“You Are the One: The Shepherd”

You Are the One: The Shepherd

First Baptist Richmond, June 16, 2024

1 Samuel 15:34-16:13

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.”

It’s been a long time.

I’ve got to see if I can remember how to do this. The last time I preached was on Trinity Sunday when I introduced a new sermon series called ‘You Are the One,’ taking its inspiration from the Old Testament stories of Samuel, Saul, David, and Solomon, those real-life characters who were singled out by God in one way or another and told, ‘You are the one!’ I want us to find ourselves in those stories this summer; I want us to hear God whispering in our ears—‘You are the one!’” As I was thinking about it last August I thought about how these stories would have been among the favorites told around the campfires of ancient Israel, how children sitting in those circles with their eyes shining in the firelight might call out to the storyteller, “Tell us the one about the boy Samuel!” or “Tell us about David and Goliath!” Today I can almost hear them calling out, “Tell us the one about Saul!”

Ah, yes…Saul. His is an interesting story, isn’t it? Tragic in many ways. But it starts out so hopefully. I was re-reading his story last week and realized that in the beginning it is what Joseph Campbell would call a typical “hero’s journey.” Campbell was a professor of literature at Sarah Lawrence College, perhaps best known for his work in comparative mythology. He died in 1987, but not before

being interviewed by Bill Moyers, who talked to him about his work and specifically about the connections between what Campbell had found in so many of the ancient myths and what modern viewers had found in a story that began “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”—Star Wars. It was the story of Luke Skywalker, who was living a very ordinary life before being called into an epic adventure and returning a hero. Campbell would say that the same pattern is found in the story of Bilbo Baggins, a very ordinary hobbit who went off on a grand adventure and returned as the Lord of the Rings. Campbell claimed that in some ways this is the plot of all the old stories: “going into the belly of the whale and coming out again.”i It is the “hero’s journey,” and it always involves separation, initiation, and return.ii

As I was re-reading the story of Saul last week I began to see that same pattern in his life. It begins in 1 Samuel 9 with the announcement that “There was a man of Benjamin whose name was Kish son of Abiel son of Zeror son of Becorath son of Aphiah, a Benjamanite, a man of wealth.” But then the storyteller leans in and says, “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.” So, here he is—Saul—tall, good-looking, but otherwise living a very ordinary life, working on his father’s farm in the hill country of Ephraim, kind of like Luke Skywalker, who was working on his Uncle Owen’s moisture farm on the Planet Tatooine when he intercepted a secret message from Princess Leia that led him into an incredible adventure. What happened for Saul is that his father’s donkeys got loose, and his father told him to take one of the servant boys and go looking for them.

Not a very auspicious beginning.

But one of the regular features of the hero’s journey is an encounter with a mentor, typically a wise, old sage who helps the hero find what he’s looking for. In Star Wars it’s Obi Wan Kenobi. In the Lord of the Rings, it’s Gandalf, the Wizard. But in Saul’s story it’s Samuel, the last of the judges and the first of the prophets in ancient Israel. After traveling for days Saul is about to give up looking for the lost donkeys. He says to the boy who is with him, “My father will stop worrying about the donkeys and start worrying about me.” But the boy says, “Wait, there is a man of God in this town; he is a man held in honor. Whatever he says comes true.” And, so, off they go, looking for Samuel.

The day before the Lord had revealed to Samuel: “Tomorrow about this time I will send to you a man from the land of Benjamin, and you shall anoint him to be ruler over my people Israel. He shall save my people from the hand of the Philistines; for I have seen the suffering of my people, because their outcry has come to me.” So when Samuel looked up and saw Saul walking toward him, the Lord said, “Here is the man of whom I spoke to you. He it is who shall rule over my people” (in other words, “The Force is strong with this one”). Saul said, “Tell me please, where is the house of the seer?” Samuel said, “I am the seer, and I have been expecting you. Come, eat supper with me, stay the night, and in the morning I will tell you all that is on your mind. As for your donkeys that were lost three days ago, give no further thought to them, for they have been found.”

