Don’t look to Christianity to make you happy!

Today we’ll have a quote from the great C.S. Lewis. He was once asked which of the world’sLewis religions made its practitioners the happiest. Here is part of his reply:

“I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”  (C.S. Lewis: ‘God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics‘)

He went on to say that he hadn’t become a Christian because he thought it would make him happy – rather, he had come to Christian faith because he had decided it was true. In case you’re interested, he tells the story of how he came to that conclusion in his autobiography ‘Surprised by Joy‘.

I think this is exactly right. Yes, Jesus promised us joy, but he’s not in the business of confirming us in our selfishness and self-centredness. His business is to transform us into people who can truly be happy forever, and in order to do that, he has to help us leave behind a lot of things we think are essential to our happiness. This is because he knows a lot better than we do what is good for us and what isn’t. So the best thing to ask, as he says in the introduction to ‘Mere Christianity‘, is ‘Are these doctrines true? Is holiness here?’ Put happiness first and we probably won’t find it. Put truth, loving action, and holiness first, and we’re likely to get happiness thrown in as a by-product when we’re least expecting it.


Ray Coen and Mai Hernon play a great version of ‘The Rambling Siuler’

I love this old Irish folk song; like Ray, I think I first heard it on an old Planxty recording but I love Ray’s beautiful flatpicking in this version, which suits the song so perfectly.

There’s a good discussion about the origins of the song and the meaning of the word ‘siuler’ on Mudcat here.

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.

We don’t send prayers ‘out to’ people – we send them out to God

I’ve noticed in the world of Facebook that people will often say something like “Our thoughts and prayers are going out to Joe Green and his family in the difficult time they’re going through”. Or, “Prayers going out to the family of Mary Smith, who died last night”.

Here’s the thing, though: we send our thoughts out to people, but we don’t send our prayers out to them. We send our prayers out to God, on the people’s behalf.

Why does this matter? Am I just being nitpicky?

I don’t think so, for two reasons. First, if prayers are just something purely human that we ‘send out’ to people, like sympathetic thoughts, then they can’t really give those people any significant help – other than the comfort of knowing that friends are thinking of them, which is surely what ‘sending out thoughts’ means. In other words, the ‘prayers’ are not really that much different from the ‘thoughts’; they’re just a different way of saying the same thing.

Second, if we’re actually sending our prayers out to John for his healing, for example, then prayer becomes a sort of ‘mental ray of love’, and the more rays, the better. So we can fall into the trap of thinking that if we can get a thousand people praying for John, that’s more effective than, for instance, two or three. The more prayers, the better! Whereas Jesus clearly tells us that two or three are enough. One is enough, actually; if God is my father and I am his child, and if he is anything like the best earthly fathers (which he is), then the voice of even one of his beloved children will surely be heard.

No – we send our loving thoughts and hugs and best wishes out to our friends who are suffering, but we don’t send our prayers to them. We send our prayers to the place where they can really make a difference: the heart of God. And because God is a God of love, he will hear those prayers, and in his own time and in his own way, he will answer them.

Helplessness and Faith

I’m still unpacking the incredible experience of meeting and being involved in the little community of Street Hope Saint John this past weekend.

One of the things that really touched me was to hear the Street Hope people pray. Their prayers were not sophisticated; they were simple cries for help, from people who knew how desperately they needed that help. As I said to Reed afterwards, for those folks, following Jesus and staying on his straight and narrow way was not a hobby, it was a life and death matter.

On the way home on the plane I started reading an old classic, ‘Prayer‘, by Ole Hallesby. I don’t know why I haven’t read it before, but I’m really enjoying it.

Near the beginning of the book he sets out what he regards as the two essentials of prayer: helplessness, and faith. ‘Helplessness’ reminds me of the the first step of A.A.: ‘We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol; that our lives had become unmanageable’. The first step of prayer is to find ourselves face to face with a situation which is beyond our power to cope with.

And what is ‘faith’? Faith simply means turning to Jesus. That’s all. We don’t need cartloads of it. Jesus said once that if we had faith the size of a mustard seed, that would be enough.

To pray, Hallesby says, simply means to invite Jesus into our hearts. Once he’s there, he is well able to look after whatever he finds there. And, of course, this includes our prayers for others too; the reason we pray for them is because they’re on our hearts.

