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.”
Last week I was at a preaching conference where I led a workshop called, “The Three Unbreakable Rules of Great Preaching.” It’s not that I’m such a great preacher, but I have heard a lot of great preaching. I make it a point to listen to at least one other sermon every week and I look for the best preachers I can find. There are a lot of them out there. I started my workshop with a quote from George Burns (remember him, the guy with the cigar?) who once said, “The secret of a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good ending, then having the two as close together as possible.” They laughed at that, but I felt sorry for George Burns; apparently he hadn’t heard a lot of good sermons. And then I shared my three unbreakable rules of great preaching: 1) have something to say, 2) find a way to say it, and 3) don’t move on to step two until you have completed step one. They laughed again and I said, “It seems obvious, doesn’t it? But I’ve heard too many sermons that were beautiful ways of saying almost nothing. So, let’s start with rule number one.”
I told them I find my “something to say” by using the Revised Common Lectionary, and some of them looked surprised. This was a Baptist group and we Baptists are not known for lectionary preaching. So, let me remind you that the lectionary is nothing more (and certainly nothing less) than a plan for reading through most of the Bible in public worship over a three-year period. For each Sunday there is a reading from the Old Testament, the Psalms, the Gospels, and the Epistles. In this church we don’t always read all four every week, but today, just as an example, we used the Psalm as our Call to Worship, the Gospel for the Children’s Sermon, the Epistle just after that, and the Old Testament lesson before the anthem. That’s a lot of Bible, and I think that’s a good thing. We Baptists call ourselves “People of the Book” but there are some Baptist churches where all the scripture you hear is the verse the pastor has chosen for his sermon. I think we can do better than that.
So, I start every sermon with the Bible, and as you know I start on Monday, looking over those four passages of Scripture and listening for the Word of God. But here’s something you may not know: you may not know that there was an actual lectionary committee that decided which passages would be read each week. I’ve got a list of their names somewhere, and when I’m having a bad week with the lectionary I mutter under my breath and wonder what they were thinking. But most of the time they were thinking that the Gospel lesson should be first and foremost, because it’s the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ (thanks be to God). We love Moses and we love Paul, but Moses is not Lord, and Paul is not Lord: Jesus is Lord and we want to put him at the center of our worship. But here’s the thing you may not know: the other readings are related to the Gospel reading. They were chosen because they had some kind of connection to the story of Jesus.
Today’s Gospel lesson, for example, is the story of the Man Born Blind, from John chapter 9. It’s a wonderful story, and it’s going to be the focus of our Journey to the Cross service on Wednesday night. But maybe you can see the connection between a blind man whose sight is restored and today’s Epistle lesson from Ephesians 5 that begins with the words, “For once you were in darkness, but now in the Lord you are light.” That fits, doesn’t it? And the Old Testament lesson, from 1 Samuel 16, is the story of Samuel anointing David as the next king over Israel (instead of his taller and better-looking brothers) because the Lord doesn’t see as mortals see: the Lord looks on the heart. I’m not really sure how Psalm 23 was chosen. Maybe because Jesus anointed the blind man’s eyes with mud just as the Lord anoints our heads with oil. There’s not always an obvious connection to the Gospel lesson and that’s when I start muttering under my breath about the lectionary committee.
Now, that’s kind of a long introduction. I’m not sure George Burns would approve. But it helps to explain why last week, when the Gospel lesson was about the Woman at the Well of Samaria, our Old Testament lesson was about God’s people thirsting for water in the wilderness. And it helps to explain why this week, when the Gospel lesson is about anointing and seeing, our Old Testament lesson is about anointing and seeing. It begins with Samuel, the last of the judges of Israel, grieving over Saul, the first of the kings, who turned out to be not such a great king after all. It wasn’t Samuel’s idea to anoint him, remember? The people had asked for a king, but Samuel didn’t want to give them one. He may have been a little bit jealous. But God finally said, “Go ahead and do it. They’re not rejecting you, they’re rejecting me.” And so, God gave them what they wanted: someone who was tall and good-looking, someone who looked “presidential” (as we sometimes say). But Saul turned out to be a disappointment and Samuel was sorry he had ever anointed him. He spent a good bit of time just sitting at home, moping.
Until God said, “How long will you grieve over Saul? When the people chose him they rejected me from being king over them, but now I have rejected him from being their king. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Bethlehem, to a man named Jesse, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” But Samuel is reluctant to go. He knows that if Saul gets wind of this there’s going to be trouble. But God says, “Take a heifer. Tell them you’ve come to offer a sacrifice. And then, when the time is right, anoint the next king of Israel.” So, Samuel did it. He got a heifer, tied a rope to its halter, and led it down the road toward Bethlehem. When he got there everybody was anxious, wondering what was up, but Samuel said, “Relax! I’ve only come to offer a sacrifice. Get yourselves cleaned up and join me!” And they did. And Jesse and his sons came.
