“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