Andrew Murray once wrote another classic on prayer, called ‘With Christ in the School of Prayer‘. This past weekend, I was very much aware of being in that school, and my teachers were a group of very needy people, along with an old Norwegian Lutheran pastor. Through them, the Lord is continuing to ‘teach me to pray’, in helplessness and faith.

1 Samuel 15:34 – 16:13: Preliminary sermon thoughts

This is not a sermon, it’s my preliminary exegetical work. Hopefully others might find it helpful.


34 Then Samuel left for Ramah, but Saul went up to his home in Gibeah of Saul. 35 Until the day Samuel died, he did not go to see Saul again, though Samuel mourned for him. And the Lord regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel.

16:1  The Lord said to Samuel, ‘How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king.’

But Samuel said, ‘How can I go? If Saul hears about it, he will kill me.’

The Lord said, ‘Take a heifer with you and say, “I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.” Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what to do. You are to anoint for me the one I indicate.’

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?’

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.

When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, ‘Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord.’

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.’

Then Jesse called Abinadab and made him pass in front of Samuel. But Samuel said, ‘The Lord has not chosen this one either.’ Jesse then made Shammah pass by, but Samuel said, ‘Nor has the Lord chosen this one.’ 10 Jesse made 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.

In the chapter immediately preceding this one, Saul is commanded by God to wipe out the Amalekites because, hundreds of years before, they had opposed Israel when they arrived in Palestine from Egypt in the time of Moses. The command as it stands is very objectionable to us as Christians: ‘Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys’ (15:3 NIV). The Hebrew word translated ‘totally destroy’ in the NIV refers to the irrevocable giving over of things or persons to Yahweh, often by – well, totally destroying them! So it is not only an execution, but also a kind of human sacrifice, and both of these things run clean counter to what Jesus has taught us about the nature of God. Since I take Jesus as the key to understanding and interpreting the Old Testament, I will therefore be cautious in how seriously I take the idea that this was a divine command.

However, in the narrative we have to take it as it is and move on to the main point – the disobedience of Saul, God’s anointed king. He did not obey the command; he defeated the Amalekites, but he spared their king and also ‘the best of the sheep and cattle, the fat calves and lambs – everything that was good. These they were unwilling to destroy completely, but everything that was despised and weak they totally destroyed’ (15:9).

If I’m ever going to understand this strange passage, I need to understand that in the terms of the Israelite culture of the day, this was the same as keeping your best and strongest lambs and calves for yourself, and only sacrificing to God the ones that were so weak and sickly that they were going to die anyway. Later on Saul will protest that sacrifice was always his eventual intention: ‘The soldiers took sheep and cattle from the plunder, the best of what was devoted to God, in order to sacrifice them to Yahweh your God at Gilgal’ (15:21) – the principle shrine of Israel at the time, the place where the tabernacle stood, the forebear of the Temple Solomon would later build in Jerusalem. If this is true, it seems that Saul had decided it was not right just to slaughter everything on the battlefield without proper ceremony; the good stuff should go to God’s shrine, where it could be offered with all the proper rituals and observances.

But it seems clear to me that the prophet Samuel, who had challenged Saul about his obedience to God, did not believe this explanation. His response is one of those Old Testament classics:

“Does Yahweh delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
as much as obeying Yahweh?
To obey is better than sacrifice,
And to heed is better than the fat of rams.
For rebellion is like the sin of divination,
And arrogance like the evil of idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of Yahweh,
He has rejected you as king” (15:22-23).

So Samuel pronounces judgement on Saul in the name of Yahweh.

‘As Samuel turned to leave, Saul caught hold of the hem of his robe, and it tore. Samuel said to him, “Yahweh has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today and has given it to one of your neighbours – to one better than you”’ (15:27-28).

And so, after Samuel brings out Agag king of the Amalekites and kills him as Saul had refused to do, he leaves Saul and never sees him again.

And this leads us directly to today’s passage.

What does it say?
The last verse of chapter 15 tells us that Samuel went to his home in Ramah, but mourned for Saul until the day he died. And his mourning was joined to Yahweh’s mourning, because Yahweh ‘regretted’ that he had made Saul king over Israel. This is an example of something we see in the Old Testament – God taking a course of action and then changing his mind and regretting it. This seems to contradict not only the Greek idea of a god who never changes, but also some other texts in the scriptures that speak of God never changing. No doubt we’re on the edge of a great mystery here, but we won’t resolve it today!

