17th June 2018

The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

1 Samuel 15: 34 – 16: 13

Psalm 20

2 Corinthians 5: 6 – 10, 14 – 17

Mark 4: 26 – 34

From time to time I have made reference to the injunction given to the door-keeper of a Benedictine monastery. At all times he must greet the person at the door as if he or she were Christ. This is not always easy to do – especially when it might be someone you would really rather not have to deal with. This idea of looking for the Christ in others offers us a way of thinking into today’s four readings. Come with me on a journey of exploration as we try to discover something of what it might mean to see as God sees, rather than the all too easy impetuous, over-hasty snap judgments we all make from time to time. In biblical language we could usefully use the contrasting ideas of sight and faith. There is a difference between what our physical eyes see, and what we see with the eyes of faith.

The first reading from 1 Samuel 5 opens with both Samuel and God lamenting their bad choice of Saul as the first king of Israel. While we can probably understand the grief of Samuel over the deposed Saul – after all, it was Samuel who had hand-picked Saul to be king, a choice that turned out to be a really bad one; it is more difficult to understand the words “the Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king.” We do not normally think of God making a mistake, certainly not one as important as the choice of the first earthly ruler to take the title “God’s anointed one.” Samuel’s grief, and the Lord’s sorrow, leads us into the quaint story of an over-careful Samuel looking to make his next choice of king.

One by one Jesse’s sons are paraded before the old prophet Samuel. The first shows tremendous promise, but Samuel is warned not to “look on his appearance or the height of his stature … the Lord does not see as mortals … but the Lord looks on the heart.” There follows an almost comical fashion parade as one by one Jesse’s sons come before Samuel. Jesse doesn’t bother with the youngest – but Samuel insists and David is brought in from the fields. Despite what was said earlier about not looking at outward appearances, it seems the author of 1 Samuel could not be satisfied with a non-descript David. He is described as “ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome.” Somehow or other Samuel knows that this is the one God has in mind for the next king.

Anyone who has read through 1 Samuel and the appalling abuse of power by David – especially in regard to his lust for Bathsheba and the shameful way in which King David arranged to have her husband killed – may well wonder how David came to be revered as the greatest of all the kings of Israel, and the one who would lend his name to another of God’s anointed – this time the one known as Jesus of Nazareth. Certainly David had leadership qualities, he was a good negotiator, a brilliant military tactician. But it is perhaps two particular qualities found in David that single him out as worthy of the accolades. One is his trust in God – think of the young David confronting the Philistine giant Goliath with nothing more than his sling shot and his faith. The other, directly linked to his adultery with Bathsheba and conspiracy to have her husband murdered, is his willingness to admit fault, to take responsibility, and place himself at God’s mercy.

Psalm 20 has been described as a ‘battle psalm’ – one that could have been prayed and sung in the king’s chapel, by his personal chaplain and choir – those whose specific task was to bolster the morale and confidence of the king before battle. May the Lord hear you … May the God of Jacob lift you to safety … send you help … be your strong support… these are words of encouragement to one facing another battle. And don’t overlook the little reminder to God of all the offerings already made – God surely must now return the favour.

The twist comes towards the end of the psalm with the contrast between those who put their trust in chariots and horses, and those who trust in the name of the Lord our God. It is worth noting that much of David’s fighting was done either as a mercenary for the Philistines, or against the Philistines. And the Philistines, having apparently discovered the value and strength of iron weapons long before the Israelites, were a force to be reckoned with. Today archeologists suggest that iron technology came to Israel about the time of King David, eventually giving him the edge over the traditional enemies of Israel – particularly the Philistines. The psalm has a very contemporary ring to it as we have been witness to the extraordinary meeting of Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un and the push for denuclearization of North Korea. (I hear little of a similar process in the United States.) The question remains: in whom do we put our hope and trust? The king of Israel is reminded by the psalmist that trust should be embedded in faith in God, not military might.

What of the passage from 2 Corinthians 5? Is this contrast between human seeing and God seeing there too? Does Paul have anything to say into this idea that we should be looking for the Christ in one another, looking at people with the eyes of God, not humans? As it happens this passage has quite a bit to say – far too much to tease out in this sermon. Enough to say that part of Paul’s argument is around the desire to be with the Lord in heaven, rather than in the physical body on earth. If you like, it has to do with seeing with the eyes of a non-believer, or those of a believer in Christ. It makes an enormous difference to see through the eyes of the crucified one, the one who willingly gave his life on the cross thus reconciling the world to God. In Paul’s view, once one has grasped the importance of the Cross, once one has been baptised into Christ and become what he describes as a new creation, we see and understand things differently.

Nor is this something purely individual. We do not come to Christ as isolated individuals – but as part of a much larger whole. In fact so large is the whole that it encompasses all of creation. Important as a personal commitment to Christ is – and one that is made at baptism and remade at confirmation – salvation occurs in the context of the whole of creation. In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself. (cf 2 Cor 5: 19) This reconciliation comes in a context of the world we live in – a world of plastic and other pollution; where exotic introduced plants and animals destroy natural habitat; where the insatiable hunger for consumer goods rides rampant and apparently uncaring over and towards anyone, anything in its way; where people, so inured have we become to the almost nightly news clips of starving terrified refugees, bombed-out schools, hospitals and concentrations of civilians that we scarcely notice anymore – never-mind do anything about it.

Dare we look on the world in which we live with the eyes of God, the eyes of Christ?

And then there are the two parables offered by St Mark today. There are actually three that go together – the sower and the four different soils, the farmer who, having scattered the seed, sleeps and rises without doing anymore till harvest time, and the tiny mustard seed which grows to the greatest of bushes, capable of offering a nesting place to birds. Parables are enormously difficult to interpret – but they do help us to see things differently. It is quite likely that the parable of the sower, which precedes today’s two offerings, was understood by the early church, already facing persecution and struggling to make any headway at all, as a word of encouragement from God. Towards the end of the 19th century, when the rampant liberalism of the age could see only continued discovery and improvement in the lot of humankind, the parable was seen as the inexoarable progression of humanity – where life simply got better, people more wealthy, and life-expectancy longer. Much of contemporary Australian life resonates with this understanding as people get richer and the life-style of most, but by no means all, does improve.

It’s the kingdom of God we are talking about though – and the kingdom of God is never quite as simple as we might think. One interpretation of the farmer who sleeps and rises while the seed grows mysteriously would be to say that it is not our responsibility to grow God’s kingdom. All we can do is sow the seed and be there to reap. Many is the preacher, and I am one of them, who week after week, preaches away and goes home wondering – did anything take root? Occasionally, often years later, someone will come along and quote a line or two from a long-forgotten sermon or comment which, in their words, ‘changed my life.’ Thank God for that.

Who would have thought that the tiniest of seeds becomes the greatest of bushes? Yet that is what happens with the mushroom seed. That is what happened with a shepherd boy called David, a king who trusted in the Lord and not the chariots and horses, an apostle who preached for all he was worth the cross of Christ and the reconciliation initiated by God.

As we great each other today – either at the Peace, or more informally after this service – may the Christ in me recognize and greet the Christ in you.