Monday, June 8, 2015

Dancing with David: A King is Chosen

June 7th, 2015       “The King is Chosen”       Rev. Heather Jepsen
Summer Sermon Series: Dancing with David
1 Samuel 15:34-16:13
          This morning we are embarking on a journey together, our summer sermon series.  This year we are once again returning to the stories of the Old Testament since that is unfamiliar territory for many of us.  For the next three months we will chart the journey of one of the most renowned Biblical heroes, King David.  From his anointing as a young shepherd, to his rise to power, to the building of his kingdom and its painful collapse; David’s story is one of the most beloved tales in all of the Scriptures.
          To begin the story this week, we need to back up a bit and set the stage.  It is long after the time of Moses and the Israelites are settled in the Promised Land.  They are besieged on all sides by warring armies.  The people are tired of being ruled by God and the priestly clan and so they beg for the Lord to give them a king.  The nations around them are ruled in such a manner and they too want a king to lead them to greatness and to treat with other nations.
          God is very hesitant and does not seem to think that having a king would be a good idea for the nation of Israel.  But the requests of the people wear God down and finally he relents.  With the help of the prophet Samuel, the Lord chooses and anoints Saul to rule over the nation of Israel. 
          All seems to be going along smoothly, until Saul becomes corrupted by his power.  In the chapter prior to our reading for today, the Lord commands Saul to engage the Amalekites in battle.  Saul is instructed to utterly destroy all that the Amalekites have including killing all men, women, and children as well as all livestock.  Saul follows orders to an extent.  His armies attack the Amalekites and kill nearly everyone, but Saul keeps the Amalekite king alive as well as the best animals from among the livestock.
          Now, what Saul does seems to make sense.  The king is a powerful person and could be a pawn for political maneuvering.  And the best of the livestock would have great monetary value and would be a shame to waste.  Saul even suggests that the salvaged livestock might be used as an offering to the Lord.  But God is having none of it.  The command was total destruction and since Saul did not complete the task, he is out as king.  Saul’s actions show his desire to interpret the commandments of the Lord, rather than follow them to the letter.  It is not what God wants, and so he is removed from the Lord’s favor and God will choose another to rule over Israel.
          So begins our reading for today.  The prophet Samuel has been in mourning over the shortened kingship of Saul, when God commands him to get up, get over it, and get busy anointing a new king.  God sends Samuel to the city of Bethlehem to the family of Jesse, for God has chosen a king from among the ranks of Jesse’s sons.  Samuel is understandably nervous to go.  Even though God has removed Saul from his favor, Saul is technically still the king of Israel and to anoint a new king would be an act of high treason.
          God convinces Samuel to treat the event like a common sacrifice as a cover story and so off he heads to do the Lord’s bidding.  As soon as he meets Jesse’s oldest son, Eliab, Samuel is convinced that this is the man God has chosen.  He is strong and handsome, he appears wise, and he clearly would make a good leader for Israel.  But God makes it clear that this is not his choice.  In one of the most famous lines of Scripture, God says that “The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
          One by one the brothers parade before Samuel, but none of those presented are chosen to be anointed as the new king.  Finally Samuel asks Jesse if these are all his sons.  It is only then that we hear of the youngest son, who is out tending the sheep.  Someone is sent to fetch the boy and when he arrives his skin is red or ruddy from the exertion of running into town from the far fields.  God makes it clear that this previously unknown, youngest brother is the one that God has chosen.  Samuel empties the horn of oil out upon David’s head and from that moment on he was filled with the spirit of the Lord.
          This is one of the most beloved stories in our scriptures because it so clearly follows one of our favorite archetypes.  David is a true underdog.  The youngest brother, the runt of the litter, the one nobody expected to rise to power; David is one of the first stories in scripture where we find the last becoming the first.  As we follow David’s story we find that his life mirrors that of many other underdogs who rise to power through dubious scheming, sheer charisma, and rugged determination.  Much like the legend of Robin Hood, the Lord of the Rings hero Strider, and the Guardians of the Galaxy’s Peter Quill; David is a bit of an unsavory character which makes us love him all the more.
          As we follow his journey this summer, we will find that the story of David is also a story of our God.  The God of 1st Samuel is very anthropomorphized.  This is a God who changes his mind, a God who is touched by human failure, and a God who suffers heartache when he is rejected by his people.  This is a God who struggles internally as he seeks to discover how best to relate to his creation.  He was against the idea of a king in the first place, and he is deeply grieved by Saul’s failure.  As soon as David is anointed, the spirit of the Lord will leave Saul who will then descend into madness for the rest of his life.
          Saul’s was a conditional kingship and a failed experiment.  He was only granted authority and blessing when he followed the Lord’s commands exactly.  When Saul strays from the path, the whole thing is a wash.  By contrast, God makes a different promise with David.  God promises a faithfulness to David that he didn’t grant to Saul.  Even though David will sin, God will not remove him from authority.  As we will find, David is certainly punished for his arrogant wrongdoing, but unlike Saul he will continue to hold his place upon the throne.  And more importantly, he will continue to have the spirit of the Lord upon him throughout the whole of his lifetime.
          So, what are we to make of this story today?  Well, just like last summer, this summer we will have to wrestle with the raw, rough edged, God of the Old Testament.  This is a God who changes his mind at a whim, a God who orders the slaughter of innocents, and a God who can be very hard for us to understand.  This is also a God who engages with people on an extremely personal level.  From his conversations with Samuel this week, to his ongoing dialog with David, this is a God who seems intimately woven into the lives of individuals. 
          To be honest, I am not quite sure how to relate this story to our own lives.  That is always the challenge of these summer sermon series and that is part of the reason I make myself do them.  The gospel reading for today on the mustard seed is certainly an easier text to preach from. 
I think this week I will take the easy way out and focus on that famous line in verse 7; “The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”  Although he is handsome like his brothers, and he appears to have a spark of wisdom in his eyes, God sees something more in David.  He is certainly not the one we would have chosen.  He is the youngest, the least skilled, and the least prepared for leadership.  He is the least expected choice for a new king at the sacrifice that day, and as he moves through his life he will do many a thing that makes us question why God would place him in this position.  And yet, this is the choice, this is the one God chooses.  As modern people we will grow to wonder what the Lord sees in David, just as we may wonder what the Lord sees in any number of people in our world.
It is interesting to note that today’s reading is really about Samuel and hardly about David at all.  Though it is the story of the moment he is chosen for leadership, the reader is granted no idea of how David might be feeling about the whole thing.  What did he think when he was left behind to tend the sheep?  How did he react to his surprising summons?  What could have been going through his mind as the anointing oil flowed over his head and down his face?  And what was he ruminating on as he returned to the fields, anointed as king and yet still a shepherd boy?  The reader can only guess and wonder about the answers to these questions.
After our story for today, David the usurper will weasel his way into the court of Saul who is still ruling as king over Israel.  Saul is troubled by evil spirits and David will enter the court as a musician to calm Saul’s nerves with the soothing sound of his harp.  David will also serve as Saul’s armor bearer which will place him in a strategic position in battles to come.  Already he is clearly the one blessed by the Lord’s favor.
As we journey through the scriptures this summer we will see many sides of David.  From his deep love of the Lord, to his corruption through absolute power his story is surely an interesting one.  In our reading for today we are given the heading from which David’s entire story will flow, “The spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward.”  May the spirit of God also come upon us as we dance with David this summer.  Amen.

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