In chapter sixteen God quickly moves on to the new plan. Saul is still king of Israel and his kingdom is outwardly strong; David will be anointed king by God in this chapter, but he will not take up his throne over the whole nation for another twenty chapters, until 2 Samuel chapter 5, and most of those chapters will be taken up with the struggle between the kingdom of Saul and the new movement led by David, the unwilling rebel, who to the end refuses to actually take up arms against Saul, who he regards as ‘Yahweh’s anointed’.

So in chapter 16 Yahweh tells Samuel to stop mourning for Saul and go to Bethlehem to visit the home of Jesse, because he (Yahweh) has chosen one of Jesse’s sons as king. Samuel is understandably afraid; how can he go to anoint a new king when the old king is still strong on his throne? If Saul hears of it he will kill Samuel immediately. So God suggests a plan; tell Jesse and the other citizens of Bethlehem that you are coming to offer a community sacrifice. Invite Jesse and his family, and then do the anointing as a sort of afterthought.

So this is what Samuel does. He goes to Bethlehem – a town on the edge of Saul’s northern kingdom, and beyond the reach of Samuel’s normal circuit as judge as well – and the elders of the town are more than a little afraid of him; they ‘trembled when they met him. They asked, “Do you come in peace?”’ (16:4 NIV). Their fear is understandable; by now it will be known in the land that Saul and Samuel have had a falling out; Saul is the king, but Samuel is the one who made him king. Which one should the people of Bethlehem be friendly to? In a time of civil war, these visits from officials are always fraught with peril! But Samuel assures them that he has come in peace, to offer a sacrifice; everyone, including Jesse and his sons, is to consecrate themselves with the appropriate rituals and come to the sacrifice.

The author describes what happens next in some detail. Jesse and seven of his sons come to the sacrifice. When they arrive, Jesse sees Eliab (the oldest?) and thinks, “Surely Yahweh’s anointed stands here before Yahweh” (16:6); apparently Eliab was a particularly impressive looking man! But then once again comes one of those Old Testament classics:

‘But Yahweh said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. Yahweh does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but Yahweh looks at the heart”’ (16:7 NIV).

This issue of the loyalty of the heart has been central from the beginning of the Israelite monarchy. Saul was the first king, and we’re told that after Samuel anointed him as king,

‘As Saul turned to leave Samuel, God changed Saul’s heart’ (1 Samuel 10:9).

Not long afterwards, when Samuel is stepping back from the role he has played all his life as the last great judge of Israel, to make room for the king whom God and the people have chosen, he warns them about this issue of the heart:

‘“Do not be afraid”, Samuel replied. “You have done all this evil; yet do not turn away from Yahweh, but serve Yahweh with all your heart…But be sure to fear Yahweh and serve him faithfully with all your heart; consider what great things he has done for you. Yet if you persist in doing evil, both you and your king will perish”’ (1 Samuel 12:20, 24-25).

Saul’s heart was initially changed, to be sure, but by the time we get to chapter fifteen it’s clear what his heart was actually full of:

‘Early in the morning Samuel got up and went to meet Saul, but he was told, “Saul has gone to Carmel. There he has set up a monument in his own honour and has turned and gone on down to Gilgal’ (15:12).

Saul is surely not the first political leader who starts out with a true heart but eventually is overtaken by self-importance and entitlement!

So what God is looking for among these sons of Jesse is a person who will serve God faithfully with all his heart, and lead God’s people to do the same. One by one Jesse’s sons parade before Samuel – Abinadab, Shammah, and four others, but Yahweh has not chosen any of them. When the parade is done, Samuel turns to Jesse and says, “Yahweh hasn’t chosen any of these. Is there another one?” So Jesse tells him about the youngest, David, who is currently out looking after the family flock of sheep. So they send for David, and the author (who no doubt was a member of the royal court of the descendants of David!), despite his earlier warnings about not looking at the outward appearance, can’t restrain himself from saying, ‘He was glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features’ (v.12, NIV) – or, as the NRSV says in a surprisingly different translation, ‘Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome’. But now there is no doubt and no hesitation:

‘Then Yahweh said, “Rise and anoint him; this is the one”. So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the spirit of Yahweh came powerfully upon David’ (16:13a).

