Here’s the audio of the sermon for our radio broadcast on Sunday, January 10, 2021, which is Baptism of the Lord Sunday. The title of the sermon is “Why was Jesus Baptized, and Why Should We Be Baptized?” The text is Mark 1:4-11. Our full 30-minute radio broadcast is found at our church website, chathambc.net, at this link. I hope this is a blessing to you.
On Pentecost Sunday, I preached from Acts 2:1-21, which is the story of the coming of the Spirit of God and the birthday of the Church. It’s an amazing passage with lots to say to us today. And, to make it even more special, each year our congregation wears red on Pentecost Sunday, making it a festive occasion. Here’s the audio of my message:
On Mother’s Day 2018, I preached from Psalm 1, focusing on the phrase in verse 3, “That person is like a tree planted by streams of water.” Our Mother’s Day worship service included dedicating the newest member of our faith family, 8-week old Ella Kaitlyn Hall. It was a great Sunday, and I hope yours was, too! Here’s the audio of the sermon from last Sunday:
Yesterday I preached from 1 John 3:16-24 on the topic, “How We Know What Love Is.” John wrote the first letter that bears his name to a specific congregation of the first century. In that letter, he repeatedly encourages them to love God and to love others. As a matter of fact, John says that we can’t say we love God if we aren’t showing love to others in our actions. Here’s the audio:
On Easter Sunday, I preached from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth — 1 Corinthians 15:1-11. In that passage, Paul says, “I am what I am by the grace of God…”
Isn’t that what Easter is about? We are what we are — not what we used to be, not what we will be — but we are what we are by the grace of God. Here’s the audio of that message. I hope your Easter was glorious!
Photo credit: The Acrocorinth. By Marina Loukas (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Last Wednesday night I led the meditation for our community Lenten “meal and meditation” service. I chose Psalm 22 from the lectionary for the previous Sunday, but used the entire psalm rather than just the last portion. Here’s the study —
Psalm 22: A Lenten Study
During the Lenten season, Psalm 22 provides a wonderful narrative of the movement from despair to hope. This psalm is particularly appropriate for the Lenten-to-Easter season because Jesus quotes the first portion of verse one while he hangs on the cross (Mark 15:34 and Matthew 27:46).
But, there might be more to Jesus’ quotation of this psalm than his lament over God’s abandonment. There might be something there both surprising and encouraging.
David, the psalmist to whom this song is attributed, begins in the depths of loneliness and despair in verses 1-2:
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
2 My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest.
Here is the cry of one who feels utterly abandoned, and yet knows that his God is still somewhere within hearing. One commentator suggested that verse one is a contradiction, expressing abject abandonment by God, while at the same time addressing God as “my God.” Walter Brueggemann notes that this is classic lament — a cry from the heart in the midst of turmoil and loneliness.
However, in verses 3- 5, the psalmist begins to recount God’s history with Israel. Perhaps the psalmist thinks that by reminding God that in the past, Israel has a history of crying out to God and then being saved by God, that this history will move God to action this time.
3 Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
you are the one Israel praises.
4 In you our ancestors put their trust;
they trusted and you delivered them.
5 To you they cried out and were saved;
in you they trusted and were not put to shame.
The psalmist speaks of God “enthroned” and as the “one Israel praises.” The psalmist’s ancestors “trusted and you delivered them,” he argues. Then, using parallelism, he repeats his argument that Israel “cried out and were saved; in you they trusted and were not put to shame.” In other words, the psalmist is saying, “I’m standing in the tradition of those before me, who cried out to you, and whom you then acted to save.” This passage exemplifies the Old Testament tradition of “contending with God” — which sounds much more respectful than arguing with God. Nonetheless, that is what is happening.
In verses 6-8, the psalmist reiterates not only his abandonment, but the ill-treatment and abuse he suffers at the hands of those who mock him and his God:
6 But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
7 All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
8 “He trusts in the Lord,” they say,
“let the Lord rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
since he delights in him.”
Of course, these words and phrases are echoed in the New Testament crucifixion of Jesus in Matthew 27:27-44. Jesus is scorned, mocked, despised, and ridiculed, along with his God’s reputation.
We don’t know exactly what difficulty David was experiencing when he wrote this psalm, but somehow these descriptions in Psalm 22 become prophetic indications of how Jesus will be treated. This is the lived personal experience of both David and Jesus.
In the midst of describing the insults he is enduring, David reminds God of their personal relationship. It’s not enough for God to be reminded that God has acted on Israel’s behalf in the past (v3-5). The psalmist now reminds God that:
9 Yet you brought me out of the womb;
you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast.
