Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
James 3.13-18 (NRSV), 1 Samuel 16.1-13 (NIV) (Wisdom and Discernment)
23 June 2019, Spiritual Gifts 2
The Lord said to Samuel, ‘How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king.’
But Samuel said, ‘How can I go? If Saul hears about it, he will kill me.’
The Lord said, ‘Take a heifer with you and say, “I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.” Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what to do. You are to anoint for me the one I indicate.’
Samuel did what the Lord said. When he arrived at Bethlehem, the elders of the town trembled when they met him. They asked, ‘Do you come in peace?’
Samuel replied, ‘Yes, in peace; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord. Consecrate yourselves and come to the sacrifice with me.’ Then he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.
When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, ‘Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord.’
But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’
Then Jesse called Abinadab and made him pass in front of Samuel. But Samuel said, ‘The Lord has not chosen this one either.’ Jesse then made Shammah pass by, but Samuel said, ‘Nor has the Lord chosen this one.’ Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, but Samuel said to him, ‘The Lord has not chosen these.’ So he asked Jesse, ‘Are these all the sons you have?’
‘There is still the youngest,’ Jesse answered. ‘He is tending the sheep.’
Samuel said, ‘Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives.’
So he sent for him and had him brought in. He was glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features.
Then the Lord said, ‘Rise and anoint him; this is the one.’
So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David. Samuel then went to Ramah.
Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.
I am often asked why we still read the Bible and take it so seriously, when it’s thousands of years old, written for people of a different time and place. After all, within our holy text is all kinds of teaching that makes no sense for us, or that we disregard—like the dietary laws, for instance. In both the Old and New Testaments there are many pages of rules regarding what the people of God can and cannot eat. They are meant to remind people that God is interested in every aspect of our lives, and to set us apart from people who worship different gods. Those rules created a particular kind of community. We no longer follow those parts of the Bible, though there are of course people who do. Similarly, there are things in the Bible that feel so far away from us—stories of God seeming to sanction war against the indigenous people of Canaan, letters to churches that have long ceased to exist, and teachings that feel very bound to their time and culture.
It’s true that the Bible contains all those things, and that it can be a challenge to discern what the enduring message is for us today. Sometimes it might very well be “don’t allow this history to repeat” or it might be a catalyst for discussing what it means to be God’s people and how others would know us as Christians, for instance.
It’s also true that sometimes we get readings like today’s, and it is shocking just how contemporary it feels. German theologian Karl Barth advises that we should always read with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, and today you don’t have to look far for examples of “where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” It’s almost as if James had a copy of the news from 2019. Though I think even someone from the first century Roman Empire would be shocked and appalled at the thought of children being kept in cages at the American border, sleeping on concrete floors with no blankets, no medicine, and no soap, while the world looks on in silent disbelief that concentration camps can be happening again. I think even someone from the first century Roman Empire would be surprised at the people we have chosen to lead our nations—in fact, reaching farther back, I think even Samuel might be surprised, given that the story we heard a little while ago so clearly says that looking only at appearances instead of at the heart is the way to choose the wrong leader. God looks at the heart, the character, of a person, and may choose someone who surprises us. When we look only at charisma or bank account or whatever other strange criteria seem to apply, then we end up with leaders who don’t think twice about tweeting celebrations of the Windrush generation that same leader tried to deport only a year or two ago, or with leaders who can congratulate themselves for pulling back at the last second from starting a war, or leaders that are so far removed from reality that they can’t see how Universal Credit drives families further into poverty and puts women at risk...the list could go on. I could stand here all day with the newspaper in one hand and see the examples, worldwide, of the disorder and wickedness that comes from envy and selfish ambition.
Yet we want leaders who have the gifts of discernment and wisdom. Those are the gifts Solomon prayed for when God asked what he wanted—the ability to know what was right, what was God’s direction that he was to lead the people toward, and the ability to see the application of God’s teaching to daily living and leadership, to understand God’s will and live it out.
Now, I think even Solomon would admit that even having received those gifts from the Holy Spirit, he still made mistakes. He still sometimes acted from selfish ambition rather than from God’s wisdom. Having a spiritual gift doesn’t mean we are perfect, or that we use it correctly all the time. It means that God has a purpose for us to fulfil, and gives us that gift as a tool—and we have to learn how to use that tool wisely.