Here we have the second essential: the presence of the spirit of God. This has come on Saul too (10:10), but by his later actions he has rejected the presence of Yahweh’s spirit, and later on in chapter 16 we are told explicitly,

‘Now the Spirit of Yahweh had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from Yahweh tormented him’ (v.14).

At this stage in the theology of Israel both good and evil spirits come from God; it is not until later that we have a developed theology of the devil as the source of evil. But this is a marginal concern in the text; the important thing is that a king, no less than a prophet, needs to be a ‘messiah’, an anointed one. He cannot do his work on the basis merely of human wisdom, skill and power; he needs the powerful Spirit of Yahweh to make up for his inevitable human shortcomings. And this is what David receives when Samuel anoints him with oil. It will be many years before the kingship granted to David at this time is recognized by all Israel, but from this moment, the hand of God is on him in a special way.

What does it mean?
In New Testament terms, this is the story of the anointing of a ‘messiah’, the ‘Christ’ in Greek. The Hebrew word ‘messiah’ means ‘the anointed one’, and in New Testament times it had come to mean ‘the king like David, who God would send to rescue his people from the Romans, just as he had rescued Israel from the Philistines and made her a great nation by the hand of David’. And of course Luke has Jesus being born in Bethlehem, in accordance with the prophecy in Micah – Bethlehem, the town where the first David, the first ‘messiah’, had been born. So all of these things have New Testament echoes.

First, however, we have to grapple with the failure of Samuel. Despite our revulsion at the circumstances – the purported command of God to slaughter thousands of innocent Amalekite men, women, and children, for the simple reason that they were the descendents of those who, hundreds of years before, had obstructed Israel’s journey to the promised land – we need to recognize that the principle of communal guilt was universally accepted in Old Testament times, and that this guilt could be transmitted down through the generations – just as debt can be today, which, if you think about it, makes as little sense as the transmission of guilt! So Amalek is guilty, God chooses Saul to carry out his sentence, God specifies the terms – the whole nation is to be a total sacrifice to Yahweh – but Saul has better ideas, and so he refuses to obey God’s specific instructions.

This is the story as it’s told, and we have to take it as it is and see what the author does with it. What he does is to establish a timeless principle: to obey is better than sacrifice, but disobedience and rebellion are as bad as witchcraft and idolatry. In other words, there isn’t a blind bit of good in going to Gilgal and organizing a splendid and impressive liturgy (or, for that matter, in modern terms, a splendid and impressive service with a praise and worship band with a sound system worth hundreds of thousands of dollars) if your heart is not right with God – or, to say the same thing in another way, if your will is not determined to do God’s will. To worship rightly is to offer yourself to God; you can’t do this and live in disobedience.

This is important, because it is taken up in the story in chapter 16 as well. Saul wanted to offer Yahweh something splendid at Gilgal (so he said); Samuel was looking for someone splendid to anoint as Saul’s successor as king of Israel, and at first he thought he had found that person in Eliab. But splendour and outward appearance is of absolutely no importance to God: “People look at the outward appearance, but Yahweh looks at the heart” (16:7). Even after this incident, outward appearances were strongly in Saul’s favour: he was the king of Israel, he commanded the army, and all power was in his hands. But inside, there was ‘something rotten in the state of Denmark’, because the heart’s devotion was gone, and also the heart’s assurance that he was Yahweh’s anointed king. The sense of security was gone, and Saul lived the rest of his life in fear and suspicion of possible competitors.

‘Yahweh looks on the heart’. We need to remember that, in Bible terms, ‘the heart’ does not mean what we think it means today: the emotions, the feelings. When the biblical writers wanted to speak about the feelings, they used the illustration of the intestines (and, to be crude, we still talk about being ‘scared shitless’!). But the heart was a symbol for the centre of the personality, the will, the choices, the decisions a person made about the direction of their life. If your heart was set on God, that meant that you understood that ‘to obey is better than sacrifice’, and you committed yourself to a ‘whole-hearted’ obedience to the will of God.

