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The Eighth Son

March 31, 2014

“The Eighth Son” 1 Samuel 16:1-13; 2 Corinthians 5:14-17 © 3.30.14 Lent 4A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

When the servant brought the message that he was to come from the pasture immediately, David was puzzled, then not a little frightened. There must have been a terrible accident; his father or one of his brothers had been injured or even killed. Or an enemy had descended on Bethlehem, ravaging the town. His home was in ruins.

But on questioning the messenger, the young shepherd found that none of this was the case. Instead, a prophet had come to offer sacrifice and was asking for David. There was a task the man had to perform, and only David could help him fulfill his mission.

The young man could not for a moment imagine what a famous religious leader would want with a lowly shepherd. But he had been summoned, so he left the servant with the sheep and hurried home.

Without even a word of greeting to David, Samuel the prophet took out a flask of oil and poured it over David’s head in the presence of his family. He felt excited, proud, embarrassed, afraid, confused; his heart was pounding, his mind racing. The action of the holy man could mean only one thing. David was to be king.

After that day, in one way, nothing changed for him. He went back to shepherding sheep. Samuel went back to Ramah, in the north. Saul was still the reigning monarch. Maybe David’s brothers treated him with a bit more respect. His father seemed more serious and more interested in teaching David responsibility and manners. But the boy was still merely David ben Jesse. Nobody addressed him as “your majesty,” except maybe as a joke.

But in another way, everything changed with him and for him. Before this day, David wasn’t sure of his future. Prospects had been merely OK at best. According to the law of primogeniture, his oldest brother Eliab would inherit most of the family property; David, as the youngest, would get little. He had his music, but there wasn’t much of a living in playing the occasional wedding or bar mitzvah. Probably he would spend the rest of his life on hillsides surrounded by sheep, sheep, and more sheep. Good thing he liked mutton; maybe he could invent a new sauce and be mildly famous.

Now, though, a new vigor surged through him. There was a spring in his step, a new confidence in his demeanor. He knew there was a real future ahead, full of responsibility and difficulty, yes, but also adventure and power. He felt somehow closer to God, too. The Lord had always held a special attraction for David, but now…now, the one David called his “Shepherd” seemed almost to live within him. Yes, indeed, things had changed. And even if he had to wait years and years, David knew Yahweh, the Lord, would fulfill his promise to make him monarch of Israel.

If David felt surprise and acquired a new confidence because he was chosen by God, so did Israel, the nation over which David ruled for so long. This one man, for all his faults and failures, captured the imagination of men and women in Israel alike. There had been no one like him before. After the failure of the first king, Saul, pinning hopes on a monarchy might have seemed misplaced and foolish. But David showed the possibilities for a king. He was not cast from normal molds; there was something extraordinary about this man. Though David slept in an adulterer’s bed and his hands were soiled with the blood of Bathsheba’s husband, Yahweh did not abandon him. Chastise him, judge him, yes. But give up on him? No.

And in the way Yahweh treated David was a message of hope for Israel as well. When the people sinned, when the nation was full of injustice and men and women had turned from the true God, there was a promise of forgiveness. There could be a new start. If the number seven stood for God’s work of creation in the beginning, then eight was the symbol of a new creation, and this eighth son of Jesse was its firstborn. He was the progenitor of a race of faithful folk not bound to Yahweh by externals like ritual and words, but in the deepest part of their being. And from him eventually would come the One who would fulfill all God’s purposes for the world and make everything new.

It’s quite a story, isn’t it? And in this amazing narrative, we discover elements of our own. We find all sorts of exciting clues about that new creation God promises and David stands for: how it comes, what it means, why it matters.

First, the new creation comes on God’s initiative and on God’s terms. Throughout the morning’s text, it’s clear that God is fully in charge. He has rejected Saul as king. He rouses Samuel from his grief and gives him a new mission. He passes over the seven sons of Jesse to choose one whom nobody expected. He speaks, he anoints, he gives the Spirit. David, the eighth son, the harbinger of a new creation, will be king by God’s will and in God’s way.

