Scripture Readings: 1 Samuel 16.1-13
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
The prophet Samuel was on a mission to find a new king for Israel. At Bethlehem, he was sure he’d got his man when he met Eliab, son of Jesse. He thinks that Eliab has all the right qualifications- an eldest son, he looks the part. We’re told he’s tall and handsome- just how you’d need to look to lead an army into battle. This must be the man, thought Samuel. But God had other ideas. In his heart, Samuel heard God speak:
Pay no attention to how tall and handsome he is. I have rejected him, because I do not judge as people judge. They look at the outward appearance, but I look at the heart.
Six more sons of Jesse were brought to Samuel, but none of them were the man God wanted. Puzzled, Samuel asked Jesse, ‘Have you any more sons?’ There was just the youngest son left over, out on the hills watching the sheep- no-one had thought to bring the youngest son along to meet the prophet. And when David is brought to him, God tells Samuel that this is the man.
David was to become the greatest of Israel’s kings, and one of the most important characters in the Bible story. But he was very nearly overlooked. Samuel thought Eliab was the boy he was looking for- but God surprised him. Because God looks at things differently- God is not interested in outward appearances, but looks into our hearts. So Samuel has a surprise when he discovers that the king is to be David, the youngest son. Often it is the least expected person through whom God can works miracles.
We live in an age when style and image is everything. Millions of pounds are spent on clothes, make-up, beauty treatments, diet foods. Even your house and your car is supposed to say something about you. No doubt a lot of this is pretty harmless. But there’s heartbreak as well- young women who diet until they damage their health, boys who get bullied at school for wearing the wrong kind of trainers. In a society obsessed with appearance, rumours of a few pounds added onto a celebrity bum can make front page news. In China many years ago, women had their feet bound up because small feet were thought to be beautiful. And isn’t there an African tribe where they wear metal rings around their necks to make their necks longer? In our own culture there are people who reckon they can only find happiness through cosmetic surgery procedures like breast enlargement. For we are obsessed by looks and by status.
But God has the bigger picture. The good news is that God doesn’t care if you’re fat or thin, blonde or grey haired. It’s what’s inside that counts for God- it’s what’s in your heart that’s important. And so God tells Samuel: it’s not what’s on the outside that’s important: I look below the surface, below what you can easily see. It’s not Eliab, nor any of the other sons Jesse is presenting to you. Bring the youngest one- the one who’s looking after the sheep. And so David is brought to Samuel, and David begins his journey to the throne.
It is a religious insight, this truth that appearances aren’t everything. Jesus once said,
I came to this world to judge, so that the blind should see and those who see should become blind (John 9.35)
That, I think, is Jesus’ judgement on our surface-obsessed society. St Paul speaks about people
who boast about people’s appearance and not about their character’(1 Corinthians 5.12)
He teaches us that as Christians, we are to judge people by a different standard:
No longer, then, do we judge anyone by human standards
Instead, he reminds us that those who are joined to Christ- and that is what we signify at baptism- are seen by God in a whole new light:
Anyone who is joined to Christ is a new being; the old is gone, the new has come (2 Corinthians 5.17).
Too many of us today lack any spiritual insight- we suffer from spiritual blindness. We are obsessed with outward appearance, and lack the insight to see any deeper. And yet we think we can see it all. Jesus judges us and says, ‘You think you can see, but you are really blind- blind to what really matters’.
But that is not quite all that the story of Samuel anointing David is about. I used to think that the moral of this story is that outward appearances don’t matter to God. But when I read it more closely this week, I realized that there’s a bit more to it than that. When Samuel has seen the rest of Jesse’s sons, he asks for David to be sent for. Listen again to what the text says of David when he appears:
He was a handsome, healthy young man, and his eyes sparkled. The Lord said to Samuel, “This is the one- anoint him!”
You see, David, too, looked the part. If he’d been an ugly, puny weakling he wouldn’t have made much of a king. His outward appearance did matter to God, because God could use that outward appearance. He would look the part of a king. But it was more than just David’s looks which were important. There was an inner something which set David apart from his brothers, something which Samuel only recognised when it was shown to him by God.
Inside a mustard seed, said Jesus, there is a world of possibilities. Sow that tiny seed, and something will grow out of it. Jesus exaggerates: the mustard seed does not become the largest of all trees. But his point is that from very small, insignificant things, can come amazing things. And this is why this is a parable of Christ’s kingdom. From the smallest seeds, from seemingly insignificant things, God can do a lot.
