Grace Presbyterian Church
March 19, 2023, Lent 4A
What Are You Looking At?
In some ways the hardest part of making this week’s sermon happen was choosing which of the scriptures to start from in that preparation. The gospel reading is a fascinating account of Jesus’s healing of a blind man from John 9, one of those Very Long Readings with all sorts of detail and conflict and struggle written into it. The psalm for the day is no less than Psalm 23, which has probably been the subject of more sermons than any other psalm, by far. Even the epistle reading, from Ephesians, is an interesting reflection on darkness and light which suggests that the best thing for us to do is to expose those wrongs done in secret, which would be pretty interesting to explore. Thinking of the church as a legion of investigative reporters out to expose the evils of the world could be quite fascinating.
For whatever reason, though, today’s reading from 1 Samuel wouldn’t let me off the hook. It’s a familiar enough story, one that introduces the one who would become perhaps the most eminent figure in the history of the biblical people of Israel. Indeed, it is the future king, David, who shows up at the climax of this account, the one whose story would occupy so much of this book and those to follow in the canon of Hebrew Scripture, and also the man whose name is connected to so many of the Psalms collected in the book of that name, including none other than Psalm 23.
Part of the trick to getting this story right, though, is that this is not a story about David, no matter how much we want to jump ahead to his prominence in Israel and in the scriptures. The principal actor in this story is God, of course, as the One who provokes and moves the actions that take place. As for the humans here, the principal character here, the main mover and vessel of the action and the one who has the most to learn, is the old priest and prophet and judge Samuel.
Samuel’s time is starting to end, even if he doesn’t know it yet. Things haven’t gone so well in his later years. His sons, meant to be judges and prophets after him, have turned out to be as corrupt and ill-suited to the task as the priests who had come before Samuel. He had been bitterly disappointed when the people demanded a king “to govern us, like other nations,” and maybe even a little disappointed when God acquiesced so easily (though not at all joyfully) to that demand. Nevertheless, Samuel had done his best to guide the new king, Saul, in this unprecedented role. Whatever his intentions, Saul had been too ready to give in to the temptations of so much power and had ultimately been ready to violate direct commands from God in the conduct of his office. Ultimately God declared to Samuel that Saul was no longer in God’s favor as king, a fate which hung upon Samuel with particular bitterness. Despite his own alienation from Saul and his convictions that Israel should never have demanded a king, Samuel grieved for Saul.
We enter the story in today’s reading with God essentially saying to Samuel, “enough is enough.” God had a job for Samuel to do, and Samuel needed to get off his pity party and get to work anointing a new king.
Samuel’s not wrong to be concerned about this. Whatever God had said about Saul, Saul was still king. Going out to anoint a new king without Saul’s knowledge or approval, in a strictly political sense, was treason, and Samuel knew darn well how Saul would take to such an act of betrayal. God basically tells Samuel to engage in a bit of subterfuge to hide the action, and the old priest gathers up a heifer and heads to Bethlehem, to anoint one of the sons of a man named Jesse as essentially king-in-waiting. Once the elders of the town of Bethlehem are calmed (for they are as aware as Samuel of the risks inherent in his visit), he makes his way to Jesse’s place.
In truth, the pivotal moment of this story happens here. Not when David is fetched from his shepherding duties, but now, when Jesse’s first son Eliab comes into Samuel’s view. In modern jargon, Eliab “looks the part.” It doesn’t hurt that he’s also the oldest son, as that was The Way Things Are Done in this time – oldest son gets pretty much everything. It’s also easy to recall the first time Saul appeared in the narrative, literally standing head and shoulders above all the rest. Whatever it was, to Samuel, Eliab “looked the part,” and he was ready to perform this anointing and get on his way.
Not so fast, says God. Just because he stands out in the crowd and looks the part, don’t assume this is the one. I know his heart. This is not my future king. Move on.
There’s a lot to unpack here, and we don’t always get that unpacking right. The point is not, for example, that physical handsomeness and height of stature are disqualifying for God’s call. After all, once David appears, the narrator has an awful lot to say about David’s own handsomeness, particularly about those “beautiful eyes” David apparently had. All those Hollywood tropes about the handsome hero and the creepy-looking bad guy? Wrong. No, it’s closer to say that a person’s external features – their appearance – tell us nothing about what’s going on in the heart.
Actually, that word “heart” is worth a little unpacking as well. In our modern usage the “heart,” besides being that bodily organ that keeps the blood flowing throughout our bodies, has the metaphorical role of the center of our capacity to love. Not so in this culture in which Samuel is living; rather, the “heart” as spoken of here encompasses such human functions as understanding and reasoning, as well as empathy and feeling; it sits somewhere between what we metaphorize as the “mind” or the “soul.” At any rate God has seen what’s in Eliab’s “heart,” and has concluded that this is not the one.
Interestingly, we might just get a little confirmation of this judgment of Eliab in the very next chapter, when he and two of his brothers are part of the Israelite army arrayed to do battle against the Philistine forces and their un-humanly large warrior Goliath. Yes, this is the famous story where David, still a youth, shows up and takes down Goliath with his slingshot, but before that happens, we get another view of Eliab, and it’s not pretty. He gets angry. It’s not entirely clear if it’s mostly older-brother jealousy at the cheeky younger brother showing up in a place he isn’t supposed to be (even though Jesse has sent David to take supplies to his brothers and to the army), or if he knows that he got passed over in favor of David and is jealous about that. One doesn’t read too much into one moment, but Eliab might just be showing something of why God “rejected” Eliab as king.
As for David, well, there are many, many chapters to come about his coming to the role and his service as king (he doesn’t even get anointed as king of any part of the region until 2 Samuel 2). Let’s be clear; David was not perfect. He was also susceptible to the temptations of power and turned out to be a pretty horrible father in the bargain. His heart, however, never fully abandoned God, and for all his foibles and failings, David remained a servant of God.
These are things that Samuel could not see. His seeming willingness to act quickly based on external appearance is, as we are painfully aware, all too common in our own time. Whether it’s however many hundreds of channels of television or streaming available to us (news orentertainment, or entertainment pretending to be news), or numerous corners of social media or advertising or print media, we can see way too many examples of people out there, famous people, influential people (even some social media figures who identify blatantly as “influencers”), sometimes even powerful people who, upon closer inspection, have nothing to offer besides their pretty or handsome external appearance. It’s enough to drive one to despair if you let it.
Fortunately, the One whose vision matters knows better. God sees beyond the pretty trappings or enhanced appearance. God also hears beyond the pretty words or inflammatory rhetoric or even the most eloquent voice in song. God sees us, in all our imperfection, no matter how much we try to put up a pretty exterior to fool the world.
This does bring up the question of what we are really looking at. In our daily lives, in our political leanings, in our fumbling following of God, what are we looking at? What are we not seeing? It’s not a bad question to keep in the back of our minds, or as this scripture puts it, our hearts.
In the end, the miracle of it all, really, is that God sees beyond that outward appearance, and sees the heart, … and loves us anyway.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal); #32, I Sing the Mighty Power of God; #30, God Moves in a Mysterious Way; #39, Great Is Thy Faithfulness
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