1 Samuel 16:1-13 The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” 2 Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ 3 Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” 4 Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” 5 He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.
6 When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” 7 But the Lord said to Samuel, “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.” 8 Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 9 Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 10 Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” 11 Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” 12 He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” 13 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. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.
We know this story. It’s a classic: the child of humble origins turns out to have a great calling. Familiar right? The scrawny little boy, constantly picked on by his brother, by some deep magic pulls a sword from stone and grows to be the legendary King Arthur; or there’s the tween girl who receives a vision for how to defend her people, so she leads the armies of France to victory and now everyone knows the name Joan of Arc; and of course there’s the orphaned boy, unwanted, sleeping in a cupboard under the stairs who turns out to be a wizard who will save the world. We know this story. We can’t stop telling different versions of it. From King David to Luke Skywalker, there’s something about an unlikely hero that resonates deep within us. If God would choose this little shepherd twerp, God might work with anyone.
Anyone. If you were going to design the perfect king from scratch, David is not what you would come up with. Remember the people ask for a king because they want a warrior to fight their battles for them, so they need the kind of person who looks like they might win some battles. You need someone big and strong and intimidating. Most athletic teams have that player whom they send off the bus before everyone else, so that the other team sees them first and goes “Oh boy.” And that’s the kind of outward appearance you would expect in a king. In other words, if you were designing a leader from scratch you’d probably end up inventing someone like Saul, who in our story is already king.
Saul is what you want in a king. One of the first details that we learn about Saul, what makes him noticeable to Samuel, is that he stands head and shoulders above everyone else. Saul is clearly not someone you’re going to mess with. And he can back it up, too. He cleans up on the battlefield. Saul is just a winner. He’s decisive and efficient. He looks the part and he’s doing the job well. Saul has just gotten done defeating the Philistines again, when God decides it’s time for a change in management. Which must’ve been surprising because he’s exactly what many of us want in a leader.
But apparently he’s not who God wants. God says to Samuel, “I have rejected Saul from being king over Israel. I got someone else.” God basically says, “I’m not looking for a winner. That’s not what I care about.” God rejects Saul because God’s not looking for the biggest and the strongest. God’s not looking for the smartest or the best credentialed. God doesn’t need you to be able or healthy before God desires you. Saul had every appearance of blessing but God still says to Samuel, “Go to Bethlehem and look for this guy named Jesse. He’s got a son who I think can be my kind of king.”
So Samuel goes to Bethlehem, pretending that he’s going to offer a sacrifice (because he’s basically now involved in a coup…How’s that for respecting the governing authorities?). When he gets to Bethlehem, Samuel meets Jesse and his sons and he blesses them and then he sees Jesse’s oldest son, Eliab, and he thinks, “Yes! This is him. This guy can handle himself, the oldest son, already blessed. King of Israel, take 2.” To which God said, “Nah.” And then then next oldest comes forward, and again God said, “Nah.” This happens seven times (I know how Samuel felt because I’ve tried getting a snack for a three year old). Samuel finally asks Jesse, “Do you even have any other kids?” And Jesse thought, “Oh right, I guess I do.”
The youngest, David, is out working in the fields, keeping the sheep, like a pungent Cinderella. We learn that this boy David is pretty and has a nice face, which is a very different description than Saul’s, who was so physically dominant. Saul looms over everyone, but David, when we meet him, looks up at the world from below. When David walks up from the fields, dirt caked on his limbs, Samuel must’ve thought, “Him?” And God said, “Him. That’s my anointed.”
If there’s any moment when David is truly a “man after God’s own heart,” it’s this one. Not when he’s in power, building his palace and killing his tens of thousands; no, right now, when he’s this shepherd boy from Bethlehem, the youngest, the smallest, basically a servant to his older brothers. That’s whom God chooses over and over again, the weakest, the poorest, those the world makes lowly. God doesn’t choose Esau or Judah or Pharaoh, but Jacob and Joseph and the slaves. Not Herod, but Mary. That’s God’s heart. God does not regard outward appearances, but lifts up the lowly, and that’s why God chooses David. And if God can choose David over Saul, God can choose anyone.
That is the deep magic of this story, really of all our stories like this: Frodo Baggins carrying the One Ring to Mt. Doom; little Meg Murray crossing the universe to find her dad; the Pevensie children becoming kings and queens of Narnia. God does not regard outward appearances. God lifts up the lowly. Our power and respectability, our wealth and our strength, our manliness and our responsibility mean nothing to God. If anything, those parts of us that we might use to boast are obstacles to God because those outward appearances press back in on our hearts to make some of us believe that we are the masters of our world, that we’ve earned every good thing we’ve gotten. As though if everyone would just work a little harder we can all be like Saul.
