The Old Testament reading for Sunday, August 9, 2015, is about the tragic relationship between David and his son, Absalom. I’ve titled it, “When Your Chickens Come Home To Roost.” I hope you have a great Sunday!
When Your Chickens Come Home To Roost
2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33 NIV
5 The king [David] commanded Joab, Abishai and Ittai, “Be gentle with the young man Absalom for my sake.” And all the troops heard the king giving orders concerning Absalom to each of the commanders.
6 David’s army marched out of the city to fight Israel, and the battle took place in the forest of Ephraim. 7 There Israel’s troops were routed by David’s men, and the casualties that day were great—twenty thousand men. 8 The battle spread out over the whole countryside, and the forest swallowed up more men that day than the sword.
9 Now Absalom happened to meet David’s men. He was riding his mule, and as the mule went under the thick branches of a large oak, Absalom’s hair got caught in the tree. He was left hanging in midair, while the mule he was riding kept on going.
15 And ten of Joab’s armor-bearers surrounded Absalom, struck him and killed him.
31 Then the Cushite arrived and said, “My lord the king, hear the good news! The Lord has vindicated you today by delivering you from the hand of all who rose up against you.”
32 The king asked the Cushite, “Is the young man Absalom safe?”
The Cushite replied, “May the enemies of my lord the king and all who rise up to harm you be like that young man.”
33 The king was shaken. He went up to the room over the gateway and wept. As he went, he said: “O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you—O Absalom, my son, my son!”
The Back Story
Wow. Today’s story needs a lot of context, so let’s get started.
First, let me identify the players: The king is David; his son is Absalom; and, Joab, Abishai, and Ittai are commanders in David’s army.
Throughout the entire summer series of sermons, we have been looking at the stories of Samuel, Saul, David, and soon David’s son, Solomon. But today we come to a pivotal moment in the David story.
You remember the plot that brought us to this part of the story, don’t you? Here it is:
- The people of Israel and Judah demand that Samuel find them a king.
- Samuel warns them that they don’t really want a king because a king will take their lands, their herds, their sons, and their daughters.
- But after the people insist that they do want a king, because they want to be like other nations, Samuel anoints Saul as God’s chosen.
- Saul pretty quickly fails in his obedience to God, and God withdraws God’s Spirit from him.
- Samuel then anoints David, although Saul is still king. Awkward, to say the least.
- Finally, Saul is killed in battle and David ascends to the throne of both Judah, and then Israel, uniting the northern kingdom of Israel with the southern kingdom of Judah.
- Everything is running along just fine, until one day David sees Bathsheba. Unfortunately, Bathsheba is another man’s wife. So, David takes Bathsheba, sleeps with her and she becomes pregnant. This is bad, even for a king so David has her husband Uriah killed to cover up his adultery.
- Nathan the prophet confronts David, and pronounces judgment on David and his household for his wanton and willful sin against God, Bathsheba and Uriah, and the nation.
And, that’s where we pick up our story today. Oh, one item I forgot to mention. Nathan’s confrontation of David includes this prophetic pronouncement of the consequences of David’s sin:
11 “This is what the Lord says: ‘Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity on you. Before your very eyes I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will sleep with your wives in broad daylight. 12 You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.’” — 2 Samuel 12:11-12 NIV
Which brings us to Absalom. Absalom is David’s son by his wife, Maakah, daughter of the king of Geshur, and he was born in Hebron. When Absalom grows up, he defends the honor of his sister, Tamar. Tamar was violated by her half-brother, Amnon, who is also half-brother to Absalom. Eventually, Absalom kills Amnon, which alienates him from David.
David, however, appears to have a soft-spot in his heart for Absalom. After three years in exile in Geshur, David allows Absalom to return to Jerusalem. However, Absalom repays his father’s kindness — and weakness for him — by betraying his father, David.
Absalom and his entourage set up camp near David’s palace. When people from Israel come to David for justice, Absalom intercepts them, welcomes them, and hears their cause. He tells everyone that because his father David favors Judah, there is no one in Israel to hear their concerns and do justice for them.
Of course, this endears Absalom — who is a handsome guy — to the Israelites from the north. Eventually, Absalom gathers an army, proclaims himself king of Israel in his birthplace of Hebron. Absalom then marches toward Jerusalem.
David, hearing that Absalom is headed toward Jerusalem with a huge army, flees his palace, leaving ten of his concubines in charge of the palace. Concubines were sort of like second-string wives in David’s day.
