Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Last Sunday, I began my summer sermon series on the first kings of Israel. The scriptures tell us that after the Israelites were led by Moses and Joshua into the Promised Land, they were governed for over 300 years, by a successive group of individuals known as the judges. It was a unique period. God was the ultimate ruler, but with every generation, new individuals rose up from the different tribes who God appointed to guide his people and rescue them from their enemies. There was, however, no hereditary leader. After 12 judges from different 12 different tribes had led the nation, the bewildered elders came to the prophet Samuel and demanded, “Give us a king, so that we may be like other nations.” And with deep regret, God said, “Let them have a king.” The question, however, remained, “What kind of king would he be?” One thing was certain, he had to be tall, dark and handsome.
Short people normally take all the ribbing. They often jest that God lets people grow until they’re perfect. Short people just don’t take as long as tall people reach perfection. But let me assure you, tall people take their lumps as well. Every time a tall person bumps their head, somewhere a short person is smiling. Even as children, they know that there is an expectation, that if you’re the tallest, then you are the oldest.
There’s just something appealing about tall men. Napoleon aside, tall men are more likely to win the popular contest in presidential votes and to be re-elected once in office. Their greater leadership potential may have something to do with the fact that tall men have higher self-esteem, whether or not deserved, are happier, and are less likely to feel jealous toward other men. Even God seems to buy into the world’s tall and handsome preference. Fortunately, we should all note that when it comes to romantic partners, men and women tend to sort themselves out so that they form pairs of similar height. However, among married couples, women are more likely to be shorter than their husbands, if only by a few inches.
In the small but valiant tribe of Benjamin there lived a man named Kish. He had a son Saul, who was young man of tall and majestic stature. Samuel writes, “There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he; he stood head and shoulders above everyone else.” It so happened that some donkeys belonging to the father Kish had wandered astray, and that he asked his son Saul go with one of his servants to recover the animals. The two set out searching, and after three days with no luck, they arrived in the land of Zuph, on the out skirts of the city of Ramah, the home of God’s faithful judge Samuel. Saul’s servant suggested that he visit the fable seer, perhaps he could tell them where the donkeys could be found. A day before Saul’s arrival in Ramah, Samuel was told by God that a man from the tribe of Benjamin would call upon him, and this man he should anoint as the first king of Israel.
Unfortunately, the poor king to be was nothing more than height and good looks. These qualifications may have earned him initial approval by God and an anointing by Samuel, but neither would make him an effective long term ruler. Tragically, Saul failed at a job he never wanted. He was a poor soul who went out searching for donkeys and came back a king. Thankfully, God equipped Saul with a new heart, yet, even with a new heart something was still amiss. When the time came for the nation to affirm his anointing, Saul was still found lacking and hiding.
Saul was initially successful as both king and military leader. The nation of Israel found in him a hero who was willing to battle the foreign enemies. Tragically, at the close of a battle with the Amalekites, when God commanded Saul to destroy Israel’s ancient enemy, including their flocks and herds and king, Saul refused. It was a brutal command from God to be sure which makes every contemporary follower in the faith shutter, but in the context of the ancient world it was disobedience to the letter and spirit of God’s command. Suddenly, we read that God regretted having Saul ever anointed king. Saul’s own new heart that God had given him had changed. He began to believe the stories of his victories, and the attributes declared of him, and he went to Gilgal, the ancient Jewish worship site to erect a monument not to God for his faithfulness. Instead, Saul erected a monument to his own glory. He wouldn’t be the first political leader who started out with a true heart and was eventually overtaken by self-importance, pride and entitlement. But it does tell us that God has a double standard, and it is a higher standard for those he calls into service to lead and guide others. That is true for pastors and priests, presidents and prime ministers, kings and queens alike.
And so we turn to God’s second choice for king, the young shepherd boy David. God tells Samuel to stop mourning over Saul’s failed kingship and go to Bethlehem to visit the home of Jesse, because he 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 they gather for a community sacrifice and then anoint his son as a sort of afterthought.
So Samuel went to Bethlehem, a town on the edge of Saul’s northern kingdom. The elders of the town were afraid of the prophet and their fear was understandable. By now it was known in the land that Saul and Samuel had had a falling out. It was a civil war. The author of the Book of Samuel describes what happens next in detail. Jesse and seven of his sons come to the sacrifice. When they arrived, Jesse saw the oldest Eliab the oldest and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before me.” Apparently, Eliab was a particularly impressive, tall, dark and handsome man as well. But this time, God interrupted, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him.” The is the message for all of us, especially those in leadership. God does not focus on the things people see. People look at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart.
My friends, what God was looking for among these sons of Jesse was a person who would serve faithfully with all his heart, and who would lead his people to do the same. It is true whenever we are looking for servants who will one day represent God for us in the world. One by one Jesse’s sons paraded before Samuel – Abinadab, Shammah, and four others, but Lord did not choose any of them. When the procession was done, Samuel turned to Jesse and said, “The Lord hasn’t chosen any of these. Is there another one?” Jesse told him about the youngest, David, who was out looking after the family flock of sheep. So they sent for David, and the author, despite his earlier warnings about not looking at the outward appearance, couldn’t retrain himself from saying, “Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome’. But there was no doubt and no hesitation about his heart, and so Samuel anointed David to be king.
In Bible Study on Wednesday, I was asked, “So Pastor Haug, so what does this story tell about the kings and violent revenge have to do with our lives and our daily journey of faith?” It’s a fair question. After all, I don’t believe there is any one here who is line for the throne of Britain, Norway, Sweden or any other kingdom. So what does this story of the first two first kings have to teach us? Let me offer two observations. First of all, the story of Saul and David should remind us that God does not look on outward appearances. A tall, strong, good-looking figure was not important when God was choosing a new king. All of Saul’s impressiveness did not impress God. And today the same is just as true for truly great, steadfast, faithful, and godly leaders. Neither an impressive appearance, a huge list of academic qualifications, a large bank account or an obvious and impressive charisma is what God is looking for.
St. Paul writes in his letter to the church at Corinth, “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, so that no one may boast before him.”
Second, when God is looking for people to serve him and to do his will. He is looking for those with a right heart. God does not need “the heart” of romantic emotions and feelings. The heart is the center of human personality, the will, and its choices. If your heart is set on God, that means than you have committed yourself to a ‘whole-hearted’ obedience to the will of God. No amount of training and education and professional skill can make up for the lack of centeredness. Nor does the obedience and faith do not need to be perfect – we will see that in the life of king David – but we do need to watch over ourselves and guard our hearts in their devotion. God can, however, make even the tiniest of seeds do miraculous things.
Saul, Israel’s first king, the tallest man in the land, was an impressive, powerful figure, but God was not impressed. David, the youngest of Jesse’s sons, was a humble shepherd boy, and yet God called him to be the shepherd of his people Israel. Saul’s heart was conflicted and divided, but David prayed that God would give him a pure and undivided heart.
My friends, like the youth David, you may think that you are the least impressive person in your family, in your community and in your church, but be aware, it’s just possible that God has a very different perspective on you and your life. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.