Sunday, December 8, 2019

Bethlehem Election: Sermon on 1 Samuel 16:1-13

“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!” And in the fields around that little town of Bethlehem, a shepherd wandered with his sheep, as he looked up at the evening stars, first coming out into the open, peeking down through the firmament, silently going by. This shepherd with the sheep – did he ever imagine those skies opening? Did he wonder what it would be like, for the bright stars of heaven to come down to him, to meet him face to face? Did this Bethlehem shepherd have an inkling of that? Yet this Bethlehem shepherd would see no such thing. For I speak of no Christmas shepherd watching his flocks by night. The Bethlehem shepherd of whom I speak waits for no angels to come sing to him; no, in the lonely night under the stars, he makes up his own songs to sing of the goodness of God. And as David sings for his sheep about his Lord, the Everlasting Light, he has no idea yet that Bethlehem's own dark streets will one night be illumined by heaven's brilliance.

As we're trying to remember this Advent, every character in the Christmas story has a history, a backstory, an origin tale, a narrative, a journey they took from wherever they began and which led them onward, onward to Christmas. This Advent season, we're focused in on just one character: Bethlehem itself. So we started Sunday last with Bethlehem's origins as an old, old Canaanite town, before even the time of Abraham; we watched the tribes of Israel finally inherit the promised land and displace the earlier locals as a means of God's judgment; and through Bethlehem's eyes, we watched the Bethlehem Trilogy, a series of three stories about the disasters that ensued when people left Bethlehem where they belonged; but we saw the redemption that happened when Naomi returned to Bethlehem to stay there, and brought a Moabite girl named Ruth along with her. When Bethlehem saw Naomi again, when Bethlehem met Ruth for the first time, that was when Boaz of Bethlehem stepped on the scene to be their redeemer. And this Boaz and this Ruth had a baby they would name Obed. It's with him, with Obed born in Bethlehem at the close of the Bethlehem Trilogy, that we pick up where we left off.

You see, Obed would likely have been born during the years when, elsewhere in Israel, a man named Samson was busy marauding against the Philistines. And by the time Obed was born in Bethlehem, a teenager named Samuel would already have been living at Shiloh under the guidance of the high priest Eli – though Shiloh would soon be no more. As Obed grew, he would have been rather young when a little boy was born in the tribe of Benjamin, a boy named Saul; and, seven or twelve years later, Samson would've brought the house down in Gaza – literally. But Bethlehem watched Obed grow, and as Boaz and Ruth aged and died, Obed took a wife and began raising his family – including a son with a curious name, maybe a foreign name: Yishay, 'Jesse.'

It was during his time that people started to get tired of all the judges. It was unnerving, to be ungoverned until God chose someone to rise up and defend them. They wanted a king like the other nations. And so they began to complain to Samuel, their old Levite judge and roving prophet. A king could fight more effectively. A king could build and accumulate power. Samuel pointed out that that was just the problem; but the people wanted what they wanted, and although God said it was a rejection of him, he would give them what they wanted. Yet to keep the experiment under control, they'd have to get a king from the least-trusted tribe: Benjamin, with which all the other tribes had once fought a civil war – “the least of the tribes of Israel” (1 Samuel 9:21).

So Samuel met just the man: tall, handsome, born to money, seemingly conscientious – and his name was Saul ben Kish (1 Samuel 9-10). Samuel then took a flask of oil and poured it over Saul's head and kissed him – he anointed Saul as the prince of Israel, the one who was handpicked by God to become this king (1 Samuel 10:1). And as soon as Saul was anointed, “God gave him another heart” (1 Samuel 10:9), transforming him into a new person (1 Samuel 10:6); and then “the Spirit of God rushed upon him” (1 Samuel 10:10). That's what the anointing was for. After that, Samuel called the tribes to join him at Mizpah – and no doubt Jesse traveled from Bethlehem to go there and see the prophet. But at Mizpah, everyone saw God's choice of Saul and hailed him as king (1 Samuel 10:17-25) – though it wasn't until his first military victory against the Ammonites, in which Saul was God's instrument of 'salvation' (1 Samuel 11:13), that he was formally invested as king at Gilgal – maybe Jesse was watching there, too (1 Samuel 11:15). If so, he would've seen the storm Samuel summoned to underscore his farewell speech as Israel's leader (1 Samuel 12).

