A sermon by Alison Sampson drawing from 1 Samuel 16:1-13, Psalm 23 and John 9:1-41
In tonight’s story from the Hebrew Bible, we hear that God told Samuel to anoint a new king for Israel from among Jesse’s sons. So Samuel fills his ceremonial ram’s horn with oil and heads off. When he gets to Bethlehem, he tells the city elders and Jesse and Jesse’s sons to sanctify themselves and join him. Once they are ritually clean, Samuel begins to look them over. First comes Eliab, the oldest. ‘This has gotta be the one,’ thinks Samuel. ‘He’s the oldest, he’s handsome, he’s tall – of course he’s the bloke God wants as king.’ But the Lord says to Samuel, ‘Don’t get excited by his birth order or his looks or his height. People think those things are important, but the Lord sees into a person’s heart – and he’s not the one I’ve chosen.’
Next comes Abinadab, then Shammah, then the next four sons. One by one, they stand in front of Samuel; one by one, they are rejected by the Lord. Finally, the young lad, David, is called in from the fields. And although Samuel is not to judge by appearances, we are told that he is ruddy, and handsome, and his eyes are full of life. And he is the one whom the Lord has chosen; and Samuel anoints him as Israel’s next king.
In tonight’s Gospel reading, Jesus encounters a blind man. In those days, people thought blindness and other physical disabilities were punishment for sin. The logic was like this. People with physical deformities were not allowed to join the worshipping community. Because they weren’t part of the worshipping community, they were clearly sinners. Therefore, a blind man must have sinned, or must have been born to parents who had sinned – otherwise, he would be part of the worshipping community.
But Jesus sees things differently. The man may be blind, but Jesus tells the crowd that neither he nor his parents sinned; then Jesus heals him. After the healing, the change in the man is so great that people struggle to know who he is. When people ask, ‘Isn’t this the man who used to sit and beg?’, some reply, ‘No it’s just someone who looks like him.’ Even though he keeps saying, ‘I am the man! It’s me!’, people are so bewildered by his transformation that they cannot recognise him.
In both readings, we find the idea that people see only the outward appearance, but God, and the Son of God, see into the heart. Jesse’s oldest son is tall and strong, and looks like a king, but the Lord looks deeper, and sees he is not. The blind man looks like a sinner to the people, but Jesus looks deeper, and sees that he is not.
This idea that God isn’t fooled by our outward appearance, but instead looks into the heart, is often preached on. I have heard it used as a comfort: don’t worry about how you look: God only cares about what’s inside you. And I have heard it used as an exhortation: don’t judge others by their outward appearances: follow God’s example, and look at what makes them tick. And there’s nothing wrong with these ways of approaching the text.
Unless, of course, you’re like me. Because I don’t find it very comforting to think that God knows what makes me tick – and there are times when it feels like a threat.
I don’t know about you, but I’m a bit uncomfortable with what goes on underneath. Under this calm exterior surge rage, petty jealousies, pathetic ambition, and all sorts of sordid thoughts. I’m not the nice person I would like to be, nor am I the nice person I would like you to think I am. I’m not particularly brave, I’m not noble, I’m not generous, I’m not faithful, I’m not a whole host of qualities. I might seem good enough on the surface, but underneath I’m a mess of rotten thoughts and nasty feelings and surges of self-hatred. And so the idea that God doesn’t care about my outward appearance, but instead sees into the heart, is not a comfort. In fact, it’s pretty disturbing.
It’s even more disturbing if this God is angry. Such a God would be peering into our hearts and seeing everything that is there – all the pettiness and bitterness, and everything else we are ashamed of – and then punish us. Many of us have grown up with this idea of God, thundering down judgement from on high, and I think many of us still believe, at some level, that this God continues to look down on us, see into our hearts, and judge us harshly.
But is the judgement, and its associated punishment, really God’s? Last week, a Buddhist friend said that one of the hardest tasks for a human being is to stop flogging oneself; and this really resonated with me, a Christian. Day in, day out, many of us are beating ourselves up with our failures: the relationships we’ve damaged, the relationships we’ve failed to foster, the things we wish we’d never done, the things we cannot bring ourselves to do, the poisonous things we tell ourselves about the sort of people we are and the sort of people we will never manage to become. We punish ourselves again and again and again, and we often think that this judgement, and this punishment, and this guilt, are in some way triggered by God.
Now, there is no question that God wants us to be faithful through and through, known for our passion for justice, mercy and acts of loving kindness. And there’s no question that we fall short time and time again in how we live out our faith. But, and this is an enormous but, God always forgives us. God isn’t interested in catching us out and smacking us down. God only wants for us to turn towards God, and be enfolded in God’s deep and wide and bountiful love.
It doesn’t matter how many times we fall short. God isn’t keeping score. Instead, when we turn towards God, then in God’s infinite kindness and mercy and patience and forbearance and wisdom, we are forgiven. There is nothing we can do to make ourselves unacceptable to God; there are no failures so terrible, no evil so great, that we cannot turn around and stumble our way towards home. God will never turn away from us; God will never withhold grace; God is always waiting, arms outstretched, to welcome us in.
It is only our judgement of ourselves, and our punishment of ourselves, that make this love feel so impossible to accept. When we hide ourselves away in darkness and shame, we cannot see our way home.
So how do we let go of this fear and loathing of what lies beneath? How do we turn ourselves back towards God?
For we cannot heal ourselves.
We cannot sanctify ourselves.
We will never be holy by our own efforts, and we know this only too well.
But God knows this too, and so we have been granted a shepherd. No hired hand, who will run away at the first sign of danger, the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. The good shepherd knows his flock and keeps them safe; the good shepherd opens our eyes; the good shepherd doesn’t flinch from our darkness, but shines a light on it and sets us free from its iron grip.
So instead of fearing what lies beneath, and beating ourselves up over it; and instead of thinking this is what is required by an angry God, we are invited to hand our lives over to the good and loving shepherd, and place our trust in him. So, what if we shelved the idea of an angry God, and instead opened our ears and our hearts to the good shepherd described in the Scriptures? What if we accepted that the good shepherd sees past our appearances and works to clean up what’s inside? And what if this refining work is done not through judgement and punishment, but through the transforming power of love?
Tonight’s Psalm provides a powerful description of the good shepherd, a role claimed by Jesus Christ, the son of God. In the Psalm, the shepherd doesn’t control or judge or punish. Instead…. but I’ll let the text speak for itself. So, in response to the question at the heart of this sermon – are we really comfortable with the idea that God sees into our hearts? – I invite you to close your eyes, open those hearts, and listen to the words first composed by the shepherd David:
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want;
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff –
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely 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.’
Here is a God we can open our hearts to. Here is a God we can trust. No matter where we’ve been or what we’ve done, no matter how long and dark the night, here is a God who always leaves the porch light on to show us the way home.