1 Samuel 15:34- 16:13 - The Upside Down Kingdom

When Pastor Doug asked me to preach a few weeks ago, he didn’t give me a topic or scripture to go off of. He said I could preach on anything I wanted, or I could always turn to the lectionary. I didn’t grow up in a Church that used the lectionary, but I have really enjoyed learning about it and seeing it used at Bethany. I decided I would at least give it a look and see what passage it had for today, but I found it incredibly confusing. Frustrated by the different versions, which track we’re on, and which passage of the four offered I’m supposed to actually preach on, I went over to Zach Christiansen’s office. I explained my confusion and asked if he knew how this mysterious lectionary worked. He said no, but that I should just preach on 1 Samuel. Seeing the expression on my face, he responded, “Oh I don’t know! You probably know something about that, don’t you?” I was incredibly skeptical and knew I would definitely not take his off-hand advice. So I walked back to my office, found the right website, figured out we were in Year B, and looked up the first scripture reading. Sure enough- 1 Samuel. As if that wasn’t enough, today’s text is one that I have studied in depth in not one but two of my college classes last year. Sometime the Spirit is mysterious and difficult to understand, and other times the Spirit practically hits you over the head saying, “This is what I have you today! This is what I have for Bethany!” Will you join me as we follow where the Spirit leads us today?

            Spirit of God, dwell in the place. I am so grateful that you enjoy using broken, imperfect people for the furthering of your kingdom. I ask that you speak through me this morning. May we all encounter you in a new way today, inside and outside these walls. Dwell in us, we pray. Amen.

Today’s scripture reading begins in 1 Samuel 15, found on page 240 of your pew Bible. The text follows a dramatic scene of King Saul’s disobedience to God. God commands him to wipe out the Amalekite people and everything they own, but Saul spared the King and the best of the livestock. Saul tries to say that he was going to use them as a sacrifice to God, but Samuel isn’t buying it. Despite Saul’s protestations, Samuel tells him that since he has rejected the word of the Lord, the Lord has rejected him as King of Israel. Our text picks up here. Please stand with me.

Then Samuel went to Ramah; and Saul went up to his house in Gibeah of Saul. 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.

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.” 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.’ 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.” 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?” 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.
When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” 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.” Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” 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.” 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.” 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.

This is the Word of the Lord.

            As I said earlier, I didn’t grow up with lectionary, but I am fascinated with it and how it was put together. After a bit of research, I found that as with all things involving The Church, it was a long and slow process. The famous Church Father Jerome gets most of the credit for forming the first standardized lectionary in the 600’s, but it has seen many revisions over the last millennia and a half. I’m very curious as to why these chapters were put together for today’s reading. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to start the selection at the start of 1 Samuel 16, instead of including that first uncomfortable verse about God regretting choosing Saul?

            That passage has haunted me since I first studied it in depth a year ago. What does it mean for God to regret something? Does that imply that God made the wrong choice? Is that even possible? And why did God choose not to forgive Saul’s disobedience but he later will forgive David’s multitude of sins against God and humanity?

            I have to admit that I deeply struggle with these questions. I have half-formed answers at best that leave me more than a little uncomfortable. But I do not think that the lectionary wants us to focus on these questions. If that were the case, we would have read all of chapter 15, which I highly recommend you do in your own quiet time this week. Instead, I think these last two verses of 15 are paired with the main story because it is important that readers and listeners know the setting of this important scene. This is not an easy choice that God is making, nor one that comes without cost to those involved. There is an aura of discomfort and tragedy surrounding this scene. We would be mistaken to ignore this and move straight to an exciting scene with bible verses so quotable they’re just asking to be embroidered on a pillow. No, this story comes at a difficult time in the life of the people of God. But from what I can tell, that’s exactly where many great stories begin.

The books of Samuel fall in the unfortunately named “historical books” of our canon. I say this is unfortunate because that title has led us to believe that these books are just recordings of historical events. If this is our understanding, it is going to quickly lead us to unfortunate places because if they are history books, then they are full of glaring contradictions. This anointing of David in chapter 16 is actually the first of three separate anointing stories. All three involve different people him anointing him and none mention the other accounts.

            So if this is not intending to make a historical claim, then what is it trying to do? This story, like the entirety of scripture, is making a theological claim. History can be interesting, inspiring, and even influential, but it is ultimately stuck in the past. Theology, however, is fully alive. This story is about God and God’s people, neither of whom are stuck in the past. This anointing of David is one of many glimpses throughout scripture of the Kingdom of God. The narrative of Scripture is about the restoration Kingdom of God on Earth, through the people of Israel. It does not being with Jesus, but is being manifest throughout history. Over and over again, we get images of what this Kingdom really looks like. These images present a Kingdom of God that turns our expectations upside down.

            The story telling of this passage is masterful. The author wants the audience’s expectations to be shattered. “Surely,” Samuel thinks as he sees the impressive Eliab, “this must be the Lord’s anointed before me.” We see the story through his well-trained eyes, and we too are surprised at God’s choice. Samuel was looking for a new and better King of Israel, so of course he started with the best and the brightest. I can only imagine Samuel’s inner dialogue when David finally comes in. “This kid?” he must be thinking. “This little shepherd is going to be my king? He’s going to lead my people? Really?”

1 Samuel is doing something theologically that we should be paying close attention to. In both Samuel and Kings, the more conventional one’s power, the less likely they are to be the people of God.

            Over and over again throughout the books of Samuel and Kings, God is radically inverting our understanding of power. God chooses the first king from the smallest family of the smallest tribe. The second king is the youngest of seven brothers, not even old enough to be invited to the adult’s table at the feast. In the very next chapter, David defeats Goliath not by traditional military power but with the smallest possible weapon.

