Sermon texts: 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 & Mark 4:26-34
What do you do when Plan A fails? You move on to Plan B.
King Saul was Plan A, but he is failing, miserably, and God knows it. In fact, God regrets the decision. “And the Lord was sorry that he had made Saul King over Israel.” However, God doesn’t wallow in this decision. Instead, God takes action and calls an audible. God will send the prophet Samuel to anoint a new king for the future.
Samuel isn’t too keen about God’s new plan. He too, knows that Saul is a failed king, but he also knows that Saul’s paranoia and hunger for power is a real threat. That’s why Samuel would rather do anything, like a wrangle a herd of cats or go to the dentist, than travel to Bethlehem to anoint one of Jesse’s sons. “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.”
That’s a very valid concern from the prophet. Won’t the current paranoid king kill him if he finds out that Samuel is anointing another person as king of Israel? The answer is, of course. There could be severe consequences. But God has a plan, one that is straight out of Ocean’s `11 or Mission Impossible or the Sting. There’s more to this than meets the eye.
Here’s the plan: Samuel will take a heifer and perform a sacrifice to God at Bethlehem, and while he’s performing the ceremony he is to size up and anoint the next king. The whole thing is done undercover, or at least under the false pretense of a worship service, and it works. Samuel travels to the little town of Bethlehem, invites a small crowd to the service, including Jesse and his sons.
What happens next is the memorable part of the story. One by one Jesse’s sons walk past Samuel and here’s where we get our second lesson that there’s more to this than meets the eye. Because if we were just going by eyes, Eliab would be king. He’s a tall drink of water. And if not Eliab then Abinadab or at least Shammah or one of these older sons of Jesse. You get the idea that all seven of these young men are strong and tall and good looking. Seven sons pass by Samuel, and seven sons are passed over by God.
Samuel, confounded by God’s lack of cooperation, wises up and asks if Jesse has anything else in the back storeroom, because everything in the showroom looks great, but isn’t quite what God had in mind. Jesse says that yes, there is another son, so young and insignificant that he wasn’t invited to the feast, instead he’s tending to the sheep on the back 40. Samuel asks for the boy and even pauses the festivities until this last son can be found and delivered to the event.
In the Hebrew there’s a fun play on words when David is described. Yes, David is the youngest, but that can also be translated as shortest. When you match David up with the good genes of all the other sons, he is the runt of the litter. But there’s more to this than meets the eye. In this story God isn’t working as an plastic surgeon, God is working as a cardiologist…and David’s heart is in the right place. God sees that his heart is in good condition and tells Samuel to “rise and anoint him, for this is the one.”
After the oil is poured out on David’s head and the sacrifice is complete Samuel goes right back to Ramah, to where he started, and the oil slathered David goes back to his life for now, probably even back to the sheep, maybe even back to being overlooked by his father.
That may be the detail of the story that struck me the most. This anointing ceremony is so unceremonious. It’s a brief aside before we return to the greater King Saul narrative. But…there is more to this story than meets the eye.
The spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward, even though Samuel returns to his home and daily life in Bethlehem presumably goes back to normal. I’d like to think that as everyone returns to their daily business God is constantly working in the background, or, as Jesus said in his parable, “The Kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.”
All those years, from his time as a sheep tending boy to his time as an old king of Israel, God is shaping the life and the heart of King David. The man is very, very far from perfect, and yet he will become Israel’s most revered King because he knew God was at work. We understand the nature of outward appearances, but God knows the hidden inner depths of our souls.
When I was in college I had the pleasure of participating in 11 plays as an actor with the Thiel Players. I spent all my time on stage, under the lights, under layers of makeup, wearing costumes, and delivering my lines. That was onstage.
Backstage there was a whole different world of crew members and stagehands who made the show possible. They constructed sets and put together wardrobes, they applied make up, staged props, ran soundboards and spotlights, dressed in black and completed scene changes. Without the backstage crew the actors didn’t have a show to perform. Without the crew the show would only be a fraction of its finished project.
God is the backstage crew of the Bible. God is the backstage crew of our lives. God directs Samuel to anoint David and then God continues to set the stage for David’s remarkable life. God tends to our lives and helps them to flourish like a seed that silently germinates and grows in the soil.
Over the last year, that is a promise we needed to believe in as we fought through the challenges of the coronavirus. It was like we were onstage, in a one man show with a hostile audience, and God was still diligently working behind the curtain. We have all been anointed like David, not as royalty, but as God’s beloved children. God is the parent who tirelessly works to give us the best opportunities for growth and peace. God’s spirit works mightily in us, strengthening us for the challenges we face. That’s a promise that is at work in us just as it was in David.
And just like David was the smallest and shortest of his brothers, a runt who was stubborn in spirit, God works for us like a mustard seed, the small and weedy plant that is nearly impossible to eradicate. There is more to God’s work than meets the eye. There is tenacity. There is dogged determination. There is stick-to-itiveness. All the tributes of a weed that grows well in our gardens. We don’t fully understand how God works, we don’t fully understand how God helps us grow, but we do take heart in our anointing and in the words of promise that accompany it.
Of course, our anointing and promise also comes with a challenge. If God is working in the background like a stagehand, if God is helping the Kingdom to grow around us between our sleeping and our rising, if God is accompanying us like David in all the mundane portions of our existence, do we have eyes to see and ears to hear? Better yet, do we have a voice to testify?
It can be difficult to spot God’s activity behind the curtain if you’re the one onstage. But it is possible, and perhaps easier, to see God’s activity in other people’s lives. Do you have a voice to testify? This week, my challenge for you is to testify three times, tell three people you interact with, how you see God gifting them. How do you see God working backstage? Be a witness and help other’s see and sense the way God is working for them. Be Samuel and announce the presence and favor of God.
Because on our own we might miss it. On our own we might forget. There is more to this life than first meets the eye. We needn’t anoint our friends with a ram’s horn of oil, but anoint them with your words. Anoint them with your witness. Help a friend see how God is setting the stage of their life. AMEN