Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 8, Number 40, October 1 to October 7, 2006

Appearances are Deceiving

1 Samuel 16:1-12

By Rev. Russell B. Smith

The gothic cathedrals of Europe have an interesting feature called the triforium. These are the high balconies that look out over the main sanctuary of the cathedral. When you stand on the floor and look up to the ceiling (which you inevitably do), you cannot help but notice these balconies. In my travels to Europe, I always wondered how one got up to the balconies -- who stood up there and watched from above? And then I learned that there was no way up there -- they were false. They were created to give the impression that there were secret passageways of power that only certain people could access. They were created to give the appearance of mystery and awe and subjection.

Or consider Las Vegas. In Las Vegas, you go into casinos and there are no clocks anywhere. The lobbies are laid out in such a way as to disorient you. The whole point is to create an atmosphere where you forget about time, and you're more willing to spend more and more money at the slot machines. Clearly appearances are not everything.

Remember that last week Rev. Bates talked about God's final rejection of Saul and we saw that Saul and Samuel broke their relationship. Samuel goes back to his headquarters at Ramah, and Saul returned to his at Gibeah. I find the close of chapter 15 touching -- Samuel mourned for Saul.

But at the start of this chapter, God tells Samuel to get up because it's time to anoint the new king -- go to Bethlehem, to the house of Jesse, and there I will show him to you. And in the process, we discover some powerful truths about God's opinion of appearances.

First, we see that God doesn't always give the full picture. Look at Samuel's situation here. God tells him to go, but he doesn't say who to anoint. When Samuel complains about the risk, God gives a legitimate reason for Samuel's travels -- going to offer a sacrifice. God gives Samuel the rough framework within which he will reveal his new king, but he doesn't give the full pictures. What God has told Samuel so far is incomplete and shady. Now imagine Samuel traveling down the road from Ramah to Bethlehem with incomplete knowledge of what God is doing. The road from Ramah to Bethlehem ran southward straight through Gibeah. Knowing Saul was now at war with him, can you imagine the fear and anxiety that Samuel experienced?

If this is true for Samuel, how much more is it true for us? How often is it that we find ourselves in confusing and perplexing circumstances? How often do we find ourselves in situations that are unpleasant, and we look about wondering why God would place us in these circumstances? It could be a financial crisis, it could be the death of a loved one, it could be a health crisis, it could be a relationship disaster. How often do we find ourselves trembling, hurting, and afraid to take the next step of faith?

The truth is we don't have the complete picture either -- we don't know how our story will play out. We don't know how God will redeem the circumstances in which we find ourselves. But like Samuel, we act in trust. We act in trust because we know that God has given us a framework as well -- We know the truth of Romans 8:28 -- that all good things work to the good of those who are in Christ. We know the hope of the resurrection. We know the truth of the life everlasting. We know that no matter what comes, this is not the end of the story. That's how Samuel was able to set out on his journey and that's how we're able to continue on our journey of faith — we may be trembling, it may be that we're scared or faltering, but we're able to persevere. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:8-9, "We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed."

So God doesn't always give the full picture, God also doesn't back up our analysis of the picture. This is what happens in verses 6-7 when Samuel sees Jesse's oldest son Eliab. Samuel looks at him and sees definite king material. He's strong and impressive. He's the firstborn -- and God says no. We go through all the sons at the banquet, and God says no. Samuel then asks if there's any other and Jesse says there's one more, but he's out tending the sheep. They didn't think enough of this brother to invite him to the sacrificial meal. He's the youngest of the family, certainly not as important as all the other brothers. And yet this unregarded boy was the one chosen by God to be his new king.

This is often the way God likes to work -- through that which is disregarded by the world. Jesus didn't come born into a palace, but into a barnyard. He didn't have social elites in his inner circle, but fishermen and farmers. He didn't set himself on a throne, he took up the basin and the towel and washed the feet of his disciples. God loves to use the humble to shame the proud. Look at how Paul demonstrates this concept in I Corinthians 1:25-30 (read passage).

We like to be impressed. We like to hitch our cart to a star. We like to think that if we associate with winners, then that makes us a winner ourselves. But here we see that God doesn't work that way.

What is it that God focuses on then? If God doesn't give us the full picture and we can't entirely rely upon outward appearances, what do we have to look to? God gives us the answer here in verse 7: "The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart."

The Lord looks at the heart of the person standing before him. You can't fool God -- God discerns the truths of the heart. You can play the religious game. You can say all the right words, you can have all the knowledge, you can look pretty good, but if your heart is filled with malice and anger, and self-justification, then you're missing it entirely. But God knew David's heart. This is David who wrote in Psalm 51:10-17:

Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. ....

You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise."

Douglass Rushkoff has an amazing book called Coercion, which talks about the different tricks and techniques used to coerce people into doing things they didn't necessarily want. Usually this involves manipulating appearances so they mask reality. Early in the book, he tells the story of Mort, a top notch salesman who uses slick manipulation to sell mechanical beds. Mort is skilled at all the tricks of the trade --- which include flattery, lying about the bed's capacities, high pressure during the "target's" weak moments and other unscrupulous activities. Rushkoff shows Mort's later attack of conscience "By the time Mort got home, he was in the midst of an anxiety attack. He couldn't think of a single friend he hadn't gained through some method or other he had gleaned from a sales class or psychology book, and as the snow began to blanket Astoria in white, Mort felt his world closing in on him. He got out a shovel and tried to dig himself out. When his downstairs neighbors saw him standing in the snow, his hands to his chest, they made him take a cab to the hospital.... Mort hadn't suffered a heart attack. No, the best regional salesman had had an attack of conscience." (36). Mort was able to look good -- but his heart betrayed his appearances.

God's desire is for children with broken hearts -- hearts that long to please him. God's not terribly interested in posers. He's not terribly interested in those people who delight in showing others how religious they are. God's much more interested in people who delight in His presence.

And the point here is not so much for you to place yourself in Samuel's shoes and start waiting for God to show you "he's got a sincere heart, he's not so sincere." If you go out of here thinking "that's right -- those people need to learn about sincerity of heart" then you've missed the point. The question is never about "those people" it's always about how sincere is your heart? Is your heart broken and yearning for God. Are you more concerned with your own appearances or about desiring God. As we prepare to receive the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, let's ponder the state of our own hearts. Amen.