Absalom is advised to ravish his father’s concubines, and thereby humiliate David before the people of Jerusalem and Judah. Absalom sets up a tent on a balcony of David’s palace, so all Jerusalem can see that he is taking his father’s harem for himself.
And so the words of Nathan the prophet are fulfilled —
11 “This is what the Lord says: ‘Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity on you. Before your very eyes I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will sleep with your wives in broad daylight. 12 You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.’”
David’s chickens had come home to roost. I am told that that phrase was a shortened version of a longer saying that went something like this — “Curses are like chickens. They soon come home to roost.”
And so it was with David. Not only had David’s sin against God with Bathsheba cost the life of their baby, it had also cost him humiliation by his own son, who was seeking to kill him.
Sadly, the story reveals even more tragedy. David’s forces win a decisive victory over Absalom’s army. As he flees, Absalom’s long, thick hair — for which he is notoriously famous — gets caught in the low-hanging limbs of a tree as he rides under it.
Hanging there helpless, David’s men see Absalom and take their chance to kill him, despite David’s plea to his commanders to “Be gentle with the young man Absalom, for my sake.”
When word reaches the king that his beloved Absalom is dead, David is inconsolable. So grief-stricken is he, that David’s soldiers slink back into Jerusalem under the cover of darkness because they are afraid of what the king might do to them.
Joab, ever the tough general, berates David for his grief for Absalom, while ignoring the valor of his own men who have saved his life. Joab tells David to get out there and greet his troops and give them his royal approval for having saved his life. David then appears to his troops and the Absalom chapter in the story of David comes to a close.
A Lot of Chickens Have Come Home To Roost
And so what is the point of this story? Well, I think one point is that King David, who was so successful in battle and so revered by his people, was perhaps not a very good father. He loved Absalom, but somewhere along the way, Absalom came to despise David, his own father. Perhaps it was because Absalom was one of six sons David had while in Hebron, all from different wives.
David may be a larger-than-life figure, but in some ways he was a colossal failure. Relationships with women or his children didn’t seem to go to well for him.
But I’m thinking today of another point to this story. A point that we might miss if we just focus on David as an individual.
David’s sin affected not only his life, Bathsheba’s life, but it affected the life of the united kingdom that David ruled. When Amnon, Absalom’s half-brother and David’s son, violated Tamar, David knew about it and did nothing. Maybe David thought that it would appear hypocritical of him to discipline his own son for the same sin he had committed.
Whatever the reason, David’s failure to obtain justice for Tamar infuriated Absalom. So Absalom waited, plotted, and finally took his revenge on Amnon two years later.
Disobedience to God not only affects the present, but it also affects the future. And sooner or later, our chickens come home to roost.
We live in a society whose problems are enormous. Many of those problems had their genesis in the past. But, while we are not to blame for the original problem, we are responsible for repairing the sins of the past in the present.
They’re Our Chickens Now
In other words, when those chickens come home to roost, somebody has to deal with them. And that’s not always easy. David had to deal with his own chickens — his sin with Bathsheba had far-ranging consequences that affected him, Bathsheba, his kingdom, and his relationship with God.
But sometimes, we have to deal with someone else’s chickens who have come home to roost.
When our grandson Ezra was born a little over 3 years ago, Debbie and I stayed at the farm and kept his brother, Ollie, while Amy was in the hospital. Part of life on the farm was getting all the chickens in the chicken coop for the night. At that time, Amy had about 30 chickens. That’s a lot of chickens, especially when they’re all free range and roaming about the place.
So as dusk came on that first night when we were alone at the farm, I grabbed the bucket of chicken feed from the feed room. I filled it full and rattled it vigorously and loudly. The chickens recognized the bucket as the one that contained their food, and came running toward me. Which was scary in itself.
By that time I had made it to the chicken coop. In one smooth motion, I opened the door to the chicken coop and threw a handful of chicken feed on the ground inside the coop. True to form, the chickens went into the coop, pecking at the feed on the ground. Quickly, I shut the door.
I felt pretty proud of myself, until I turned around and saw one chicken standing there all by herself. I dropped a few morsels of chicken food in front of her, to lure her closer to the door. Then, in one final, fluid move, I opened the door, threw chicken feed over the heads of those in the coop so they would run to the back, and then threw some in front of Chicken Little, but inside the coop. I fully expected her to step right in. But she didn’t. She just stood there.