Samuel is a good example. He once was the young boy whose mentor, Eli, was blind—both physically and spiritually. Samuel was given the gift of discernment, to be able to see where God was leading, to be a good judge of character and to sense what was the movement of the Spirit and what was a distraction or a false teaching. But now he is older, more experienced, and more burdened. By the time we get to the story we heard today, Samuel is blinded by grief about Saul, and perhaps about his own failures as well. When God calls him to go to Jesse and choose one of his sons to be the next king, Samuel has to be persuaded, and when he arrives he initially thinks he’ll just choose the obvious firstborn, who is tall and handsome and the eldest, and so clearly must be right.
But God intervenes and reminds Samuel of his gift: don’t consider his appearance or height or birth order or inheritance. Remember how to use the tools you’ve been given to judge right from wrong, to see what God sees, to discern. God doesn’t look at appearance, but at reality. Appearance is no substitute for substance, for heart, for character.
That’s a hard lesson for a people obsessed with curating our entire existence into social media stories.
But as we know, whatever image we project, God is not deceived. And honestly, even our neighbours know better, if they think about it for more than a few seconds. Everyone knows that there is more to the story than what we portray on instagram or facebook. When we look past the filters, we can get glimpses of who people really are. Though sometimes, as in the case of a few leaders that come immediately to mind, we don’t have to look hard, and I’m reminded of Maya Angelou’s line “when people show you who they are, believe them.” Especially if it’s an inadvertent glimpse behind the curated image, when we see something that demonstrates someone’s character, that might be a nudge from the Spirit’s gift of discernment.
James says that wisdom will be visible in works—that the way a person lives, behaves, acts, speaks, will be a demonstration of what sort of wisdom they have. Worldly wisdom comes out in envy and selfish ambition, boasting and falsehood, and results in disorder and wickedness. God’s gift of wisdom, though, looks like foolishness to the world—it is marked by gentleness, peaceableness, willingness to yield, mercy, a lack of partiality. This sort of wisdom doesn’t seek power, doesn’t result in neighbours being afraid enough to phone the police, doesn’t put children in cages, doesn’t start wars, doesn’t shut others out when they are in need, and isn’t interested in personal gain.
Instead, God’s gift of wisdom allows us to see what is true: that often, we have confused being with having. When we measure our worth by what we have, whether that’s possessions or power, then the result is envy and selfish ambition—making everything about us, our position, our status relative to others. When we instead measure worth by who we are—beloved children of God—we find that right relationship to God and each other leads to a way of life that is in accord with God’s teaching, with what we know to be true at the deepest level: that the word that created the world is love.
Both wisdom and discernment are, at their heart, relational gifts. And their absence is often marked by a sense of individualism and jockeying for position for oneself. The ability to cut myself off from caring about others, or about God, as I seek my own interest, is not a gift, but rather a lack of gift.
Samuel demonstrates that discernment is a gift that requires constant attention to the voice of God inside us. He nearly makes a terrible mistake, but he listens to God instead, and as each son passes by, he listens again. To use well the gift of discernment means being in constant open and honest communication with the Holy Spirit. Which, of course, is something that I hope we all want to cultivate, as Paul teaches us to pray without ceasing!
And James gives us a description of what wisdom looks like, and it is entirely made of relational words. Unlike the individualistic self-seeking of worldly wisdom, God’s gift of wisdom leads us to make peace, to be gentle with one another, to know when to compromise to help another along the way, to do mercy, and to be fair, showing no partiality. To live like this requires careful attention to the image of God in other people as well as in ourselves, and a sense of the right order of relationships—with Christ at the head, we are all together in this Body. No one is more important than another, we are all needed, wanted, and loved.
It sometimes feels as if these two gifts are in short supply in the world just now. But we know that God gives us what we need to pursue God’s work in the world, so perhaps the issue is not that God has not given the gifts, but rather that we have not yet learned to nurture the relationships that make these gifts work—open and honest, marked by careful and constant attention, to the voice of God inside us and speaking through others. Whether we have these particular gifts or not, nurturing our relationship with God and our relationship with each other can only help—as James says in his letter that is as true today as it was thousands of years ago, a harvest of righteousness is sown by making peace.
May it be so. Amen.