The next morning Samuel took a vial of oil and poured it on Saul’s head and said, “The Lord has anointed you ruler over his people Israel. You shall reign over the people of the Lord, and you will save them from the hand of their enemies all around.” And here’s another typical feature of the hero’s journey: the hero objects. He says he’s too young, or too small, or too insignificant to take on such

an important role. In the previous chapter, when Samuel hints that Israel’s hopes may be fixed on him, Saul replies by saying, “I am only a Benjaminite, from the least of the tribes of Israel, and my family is the humblest of all the families of the tribe of Benjamin. Why then have you spoken to me in this way?” But Samuel reassures him with a number of signs and sends him on his way, and everything Samuel has predicted comes true, including an encounter with a group of prophets who are in a state of religious frenzy, so that Saul himself is caught up in it, possessed by the Spirit of the Lord, and turned into a different person.

Even so, when it was time to make the matter public Samuel called all the people of Israel together and began to cast lots to see who would be their king. The tribe of Benjamin was chosen by a roll of the dice, and then the family of the Matrites was chosen, and finally Saul himself was chosen, but when they looked for him they couldn’t find him. It turns out he had hidden himself among the baggage! But when they brought him out he stood head and shoulders above every other man in Israel, and (have you heard?) he was so handsome! Samuel said, “Do you see the one whom the Lord has chosen? There is no one like him among all the people.” And all the people shouted, “Long live the king!” And then they went home. Saul went home. He didn’t know what else to do. This was the first time Israel had ever had a king. They didn’t have a palace or a throne. Saul simply went back to the farm and continued farming. And that’s what he was doing when the crisis occurred.

This, too, is part of the hero’s journey. There’s always a crisis—a moment of decision—when the hero is required to take some definitive action. Saul was coming in from plowing his field when he was approached by messengers from Jabesh-Gilead, who told him that Nahash, King of the Ammonites, had threatened

to gouge out the right eye of everyone in their city unless they could find someone to stop him. When Saul heard that, “the spirit of God came upon him in power, and his anger was greatly kindled” (1 Sam. 11:6). He slaughtered the yoke of oxen he had been using to plow his field, cut them in pieces, and sent them throughout all the territory of Israel by messengers, saying, “Whoever does not come out after Saul and Samuel, so shall it be done to his oxen!” When they got Saul’s message the dread of the Lord fell upon the people, and they all came out as one.

You probably don’t need me to tell you that the people of Israel, under Saul’s leadership, won a tremendous victory against the Ammonites that day, or that afterward they practically carried him on their shoulders to Gilgal where they renewed his kingship. “There they sacrificed offerings of well-being before the Lord, and there Saul and all the Israelites rejoiced greatly.” And if the story had ended there it would have been the story of a true hero. But things changed for Saul after that. He got used to being king. He began to think he deserved it. Instead of waiting for Samuel to consult the Lord and following his advice Saul began to make decisions on his own, and when he did they were almost always bad decisions. By the end of chapter 15 the Lord has had it with Saul; he’s ready to move on, but Samuel is not so sure.

In today’s reading the Lord says 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 trembles with fear because he knows that if Saul gets wind of it he will kill him. The Lord says, “Take a heifer with you. Tell everyone you’ve come to offer a sacrifice.” But when Samuel comes to Bethlehem, leading a

heifer on a rope, the village elders seem to know what’s up; they’re terrified. But Samuel says, “Relax, I’ve only come to offer a sacrifice.”

Which isn’t entirely true.

But it serves its purpose; it gets everyone together. And when Samuel lays eyes on Eliab, the oldest of Jesse’s sons, he thinks, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before me.” Because Eliab was tall and handsome. He looked like a king. 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.” And so Jesse made his next son pass by, and the one after that, and the one after that until seven of his sons had passed before Samuel, but the Lord hadn’t chosen any of them. “Do you have any more sons?” Samuel asked. “Just one,” Jesse said. “The runt of the litter. But he’s off tending sheep.” “Bring him here,” Samuel said. So they did, and even though the Lord doesn’t look on the outward appearance Samuel couldn’t help himself. He noticed what a good-looking boy this shepherd was, with ruddy cheeks and sparkling eyes. Samuel looked on his outward appearance but the Lord looked on his heart and said, “This is the one; rise and anoint him.” Samuel did what he was told. He 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.