By this time, the chickens in the coop had turned back and were coming toward the bucket and me, again, so I quickly shut the chicken wire door.
And there we were. Chicken Little and me. I suppose I could have picked her up, but I really didn’t want to do that. I’ve never picked up a chicken, and that was not the evening for a first experience.
So, I left her there. I was sure a coyote or raccoon would eat her. But such is life on the farm, I decided. However, the next morning when I walked to the coop to open the door for the day, there she was, standing right where I had left her. Defiant until the end.
My experience with chickens is not a perfect illustration, but here’s the idea: Those chickens that have come home to roost may not be your chickens, but you and I have to deal with them.
We may not be responsible for the problems of our family, our friends, or out society, but those are now our chickens. They’ve come home to roost, and all we can do is deal with them in the most helpful ways we know now.
The consequences of David’s sin and Absalom’s revolt was not Joab’s problem. They were David’s chickens that had come home to roost. But, because David was not treating the soldiers who had saved his life with gratitude and reward, Joab realized those were now his chickens to deal with. Joab confronted David, David came to his senses, and made the situation right.
Just remember — We may not be to blame for the chickens coming home to roost, but we are responsible for dealing with them when they do.
Last Sunday, I preached from 2 Samuel 11:1-15, which is the story of David’s abuse of power when he saw, sent for, and violated Bathsheba. To further compound his sin, David sought to cover it up, and eventually had Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah the Hittite, killed.
It is a shameful story, but it is also a story that is a current as today’s headlines. In the sermon, I moved from the story of David’s abuse of power to the history of the abuse of power in American life during the era of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and today. I offered this sermon treatment because that Sunday afternoon, white and black congregations were scheduled to gather for a meal and conversation together about race relations in our own community. This sermon prompted our congregation to examine our historical past, so that we could move forward to a more hopeful and inclusive future. Here’s the podcast:
What a week this has been for our nation! I’m preaching this sermon tomorrow in light of the shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, the debates over the Confederate flag, and The Supreme Court ruling that marriage is a right open to all couples, including those of the same sex. If there ever has been a time in the life of our nation and community to address these concerns, this week has provided that opportunity.
How The Mighty Have Fallen
2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27 NIV
After the death of Saul, David returned from striking down the Amalekites and stayed in Ziklag two days.
17 David took up this lament concerning Saul and his son Jonathan, 18 and he ordered that the people of Judah be taught this lament of the bow (it is written in the Book of Jashar):
19 “A gazelle lies slain on your heights, Israel.
How the mighty have fallen!
20 “Tell it not in Gath,
proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon,
lest the daughters of the Philistines be glad,
lest the daughters of the uncircumcised rejoice.
21 “Mountains of Gilboa,
may you have neither dew nor rain,
may no showers fall on your terraced fields.
For there the shield of the mighty was despised,
the shield of Saul—no longer rubbed with oil.
22 “From the blood of the slain,
from the flesh of the mighty,
the bow of Jonathan did not turn back,
the sword of Saul did not return unsatisfied.
23 Saul and Jonathan—
in life they were loved and admired,
and in death they were not parted.
They were swifter than eagles,
they were stronger than lions.
24 “Daughters of Israel,
weep for Saul,
who clothed you in scarlet and finery,
who adorned your garments with ornaments of gold.
25 “How the mighty have fallen in battle!
Jonathan lies slain on your heights.
26 I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother;
you were very dear to me.
Your love for me was wonderful,
more wonderful than that of women.
27 “How the mighty have fallen!
The weapons of war have perished.”
A Week of Extraordinary Change
To say this has been an extraordinary week is an understatement. And, I hope you will bear with me as I read this manuscript today because I want to be very precise in choosing what I say and how I say it.
When we gathered this time last week our hearts were broken for our brothers and sisters in the Emanuel AME Church congregation. Nine of their members, including their pastor, had been gunned down during a Bible study in their church on the Wednesday night before last Sunday.
In the midst of that tragedy, we were astonished at the grace and forgiveness offered to the hate-filled assassin by those who had lost loved ones. We marvelled at the courage, dignity, and resilience with which Charleston and the Mother Emanuel community faced this tragedy.
In keeping with their response, many of us gathered in front of the Pittsylvania County courthouse this past Monday. Black and white together we prayed for those who had been killed, the martyrs of Mother Emanuel. We prayed for our own community, asking God to spare us a similar tragedy. Most importantly, we held hands — black and white — to say to this community, “We are one!”