Did David always have this? We know that he did not. The rest of his story includes many failures, including, most famously, his adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband Uriah so that he could take her for himself and hide his sin from the people. Psalm 86 is presented to us as ‘a prayer of David’, and contains this petition:

‘Teach me your way, Yahweh, that I may rely on your faithfulness;
Give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name’.

So David (whether or not he actually wrote Psalm 86) is not presented to us in the OT as a man whose heart was always fixed on God; he struggled and sinned and fell just as we do. At times, like us, his heart was divided. But – and here is the crucial thing – he is always presented to us as repenting, returning to Yahweh, and resuming his desire to live in obedience to God.

So, here are the essentials:

First, God does not look on the outward appearance. A tall, strong, good-looking body was not important when God was choosing a new king. All of Saul’s impressiveness (we’re told earlier in 1 Samuel that he was a whole head taller than anyone else in Israel at the time) did not impress God. And today the same is true. An impressive appearance, a huge list of academic qualifications, obvious and impressive giftedness – these are not what God is looking for. Nor is he impressed with a splendid liturgy, a glorious building, or a huge reputation in the neighbourhood. When God is looking for people to serve him and to do his will, this is not important.

This is underlined over and over again in the Old Testament by an interesting narrative theme. In the cultures of the day, it was assumed that the older son would have the birthright and inherit the property, but over and over, in the Old Testament, that did not happen. Esau was Isaac’s older son, but Jacob was the one who became the ancestor of Israel. Reuben was Jacob’s oldest son, but he was disobedient and slept with his father’s concubine, and instead the pride of place went to the tribes of Judah and Joseph. And in Joseph’s family, Manasseh was the older son, but Ephraim became the greater, so that Israel did not say ‘Manasseh and Ephraim’, but ‘Ephraim and Manasseh’.

The same theme is found in the New Testament. The Twelve are not chosen from the ranks of the powerful, the well educated, or the wealthy. Paul spells out this theme in 1 Corinthians where he says,

‘Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him’ (1 Corinthians 1:26-29 NIV).

Once again, people are impressed with the outward appearance, but God is not; God looks on the heart. Which leads to the second point:

What God looks for is a faithful and obedient heart. In the Old Testament we’re told ‘Trust in Yahweh with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight’ (Proverbs 3:5-6). So the heart is associated here with trust. A faithful heart is a heart that trusts that God’s ways are good ways, and that shows that trust by following the instructions that God gives.

Which leads us to obedience. As we’ve seen, the word ‘heart’ in the Bible does not refer to the feelings but to the will, the choices we make. Disobedience is what brought Saul down; his heart was not right with God, and so he made wrong choices. The opposite of that is obedience.

David, as we’ve seen, did not always walk in obedience, but he prayed for it and desired it, and when he fell into sin, he repented and returned to the Lord. His faith was not mere outward appearance or mere words; it was genuine love for God expressed in godly living.

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 and exorcism and working miracles look pretty impressive, but they are not conclusive evidence of a heart right with God. “Only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” exhibits that evidence. As Jesus says in John 14:15, “If you love me, keep my commandments”. The test of a faithful life in the Bible is never the depth of its feelings or the impressiveness of its outward appearance, but the faithfulness of its actions.

How is this obedience to be maintained? We know that it’s beyond our capability as fallen and fallible human beings to give perfect obedience to God; ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23); ‘If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us’ (1 John 1:8). And so comes the absolute necessity of the infilling of the Holy Spirit of God. “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you”, says Jesus to his disciples (Acts 1:8). For us, as for David, it’s vital that the Spirit of Yahweh ‘comes powerfully’ on us, and not just once, either; we are to go on and on being filled with the Holy Spirit (see Ephesians 5:18-21).

What does it mean to us?
No doubt there are many Christians who don’t feel they’re qualified to serve the Lord. They’re going by outward appearances. They don’t have obvious leadership abilities; they don’t have an impressive appearance; they can’t speak well. They don’t have solid academic qualifications. In fact, they are exactly the kind of people Paul speaks about in the passage I just quoted:

‘God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him’ (1 Corinthians 1:27-29).

In another passage in the gospels, Jesus says,

“I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do” (Luke 10:21).

