The Lord Looks on the Heart (a sermon on 1 Samuel 15.34 – 16.13)

Last weekend I got to spend some quality time with an amazing group of people. Well, I thought they were amazing, anyway, but I’m guessing that not everyone would share that thought with me, especially at first glance. Many of them have spent time in jail, some of them fairly recently. Most have a background of substance abuse of one kind or another. Some struggle with mental illnesses. Broken families, poverty, violence – these are common experiences for them as well. If you were ‘looking at the outward appearance’, as our Old Testament reading says, you might not be too impressed.

I met these folks at Street Hope, down in Saint John, New Brunswick, which is a ministry that our church supports through our cell phone tower income. The ministry is led, of course, by Reed Fleming, who visited us here at St. Margaret’s last year; many of us read his weekly blog posts on Friday mornings, and we’re always blessed by what he has to say. But I can truly say that I was blessed by meeting his friends at Street Hope too. Most of them have had genuine experiences of the love of God, and they all know how much they need God’s help to stay on the straight and narrow. I wish you could hear their prayers. They aren’t expressed in flowery language and they don’t beat around the bush; they are cries from the heart for desperately needed help, for themselves and for others. As I heard them, I remembered this verse from today’s first lesson: ‘(People) look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart’ (1 Samuel 16:7).

In our world today we’re so impressed with outward appearances! If a person wears a power suit to work, or if they drive a high-end car, or live in a rich neighbourhood, that gets our attention. If a person has a Master’s degree or a doctorate from a reputable university, if they give the impression of always being in control of the situation and never getting flustered by circumstances, if they’re a natural leader, full of self-assurance and confidence – we’re impressed. On the other hand, if a person is shabbily dressed, if they’re shy and backward in conversation, if they obviously struggle with a mental illness of some kind – we tend to ignore them, or even write them off.

In the first book of Samuel, outward appearances are noted from time to time. Earlier in the book we read about how, after several hundred years of being led by judges and prophets under God’s guidance, the people asked Samuel to choose a king for them so that they could be like the nations around them, with a strong leader to fight their battles. So Samuel chose Saul son of Kish, and it’s recorded of him that he was a whole head taller than anyone else in Israel at the time. People were impressed! Here was a man who could lead them in their battles against the Philistines! And at the beginning Saul did well; there was a city called Jabesh-Gilead that was being oppressed by the Ammonites, and Saul raised an army and came to their rescue.

But by the time we get to 1 Samuel chapter 15, all is not well. This is a difficult chapter for us to read today because God seems to act in a savage way. Back in the time of Moses, several hundred years before, the Amalekites had tried to stop Israel on its journey to the promised land, and Moses had declared that from then on the Lord was at war with Amalek. In 1 Samuel chapter 15, the prophet Samuel tells Saul that it’s time to finish that war; he’s to go and attack the Amalekites and wipe them out – men, women and children, flocks and herds and everything they own. The word in Hebrew is ‘cherem’, which refers to the total giving of people and things to God, often by destroying them. To us today, this sounds even worse: it’s divinely sanctioned human sacrifice. Can it be possible that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ wanted Saul to do this, and then got annoyed because he didn’t kill enough of the animals, and didn’t execute the king of Amalek along with all the Amalekite babies?

For me, it seems impossible. As a Christian, I take Jesus as my starting point for interpreting the Bible, and if there are things that seem to go against his teaching about God and the way God wants us to live, I put a question mark beside them. But I think we have to ask ourselves, “What’s the deeper issue here with Saul?” And I think the answer seems to be that he was not whole-hearted in his commitment to doing God’s will. Having power, and staying in power, was more important to him. Toward the end of chapter fifteen, Samuel is told that Saul has gone to Carmel to set up a monument to himself. Well, that has a strangely contemporary ring about it, doesn’t it? There are plenty of political leaders who start out well, but the power goes to their heads, and before you know it, they’re obsessed with setting up monuments to themselves – or, as we call it today, ‘leaving a legacy’.

So by the end of chapter fifteen God has rejected Saul as king of Israel. That rejection isn’t going to come into effect all at once; it’s not until 2 Samuel chapter 5 that his successor will finally take the throne. A flower doesn’t die as soon as it’s plucked; if you put it in water and feed it, you can make it last a long time. But essentially it’s doomed as soon as you pluck it, and that’s what’s happening to the reign of Saul. God’s heart isn’t in it any more; he’s looking for a successor.

So in our Old Testament reading God tells Samuel to go down south to Bethlehem and choose a successor for Saul. God tells him to tell the people of Bethlehem that he’s come to offer a sacrifice, and he’s to specifically invite the family of Jesse, because God has chosen one of Jesse’s sons as the new king.

So this is what Samuel does. The people are gathered around, the sacrifice has probably been offered, and then, one by one, the sons of Jesse are presented to Samuel. The first one is Eliab; he’s an impressive looking man, and Samuel smiles and thinks to himself, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is standing before him now!” But then God speaks to Samuel in his heart.

“Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

So Eliab isn’t the one, and neither is Abinadab, and neither is Shammah. Seven of Jesse’s sons parade before Samuel, but God doesn’t give any of them the nod. Samuel is confused; “Is this all of them? Surely there must be another one?” “Well, actually, there is”, Jesse replies; “There’s the youngest one, but he’s off looking after the sheep”. “Bring him in”, Samuel says. So they send for David, and when he arrives, the author of 1 Samuel can’t resist making a comment about his outward appearance!

