Learning to Discern: Seeing What God Sees

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1 Samuel 16:1-13

About 15-20 years ago, I was interviewing with a church in Atlanta… a church located in a very wealthy suburb… they took me out to lunch… and I had asked about their history and about the former pastor who had retired. They loved him… They talked about how he was a pilot and flew planes… he played golf… he hunted… and as if to sum him up, the chair said… “he was a man’s man”…

He was a man’s man. And it seemed like they were looking for another “man’s man”. I just wasn’t sure I fit the bill. I withdrew my name.

I thought of that story when I read the passage today. Samuel is grieving because the first King of Israel, Saul, has been rejected by God… recalled, as it were. Which is confusing… because he had looked like a “man’s man” and maybe a “king’s king”… He was described earlier as a handsome, young man… “there was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he; he stood head and shoulder’s among everyone else.” (1 Sam 9:2) He was a “man’s man” to be sure… and looked like just the strong leader they needed to defend Israel from the Philistines.

But for many reasons beyond the scope of this sermon, he became unstable and unfaithful… and was disqualified by God to be the king… maybe best summed up by the Lord when he says, “I regret that I made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me, and has not carried out my commands…”

It ends badly. And Samuel is grieving.

But as we enter our story today, the time of grieving is over… and the time to move on has come… time to move on and discern who God has chosen to be the second king of Israel.

God leads Samuel to the town of Bethlehem (sound familiar?) to find the new king… a task filled with danger because King Saul is still in power. I bet even you know what happens if you anoint a new king while the old one is still alive! So they have to come up with a plan… a cover story…

Jesse and seven of his eight sons are invited to the sacrifice meant to be the cover for the real business taking place… And I really don’t blame him for seeing Eliab… and thinking “this must be the one God has chosen”. After all, he is tall… he looks like a man’s man… he looks Presidential… He looks like someone made for the job: like Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton… or even like those who any of us might cast to play the part in the movies: Will Smith, Martin Sheen, Morgan Freeman, Tom Selleck… Eliab looks like he was made for the role.

But as you know, he is not the chosen one and neither are the other six brothers who have been lined up for the sacrifice. Why?

Well, the explanation is offered in the beginning as the Lord explains to Samuel why Eliab is not the one: “Pay not attention to his appearance or his stature, for I have rejected him. For not as man sees [does the Lord see]; a man sees only what is visible, but the Lord sees into the heart.” (v7)

Turns out the person the Lord sees was not even standing in the line of the sons of Jesse. He was the baby of the family. The one the Lord had chosen was out caring for and protecting the sheep… doing the drudge work… the menial work, left for the youngest son to do. There was no reason to have him line up in up with the other brothers… he was last in line… in the family order of things.

Funny thing about God… God doesn’t pay attention to our standards when choosing people for leadership or ministry or their calling…

In the Old Testament, he chooses the youngest and the least esteemed again and again to be preferred over the older brothers… (True confession here, I’m the baby of my family… older brothers may not like this).

This is counter cultural in a world where the older has all the rights… Think how God keeps doing this… preferring Abel to his older brother Cain… preferring Isaac to Ishmael… Jacob to Esau… Joseph to Reuben…

Then God keeps choosing the oddest people in the New Testament stories.

Jesus calls disciples from the ranks of fisherman, tax collectors and generally people the world would not have chosen for leadership of a revolution. Not a preacher or priest among them! There is not a call committee in the world who would have seen in them what Jesus saw.

Then there are the women: Mary the Mother—a young virgin chosen to bear the Christ child… Mary and Martha… in the early church Lydia and Prisca—just to name a few… none, may I point out were a “man’s man!”

Read the stories of scripture and this consistent theme unfolds: Those whom culture and society reject become the ones God has chosen. Paul even commented as he talked about the early Christians how God had chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise.

Indeed, God does not seem to choose according to our criteria… criteria, let’s admit is too often based on the visible… rather than the heart. We choose leaders again and again based on an image that is painted for us about them… We want our leaders to be tall, handsome, photogenic… You have to “look the part”… to be chosen.

