Sunday, October 20, 2019
Scripture: Philippians 3:1-6 & 1 Samuel 16:1-13 (from The Message)
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon

Today I want to tell you the stories of two Sauls. They were both great men. God was with both of them and had a very clear purpose for both of their lives. Tales of both have been told down the centuries. One is a cautionary tale. The other is a story of redemption and transformation. These stories are worth our attention because they are still relevant to our lives. They both reveal our tendencies, our humanness, and two potential paths we can take. I’ll begin with King Saul, the first king over the tribes of Israel.

You see, for a long time, the Israelites needed no king. The Lord had led them out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. Through strong leaders like Moses and Joshua, they were able to go where God wanted them to go and to do what God wanted them to do. They had no king but God, and for a while, this satisfied them. Over the years, the people needed strong leaders to step forward when there were disputes among them or when one of their neighbors tried to fight them for the land. God would raise up strong leaders who would help them through that season, and those leaders would then return to their normal lives.

This worked for a long time, but eventually the people began to get jealous of their neighbors. They had kings, powerful and wealthy men who led the people into battle and who were a sign of the people’s prosperity and security. So, the Israelites grew tired of trusting in the Lord, whom they could not see, and they desired to have a king like their neighbors.

So, here’s how Saul enters the story of Israel. “There was a man of Benjamin whose name was Kish…a man of wealth. 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 9:1-2). Now, that’s the kind of person who should be king, right? Wealthy. Handsome. The tallest person in the room. It’s like Saul is right out of central casting. On the surface, the Israelites couldn’t have done better than Saul had they tried to make their king in a lab. So, God’s prophet named Samuel goes to anoint Saul as the King of Israel.

For some time, Saul did well as king. He won battles. He secured the prosperity of the nation. Even though Samuel expressed reservations about having a king, it seemed like having Saul as king was actually working out pretty well. Saul traveled through the tribes of Israel and unified them. He held off the nations that surrounded them. It appeared that having a king was working out really well for the people.

But then things started to fall apart, just as the Lord had warned the people. This wealthy, handsome, tall man started believing that it was his own strength and intelligence that had brought this peace and prosperity about, not the provision of the Lord. Saul began to take matters into his own hand. Trying to force the hand of God, he makes improper sacrifices. He lets his anger fester. He consults a witch, and the Lord rejects Israel’s first king. Saul’s heart has gone bad, and Samuel tells him as much. Saul reigns for several more years, but things get worse and worse for Saul. He grows paranoid. He is angry. God has rejected him, but rather than repenting and trying a new way, he doubles down on his own strength to hold on to the throne.

We’re now to the story I read from 1 Samuel 16. Samuel was upset that he anointed Saul as king and saw it all go so wrong, but God comes to Samuel and says, “So, how long are you going to mope over Saul? You know I’ve rejected him as king over Israel. Fill your flask with anointing oil and get going. I’m sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I’ve spotted the very king I want among his sons.” It’s as though we’re about to redo what we just encountered with Saul. Samuel goes there expecting to find the leader who fits the expectations of the office – strong and ready to lead, someone whom Israel’s enemies would fear.

Out walks Eliab, and there’s something about his appearance that makes Samuel think, “Nice work, God! Here’s one who can lead your people.” Strong, tall, and handsome again, as though that’s what makes a king. But God interrupts Samuel with these stunning words, “Looks aren’t everything. Don’t be impressed with his looks and stature. I’ve already eliminated him. God judges persons differently than humans do. Men and women look at the face. God looks into the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

So, Samuel gets what God is doing, but Jesse, the father of all these sons, is still stuck in the outward expectations. He parades out his sons from oldest to youngest, growing exasperated as things don’t go as expected. One son for each day of the creation come before Samuel, and he says, “He is not the one either! Who else is left?” Like the first day of the new creation, Jesse awakens to his youngest son, David, who is so unimportant that he’s out in the fields, dusty from tending the sheep. The Lord, the one who looks into the heart, sees David’s heart and sees past his youth, his dusty clothes, his smelling of sheep and tells Samuel to anoint David as the Lord’s choice to be king over his people.

