On a Need-to-Know-Basis – Fourth Sunday in Advent


Psalm 23

1The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. 2He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; 3he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. 4Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me. 5You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. 6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

1 Samuel 16:1-13

16The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” 2Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ 3Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” 4Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” 5He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

6When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” 7But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of 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.” 8Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 9Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 10Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” 11Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” 12He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” 13Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.


In my Bible, today’s Old Testament reading has the subtitle “David Anointed as King.”  THat’s pretty good — pretty much what happens.  But I think the passage could be subtitled  with all kinds of headings.  Here’s one:  “If at First You Don’t Succeed . . . “  Here’s another:  “On A Need-To-Know-Basis.” Or even: “God’s Advice to Pastor Nominating Committees.”  These captions may not yet make sense, or they may strike you as silly.  But make no mistake, I am not making fun of this account from I Samuel.  In fact, I dearly love this scripture;  it reads like a fable — a Cinderella story–  but it speaks profound truth to so many situations!  If you are hearing the story of Samuel anointing David for the very first time, you are in for a treat! You heard the reading of the Word, you heard the children’s message, now let me try to explain my subheadings — starting with

#1  “If at First You Don’t Succeed.”

A little Bible history is needed:  Samuel was the first of the Israelite judges and prophets.  He was the son of Elkanah & Hannah who was barren.  She wanted a child so badly that she promised God that, if He would give her a baby, she would dedicate him to God.  He would serve Eli,the priest, in the House of God at Shiloh all the days of his life.  And that’s what she did.  Samuel became a judge and the de facto leader of the Israelite tribes, but the people looked around, saw that others nations had a king, so they demanded a king!   Samuel, under God’s direction, anointed Saul as the first King of Israel.  Now Saul was an impressive specimen of a man — courageous in battle, strong, and very tall. The Bible says he stood “a head taller” than all the other men of his tribe.  (Apparently, height was valued in their culture as it is in ours!)   In truth, he looked every bit the king.  

Under Saul, Samuel held the office of prophet, and was dedicated and loyal to this king.   But over time, things did not go so well.  Saul was moody,  jealous, rash, and disobedient. He He became arrogant, suffered  depression and was ultimately driven to bouts of insanity.  Under his leadership, the nation suffered.  And God decided that it was time for a new king!  Saul was out!  So . . . he called on Samuel, the prophet, the king maker and the king breaker.  And,  speaking in whatever way God spoke to Samuel,  he said this:  “Go on now, Samuel.  Quit mourning for Saul.  Wipe off the long face because I am sending you out to anoint a new king.”  

Now mind you, King Saul is still on the throne at this point, so Samuel’s mission has to be secret.  It is an act of disloyalty and —  it is treason.  And Saul — that big, powerful, soldier king, doesn’t play around.  If he found out, Samuel was a dead man. But worse than that, Samuel has no self-confidence.  He is thinking, “Hey, wait a minute, God.  With your leading, I anointed the last king and look what happened!  I am not the man for the job.”  

I know how Samuel felt.  Ten or 15 years ago, when many of my friends were marrying off their sons and daughters, I was pressed into service as a wedding  director.  I never wanted to direct a wedding, had no talent for directing a wedding, but there I was saying “yes” to friends who wouldn’t take no for an answer.  On three occasions, I directed a wedding, and out of three marriages, two didn’t last more than a year.  So I wasn’t feeling very good about myself and decided to give up this wedding director business!

So here is Samuel in the same boat.  He is  wanting to retire from this anointing business, but God is saying, “Huh uh, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.  Take a cow, go the Bethlehem, and say that you have come for a sacrifice.  Oh, and  be sure to invite this fellow named Jesse — it’s going to be one of his sons.”  

Now that brings us to subcaption #2.  God sends Samuel packing with the most minimal information:  “Go to Bethlehem, take a sacrifice, find a guy named Jesse.”  No GPS coordinates, no talking points for when he gets there, no checklist of kingly attributes.  “Just go,” God says. “I’ll show you what you need to do when you get there.  You will anoint the one I indicate.”  It seems God operates On a Need-to-Know Basis.  

