Sunday, March 17, 2024
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“The Runt King”
By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, March 17, 2024
Reading: 1 Samuel 16:1-13

We don’t have many Sundays left in our series on sibling rivalry. I’ve enjoyed it. Scripture is full of stories of sisters and brothers at odds. And as we’ve studied them together you have come to me with stories of your siblings, your children. They’re painful. But when you see these stories in scripture you feel less alone, and you know that God heals all ills eventually.

You may know that the oldest institutions at the University of Toronto are religious. The colleges that merged to form the university had been founded to train ministers. Then Trinity and Victoria and others joined efforts to also train lawyers, doctors, and the rest of us. But this is confusing. A thoughtful critic might ask, hmm, how come there are six theological colleges? Isn’t the church the people through whom Jesus Christ is uniting all people? Well, how come he can’t even unite his churches, or these little colleges? See what I mean? Remember how the US was so annoyed with Cuba all during the Cold War? The west is united against communism! Yeah, except for that little island right under your nose.

Israel is supposed to be the people through whom God repairs the world. But in the stories in Israel’s own scripture, she can’t even repair herself, let alone anybody else. NT Wright compares this to a fire. Off goes the fire crew to put it out. But the firetruck falls in a ditch. How’s it supposed to put out a fire when it can’t even rescue itself? Our own United Church of Canada was born in an effort to put denominations back together, to show Jesus is Lord of all people: he at least better be able to reconcile Presbyterians and Methodists. And so he did in 1925. We nearly added the Anglicans but didn’t, fell apart over bishops. Never got close to Lutherans or Mennonites, let alone Catholics or Pentecostals. And the church is supposed to be the people through whom Jesus Christ heals everything that is? The church that can’t even heal itself!

Take the book of Samuel, our story for today. It starts out, shall we say, unpromisingly. God’s people come to God and say, “we want a king.” God says, you don’t want a king. Yes, we do. Everybody else has a king. Now, even the worst mother knows to ask, if your friends all jump off a bridge would you too? Just because everyone else is doing a thing doesn’t make it right. But Israel says our neighbours have kings. Kings are strong, they lead you to victory in battle. There’s only one problem. Israel already has a king. The Lord God of Israel is their king, not any human being. So, God says look if you have a king, all they’ll do is take. They’ll take your sons for soldiers. They’ll take your daughters for their harem. They’ll take your money in taxes. They’ll take your land. They’ll take, take, take. Plus, even worse, a human king means you’re rejecting me as king. God is a king who doesn’t take, all God does is give. God gives daughters and sons, provisions and money, and land. This is a bad trade: a God who gives rejected, a king who takes insisted upon. Israel listens. And considers. And says, yeah, like we were saying we want a king. Israel is supposed to be different from the other nations, a light to the world. And here it is wanting to be just like other nations. To jump off the bridge like all its friends. God mourns but relents. Okay. Kings you will have.

I asked my Old Testament teacher once who the best leader is in ancient Israel. She thought. And said you know, there really isn’t one. Even the good ones are bad. David has blood on his hands. Solomon has 1000s of forbidden foreign wives, 1000s of horses and chariots—a standing army to trust rather than the Lord. Even the rare, good kings are sort of, only less bad than the worse ones. On Canadian currency we have prime ministers we’re proud of: John A. Macdonald and Wilfrid Laurier and McKenzie King, all those sirs on all those colourful indestructible plastic bills. In my home the US George Washington gets cities, a district, a state named for him. It’s important in both places that the first leader of a new country is admirable. Israel’s first king, Saul, is not. The monarchy starts off bad and goes to worse. We have an election this year in the US that everyone is dreading. No one would be surprised if things go from bad to worse. Israel would not be surprised either. All there are to run these offices is sinners.

I find it a little comforting that there is no good king in Israel. That Israel can’t ever get its act together. Because, I don’t know, I can’t ever seem to get my stuff together either, can you? Can we as a church? Our church was built in 1915 to look like it was built in 1215, to defend itself against Vikings raids in England. We’re good if the Vikings ever come to midtown, or if the orcs come, or the zombies come, or anybody. But actually, the goal now is to invite people in. To keep no one out. That’s a challenge in this building. Somehow, we have to show our neighbours yeah, our exterior looks forbidding, but our heart is for you. Because God’s is. Come inside: there’s warmth and life here.

