a sermon on 1 Samuel 16:1-13 and Psalm 23
It’s not all that unusual in this world to have friends and colleagues who share the same name. I have two good friends named Nate, and although they come from very different circles of my life, more than once some of my other friends have gotten them mixed up when I am talking about them! I’ve seen these kind of shared names in other places, too. A month or so ago, I visited the First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica, Queens, and met two of their staff who are working with Superstorm Sandy relief. Both are named Dora! But easily the strangest situation comes when I write an email to my friend Andy and the opening and closing names are identical!
Still, by far the most common single name in my address book is David. I looked it up last night—I have three Bettys, five Bills, five Brians (with two different spellings), four Jameses (not counting all the family who have that last name), seven Johns, four Sams—and nine Davids. This is really no surprise, since David is such an important name in the Bible and looms large in the Old Testament.
After a tumultuous start to his reign that required him to violently displace his predecessor Saul, David’s reign was remembered for being one of the more peaceful eras in the history of Israel, and it saw the beginning of substantial territorial growth than continued under his son Solomon. He was also known for his work as a poet and musician, strongly influencing the songs of the people of Israel even though we have no evidence that he actually wrote any of the psalms that are attributed to him through superscriptions in our Bible that were added much later. The memory of his reign over Israel towers over every page after his death. So often the stories of other kings and rulers and the laments of exile seem to say, “If only there were another king like David, we would be better off.” And the expectation of a Messiah to stand as a new king in the line of David is at the center of the Christian understanding of Jesus and his relationship to the people of Israel. In the end, David is a mighty figure—mightier even than the frequency of the name David in my address book!—who factors prominently into the story of Israel that defines us even today.
Yet the beginning of David’s story would not leave you expecting him to be such a major player. Our reading from 1 Samuel this morning makes it clear that nobody in his family thought that that David was all that important to them. It never even crossed their minds that he would be important enough to be a reasonable candidate to be king! When the prophet Samuel followed God’s instructions and went to select the new king from the sons of Jesse the Bethlehemite, Jesse didn’t even bring in David to meet Samuel. Now God had made it clear early on in that search that this decision should not have been based on the standards of the world, for when Eliab, the oldest, came in, Samuel had immediately figured he would be the best fit only to find God make it clear that the choice was not to be based on appearance, height, or any outward human characteristic.
But Samuel didn’t quite learn God’s lesson quickly enough here. He too did not expect David, the youngest son, the one left out in the fields to tend the flock of sheep, the one that could so easily be forgotten or overlooked, to be God’s choice. All human measures would have shown him to be the last possible son of Jesse to be the next king. But after all the other sons of Jesse had come before Samuel and none were chosen, David finally got called in to be considered by Samuel for this new position. Now the narrator seems to have missed something of what God had said earlier, for as soon as David appeared he tells us that David “was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome,” but in the end, that didn’t matter. God had looked on David’s heart and found it to be right and good, and so the Lord instructed Samuel to anoint David as king of Israel.
There was of course much, much more to David’s story that helps define who he is and why he is important to us in our own story of faith. Beyond the stories that I mentioned earlier, many look to his adultery with Bathsheba and his subsequent coverup that put her husband Uriah on the front lines of battle to be killed as a mark of our deep sinfulness, especially if we think of the words of Psalm 51 as David’s confession:
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Others remember the tale of the boy David’s defeat of the warrior Goliath with only a slingshot and five smooth stones as a mark of how God uses the small to overpower the weak. And still others look to the bond between David and his dear friend Jonathan for an image of holy friendship that can inform the relationships of our world and our lives today. But ultimately I think David’s story defines us not so much because of its importance in the life of Israel or the way that informs our understanding of Jesus but rather because it shows us yet again how God consistently looks beyond all the standards and expectations of our world and calls the forgotten, the overlooked, and the outsider to be bearers of the message of God’s love and faithfulness.
This is the same image of God that is portrayed so beautifully for us in the beloved words of Psalm 23. While so many images of God depict a mighty and powerful and dignified divine ruler, the image of God as a shepherd puts a very different spin on things. This psalm shows us a God who is willing to get down and dirty with us in the messiness of our lives: to show us places of comfort and care amidst pain and hurt, to guide us when we go astray, to walk with us through dark valleys, to offer us grace and mercy beyond our wildest dreams, and to give us a home worth dwelling in all our days. This God is willing and able to shepherd us and all of the forgotten, overlooked, and left-out people of the world “beyond our wants, beyond our fears, from death into life.” Just as God turns David’s life upside-down, from being the youngest son left out in the fields to being anointed as king of Israel, God flips all our images of a mighty and distant and powerful “Lord” and instead shows us this kind of present and gentle and humble shepherd.
This is the strange kind of God who is around us and before us and beside us—a Lord who is our shepherd, a powerful, mighty, and omnipotent God who cares so deeply about us that, as the Heidelberg Catechism says, “not a hair can fall from head without the will of my Father in heaven,” a God who chooses a leader who is not the one most likely to fit the standards of the world but who is most fit for the work and challenge ahead. And so God steps into our world and into our lives, insisting that we like David can step up beyond our limitations, calling the forgotten, the overlooked, and the outsider to act beyond our seeming limitations and do mighty and wonderful things, demanding that we join in the transformation of our world that comes as the lowly are given power and authority to step up and speak out and as the unexpected gifts of our lives are transformed by God’s grace, mercy, and power to be instruments of peace, justice, reconciliation, and new creation.
So may David’s story of being chosen despite all his weaknesses and limitations continue to define us as we trust God’s shepherding grace and love, seek God’s presence among us in those whom we might otherwise overlook or leave out, and look upon the hearts of others and ourselves to find the the hope and vision to embody something new as all things are made new in Jesus Christ our Lord. Thanks be to God! Amen.