Proper 6B

June 08, 2015

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Mark 4:26-34

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary

    1 Samuel 15:34-16:13

    Author: Scott Hoezee

    Looks can be deceiving. That’s why God apparently doesn’t bother with them in the first place. “The LORD looks at the heart,” God says to Samuel in I Samuel 16:7, now one of the most famous lines of the entire Bible. And on the opposite end of the Bible (and in the paired Gospel lection for this Year B Sunday) is Jesus’ saying, “The kingdom of God is like the tiniest seed you can imagine, a seed that disappears into the soil and then produces effects you could not dream of based on outward appearances alone; effects that, in the end, you don’t even really understand!”

    When this Old Testament lection opens, we find Samuel in a funk. He’s depressed. He had never been wild about Israel’s getting a king in the first place but once God told him just to go with it, he did his best and tapped the strapping figure of Saul to whom the Spirit of God subsequently led him. Saul was a reluctant leader at first but once he got a taste for power, it kind of went to his head and next thing you knew, Saul was just uppity enough to start disobeying the commands of God.

    So God lets Samuel know that this was not going to work out after all and even though most of the decisions and actions of all that could be traced back to God—and only proximately to Samuel as God’s servant—Samuel feels mighty rotten about it all, almost as though it were singularly all his fault after all. God is said to be grieved, too, but he gets over it more quickly and so aims for Plan B, which is the anointing of a new king. God knows whom he has his eye on and so sends Samuel packing to Bethlehem—a modest place to find a king—to the clan of a shepherd named Jesse.

    The rest of the story is pretty familiar: one impressive looking son of Jesse after the next gets paraded in front of Samuel. Each seemed to have it all: GQ good looks, chiseled bodies rippling with muscles, intelligent eyes. But one by one God lets these marvelous hunks of man flesh pass on by until finally no one is (apparently) left. Of course, there is one left, the little guy, the young one. For his part, Jesse didn’t invite little David to this sacrifice, in part because somebody had to watch the flocks and the youngest would always draw the short straw in such things. And anyway, Jesse had no idea what was up in the first place—Samuel knew he was hunting for a new king but Jesse had been told this was just a sacrifice being made by a local celebrity. Jesse didn’t realize that any of his sons were being scrutinized for greatness.

    So once Samuel queries Jesse if he had any more kids and finds out there is the baby of the family still to be presented, Samuel sends for the kid and, of course, God lets Samuel know that this is the one they had been waiting for all along. The Lord does not look on outward appearances.

    Except that then the text goes on to note how handsome and ruddy and good-looking David is anyway!! But although this appears to be a truthful and straightforward description of how David looked, the text tells us that from God’s vantage point, that had nothing to do with his selection. Maybe left to his own devices Samuel himself would have found even the youngest child of Jesse to be physically striking enough as to warrant selection. Maybe all of Jesse’s kids were handsome young men.

    But even if so, in David’s case this was an ancillary fact. The fact is that David was the youngest child, and in the Ancient Near East that fact automatically rendered him second class. Even had David been the most handsome and attractive of the lot, his status as last-born would have meant that he could expect no privileges, no particular advantage over the older siblings. Yet the God of Israel was forever proving that good things come in unlikely wrappings and from unlikely origins.

    This is the God, after all, who preferred Abel over his older brother Cain; who preferred a childless couple of senior citizens to found his mighty nation over the scads of perfectly fertile younger couples that must have been available. This is the God who chose Jacob over Esau, Joseph over all of his older brothers. Ultimately it is the same God who will surprise the world with a Messiah born as an impoverished human child in a place called Bethlehem, probably not far from where David was anointed on the day we read about in I Samuel 16.

    Unsurprisingly, once that Babe of Bethlehem’s stall grew up, he tended to under-impress folks. And when he opened his mouth to speak about the kingdom of God, he never bragged on the kingdom, never spoke of it in anything approaching hyperbolic terms or in the language of swagger and bravado. He admitted up front—and seemed to be glad about it, too—that the kingdom of God was a startling and stunning force for change in people’s lives and in the whole world but that it was change of a very quiet and humble variety.