But God rejects Saul and chooses David. God rejects Herod and joins us in Jesus. When Jesus is born in Bethlehem, the Lord comes near in the flesh of a poor laborer. When God wants us to know who God is, God identifies with the people whom the world brings low. And beyond that, in Jesus the lowly rise up. That’s God’s heart. That’s why this moment with David, whatever he will become later, is so hopeful. Because if God can choose David, if the Word can become flesh, if a failed messiah, hung on a tree, can rise again, ascending higher than the greatest kings, God really can choose anyone and already has.
How different would our lives be, would our world be, if we lived as though that was true? What would it mean to you to know, in your bones, that God desires you and chooses you not as some pristine version of yourself, but in the midst of whatever brings you low? Whatever debt, whatever pain, whatever grief, whatever your mental state. We talk a lot about our gifts in church, using them for the sake of the kingdom, but maybe our wounds offer just as much, if we’re OK sharing them. Maybe it’s in our lowliness, not our might, that God wants to work with us.
But other stories are whispered in our ears. As much as we love stories of humble beginnings, of the lowly rising up, we don’t really want that to be our story. Something in us continues to say, “Be like Saul. Be strong and impressive.” We feel the pressure to “fulfill our potential,” to be the best you you can be. And when I have to be a pristine, mighty version of myself, I become isolated behind this mask of a person who I’m not, but want to believe I am. To take a current example: I think all the time about how many people my age are in debt and how there’s no one really to talk to about it, and so this shame and loneliness festers as we all try to act like we don’t have it that bad but are secretly carrying this great burden. What are we to do with this burden? A recent study has shown that 70% of young adults have gone into debt for a necessary expense (medical bill, broken down car, etc.); but the poll found that when someones hears that other people are in debt, 80% of people believe that others’ debts are irresponsible and wasteful. When we try to protect our weaknesses, to act as though we’re not lowly in any way, it becomes so easy to lash out at others. “I might not be impressive like Saul, but I’ve got to be better than them.” But David’s beginning teaches us that God is with us in our lowliness and God is certainly with “them,” whoever they are, too. What we would become possible if we started sharing our lowliness with each other, instead?
And this isn’t just about our personal feelings and self-conceptions, because it turns out this desire to be mighty, to stand head and shoulders above in a spirit of competition, makes up an entire way of life. So on one hand we live in a world where most people don’t quite have enough to get by, especially if there’s some kind of emergency, but we’re also taught this spirit of competition where we’ve got to prove that we belong; and when you put those things together the easiest way to do show you belong with Saul when you don’t have enough for yourself is to find a scapegoat, someone who’s taking what’s rightfully yours (even if they actually have less than you). Maybe you’re not Saul, but you can prove that you’re more like Saul than that lazy, weak, leech on the system, than that refugee who’s taking a job, than that Walmart employee who couldn’t work their way into management.
But God doesn’t choose Saul. God chooses David. In Jesus, we see that God doesn’t consider greatness a thing to be grasped, and so we don’t have to grasp at it either. Jesus goes the other direction, taking the form of a servant, which could open us up to love our neighbors and ourselves better. When I talk to people about the future of the church, here at Ephesus and more broadly, the sage wisdom that everyone offers is “You’ve just got to attract some young families.” The young family, the white whale of the church. But why? Why don’t we say, Hey the most important people who this church could get to know are single moms. Or the homeless. Or people who have just gotten out of prison. Or people with disabilities. Or single people. I don’t have anything against young families, but it says something about Christians that when we think of who belongs in church its the upwardly mobile, the rumored normal. (Maybe young families don’t come to church because it’s hard to actually live up to the fantasy they represent, and they need a place where they can be vulnerable, too.)
The story of Saul, the successful and the mighty, is seductive; but God invites us into the story of David, the story of Jesus. It’s a story with far humbler beginnings, that will require humility of anyone who wants to live it. But however humble the beginning, it’s a story that expands like a mustard seed with new possibilities. If we want to know where God is, we’ve got to look for the young Davids in our world and ask how we can help them rise up because they’re already anointed. We can honor the lowly, the ways we are pushed down, yes, but beyond us, our neighbors who this world pushes down, too. Instead of fawning over young families, maybe that means jumping on the picket line with workers who are fighting to start unions; maybe that means going to the court house to pay for anyone who can’t make their bail; maybe that means taking up an offering to help with the legal costs of getting these kids in Texas back to their parents.
I don’t know what might come of such acts. I doubt Samuel knew what would come of David. I doubt Mary knew that Jesus would topple death itself. But if we make a humble beginning in love, who knows what story God’s Spirit could write next? Amen.
(Banner Image: Detail from “The Red Magnificat” by Brother Emmaus O’Herlihy)
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