Now I know you’ve all heard that story. It’s one of our favorites. If we were sitting around one of the campfires of ancient Israel we might beg the storyteller to tell us that one. But while we’re talking about kings we might as well talk about kingdoms. Jesus often said that in the kingdom of God things get turned upside down: the last are first and the least are greatest. And that’s just what happens in

this story. Old Testament scholar Gene Tucker writes: “Expectations are reversed. The last is indeed made the first, and God’s power is to be manifested in weakness.”iii

Which gives us hope. If we were sitting around one of those campfires of ancient Israel, listening to the storyteller tell his story, we might hear the Lord say about David, “This is the One,” and wonder how it would feel if he said such a thing about us. I think he does say such things about us, because the Lord does not see as mortals see; mortals look on the outward appearance but the Lord looks on the heart.

Hold out your hand for a minute. Make a fist. Your heart is roughly the size and shape of your fist. But when that heart was being formed inside your mother’s womb it was also being wrapped in everything else that makes you, you—flesh and bone, muscle and sinew, skin color and hair texture—so that from the day you were born you had an outward appearance. The people who first saw you—your mother and father—may have loved you immediately but they didn’t know who you were. They didn’t know what was in your heart. Those secrets are revealed over time by the things you say and the things you do, but from the day you were born and even before that God knew what was in your heart, and God knows that you have the potential to be a hero, you have the potential to change the world, and all you have to do is decide if you are going to change it for the better, or for the worse.

C. S. Lewis once wrote: “Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into

a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature.”iv I want to take that a step further. I want to suggest that with every word you say, with every deed you do, you are slowly making this world a little more like heaven or a little more like hell. You have the potential within yourself to be a hero, to look around you for anything that doesn’t look like heaven and then roll up your sleeves and get to work.

—Jim Somerville © 2024

“River Teeth”

You know, throughout the week, I don’t think nearly as many people have ever stopped by my office or texted me asking, okay, Chris, what is this River Teeth? People who saw it on Facebook from a post. I could’ve even gone to get a propane tank at the Lowe’s store and they probably would’ve asked me, hey, so what’s the deal with River Teeth? I don’t know. I guess we’re gonna have to find out today.

Today is our Graduate Sunday, and it’s so inspired, I guess, that it falls on the same day where the lectionary readings come from. First Samuel, the call of Samuel, and also Paul’s wisdom in the New Testament. We’ve got the call and we’ve got the wisdom.

The combination of the Old Testament and the New Testament is perfect for a day where we’re celebrating the end of one chapter and being joyful about what is coming next. Now, as I prepared for this morning, not in one sermon writing chair, but several sermon writing chairs, I couldn’t help but be swept up in this image that was shared in one of the commentaries. It was about a tree, a river, and the two halves of that tree’s life.

If we could lay out a timeline, we would see the life of this tree. On the left, it would be the first half of the life and a giant mark in the middle, and then the second half of the life. On the left, we’d be able to see all of the growth from that tree, from a seedling to a sapling, all of the years where it grew because it had lots of nutrients, lots of water, and then all of the years where it was sick, didn’t grow much, or there was no growth at all.

We’d see the times of drought and thriving. You get the picture. In my imagination, I see the tree is on a riverbank.

It’s growing, and it has a bow that goes directly over the water just a little bit and then comes back over land to balance itself out. And on top, it’s full of branches with leaves that provide shade both on the land and over the water. It creates that canopy.

It was a unique tree, but if it was around many other trees, it wouldn’t really stand out all that much. It provided shade for the bank of the river where fish and tadpoles could thrive, branches and a hole maybe that offered shelter for birds and insects and squirrels. It was doing exactly what that tree had always done in this mature state.

It was living its first half of its life right there where it took root. And if you would, please keep this image in your mind as we move forward in today. The Old Testament narrative places us right in the midst of, well, right where we are, or at least we may seem to be at times.

The story begins with the word of the Lord and how it was rare in those days. Visions were not widespread. And if we imagine ourselves as first-time readers of this text, wondering what’s going on, we’re very much like Samuel, wondering what’s going on here.

We find ourselves in a time where God feels forgotten, where movements of the spirit are scarce, where we wake up each morning praying for a spark to happen, bringing forth a wave of new growth in the church, but at the same time, not actually expecting it to happen. We found ourselves in the place where hope yearns, but the same old thing drones on and on and on without change. Now, if you felt that, you have felt exactly what the author wants us to feel when we are experiencing Samuel’s call here, to feel what the people were feeling during this time period.