10 From birth I was cast on you;
from my mother’s womb you have been my God.
This is not an appeal to the general history of the nation of Israel, but a personal account of God’s action and David’s response. David says that God was instrumental in his birth — “Yet you brought me out of the womb.” But, God also created the circumstances for David to trust in God — “you made me trust in you,” David says, as if to further obligate God to help him in his present distress.
Again, David restates verse 9 in verse 10 by saying, “From birth I was cast on you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God.” This connection involves God’s presence and power before, during, and after David’s physical birth. This is David’s claim to God’s response.
In verses 11-18, David asks for God’s near presence — “Do not be far from me,” he pleads. David equates God’s proximity to him as the assurance of God’s action for him.
Then, as evidence of why David needs God, he details the threats surrounding him, and the weakened condition he is experiencing:
11 Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.
12 Many bulls surround me;
strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.
13 Roaring lions that tear their prey
open their mouths wide against me.
14 I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
it has melted within me.
15 My mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
you lay me in the dust of death.
16 Dogs surround me,
a pack of villains encircles me;
they pierce my hands and my feet.
17 All my bones are on display;
people stare and gloat over me.
18 They divide my clothes among them
and cast lots for my garment.
Bulls, lions, and dogs are incredibly strong and ferocious adversaries. These predatory images are metaphors for the real threats to David’s existence, and also reminiscent of similar threats faced by other Old Testament heroes.
Along with these descriptions of predatory threats, David describes his physical condition in verses 14-15 and 17. Being “poured out like water” could mean that his strength is ebbing and he is almost empty of reserves. Bones out of joint, heart melting, mouth dried up to the point of his tongue sticking to the roof of his mouth, and being laid in the dust of death, are all indicators of the low level to which he has sunk physically and spiritually.
Again, in these verses there are prophetic echoes of the treatment and condition of Jesus as described in the crucifixion scenes. Jesus’ thirst on the cross; his exposure to both the elements and the stares of onlookers; his humiliation as bystanders gloat about his fate; and, the scene where those who witness his suffering not only do nothing to intervene, but cast lots for his clothes are horrifying.
In verses 19-21, David again requests that God “not be far from me.” As David asks for God’s intervention, he again details the threats against him and asks God specifically to meet those threats. He asks, “Deliver me from the sword…the power of the dogs…the mouth of lions…the horns of wild oxen.” The implication is that God can defeat all of these threats, and David uses pleading petitions for God to “come…deliver…rescue…save” him from these impending calamities.
19 But you, Lord, do not be far from me.
You are my strength; come quickly to help me.
20 Deliver me from the sword,
my precious life from the power of the dogs.
21 Rescue me from the mouth of the lions;
save me from the horns of the wild oxen.
Suddenly, the scene and tone shift dramatically beginning in verse 22. David is no longer alone, but in the presence of “my people” and “the assembly.” Perhaps this means a worship setting, possibly the Tabernacle. Not only does a worship setting imply that people are with David, but that God is also present, just as David has requested.
Because God is present, the tone of the psalm also shifts from lament to praise.
22 I will declare your name to my people;
in the assembly I will praise you.
23 You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!
Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!
24 For he has not despised or scorned
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help.
25 From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly;
before those who fear you I will fulfill my vows.
26 The poor will eat and be satisfied;
those who seek the Lord will praise him—
may your hearts live forever!
27 All the ends of the earth
will remember and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
will bow down before him,
28 for dominion belongs to the Lord
and he rules over the nations.
29 All the rich of the earth will feast and worship;
all who go down to the dust will kneel before him—
those who cannot keep themselves alive.
30 Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord.
31 They will proclaim his righteousness,
declaring to a people yet unborn:
He has done it!
David, to an ever-widening audience, sings the praises of God. He begins first with his people — perhaps his family and those closest to him — “I will declare your name to my people,” he says. Then, the circle widens to the “assembly” which is typically thought to be those assembled at the Temple for high holy days.
Then, the circle expands to include the descendants of Jacob, reiterated as the descendants of Israel — Jacob’s name having been changed to Israel. Verse 27 expands the circle to “the ends of the earth” and “all the families of nations.” Further, in verse 29, “All the rich” and even the dead — “all who go down to the dust.” All people in every circumstance from the best off (rich) to the worst off (the dead) will kneel before God!
But there is another aspect to these final verses 22-31. Previously, David recalled both God’s action in the nation’s history and his own person story. Here, however, he shifts from past tense to present to future tense. David says,
“For he has not despised or scorned
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help.”