By this time, Jesse would have married a nice girl from Bethlehem or a nearby village, and they would have begun to have children – first Eliab, then Abinadab, then Shammah, and on down through sons and daughters. But Saul was already king when Jesse and his wife had their last boy, a little one they called their 'beloved': David. During the years Jesse was raising his kids, he would've heard news come to the village now and again of King Saul's mighty exploits against the Philistines (1 Samuel 13-14) and Amalekites (1 Samuel 15). “When Saul had taken the kingship over Israel, he fought all his enemies on every side: against Moab, against the Ammonites, against Edom, against the kings of Zobah, and against the Philistines; wherever he turned, he routed them, and he did valiantly and struck the Amalekites and delivered Israel out of the hands of those who plundered them” (1 Samuel 14:47-48).

And yet, long before that, early in Saul's kingship, Samuel had warned him that – because Saul overstepped his bounds and offered a sacrifice – Saul would be a one-off: “Your kingdom shall not continue – Yahweh has sought out a man after his own heart, and Yahweh has commanded him to be prince over his people, because you have not kept what Yahweh commanded you” (1 Samuel 13:14). And now, Saul again would disobey. He refused to follow God's instruction to place all the Amalekite plunder under the ban; he chose to spare the king and the best livestock for his own purposes, and yet when Samuel confronted him, he blamed the people who lived under his authority (1 Samuel 15:1-21). Samuel then declared Saul deposed as king in God's sight, saying that God was tearing the kingdom out of Saul's hands and would give it to “a neighbor of yours who is better than you” (1 Samuel 15:23-28). There would be no dynasty of Saul intertwined with the future of Israel.

Jesse would never have heard of these harsh confrontations in the halls of power. He was just concerned to raise his crops and animals in his little town of Bethlehem. Until one day, things changed. God had spoken to Samuel at Ramah, telling him to quit crying over Saul and instead get to work (1 Samuel 16:1). God instructed Samuel to walk the ten miles to Bethlehem and go find a man there named Jesse, one of whose sons God would choose as Saul's eventual replacement. And when Samuel protested to God that Saul's character had changed and that if his spies caught wind of Samuel's trip, Saul might try killing Samuel, God gave Samuel a cover story: going to celebrate a sacrificial feast in Bethlehem – which Samuel would indeed do (1 Samuel 16:2-3).

Bethlehem had never seen a prophet before – not that we know about. During all this history leading up to this time, individuals from Bethlehem may have gone outside to go witness great things, but Bethlehem itself, there anchored to the earth, had never welcomed a prophet. But now it would, and the elders were plenty nervous over it – they may have just felt unnerved by how great and famous Samuel was compared to their own social standing, or they may have worried that Samuel was coming to discipline them over something – but they came out to the city gate to receive Samuel, and they trembled and questioned why he'd come (1 Samuel 16:4). The prophet had to assure them he'd come in peace: “I have come to sacrifice to Yahweh. Consecrate yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice” (1 Samuel 16:5). They had to wash and become ritually pure and morally upright (Leviticus 11:44; 20:7), just as the Israelites in the desert had to before God gave them quail to eat when they complained (Numbers 11:18), and just as they had to do before entering the promised land (Joshua 3:5).

But we read that Samuel himself carried out the consecration of one family – Jesse's family. We aren't told if he did this for each family in the village, to keep up appearances – (there can't have been that many families in Bethlehem to begin with) – or if Samuel already was openly singling Jesse out. But there were Jesse and his sons, in a private meeting with this great elderly prophet, the most famous man in the nation – and so Samuel “consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice” (1 Samuel 16:5). But at this consecration, Samuel told Jesse – in front of his sons – about his real reason for coming: that he was to pour oil over the head of one of those sons, anointing him at God's command for some significant purpose. Somewhere in Bethlehem or in a nearby field, likely standing on the same family land once owned by Boaz, Samuel spoke those words.

