Today is the Fourth Sunday in Lent (or Mothering Sunday), and as usual there are three readings and a Psalm set for today. What I thought I’d do over the next few days is give you a reflection on each passage in turn (you’ll just have to imagine me standing in the pulpit waving my arms around!).
I’ve put all the readings and today’s collect at the bottom of this email, so please do make sure you scroll to the end.
The first reading today deals with the time when the prophet Samuel anointed David as the next king of Israel.
1 Samuel 16:1-13
The LORD said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul, since I have rejected him from being king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil, and go. I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” And Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears it, he will kill me.” And the LORD said, “Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the LORD.’ And invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do. And you shall anoint for me him whom I declare to you.” Samuel did what the LORD commanded and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling and said, “Do you come peaceably?” And he said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the LORD. Consecrate yourselves, and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.
When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the LORD’s anointed is before him.” 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 sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” Then Jesse called Abinadab and made him pass before Samuel. And he said, “Neither has the LORD chosen this one.” Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the LORD chosen this one.” And Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel. And Samuel said to Jesse, “The LORD has not chosen these.” Then Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but behold, he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and get him, for we will not sit down till he comes here.” And he sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy and had beautiful eyes and was handsome. And the LORD said, “Arise, anoint him, for this is he.” Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers. And the Spirit of the LORD rushed upon David from that day forward. And Samuel rose up and went to Ramah.
A number of years ago I went to visit someone in the old Cottage Hospital in Winchcombe, and decided the best way to get in outside of visiting times was to wear my dog collar. The ward sister had a fearsome reputation, but a couple of inches of white plastic got me in and all was good. After visiting, I decided to pop into the butchers to get some sausages and when the pack was handed over, the butcher said he’d put an extra sausage in for me. I was touched by this act of kindness by a stranger.
It was only as I drove past the vicar of Winchcombe heading towards the shop on his bicycle, I realised I had obtained a sausage under false pretences! No doubt when the vicar got the butcher’s, there was muttering about criminals going around the village wearing dog-collars receiving sausages intended for the local parson.
We all judge by appearances, whether it’s a dog-collar or a police uniform. When we see politicians addressing the country, we want to see them looking statesmanlike and their accompanying experts looking brainy. We can quickly assess what we think of someone by their clothes, car and cleanliness. First impressions count.
But not so with God. As Samuel was looking over Jesse’s sons, he thought the future king should be tall and strapping. God reminded him: “the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”
This stress on the heart is an important one. A thousand years later, Jesus was speaking with some pharisees who were complaining the Jesus’ disciples were eating with unwashed hands. Nowadays, of course, we would take a very dim view of this in light of current events, but back then the main issue was about keeping ceremonial customs. Were the disciples made unclean because of this? Jesus told them: “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him’” (Mark 7:15). When his disciples quizzed him about what he meant, Jesus replied:
“Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
As Samuel was reminded: “the LORD looks on the heart”.
I wonder how you react to this? The idea that God looks at my heart - the inner thoughts, the gut reactions, the internal muttering - is something which makes me a little uneasy. I’d rather God just looked at my dog-collar rather than my inner thoughts. No wonder we find in Psalm 130 the question: “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” Judgment on this basis is not a cheery thought.
So what do we do? Well perhaps we might find an answer to this by turning back to David.
The young, handsome David grew into King David the great military leader. Under his reign, the territory of Israel grew ever bigger and there was a unity amongst the tribes. But in 2 Samuel 11:1 we find a curious verse:
“In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab, and his servants with him, and all Israel. And they ravaged the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem.”
The mighty warrior stayed at home. And then he saw Bathsheba bathing on a roof, and we know what happened next. He took what he wanted and Bathsheba ended up pregnant. He attempted to cover this up, and ended up killing Bathsheba’s husband. And he no doubt remembered “the LORD looks on the heart”, and realised that his heart was foul.
Amazingly, in Psalm 51 we have a record of how David prayed to God about this whole incident. In the first few verses David pleads for mercy as he acknowledges his wrongdoing. He knows that he has sinned ‘and done what is evil in your sight’. He then goes on to beg God to cleanse him, before he prays:
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. (Psalm 51:10).
Create in me a clean heart.
Here we come to the the hinge of Christianity, the central point around which everything turns. However much we might impress our neighbours - David had a palace and expensive chariots on the drive - God knows us more deeply. And in the end we must all know we fall short.
Yet David’s prayer is for a new heart, a fundamental ‘reset’. A few centuries later, Ezekiel gives a prophecy of the future work of God: “And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 11:19).
It is against this background that the work of Jesus makes good sense. As we trust and depend upon him, the sins of our hearts are transferred to his shoulders and punished on the cross. Or, as Paul puts it: “This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” (Colossians 2:14).
That’s one side of Jesus work - dealing with the deeds of our hearts - but there is another too. Through the Holy Spirit, God begins a great work of transformation in the believer, as we are made more Christlike. Our hearts become more like his heart. Over time, we are so changed that Paul can write: “you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” (Colossians 3:9-10).
In the end, Christianity is a heart religion. We are judged on the content of our hearts, and when we believe we are given a new heart. Outward appearances don’t really tell us anything at all, only what a person wants to present to the outside world. We would do well not to focus on externals, but to look at the heart.
Otherwise you might find out someone else has your sausage.