Preached again yesterday at College Wesleyan. The podcast of one of the two services is at: http://www.collegewes.com/series.
The text is when God has Samuel go anoint David as a replacement king for Saul. There were three threads I tried to use while going from person to person in the story (which made it a little unwieldy, I suspect). There was of course the thread of fathers since it was Father's Day, a minor thread but it popped up here and there. The main thread turned out to be the fact that both God and life bring unexpected changes of plans into our life to which we must respond. The original title and what was originally meant to be the main point was that "God looks on the heart."
I began with Jimmy Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life. He thinks he has his life all planned out but life brings him unexpected and unwanted interruptions that change his plans because he is a good person and reacts accordingly.
Choice is central to morality. I don't believe God orchestrates all the surprises in our lives. He gives us choices. He lets us experience the consequences of other people's choices. This means it is not always God who brings the unexpected into our lives.
Sure, you can sin unintentionally, but this sort of wrongdoing is rather morally insignificant. Sin in its most meaningful sense is when a person chooses to do wrong or chooses not to do good. Similarly, virtue is when a person consistently chooses to do the right thing and not do the wrong thing. I suggested that it takes a greater amount of virtue to do the right thing when you don't want to than when the virtuous comes naturally (as an aside, I am not referring to the person who has made virtue a habit after years of discipline).
God looks on the heart means that God evaluates us by our intentions and motivations far more than what we believe or even what specific actions we do.
He is not expecting to have to anoint a new king. He is not perfect, but 1 Samuel surely wants us to think of him as a person whose heart motivations are good. He is faithful, but those around him are not. Israel is not. Saul is not.
A minister cannot be assured of numerical or external success just because he or she is doing the "right" things. This is a subtle version of the prosperity gospel. God gives those around us a choice so a minister can be doing all the right things in complete faithfulness and his/her ministry go completely flop. Jesus was not able to do many miracles in Nazareth and the most righteous person of all history died on a cross. God gives others a choice, so our faithfulness (or cleverness in leadership) cannot guarantee external success.
I thought it appropriate as an aside in the sermon to address the last verse of 1 Samuel 13 which was read. It says that God regretted he made Saul king. This statement cannot be literally true if God knows all things. It must be "goo-goo gah-gah" talk to help us/Israel understand that God was really displeased.
As an aside here, let me note that the author of 1 Samuel probably took it literally and thus did not understand that YHWH was omniscient. This is yet another example of how there is a progress or flow of revelation throughout the biblical text. The view of God in, for example, 1 Samuel is not as complete as the view of God in the New Testament--at least not from a Christian standpoint. One must not simply apply the texts of the OT to today without first running them through the NT. The other alternative is of course Open Theism, which I do not espouse.
Samuel is assigned a hard task, the task of anointing a king while another was on the throne. It didn't turn out too well for Lady Jane Grey in the 1500s. Sometimes God gives us hard tasks too. I thought of a martyr who was killed in the last 6 months in the Middle East.
But sometimes a big task like martyrdom is as simple as walking out of your house in an uncertain context. This martyr got on a plane to go to the country and went about his life and ministry there. It was as simple as doing one step at a time, and I sang the children's song.
Their unexpected moment was when the prophet showed up in town (by the way, I only mentioned it in one of the services but there was a half truth God sanctioned in this passage--don't tell them you've come to anoint a new king... just say you've come to offer a sacrifice). This was scary. Has he come to visit us with judgment for the Ba'als we have in our closets, the Asherah poles out back? Is he a messenger of Saul who's heard we've been grumbling? Worse yet, is he here behind Saul's back so that Saul's going to come and massacre us?
Sometimes life or God bring things into our lives and our job is simply to live through it. I've received a couple phone calls of that sort, such as when my father died. I've done some acting and just before going on stage, there can be the impulse to run away. P.S. This can happen right before preaching too, the impulse to get back in your car and drive to Starbucks.
There's nothing you can do but just take the next step. One way to get through these sorts of things is again by taking one step at a time. It may seem like a long way to the end of the sanctuary, to get through the funeral, to get through the trial. But it is much easier to think of taking one step, then another, then another, and before you know it, you've come to the other side.
Jesse wasn't expecting one of his sons to become king. And he wasn't expecting it to be the runt. David was an afterthought. He thought surely it would be his strapping son Eliab. (of course the story doesn't actually say that he knew what Samuel was doing). God had rejected Eliab, because God looks on what's inside.
True, externals are important from a human perspective. If you want that job, you had better look the part. But it turns out that cleanliness is not next to godliness in God's eyes. God is interested in how we look on the inside.
It's important for us as parents to look at the inside of our children. Why did they do what they did? Did they understand what they were doing?
We also should never view someone as a lost cause. God always is looking to redeem the person everyone else has labeled "bad." But few people are absolutely bad. Almost everyone has a little good in them that God can develop and redeem. We at least have to approach others that way, as if everyone is potentially redeemable.
Certainly not expecting to be called in from shepherding to become the next king. He may not even have known how good his heart was. Of course he also messed up big. But he repented big as well.
So how is your heart? Not, how is your head. Not, how are your actions, although they are important too. How is your heart. You may not understand what Wesleyans mean by the term "entire sanctification," but the first step is to give those parts of your heart to God that you have been keeping from him. What intentions and motivations might you have that are not on the same page as God?
Have you messed up? Can't do anything about the past but move on changed. Are you in a trial or facing a hard task? Take that next step, and the next one, and the next one. Are you playing at looking good? Make it real, with God's help.