1 Samuel

“Do You See What I See? Look for Miracles”

Do You See What I See?

Look for Miracles

First Baptist Richmond, December 24, 2023 The Fourth Sunday of Advent

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16, Luke 1:26-38

The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.”

If I had been the chairman of the lectionary committee that chose our Gospel lesson for this morning, I couldn’t have done a better job. It’s the story of Gabriel telling Mary she’s going to have a baby, from Luke, chapter 1, and quite possibly the perfect reading when the Fourth Sunday of Advent falls on Christmas Eve. But I don’t know how this other reading got in there, this Old Testament lesson from 2 Samuel 7. It’s not the one I would have chosen. It takes us back to a time when King David was still on the throne.

He was living in a fine palace made of cedar, but he looked out the window and saw the Ark of the Covenant—the throne of God—sitting inside a raggedy, old tent. He told the Prophet Nathan that he wanted to build God a house (meaning a temple), and Nathan said, “Go, do all that you have in mind, for the Lord is with you!” But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan saying, “Go tell my servant, David: ‘Are you going to build me a house? Have I ever asked for a house? I’ve been carried from one place to another in a tent, but have I ever complained? Never! No, you’re not going to build me a house, I’m going to build you a house’” (meaning a dynasty).

And then God got specific.

Old Testament scholar Gene Tucker says this seventh chapter of 2 Samuel contains the fullest narrative account of the covenant God makes with David, and if you were an ancient Jew, praying for the coming of the Messiah, this might be your favorite chapter in the entire Bible. Tucker says, “Several features are noteworthy”:

§ In verse 8 God reminds David of his humble origins as a shepherd. He says, “I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel.”

§ In verse 9 David is reminded of his conquest over his enemies. “And I have been with you wherever you went, and cut off your enemies from before you, and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth.”

§ In verse 10 David is reminded that his success and greatness will be shared with the entire nation. “And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more.”

§ In verse 16 God promises David that his dynasty will be everlasting. “The LORD declares to you that…your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.”

§ And finally, Verse 14 is not included in today’s reading, but in that verse David is promised that his son will also be God’s son. Looking toward the future God says, “I will be a father to him and he shall be a son to me.”

Tucker says, “2 Samuel 7:1-17, thus forms the locus classicus for the expectation of the eternal rulership of the house of David and is the fountainhead for all messianic hopes about the revival of David’s rule after the fall of Jerusalem in 586

B.C. As part of the readings for the Advent Season, it looks forward to the One who is the David to come.”i

John Hayes, an expert on the psalms, says that the one chosen for today, Psalm 89, “offers the fullest exposition in the Old Testament of the divine covenant with David and the promises this covenant involved.” I won’t read the entire psalm, but listen to verses 3 and 4 as a sample: “I have made a covenant with my chosen one [says the Lord], I have sworn to my servant David: ‘I will establish your descendants forever, and build your throne for all generations.’”ii

I know this is a lot to take in, but it’s important. It helps us understand that long before the Angel Gabriel came to see Mary, the nation of Israel was pregnant with messianic expectation. The last of the Davidic kings had died out during the exile in Babylon. Some people said that David’s family tree had been cut down and could never be restored. But the prophet Isaiah held out the hope that one day, when the time was right, a shoot would come up from the stump of Jesse, a son of David who would usher in God’s eternal kingdom (Isa. 11:1). The people began to watch and wait for that day. But by the end of the Exile it still hadn’t come, and when the people returned to Jerusalem they still didn’t have a king.

So, they did what they could. They rebuilt the temple and the city walls. They cleared the cobwebs from the palace and swept the dust from the throne. They thought, “Someday, when the time is right, God will remember his covenant with David, and put one of his descendants on the throne. Someday, a shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse.” I’ve heard it said that in those days little girls were taught that if they were good, and if they did everything they were told, then one day they might get to be the mother of the Messiah.