Now, Jesse’s sons were good-looking boys. When Samuel saw Eliab, the oldest, he thought, “Well, there he is: the next king of Israel!” But the Lord said, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature.” In other words, “Don’t be impressed just because he is tall and good-looking. He’s not the one I want.” And then God says this, which may be one of the most significant statements in the Bible: “For the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
So, here comes David, the shepherd boy, after a long day of being out in the fields with his father’s flock. He is probably hot and tired and smelly, but he still has a spring in his step, and, in my imagination at least, he’s whistling. And for all that talk about not looking on the outward appearance the author of 1 Samuel can’t resist telling us what David looked like. “He was ruddy,” he says, which may mean that he had red hair.[i] “And he had beautiful eyes,” which may have been his best feature. “And he was handsome,” maybe not like his brothers but, you know, in his own sort of way. “Get up,” the Lord said to Samuel. “Anoint him. This is the one.” Because the Lord could see things others couldn’t. They looked only on the outward appearance. But the Lord could see that this scruffy shepherd boy was a man after God’s own heart.
Several years ago I wrote a blog post called “One of God’s Favorites.” It was a story about something that happened to me when I was living in DC, and I found myself telling it so often I thought it might be a good idea to put it in writing. Here it is as it appeared on “Jim’s Blog” in June, 2010:
I was coming up out of the Dupont Circle Metro station one morning in Washington, on my way to work at First Baptist Church, when I saw someone coming down the escalator on the other side who looked, well…scary. He was wearing dark glasses, a leather jacket, and enough tattoos and body piercings to make it hard to see what he really looked like. I gulped and thought, “There’s one of God’s favorites.”
I don’t know what inspired that thought but it had an immediate effect—no longer did I see him as frightening or threatening; I saw him as one of God’s favorites. I could imagine God introducing the two of us and saying, “Jim, have you met Mad Dog? I love this guy!” And I could imagine Mad Dog smiling and reaching out to shake hands. I smiled when I passed him on the escalator (and was it my imagination or did he smile back?).
As I walked the two blocks to church I tried it on every person I passed: “There’s one of God’s favorites, there’s one of God’s favorites, there’s one of God’s favorites…” And on every person it worked: I saw them in a different way than I had seen them only a second earlier. By the time I reached the end of the first block it was all I could do not to tell the woman who was standing there with me waiting for the light to change, “You’re one of God’s favorites!” I believed she really was.
When I got to church one of our preschool teachers was on the playground with some of the children and I stopped to talk with her, still giddy from my walk. Teresa is originally from Jamaica. She has a sweet, sweet spirit and a beautiful smile. I’m almost 100% sure that she is one of God’s favorites and I told her so. She beamed. Every time I saw her in the days that followed I would say, “You’re one of God’s favorites!” and she would say, “You are, too!” (That’s not a bad way to greet each other, is it?).
To this day, when I encounter someone who seems different, strange, or even a little bit scary I just think, “There’s one of God’s favorites,” and it helps. And I know this, that even if that person is not one of God’s favorites, he or she is someone God loves, and that makes a difference.
If God loves Mad Dog he can’t be all bad, can he?
When I posted that story on my blog I looked for a picture to go with it. I Googled “scary looking guy” and waited to see what would come up. Well, one of the images was of a very scary looking guy, a whole lot like the one I had seen coming down the Metro escalator. So I stuck that at the top of the post and published it and waited for the comments to start rolling in. Several people said they appreciated what I had written, and then one person said, “Hey, that picture you used on your blog post? That’s me.” And I thought, “Uh, oh. Now the scary guy knows who I am and where I work.” But he wasn’t offended. He said, “Actually, that’s just the kind of work I do. I speak in assemblies at middle schools and high schools and try to teach kids that you can’t judge people by what they look like on the outside. You have to get to know them; you have to look on their hearts.” He said, “I’m actually a Christian, and I appreciate the spirit of this post very much.”
Because this guy looked really scary! He had tattoos on his face and piercings across the bridge of his nose and dark glasses so you couldn’t see his eyes. But he was also a Christian, a fellow believer, and probably—in fact—one of God’s favorites. It makes me wonder how many other people we may have misjudged because of the way we look and how we could learn to start looking differently, as God does, by looking on the heart and not on the outward appearance.
I remember being at the airport once. It was around Christmas time. There were two women waiting at my gate, sitting side by side. One of them looked very glamorous, like one of those Christmas presents that comes in a Tiffany blue box tied up with a white satin ribbon. The other one looked like that time my brother couldn’t find any wrapping paper and put my gift in an old pillowcase. But it occurred to me as I looked at them that I had no way of knowing what was in their hearts. The glamorous one might be an ice queen and the other one somebody’s favorite grandma. Or, just the opposite. These bodies we come in, whatever they look like, are simply the packaging of our hearts. And no matter what our bodies look like, our hearts can be beautiful. Or, just the opposite.
So, how do we learn to do this: to see as the Lord sees; to look on the heart, and not the outward appearance? It could be as simple as saying (whenever you see someone who looks difficult to love), “Look, there’s one of God’s favorites.” I hope you will practice that. I hope you will get good at it. I hope you will get one of those cardboard tubes from the inside of a roll of toilet paper and write “One of God’s Favorites” on the outside with a Sharpie marker and carry it around with you so you can look at people through it. Why? Because that’s the way God looks at you. On those days when you look at yourself in the mirror and can’t find one thing worth loving, God nudges an angel and says, “Look!”
“There’s one of my favorites.”
—Jim Somerville © 2023
[i] This is the same word used to describe Esau, the brother of Jacob, who was born covered in red hair.