1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 51:10-14
Last week we saw Samuel as a young boy, first hearing God’s call upon his life as he served in the house of God at Shiloh under a man named Eli. This week, we see Samuel towards the end of his life, going to Bethlehem and anointing a boy named David to be Israel’s king. So, what’s happened in between? We need some background information if we are to understand today’s story better.
After Samuel began to hear the word of the Lord at Shiloh, and gave a message of doom to Eli, a group of people called the Philistines began to fight against the Israelites. The Philistines defeated the Israelites in battle, captured the Ark of the Covenant (this was the box that held the tablets of stone with the law that Moses had brought down from Mt. Sinai), and among the other Israelites that the Philistines killed were Eli’s two sons—those corrupt priests that God had warned Eli about. When Eli heard the news, he fell over and died. Through a series of events, the Philistines eventually returned the ark to Israel, and then Samuel comes to power and judges Israel in place of Eli. Samuel does a pretty good job, but when he gets old, he has the same problem as Eli did—his sons are corrupt and take bribes for their own personal gain.
So the people of Israel see this, and they look around at the countries around them and see that other countries have a king, and they demand a king for themselves. God is not happy with this request, and Samuel also is not happy with this request, and through Samuel, God warns the people of Israel what will happen if they have a king: the king will just take and take from the people and give little, if anything, back. But eventually, God gives in, and Samuel anoints a man named Saul to be Israel’s first king. Saul leads the people into battle against their enemies, and with God’s help, they win the battle. Samuel then decides it is time for him to take a step back and retire from leading the people of Israel. King Saul continues to lead the Israelites in battle against the Philistines and comes out victorious. Then, Saul leads a battle against the Amalekites, and he makes a bad mistake. God had commanded Saul to completely destroy all of the Amalekites, but Saul decides to spare the king of the Amalekites and to save the best of their animals rather than destroy them. God is furious because Saul has disobeyed God’s command, and God calls Samuel out of retirement to tell Saul that God is angry and to give him the message that God has rejected Saul as king over Israel. Samuel leaves Saul and doesn’t see him ever again. And then we arrive at today’s story, which begins with God questioning how long Samuel will grieve over Saul and sending Samuel to Bethlehem to anoint a new king.
Make no mistake: what Samuel is doing in today’s story is dangerous. No one has ever heard of anointing a new king while there is already a sitting king leading a country, and to do so would be considered treason. That’s why God gives Samuel a cover: Samuel is to take an animal with him and to tell the elders of Bethlehem that he has come there for a sacrifice. And the elders of Bethlehem are afraid at Samuel’s coming because Samuel, although retired, is still a political force to be dealt with. The elders may not know what is going on, but they fear that Samuel has come to do something that will get them in trouble with King Saul.
Now we come to the story of how David is called. At this point, it should not surprise us that God calls the youngest of the siblings. God has a habit of doing that: favoring Isaac over Ishmael; Jacob over Esau; even the great Moses was younger than his brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam. God delights in choosing the “least of these” to take precedence over the ones that the world thinks should be first. But this story of the call of David to be king injects a new element into the call stories that we have heard thus far. When God appeared to Jacob at Bethel, God came to him in a dream and promised him that he would be blessed and that God would be with him. When God appeared to Moses, we saw Moses refusing God’s call and God not letting Moses off the hook, but again promising Moses that God would be with him. Last week, we saw Samuel not understanding God’s call to him until Eli realized it was God who was speaking to Samuel, and then Samuel eagerly accepting the call. This week, we really don’t see David responding verbally to God’s call; at the end of the story we hear that the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. But here is the new element: it is a warning to us that God does not look at appearances when God calls someone, but instead, God looks at what is in the person’s heart.
It seems like such a simple lesson to us, doesn’t it? It’s that old adage that we like to trot out when we’re teaching our children: don’t judge a book by its cover. But you know what? We live in a world where appearances are still everything. We don’t see the bad parts of other people’s lives, and we don’t realize that they have their own problems that they’re dealing with. We look on the outward appearance, and we don’t think to ask a person what’s going on in her heart.
Part of looking only on the outward appearance of others is recognizing that we all still have prejudices and stereotypes within us, so that, when we look at someone walking down the street, for example, we instantly judge that person based on the way she looks. The latest scandal that hit the news cycle this week was about a man named Harvey Weinstein, a very rich movie producer in Hollywood who was fired from his position at his company because of decades of accusations of sexual harassment and assault. In response, on social media, there has been a #MeToo campaign, where women have stated that they have been victims of sexual harassment and assault, just to let people know how widespread this problem is. And yes, I am part of that “Me, too,” campaign. I have been catcalled. I have been harassed by men who I was not interested in. In one congregation that I was in, long before I was a pastor, there was a man who, at the sharing of the peace, would kiss all of the women on the cheek. I was uncomfortable with that and expressed my discomfort to the male pastor of that church. The response I got was, “Oh, that’s just who he is. I don’t want to cause a big stink by telling him to stop.” And so I learned to avoid this man at the sharing of the peace because he was violating my personal boundaries and making me uncomfortable. All of this goes back to the idea of men looking at the appearance of women and thinking because they look a certain way, they have the right to go after that woman and get what they want from her. They do not regard her as a person who has a heart and is valued by God for much more than her appearance.
The Psalm that we have today paired with our reading of David becoming king cries out to God to create in us a new heart. As Christians, this is what we should be continually crying out to God for: a new heart. A heart that looks at people as people; a heart that treats others the way we would want to be treated; a heart that values people because, no matter who they are: black, white, rich, poor, female or male: each one of us is created in God’s image. That means that God values us for who God has created us to be and not for how we look. One of my favorite movies as a teenager was Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves starring Kevin Costner and Morgan Freeman. Morgan Freeman played a Muslim who came home with Robin Hood from the Crusades. One of the lesser-known scenes in that movie is when a little girl comes up to Morgan Freeman’s character and asks him, “Did God paint you?” And he laughs and says, “For certain.” And when the little girl asks him why, he says, “Because Allah loves wondrous variety.”
This is how we should endeavor to approach other people: with the eye of God who loves wondrous variety. We are human and we will notice how others appear: there’s really nothing we can do about that. But instead of looking at the other person as a person that is there for our benefit, we should be looking at the other person as part of the wondrous variety that God has created. And we should be wondering with awe what God has called that person to do in this life, and appreciating the gifts that the other person brings that we don’t have. That is the new heart that we should be continually asking God to create in us. And when we do something that offends the other person, we should immediately stop what we are doing, ask forgiveness, and strive to do better in the future.
Because when we say that Jesus died for all people, all means all. Jesus died for each one of you. Jesus died for me. Jesus does not look at people’s appearances, but Jesus looks at what is in our hearts. Jesus sees the beauty and Jesus also sees the pain in our hearts. Jesus sees when a woman is harassed or touched when she doesn’t want to be touched, and Jesus grieves with her. And yes, men are assaulted too—and Jesus grieves with those men when they are hurting. Think on this for a moment: Jesus said, “As you have done it to them, you have done it to #MeToo.” That is a rephrasing of something that Jesus said in the Gospel of Matthew, but it gets the point across. We should remember that, when we are doing things, when we are having conversations with others, Jesus is present in the face of the other. And this remembrance is what needs to be guiding our behavior.
And so, we cry out with the Psalmist: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” For only with that new heart can we teach others the ways of God, and see that they will return to God. And the good news is this: With God, there is graciousness, steadfast love, and forgiveness of sin. With the knowledge that we are loved and we are forgiven, we can go forward with that good news and share it with everyone around us, especially those who are hurting and saying “Me, too.” Amen.