In Luke’s account, these words come as Jesus has sent out seventy-two apprentice missionaries to take the gospel message to the towns and villages he intends to visit. After their missionary trip they return to him full of joy; even the demons submit to them in his name, they say. Jesus sees this as evidence that God has chosen them; his disciples are the ‘little children’, and the Pharisees and scribes, who are well educated and knowledgeable in the Law, are the ‘wise and the learned’. But what the disciples have, that the scribes and Pharisees do not, is faith in Jesus, and obedience to him.

Of course, we ought not to despise good theological education and giftedness, but these things are not the essentials. God is looking for something more than that. God does not need ‘the outward appearance’, but he does need ‘the heart’. And this is what we cannot get by without as we seek to follow Jesus.

A heart that chooses to trust in God and obey him is a non-negotiable essential if we want to serve the Lord. No amount of training and education and professional skill can make up for the lack of this. The obedience and faith do not need to be perfect – we have seen that in David – but we do need to watch over ourselves and guard our hearts’ devotion to Jesus. Saul, the tallest man in Israel, was an impressive figure, but God was not impressed. David, the youngest of Jesse’s sons, was the humble shepherd boy, and God called him to be the shepherd of his people Israel. Saul’s heart was divided, but David prayed that God would give him an undivided heart. Today we need to echo David’s prayer, and then take courage; we may see ourselves, like David, as the least impressive person in the neighbourhood, but it’s possible that God may take a different view!

And the other essential, as we’ve seen, is the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit can take a fearful, unsteady person, like Simon Peter who was brave enough to follow Jesus into the high priest’s courtyard but not brave enough to identify with him there – “I do not know the man” – and work such a miracle in his heart that he will stand up and preach a powerful sermon on the day of Pentecost, and three thousand people are converted. We Christians are called to live lives that are totally inexplicable apart from the power of God and the work of the Holy Spirit. We do not need an impressive appearance; we need faithful hearts, full of the Holy Spirit of God and walking in step with the Spirit. With that, God can get to work.


The gospel on the street

I’ve been spending this past weekend with the remarkable people of Street Hope Saint John.

When I say ‘remarkable people’, you might be a little surprised. Most of them struggle with addictions of one kind or another. Some freely admit to living with mental illness, and some have spent time in jail. Some have come to a real faith in Christ, but have reoffended and ended up in jail again. ‘One step forward, two steps back’ is a reality for many of us Christians, but it can have serious consequences if the old life you’re struggling to get free from has involved confrontation with the law.

IMG_1093Nevertheless, when I said ‘remarkable people’, I meant it. This weekend these folks have welcomed me into their community. I joined them for a community dinner at Stone Church on Friday night, served by the people of the Anglican church in Pennfold, NB; the Pennfold worship band played during and after the dinner, and a lot of the guests were obviously really enjoying the music. On Saturday morning there was a pancake breakfast at the Street Hope fellowship room in the basement at Stone Church, and on Sunday night a worship service called ‘Hopeful’, at which I was privileged to lead some singing, and later to preach about the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

I wish all my readers could hear these folks pray! They don’t use flowery language or ‘Christianese’, but they do cry out to God about the life and death issues that they and their friends are struggling with. Faith, to them, is not a luxury; they are well aware that only the power of God can bring them freedom.

Leading this community is my old friend Reed Fleming. Reed and I were both trained as evangelists in the Church Army in Canada, which is now Threshold Ministries; Reed has served in isolated communities in northern Ontario and Manitoba, at the old Church Army headquarters in Toronto, and on the staff of Taylor College of evangelism in Saint John. While he was at the college he started the street ministry that became Uptown Church and then eventually Street Hope, Saint John. I appreciate Reed and his wife Linda (who was also in college with me) so much for their love for Christ and for the people they serve with. I say ‘serve with’, rather than ‘serve’, because Reed’s vision is to nurture a community of people who reach out to serve others, not just to be served themselves.

You can find out more about Reed and the folks at Street Hope Saint John here. Please pray for them, that they will continue to find freedom in Christ, and that they will continue to share the love of Christ with others.