No longer pleading with God to act, David now proclaims that God has not done as the crowds did to him — God “has not despised or scorned” him. In addition, God “has not hidden his face, but has listened to his cry for help.”
Typically, the Bible links God’s presence and hearing with God’s acting. So, if God is present, then God acts. If God hears, then God acts. If God’s “face” is turned toward the petitioner, then that is a sign of God’s favor and action. God’s attention, in other words, means that God is acting.
But, there is a future component to God’s response as well. The poor will eat and be satisfied
…all the ends of the earth will turn to the Lord
…all the families of nations will bow down to him
…all the rich will feast and worship (feasting being a part of a holy day)
…all the dead will kneel before him
…posterity will serve him
…future generations will be told about him
And what will the future generations be told about God? He has done it!
In other words, God has saved David, his people, and his creation, again!
Now, imagine the crucifixion scene with me one more time: Jesus is hanging on the cross and has been for several hours. His strength is failing, his bodily systems are shutting down. He’s thirsty, wounded, bleeding.
But before he dies, Jesus quotes the first verse of Psalm 22, in Aramaic, his native language — “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Of course, through the history of Christianity, those words have been interpreted as God’s abandonment of Christ as he bears the sins of the world.
But what if Jesus is really trying to communicate a message to those nearby, and to us today? What if all Jesus can manage is to utter the first words of Psalm 22, but he knows how that psalm ends? It’s like when someone utters the first part of a famous saying or song, and without thinking you fill in the rest of it. Suppose I said, “A stitch in time…” Those familiar with the maxims of Ben Franklin would add, “…saves nine.”
Or if I started singing, “O say can you see…” and immediately you and other Americans would know I was singing The Star-spangled Banner, our national anthem.
Jesus knows Psalm 22. His hearers know Psalm 22. So, perhaps by just beginning to utter this psalm, which says so much prophetically about Jesus, he knows that some will understand. Jesus knows that while Psalm 22 begins in lament, it ends in praise and rejoicing.
Suppose Jesus is trying to encourage his disciples, his mother, and those who are standing at the foot of the cross by reminding them of the meaning of the whole psalm.
Suppose Jesus is saying, “I’ve cried out to God for help, and things look bleak now. But God has always saved his people, and he will do so again. God has always responded. Like David, God has known me since before I was born and called me to this work. And, like David, God will come near, listen, and act. And, when this is all over, we will all know that God did it!”
Read Psalm 22 with that idea in mind. If you do, you might just hear the psalm’s lament, repeated by Jesus on the cross, as the beginning line of the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Quite an appropriate and encouraging passage for this lenten season.
Here’s a passage packed with dramatic moments like “get behind me, Satan” and “take up your cross and follow me.”
For the second Sunday in Lent, I preached from Mark 8:31-9:1. The lectionary reading did not include Mark 9:1, but I felt it was important to add that verse to get the full effect of Jesus’s words to his disciples.
Here’s the message title, “A Difficult Call To Discipleship.” I hope it’s helpful.
My sermon for October 11, 2015, from the Gospel reading. This is a familiar story of a very rich young man who finds out that he has to turn from his life of privilege to following Jesus if he wants to experience the kingdom of God.
Who Can Be Saved?
Mark 10:17-31 NIV
17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”
20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”
24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”
27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”
28 Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!”
29 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel 30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
An Important Question
We know this story — the story about the “rich, young ruler” — because we have heard it since we were children. It’s the story about a young man who seemed to have it all, and yet this young man also had wisdom beyond his years.
So despite his wealth and social standing, which were without dispute, this young man comes to Jesus and asks a very important question: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
That is a very important question. And we have to applaud this rich, young, and powerful man for being concerned with spiritual things, and not just his material wealth and social standing. So far, so good.
But, Jesus treats him rather badly. First, Jesus upbraids the young man for his courteous address. “Why do you call me good?” Jesus asks. “No one is good except God alone.” So much for courtesy. Can you imagine how this rich and powerful young man must have felt to be corrected like that publicly by this itinerant teacher named Jesus?
But whatever his feelings, Jesus doesn’t give him the chance to start over. Rather, Jesus then begins to answer his question. “You know the commandments,” Jesus replies. And Jesus, just to make sure the young man does know them, begins to name them: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’
Okay, right here we need to stop and really listen to what Jesus has just said. Jesus points the young man to the commandments, but curiously when Jesus begins to name the commandments that are necessary to have eternal life, he starts halfway down the list. Jesus totally skips the commandments that have to do with God: Don’t worship other gods, don’t make idols, don’t take God’s name in vain, and keep the sabbath.