Because it’s given by God, the new creation cannot be conjured, cajoled, crafted, corralled, co-opted, commanded or created by us. It can’t be commandeered or controlled for our purposes; if and when we try, God will snatch it from our hands and claim it again as his own. We can’t comprehend it, in both senses of that word. We can’t pin down the new creation, because it comes from the Spirit. And we know from Jesus that the wind of God blows where it wishes, and we don’t know where it comes from or where it’s going. God in sovereign freedom and love decide the what, where, why, when, and how. All we can be concerned with is the who, and that’s you and me and all our neighbors on this planet. We are called to be open to what God will do among us, attentive to the voice of God that commands and comforts, ready for the coming of the Spirit when God anoints us for the particular tasks he has given each of us. We receive with gratitude and praise what God bestows.

So the new creation comes at the initiative of God, by the sovereign action of God’s hand. Second, the new creation undermines the current order. Put another way, the new creation doesn’t depend on the cooperation of the powers that be. Notice that God commanded Samuel to anoint a king even though there was already a reigning monarch. God circumvents the usual processes of politics and power. He doesn’t consult with Saul about his successor or let him know what’s going on. And Samuel would have gone ahead with the anointing of David whether the village elders approved of his visit or not.

What I mean is God’s actions don’t depend on our approval. As someone has said: “In the Bible, God does things theologians would never approve of.” And a line from an old TV movie comes to mind: “You’d be surprised at the things we do around here without running it by you first.” In our arrogance, we think God should consult us. But he doesn’t submit his actions to a vote. The universe is not a democracy nor is the Church. Both are monarchies, ruled by our Lord Jesus Christ. God will work his will in spite of us, but he would rather work through us. And all the opposition by principalities and powers, by thrones and rulers and institutions and frightened followers will not stop God from accomplishing what he means to do, and that is to bring in the new creation he promised in Christ.

And if the new creation doesn’t depend on the cooperation of the powers that be, neither does it depend on the usual suspects. I mean the beautiful, the strong, the well-connected, the wealthy, the known and the respected, those that the world turns to more often than not when selecting leaders, entertainers, and role models. God does not see as people see; they look on the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart.

The supposition in ancient times was that the firstborn son would get the lion’s share of the inheritance and would lead the family upon the passing of the patriarch. And, like us, the ancients valued good looks, stature, popularity, and strength. So Samuel, not withstanding his being a prophet of God, naturally expected Eliab, the first son of Jesse, would be the one anointed. Nope. Neither were any of the other seven. The anointed was to be the eighth son, someone so insignificant and young that his father had not even thought to invite him to the feast and visit with the prophet! What could David do? He was just a shepherd, and there were thousands of shepherds. The irony, of course, was that when he was summoned and presented, he turned out to be really good looking. There is beauty among the ignored and forgotten, sometimes seen and recognized only by God.

Each and all of us are tempted to buy into the world’s definitions, aren’t we? What can you or I do? We’re ordinary folk, maybe with a little local influence, certainly deemed important by this or that person who loves and values us. But in general, invisible to the culture of the nation or even the state and the community. We don’t look like the people in the magazines and the movies, though we might try. We might have enough to get by, but we’re not exactly well off. What can we do? Don’t we say “I can’t do that, I’m just a (fill the blank here)” or “You’ll have to get someone else; I can’t (fill in the task here).” And churches and organizations buy into that way of thinking, too. We bypass those who may have gifts or something to contribute because we’re thinking inside a box of what qualities a leader or a teacher has or how old you have to be or what you need already to have accomplished. But everyone of us has something to give, whoever we are. Let’s not box ourselves in, but rather see ourselves and others as God sees, looking on the heart.

A couple of you recently have mentioned the novel The Shack. A few lines from it capture how important each of us is. Mack, the main character, is told: “…if anything matters, then everything matters. Because you are important, everything you do is important. Every time you forgive, the universe changes; every time you reach out and touch a heart or a life, the world changes; with every kindness and service, seen or unseen, [God’s] purposes are accomplished and nothing will ever be the same again” (238).

