Gourock St. John’s
1 Samuel 16:1-13
17 October 2021, NL4-7, Uncovered 6
Last week we heard God calling to the child Samuel. Samuel grew up to be a trustworthy prophet who revealed God’s word to the people, and so the people began to recognise that they needed a more formal leader. They asked for a king. Samuel reminded them that God was their king, and a human king would inevitably go wrong, but they insisted, and God agreed, anointing Saul as the first king of Israel. Saul was head and shoulders taller than anyone else in the country, and he was handsome and charismatic. Unfortunately, he also chose political expediency over faithfulness to God’s way, and when waiting for God and Samuel to give their blessing in the midst of a military situation became too difficult, he took matters into his own hands. As a result, Samuel told him that God would choose another king to take his place. We pick up the story today in 1st Samuel chapter 16, when Saul is still on the throne but has just heard from God that his days as king are numbered. I am reading from the New Revised Standard Version.
The Lord said to Samuel, ‘How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.’ Samuel said, ‘How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.’ And 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 you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.’ Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, ‘Do you come peaceably?’ He said, ‘Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.’ And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.
When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, ‘Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.’ But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.’ Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, ‘Neither has the Lord chosen this one.’ Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, ‘Neither has the Lord chosen this one.’ Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, ‘The Lord has not chosen any of these.’ Samuel said to Jesse, ‘Are all your sons here?’ And he said, ‘There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.’ And Samuel said to Jesse, ‘Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.’ He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, ‘Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.’ Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.
This week on Bake-Off, one of the bakers made a very big mistake in the technical challenge. When reading the recipe, she didn’t notice that one line of the ingredient list went onto a second page, and so when making sticky toffee pudding, she left out……flour.
As you can imagine, this was a disaster in the oven.
You might be thinking “how can you just forget about flour when making a cake?” Or perhaps “why didn’t she look at the second page before starting?” Good questions.
We might ask the same question of Jesse! Samuel invited Jesse and all his sons to the ritual sacrifice and feast, and Jesse brought seven sons with him. Seven was, of course, the perfect number, the number that symbolised completion. And his seven sons were tall and handsome and just great in every way. The eldest in particular seemed to have everything it takes to be just what Samuel was looking for. As the firstborn he was well positioned to inherit, and people would listen to him. Plus, of course, Saul was very tall and handsome, so clearly whoever God would choose to replace him must also be at least as good looking, right?
God’s answer to Samuel demonstrates that Samuel isn’t great at seeing with God’s eyes. Most of us aren’t, to be fair. “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
It always makes me wonder just what God was looking for, in the hearts of these young men who were being paraded in front of Samuel while the whole town looked on. It was like the great Bethlehem pageant or something, with seven contestants who look great but don’t have that special something that puts them over the top.
At which point, Samuel looked at Jesse and said “are you sure this is all your sons?”
As if he could possibly forget one — of course it’s all of them…oh, turn the page, there’s one more line on this list…David is out in the fields. But he's the last, the youngest, and therefore the least important, right? No big deal to just miss out the one ingredient, just power on through even though this recipe looks all wrong…
Can you imagine that moment? When everyone else has been through the process of being sanctified for the ritual — we don’t know exactly what that means, but it was likely a day of fasting, bathing, and praying — and then they’d been through the whole beauty pageant, only to find that one person had been forgotten? And then for Samuel to insist that the ritual and its attendant feast couldn’t go ahead until someone went out into the fields outside of town, located Jesse’s flocks, got David to round them all up and bring them in, and come to the gathering…it would take a long time. And David wouldn’t even be sanctified when he arrived, he likely came in straight from shepherding, still looking (and smelling) like a young boy who’d been sleeping on the ground and wrangling sheep.
And yet, he’s the one God is calling.
The one who came after the perfect complete family of 7. The one who was not sanctified. The one who was so forgettable and run-of-the-mill that he didn’t even count in the list of ingredients. He was the one God insisted could not be left out, the one without whom nothing could go ahead.
We don’t know what God saw in David’s un-sanctified heart that was different from what was in his brothers’ hearts. But we do know that God had chosen to call someone who fit zero of the criteria for what people thought was important, and not just that — anointed him to be the king of the nation, to lead the people through the trials and triumphs that were to come. So the Holy Spirit took hold of David that day, filling him and directing him and refusing to let go. He would become the one whose word carried weight in the community, whose choices everyone looked to, and whose fashions they imitated. They would trust him to be their guide and to do the things that needed to happen to make their nation safe and prosperous and faithful.
And he had been the extra line that went onto the second page, easily overlooked.
This month we have been watching some films together on Sunday afternoons — films made by and about people who are living with the everyday effects of climate change. We saw one about a Kenyan farmer and his community’s struggle with the changing pattern of rainy and dry seasons, leading to droughts and then floods, ruining crops, meaning they cannot afford to send children to school or take them to a doctor. And another film was about a family in Kiribati, where changing weather patterns have brought floods and hurricanes they never experienced before, so the family has had to split up and emigrate one parent at a time because they can no longer make a living as the sea rises and claims their islands. Both the Kenyan farmer and the president of Kiribati went to Paris to speak to world leaders about climate change, and both left disappointed that the deal everyone was praising fell so far short of anything that would actually tangibly help their people. This afternoon we’ll be watching a film about seven people from different communities around the world, trying to figure out how to make people care about our neighbours who live on the other side of the world.
All three of these films are about those people who are the line that goes onto the second page of the recipe…out of sight, out of mind. Most of us couldn’t place Kiribati on a map. I only learned how to pronounce it when we were watching the film last week. When we’re asked about bringing everyone to the table, they are the ones left out until someone asks specifically if there’s anyone else, and then we turn the page and say “oh yeah, that other one. But they’re small and insignificant and poor and no one will notice if they’re not here.”
God notices that they’re not here. And that we’re not only not listening, but actively ignoring them, choosing not to care about our neighbours who live on the other side of the world.
And it’s out there — beyond the boundaries of what we think of as whole and complete, on the forgotten second page of the list of people we have decided are the ones who count and whose opinions matter — out there that God has seen and provided a leader for the people.
Maybe they don’t have the experience we think they should, and maybe they don’t look the part of a world leader to us, and maybe they’re not sanctified like everyone else coming to the feast, but the truth is that we cannot proceed until everyone is here, because they’re the ones God is calling to lead, and we’re the ones God is calling to listen and follow.
Without flour, the sticky toffee pudding is just a burned pile of smushed dates, butter, and sugar. Without the 8th-born child shepherd David, even the powerful and rich will wait in fear and expectation because the ritual cannot go on until the future king arrives. Without the people of those nations we have overlooked, we cannot move forward on climate justice and we will miss the future God has planned.
God may well be working outside the systems we set up, and calling into leadership people whose bodies or histories or locations are outside what we think is the “norm,” and God is definitely calling us to take notice of those we have long thought didn’t count, didn’t need or deserve or earn a seat at the table, those we didn’t even remember they existed let alone mattered.
The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart. Whatever God is uncovering in our own hearts, and in the hearts of others, it’s time to look and to listen and to follow faithfully.
May it be so. Amen.