Instead, Jesus lists the commandments that have to do with our relationship with our fellow human beings: don’t kill, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t give false testimony, don’t defraud (which actually should be don’t covet, but that’s a discussion for another time), and honor you father and mother. So, Jesus covers all 6 of the Ten Commandments related to how we deal with others, but none of them about how we deal with God. Isn’t that curious?
Maybe Jesus knows that this young man is scrupulous, as are all Pharisees if he is one, about attending to his own personal, spiritual life. He prays, he goes to Temple, he offers sacrifices, he dares not utter the four letter, unpronounceable name of God, he certainly doesn’t make or worship idols or attempt to render God’s image in physical terms. His personal, spiritual life may be so in order that it bears no perfecting. I doubt it, but there is a reason Jesus says what he says.
I think Jesus is probing to see what the young man’s self-assessment is going to be? So, he lists the six things that govern how we deal with each other. Of course, Jesus redefines the commandments in the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus says, “You have heard it has been said….but I say unto you.”
Using this formula, Jesus reinterprets the commands about murder, adultery, truth-telling, and love for enemies. Maybe Jesus wants the rich young ruler to do a bit of self-examination on the spot.
Whatever the test is, the rich young man fails. He reveals his own blindness to his spiritual condition by saying, “Teacher, all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
Wow. Sounds pretty arrogant now, but imagine how it sounded to Jesus. For with his self-justifying statement, the rich young man just told Jesus everything he needed to know. This man is unaware of his faults, his failings, his weaknesses, his shortcomings, and thinks he has already done all he needs to do.
So, maybe the rich young ruler’s question about “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” was really a veiled, passive-aggressive attempt to get Jesus to compliment him. I imagine he had already set the scene in his head: He asks Jesus a question. Jesus replies with what he needs to do. He assures Jesus he’s already done it. Jesus pats him on the back and tells him, Well then, you’re just fine!
Only, that is not what happens because then Jesus drops a bombshell on him. “One thing you lack. Go sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. The come, follow me.”
And with those words, the young man’s world comes crashing down. All his piety, all his ritual, all his social standing, all his own self-perception, all of it was wrong! Jesus kicks the props out from under his pseudo-spirituality.
Of course, this sounds harsh to us, too. But, what Jesus was addressing was the long-standing idea that if you were rich, that in itself was a de facto indication of God’s blessing.
Which is why Jesus’ disciples are astounded that Jesus says that it’s hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. “If the rich can’t get in,” the disciples are thinking,”then, who can be saved?” If there’s no hope for the rich — the people God is obviously blessing — then there’s no hope for anybody!
Another Wrong Answer
Jesus replies to the disciples’ concern about who can be saved (if a rich man can’t), with a strange answer — “With man this is impossible, but now with God; all things are possible with God.”
Peter, ever the one to pretend he gets it first, thinks he gets it. And, characteristically he blurts out, “We have left everything to follow you!”
Of course, Peter skips over the part about selling everything they had and giving it to the poor, but he wants to get Jesus’ approval, so he gives his version. And, he and Andrew, and James and John, and all the Twelve had left their families (although they still saw them frequently), had left their business of fishing (although they would return to it from time to time), and had left their homes (although they still own them). But, of course, Peter hopes Jesus overlooks the technical details and praises him for his sacrifice.
But, Peter doesn’t get the reply he wants, any more than the rich young ruler got the reply he sought. Jesus says,
“Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel 30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.”
So, the disciples who have given up some things, will receive those things back 100-times in this present age — brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and fields!
Wow. So, even if you give up something, you get much more in return. In this life. This isn’t pie-in-the-sky-bye-and-bye, this is real stuff here and now.
Oh, with one addition — persecutions! Ouch and wow. Couldn’t Jesus have left that out?
Oh, and in the age to come, eternal life. Finally, we get to the answer to the question the rich young ruler asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
So, Peter’s attempt to justify himself backfires.
Who Can Be Saved?
All of this brings us back to the rich young ruler’s question and the question of the disciples — Who can be saved?
Here’s the answer: many who are first (here and now, in religious practice, in social standing, in Forbes’ list of billionaires), will be last; and, many who are last (in wealth, in social standing, in outward religious practice) will be first.
This first-will-be-last, last-will-be-first stuff has been called “the upside-down kingdom.”
So, let’s answer the question, Who can be saved?
When I was a kid, my mother read to me the story of the Little Red Hen. The Little Red Hen. Remember that story? It goes like this: The little red hen planted some grains of wheat. When the wheat germinated and grew, it came time for harvest.