That’s how I think of Mary, growing up in Nazareth, bringing buckets of

water from the well in the center of town; taking the clothes off the line, folding them, and putting them away; washing the dishes after supper and hearing her mother say, “Now remember, when you say your prayers, pray that the Almighty will let you be the mother of his Messiah.” And I don’t know: maybe Mary did say that prayer. Maybe every young woman in Israel said it. But that doesn’t mean she expected it to be answered.

I picture her kneeling by the bed, saying all her usual prayers for friends and family, and then, right at the end, saying, “Oh yes, and if it be your will: let me be the mother of the Messiah.” And then opening her eyes to see the Angel Gabriel standing there, smiling, with his wings moving slowly back and forth. You could have knocked her over with a feather. But Gabriel said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you!” And now Mary was not only afraid, but also confused. What kind of greeting was this? What could it possibly mean? And so Gabriel got right to the point. He said, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Again, that’s a lot to take in, so let me point out a few salient features of this announcement.

1. Mary had found favor with God. We don’t know why. Maybe she was simply the best among all the good little girls in Israel. But for whatever reason we are meant to assume that God had considered every conceivable option (see what I did there?) and finally settled on this one, Mary, who was not a member of the royal household but simply a peasant girl living in the hills of Galilee.

2. Gabriel told her that she would conceive in her womb and bear a son, and that she should name him Jesus. He didn’t say how she would conceive. She may have assumed at this point that it would happen in the usual way. But the name Jesus is significant. In Matthew’s version of this story the angel explains, “For he will save his people from their sins.”

3. Gabriel says, “He will be great, and he will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.” And that may be the thing that got Mary’s attention. To say that this child would sit on the throne of his ancestor David was to say that this child would, in fact, be the Messiah. Of course he would be great! Of course he would be called the Son of the Most High! If what the angel was telling her was true this child would be the one Israel had been waiting for since the Babylonian exile.

4. And finally Gabriel said, “He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” This promise is essentially the same promise God made to David: “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.”

So, what’s a girl to say after getting news like that? Mary sat there in silence, taking it in, but eventually her brow furrowed, her hand went up, and Gabriel said, “Yes?” “All this sounds wonderful,” Mary said, “but I’m a virgin. I’ve never been with a man. How am I supposed to have a baby?” And Gabriel said, “Not to worry, my dear. The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy; he will be called Son of God.”

And if all that sounds like a little too much to believe—it is. Gabriel knows

it. No sooner has he said it than he offers Mary some additional proof. “Your relative Elizabeth,” he said, “the one everybody said was too old to have a baby, the one everybody said was barren, well, guess what? She’s six months pregnant! That’s just the way it is with God; things that seem impossible are possible; nothing is too hard for the Lord.” There was another long pause as Mary took all this in, as she tried to imagine what it would mean for her to become pregnant before she was even married. She thought about what her friends and family would say. But then she remembered how her mother had urged her, earlier that same evening, to pray that she might be the mother of the Messiah. Wasn’t this an answer to that prayer? “Yes!” Mary said, looking up at the angel. “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” And before she could change her mind:

The angel departed from her.

You know that story. You’ve heard it every Christmas since you were a child. There are no real surprises in it. But there are at least three truths that bear repeating.

1. God is not in a hurry. This is frustrating for us as humans. We seem to want everything and we want it right now, but when you dwell in eternity as God does you never hear the sound of a ticking clock. You can take all the time in the world. And often, apparently, you do.

2. God keeps his promises. He had told David a thousand years earlier, “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever,” and now here he was keeping that promise, restoring that lost kingdom, raising up a Son of David who would set his people free.

3. Nothing is impossible for God. No matter how broken the world might be, no matter how hopeless your own circumstances may appear, nothing is impossible for God.

Fred Craddock writes, “This is the creed behind all other creeds. The church should recite it often, not only at the manger, not only at the empty tomb, but on any occasion of reflecting on its own life, joy, and hope.”iii

And so, like Mary, let us bow before the miracle and say,

“Let it be.”

—Jim Somerville © 2023

Decisions, Decisions: Where Will You Look?

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.”

Wow.

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. 

Decisions, decisions.

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.