I am very proud of you because many of you came out last Monday and stood and prayed with us. Others called to say that previous commitments kept them from coming, but they were with us in spirit.
I sense we passed a milestone in our community last Monday. My prayer is that we will make the most of this opportunity to continue to get to know each other, to talk about our community, and to work together to make it truly united.
Along with the tragedy, came an opportunity for those of us in the South to rethink an historic social symbol, the Confederate flag. While 150 years of post-Civil War argument failed to achieve consensus on the appropriate display of the Confederate flag, one photograph of a hateful young white man brandishing a pistol in one hand and the Confederate flag in the other accomplished. That one photograph moved political and business leaders to action.
Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina took the extraordinary position that the Confederate flag that flew on the grounds of the state capitol should be removed. She was joined in that position by United States Senator Lindsey Graham, and by the grandson of the late Senator Strom Thurmond. No matter what decision the South Carolina legislature makes, the public stand of these political leaders was extraordinary. Not long after that, Alabama removed the Confederate flag from its capitol grounds.
Here in Virginia, Governor McAuliffe ordered that the emblem of the Confederate flag on the Sons of Confederacy license plates be deleted. Governor McAuliffe was aided in that decision by a recent Supreme Court ruling. The Court held that the state of Texas could prohibit the use of the Confederate flag on license plates because license plates are a type of “state speech,” and the state could not be compelled to “speak” for special interests.
But, the big ruling came on Friday. The Supreme Court, divided 5-4 as it often is, ruled that the right to marry is a constitutionally-protected right which extends to all couples including those of the same sex.
I can’t recall a more extraordinary week in the course of our nation in my lifetime, with the exception of the Supreme Court ruling of Brown v. The Board of Education in 1954 which ended school segregation.
I will return to how we address all of these topics in just a moment, but first let’s look at the Scripture reading for today.
The Deaths of Saul and Jonathan
In the passage we read this morning, Saul and his son, Jonathan have been killed in battle against the Philistines. Saul has ruled Israel for 42 years (1 Samuel 13:1). But, his kingship has been under a cloud since Saul disobeyed God early in his reign. Saul did two things that God did not like. First, he offered a sacrifice instead of waiting for Samuel, the prophet-priest, to offer it. Secondly, Saul did not carry out God’s command to do battle with the Amalekites, and to completely annihilate them.
Whatever we think today of the instruction to Saul to kill all the Amalekites, including men, women, children, and all their flocks and herds, the point for us today is that Saul disobeyed God. That disobedience caused Samuel again to rebuke Saul and to prophesy that God has torn the kingdom from Saul, just as Saul had torn Samuel’s cloak when Saul grabbed him.
In his final battle with the Philistines, Saul and his three sons, including Jonathan, are killed. Jonathan and David have become close friends over the decades of Saul’s rule. They are such good friends that Jonathan warns David that his father, Saul, is trying to kill David.
Ironically, the nation of Israel wanted a king to lead them to victory of the Philistines, but at the end of Saul’s reign the Philistines controlled more territory than they controlled at the beginning.
Nevertheless, when news of Saul and Jonathan’s deaths reaches David, he is grief-stricken. David had passed on several chances to kill Saul because each time he had decided that he could not kill the Lord’s anointed.
So, Saul and Jonathan’s deaths become an occasion for mourning for David and the nation. David instructs that the men of Judah to learn the Song of the Bow contained in the Book of Jashar.
We no longer have the Book of Jashar, but the writer of Samuel includes the Song of the Bow in this passage. The song is a lament for a fallen leader, much as David is lamenting the deaths of Saul and Jonathan.
The Song of the Bow recalls the heroics and nobility of the fallen leader. It recounts his valor in battle, and inserts the names of Saul and Jonathan as heroes of the nation’s wars.
But three times, the Song of the Bow laments “How the mighty have fallen.” (2 Samuel 1:19, 25, and 27). And, that is my point today. Just as the mighty Saul and Jonathan could be brought down in battle, the mighty are always susceptible to defeat and loss.
Saul’s failing, among others, was his own arrogance and pride. He assumed positions he was not entitled to assume, and he replaced God’s command with his own judgment.
The Bible states, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” Proverbs 16:18 NIV.
That brings us back to the events of this past week. How can we learn from Saul’s failures, so that it is not said of us, “How the mighty have fallen.”