“Who will help me harvest the wheat?” said the Little Red Hen. “I won’t” said the dog. “I won’t” said the pig. “I won’t” said the cow.
“Very well,” said the Little Red Hen, “I’ll do it myself.”
And, the story goes on like that for the grinding, and then the baking. Nobody wanted to help the Little Red Hen.
But when the bread was baked, the Little Red Hen asked, “Who will help me eat this loaf of bread?” Suddenly, the dog, the pig, and the cow had different answers. “I will,” said the dog. “I will,” said the pig. “I will,” said the cow.
But the Little Red Hen had a surprise. “No one wanted to help me plant the seed, or harvest the grain, or grind the flour, or bake the bread. So, now you don’t get to help me eat the bread.” And the Little Red Hen ate the whole loaf all by herself.
Now, this is a Russian folktale, which might explain the harshness of the Little Red Hen, but here’s the point:
Jesus wanted the rich young ruler and his disciples to know that 1) whatever you give up to get to God is nothing compared to God; and, 2) whatever stands in your way of wanting to get to God will keep you from God.
Or think of it like this: If eternal life is existence in the presence of God, maybe we ought to get ready for it now. So, if we value (and cling to) anything other than the presence of God, then we’ll miss it.
No matter how much we do other stuff, no matter how much we think of ourselves, no matter what our standing in life, no matter what others think of us — none of that matters.
What matters is how much we want to know God. And our willingness to give up everything that keeps us from God.
What are those things? Well, for the rich young ruler, it was money, status, power, and prestige. We still struggle with those things today.
For the disciples, it was their own self-righteous because they thought, “We’re not like the rich young ruler because we gave up everything to follow Jesus” — except their egos, and their pride, and their arrogance.
Conversion Means Turning From One Thing and Turning To Something Else
So, again, who can be saved?
Well, the answer lies in the idea of conversion, which is at the heart of our Christian faith.
Jesus’ call to any who would be disciples was always a call to leave one way of life and turn to another way, the kingdom way. The Greek word is “metanoia” which means to “change one’s mind.” For those interested in knowing God, we have to change our mind about ourselves, our lives, the lifestyle we are participating in — we have to decide to leave all of that and turn to Jesus.
The rich young ruler’s problem was that he just wanted to add something to what he was already doing. His opinion of himself and of his own life indicated that he thought he was self-sufficient spiritually. It wasn’t about the money. It was about his unwillingness to give up one thing for something even better.
But, that’s too hard, you might object. It is hard, and that’s the point. What God calls us to is not the easy way of no sacrifice.
God called Abraham to turn from his homeland and the possibility of family, but God promised him so many descendants he wouldn’t be able to count them.
God called Moses to give up a life of obscurity in the back country to lead his people out of bondage into freedom, and promised to be with him.
God called David to be king over Israel, leaving the pastoral life of the shepherd which he obviously cherished.
Whatever we leave, give up, abandon, turn our backs on, in order to follow Jesus is nothing in return for what we gain — with persecution!
Don’t we wish that Jesus had just said, “You’ll get 100-times more in this life and in the life to come.” And that he had stopped there, without throwing the idea of persecution into the mix?
Why does persecution go with this life of turning from our old life and turning to Jesus? Because then we’re not like other people. We live a different life for different reasons devoted to a different purpose than the world around us.
It’s the spiritual equivalent of the sick chicken that gets pecked to death by the flock because it’s different.
Who Can Be Saved?
Back to our original question: Who can be saved? Let me tell you first who can’t be saved.
Those who depend on themselves without recognizing their own shortcomings can’t be saved.
Those who do not want to be transformed, can’t be saved.
Those who believe their life is god enough for them, can’t be saved.
Who can be saved?
Those who turn from self-sufficiency to God.
Those who recognize that God is God, and we are not.
Those who understand that the Creator of the universe has a better plan than ours.
Those who know that they need to change, to be changed, in order to know God.
The Bible tells us that Jesus loved the rich young ruler. He loved him for his piety, his interest in the kingdom of God, his desire to live a righteous life. But the rich young ruler himself went away sad because he knew, too, that simply adding something to his life was not the way to enter the kingdom of God.
Who can be saved? All who turn from life without God, to life in the kingdom of God.
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.
On the last Sunday of Lent, I preached from John 12:20-33. It’s the story of Jesus after his entry into Jerusalem, and this passage involves three things. First, there were those who wanted to see Jesus; secondly, Jesus warned that those who loved life in this world would lose theirs; and, finally, Jesus described what following him really meant. I used three phrases to capture these three points: focusing on Jesus, forsaking the world system, and following faithfully. Here’s the podcast of the sermon: