Rev. Teri Peterson
judging by the cover
1 Samuel 15.35-16.13 (Psalm 51)
20 October 2013, NL 4-7
Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel.
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.
I have a confession to make. Even after nearly 30 years as a reader, I am still guilty of judging a book by its cover. If you write a book, make the cover burgundy with gold or silver print, put a girl in a princess dress on the cover, and I will probably buy it. There’s just something about that look that draws me in and makes me absolutely certain I am going to love the book enough to spend money on it, not even just put it on hold at the library.
We all know that “don’t judge a book by its cover” is about more than books. And we also all know that it’s not just books we judge by their covers. Research has shown that people who are conventionally attractive are more likely to get the job, the promotion, the raise—regardless of whether the less attractive person is equally or even more qualified. We know that appearance matters in politics, in dating, in the workplace. And yet today we hear these words from the Lord: “I do not look as humans do. You look on the outward appearance, but I look into the heart.”
How often have we overlooked a book that we might love, because the cover wasn’t just right?
And how often have we assumed that the right look equals the right choice? Or even gone to the other extreme and insisted that it’s possible to look too good for something?
When the Israelites had first asked for a human king, one of the signs that Saul was the chosen king was that he was head and shoulders taller than everyone else in the assembly. Samuel and all the people said “He has no equal among us!” Yet ultimately, Saul forgot that the job of a leader is to work for the common good, and he worked for himself instead. Saul forgot that the Lord is the true head of the body, and he acted as if he was the powerful one. Saul may have been a mighty warrior, looked presidential, been taller than everyone else, and had the right power tie and appropriate sized flag pin, but his heart turned away from his call. And God was sorry—the Hebrew says that God repented—for making Saul king.
We don’t often think of God repenting. To repent means to turn away from one thing and toward another, to turn one’s life around. It’s not just about feeling bad or apologizing, but changing, transforming. For God to repent of making Saul king is for God to recognize wrong and to change to a new path…and that new path leads Samuel straight toward Bethlehem.
The leaders in Bethlehem are worried when they see Samuel approaching—makes me wonder what they had to be worried about? Whatever they thought was happening, though, Samuel’s real task is much more disturbing. One by one, the sons of Jesse present themselves before the prophet. One by one, Samuel notes their trappings of worthiness—height, strength, haircut, eye color. One by one, God notes something else that Samuel can’t see, and keeps looking. Finally the youngest, least likely, least promising child, the one sent out to do the dirty work no one else wants to do, sleeping in the fields with smelly sheep, is brought in. His complexion is odd but his eyes are beautiful. It is this one—the youngest, dirtiest, unsuspecting one—who gets oil dumped on his head without warning and told he will be the next king of Israel.
Throughout scripture we read of the people God calls, and it’s almost always the unlikely, imperfect, insane choice. The Thursday Bible study has been overflowing with “oh look, another younger son chosen first.” It seems God has made a practice of preferring the underdog, whether we’re reading about Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Leah, Joseph and his older brothers. The gospels continue the theme, with Mary the unwed teenager, Peter the impulsive loudmouth, Matthew the sell-out. God has a history of using the least of these to carry on the story.
And so we follow David, from the sheep pasture to the battlefield to the palace. He ends up being a great warrior and the greatest king of Israel, the one known as “a man after God’s own heart.” But remember that the heart God saw in him was far from perfect. Even the chronicler says that David walked with God…except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite. You may remember that many years after the story we heard today, David the wildly successful king saw a woman, took her, and when he was about to be found out, he had her husband killed. He managed to break basically all of the commandments in one fell swoop. That capacity for hurt, for wrong choices, for evil—that capacity was in David’s heart that day that God chose him to be king. And still he was the one anointed.
That capacity for wrongdoing, for acting on unhealthy impulse, for hurting others, is in our hearts too. The question is whether we also have the other thing residing in David’s heart, the thing that reflected God’s desire for leaders: the capacity to be confronted with our wrong and to repent. That was something Saul lacked. Rather than repent of his wrongs, Saul tried to justify himself, as many political leaders often do. But the leader God calls needs to be able to receive the feedback, recognize their own sin, admit mistakes, and move forward on God’s new path—just as God did when looking at the king situation.
This kind of self-awareness, critical reflection, and willingness to be vulnerable is rare, not just among leaders but for all of us. We would much rather pretend we were not in the wrong, keep doing the same things over and over, or make excuses for our mistakes. It’s hard to admit when we are not right. Though we practice every week during the prayer of confession, we still have to work at being honest, open, and vulnerable with one another as well as with God. Perhaps that’s what God saw in David’s heart—a great capacity for faithfulness, for leadership, for wrongdoing, and for repentance.
Not everyone is called to be king, any more than everyone is called to be a pastor or an elder or a deacon. But everyone is called to ministry, everyone is called to the transformational way of the Lord, everyone is called to live into their potential for faithfulness and for repentance. We may prefer to see ourselves as one of the brothers, passed over for unknown reasons and therefore let off the hook. But make no mistake, Eliab and Abinadab and Shammah and the others still had a part to play in God’s story, and so do we—no matter what God sees in our hearts, no matter what people see when they look on our outer appearance, there is a calling for us too. When we follow this path, we will be changed, and the world will be too.
May it be so. Amen.