Sermon for the Fourth Sunday After Pentecost
Trinity Church, Mt. Airy, NC
June 17, 2018 8:30AM Proper 6B
ויקח שמואל את קרן השמן וימשח אתו בקרב אחיו ותצלח רוח יי אל דוד מהיום ההוא ומעלה ויקם שמואל וילך הרמתה
Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers, and the Spirit of the LORD rushed mightily into him from that day and henceforth. Then Samuel got up and went to Ramah. (1 Samuel 16:13)
It was a put-up job from the beginning, something out of a spy thriller, complete with a secret password. The plot had to work because, after all, the LORD of Hosts had thought it up and put it in place; and everything happened just the way it was supposed to—except that Poppa Jesse didn’t invite the guest of honor to the “sacrificial meal,” so everybody had to sit around and wait for a slave to fetch David from dodging sheep patties somewhere out in Bethlehem’s fields.
The LORD, Poppa Jesse, and Samuel needed this ruse because King Saul had spies everywhere; and if the king had gotten wind of the real reason for this assembly, Jesse and his boys—and probably the old prophet Samuel too—would be missing their heads come morning, for the idea, you see, was to start a revolution against the old order, to anoint a new king over Israel to replace King Saul.
You had to appreciate the genius politics involved. Samuel, Jesse, and the LORD didn’t want anyone saying later that they had engineered a coup d’état even though a coup d’état was exactly what they were engineering. What else do you call it when you select a new king to supplant a reigning monarch? But once the new king was in power, nobody wanted to encourage revolution as a way of life. The conspirators knew, of course, that they would have to wait for an opportune time to get rid of the old king; so, for now, the operation had to be hush-hush until the right moment arrived, then—wham!—the new, already anointed, and completely legitimate king could arrive to take over the kingdom that was always his.
There’s no secret, though, about why the LORD sent Samuel to Bethlehem in Judah to anoint the new king. The old king, King Saul, was from the little tiny tribe of Benjamin; and the idea was that a king from such a puny outfit as Benjamin could hardly threaten the great and powerful tribes and so would be a relatively weak king. But Judah was the elephant in the room. Some evidence suggests that once upon a time Judah had even been its own country with its own king; and if Israel’s new king were to arise from mighty Judah, then everybody would be intimidated. Such was the divine plan. The new king would be from the greatest, most populous of the tribes, and with him the old political system of tribes in confederation would have to collapse.
The eight sons of Jesse comprised the list of candidates for king, only Jesse didn’t even bother to invite the youngest son David to Samuel’s beauty contest. Who could imagine that the LORD and Samuel would choose the youngest kid? The oldest—and evidently the tallest—Eliab was the odds-on favorite simply because he was the oldest. Choosing anyone but the oldest could easily start yet another revolt. Even so, none of the seven eldest sons suited the prophet, and he demanded to meet the young David despite the fact that anointing him risked open rebellion from the seven rejected candidates and maybe from their father.
On the other hand, who would know that the LORD had really chosen the candidate if the eldest, the odds-on favorite won? That’s what everyone expected to happen, and God isn’t always in the business of fulfilling our expectations. Indeed, one of the Bible’s pet ideas is that the LORD will choose the weakest, the youngest, the smallest, the most unlikely to do the LORD’s will just so everyone knows that the LORD actually did the choosing. David gets the divine nod and gets soaked with the prophet’s oil as well. The divine insurrection has begun. Hail to the new king!
Then everybody goes home.
The Bible seems to love these hidden revolutions. Moses—notice the Egyptian name meaning “beloved”—lives the life of an adopted child in pharaoh’s court until one day the brutality of an overseer against an immigrant Hebrew involves the pampered prince and starts a revolution that ultimately leads the People of God on an Exodus through the Sinai into the Promised Land. Saul, the Pharisee trained under the great Gamaliel and sworn enemy of the renegade apocalyptic sect of Nazoreans finds himself face-to-face with the risen and glorified Jesus himself and subversively changes the whole world by making the Good News of Christ available to Jew and Greek alike. Queen Esther, too timid at first even to object to Haman’s plot to exterminate the Jews of Persia, finds her courage to entrap the would-be mass murderer in his own shrewdness and save her people. God is always, somehow, bringing salvation and hope in unexpected and sometimes very messy ways. In today’s lesson, the LORD engages in a political plot to undercut the legitimate king of Israel.
All this happens while the old king is taking his bows. Saul has just defeated the dreaded Amalekites with his Blitzkrieg militia, just the way he defeated Philistines and the Tranjordanian immigrants. He’s on a roll, making Israel great for the first time; and if he hasn’t quite subdued all his opponents, he seems well on his way. But here at the very pinnacle of his success, the prophet from Ramah that had made him king, suddenly withdrew his support and joined the king’s critics. But no matter. Saul was on the rise.
While Eliab is parading his tall, lanky good looks before the prophet, the LORD, the LORD whispers in the prophet’s ear the theme of today’s reading:
כי לא אשר יראה האדם כי האדם יראה לעינים ויהוה יראה ללבב:
For [the LORD] does not see like a human being, for a human being [only] sees externals, but the LORD looks on the heart. (1 Samuel 16:7b)
The Israelites could see Saul’s great military successes, but the LORD knew that Saul’s brilliant mind, his “heart,” as the Bible calls it, had already puffed itself up to believe that he, Saul, was the true savior of Israel, the son of God who by his cunning and might would deliver Israel. And the LORD knew full well that Israel believed this too. Thus, the conspirators gathered in Bethlehem for their clandestine coronation.
We see the externals too, and sometimes they’re pretty hard to take. We see our society turning into a culture of backbiting. We see hunger increasing instead of decreasing and we see the hearts of our neighbors grow cold and hard at the plight of immigrants and refugees. We see that money buys anything and everything and while human decency profits nothing. Fifty years after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., racism has a brand new lease on life in our nation. And we’re well aware that these things cannot be the will of God for us, but it’s hard not to feel helpless in the face of a world gone mad, mad for power, mad for money, mad for winning at all costs.
What’s good about the Good News is that God doesn’t look at us that way. God looks at the heart of things. God does not respect national strongmen or curry to corrupt officials or cower before the self-important. God’s in Bethlehem with Samuel and Jesse already devising their downfall, looking for the salvation of God’s people, planning for the day of redemption. And you might never know it with all the cable networks covering the old king, but there’s already a new king in Israel.
And this worship here this morning, here in Mt. Airy on the corner of N. Main and Independence is another meeting of subversives, called together to praise a new king even as the powers of this world are taking their victory laps. We are here for a coronation of hope, to take a stake in a future God is preparing for us and for our world. Like Samuel and Jesse, we shall return to our homes when it is all over, but we know that something has changed, our loyalties have been renewed, our faith restored not in our own abilities and even less in the empty promises of power, influence, and money but in God’s love for us and for our neighbors, in God’s resolute desire to bring us all into God’s kingdom of peace.
 Here I follow the usual English renderings, but the Hebrew actually says something like “…for a human sees with the eyes, but the LORD sees with the heart.” I decided that the idea of “seeing with the heart” was a topic best reserved for a sermon in itself.