Sunday, 20 October 2013

You Can't Judge A Book By Its Cover

You’ve probably heard the expression, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” We live in a world today where the outside appearance of people seems to be increasingly important. In this digital and visual age, it is easy to turn on TV, watch YouTube or pick a magazine that presents images of what is deemed to be perfection. Never mind the touch ups and airbrushing that goes on to make people look that way! But it is not only in today’s world that there is a caution against judging a book by its cover. 
It happened even in ancient times. The boy Samuel who heard God calling to him in the night, who bravely said, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Grew into man and became judge over all Israel. Before too long the people of Israel began to grumble and complain because Samuel’s sons who were also judges did not follow God’s ways and were taking bribes. The people wanted a king like peoples who lived in other lands. Samuel warned them against having a king saying, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plough his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards olive orchards and give them to his courtiers.” (1 Samuel 8:11 – 15)
Even with this terrible picture of what a king will do in the land, the people insisted. They forgot that when God freed the people from slavery they were freed from ever having a King other than God. But the people insisted and God guided Samuel to appoint Saul of the house of Benjamin as king. “He had a son whose name was Saul, a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he; he stood head and shoulders above everyone else.” (1 Samuel 9:2) Once Saul was anointed by Samuel, it says, “As he turned away to leave Samuel, God gave [Saul] a new heart.” (1 Samuel 10:9)
Things went well for a while. That new heart that God gave Saul helped in him to listen to God and follow in God’s ways. But it didn’t last. Chapter 15 closes with these words, “Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel.” (1 Samuel 15:35)
Now a new king is needed. The first King even though he was handsome and stood head and shoulders above everyone else, was missing something. What God asks Samuel to do next is pretty risky. God sends Samuel to see Jesse, to choose one of his sons as king. 
As you can imagine Samuel is terrified, he says, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” (1 Samuel 16:2) So the Lord tells him to take a heifer with him and tell people he’s come to make a sacrifice to the Lord and Jesse will be invited.  As Samuel comes to the gate of the village where Jesse lives, the people at the gate want to know if Samuel comes in peace. He says, “Peaceable; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” (1 Samuel 16:5) But that is only part of the story!
What happens next reminds me of a something from the show, “America’s Top Model.” Samuel as Tyra saying, “I have standing before me the handsome sons of Jesse. Which one is still in the running to become the next king of Israel?” When Samuel sees Eliab, he thinks because he’s tall and looks good, “Surely he’s the one.” But God gives Samuel a warning, “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)
Sage advice. We often make snap judgements about people based on outward appears. The author Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking tells the story of Harry Daugherty and Warren Harding. Daugherty was a behind the scenes political genius and Harding an aspiring politician. When Daugherty first met Harding, he was overwhelmed by a thought, “Wouldn’t that man make a great President?” (Blink, page 75) The problem was, Harding wasn’t that intelligent. “He liked to play poker and golf and to drink and most of all, to chase women. … As he rose from one political office to another, he never distinguished himself. He was vague and ambivalent on matters of policy.” (Blink, page 75) So what did Warren Harding have going for him? He was very good looking and he only got better looking as the years passed by. He was a great looking president but according to Gladwell, most historians agree he was one of the worst American presidents. Appearance is not everything!
As Samuel stands there with Jesse, he calls each of his sons forward. But none of his handsome sons will do. Samuel finally asks Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” (1 Samuel 16:11) The youngest is missing. He is off keeping the sheep. David may not have been as handsome as Jesse’s other sons but he is described as, “ruddy, and had beautiful eyes.” (1 Samuel 16:12) In that moment a new king is chosen – a king that shows us God’s way of picking.
Tradition would have the eldest son be the one chosen – God chooses the youngest son. Often we choose people because of their looks or because of their stature – God chooses the one who was off tending the sheep – the Shepherd. God looked on David’s heart and chose him.
That is not to say that David was always the best kind of human being. He wasn’t. We’ve heard the story. David was a champion on the battle field and in many ways a great king. But his personal life was a mess. When he saw something he wanted, he took it. Like Bathsheba – even going so far as to have her husband killed so he could claim her. His children were at war with each other and David did nothing to stop it. More than once David, stood before the Lord repenting, asking for forgiveness for all that he’d done wrong. This is the big difference between Saul and David. They both did things that displeased God, but David always returned to God, asking for mercy and forgiveness. 
We can imagine David praying our Psalm for the day, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.” (Psalm 51:10 – 11) 
It is a prayer many of have prayed at some point in our lives. As we’ve chosen the not so good paths, taking roads that lead only to dead ends and heartbreak for us or for others. But hear the good news. If God can look on David’s heart, the heart of someone who did so many terrible things, and call him to be the king of Israel, God can do the same for us. God looks on our hearts the good and the bad, and loves us and calls us beloved children. 
There is nothing we can do, nothing we can say, nothing so terrible in us that would cause God to turn away from us. God’s love is unshakable. We are indeed God’s beloved children today and every day. Thanks be to God. Amen.  