How Do We Respond?
What is our response as a community of faith to the events of this past week? To the shootings in a Charleston church? To the debate about the Confederate flag? To the ruling of the Supreme Court on same sex marriage?
First, let me set the stage for my answers to each of those questions. I am a pastor. I am your pastor. The word pastor means one who is a shepherd, one who cares for the flock. I perform my pastoral duties faithfully by caring for you. At times that means comforting you when you have mourned. Or rejoicing with you when you have good news to share. Or challenging you when we need to make a decision for the good of the congregation.
But always, foremost in my mind is my responsibility as your pastor. You are my flock. I pray for you. I check on you when you’re sick. I visit you when you need pastoral care or guidance. I counsel you when you have questions or concerns. My first priority is your spiritual health and wholeness.
That means that while I may have opinions about all of these issues, just like you do, my opinions are less important than my relationship with you. I am your pastor. That means I do not have the luxury of saying anything I want to on social media like Facebook or Twitter because what I say reflects on this congregation. I am aware of that responsibility.
Whenever we face decisions or challenges, I have a responsibility to pastor this church consistent with the views and values of this congregation. On those rare occasions when I have had a question about a pastoral function, I have sought counsel from the Deacons and they have guided me wisely.
I am not an itinerant prophet who stands apart from you with harsh words and then moves on to the next audience. I am not a bishop who oversees you and commands your ecclesiastical loyalty. I am your pastor, and I want you to know today that I take my role and responsibility as your pastor very seriously.
On these issues, and others we will face, I believe that we as a church must have a conversation and reach consensus on what we believe, whether we make that position known publicly or not.
Having said that, let’s return to the manner in which I believe we should respond to these issues.
First, we should respond in love. Whether we are discussing racial reconciliation or same-sex marriage, we have to be loving. Christians often damage their witness with hasty, ill-conceived responses to the latest blog post or newspaper headline. The church is to be the light of the world, not just an additional source of heat.
Whether we agree with others or not, our responses must be loving because that is what Jesus would do. It was only in response to the self-assured, arrogant religious leaders that Jesus was himself sharp and prophetic. With others like the woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, Zacchaeus the dishonest tax collector, the outcast Mary Magdalene, and other seekers Jesus was redemptive and loving.
We also must be loving because there are people we know personally who are affected by these issues. Most people today know someone who is gay. We respect these people because they are our neighbors or coworkers, or because we’re related to them. Whatever our relationship with them, we want the best for them, just as we do for ourselves.
Secondly, we should respond humbly. If Saul’s sin was arrogance and pride, we face the danger of falling into the same pit. These issues are neither simple, nor do they have simple solutions. I have studied the issues of race, racism, and reconciliation extensively. The more I read and study, the more I realize how complex all of these social issues are. So, we approach all of these issues with humility. We neither know all the answers, nor do we understand the full scope of the problems.
In my book, The Reconciling Community, I suggested that there are five criteria for a church ministry of reconciliation:
- Remember our past and build on what is best about our history and heritage.
- Acknowledge that our past also contained prejudice and discrimination.
- Engage in mutual conversation and confession with those with whom our church is seeking reconciliation.
- Act with humility, in our words, our attitudes, and our actions particularly in how we as the majority race relate to minorities.
- Demonstrate a shared commitment to work together with others to transform community institutions including churches, schools, civic clubs, criminal justice agencies, local businesses, and other institutions where needed. (The Reconciling Community, pg. 98-100)
In other words, in the area of racial reconciliation for example, we have to get on the same side as our black brothers and sisters. Their goals of equality and opportunity have to become important to us, too. We approach that work humbly because no white person has any idea of what it is like to be black.
That is exactly what happened here in Chatham on Monday. Black and white citizens gathered at the courthouse because our black brothers and sisters were grieving. We prayed with them, we grieved together the loss of nine lives, we stood together to say that in this community when one of us is assaulted, we are all injured.
As our community reconciliation group continues to dialogue, we as members of this church have to conduct ourselves with humility. And humility means we don’t have all the answers. Jesus reminded us that we don’t point out the mote in someone else’s eye until we have acknowledged the beam in our own. (Matthew 7:1-6)
Thirdly, we should respond honestly. There is nothing wrong with saying, “I don’t understand this issue.” Or, “knowing what I know now, I don’t agree with you on this issue.” Frankly, there are aspects of the issues involving human sexuality I do not know nearly enough about. I look forward to learning and to understanding these issues more fully.
