St Michael’s 8th January 2012
Readings – 1 Samuel 16:1-23; Matthew 2:1-12
How many people here have ever gone for a job interview? If you have, then you know what a terrifying business it can be. You spend the days beforehand finding out all about the business. You polish up on your CV. You try to rehearse your answers to all the questions you think you will be asked. But when the time comes, nothing actually prepares you for the moment when the door opens and you are ushered into the room before the interviewing panel. It’s just you and a few strangers staring back at you. You sit down and the ordeal begins…
Of course whether you get the job or not, depends on whether you are what the employers want. I guess many of us have had the standard letter that comes through the door a few days later which says, “You were an excellent candidate in a high-quality field but…” and then they list some reason for not selecting you. So the question then arises – what is an employer really looking for?
Our reading this morning from 1 Samuel is all about a job interview, although it features a process of selection you or I have probably never been involved in, and a job certainly none of us will ever be called to do. But before we dive in and look at the passage in more detail, let’s start with some background.
If you’re trying to find 1 Samuel in the Bible, it’s helpful to know that it comes about halfway between the book of Judges and the first book of Kings – not simply because that fact helps us find the right page, but also because it reminds us of the important theme that dominates the whole book. You see, in the book of Judges the people of Israel are ruled over by…guess who? That’s right, by Judges. I don’t mean old men in wigs and long robes, but leaders raised up by God to deliver His people from their enemies. By the time we get to 1 Kings however the people of Israel are ruled by …guess who? That’s right, by Kings. Again, I don’t mean someone who simply wears a crown on a big occasion, but someone with total authority over the people he governs.
So the books of Samuel cover the transition from one kind of leader – a judge – to another kind of leader – a king. Now it was always intended that one day God’s people would have a king. If we had time, we’d go back to Deuteronomy 17:14-20 where God promises Israel a king to be appointed from among the people. But that’s not the type of king the people want. There’s this extraordinary confrontation between the prophet Samuel and the people in 1 Sam 8 which ends up with the people shouting at him: No! … We want a king over us. Then we shall be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles. Do you see the problem? It wasn’t that the people were wrong in wanting a king. Where they went wrong was in wanting to be like the other nations. And so God gives them exactly the type of king they want. He gives them Saul, and in the run up to our reading we see exactly what a disastrous choice Saul turns out to be.
By the time we get to 1 Sam 16 it is clear that the Lord has rejected Saul as king. The people’s choice has turned out to be the wrong choice. Oh yes, Saul is still on the throne and as we shall see this fact will cause some interesting complications. But in essence it is time to choose a new king. So how is this king going to be chosen? Well, the first thing to notice is that there isn’t going to be an interview process. The post of king isn’t going to be filled by folk posting their CVs and explaining why they are the right person to sit on the throne. In fact, with Saul still in position, it isn’t going to be advertised at all. It’s going to be fulfilled by divine appointment, by Samuel going secretly to Bethlehem under the Lord’s direction.
Because the way the Lord chooses anyone for any task is not by the basis of how well qualified we are, or how gifted we think we are, but by the leading and direction of His Holy Spirit. It was, after all, exactly how Saul himself was chosen as king back in 1 Sam 9. There we read the long and involved story of Saul searching for his father’s donkeys and by divine appointment meeting with Samuel who anointed him as king.
So as Samuel travelled down to Bethlehem, there must have been at least a couple of questions running through his mind. First of all, what will Saul do if he finds out I’ve anointed someone else as king? Clearly the townsfolk there must have suspected something was afoot, for as verse 4 tells us: When he arrived at Bethlehem, the elders of the town trembled when they met him.We’ll come back to the idea of two competing kings when we reach our gospel reading from Matthew. But for now, the second question that must have troubled Samuel was this: how will I know this new king will turn out better than the one I anointed earlier?
The answer to this emerges from the rather strange selection process which then follows. Picture the scene. The elders of Bethlehem have gathered together for some kind of festival. Everyone is standing around, waiting for Samuel to give the signal to start. But before Samuel begins proceedings, he asks Jesse to bring in his sons one by one. As each son comes into the room all eyes are turned on Samuel. What is he looking for? Which one will he choose?
The first son to come into the room is Eliab. It must have seemed obvious to Samuel and everyone present that as the first-born and as a rather fine physical specimen he has to be the one. But what does the Lord say to Samuel? Verse 7: Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart. After all, one reason why Saul had previously been chosen as king was the fact he was – according to 1 Sam 9:2 – an impressive young man without equal among the Israelites – a head taller than any of the others. But this did not mean his heart was right with God. You see, like any decent employer God looks beyond the sharp suit or the expensive hairstyle and weighs up what’s going on underneath, and of course with God His judgement is always accurate. Indeed Eliab’s unsuitability for the job is confirmed when we look at his attitude to his youngest brother next week.