Life was just moving along, just like the tree next to the river. Nothing out of the ordinary occurred and no one was expecting what was about to happen next. And then we meet the boy Samuel, who is offered by his mother in gratitude to the Lord for finally giving her a child after years of trying without success.

We can assume that Samuel spent a lot of days learning, learning about what Eli did as a judge, which was a religious authority who helped discern the will of God in that time period for the people, learning about what Eli did as a judge, learning about what God had done through stories passed down from generation to generation, learning about who God was. His days seem to have been fairly monotonous, if you will. Nothing really happened, just doing the same things over and over again.

And if we remember, the voice of the Lord was rare, visions weren’t widespread. And so we find Samuel sleeping in the inner parts of this traveling tent sanctuary at Shiloh. And he was sleeping specifically very close to the Holy of Holies, where the Ark of the Covenant was kept.

And the passage mentions that the light of the Lord was almost out and how it hadn’t gone out yet. And this is an interesting multi-layered metaphor kind of statement. On a literal level, this refers to lamps that they would light.

They would put them in the sanctuary from evening to morning. And that indicates that this all happened just before dawn. It can also be understood as a metaphor pointing to the movement in the story.

Eli’s vision is fading. And so is his role as the priestly source of spiritual vision. Now, in ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian narratives and times and stories, ones that took place around the same time that this was taking place, it was common for religious functionaries to try to spend time sleeping near or in a shrine room.

They did that in hopes that they would receive a dream or a vision from the deity. The proximity was a very important part to this. Being near would spark spiritual movement, they believed.

And as a tree that grows close to moving water of a river, hoping to soak up all of the nutrients through its roots as the water seeps into the soil and then drifts away. Now, I wanna take a timeout and give a disclaimer here. I’m not encouraging you to take this moment to say, well, he’s encouraging us to sleep in a holy place, so I’m gonna fall asleep while he gets preacher drones on and on and on.

Nor am I asking you to find time to go sleep in the baptismal after hours, because believe me, Bonnie would probably throw me out into the hallway without a construction hat. Or I would show up tomorrow and my office would then be the new construction zone. But it really makes me wonder, and I hope it makes you wonder that there is something else there going on.

Perhaps we might find ourselves slumbering in places that we hope are close to the Lord. Yearning for some sort of divine inspiration. And before the next day, filled with the same old, same old happenings again, we hope for something more.

In this quiet night, Samuel, after a few unsuccessful attempts and patience on the part of the Lord, he heard the voice of God speak. And he responded, go on then, speak. In that moment, Samuel’s life was changed.

The monotony of every day was gone. And if it was a tree, if he was the tree from our imagination, he was snapped in half. He was snapped in two.

He would no longer stand next to the moving water of the river of life. Instead, he fell in and was fully immersed in the movement of what the Lord was doing. Samuel became the one who heard the voice of the Lord in a time where that was rare.

Samuel became one who received a call to be something more than he was before. And certainly something more than what was coming before him. Sammy was part of this great story arc of the kingdom of God coming into the human world and shaking things up.

The Harvard Old Testament scholar, Paul Hanson, called Samuel a person of pivotal significance in Israel’s history, who is both the last judge and also portrayed as the first prophet. And now maybe you’re already picking up on the fact that I don’t want this message to come off as just a nod to a general call story, where I say, hey, look, maybe you have heard the Lord speaking in your life and you’re called to do something and it’s gonna be great. While that simple interpretation is meaningful in its own ways, I think it might miss some of the depth of what’s going on in this particular narrative.

I believe that the interpretation ignores the fact that God’s call to Samuel and God’s call to each and every one of us is anything but general. It’s not a story of a particular experience on the road where Samuel has a new step forward in his road to spiritual and religious maturity. And if we maintain the tree by the bank metaphor, the tree falling into the river is anything but just an experience, right? It’s life altering that brings with it a move toward something else.

And like that of Samuel, our call is a beckoning by God in a time of spiritual desolation, religious corruption, political danger, and social upheaval. It feels a little similar. Now, in our context, our flowing current at Richmond’s First Baptist is to work to bring the kingdom of heaven to Richmond, Virginia, and beyond.

