In one of my favorite movies one of my favorite lines is young Mr. Incredible complains that no matter how many times he saves the world it always manages to get back in jeopardy again. “Sometimes I just want it to STAY SAVED, just for a little bit. I just cleaned up this mess can you keep it clean for 10 minutes!”
If you’ve been following our long journey through the Bible you might have noticed that God could say exactly this. God’s project to reconcile earth with heaven keeps getting mucked up again and again.
In the book of Samuel Israel is having perpetual political and military issues with their neighbors. She keeps getting subjugated and abused by her neighbors and so her elders decide that the new political/military technology of monarchy is exactly what she needs. God gives them Saul, who is exactly what they are looking for. On one hand Saul does seem to help in the military department. With Saul the Philistines seem at least somewhat at bay, Jabesh Gilead delivered from Ammonites and Amalekites subjugated but according to Samuel speaking for God there are serious issues with Saul that are irrevocable.
Chapter 16 begins with Samuel in a funk. The world can’t say saved. His sons are corrupt. Saul has been a disappointment and so God tells him to get up and get a new king.
The Glandular Nature of our Courage
You can’t read the Bible and not appreciate how hard God is on some of his biggest servants. He’s always asking them to do impossible things, things that might very well get them arrested or killed, and this is a great example.
Saul has been transformed from a rather dim hunk into a killing machine. That killing machine was supposed to be used to handle Philistines but at this moment we are aware of the fact that it can just as easily be turned against Israel and God’s interests as well.
Samuel, who just a chapter before thought nothing of storming into Saul’s presence, telling him the most horrendous things and treating Saul like a whimpering puppy is now in fear of Saul. What happened to your courage Samuel?
We see this in other figures of the Bible too. Elijah who went toe to toe with King Ahab and Jezebel and the prophets of Baal goes running off in a panic when Jezebel vows to kill him. What did he imagine she was going to say when he was all up in their business? Should this have come as a surprise at all?
Peter will later fold like a paper bag before the high priest’s servant girl and deny Jesus after first vowing he’d be faithful to the death. The Apostle Paul can have moments of boldness and bravado only to later find him gripped by fear and whimpering in prayer. I think all of this is designed to send us a message that God’s work is not based the constancy of our courage or even our faithfulness. We are what we are and God knows it.
God gives Samuel a ruse to pull on Saul and the elders of Bethlehem and goes off in search of the new king of Israel.
God’s Rescue Projects Always Have People At the Center of Them
While the elders of Israel were hoping that new political and military technology would save them it seems that God continues to use people.
Again, this is a startling idea given who and what we are. We are unfaithful. We are corruptable and often corrupted. We are full of ourselves imagining that our courage, strength and smarts can somehow carry the day and again and again we demonstrate that none of this is true. Yet at every turn God once again invests in a human being to carry his project forward, a human being that will either start out wobbly, like Abraham and Jacob or end up wobbly like Saul and Solomon, but God keeps doing it again and again and again.
1 Samuel 16 is really the first two introduction stories of David, one of the most important persons in the whole Old Testament. We’ll get to the third introduction story next week.
In these two stories David will be seen as a mere shepherd, the least of his brothers. He will also be seen as a musician, who can exorcise the evil spirits that plague God’s rejected king Saul.
There is an interesting literary detail here that might escape your notice. In the first two introduction stories for David he does not utter a single word. This is important. The biblical story tellers pay careful attention to introductions because like literary masters they are telling us who David is and why he is important to the story. We could easily imagine David speaking in either the scene where he is called up from the field to be anointed by Samuel and especially when he is called up from Bethlehem to the royal court to sing for Saul, but the text does not have him directly utter a single word. We will pay attention to his first words next week in Chapter 17 but for now his silence is vital to understanding the relationship of God to Israel and the relationship of people to God’s salvation of his people.
We live at at time when technology is disrupting out world and changing it dramatically and quickly. Name the most important people of our world and the changes they made either in politics or technology or business. Watch the Code Conference to hear the “giants” of our time pontificate about life and the future and the world. Steve Jobs has achieved almost guru status for many in our culture while others look at someone like Elon Musk who declared that it is a near certainty that we are actually living in a computer simulation.
Christians for a long time have challenged young people to get out there and change the world. Recently Christian writer Michelle Van Loon wrote in the CT women’s blog that she’s done with that kind of language. She prefers faithfulness to ambition.
What seems interesting about God picking David to be a world changer is that the boy David in his first two introduction stories is hardly an actor in his own story. He’s a shepherd boy called up to get oil poured on him by old Samuel. He’s a musician who is called up to to sooth Israel’s military machine that is becoming increasingly unhinged. God is David’s author long before David can even write not the page of his own life. For all of us imagining ourselves as little centers of the universe this should give us pause.