So Eliab passes on into the room with a big thumbs down. But there are six other sons of Jesse on hand. Surely one of these is suitable to be king? So in comes Abinadab, then Shammah, then others with equally unpronounceable names. Yet each time Samuel shakes his head, until there is embarrassed silence and an awkward pause. After all, who is left?
Verses 10-11: Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, but Samuel said to him, “The Lord has not chosen these.” So he asked Jesse, “Are these all the sons you have?” “There is still the youngest,” Jesse answered, “but he is tending the sheep.” Samuel said, “Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives.”
Now we know how the story ends. After some delay, with everyone getting quite fidgety and wondering why the boy has been summoned, David appears and Samuel anoints him as king. But think about it a little bit more. What two facts does Jesse tell Samuel about his son? He is the youngest and he looks after sheep. Not, you might think, the most obvious choice for someone to be king. After all, most employers are looking for experience and people skills. Surely this choice tells us something very important about God’s choice of priorities – that so often He can see in the most unlikely of people, even in us, something we cannot see.
Not that David is without redeeming features. In the second half of our reading we read how Saul, now rejected by God, is being tormented by an evil spirit. The search is on for someone who can play the harp well and soothe the king. The choice falls on David. Why? Because one of Saul’s servants says to him, verse 18: I have seen a son of Jesse of Bethlehem who knows how to play the harp. He is a brave man and a warrior. He speaks well and is a fine-looking man. And the Lord is with him. Clearly there is far more to David than we sometimes imagine, as a simple shepherd boy chosen to be king. But notice this, for all his courage and good looks, David is content to enter into service. The first stage in his becoming king is by taking a lowly position at court, even, as we shall see later, at great cost to himself.
I hope you can start to see that there are ways in which this story of David points forward to our New Testament reading from Matthew’s gospel. Now I guess most of us are very familiar with the tale of the three kings. We’ve heard it many times before, and we know roughly all the details. It starts with some astronomers who spot a star in the east, travel across the desert and end up meeting Herod in Jerusalem. After some anxious discussion, Herod sends these astronomers to Bethlehem where they present their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the young child Jesus. They are warned in a dream to go back home a different way, and Joseph flees with his young family to Egypt before Herod unleashes a terrible massacre in the town.
I don’t think anything I’ve just said will surprise anyone. But I wonder if you’ve stopped to think why Matthew chose to include these details of the Christmas story in his gospel. After all, Matthew makes only the briefest reference to the birth of Jesus. You don’t find any details about shepherds or angels or even of Jesus being brought to the temple, which is odd when you consider Matthew is the most Jewish of the gospel writers. So what’s going on?
In essence this reading is not about a tale of three kings, but of two. There is the king in Jerusalem – Herod – who rules by force. He has been reigning for over thirty years by the time these events take place. He has all the experience and cunning and wisdom to cement his authority, and although no other ancient writers mention the massacre of the innocents, his actions in chapter 2 tie in with what else we know of his character. Then there is the king in Bethlehem – Jesus. He has no throne. He is by definition young and inexperienced, because at this stage He is probably no more than two years old. He is born to a young couple of humble origins, although both are descended from the royal line of David. Who, then, is the real king?
On the one level it seems absurd to suggest that this baby Jesus could be any kind of a threat to Herod with his army and his officials and his political structures. Yet it is clear that the chief priests and teachers of the law knew all the ancient prophecies that one day a child would be born in Bethlehem who would be the shepherd and ruler of God’s people. Anyone who could claim to be the fulfilment of God’s promises, who would bring in the very kingdom of God, would in Herod’s eyes have to be eliminated right at the outset.
But Herod failed. Why? Because this child did not simply fulfil God’s promises. He was the very Son of God in human form. That’s why there could not or ever can be any human being who can frustrate God’s purposes in Christ Jesus. Yes, thirty years later, another Herod would be present at a mock trial where this Jesus would be sentenced to death. But even Jesus’ death on the cross could not, would not defeat God’s plan to save you and me. Jesus’ resurrection and ascension in heaven became the final and utter proof that He is the true king anointed by God, worthy of all honour and obedience. In this sense the actions of the wise men from the east only point forward to the way we ourselves should bow in wonder and worship to Jesus, Son of God and Son of David – the servant king now glorified at the Father’s right hand, the name above all names, and Lord of all.
But do we? Day by day we are bombarded with images of rich, powerful and apparently successful people. The message we get from adverts and TV programmes and the internet is that we should follow them, or at least be like them. Our readings this morning challenge us as to whether we identify with Jesus our servant king who made Himself nothing and took the form of a servant. Because when it comes to choosing who we follow, there is no neutral ground. Following Jesus comes with a cost – being prepared to stand out from the crowd, making yourself unpopular at a job interview, marked out in the workplace or at school. As we enter this New Year let’s ask ourselves: are we really focused on Jesus as our Lord and our King? And will we heed His call to take up our cross daily and follow Him and Him alone?