Sermon 3 April 2011    Lent 4

“Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord”

I once bought my mother a tiger. It came from the Post Office down the road and cost 2/6, which seemed a bargain. It pleased me greatly. It had stripes in all the proper places, looked ferocious and stood about 2” high. It was made of pottery. I was a bit disappointed that my mother didn’t seem as pleased as I was. All over the country today I imagine there will be people making a similar discovery. If something as straightforward as a gift for Mothering Sunday takes this effort, it is not surprising that we have to work at finding out what is pleasing to the Lord.

The reading at Mattins was a story about this. Samuel’s sons had already been tried and found wanting. Samuel had had to come to see with the eyes of a Judge of Israel and not those of a Father: the sons did not act justly as he had done. Then Saul, the first ever to be anointed king, the man who stood head and shoulders above everyone else: “How long will you grieve over Saul?” This story is a memory of the foundation of the Kingdom of Judah, the guardian of the Temple and keeper of the Law – the source of knowledge among human beings of the presence of God.

This story is formative for the people of God and, whatever history is in it, it is cast as a legend, near neighbour to those European stories which Tolkien characterised as being about the luck of widows and of the seventh son of the seventh son. Seven sons of Jesse are made to pass before Samuel - “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord” - only for each to be rejected in turn. This staging helps make the story memorable.

The key to the story – and to the foundation of the Kingdom – is: -

“the Lord does not see as mortals see.”

That makes pleasing the Lord a precarious achievement. This story heightens that sense by including genuine notes of fear:

- fear of reprisal: “If Saul hears of it, he will kill me” says Samuel and the elders of Bethlehem come out to Samuel trembling -

- and fear as well for the people of Israel: they are surrounded by enemies and in danger of civil war. The wrong choice of leader could doom them.

It’s a note of fear which we can recognise today – in discussions about Middle East policy and perhaps in the life of the Church as well. Fear makes all the harder any attentive, mindful discernment. Plus, the Lord does not allow them to make any of the obvious choices. They have to wait for the youngest, the eighth, who is away in the fields doing nothing more heroic than watching over the sheep as they graze.

“This is the one.”

That word alone will do; that exact choosing as the Lord chooses. That seeing as the Lord sees, who looks on the heart. Yet just as we are getting the message that the Lord does not see as mortals see, does not look on outward appearance, our story-teller says of David, “Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome.”

What are we to make of this? Or of the line, “The Lord looks on the heart”? - when we recall that this one, this chosen one, this David, is the David who will kill the husband of Bathsheba, who will dote over Absalom, who will order vengeance from his deathbed. Is he the one? Is this the heart the Lord sees?

So if we thought there was an easy moral lesson to be learnt from this parading of the sons of Jesse or in any choice we are called to make, the writer of 1 Samuel reminds us that we were wrong. Seeing as the Lord sees is not easy; attempting it does not excuse us from the complications of our lives as sinners in a compromised world.

Here is one way of reading this story: -

Samuel indeed does listen to the Lord and pours the horn of oil over the right son. It is not that he gets it wrong. David’s courage and loyalty suggest it but it may be David’s ready contrition, witnessed in the Psalms, which the Lord most chooses: “a broken and contrite heart the Lord will not despise.”

What then are we to make of the mention of David’s appearance, so attractive to a Michelangelo? We can read it as one of those lines in the Hebrew scriptures set to test hearts: those of the characters who surround David - and our own hearts. Even at this last-gasp eighth son, when we know by now full well it can only be him if the Lord says, “This is the one”, if the Lord, of his sovereign goodness, gives the promise in his good time, even then our instinct is to look upon appearance and trust our own values and desires in judging. It may be that David and the flatterers around him in time came to do the same. The unassuming shepherd boy became the mighty Lord, himself source of an atmosphere of fear. It is not enough once to see as the Lord sees – to choose as he chooses - we must continually do so.

In today’s gospel another memorable story is told, beautifully constructed, full of character and humour and moral action. There, again amid an atmosphere of fear, the blind sees and comes by stages to that seeing which is belief and Jesus says,

“I have come into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see and those who do see may become blind.” and adds: “Now that you say, ‘We see’, your sin remains.”

In the man called Jesus - the Son of David - Pharisees and mothers and fathers and the blind and we who say we see are presented with a choice, a judgment. Just as the ancient Israelites were given by God in David a pattern of Kingship which overturns human pride, so in Jesus we see one who finds wisdom in beggars and foolishness in the religious, who does not fight but offers himself to his enemies, who refuses to give up on love, who thinks to overcome by submitting to execution. We have once chosen Jesus’ way, seen in Him the true shepherd King. Can we persevere in this way of His, continue to strive to see as God sees? Or will we be distracted by what is outwardly more impressive and become blind, so that our sin remains?

In Jesus the blind man found more than a right choice. His eyes were opened to the very condition for any seeing, the Light of the world. New sight begins with Christ – the one the darkness could not overcome - and it is only by persevering in His way, that any fruit of the light, to borrow the phrase from Ephesians, can prosper. In trying to “find out what is pleasing to the Lord” we are ourselves made children of light, born so that God’s works may be revealed in us.

        Antony Grant CR