Now, to be honest, I would have trouble with that approach. I have never liked  to “cross that bridge when I come to it.”  I want to anticipate that bridge. I want a plan!  Samuel did too, but he obeyed, went to Bethlehem, made the sacrifice, and consecrated Jesse and his sons.  So far so good.  But then it was time for the auditions.  Of course, Samuel still in the dark.  He probably figured that the new king might resemble the old — certainly someone who looked “presidential” as we would say.  And, lo and behold, first up was Eliab, the oldest son.  “BIngo,” Samuel thinks! Tall, good-looking, square shoulders, strong jaw. “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord,” he says.

Samuel pulls the horn of oil from his back pocket, and is ready to say the words, when God interrupts.  “Nope, not this one.”    “You are looking at his outward appearance and his height ,” God says.  “I’m looking at the heart.”

“Oh, great,” Samuel thinks, slipping the oil back in his pocket.  “Like I can see into the heart in a 5 second interview!”  

But out from the back room comes Aminidab — son #2.  Deja vu:  tall, well-built, strong, dark, and handsome.”  Again, Samuel reaches for the oil, but God says, “No, not that one either.”  And so it goes with sons #3, 4, 5, 6 & 7.  Samuel is now royally embarrassed and, no doubt, ready to strangle God.

“Is this all you’ve got?” he asks Jesse.

“Well, there is the kid out with the sheep.”   

“Go get him.” Samuel says.  We’ll wait.”

And in comes David — In the scripture, this is the first mention of his name — and the earbud in Samuel’s ear suddenly crackles to life, and God is on the other end saying, “Pull out that oil, Samuel.  This is it.  He’s the one!”

Now the story sets us up to expect that son #8 will be a scrawny kid with big ears and a bad complexion, but he isn’t.   The text says he was “ruddy” –red-headed — with fine features.  Most translations say “with beautiful eyes.”  But he was, nevertheless, the last of the litter, final in the pecking order, a come-from-behind Cinderella character.  Clearly not the one Samuel might have chosen on his own. But David is God’s choice.  The Bible says, the spirit of the Lord came upon him.

The moral is so clear:  The best gifts don’t necessarily come in the prettiest packages.  You can’t judge a book by its cover.  Beauty is only skin deep.  “People judge by outward appearance but the Lord looks at the heart.”  The lesson has so many applications for all of us, but it certainly speaks to our search for a pastor here at First Presbyterian?  Hence, subtitle #3:  “God’s Advice to Pastor Nominating Committees.

I thought maybe you could help me with this part.  What is one lesson we can pull from this story that might be helpful?   

Lesson #1:  What do you think Lesson #1 is?  ______________________________ (God must be allowed to make the decision.)  

But keep your ear tuned to God.  


Lesson #2:  God may reveal his plan a little at a time (on a need-to-know basis)

Lesson #3:  _____________________________________ (We may be seduced by outward appearances or credentials.)  

Lesson #4:  _________________________________  (God will give go-ahead in his timing.)  God’s choice may be long in coming– be patient.  Wait on God.  

Lessons #5: _____________________________________  (The eyes are important. The eyes are the window to soul.  Meeting face-to-face.

To the ancients “Heart” was what we would call the soul:  emotion, intelligence, discernment, wisdom, commitment, character.  Nothing to do with appearance.  About looking like a pastor — whether that involves age, shape, size, gender or ethnicity.  


Closing prayer:  Holy God, We ask your continued presence with our Nominating Committee as they, like Samuel, seek to call the person of your choosing.  May they trust in your divine wisdom and timing, and may they continue in obedience to your guidance. Sustain and encourage them in their work. We thank you also, Lord, perfectly preparing the one who is to come.  For your love and grace to this congregation, we lift grateful hearts.  AMEN.