To me, that’s something worth falling into. And I wonder what sort of answer to others’ prayers we would see if we actually did live into and fall into that call. To be called by God is to break from the same old, same old, and to fall into the new thing of what could be.

Samuel’s call is one that beckons us to our own deep listening for the Lord. But that’s just so vague and ambiguous, Chris. What does it mean? Why are you talking about this? Well, I’m really glad that you asked because I have a couple of thoughts on this.

You may find yourself in one of two of these places. One is in the first half of your life, like that of the tree on the riverbank. You haven’t heard or you haven’t discerned your unique call from the Lord yet.

Or two, you’re in the second half of your life, like that of the tree in the river. If you’re in the first place, don’t worry. We worship a God who is coming to break in to each and every person’s life with their own unique call.

I encourage you to keep growing, soaking in the nutrients, and sleeping with a hope that the Lord speaks to you. If you’re in the second place, this is no time to dwell on what used to work. The passage doesn’t allow us to dwell on the experience of God calling Samuel to be an end in itself.

The text reminds us of the spiritual challenges and the social transformations that God’s call actually bring. We’re urged not only to discern God’s voice, but to listen to it, to respond to it, to follow it as well. And if this call seems scary, let’s reflect on what happens to those trees after they fall into the river.

The tree next to the edge of the river of life is only soaking up a little bit at a time as the river flows by. And at some point, it breaks. It leaves the stump and the roots behind and is swept off by the river’s waters.

And eventually, it sinks to the bottom. It nestles in next to some other fallen trees. And the water begins to bring this broken tree back to new life.

And not the same kind of life that it had done before, that it had lived before. The wood starts catching different debris, leaves, foliage. It starts breaking down chunk by chunk as the water rushes over it.

The soft wood falls off and floats on down the river to provide a meal for some other habitat of life. The hard wood of that tree is what remains. And it lets the water rush over it, under it, around it, and even through it.

Some fish or other creatures find shelter there. And the hard wood starts sticking up in several uneven, sharpish edges. And when it’s seen in conjunction with all of the other trees who have fallen and floated and sunk to the bottom to be overrun by this flowing water, you see more sharp, uneven edges.

Almost starting to look like a set of teeth. There it is. And that tree, by falling from the top of the tree, and being swept up in the river’s good water, has begun its second life.

Richard Rohr, in his book, Falling Upward, speaks far more in depth than I could about these two halves of life. He mentions that many of us are never actually told that we can set out from the known and the familiar to take on a further journey. And oftentimes, let’s be honest, our institutions and their expectations on us, including church at times, they often just set up and entirely configured to encourage, support, reward, and even validate the tasks of the first half of life.

We’re more struggling to survive than we are thriving. More just getting through or trying to get to the top than finding out what is really at the top that we’re climbing toward. Thomas Merton, the American monk, pointed out that we may spend our whole life climbing the ladder of success, only to find that when we get to the top of that ladder, the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.

The familiar and the habitual are so falsely reassuring, and most of us make our homes there permanently. The new is always, by definition, unknown, unfamiliar. Yet if we listen deeply for the unique call on our lives, that call gives us a push, usually a pretty big one.

And sometimes, like Richard Rohr puts it, we have to fall in order to follow the voice of the Lord. Now, you may find yourself at the edge of a call. When that call comes, I hope you’re listening.

It might be scary. We may not understand it without the help of a mentor or a faithful community following its own call, but it’s always a call for us to something more, something beyond our former state. And that call is going to require some breakage, almost like a tree that has spent years fulfilling its duty, providing shade and shelter, then suddenly just breaks from the riverbank, and it’s swept away by the rushing water of the river of life.

Eventually, it sinks to the bottom, and that river of life just flows over, around, under, and through it, and it becomes Riverteeth. Let us pray. Lord, we come to you this morning in hope, yearning for something to change, perhaps, hoping that there’s something beyond just a call, that it’s not just a general experience that doesn’t actually shift our lives in any sort of way.

We pray we can be the type of people that listen, truly hear, and respond to it. Let us all live into our second half of life becoming your River Teeth, catching all of the beautiful, joy, and love, and life that comes from just letting you flow through, and around, and over, and under us. We pray all of this and so much more, in Jesus’ name, amen.