And can you imagine? Nothing like this had ever happened in Bethlehem! Bethlehem is a quiet town, a simple town, just a little town, a country village. Surely Bethlehem couldn't be a town destined for greatness. No one had ever dreamed that Bethlehem would ever be a city of political significance. And yet here was Samuel – Levite, judge, prophet – coming there to perform the unthinkable and subversive act of selecting a young man singled out by none other than the God who made the heavens and the earth. What interest could God take in choosing a Bethlehem boy? How must Jesse feel about all this? Or his sons, standing with him, when they hear that one of them is God's choice for something special? And if Bethlehem itself, the village, the place, could think and feel, how would Bethlehem think of this, how would Bethlehem feel to hear that one of her hometown sons was God's chosen?

Well, as Samuel reviews Jesse's family, he finds himself very impressed by the eldest son Eliab. Eliab has a real gravitas to him – he looks regal, looks like what today we'd call presidential – he's tall – he reminds Samuel a bit of Saul – and it's a commanding look. So Samuel thinks that Eliab must certainly be God's choice. After all, how could someone look so much like a leader and not be a leader? How could somebody stand so strong and not be the obvious choice? He's the one Samuel would choose, and Samuel assumes that God thinks like him (1 Samuel 16:6). But God reminds Samuel that maybe Samuel's thoughts are not God's thoughts, and maybe the prophet's ways still – after decades and decades of spiritual leadership – are not God's ways: “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For Yahweh sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but Yahweh looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). And Eliab's heart was not a heart that would make him a man after God's heart. Eliab did not meet God's criteria, and so, just as God rejected Saul from kingship, God rejected Bethlehem's junior Saul from kingship. The same was true of the next eldest son Abinadab, and then the third son Shammah, and all the others (1 Samuel 16:8-10).

Now, by this point, Samuel must be feeling pretty confused. He knew God sent him to go anoint one of Jesse's sons. He brings them together. By process of elimination, the unnamed one Samuel got to last, he surely had to think was guaranteed to be the one. And yet God said no again. The process of elimination had caught them all – and Samuel was in a quandary. So he had to ask whether Jesse had any other sons. And the answer was yes, there was one – a punier one – relegated to shepherding duty in the outlying fields (1 Samuel 16:11).

Think of the implications of that. When Jesse gathered his sons together, he had no idea Samuel had a special plan. Jesse was just gathering his sons to meet the prophet, get consecrated for a holy purpose, and go enjoy a village-wide meal after the sacrifice. And Jesse thought, “Well, I'll make sure all my sons are there – except for the youngest, except for my David, the one I say is my 'beloved' son.” It's like the fairytale when Cinderella gets left behind to clean while the stepsisters attend the royal ball! David gets left in the fields to work while everybody else gets to meet the prophet, while everybody else gets to go to the party, while everybody else gets to enjoy a nice hot meal – and what, is David supposed to get cold leftovers for supper that night, or won't he even get that? Jesse didn't even think it was important to make sure David got to be at the sacrifice. Jesse didn't think it was important that David would meet the prophet. Think of the favoritism implied in that statement, for Jesse to take sure care with every other child and yet assign this one, the baby of the family, to miss out on the most tremendously significant events in village history. Which of you, if President Kennedy had come to town in 1962, would have picked and chosen which of your kids got to go see him and which would miss out? And if President Kennedy had wanted dinner with your family, which of you would have disinvited one of your kids from going to the party? But that's exactly what Jesse has done with David. David has been utterly overlooked, forgotten, excluded. And it's only a direct order from the prophet that convinces anybody to remember David (1 Samuel 16:11). David is, in a later biblical phrase, a “stone that the builders rejected” (Psalm 118:22).

Well, Jesse sends a messenger – likely one of the sons who's already been turned down for this anointing – and this son, perhaps a bit surly over the rejection, plods out to the field and finds David, the shepherd boy. David isn't more than twelve or thirteen, maybe fourteen at a stretch, but not likely. It's only a year or so, if even that, that David's been considered old enough to be out with the sheep by himself at all. And you can hear the other son muttering, “Come on, David, the sheep'll still be here – Dad wants you now.” So David comes in, back to the village, back to Bethlehem proper. When Samuel sees this youngest son, the boy “was reddish-brown and was beautiful of eyes and good of looks.” That description was the way one old clay tablet from the Middle East described the look of a happy king. And God whispers into Samuel's heart: “Get up on your feet and get to work – this here's the one I mean. This boy is the one I've chosen – out of all Israel, every single man in the entire country, every man in the full lineage of Jacob down through the centuries to this point in time, this boy is my choice. I choose him. I elect him. Arise, anoint him, for this is he” (1 Samuel 16:12).