The apostle Paul said something about all this, too. And we would do well to take it to heart: “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption…”

So, the new creation comes by the action of God. It doesn’t depend on human cooperation and is not limited by human standards. But finally, the new creation comes to us both in marker events and in the day to day. It may arrive unsought, unbidden or by our expectation, from our seeking and discipline. David didn’t wake up that morning knowing that he was to be anointed king or the Spirit would come mightily on him. His father and brothers had not been at the center of a plot to overthrow King Saul and install David. Samuel had no idea that God would command him to go to Bethlehem for a politically and personally dangerous task. Yet the day turned out to be a marker event not only in their lives, but in the life of an entire nation. Indeed, because Jesus is the descendant of David, it was a day that changed the universe.

All this came as a surprise. And that’s one way God’s new creation descends on us. As a surprise. Not the kind like an insect in your food at a restaurant or a drunk driver coming out of nowhere. No, the good kind, like a parent returning from deployment and showing up in his or her child’s classroom or the Facebook or email message from an old friend you had lost touch with. Serendipity. Lagniappe. That little something extra that makes a big difference. And the day becomes a marker that we go back to again and again for sustenance and sanity, because it reminds us that in God’s new creation, anything can happen, and God’s intention for us is good.

Consider, then, the marker events in our lives when God comes to us, if we will but recognize him and be open. Like birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, deaths, getting a job or being fired, retirement, ordination, graduation, being awarded a scholarship, getting your driver’s license or giving up the keys, joining an organization, enlisting in the military, winning a game or a championship or losing it; and on and on. Such times are particular occasions to seek and remember the presence of the new creation.

But the new creation can also come to us in the day to day. David was out tending sheep. No doubt the Jesse family was going about its business. As we do our jobs or enjoy leisure or go to school, simply living day in and day out, God comes to us. Every day is full of possibilities. Indeed, I would say every day is a sacrament. If a sacrament takes ordinary things like food, drink, and water and makes them holy, then indeed each moment is a sacrament. God makes it so, because he is always present in the smallest of activities, always speaking even in the silence, always seeking us even in our darkest despair.

Frederick Buechner’s lines are the classic statement: “There is no chance thing through which God cannot speak—even the walk from the house to the garage that you have walked ten thousand times before, even the moments when you cannot believe there is a God who speaks at all anywhere. He speaks, I believe, and the words he speaks are incarnate in the flesh and blood of our selves and of our own footsore and sacred journeys…. [God] says he is with us on our journeys. He says he has been with us since each of our journeys began. Listen for him” (The Sacred Journey: 77).

The new creation is the saving work of God in Christ among us, in us, and throughout the world. However it comes to us, by surprise or expectation, it changes everything. Wherever we encounter it, in the rush of our daily living or in the still silence of our hearts, it makes the ultimate difference. Whatever else it means, it means this: we are changed, and so all our relationships are changed as well. No place is the same; no task is the same; no conversation or thought or feeling is ever the same, because we are part of something new, the grand purpose of God that is beyond us yet goes forward through us.

Is the possibility and reality of a new creation good news for you and me today? Does not each of us long for a fresh prospect when we find ourselves on the margins of life, when the future is as barren and lifeless as a ghost town, when the best we can do is never good enough? Do not you and I want to know that what matters in the long run is not how we look or what we have or do, but what’s in our hearts? Do you wish, as I do, that the past was past, and those specters of bygone days that haunt you were banished forever? Do you want to know that God can use even you and me, even at our worst, to accomplish his purposes, that in and through this rough and raw material of our stories God’s will is done?

It was because of David, the eighth son, this son of a new day, that Israel believed. And we too believe because of our David, also born in Bethlehem. He was rejected and crucified in shame, but raised in power, taken from the depths to the pinnacle, declared both Lord and Christ. He too is a son of the new creation, the eighth day. God is always doing the unexpected, taking the course not immediately obvious, bending every human rule to accomplish his purposes. That’s why a shepherd can be king, why a carpenter can be Christ, why these clay pots that are our bodies can be vessels for the will and work of God.

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