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Speak, Lord For Your Servant Is Listening

In the days leading up to feast days like Thanksgiving there are articles and videos circulating on Facebook and Twitter. Some are cheesy and some are amazing. The video that inspired me this week is called “The Science of Happiness – An Experiment in Gratitude.”
Here is how the experiment worked. The test subjects were invited to take a short happiness test to determine their level of happiness. Then each person was asked to write as much as they could about the person who inspired them the most. Then comes the important step – they are asked to call that person and read to them what they had written. Before they left, each person was given another happiness test. For those who just wrote down their gratitude their happiness increased 2 – 4 % and the people who actually talked to the person their happiness increased by 4 – 19%. The people who saw the greatest increase in happiness were the least happy people at the start of the experiment.

               The simple act of saying thanks makes us happier people. Such a little thing that can have a big impact. As I pondered this video, I wondered about Samuel from our reading today. Who would he pick as the person who inspired him the most? We’ll never know for certain, but I wonder if Samuel would pick Eli. Sounds strange after all Samuel had to deliver some pretty devastating news to Eli about his family, but all the same it was Eli who first taught Samuel who to speak to the Lord.

               Let’s put the story in a bit of context. The book of Samuel marks a shift in the biblical narrative. Up to this point in the Bible we’ve heard some foundational stories about the relationship between God and God’s people. The story of creation, the promise to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob that their descendants would be as many as the stars in the night sky and grains of sand in the desert. We’ve heard how God called the oh so reluctant Moses from a burning bush to lead the people of Israel out of slavery and into the promised land. With God’s people settled in a new land, life went smoothly for a while, but then as it says in the last line of the book of Judges, “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” (Judges 21:25)

               And that my friends is the Bible’s way of saying that the people of God were not listening to God. They were listening to their own wants and desires. Our reading opens with the words, “Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” (1 Samuel 3:1) Eli, the head priest if you will, was losing his eyesight. So even if he wanted too he couldn’t have seen God’s vision. Eli’s sons are taking advantage of their position as priests in the temple, eating the offerings meant for God. It says in chapter 2, “Now the sons of Eli were scoundrels; they had no regard for the Lord.”

               Difficult times call for a new kind of leadership. Enter Samuel. Samuel’s story with God begins when his mother Hannah who came to the temple distraught. She prayed and prayed for a child. When at long last Samuel was born, she took care of him, loved him until he was weaned and then she brought him to the temple and where she dedicated him to serve the Lord for the rest of his life.

               Now the boy Samuel is living and serving in the temple with Eli. One night, Samuel is lying in his bed, tucked in for the night when he hears a voice calling out. “Samuel, Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” and went straight to Eli. The voice did not belong to Eli.  So Elie sent the boy away. Again Samuel is just about to drift off to sleep when the voice calls again, “Samuel, Samuel.” And again he runs to Eli. Again Eli sends him back to bed. Samuel did not know what was going on. The voice was so plain and clear. It took a third call and Eli’s knowledge of the Lord to help him know what to do next. Eli says to Samuel, “Go, lie down, and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord for your servant is listening.” (1 Samuel 3:9) And Samuel does just that. The Lord came calling and Samuel says, “Speak, Lord for your servant is listening.”

               The word that came to Samuel from God was not an easy word. God says “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, form beginning to the end. For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them.” (1 Samuel 3:11 – 13)

               Samuel did not sleep again that night and it is not surprising that he did not want to face Eli in the morning. What would he say? What would he do with such a terrible vision? Most of the time when we read this story we focus on Samuel who bravely says, “Speak, Lord for your servant is listening.” But Eli has a story too. Eli’s sons may have been scoundrels but Eli was faithful. The next morning he calls to Samuel and says, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also if you hide anything from me of all he told you.” (1 Samuel 3:17) What choice does Samuel have? He tells Eli everything – all the terrible things that God has said will happen to Eli’s family.

               And what does Eli do? He does not go into a rage and tell Samuel he’s lying. He does not turn to God and plead for mercy. He does not deny that his sons are scoundrels. He does not deny knowing what they are up to or his failure to restrain them. All he says is, “It is the Lord, let him do what seems good to him.”

               Eli was a man of faith, he may not have been able to teach his sons the ways of God, but he passed on his knowledge of God and God’s ways to Samuel. So I think, if Samuel were to pick someone who inspired him, someone he wanted to say thanks to, it would be Eli. Our reading says, “As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground.” (1 Samuel 3:19) Thanksgiving is about celebrating the gifts of harvest, of the bounty of creation but it also about pausing to give thanks.  Who do you give thanks for? Who inspires you in your faith and in your life? Who helped you to respond to God’s gifts of grace saying, “speak, Lord for your servant is listening.” Maybe today is the day to give them a call or write them a letter to say thank you.

               Not only will it increase your happiness but it will make their day. Gratitude changes our lives and the lives of others. It is like that old song says, “Count your blessings, name them one by one, count your blessings see what God hath done! Count your blessings name then one by one, And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.” (Johnson Oatman Jr.) Today is a day to give God thanks for our blessings and go out into the world to be a blessing to others. Amen.