The Lord Looks at the Heart

June 14, 2015

Bible Text: 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 |

Throughout the summer our Old Testament readings will follow the life of King David, the most significant king in Israel’s history. If you aren’t familiar with the stories of David, I encourage you to spend a few hours in your Bible in the next couple weeks reading 1 and 2 Samuel which span this early period in Israel’s history. They start with the story of Samuel, the prophet who anointed the first kings. They then tell the story of Saul, the first king of Israel who was a mighty specimen of manhood to look at, but who failed to have the character God sought. And the rest is all about David, Saul’s replacement, who scriptures call “a man after God’s own heart.” It’s not to say that David was perfect by any means, but his heart was oriented towards faith and obedience and, when he failed, an honest contrition.

I encourage you to read these stories; first – because it’s the Bible, and as people of faith we should be spending time in the Bible and developing a listening spirit that seeks to hear God’s voice speaking through this ancient document and into the experiences of our lives today. And second, they’re good stories, stories that are engaging, that we can relate to. You know, as people we haven’t really changed much in the past three thousand years. We’re motivated by the same things; afraid of the same things, desire the same things. And these Bible stories are filled with insight and wisdom into the human condition. Through them we see the heart and desire of God for his people.

So: King David. Today the story picks up right after God has told the prophet Samuel that he has rejected Saul as King. God sends Samuel to the little town of Bethlehem to the family of a man named Jesse. Now Jesse has several sons, and God is going to show Samuel which of these sons is to be anointed as the next king. So all the sons are paraded before Samuel as something of a Miss America pageant. When the first one comes forward, Samuel thinks, Surely this is the one. My God, look at him. It’s like Cary Grant for president. But God says, Don’t look at his appearance or on his height or his stature, because I have rejected him, for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.

And so the pageant continues and all the sons of Jesse are paraded before Samuel…and all of them are rejected. None of them has the heart that God is seeking. Finally Samuel says, Don’t you have any other sons? ‘cause God sent me here to anoint one of them, but none of these is right. So Jesse sends for David who was out shepherding the flock. He was probably just a teenager at the time – and, sure enough, this is the one.

Now here’s the thing: Samuel anoints David as king at this point. He is chosen by God and his course is set for the future. But it will actually be many, many years before he becomes king in any recognizable sense. From a political perspective Saul will remain king for years to come, and David will be on the margins. In fact he will be an outlaw for years while Saul tries to kill him, having perceived what God’s intentions are.

So we see this somewhat uncomfortable theme of God at work several steps ahead of what anyone else can see. From God’s perspective, David is already king from this point onward, even though he’s a fugitive from the law, taking refuge with Israel’s enemies. On the outward appearances, there’s nothing kingly about David during the forthcoming years. But through it all, God is forming him to be a king of character and substance. He could have emerged from his hardships with a hardened and bitter heart, feeling justified to rebel in whatever form he chose. But instead, he emerged as a man of integrity, courage, humility, and obedience.

The hand of God is at work far in advance of our own perceiving. It is our choice in the midst of our lives whether we will continue to trust in God or not. For God does not look at the outward appearances, be they our good looks or our good fortune. God is looking at our hearts, and desires for us hearts that are formed in character and substance. Are we becoming the men and women God has already anointed us to be? For we have been baptized in Christ, that we might become as Christ in this life and in the life to come.

When I was in college my friend and I decided to stay in town one summer and work. We were earnest, young evangelical Christians and wanted to be open to whatever God would have for us that summer. The first thing we needed was a place to stay. I can clearly remember sitting on the floor of our dorm room, praying to God, and asking where we should live. And then we sat listening, hoping God would tell us. My friend heard a number in his head. Does this mean anything to you? he asked. No. Well, maybe it’s a phone number. Let’s call it.

And so we did. And a guy answered the phone and we said, Do you have an apartment to sublet for the summer?

Yeah, I do.

So we look at each other, grinning with excitement. Well we need it for such-n-such a date.

Great. That’s exactly when it’s available.

Uh, okay. Well we don’t have much money. We need it for (whatever our budget was).

Great, he says, Yeah. ‘Cause that’s what we’re asking for it.

So off we go to check out this apartment that God is taking us to for the summer. Turns out it’s a dive of an old apartment, half falling apart, that had become the fraternity house for some frat on campus. And they were renting out space for the summer. Now, we were not into the Greek system. In fact, I had been known to be verbally dismissive of the entire thing. But, my God, you can’t imagine how excited we were to move into it. It might be a frat house. It might be pure squalor, but we were in, certain that God had extraordinary things in store for us. We were going to love our frat boy neighbors and we were going to see the Kingdom of God come forth in power.

Well, let me tell you, that summer turned out to be the most miserable experience of my life.

By the time we moved in there were six of us who were going to share this apartment: my buddy and I, one of his friends from high school who had done way too many drugs and whose brain was fried. (In fact, after that summer he was institutionalized), and then a few other guys whose stories I can’t even begin to go into. But there we were, the six of us, in a one-bedroom apartment. We didn’t even have our own beds. There were just a series of mattresses shoved up against each other on the floor, with a mass of blankets and pillows thrown on top. We were like dogs, each finding his own little corner to fall asleep in each night.

And then there was this other guy who lived upstairs who was also subletting for the summer. He’d moved to LA to try and make it as a screen writer and was writing a semi-autobiographical screen play about a serial killer. And he used to hang out with us a lot.

And I tell you what: it was pure madness. I’d come home from work at the end of the day and it was like opening an oven door – stepping into the apartment to see what chaos had happened during the day. Sometimes it was too much to face. There was a golf course nearby that I’d go to. During the day it was the Bel Air Country Club. But during the night it was my private sanctuary. I’d walk the links in the dark, in the fog, listening to the bells wafting over from the campus. Sometimes I’d climb up the slopes on the edge of the lawn and fall asleep in the ivy. At some point I’d wake up and walk home, finally peaceful enough to face whatever was lurking in that apartment.

The summer eventually ended and there was nothing glamorous to report. There had been no mass conversions of frat boys. Quite the opposite, really. The experiences of that apartment marked the beginning of one the Christian’s loss of faith. We limped out of that apartment with our tails between our legs

And yet, I could not – and still cannot – deny that God had sent us there. But God was working several steps ahead of what any of us could see at the time. Clearly he was not interested in beginning a new Billy Graham Crusade through us. But I believe God was very interested in forming our character. If nothing else, it was teaching us to listen to God with expectation that he would lead us, and to trust God where he leads us, even if it is through very dark and frightening places.

And this principle holds true for all of us. In our marriages, with our children, at work, in our physical health – there is no guarantee that the outward appearances of our lives and circumstances will be glamorous or even pleasant. But shiny surfaces are no indicators of God’s presence or favor. God looks at the heart and it is the heart that God seeks to be formed in God’s own image. We have been baptized; we have been called by God. And God can be at work in us several steps ahead of what we can perceive.

But the choice remains ours: Will we trust God in the midst of it all? Will we continue to make choices based on gratitude? Will we choose mercy and generosity? And where we fail, will we repent, and receive God’s mercy and begin afresh to choose the way of God?

When life is hard, do not presume God’s disfavor. Remember David, anointed as king, but still years from being king. Remember Jesus, anointed in the river Jordan, then sent to the wilderness where he was tempted by the devil. Remember your own anointing in the baptismal font of God, where you sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own for ever.

Though mortals may look on the outward appearance, the Lord looks on the heart. Offer your heart and your days to God that you may continue to be formed in the character of God.

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