However, our honesty is not an excuse for insensitivity or rudeness. Nor is honesty an excuse for refusing to hear those who hold other positions. Until we can honestly acknowledge our own limitations, we cannot begin to understand others.
Fourth, we should stay engaged in the conversation. The world has changed dramatically in the last 50 years, and much dramatic change has come in the last 10 years. Some of that change we have embraced, some of it puzzles us, and some of it offends us. But the only way forward is to continue to talk, continue to try to understand, continue to look at how our own theology shapes our thoughts and actions.
Our church is facing its own challenges, challenges that did not exist in previous years. At the height of our influence, probably in the first six or seven decades of the twentieth century, this congregation did some extraordinary things. We helped found Hargrave Military Academy. We planted Samuel Harris Memorial Baptist Church, and we wielded influence in community and denominational life.
Thankfully our contributions did not end there. In the past 11 years, we have reached back to our past, building on the best of our heritage. We helped start the Boys and Girls Club, we helped build a community center, and we host a community music school. In addition, our ministry to seniors through our Adult Fellowship and bus trips has enriched the lives of many in this community.
Finally, we will continue to follow Jesus Christ as Lord of all. While that sounds like a simple and obvious idea, following Christ historically has meant service and sacrifice. When Christ called his first disciples, he called them from the certainty of the fishing life to the uncertainty of life in the Kingdom of God. We are reminded that God’s Kingdom begins here on this earth because Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Our responsibility is to do God’s will here, even as it is being done in heaven.
In the coming weeks and months, we’ll have the opportunity to talk together about some of these issues. We need to work out our own theology in each of these areas. And, our community needs our leadership and our engagement.
If we learn to avoid the arrogant mistakes of people like King Saul, it will not be said of us, “How the mighty have fallen.”
Rather, our prayer is that others will say, “Chatham Baptist Church has been a humble and loving beacon of hope in this community for generations.” May it ever be so. Amen.
At 11:45 AM today, Pittsylvania County citizens will gather on the steps of the county courthouse for a prayer vigil to remember the victims of the Emanuel AME Church shootings, and pray for unity in our own community.
The prayer vigil has been organized by local churches and the Pittsylvania County chapter of the NAACP. Please take a few moments to join us as our community comes together to reflect and pray. Please share.#PittsylvaniaCountyUnited #WeAreOnePeople
Today, June 21, 2015, our church stood silently while the names of those killed at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC this past week were read. As the names were read, the pipe organ chimed for each person whose life was cut short during a Bible study in a church where they should have been safe.
The sermon I preached this morning was about David and Goliath, taken from 1 Samuel 17. But, I lamented the fascination we have with violence, and called us to a new day of hope because as David said, “All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s…” 1 Samuel 17:47 NIV.
Here’s the podcast of that message about how, even in the midst of tragedy, the families of those killed showed the world there is a God.
I’m inviting white pastors and white church members to stand with Charleston and the members of Emanuel Church by joining the NAACP. We join our African American brothers and sisters humbly and as learners in the shared responsibility of justice and equality. #PrayForCharleston #standwithcharleston #blacklivesmatter #pastorsforpeace #itstime #showyourcard
Charleston, SC. An historic black church gathered for Bible study. Into that sacred, safe, and historic space violence and hatred intruded last night. As a pastor, my heart goes out to this congregation who lost their pastor, and to the families of the wounded and slain.
Several weeks ago, I quietly joined the NAACP whose membership is open to anyone who values justice and equality. You can join the NAACP as an act of solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Charleston, Ferguson, Detroit, New York, Chatham, and all across this land. Isn’t it time that white ministers and church members take a stand humbly in support of those who have been the target of racism and violence for over 400 years here in this country?
I invite you to join me in this silent, but meaningful action. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. invited white pastors and church members to join with him. Some did, most (especially in the South) did not. Go to naacp.org and join today.
God doesn’t look at things like we do. That’s a simple statement, but a profound theological thought. And, that is the point of the reading from the Old Testament for this Sunday, I Samuel 16:4-13. Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow on that theme, and I must admit, this sermon had a mind of its own and took me in a completely unexpected direction.
God Doesn’t Look at Things Like We Do
I Samuel 16:4-13 NIV
4 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?”
5 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.
6 When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord.”
7 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.”