Let’s repeat that lesson

I don’t know about you, but I’m more than a little slow to learn things, and I often have to go through lessons more than once. One of the lessons I often find myself repeating is the lesson not to covet stuff. I see something that I’d really like to have, and I can’t get it out of my mind; eventually I give in and buy it, and it doesn’t take long before I realize that I didn’t really need it and don’t care as much for it as I thought I would. In anticipation, it seemed like owning it would be a wonderful thing, but in retrospect, it turns out to be a disappointment. And then I remember the last time I learned that lesson, and I think, “How come I never seem to learn?”

The gospel for today in the Daily Office lectionary is Matthew 15:29-39. It takes place in Gentile territory; Jesus has been travelling through the region of Tyre and Sidon and is now on the eastern side of the lake of Galilee.

‘Then he went up on a mountainside and sat down. Great crowds came to him, bringing the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute and many others, and laid them at his feet; and he healed them. The people were amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled made well, the lame walking and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel.

‘Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way.”

And immediately we think to ourselves, ‘Haven’t we been here before? Wasn’t there an earlier feeding story?’

Yes, there was – the feeding of the five thousand, in Matthew 14:13-20. There are some similarities between the stories – a large crowd, a lonely place, a teaching session with Jesus prolonged for several days, the lack of food, Jesus’ challenge to the disciples. But the setting is different; the earlier feeding is in Jewish territory, while the later, as we’ve seen, is in the Gentile area east of the lake. The numbers are different too – five thousand in the earlier feeding, four thousand in the later.

The story continues:

His disciples answered, ‘Where could we get enough bread in this remote place to feed such a crowd?’

‘How many loaves do you have?’ Jesus asked.

‘Seven,’ they replied, ‘and a few small fish.’

‘He told the crowd to sit down on the ground. Then he took the seven loaves and the fish, and when he had given thanks, he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and they in turn to the people. They all ate and were satisfied. Afterwards the disciples picked up seven basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was four thousand men, besides women and children. After Jesus had sent the crowd away, he got into the boat and went to the vicinity of Magadan.’

So it’s the same procedure as in the earlier feeding: the loaves and fishes are brought forward, the crowd sits down, Jesus gives thanks and breaks the bread, the disciples distribute it, everyone has enough to eat, and the disciples pick up the leftovers. It’s so similar that some scholars have suggested that it may be the same story repeated, told in two different ways. Personally, I don’t believe that; the differences in setting are significant, and later on in the gospel Jesus refers to both incidents (Matthew 16:5-12).

In fact, I find this story very true to my life. For the crowd, the experience of having their hunger satisfied by Jesus in a supernatural way was new. For the disciples, it was not; they had seen it before, and they ought to have remembered the earlier occasion, and exercised a little more faith when they found themselves in similar circumstances again. But they did not – just like I don’t remember the last time I was going through the experience of covetousness, and then find myself repeating the same mistakes over and over again.

Fortunately for me, God is patient. God sees me repeating those mistakes, and once again he repeats the lesson. Some of those lessons have been repeated hundreds of times over the course of my life; apparently I’m a very slow learner, but God is patient. That’s one of the things we mean by ‘Gospel’: the good news that God doesn’t mind taking a long time to transform the hearts of stubborn people like me.

And of course, I’m called to show the same patience with others. I tend to forget that. Even though God doesn’t mind teaching me the same lesson over and over, I find that I get easily irritated if I have to do the same thing with other people. “Didn’t I explain this to you once before?” I think (I don’t very often say it out loud, although occasionally I do). “How come you didn’t learn this the first time around?” I need to learn to be more patient with people, as God is patient with me.

Thank you, heavenly Father, that you are patient with us, willingly repeating the lessons of life over and over again until we learn to think and act according to your will. Please give us the same patience and love for others. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

People deciding to talk

Today’s post was inspired by this post on Seth Godin’s blog. In fact, it is intentionally structured after that post.

Today, most churches that are steadily and successfully spreading the good news and making new disciples for Jesus are doing it through people who have decided to talk.

Not through rock bands, stage lights and seeker-sensitive services. Not through open communion policies and congregational development workshops. Not through Alpha courses or invitation Sundays. Not through nostalgia for years gone by, or eagerness to embrace the latest new thing.

Don’t misunderstand me. Each of these can be, and often is, a useful tool, but they are no substitute for this simple idea that is at the heart of all real growth and gospel outreach.

People who are enjoying following Jesus decide to tell other people about it.

Why don’t we try starting with that?