Looking on the heart

1 Samuel 16:1-13 Looking on the heart

Image is everything. We may try to deny it, but it is endemic in society and it affects everyone. Do I look good in this? Are my glasses designer? Is my hair great? Am I toned, tanned and slim? Have I got the right footwear, a cool watch and do I drive the right car? Can I boast about my children’s achievements in an act of one-upmanship? Do my parents make me cringe in public?

We may say we are above this, but too often we fall into the same traps as everyone else.  What is worse we very easily judge others by the image they project. It is often said that the first impression you make when you walk through the door of an interview, will decide how far you progress in the recruitment process. Before you even get through the door, you have to project yourself through the application form.

If you are meeting someone for the first time – girlfriend/boyfriend first date; future parents in law; new employer; someone important – you want to make a good impression. Am I projecting the right image. And then of course there is the whole false world of social media.

Image, image, image. Sometimes it is difficult to get beyond the first impressions and the image people project – a lesson Samuel probably knew but needed to re-learn when he went to anoint one of Jesse’s sons as the next king of Israel.

What’s the context? Well Saul has been rejected as king by God. Samuel is grieving for this. He had anointed Saul the tall handsome man who was a little shy to begin with – but he was God’s anointed and he would lead the people. However, like so many future kings of Israel and Judah, he drifted in his following of God and as a result God chose a new king. Saul had so much promise and things began so well, but his heart had changed. So God sends Samuel the prophet of Israel to anoint a new King in Bethlehem. In fact he gives him a bit of a shove: ‘Fill your horn with oil and be on your way.’ is what he is told.

We need to understand the implications of this. The old king hadn’t died, he wasn’t terminally ill and for all Samuel knew, he would be living for a good while yet. In those circumstances, to anoint someone else as king was to commit treason, punishable by death. You also put the person anointed in danger, as well as their family. The call of God here was no easy task and the elders of Jerusalem knew that Samuel wasn’t coming on a social visit. If the prophet of Israel was coming to your town there had to be a reason – clearly they thought it meant trouble.

Samuel calls them to an act of worship and made sure he invited Jesse who had eight sons, but one of them didn’t go to the sacrifice. Why was that? Was it because he was the youngest and so detailed to look after the sheep  – a task beneath his older brothers? Is David using this as an excuse for not having to attend this act of worship. You know what it is like on a Sunday: ‘Do we have to go to church? Why don’t you go and I’ll stay at home. It’s sooo boring!’ Perhaps he had teenage attitude and had managed to avoid church – or so he thought. When Samuel sees the sons of Jesse he is immediately impressed by their image, but the response of God is clear:

‘The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’

Now it is not as though David’s appearance is nothing to write home about, it is just that appearance, age, even experience are not everything when it comes to God’s calling. One of the things Samuel may have had to look beyond was teenage attitude. If David thought he had got away with not going to the sacrifice and then gets dragged in from the fields, you can imagine he wouldn’t have been too happy. The point is clear: what God is seeking is those who have a right attitude of heart, focussed on him and desiring to do his will.

Now we mustn’t gloss over David’s faults – in many he wasn’t an exemplary character and at certain points we may wonder why God persevered with him. It must have been that in spite of everything, he still desired to follow God and do his will. For me that is encouraging, because I am not an exemplary character; I do need God’s grace and mercy for my faults and weaknesses; I do pray that in his grace, God can still use me in spite of them. And it is the same for each one of us. Our attitude of heart is fundamental, because then God can work with us and through us; can mould us and change us to be more like Jesus.

When Jesus called the disciples, they were not the usual sort that teachers would gather round them. It was a fairly volatile mix – fishermen, tax collector and zealots. Clearly Jesus looked beyond appearances into their hearts. Interestingly, Jesus chose Judas as well – was this a mistake or did Jesus see a spark there that was never quite fanned into flame? These were not the obvious people to choose to begin a new move of God among the nations.

As they began to follow, their understanding of what they had embarked upon is revealed: they didn’t understand. They obviously saw in Jesus someone who taught with authority and drew people to God. This must have been what they were hungering for, but they didn’t really understand who Jesus was or what he was about until after the resurrection. That didn’t stop Jesus from calling them and using them in mission.