8 Then Jesse called Abinadab and had him pass in front of Samuel. But Samuel said, “The Lord has not chosen this one either.” 9 Jesse then had Shammah pass by, but Samuel said, “Nor has the Lord chosen this one.” 10 Jesse had seven of his sons pass before Samuel, but Samuel said to him, “The Lord has not chosen these.” 11 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.”
12 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.”
13 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.
The Story of David’s Anointing As Israel’s King
I must confess: I love this story! And who wouldn’t? The text we read this morning continues the lesson from last week. The backstory is that the people of Israel began to demand that before Samuel died, he would find a king for them.
Samuel talked to God about their request. Despite God’s objection, God gave Samuel permission to get them a king, but with some dire warnings first. Samuel, as God instructed him to, warned the nation that God would take their sons, their daughters, their herds, their fields, and anything else a king could get his hands on for the king’s own purposes.
Despite that, the people said, “Yep, that’s what we want because we want to be like other nations who have kings.” That’s my paraphrase, but that sums it up.
Israel had come from the bondage of Egypt led by Moses; had been led into Canaan by Joshua; had been led both civilly and militarily by a series of judges, both men and women. Samuel becomes the last of these judges.
But Samuel isn’t just any old judge. Samuel himself has heard the voice of God as a small boy in the charge of the priest, Eli. Samuel has responded to God by saying what Eli tells him to say, “Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth.” At least, that’s how I learned the story when I was a small boy.
So, Samuel becomes for the nation both the last judge and the first real prophet they have ever had. But Samuel’s sons, like Eli’s before him, aren’t cut out of the same cloth as their father. The people of Israel know this.
Their concern not to be ruled by Samuel’s corrupt sons, and to be like other nations pushes Samuel to take the whole matter to God.
Now, don’t miss this part. God says to Samuel, “It’s not you they’re rejecting, it’s Me!” But then God goes on to grant reluctantly their request.
We could stop right here because here is the Bible saying that God is making an accommodation to Israel that God does not want to make. What does that say to us about God? Does God change God’s mind? Does God grant requests that God knows are not going to turn out well? Interesting questions, but that’s not what we want to focus on this morning. But, at a minimum these questions ought to make us a little more humble about what we think we know about God.
But back to the issue at hand and the story. The problem Samuel has is that he has already anointed Saul as king of Israel. Unfortunately, Saul isn’t working out and by this passage we read today, God has rejected Saul as king. Unfortunately, again, Saul refuses to step down.
So, Samuel has to slip around and disguise his trip to Jesse’s village, Bethlehem, as an occasion for sacrificing to God. At this point, remember, Jerusalem is not the center of Israel’s civic or religious life. There is no Temple, and Shiloh, and other worship sites are prominent. David eventually will make Jerusalem the capitol of both government and worship, but that won’t happen for several more years.
But, back to the story. Samuel invites Jesse and his sons to join him for the sacrifice. At this point, Samuel sees Jesse’s son, Eliab, and thinks, “Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord.”
God quickly corrects Samuel’s presumption, and Samuel looks at all seven of Jesse’s sons, none of whom God has chosen. Samuel asks Jesse, “Do you have anymore sons?”
“Only the youngest, but he’s out tending sheep,” Jesse replies.
Samuel says, “Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives.”
Well, apparently they do sit down because when David arrives, God says to Samuel, “Rise and anoint him; this is the one.”
And, so Samuel does.
Why Do We Love This Story?
So, why do we love this story? I think first we love this story because of the characters in it: Samuel, the beloved prophet, priest, and judge; the wicked King Saul, who is being replaced; and, of course, David the shepherd boy who walks from the pasture into the presence of God and the Kingdom of Israel.
If there is ever a rags-to-riches story, this is it. And, the story of David is built on this idea of the underdog, David, who defeats Goliath, the giant Philistine. We all root for the underdog.
And, in this passage, the Bible tells us that David was a healthy, strong, good-looking kid. That only makes this story better. And the message I got as a kid was “be like David.”
But, if that’s why we like the story, we have missed the whole point of it.
The Key to the David Story
Even though David was a good-looking, healthy kid, that’s not why God chose him. Quite the contrary actually. The key verse to understanding this story is verse 7. When Eliab appears before Samuel, he’s a good-looking kid, too. And Samuel makes the assumption that his maturity and good looks, and being the oldest, mean that God has chosen Eliab. But, listen to what God says about Eliab:
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.”