    For those with eyes to see, the message of I Samuel 16 fits in very well with God’s larger patterns.

    Ironically, of course, to this day people miss this facet to the divine nature. You can hear this even in the way people use the word “biblical.” When an event happens that has a lot of size and scope—perhaps a natural disaster of some kind—people will use “biblical” as a synonym for “epic.” “It was a disaster of biblical proportions!” I recently saw a movie in which a woman sported a hugely fancy hairdo, prompting one character in the film to exclaim, “Oh, my dear, your hairstyle, it’s positively biblical!” We associate “biblical” with the epics once made by Cecil B. DeMille. The “biblical” film is the one that has “a cast of thousands!”

    Of course, there’s no denying that the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, has its share of spectacles: a worldwide flood, plagues in Egypt, parted seas, pillars of fire. Curiously enough, however, none of that really captures the character of the surprising God at the center of the biblical drama, nor of his Son in the New Testament. Read correctly, the Bible shows the discerning reader that God himself might well define (and so employ) the word “biblical” differently. Because at the end of the day the “biblical” is less about the eye-popping and more about the fiercely quiet things of life.

    And so God might see a humble widow doing a behind-the-scenes act of service and exclaim, “That quiet deed is positively biblical!” God might observe his own Holy Spirit slowly but surely transforming the life of an alcoholic into the shape of sainthood and declare, “What is going on in that man’s heart is a drama of biblical proportions!” God might look at the most modest-looking white clapboard country church out on an Iowa prairie somewhere and see in that church’s worship and witness a movement of biblical significance as it participates in the kingdom of God’s steady but sure transformation of the whole cosmos.

    That’s the truest movement and inclination of all things “biblical.” But there is still great power there. At the conclusion of this modest little anointing scene in Bethlehem, we are told at the very end of the narrative that starting on that very day, the Spirit of God came on David with increasing power. And where that Pentecostal power is at work, we can be sure that the kingdom of God is coming on, slow but sure like a seed in the soil, growing right along bit by bit until the great day of cosmic harvest comes.

    Illustration Idea

    Perhaps we can call this “Susan Boyle Sunday.” It is not surprising that the Common Lectionary yokes this Old Testament passage with the two parables in Mark 4. In both cases the message is the same: looks can be deceiving. Some years back the world’s attention was arrested by a startling incarnation of that old and familiar bromide in the person of Susan Boyle. I know it’s been a while now and all but honestly, I have watched the YouTube clip a score or more times and puddle up with tears every time!

    Because when Ms. Boyle walked onto the stage of the show “Britain’s Got Talent” some years ago, everyone just “knew” at a glance that she was a loser and that the ensuing singing act would be a sad spectacle that would likely end sadly once one, two, or all three of the show’s judge pressed the button that would activate those giant X’s that signal the end of the act and the rejection of the performer. After all, Ms. Boyle seemed a bit tongue-tied during her initial conversation with the judges and when she wasn’t stumbling over her words, she was behaving a little oddly—she seemed, well, quirky. And then there was her physical appearance, which bordered on the unkempt with unruly hair, bushy eyebrows, and a bit extra weight around her face and middle.

    Then, of course, she sang and within seconds every last person in the audience—including hardboiled judge Simon Cowell—melted over Boyle’s powerful and lyric voice as she belted out the appropriately titled song, “I Had a Dream.” The video of the performance went viral within hours and days of the performance (c’mon, you know you want to watch it one more time: Britain’s Got Talent: Susan Boyle ). Why? There are lots of theories but surely there is something deep within all of us that just loves to see the underdog succeed. We love finding beauty in places we deemed unlikely to display anything quite that lyric. We love finding any excuse we can to let our cynicism evaporate like the morning dew. There are far too many days when our cynicism about life gets confirmed. How delightful to find a reason to let it go for once!

    Looks can be deceiving, as this Sunday’s lections tell us in no uncertain terms.

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 20

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle +

    2 Corinthians 5:6-10, (11-13), 14-17

    Author: Stan Mast