So, the Lord rejects King Saul and tells his prophet Samuel to anoint another.

You know the old adage: Be careful what you wish for. Israel wishes for a king, gets it, and regrets it. So, God sends his prophet Samuel to Bethlehem to the house of Jesse to find the next king. And God orchestrates this elaborate process of Samuel seeing all the sons of Jesse, one by one, parade by, and none of them are right. One commentator I read says, “God could have been more forthright.” Instead, we get this catwalk, this little act of theatre. The first son, Eliab, is handsome, strong. And God says, no, not him. The second, Shammah, looks the part too. Nah, not that one either. All seven sons walk by, and God says no to each one. In Israel, seven is a complete number. Seven days and then the sabbath. Seven days of creation. The world works in sevens. The story teases us: surely the seventh is it! No. And Samuel asks Jesse, is that all you got? None of these are right. Well, there’s one more, but he’s so pitiful I didn’t even bring him, he’s back watching the animals. He’s the eighth out of seven. Well, go get him.

And in the midst of this search there’s one of the most beautiful verses in scripture, I hope you noticed it:

The Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or 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.”

Samuel is God’s prophet, God’s seer, he’s supposed to see things the rest of us cannot. In the verse I just read, the verb “to see” repeats six times. Don’t see how tall he is, don’t see how handsome he is, God sees not like humanity sees, we pitiful creatures see the exterior, God sees someone’s character. Apparently in every US election the taller candidate has won. Taller. What is the relationship between height and leadership? Zero. But we’ve made that decision 46 straight times. We human beings are superficial creatures. Give us the tall one!

Samuel has fallen for the superficial too. The seer can’t see right. When he first met Saul, he was wowed. This man is a head taller than everyone else in Israel! He must be king. Saul is anointed and proceeds to disappoint. In our story today, Samuel the seer sees Eliab. Wow, he’s tall and handsome! And God says, really? You’re falling for that height thing again? No, no, no, no, no. Then Samuel sees David, the eighth son out of seven, and he’s ruddy and handsome. Same mistake? No, here it’s more like David is cute. Sunburnt for being out shepherding. The point is that appearance does not matter. He can be tall and handsome. Or red and cute. What matters is the heart. The character. The responsiveness to God. There was a hit song in a movie in the early 60s that counseled the following sage advice:

If you want to be happy for the rest of your life
Never make a pretty woman your wife
So for my personal point of view
Get an ugly girl to marry you

The singer, Jimmy Soul is over-correcting, to be funny. We superficial creatures judge tall to mean leader, pretty to mean good spouse. Neither is true. But don’t reject the tall or the attractive either. The key thing is to look past it to the soul, the character. Don’t judge a book by its cover, we all know. But a good cover doesn’t mean it’s a bad book!

This is a story about how to see. Samuel the seer can’t see. Even after the failure with Saul he’s still mesmerized by height and stature. We can sympathize: We too assume strength means leadership, and beauty means love. Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of his children being judged not by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character. The whole Bible is dedicated to helping us unsee the superficial, to see deeper. It’s hard to do. Samuel fails at it, and he’s got two books of the Bible named after him! So it’s not surprising that we fail too.

Think back on this series with me. Cain is the firstborn, Abel second. God prefers Abel’s offering. Cain can’t stand it and murders him. Ishmael is firstborn. Isaac second. Isaac is preferred, chosen. Esau is firstborn. Jacob second. But Jacob is right on his heel. And you guessed it, Jacob is chosen, Esau is not. I could go on. In every single story in Israel the last one is chosen. The first one is not. This is backwards from how cultures are supposed to work. In the ancient world, the firstborn gets more of the stuff. More favour. More power. More, more, more. In Israel this is overturned every single time. The firstborn is overlooked. The second, or last, is chosen, preferred, delighted in. One of you in Bible study asked: “Doesn’t the Bible say somewhere the first shall be last and the last first?” Yes, it does, that’s Jesus, summarizing this whole tradition. In Israel it’s the wrong people who are chosen. Jesus also chooses all the wrong friends. That’s good because the church is still all the wrong people. We’re living out this tradition. Not of the first, the best and the brightest, the obvious: tallest and prettiest. No. The overlooked. Unchosen. Unpreferred. God says you, yeah you, the one you’re sure is wrong, you’re perfect, you’re my people.