So that's exactly what happens. Surrounded by the older brothers and Papa Jesse, Samuel takes a fa hollowed-out horn of an animal, which has been filled with probably olive oil, and pours it over this boy's head, as it runs through his hair and down his face, as it covers him and smears him from head on down, as it drips and makes him sticky. “Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers.” And we're to recall the anointing of Saul years earlier, and how God gave him another heart and transformed him into a new person, and then allowed the Holy Spirit to come upon Saul, the substance of which the anointing oil was a shadow, the reality which the oil signified – and that's what happens to David. God changes him, in that moment. “And the Spirit of Yahweh rushed upon David from that day forward” (1 Samuel 16:13). That's the first time the Bible actually uses his name – up until this, he's just 'the youngest,' left unnamed. Only now, with the Spirit of God rushing on him, billowing around him, is he revealed as David – as the one to whom God says, “My beloved!”

It's with the Spirit of God touching him and changing him, while the sticky oil still drips down his cheeks and makes his hair a gloppy mess, that young David follows his dad and his brothers and the elderly prophet as they walk through the village to the scene of sacrifice. Samuel offers the sacrifice – and I wonder what it was? Was it a lamb? And if it was – who brought it? Was it perhaps one of the very sheep from Jesse's flock, one of the sheep David had been tending in the fields? We can only guess.

But together they ate, and unless David found time to wash himself off before they got there, everybody in the village could see that David was greasy with the oil of the anointing. If they did, how much explanation were they given? Did they realize that the whole party – this entire sacrifice, this community-wide festivity – was in David's honor, as God's elect, his anointed one? For the Spirit of God had rushed upon David, and when one of Saul's servants – perhaps a spy tracking down Samuel's footsteps – later goes to the fields of Bethlehem and sees David once again keeping watch over the flocks as before, that messenger reports back to Saul about not some scrawny boy, but “a man of valor, a man of war, prudent in speech, a man of good presence, and Yahweh is with him” (1 Samuel 16:18) – this is the David able, through the Spirit's presence, to strike down lions and bears (1 Samuel 17:34-37). This David is new. Because Yahweh, the LORD God, is indeed with David – he has chosen David, elected David, put his Spirit on David, transformed David into a new David, right there in Bethlehem's midst. Of all this, Bethlehem is a witness and participant! Up until that point, David had been a total outsider from the backwoods, a boy unrecognized. But now David is God's chosen man – and with him, Bethlehem was God's chosen place, home of the anointed one, the place in Israel where the Spirit is at work.

Bethlehem is the place God chose. And Bethlehem is a place where God chooses, a place where God elects. There in Bethlehem, on that day over three thousand years ago, God expressed his choice, not just of one king for one time, but his choice of an entire future for the nation that was to birth a future for the world. On that day, Bethlehem became the place where God elected David and a dynasty, in accordance with his eternal plans. And the election was pointed out and enacted by the anointing, which called down the Spirit onto David and into David's life, making David the kind of David who could become a king, the kind of king who'd one day “defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the children of the needy, and crush the oppressor” (Psalm 72:4). And the path to that destiny began that day – that day when Bethlehem became the kind of place where God's eternal plans can unfold, unroll, take shape – a place where God can elect a future.

And so, over a thousand years after that day, Bethlehem would become the place where God would express yet another choice. Bethlehem was where God elected for a New David to be born, a Child born as Son of David and Son of God – “he will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David” (Luke 1:32). Just as David was chosen and elected by God in Bethlehem, so too would Jesus be – the one whom God his Father would call “my Son, my Chosen One” (Luke 9:35), “in the sight of God chosen and precious” (1 Peter 2:4). For Jesus, as was foreshadowed in David, “the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” (Psalm 118:22; cf. Mark 12:10; Acts 4:11; 1 Peter 2:7)!