Not only did they not fully understand who Jesus was, they also thought that since they were his close companions it would give them a leg up in this kingdom he was talking about. Neither did they realise that the way to bring in the Kingdom was going to be the path of suffering. Peter may have declared that Jesus was the Christ the Son of God, but he still thought that it was an earthly kingdom being established that would require a fight. When they failed to keep watch and pray in the garden; even when they ran away, they were not rejected. God looks to the heart and sees beyond the exterior of our posturing, our misunderstanding and our failure. If our heart is for him, he can use us in his service.

If we take a look at the first Christians in Acts and revealed in the letters of the New Testament, we don’t see a strong group of people, and they were very soon to be scattered because of persecution. As we read the letters what is revealed are followers of Jesus who didn’t always get it right; who would probably not have made it into church membership today, because their doctrine wasn’t quite sorted; who were learning what it meant to be followers of Jesus in their society. However, they wanted to be faithful followers and share the gospel message and in the messiness of their churches God used them.

Now I find that encouraging. Jesus didn’t set up a pristine perfect church that could tick all the things on a statement of faith list, but in their messiness  the Holy Spirit worked, using ordinary people, and the gospel message spread throughout the world. The only criteria seems to have been a heart for following Jesus Christ and a desire for sharing him with others.

When we look at figures through history who have been used by God, they would not necessarily have been those we would have chosen or expected. John Wesley was a career vicar until God took hold of him. Lord Shaftsbury was from the privileged classes, but God used him as a champion of the poor. Gladys Aylward was an ignorant maid in service who heard the call of God and followed. A nun called Mary Teresa heard the call of God to serve the poor in India and went.

Then there are those who don’t hit the headlines, but hear the call of God on their lives and respond in so many different ways in order to advance the Kingdom. Peter was a postman and Lesley a secretary, but they sold up and served in Romania.  Ordinary people with ordinary lives, facing the same issues and challenges as you and me. The only qualifying factor is that God sees their desire to serve him.

Then there is you and me living out our lives in Gravesend and among the people we know  and love; living out our lives at the workplace, in the clubs to which we belong, at school, among the people we meet daily. Our lives may seem ordinary and routine; we may feel we are a bit mixed up and messy; we may not be conventional Christians in the way that we think we should be – but God sees through to our hearts. If we truly desire to follow Jesus Christ, then we do that in the places we find ourselves and we allow the Holy Spirit to let us be Jesus to the people we meet.

Jesus was expert at looking through to the heart – well you’d expect him to be really. As we approach Easter, read the gospels and see how he responded to, met with, talked with people. First of all he saw the need and met that need – with no strings attached. At the beginning of Mark’s gospel we read

‘They went with James and John to the home of Simon and Andrew.  Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they immediately told Jesus about her.  So he went to her, took her hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she began to wait on them.’

That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all who were ill and demon-possessed. 33 The whole town gathered at the door, 34 and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons,

Giving out to meet people’s needs with no strings attached. He left the people to respond. The crowd are hungry and Jesus feeds them. A foreign woman pleads for her daughter and he heals. Jesus first of all sees the need, sees the desperation of people’s hearts and responds.

The disciples argued over who was the greatest and Jesus didn’t berate them, realising they needed a change of heart and understanding, so he taught them by pointing to a child. A man was lowered through the roof and in him Jesus saw represented the heart of all people as he forgave his sin, pointing to the fact that he can deal with the deepest need of the heart – as well as raising this man up on his legs.

He saw the hearts of the religious leaders and the fact that they were hard. He wouldl not compromise with them; they heard his teaching, saw the miracles, so how would they respond? Jesus looks for a change of heart, not for people to sign up to whatever we might classify as the requirement to be a Christian. The only requirement as far as I can see is that we put our faith in Jesus Christ and allow the Holy Spirit to work. It is the desire of the heart with the willingness to be changed by the Spirit that God is looking for in those who follow Jesus Christ.

Samuel’s message to Saul after he had disobeyed God was, ‘The Lord has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him ruler of his people’ (1Sam13:14) and then following that was sent to anoint David. David was not exemplary, but clearly this was someone seeking to do God’s will in his life. God doesn’t require us to be perfect before embarking on serving him, nor to be perfect when we come to the end of our lives. It is Jesus who will present us perfect at the resurrection. God does seek people close to his heart, willing to listen to the Holy Spirit and to follow him.