 Samuel 15:34-16:13

Do you know what it feels like to be the last person chosen for the team? Neither team captain really wants you, but you have to go somewhere. While it’s not fun being in that position, maybe you’ll surprise your doubters! 

Let’s consider, for example, the annual NFL draft.  Each year teams covet certain players because they’re sure they’re going to make a difference. Sometimes it works out; sometimes it doesn’t. I think most of us will agree that Matthew Stafford has worked out pretty well for the Lions, but Cleveland can’t say the same for last year’s first round choice of Johnny “Football” Manziel, who might already be on his way out of the league.  There are always first round picks who end up as flops, while players picked in the later rounds, or even as undrafted free agents, can go on to be stars. I know that the Michigan fans in the room will remember a guy named Tom Brady. He went to the New England Patriots in the sixth round of the 2000 draft. Six quarterbacks, none of whom did much of anything in the NFL, were drafted ahead of him. For some reason teams didn’t think that Tom Brady had much potential for greatness. Who knew?

Last Sunday we met up with King Saul, who looked like a king. Unfortunately there was something missing on the inside. Several chapters later, with things in Israel going from bad to worse, both Samuel and God find themselves regretting the choice. Saul might have been a mistake, but surely God can fix things.

God did hatch a plan. Why not send Samuel on one last big assignment to find a suitable candidate in the town of Bethlehem?  Samuel wasn’t too sure about this new assignment, since if Saul found out he could end up dead. Not to worry. God has just the thing – a little ruse to fool Saul. God told Samuel to take a heifer with him and then invite Jesse of Bethlehem to join him in offering a sacrifice. Then, after that Samuel could identify and anoint the new king from among Jesse’s sons. 

After Samuel and Jesse offer the sacrifice, Samuel asks Jesse to bring his sons before him. I’m not sure whether Jesse had figured out what Samuel was up to, but he did as he was told. He lined up his sons so that Samuel could review them. Since this was a patriarchal culture, which assumed that power and privilege always goes to the oldest son, Jesse first presented his oldest son – Eliab – to the prophet. Samuel expected that this would be the one, after all, Eliab looked the part, but God said no.  Before you know it, Samuel has reviewed seven sons, and none of them meets with God’s approval. There’s nothing wrong with them.  They’re just not the right fit for the job.

Despite the cultural expectations, God isn’t impressed with this group of young men and God doesn’t seem to be bound by the assumption that the first born son gets the spoils. With a few modifications, including a change in British law that allows the first born child rather than the first born son to become heir to the throne, the British crown still goes to the oldest child of the current monarch. So, someday the throne of England should pass from Elizabeth to Charles, and then from Charles to William, and from William to George. If something happens to George, then Charlotte is next in line. Poor Harry, every time Will and Kate have a child he gets knocked down another peg. But, according to British law, this is the proper order of things.

While patriarchy still ruled, some traditions weren’t so sacred that Yahweh couldn’t change the rules. Of course, it’s good to remember that monarchy wasn’t God’s idea in the first place. So, if God wants to mess with it, who is going to object? 

But why did God pass over Eliab and the other six sons of Jesse? When Samuel raised the question, God replied:  “Have no regard for his appearance or stature, because I haven’t selected him. God doesn’t look at things like humans do. Humans see only what is visible to the eyes, but the Lord sees into the heart.” (1 Sam. 16:7 CEB). God isn’t going make the same mistake twice. This time it’s heart over appearance.

What is interesting about the biblical story is that God often goes against the grain. Remember how God honored Abel’s offering over Cain’s, even though Cain was the oldest. God chose Jacob rather than Esau, even though Esau was the older brother. God does strange things. Part of this story has to do with the very choice of Israel. Israel was never a major power. It was always caught in between the intrigues of the larger empires – Egypt on one side and the Assyrians and then the Babylonians on the other. God could have chosen the mighty and the powerful, but that’s not the way God works. 

In fact, that seems to be Luke’s point in placing Jesus’ birth in a stable. The one whom God sent into the world to redeem it, isn’t born in a palace, but is instead born out among the animals. So it shouldn’t surprise us if God continues to change the rules set in place by our culture.   

Back to the story at hand, Samuel is clearly frustrated. Jesse had presented his sons, and none of them fit the bill. So finally, he asks Jesse if there’s anyone else. A bit embarrassed perhaps, Jesse confesses that there’s another son, but he’s out tending the sheep. Someone had to do it, and usually that means the youngest child, who is, after all, expendable. 

When I was reading this, I thought about what happens during the President’s State of the Union Address. All of the President’s cabinet members are in attendance — everyone except one cabinet secretary, who stays behind just in case somebody takes out the government. Now usually the person who stays behind heads up one of the “lesser departments.” You know the one whom no one would miss at the party! That’s David in this story, and yet he is the one whom God chooses to anoint in place of Saul. 

Now there is a bit of hitch in this story. Did you notice how the narrator describes David’s appearance? The translators of the New Living Translation put it this way: He’s “dark and handsome, with beautiful eyes” (1 Sam. 16:12 NLT). Aren’t we back where we started, with a focus on the externals? David might be the youngest, but he still looks like a king – and as we learned last week: “It’s good to be the king,” unless of course you’re Saul!  But could that be the point, no matter what you look like on the outside, what counts is what is on the inside?   

Now, it’s good to remember that David isn’t without his faults. He’s as human as Saul, but something is different about him. That difference is David’s loyalty to Yahweh. Unlike Saul and unlike most of his successors, David tries not to do what is right in his own eyes. So, when Samuel anoints him as the next king, the “spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward” (1 Sam. 16:13).  In other words, Yahweh was with him and would stay with him, through thick and thin.

There’s a connection between this passage and the parable Jesus tells in Mark 4 about the sower who scatters seed on the ground, but finds it a mystery why these little seeds become grains of wheat. The sower can only see what’s happening on the surface, but not what’s going on below. It’s easy to rely on externals to make decisions, but that might not be the best way. Apparently, that’s not the way God works either.

Maybe you were the last player chosen, but that doesn’t mean that you’re not a person of value or that you don’t have gifts to share. Everyone here has value. As Paul told the Corinthians, every part of the body is important. Every gift is important. David had the qualities that God was looking for in a king. He wasn’t perfect – as we’ll see as the journey continues – but he had a heart for God. As a result, when Samuel anointed him, the Spirit came upon him with power.

May we learn to follow the lead of God and look not on the surface, but seek to discern what lies behind and beneath the surface, so that the realm of God might make itself known in our midst.  
Preached by:
Dr. Robert Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Pentecost 3B
June 14, 2015


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