Don’t take his appearance or his height into account, Samuel is told. Why? Because God doesn’t look at things like we do!
And that is the key to understanding this whole passage. God doesn’t look at things like we do.
Of course, the temptation for preachers right about now is to tell you how God sees things. But of course, if we knew how God saw things, then we would see things like God does, and this whole story and verse 7 wouldn’t make any sense.
But even though we don’t see things like God sees them, and more importantly, God doesn’t see things like we do, we can still take some hints from this story of David about what that means.
Some Hints About How God Sees Things
So, how can we tease out from this story, how God sees things? Here are some thoughts that stand out to me:
- We look at outward appearance, God looks at the heart.
Obviously, that is not an original thought of mine, because God clearly tells Samuel exactly that. But, here’s the problem — when David appears the writer of this story describes David’s outward appearance!
“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.” — I Samuel 16:12 NIV
Now, of course, this verse makes it sound like that David is chosen because of his “fine appearance and handsome features.” I wish the writer of this story had said something like, “Even though David was short and stubby, and a little scruffy looking, God said, “Rise and anoint him; this is the one.”
That would have made more sense. But we have to let the writer be human, and humans do what? Answer: humans look on the outward appearance. So, the writer illustrates God’s point with his own description of David.
But, what does God see in David’s heart? Well, it can’t be that David will be completely obedient to God, can it? Because if you know the story of David, you will remember that after David has become king, when he was supposed to be out fighting with his men, he’s lounging around his palace in Jerusalem. Looking from his palace down on the modest houses around the palace, David spots a beautiful woman, Bathsheba, bathing on the rooftop of her house.
You know the rest of this story. David sends for Bathsheba, commits adultery with her. But that’s not all. To cover up the evidence of his adultery, David has Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah the Hittite, killed in battle. Of course, eventually Nathan the prophet confronts David, and David repents of his sin. David’s repentance is captured in Psalm 51, in one example.
So, it cannot be that David’s heart is pure, or even obedient. What does God see in David’s heart?
That brings us to the second way God’s view of things is different from ours.
- We look for power, God looks for possibility.
David, God knows, will become powerful. It is David’s power that becomes his downfall. No one else in his kingdom could have taken another man’s wife except David himself. But, as powerful as he was, David was also able to see his own sin and repent. Unlike his predecessor King Saul, David’s heart was open to change, to repentance, to conversion, to transformation.
God isn’t looking for self-sufficient power. Rather, God is looking for spiritual possibility. Which is the same kind of thing Jesus was saying when he said about 1,000 years after David:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
You don’t have to be rich, strong, full or powerful. It’s the upside-down kingdom, this kingdom of God. Where possibility trumps power, where the last shall be first, and the first shall be last. It’s a contradiction to our culture and every culture. It’s what God is looking for.
If God Doesn’t See Things Like We Do, What Hope Do We Have?
Well, first of all, just because God doesn’t see things like we do, doesn’t mean that we can’t begin to see things like God does.
Listen to that again, very carefully: just because God doesn’t see things like we do, doesn’t mean that we can’t begin to see things like God does.
I think that is the point of Paul’s great hymn about Jesus, from Philippians 2:5-11 KJV:
5 Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:
7 But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:
8 And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.
9 Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name:
10 That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;
11 And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
“Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.” I like the King James Version. In other words, “think like Jesus.” Other translations say, “Have the same attitude as Jesus..”
Regardless of translation, Paul’s point is that we can see things the way God sees them. And that mindset, that attitude, always leads to self-sacrificial love.
Secondly, if we can have the mind of Christ — his attitude, his perspective, his love — then it will change us and our conversations and conduct.
If we can look on the hearts of those around us, like God does, and see in each heart the possibility of this person loving God, because they are God’s creation and Jesus died and rose again for them, then that might change us.
It might change the things we say on Facebook, it might change the comments we make to co-workers, it might begin just ever so slightly to nibble away at our cultural prejudices, our knee-jerk reactions, our critical natures, and our divisive rhetoric.
God doesn’t look at things like we do, but we can look at things like God does. At least a little more than we used to. Each day.
And when we look at people’s hearts, just as God looked at David’s, we realize that sick hearts can be healed, broken hearts can be mended, rebellious hearts can be turned, hard hearts can be softened, and black hearts can be made white as snow.
That’s what God sees. Not our perfection, but our potential. May we see with the eyes of God those around us. Amen.