Men and women look at the face. God looks into the heart. Another Saul had to learn this lesson the hard way. This Saul also was from the tribe of Benjamin, like King Saul was a thousand years earlier. He’s from the right family. He has the right training. Now, he reportedly doesn’t have the looks of the king, but his résumé is pretty sharp. “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more,” he writes. “Circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Philippians 3:4b-6). For decades Saul embraced this role. Smart. Zealous. Dedicated. He sniffed out those heretics who claimed there was a Messiah named Jesus who died on a Roman cross but whom they claimed defeated death. He was so committed to his craft that he was willing to kill those who made these claims, which worked until God knocked him flat on his keister on the road to Damascus. He met Jesus there that day, and over time he learned that God truly looks at the heart, not at the résumé.

Decades after this event, Saul, who now goes by Paul, sits in prison in Ephesus, writing to the church in Philippi about this very reality. The résumé doesn’t matter. What Jesus does in the whole life of a person is what matters, even if it means difficulty. God operates in the places of weakness, not power. God works on the heart, and the outward stuff only becomes worthwhile in how it is placed into the service of God and others.

A few years ago David Brooks wrote a book called The Road to Character. He begins it this way, “Recently I’ve been thinking about the difference between the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the ones you list on your résumé, the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success. The eulogy virtues are deeper. They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being—whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed. Most of us would say that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé virtues, but I confess that for long stretches of my life I’ve spent more time thinking about the latter than the former. Our education system is certainly oriented around the résumé virtues more than the eulogy ones. Public conversation is, too—the self-help tips in magazines, the nonfiction bestsellers. Most of us have clearer strategies for how to achieve career success than we do for how to develop a profound character.”[1]

I’ve been mulling over those words for the past few years because they are profoundly true. How little has changed since the crowning of King Saul! We give so much power to the rich and beautiful. We talk about education as though its only purpose is to make students useful to the job market, which demeans the students’ humanity and has stunted our growth when it comes to morality. We have made success a god, and friends, success is a lousy god. I can tell you that over the past couple of years that I have been your Senior Pastor, I have found myself wishing I was taller. Why? Because height still conveys authority, and you folks in West Michigan are just taller than people where I’m from. (Believe it or not, my brother was the center on our high school basketball team, and he’s maybe six feet tall!) How silly is it that I think being taller would be helpful to me as your pastor?

It’s generosity season in our church, the time where we take stock of our lives and make commitments towards how we give our whole selves to our life together as a church – our time, our talents, and our money. With our focus on Philippians, I’ve intentionally shied away from turning these October sermons into extended pleas for stewardship, but I’ll make a brief one today. The church is necessary for our lives, our community, and our world for many reasons, but one of those is it is one of the few places where we work on the interior of the human life – the heart. Our society is great at training people to have strong résumés, but it is terrible at training the heart. In David Brooks’ words, the church “lives by an inverse logic. It’s a moral logic, not an economic one. You have to give to receive. You have to surrender to something outside yourself to gain strength within yourself. You have to conquer your desire to get what you crave. Success leads to the greatest failure, which is pride. Failure leads to the greatest success, which is humility and learning. In order to fulfill yourself, you have to forget yourself. In order to find yourself, you have to lose yourself.”[2]

The Lord does not pay attention to the outward appearance. The Lord looks at the heart. It is here that we learn that. It is the work of the church to shape people to be what the world needs – not just sharp business leaders or fabulous teachers but to be a people who fill the world with love, joy, peace, and kindness. We all are a lot like Saul, and that confronts us with a decision. Will we choose to trust in appearances and our own strength, or do we trust God that all of that stuff means nothing if God is not shaping our hearts? The world needs us to pull together and be a people with healthy hearts.

[1] Brooks, David. The Road to Character (Kindle Locations 66-73). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[2] ibid., locations 91-96.