The parts that David is playing he can hardly be credited for as well. Shepherding was NOT a high status vocation in the Bible. David is watching the sheep BECAUSE he is the youngest. His older, more impressive brothers are doing important things while David has the mundane and dull task of babysitting animals. In the New Testament the vaunted “shepherds keeping watch over their flocks at night” was an occupation of men of such low status that they weren’t legally considered as reliable enough witnesses to appear in court. It is precisely the image of THIS vocation that God will select for Israel’s king and that Jesus himself will embrace in John 10. David himself will go on to sing “The Lord is MY shepherd, I will not be in want…”
God understands exactly what we are like and when he calls us to do a task he knows what he has to work with.
When we look up at God he want us to understand that we do so through the eyes of a sheep. If you think a shepherd has low status think about the status of the sheep.
God calls young David, who is a shepherd to be his new King and steward of project Israel. David with both succeed, and fail, dramatically.
Saul who was easily filled with God after his anointing seems now easily vacated by God and filled with evil spirits. With the advent of modern psychology there is always a lot of speculation about Saul and mental illness but that debate is pointless. Israel wanted a killer to protect her but increasingly she’ll need protection from her own weapon.
David is introduced to us as one who through his songs drives out the fear, the evil spirits, the faithless despair and haunting anxiety in order to restore sanity, peace and order. David’s songs have in fact been doing this ever since through the book of Psalms. David has been the author of Israel’s prayer book, teaching us how to communicate with God even as we are tormented by our own demons.
While good musicians practice and go through the trouble of learning their craft no musician can take credit for the musical talent they naturally possess. David is God’s instrument to bring mercy even to Saul.
Misery: Gearing up for a Happy Ending?
We should remember where we started. The world does not stay saved and even though God will do vital things through David his story, like every Biblical story, like all of our stories will have high points and moments of despair.
David will prove to be as corruptible as Saul and his moral failures will in many ways be worse than Saul’s. David’s reign while at times glorious will also be epicly tragic. His own son will attempt at coup and even in his old age his sons will struggle for the throne.
David Brooks this week wrote a very good piece asking “Why America’s Leadership Fails?”.
He noted the difference between career and vocation.
Let’s start with a refresher on the difference between a vocation and a career. A career is something you choose; a vocation is something you are called to.
A person choosing a career asks, How can I get the best job or win the most elections? A person summoned by a vocation asks, How can my existing abilities be put in service of the greatest common good?
A career is a job you do as long as the benefits outweigh the costs; a vocation involves falling in love with something, having a conviction about it and making it part of your personal identity.
A vocation involves promises to some ideal, it reveals itself in a sense of enjoyment as you undertake its tasks and it can’t be easily quit when setbacks and humiliations occur. As others have noted, it involves a double negative — you can’t not do this thing.
If you’re young you probably wonder about all of this. If you’re older you might already have a sense of your vocation sometimes despite a career.
If Mr. Incredible is right, and he is, that the world just doesn’t seem to stay saved, then how can you have a vocation?
I want to modulate Michelle Van Loon’s point by noting that worlds come in varying sizes. Your parents might not have had an impact that is obvious like FDR or Steve Jobs but they had a bit impact on YOUR world.
The important question is whether you can, as a flawed, imperfect, stumbling person can in fact invest in a vocation in a world of lost causes.
Steve Job’s great triumph in many ways was the Ipod which he managed to cannibalize with the Iphone but 100 years from now will that matter? Jobs himself is dead because he ignored his doctors and tried to fight his curable pancreatic cancer with fruit juices instead of surgery.
I would argue that the only way it makes sense to invest in world saving, as shepherds, musicians, healers or exorcists is to believe that there is a more permanent world awaiting us that will stay saved and that your vocational micro-world saving is not in vain. At the end of the Apostle Paul’s great chapter in 1 Corinthians on the Resurrection says this.
1 Corinthians 15:58 (NIV)
58 Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.
Perhaps you are America’s equivalent to a low class shepherd. Perhaps you are young and have no idea what shape your story will take. Perhaps the healing you do is by praying for your friends and neighbors, or listening to them as their personal demons afflict them. So much healing is done in the way of friendship and of listening.
I believe that it is only possible to actually keep being this broken world’s maid and not fall into nihilism, escapism or despair if you believe that ultimately there is a Savior, the son of David, who finally and fully sets the world right again.
If you believe in this then there are really no small jobs if these labors are done in the Lord. It might be serving your neighbor, your family member, or your nation. This vision should make career less consequential than calling. You might even be unconscious of your lowly service but God knows.
Silent shepherd David as a boy has no choice. He watches sheep when he is told. He gets anointed when Samuel calls him. He trots off to Saul’s court to play for tormented old Saul. In the process God is at work, writing the BIG story of the world through our little stories.