And we might extend the thought a little bit farther. In Bethlehem, by the birth of Jesus, God 'elected' that a new humanity, restored to dominion in the image of God, should take shape. God elected a Bethlehem Messiah to sum up a whole new humanity in himself, and a new humanity was defined as those who are embedded in this Bethlehem Messiah's life. Just as in Bethlehem God had chosen David, so in Bethlehem God chose Jesus – and chose us, elected us, in him! For this Jesus, more than heir to David, is “King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful” (Revelation 17:14). For “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). Being elected in Jesus' election, we become in this world those who Peter calls “elect exiles” (1 Peter 1:1), so “be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election” (2 Peter 1:10).

Bethlehem saw God elect David, and it was expressed through Samuel anointing David with oil, just as earlier he had anointed Saul with oil. And in both cases, the Holy Spirit came in answer to the anointing. What did that make them? It made them 'christs' – because the word 'Christos' in Greek, just like 'Messiah' in Hebrew, just means 'Anointed One.' David became a sort of 'christ' – a 'messiah' – on that day. But he only pointed forward to the one who was to come: Jesus, the Messiah, anointed directly with the Holy Spirit – for the New Testament tells us, “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power” (Acts 10:38).

In imitation of him and through him, we who trust in Jesus, the Bethlehem Messiah, as our Savior-King we are also anointed and receive the Holy Spirit from heaven. For as Paul could say, God “establishes us with you in Christ and has anointed us... and put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee” (1 Corinthians 1:21-22); and John tells his churches, “You have been anointed by the Holy One” (1 John 2:20). It's true: you and I have been elected in Christ and anointed in Christ. That's what it means to be a Christian.

The word 'Christian' isn't a common one in the Bible – it actually only shows up three times. Because it was an outsider word, originally intended as an insult against Jesus-followers: “In Antioch, the disciples were first called 'Christians'” (Acts 11:26). In the second century, a leader of the church in Antioch, a man whose name was Theophilus, had an unbelieving friend who used to mock him as a 'Christian.' And do you know what Theophilus said back? He said this: “As for your ridiculing me when you call me a 'Christian,' you don't know what you're saying. … What's anointed is sweet and useful, not ridiculous. … Don't you want to be anointed with the oil of God? For we're actually called 'Christians' simply because we're anointed with the oil of God.” That's the reason we eventually adopted the word 'Christian' as our own – because in Jesus Christ, each of us is “anointed with the oil of God!” And from this line of thought, a practice soon developed where each and every new believer would first be anointed with oil to drive out any demons, and only then baptized, and then they'd be anointed with oil again after baptism as a sign of being filled with the Holy Spirit. Good practice.

Yes, if you are truly a 'Christian,' what you're saying is that you have been elected in Jesus and anointed in Jesus – we have been chosen in Jesus, God's Anointed One, for tremendous purposes. Samuel, Saul, and David lived – all of them – in the days of the earthly kingdom of Israel, and yet we are told that “the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater” than any of them were (Matthew 11:11).

And that's what we see, as we look back at Bethlehem. For in Bethlehem, David was anointed as the man God had chosen. And this all pointed forward to God's election of Jesus, “the Lord's Anointed, great David's greater Son.” And God's election of Jesus entailed God's election of us, a people chosen and anointed in Christ. That is why we are Christians, and nothing less is Christian. To be Christian is to be elected by God in Christ and to be anointed by God in Christ, much as Bethlehem saw David elected and anointed. So in this season, turn your minds and thoughts to Bethlehem, the chosen country village where God chose a future that includes choosing you. Think on Bethlehem. Think on God's choosing and favoring and anointing David. And think, then, of that greater choice, that greater favor – when God chose to send Jesus to choose and favor and anoint you! What then shall we say, you elect people? What then shall we sing, you anointed ones? Glory to God in the highest! And on earth, peace toward God's chosen, on whom God's favorable anointing rests in Jesus Christ. Let us press on this season toward the Bethlehem election – the birth of our Anointed Savior-King, our Emmanuel. Amen!

No comments:

Post a Comment