Now be careful here. Jesus summarizes Israel’s story with “the first shall be last and the last first,” but that doesn’t mean rush to the end of the line. Compete to be last. That’s just a way of trying to boomerang to the front, to elbow others out of the way to be first again. We’ve had enough of that. Jesus never says hey elbow your way to the front of the line to eat first. No. He says go get those with no food, no friends, no power, they eat first in my kingdom. Hopefully there’s something left over for us upstanding religious types at the end, but the outlook isn’t good. Good thing God is merciful.

This story is remarkable. It’s the first introduction we have to Israel’s greatest king. Now he’s the greatest in a rogue’s gallery, but David is still remembered fondly. Notice what the story is not. It’s not impressive. In Raphael’s painting David is almost flinching. The story is anti-impressive. This story says don’t be impressed with impressive. Look the other way. Stories of births of great kings don’t go like this. They’re full of signs and portents. When Alexander the Great is born we already know he’ll conquer the world—you can tell at his birth. In the US we have stories of George Washington skipping a silver dollar across the Potomac. Did John A do something cool like that? Caesars’ births are full of signs of conquest. Not this one. Here David is the runt overlooked 8th brother out of 7 who’s pretty not-regal. His name isn’t even mentioned till the last verse, David’s an afterthought, the shepherd kid.

Now, think with me. Is there a single description of what Jesus of Nazareth looks like? Even one? If you can think of one, you’re doing better than I am, because I sure can’t. Isaiah prophesies this way: “He had no form of majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Is 53:2). But that’s a non-prophesy. Yeah, he’ll be nothing to look at. And sure enough, the gospels nowhere tell us what he looks like. Here’s the earliest depiction we have of Jesus. It’s from the 4th century in the Sinai desert in Egypt. I love this icon, I have it in my office. But the artist was as close to Jesus’ time as we are to the Mayflower or King James. I get to sit out among you sometimes in worship, see as you see. I’ve realized the stained glass behind me is much more important to your spiritual formation than any words from this pulpit. That ocean of green. Happy St. Patrick’s Day by the way. That Jesus knocking on our overgrown hearts. That image says a lot. But no one thinks it’s a photograph. It tells us something though. Jesus is after us. And doesn’t get discouraged when we don’t open at first. Or second. Or ever. He'll wait till we do open.

So how do we look at the heart, and not the outward appearance? Good luck with that. It’s maybe the hardest thing there is, to learn to see as God sees. The heart, the character. You know what’s even harder? To improve our hearts. They are fickle things. Our wise friends in Alcoholics Anonymous know you need a meeting every week, sometimes every day, to unwrap a heart from alcohol and wrap it around God’s beloved-ness. It can be done, but don’t try it alone and don’t think it can be done fast. Scripture promises this in Ezekiel:

A new heart I will give you, and a new Spirit I will put within you, and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.

That sounds good. Faith is a heart transplant, from stone to flesh. We need that. Jesus’ friend John reclines against him. Leans on his breast. Puts his ear close to Jesus’ heart. That’s the very heart of God. Boom, boom. Boom, boom. To be a disciple is to be like that. To lean on Jesus’ breast. To hear his heart. To align our heart with his. Do you know that when a choir sings together almost instantly their hearts start to beat together. That’s why we sing hymns in here. It’s not because we’re all good at it. It’s so we’ll all be a choir. It’s because we need our hearts to beat with God’s. Boom, boom. Boom, boom.

Mother Teresa prayed, and I’ll close with this, let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God. Far be it from me to improve on a saint’s prayer, but I’ll try. Let my heart be delighted by the things that delight the heart of God. Lord, teach us to see right. Teach us to seek the heart. Take away our hearts of stone. Give us hearts of flesh. Recline us against Jesus’ breast. And give us his heart of resurrection.