When a new baby comes into a family. we all look at the helpless baby, and wonder what will become of him or her. Because even although the child is helpless, nevertheless the possibilities are endless. Will she be a brain surgeon, an inventor, a writer or an actor or an artist? But even if she does not, she will still have the opportunity to do great things- to be a wonderful daughter, to be a good friend to someone in need, to make a positive contribution to the life of the society she will grow up in.
In every age and culture there people who are marginalised, demonised or forgotten. Like mustards seeds, they are the overlooked, apparently unimportant. But it has often been Christian people who said, ‘These are children of God, they should not be treated like this’. That’s why Christians fought to abolish things like slavery and child labour. It’s why Christian agencies are involved in helping the homeless, or rehabilitating drug users. It’s why Christians in India reach out to the ‘untouchables’, those at the bottom of the Hindu caste system. It’s why any kind of racism, or any discrimination against someone because of their nationality, or any other reason, is anathema to the Gospel. That’s why Christian churches are so involved in looking after the refugees coming ashore on the Mediterranean or attempting to settle in our cities. That’s why it’s important that we support initiative like the food banks, taking care of people our politicians seem to think can be forgotten about. I think it’s what motivates Street Pastors, who don’t just see party goers or revellers, but the people behind the bravado, or the drunkenness- a mother’s son, a father’s daughter, a child of God like you and me who needs help, who needs to hear the good news that God loves them, and that there is meaning in life.
Others look at the outward appearances, but God sees the heart. And Christians should see, not a refugee, not a foreigner, not an untouchable, not a homeless or drug-addicted statistic, not someone who’s drunk too much and is headed for a brush with the police- we should see a child of God.
For if you believe in God, the world looks different. People who seem fit only for charity or pity or worse suddenly seem full of possibilities. As Christians, we have to learn, as Samuel learned in our Old Testament story, to see under the surface: seeing beyond first impressions, beyond a person’s skin colour or nationality or accent or social standing, to the person behind the statistics, the fellow human being, a child of God like us.
When we celebrate the Sacraments in church, we take ordinary things- bread and wine, or today for young water for baptism, and we set them aside and treat them as if they were special. It is not that they are any different than any other bread, wine or water. But for people of faith, they come to have inner meanings, spiritual meanings. So we talk of water which washes away sin and bread and wine which is the body and blood of Christ. Another example: this building, this place where we meet, is only wood and stone and iron. Yet for people of faith, it becomes the house of God when we worship here. With faith, you can begin to be able to see the world differently.
And you begin to see people differently. And then all kinds of things are possible. If you can learn to see Jesus Christ in bread and wine, and believe in forgiveness just because water is poured out, and building as the house of God, then you can also start to see people differently. In faith, you look at other people and see something beautiful and unique in each of them. For they are children of God, the neighbours whom Christ has commanded you to love, whoever they are, however they look. For the gift of faith is that we see the world in a whole new way.
And, if we will accept it in faith, it is God’s gift to us to know that God judges us differently from the world around us. We who know of God’s love are not immune to our culture’s obsession with fashion and looks and status. But if we know that we are children of God, then that is a wonderful status already.
A few years ago, Susan Boyle appeared on Britain’s Got Talent. She didn’t look like a star, but turned out she had an amazing voice. But even if she had never been ‘discovered’ by Britain’s Got Talent, even if she’d never become famous, she would still have the knowledge that she is a child of God, that she is loved by God. And there were already lives touched by her: press reports spoke of her volunteering with her local Church and looking after her siblings and elderly mother. Susan Boyle might have impressed Simon Cowell, but in God’s eyes she was a great person already.
And if we will accept it, each of us are seen by God differently. We may be apparently ordinary, but we are God’s children. And the everyday things that we do in our lives are judged differently by God as well. So when we do a small thing for the Kingdom- a smile, a helping hand, something which perhaps no-one even knows about, but only God knows about- then that, says Jesus is a bit like the mustard seed. What we think is great and what God knows is great can be very different. So go from here and sow the seeds of kindness, of goodness and of love. Forget whether what you do is cool or fashionable or will make you famous. For God judges these things differently. And in the end, only God’s judgement of you, of who you are and what you do, really matters.
Ascription of Praise
The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.
Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2018 Peter W Nimmo