Unexpected Grace

Text: 1 Samuel 15:34-35 – 16:13

For at least one more week I want to draw out some hidden treasures before coming back to the New Testament. This is a story of Samuel’s anointing of David. A powerful story about unexpected grace… about how God sees us, and how we are often too hasty to jump to our own conclusions rather than listening to what God is calling us to. As familiar as we might think the early stories of David might be, it’s worth it to go back and listen to them again… and maybe find something surprising.

At the opening of the story, we find Samuel grieving over the now-wounded relationship between himself and King Saul.  Two weeks ago, we heard the story of how Samuel had warned the Elders of Israel years before that having a king would have its price… and now those prophetic words had come home to roost. At God’s reluctant direction, Samuel had anointed Saul as King… yet as power often does, it corrupts… Saul lost his way, and began to use his position for his own benefit. Samuel had warned them of this, and now it was proving true… but there’s being right… and there’s being right. Samuel felt no joy in being vindicated, because now they were in even a bigger mess than had they not gone this way in the first place.

Yet, it seems that God had a contingency plan… maybe God knew all along… but wasn’t terribly forthcoming to Samuel. In part, perhaps, that even wise, old Samuel still had something to learn. This story is as much a lesson to Samuel as it is to us… and reminds us that no matter how old or how experienced we are, there is always something new that we can learn.

God tells Samuel to cheer up, and sends him off to a small town that no one had ever heard of: a tiny backwoods hick town called Bethlehem. His new mission was to visit a farmer by the name of Jesse. God doesn’t give details, but simply says that one of his sons will be the new King for Israel. So off Samuel goes, wondering what’s in store.

Keep in mind that Samuel is a well-known figure in Israel. He is the last of the judges, a man of God, who speaks with unmatched authority. When he comes to Bethlehem, it sends shockwaves through the community. It’d be like the Pope showing up unannounced in a rural Ontario town… It creates such a fearful stir that they even go so far as to ask him if it’s a peaceful visit. After all, Samuel’s reputation is such, earned or not, that they’re worried for their own safety if Samuel isn’t happy.

Of course, Samuel has no ill intentions. If anything, he’s in the dark as to what’s really going on. I mean why of all places does God send him to Bethlehem? Samuel comes to lead worship, and invites Jesse and all of his sons to the service… what’s going to happen next is anybody’s guess. Soon, Jesse shows up with his sons in tow. Right off the bat, Samuel takes note of Eliab, Jesse’s eldest. Strong, handsome, square jaw… looks like good king material… Samuel thinks to himself, “job’s done” –this is the person that God wants as King.

“Not so fast, Sam” God says to him. “He’s not the one I’ve chosen. Don’t think he’s the one because of those good looks. Remember, it doesn’t matter what he looks like… I look a little deeper, and see their true character. I see what’s inside.” So the process continues. In succession, each of Jesse’s sons pass by the wise old prophet… each time, Samuel thinks, this has to be the one… but he gets nothing from God. Soon, Jesse runs out of sons to send over to Samuel. This is going to be harder than he thought. Out of frustration, he turns to Jesse and says, “are you sure this is it? You don’t have any other sons?”

“Well… there is my youngest.” Jesse replies. “But he’s out in the field tending the sheep so the rest of us could be here with you.”

Samuel rolls his eyes and shakes his head. What part of ALL did Jesse not get? But perhaps forgivable. This was a culture that the firstborn son had all the rights and privileges. The further down the line one was, the less important they were. Perhaps it simply didn’t occur to them that this youngling out in the field was worthy of the attention of such a powerful figure. Nobody thought he was worth the bother, but sure enough, this youngest son comes in from the field… Samuel gets that internal nod… This little one… the youngest son of a backwoods farmer… one that no one had paid any attention to…would be the next King of Israel. His name? David.

Samuel rises and comes forward, and anoints this young shepherd’s head with oil.

Even in his wisdom and experience, Samuel is still surprised by God’s unexpected grace. Just at the point where he thinks he has a handle on how God acts, God still pulls a fast one. At the same time, this experience reminds Samuel of his own humble beginnings. Of how God called him… that nobody saw it coming, until an old mentor perceived that God might be calling him. Many years later, he sees David… a young boy whom everyone else overlooks… Older and wiser, Samuel begins to understand what his old teacher Eli once did. What matters to God is not what we look like, when we were born, who our parents are… What matters to God is what is on the inside… and only God truly knows that potential. Perhaps that’s the most important lesson of all… It is not for us to judge… whether of ourselves or even of ourselves!

The story of David’s anointing reminds us that throughout history, God calls the most unlikely of people. By all human standards, David would have been ignored: think about it… the youngest son of a humble farmer in a backwater town? Does this seem reasonable? I am also sure that even David himself never in his wildest imagination ever thought that he would be called to lead the people of Israel.

There is a lot in this story that can resonate with us if we let it. The problem is, like Samuel, Jesse, and even David himself; we do not see our own potential. We develop our own personal ideas of who God can and does call, and for various reasons, we never put ourselves on the list. The irony is, the whole point of these call stories shows how God calls ordinary people to extraordinary things. This is unexpected grace… that God could call anyone to do something extraordinary… and who are we to presume that we know better than God?

Yet that’s what we do. It’s human nature. We judge others… we judge ourselves, and every time we find a flaw… something that we feel limits our ability to actually be a part of God’s activity in creation. We don’t think that God could possibly call someone like me… or someone like that… and yet that is precisely what God does. Even the wisest of us tend to judge by appearances or accomplishments. By contrast, God sees our potential… our best… even when we either don’t see it, won’t see it, or choose only see things as being half-full.

But God… God sees things differently. Occasionally, through stories like the anointing of David, we get a glimpse of how God sees us… not just with love and compassion, but with our full potential. God truly knows what we’re capable of, and encourages us to look to the great good that we can do, in spite of whatever flaws that we might have. It is this unexpected grace, that all of us are called to be a part of the kingdom of God, no matter how ordinary we might think ourselves to be. Yet in the same way that nobody thought David important enough to invite in from the field, what potential are we missing in ourselves or others? God is all about this unexpected grace… and calls us to open our eyes, and even if only for a moment, see the world and the people around us in a different way.