I love reading from the histories in the Old Testament, such as this morning’s text in First Samuel about the anointing of David to replace Saul as King of Israel.
One thread in this story – as with all of our readings today – is about seeing. About what we see vs. what God sees.
This is made very plain at the heart of this passage, where the Lord says to Samuel about Jesse’s son Eliab: “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 at the heart.” To say this another way, God sees that which we cannot see: the Lord sees the Unseen.
And yet, even after God says this, Samuel keeps on looking at six more of Jesse’s sons, and each time fails to discover what he has been sent to find. Finally, Samuel says “The Lord has not chosen any of these. Are all of your sons here?”
Well, it turns out that one of Jesse’s sons was not seen because he could not be seen, he was not there at all. The eighth and youngest son was up in the hills, tending his father’s sheep. David was the least of Jesse’s sons, and no one even bothered sending for him until Samuel explicitly asked that this last son of Jesse be brought before him. We see that David was unseen in many ways, but the Lord saw him!
There’s another aspect of this story; Saul is a failed King. He looked good – tall, handsome – just like all of Jesse’s sons. And, the people had demanded a King, so they could be like other tribes. God honored their demands, and selected and anointed Saul through Samuel, but despite his external appearance, Saul proved to be a poor leader. He worried mostly about how he was seen by the people. For him, obedience to God was secondary, Saul was not seeing or hearing God.
Now, there are many stories in the Bible like this one, where the hero – in this case David – goes forth against incredible odds as they pursue the path God has set for them; usually ignoring the naysayers who see no chance of success. And our heroes always succeed; because, we are told, they have been listening to God.
Many have used such stories when claiming to know God’s will, and so bull their way ahead towards some predetermined goal. They are full of hubris, not listening – or looking – for any further guidance from anyone, let alone God; confident that they are not mistaken in of their understanding of God’s will. More often than not, they fail, or else their road to success brings such great sacrifices and pain upon others that one rightfully wonders where God is in all of this.
While he was King, Saul was given many chances to learn from his mistakes, chances to learn how to listen for the Lord’s ongoing guidance, but he failed to do so. He did not listen, and so he did not learn. He did not change, he did not grow. And, eventually, it became clear he could never accomplish what he had been called to do.
This is what differentiates someone who truly is walking with the Lord from someone who is not: a willingness to learn, and change, as their journey continues. Saul had been chosen because the people demanded a King. God listened to them, and – through Samuel – changed his mind – selecting and anointing a King as they demanded. God modeled for the people that it was OK to change, since God changed course in response to their demands; and – through both Saul and then David – we see that no leader, no King, even when anointed by God, is perfect, nor do they need to be.
Saul started out well – he was humble, and reluctant. He earnestly sought the Lord’s guidance, but as he became more familiar with the power and privileges of Kingship, he began to see pleasing the people as his primary responsibility. He saw and heard them, but no longer saw or heard God. He was a “people pleaser” in every sense of that phrase. He was a man who did not seem to have strength of character. A man who relied only on his own inner judgment, colored by his fear of losing favor with the people. A man who had lost – or perhaps never really had – faith in God, even though he feared and perhaps even in some way respected God – or perhaps he merely respected and feared Samuel, the aged prophet of God.
In this morning’s reading from 2nd Corinthians we see the phrase “We walk by faith, not by sight.” This is restating the same idea: What we plainly see in front of us is not necessarily the most important thing. Some misconstrue this phrase to mean “we need to be firm in our faith and must ignore that which we see in front of us.”
Personally, I think we should focus on the first part of that sentence: “we walk by faith” – in other words, our faith helps us to make the journey, not our eyes. Faith is not some firm standard that we grip on to. If it was, we’d never go anywhere. It says we walk by faith – not “we stand by faith!”
As Paul says farther on: “For the Love of Christ urges us on…” so that we “might live no longer for [ourselves]…”
As I’ve said before, faith is a journey: an action, not a static state. Our faith takes us places, it forces us to move and change. It helps us to grow and to learn new and wonderful things in our walk-with and love-for God, and our fellow human beings. Faith is not a standard we can use to judge others, nor even to judge ourselves. God does not care about outward appearances, nor about our conformance to some external measure. God didn’t care what Saul or Eliab or David looked like, although Samuel did. Instead, God cares about us, about the inner person, the unseen within us, and that is where our faith journey takes place.
Paul tells us at the end of our reading from Corinthians that “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old is passed away; see, everything has become new!” There’s that word “see” again. In the previous sentence, he says “we regard no one from a human point of view.” It is because we see in Faith, because we are learning to see the unseen, as God is teaching us, that we are not seeing “the same old same old”. Instead we are seeing things in new ways. Changed ways, renewed ways.
Even in our two parables from Mark this morning, seeing is implicit to the narratives. “The seed would sprout and grow” it says, “he does not know how.” What caused the seed to sprout and grow cannot be seen; so, that knowledge is not accessible to human observation and comprehension. But, once the grower sees that the grain is ripe, he can take in the harvest. We may not understand how the harvest sprouts and grows, but we can (and are called) to participate in the harvest when we see it is time.
And finally, in the parable of the Mustard seed, it says that a mustard seed is “the smallest of all seeds in the earth” – hard to see – “and yet it becomes the greatest of all shrubs” – an undeniable presence in the grower’s garden.
But, there’s a subtler twist here. As we saw in this morning’s “Message for All Ages”, the mustard plant is not a shrub. No gardener would ever be crazy enough to plant that weed: it would take over the entire garden! It doesn’t have great branches, and has no branches at all, in fact. It does not provide shade, birds cannot nest in it. Those who first heard this parable would have thought the storyteller was nuts!
What is really happening is that Jesus is helping us see something that is otherwise unseen!
After finishing these two parables, Mark tells us that “with many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it…”
In First Samuel, Saul was unable or unwilling to perceive God. In Second Corinthians, Paul calls us to see as God sees. In Mark, Jesus taught the word as they – meaning we – are able to hear it. God wants us to hear the Word, and to perceive the unseen.
All of these scriptures are telling us that we walk by faith, not by sight. We proceed on our faith journey through life not by seeing or being seen by others with our eyes, but in perceiving with our hearts, seeing with that within us which is unseen by others.
These scriptures also tell us what the result of seeing the unseen is. Amazing things happen! The little guy everyone forgets about becomes King! A weed that no one wants in their garden becomes a great shrub that all birds come to build nests in! And, the same old same old becomes new! The impossible can happen, if only we can see it.
We’ve talked about seeing the unseen many times before here. Seeing those who are marginalized. Seeing those who are hurting. Seeing those who have hidden pain. Seeing others as they see themselves, and no longer seeing them through our own preconceptions, or others’ stereotypes.
In all of these cases, seeing the unseen is meant to provoke a response from within us. We are not meant to merely see what is going on, but we are to move in response to it, to be moved to respond as God asks us to respond, to respond in love, with compassion, and with open arms.
This is what is meant by walking in faith, not by sight. The seed within us is where it all begins.
Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA, June 14, 2015; (Third Sunday after Pentecost).
Copyright (c) 2015, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)