The Fourth Sunday in Lent (A)
Union Grove United Methodist Church
Hillsborough, North Carolina
1The 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.” 2Samuel 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.’ 3Invite 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.” 4Samuel 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?” 5He 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.
6When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” 7But 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.” 8Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 9Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 10Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” 11Samuel 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.” 12He 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.” 13Then 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.
1 Samuel 16:1-13 NRSV
Give us a king!
When America was struggling for independence in the late 18th century, there were cries of release from tyranny. “No taxation without representation!” “Down with King George!” The new nation won its freedom, and before those cries had finished echoing into history, people wanted a leader they could identify with. They wanted a new king, and so the founding fathers worked diligently to create a government that met the people’s desire for a figurehead without leading them back into the same problems they had with the English king.
Israel made the same mistake, although were farther from the memory a king than the American colonists. Their last experience had been several generations ago, under the pharaoh in Egypt. During the Exodus, God guided them through Moses, and then through a series of prophets and judges. But now, the people of Israel told Samuel they wanted a king. “All of the other nations have one; why can’t we?” Samuel argued like a good parent. “It’s going to cost you in the long run. A king will take over your lives, controlling your children and your livestock, working you like slaves.” And the answer? I bet the parents in the room know. “But I want it!” So God granted Israel a king. Samuel got the job of anointing the king God chose.
The first was Saul, who was a good king. After he was nicely established, Samuel retired. What a nice fairy tale. But then God told Saul to destroy a particular nation, and being sensitive about the difficulties of the job, Saul decided to spare the life of the king of the destroyed nation. That was not in God’s instructions, so Samuel got the unpleasant job again—God used him to reject Saul.
Samuel was pretty upset, and understandably so. The people had told him they didn’t really like his leadership very much and wanted a king. He went and found them a king, and was just beginning to enjoy retirement when God told him to go back and reject that king. The scripture says he “grieve[d] over Saul.” But God wasn’t mourning—God was looking toward the next king, and he sent Samuel to anoint one of the sons of Jesse.
Trying on the crown
You wouldn’t have to have read the Bible to know the story, because in modern culture Disney gets messages further than the church. When I got home from youth last week, Heather and I watched a little TV to wind down. The Wonderful World of Disney was featuring Cinderella. And there’s the story.
God tells Samuel he will let him know who the chosen person is, and sends him out. Samuel arrives at Jesse’s house. “Have you got some sons that you could line up for me? I’m supposed to anoint the next king.”
Jesse calls his oldest son, the one who would naturally be expected to have inherited something wonderful, as the oldest. Here is a twist that the fairy tale Cinderella doesn’t pick up—the oldest one is tall and handsome, no ugly step-brother. Samuel looks at him, figures this must be the one, and reaches his hand for the old horn of anointing oil. But the glass slipper doesn’t fit. God tells him this guy is just as rejected as Saul.
Jesse parades his other sons out, except for David, who is out back tending the sheep. Samuel doesn’t hear that God approves any of them. There stands the poor old prophet-turned-kingmaker, holding his horn of oil just like the duke standing in the wicked stepmother’s house, holding the glass slipper and unable to fit it on anyone’s foot. “Are all of your sons here?”
And Jesse, more than a little disappointed himself, because after all, he thought one of his sons might get to be king, says, “Just David, but he’s out back with the sheep.” It doesn’t even strike him that David might be the man Samuel is looking for, but Samuel asks to see him.
As someone goes to find David, the tension builds for us, because we know how this story works. There’s something about him being the youngest. And something about his family leaving him out back in the midst of all this excitement. And definitely something about him taking care of sheep. We know there is a special place in God’s heart for shepherds.
Sure enough, David is the right one. The slipper fits, so to speak. Samuel rubs the oil into his head, and David becomes the anointed one of God.
Quit just looking
It’s hard to read stories like this from our perspective, because we already know the ending. This youngest brother who’s tending the sheep out back is going to eventually be Israel’s greatest king. The Christian church has, since the birth of Christ, identified Christ in relation to David: “Hail to the Lord’s anointed,” we sing, “great David’s greater son.” If we read the scripture straight through without already knowing the story, we actually don’t know to expect that David is the chosen one, because though it fits with the types of hero stories we know, it didn’t fit with laws and expectations about siblings in ancient Israel. Maybe it’s because Cinderella and other stories are so familiar to us, and because we’ve heard of this guy David before, that when we read this story, we don’t understand why Samuel can’t see that David is the one.
And that’s really the problem: Samuel can’t see. This scripture is, in part, about the difference between looking and seeing. When God first speaks to Samuel he says something like, “forget about Saul. I have seen a new king for myself.” Samuel goes and looks at Jesse’s sons. He thinks he sees the first one—he thinks he knows who he is—but God corrects him. “You are looking at him, and he looks fine to you, but I have rejected him. You must see him the way I do: see into his heart.” When he finally gets down the line and sees David, it turns out he is handsome; he is good to see.
And so we look through these eyes of ours that are conditioned to Disney movies, and we chuckle at Samuel because he reminds us of that slightly absent-minded duke in the Cinderella story. And we look at Jesse and his other sons, and feel like they got what they deserve for hiding David out back. And we look at David and think he’s going to live happily every after, all the time proud of ourselves for seeing who was supposed to be king all along.
Blind to messiahs
But the story goes on. Is David the last person anointed by God? Surely not. The word that means “anointed one of God” is pretty familiar to us: messiah. In ancient Israel, there was an expectation that the anointed one of God, certainly when that one was also the king, would lead the nation on to military victory, and that expectation continued through the time of Christ.
We haven’t let go of it yet. We still want ours to be a victorious faith—why do you think God Bless America got sung so much more than the national anthem after September 11th? We know that there is great power in God, and we want it to be on our side, directed against our enemies. We look at our lives and consider our desires, and that’s what we want: to be strong and to win. But God says gently to us, as he said to Samuel, “You are looking at the surface. Do not just look there,” he might say. “See deeply into the inner need of your hearts.” It is there that we find we don’t need a strong, handsome, military king. We need for God to anoint a leader who will help us return to God.
Just as God saw for himself a new king in David, God saw his beloved son when he looked at Jesus Christ. Jesus isn’t the kind of messiah that will lead us on to military victory. The kind of king we would look for could take able-bodied people and march into battle. The king God sees for us takes the mournful, broken-hearted and makes them rejoice; he gives the humble poor faith. The deaf hear him, those who cannot speak sing praises to him, the blind see him, and the lame jump up in his presence for joy.
We would look for a king who can chart a path for us and lead us on with pomp and circumstance. God sees for us a king who is a shepherd, his rod and staff our comfort, and his cross before to guide us. So hail to the anointed King David and hail to the Lord’s anointed, great David’s greater son.