Apparently, God doesn’t look for leadership that way… according to our text, “For not as man sees [does the Lord see]; a man sees only what is visible, but the Lord sees into the heart.” (v7)

And while the narrator cannot restrain himself from commenting that David was good looking (no mistake that  Richard Gere who played David in the movie)… That is not the important thing…it is the heart that matters.

So as we continue to learn what it means to discern God’s will or call in our lives… this would be a good principle to remember: that God isn’t looking only at what is visible… God is looking deeper into the heart…

In our story, we do not see what God sees about David. I’m not even sure David sees what God sees about the inner life of David.

But as his story is told, we will learn more about his heart… we will learn he is a fighter… he is courageous… he is good with words and music…. but most of all… and I mean most of all… he will have one thing that most of the kings of Israel failed to have: a heart for God… for all of his faults… and they were many as you likely know… he never looked to other gods… he was devoted to the Lord.

When he fails… and he fails miserably… he listens to his prophet… and prays hard to the Lord for forgiveness… “Create in me a clean heart O God and put a new and right spirit within me.”  He is wanting to change!

God is not looking for perfect people… let’s be clear… only Jesus was able to live a fully human life that never faltered or failed… But God is looking for people who are devoted and have a heart for God… and have a heart to be led by God… a heart willing to be transformed by God.

I’m reminded of the story, (In Antoine Saint-Exupery’s fable) The Little Prince, near the end of the story, when a fox shares with the little prince his secret for life.This is what the fox says:
“One sees clearly only with the heart.
Anything essential is invisible to the eyes..” (p. 63)

What was essential to God was invisible to the eyes of everyone else.

Presbyterian pastor and theologian Fred Rogers was fond of speaking of every person’s, every adult’s and every child’s, inner essential. He saw that what was essential was indeed, invisible to the eyes:He explained it as “that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see or hear or touch. That deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive: love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war,and justice that proves more powerful than greed.”
(Fred McFeely Rogers, 2002 Commencement Address at Dartmouth College)

It seems the things God really cares about are invisible to the eye… and written on the heart…

So as we learn to discern, here is the work of it, isn’t it: Learning to see what God sees. Looking beyond the surface and deep within… If you look there, you may discover God’s call for your life or for the life of someone you love.

Brian Blount pointed this out as he commented on this passage. He began with this question:“Can someone be called and not know it, at least until God does something to reveal God’s intentions?

Apparently David is an example of this—and yes, one can lose connection with God’s call and not know it. (Saul for example)…(Samuel’s job was to discern how God works… which was) “difficult, demanding, sometimes heart-wrenching, and necessary.

We are not Samuel….And yet as part of God’s community of faith, as members of the body of Christ, we too have a role to play in helping those around us recognize how God is moving people in ways they may not see…. 

While not one of us can be Samuel, all of us can follow Samuel’s lead. We can watch and listen for how God is moving in the lives of (fellow members of the church) and we can help them figure out if that movement (is part of a call in their lives). Who knows, perhaps some of us have been called by God to help someone else realize his or her call.” [1]

If I hear Brian right, one role you may be able to play in the life of someone at the Kirk is to help them see what they don’t see… something that is more than skin deep—it goes down to the heart… You may be able to help them discern God’s call in their lives… and while it may include their call to a particular ministry at the Kirk… I’m thinking bigger here… it could mean a call that includes their vocation or other avocation. And if you are searching, ask a friend to help you see what God sees… or talk to a pastor.

So to close, I leave you with this challenge:

Be like Samuel. Learn to discern. Listen to God… in your prayers and in devotion… Be like Samuel… try to see what God sees as God looks at the heart…

Be like Samuel… and know that as you help someone discern their call… or even as someone helps you discern your hidden call… you will discover something very wonderful: you will discover the role… the part God has given you and maybe only you to play in God’s great story of salvation… And the role… the part you are called to play… seems to require one main thing. Heart… lots of heart for God. Amen.

[1] Christian Century, March 19, 2014