            In fact, it is when David tries to harness traditional power, prestige, and privilege that he finds himself far from who God called him to be. David’s greatest downfall comes when he stops relying on God’s unconventional means of changing the world.

            This upside down kingdom is found all throughout David’s life and throughout the Bible. This is not the first time God has used the youngest brother to transform the life of Israel. God used Abel over Cain, blessed Jacob instead of Esau, Ephraim over Manasseh.  God chose the leader of God’s people out of slavery to be an unwilling, stuttering, fugitive. God gave Israel victory over Jericho by means of trumpet! David’s grandmother and distant ancestor find themselves on the bible’s most notorious women list. The first Hebrew word to describe him means “insignificant” and his name isn’t even said until after he is anointed. In fact, this kind of upside down power happens so often that at this point we should probably just expect God to use unconventional leaders to change the world, but that’s easier said than done.

So what does this mean for Bethany? How is this the Word of the Lord for us today? I find the picture of Jesse bringing his sons to Samuel so poignant. He brings Samuel what he thinks Samuel wants- his very best; his oldest, his wisest, his most accomplished sons. If there is a position of leadership, it should go to the most qualified, should it not? The leader should have training, degrees, experience, and talent to boot. We in the church pull from a small pool of members- those with theological degrees, with titles and status, with years of experiences. We think we are doing what it best for our church, because why wouldn’t those be best? Why would you let the insignificant or unlearned lead, when you could get someone with an MDiv?

            What’s fascinating about David’s story is that he does not have the Spirit of God on him when God chose him. God chose him while he was still young and insignificant. He was preparing him with the life of a shepherd to be the Shepherd to the People of God. It was when he was anointed with oil that the Spirit came powerfully upon him.

Jesse was massively underestimating his youngest son. He thought that age and stature were the important markers of a leader, so he didn’t take into account all that God had been doing in David to prepare him to be a leader. David didn’t suddenly become ready to be king by being anointed that day in Bethlehem. No, God had been preparing David for this his whole life. David was a skilled musician, which is the very first gift God uses in 1 Samuel 16:14. David plays his harp to help Saul feel better, becoming the first recorded music therapist. Then David next faces Goliath, yet another challenge he is uniquely prepared for. David’s life as a young shepherd taught him to fight and protect in ways that leveraged his strengths, not the strengths of his opponents. Being small and smart, he knew exactly what he was doing as he walked out on that battlefield. As the youngest in his family, David knew what it was like to be without power. David was uniquely prepared to be King not in spite of his age, inexperience, or size, but because of it.

            Who is God waiting for us to anoint to be our leaders? Who is it that we’ve left at the metaphorical and literal kids table? When we search for leaders, when we look for people to teach and to preach, whom have we not even considered? I am the youngest person to preach from this pulpit in three years, and even I have a theological degree. We have this whole population of members that are so often relegated to position of ‘future leaders.’

            “Ah yes,” we say, “we are raising up youth at Bethany to be adult Christians and leaders! When they grow up, we will pass along the leadership of our Church to them. When they’re ready, when we’re ready, they will lead us.” But 1 Samuel challenges that idea at its very core. Because God is not very interested in using the likely candidates or the traditional avenues of power. Instead, God seem to like to use the most unlikely people, the ones on the outside to transform the community. It is through these unlikely messengers of grace that we are confronted with the reality that all good gifts come from God alone. We cannot credit success to our many degrees, to our wisdom from years of experience, or our ability to choose great leaders. Instead, we are utterly forced to give all the credit to God, where it is rightfully due.

            God has no trouble working with and through broken and flawed Israelites like David. In fact, this capacity on God’s part is quite sacramental. God has the ability to transform human activity into divine activity, to make the ordinary extraordinary, and to make the mundane sacred. God makes a sacrament of our humble and insignificant offering.

            God uses the small and insignificant to do God’s mighty and marvelous work. This theme is found all throughout the bible, so we best pay attention. Like the tiny mustard that produces the large tree, so do our young leaders and ministers among us. These middle schoolers, whom I spend so much time with, have more to teach us than we expect. To be honest, they have more to teach me than I expect. I work hard to teach them, to give them opportunities in church, but I haven’t been particularly willing to let them lead me. That takes a level of humility that is quite uncomfortable.

What ministry is God waiting to begin at Bethany through the leadership of our young ones? Who is God anointing to lead us into being the People of God we were created to be? Maybe you’re thinking- “but I have degrees, years of experience and plenty avenues of power. I’m already serving and leading. What am I supposed to do?” To that, all I can say is, who are you looking to for guidance, for insight, for friendship, for leadership, not above you but below you? What youth do you actually know? Not kids that you’ve seen grow up at Bethany and know what they look like. What teenagers do you know today? Do you know Emmett’s favorite sport or Alex’s greatest passions? Do you know what Daniel thinks of this sermon series or who Savannah wants to be like when she grows up? Do you know what Junia wishes we did during worship or what bible verse means so much to Eli?

            And what about you, middle schoolers? High schoolers? Kids? Are you ready to lead us at Bethany? If we give you the chance to lead, will you follow where God takes us? Are you ready to witness to the work that the Holy Spirit is already doing inside you? Are you ready to use the gifts God already has given you? Because we want to know what that is. And more than that, we need to know. Without you, we can’t be the People of God.

             The Kingdom of God is at hand. It is a kingdom unlike any other. It is one where the first are last, the smallest are the greatest, and to live you must die. The most important thing we do in the Kingdom is give up our power, like Samuel did that day in Bethlehem. Anointing new leaders, following them where the Spirit leads is risky. To trust God is a dangerous business. Will you follow boldly with me?