‘Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one”. Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward’ (1 Samuel 16:12-13a).

So God has found a man whose heart is in the right place. Does this mean that David never falls short, and never sins against God? We know it doesn’t. We’ve got his story in the first and second books of Samuel, warts and all. There are moments of faith and devotion, and moments of great wickedness. The devotion of David’s heart doesn’t mean that he never fails; he does, sometimes spectacularly. But his response is well expressed in one of our baptismal promises: ‘Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?’ That’s what David does.

So what does this passage have to say to us today, in the very different world that we live in?

I think that for many of us, the ‘outward appearance’ we’re not impressed with tends to be our own. In other words, when we think of the possibility that God might be calling us to some ministry, we compare ourselves with the best ministry people we know, and then we think, “I could never do what they do! They’ve got theological degrees and oodles of training; they’re gifted speakers, friendly and outgoing, oozing self-confidence and leadership ability. Clearly, I’m not in their league!”

What does the apostle Paul have to say about that? Listen to his words in 1 Corinthians 1:26-29:

‘Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God’.

Of course, all we have to do is think of the original twelve apostles; they weren’t exactly oozing theological education or leadership ability! Peter is always putting his foot in his mouth or promising things he can’t deliver; James and John want to call down fire from heaven on Samaritan villages, and they’ve got their eyes on the top jobs when Jesus takes over in Jerusalem; Thomas is full of doubts; Simon the Zealot has just finished a promising career as a terrorist working against the Roman government, and Matthew was a tax collector in the pay of the Roman government! Clearly, as our text says, ‘the Lord does not see as mortals see’!

So this is the first thing we learn: don’t count yourself out, and don’t count other people out either, because of first impressions or outward appearance. This is not what God is looking for. God is looking deeper.

What is he looking for? What are the essentials? Two things. First, we’re told that what God is looking for is a faithful and obedient heart.

Nowadays when we use the word ‘heart’ we tend think of the feelings, the emotions, but that’s not what the Bible writers meant. To them, the heart wasn’t the seat of the emotions – the bowels were! But the heart, for them, meant the will – the choices we make, and the actions that flow from those choices. To love the Lord with all your heart means to make a decision to live your life according to God’s will. That’s what God was looking for when he chose David.

Jesus has the same emphasis in the New Testament. In last week’s gospel reading he tells us: “Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:35), and in the Sermon on the Mount he gives us this warning:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:21-23).

Prophecy, casting out demons, working miracles – those things look pretty impressive to me. Surely they’re proof that a person’s heart is right with God, aren’t they? Not, so, says Jesus; the important thing is doing the will of his Father in heaven. As he says in John’s gospel, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).

So this is the first thing God is looking for when he’s trying to find someone to do a job for him: someone who is doing their best to put the teaching of Jesus into practice in their daily lives. And we know what that means: loving God with all our heart, loving our neighbour as ourselves, loving our enemies and forgiving those who hurt us, living simple lives without a lot of luxuries, caring for the poor and needy, and being honest and faithful, patient and gentle and kind to one another. That’s the kind of heart God is looking for.

How is this obedience to be sustained? We know that we’re weak and sinful and very talented at messing up! But that’s where the Holy Spirit comes in. We’re told that ‘Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed (David) in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward’ (16:13a).

I think of Simon Peter, who was always promising more than he could deliver. I think of him being brave enough to follow Jesus as the soldiers led him away to be tried and condemned. Peter followed them all the way to the high priest’s house, but then someone recognized him: “Surely you’re one of them?” Then Peter’s courage failed him, and he denied three times that he even knew Jesus.

But seven weeks later, on the Day of Pentecost, this same Peter stands up in front of a huge crowd and preaches boldly about Jesus, who the leaders crucified, but whom God has made both Lord and Messiah. Where’s his fear gone? What’s changed this man? And the answer is clear: the Holy Spirit has come on him and made him a witness for Jesus.

So, sisters and brothers: is God calling you to serve him in some way? And are you intimidated by your own lack of qualifications? Are you thinking, “I’ve seen people who work for God; they look pretty impressive to me, and there’s no way I can stand up in their company”?

Let’s be clear about where that thought comes from. The devil is the father of lies, and he’ll do all he can to stop people from responding to God’s call on their lives. If a lie will do the job, he’ll lie to your face. And this is a lie, this idea that my lack of qualifications, or an impressive outward appearance, prevent God from using me to serve him. They don’t.

These two things are essential. First, make sure your heart is right with God. Listen carefully to the things Jesus is telling you about the kind of life God wants us to live, and do your best to put these things into practice. Ask him to guide you in that, so that your life is gradually reshaped by the teaching and example of Jesus.

Second, ask God every day to fill you with the Holy Spirit and to help you to walk in step with the Spirit all through the day. The Christian life is impossible without the help of the Holy Spirit; that’s why Jesus told his followers to wait in Jerusalem until they had been clothed with power from on high. Don’t necessarily look for an overwhelming emotional experience; the Holy Spirit may stir deep emotions within you, or he may not. But when you step out in faith to do the things that God is asking you to do, and discover a strength you didn’t know you had to help you do it – that’s when you know that the Spirit has come. Keep stepping out in faith, keep praying for the Spirit’s help, and you will find yourself gradually more and more aware of his presence and his strength.

People look on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart. A heart that’s obedient to him and filled with his Spirit – that’s what God is looking for. May he find what he’s looking for today, here in our church. Amen.


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