I was fortunate enough to have Jack Esformes for a teacher twice in junior high school. He was my 7th grade and 9th grade social studies teacher, classes on government and politics. With high ceilings and concrete floors, off the alley in the annex of George Washington Jr. High, the room was a little chilly, and very echoey. Mr. Esformes had lined the wall above the chalk board with the covers of about 50 Time magazines, and he kept a huge stack of books on the edge of his desk, where he also perched during his class discussions. Whenever our attentions would wander and too many of us would start staring at the magazines, or the noise level would creep up, he would grab one of the huge, thick, heavy books off the stack and drop it, BLAM!, onto the concrete floor, startling us back to attention. I learned a lot of things from Mr. Esformes: I learned to love the musical 1776; I learned that Martin Sheen as Robert Kennedy in Missiles of October was just dreamy; I learned that citizens have responsibilities; and I learned several of his favorite sayings, including “Ignorance of the law is no excuse,” and “Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”
If ever there were a group of people who could have benefited from the wealth of Mr. Esformes’ favorite quotations, it was the people of Israel as we find them in the Hebrew Scriptures. This could surely be the poster tribe for what happens when we fail to learn from history. Enslaved in Egypt, oppressed and forced to pay homage to Pharaoh as a king and a god, they weren’t 6 weeks out before they began begging Moses and Aaron to take them back lest they starve in the desert. But God provided them with quails and manna and water from rocks and the desert became their home for 40 years while they did the difficult work of figuring out how to live as free people. And while God was providing them with the necessities, God was also providing them with guidance, with direction, with the gift of the law, so that they could figure out how to live as free people. And the law began with one big one, the one that said, “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me.” Which would have been good news to people who had spent the last few hundred years making temples and tombs for god-kings in Egypt. Another way of reading that first commandment would be, “You are free now. You don’t need a king. You have God.” And for many generations, that was how Israel operated. Gathered as they were in their tribes, led as needed by the judges that God would raise up, there was no human king. The only king they needed was God, the king who had brought them up out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who had made a covenant with them on Sinai, and promised to be their God, their king, forever.
But the Book of Judges tells us that, in spite of the covenant and the law and the God who had freed them, the people of Israel did what was right in their own eyes. They failed to learn from history. They ignored the law and the covenant and God’s sovereignty, and instead they pursued more human forms of success. They wanted to be like all the other nations, they wanted to have worldly power, they wanted to conquer land and amass wealth and maybe even have a few slaves and build temples and tombs of their own. So they went to Samuel, the last of the judges, and they said, “Hey, Samuel, we want a king! All the other nations have a king!” And God said, “You don’t need a king. You have me. A king will oppress you and take your stuff and make you go to war. You don’t want a king. If all the other nations jumped off a cliff, would you want to jump off a cliff, too?” But the people said, “Yeah. ‘Cause we really want a king.” So God said, “fine, you can have your king.” And God gave them Saul, but it turned out that Saul was not a good king. He was so bad that God decided to start this kingship thing from scratch with a new line. Which is where we come in today. Repeating history.
Samuel comes in secret to Bethlehem looking for a new king, even while Saul is still the king. Maybe he tells Jesse why he’s there, maybe not. It’s possible that everyone just thinks Samuel’s looking for a protege, another priest or prophet to anoint. But he’s looking for a king. And everyone knows what kings look like – tall, strong, proud, you know, regal. Like Saul had been – the handsomest and tallest of all Israel, it says in 1 Samuel 9. Like Abinidab here. But no, God says, I’m not looking to repeat history. We’re not going on looks this time. This time, we’re looking at the heart.
Which is when, I think, Samuel should have just called it a day. ‘Cause if we’re basing this on hearts, I have a feeling we’re all going to be in trouble. What exactly is it God is looking for in this heart? a pure heart? A clean heart? A strong heart? A loyal heart? Great. Good luck with that.
Well, we never actually learn from this passage what God is looking for, only that David is chosen, and anointed in front of his brothers, and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. And if we’re at all surprised at this point, it is only because we have failed to learn from history, and so it is repeating itself. Because by now, this should be a familiar story. God chooses the least likely, the youngest, the scoundrel, the fugitive – Abraham and Sarah are the barren recipients of the promise of offspring like the stars; Isaac, Abraham’s younger son, bears that promise; Jacob is not only the younger son but also a cheater and a liar, but receives Isaac’s blessing and God’s promise; Joseph, the young dreamer, is Jacob’s favorite; Moses, the stuttering murderer holed up in the wilderness to avoid punishment, is sent to deliver Israel from bondage. Israel itself is a rag-tag band of ex-slaves eking out a living in the desert, and is chosen to bear God’s blessing to the entire world, to serve as God’s priests to all the nations. And yet we’re surprised when the oil comes out and David is chosen, the youngest, the shepherd who was so insignificant that no one thought to call him when Samuel started sizing up Jesse’s sons. But here he is, and God tells Samuel, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” And David is thus destined for God’s favor, destined for kingship, destined to be the anointed one, the meshiach, the christos of Israel.
Because of his heart? This I don’t get. Because the more we learn about David, the more we learn about his heart, the less sense this makes. How is this guy’s heart the one that suited God? How is this guy’s heart the one that God looked on and thought, “Yup! That’s my guy! That’s my king!” Sure, David is a good guy in many ways: he trusts God enough to stand up to Goliath; he’s a gifted musician and a gifted warrior; he’s brave and ambitious. But a pure heart? a loyal heart? a clean heart? Not exactly. This is the guy who takes the kingship out from under the man who had mentored him. This is the guy who seduced Bathsheba and, when she got pregnant, had her husband killed in battle to cover up his crime. This is the guy who, on his death bed repeats history yet again, passes over his oldest son and gives the kingship to Solomon, making him promise to kill all of David’s oldest enemies for him after he’s dead. This is the heart that God chooses and anoints.
Which, while it may be bad news for those who stand in David’s way, strikes me as pretty good news for the rest of us. Because this is the heart that God also creates anew. Frequently. In Psalm 51, David pleads with God to create in him a clean heart, to put a new and right spirit in him. And it is clear from the rest of the psalm, that David knows God’s steadfast love and abundant mercy. David knows that this is the God who anointed him, who chose him. This is the God who looked at the heart of David, in all its brokenness and damage, looked at how David was busy hardening his heart, putting layers of protection around it, making it safe and secure in it’s stone case, so that power and greed and murder and revenge were not a problem for this hardened heart, and said, “aha! now that’s something I can work with! That’s a heart that needs me! I think I’ll anoint it and claim it for my own.”
How hard is your heart? What is it that you have hardened it against. I know you have been hurt. I know that your heart has been pulled out and stomped on the ground. We usually talk about it in romantic terms, but our hearts get broken by so many things – by lost love; by grief; by broken dreams; by the endless battery of ads that tell us that we aren’t good enough, aren’t smart enough, aren’t rich enough, aren’t enough; by bullies on the playground and in the pulpit and at the office and in the home and in the house and the senate. We spend our lives having our hearts yanked out and examined by those around us, who always find them wanting in some way, and return them, broken and battered. And so we do the only thing we can. We protect them. We harden our hearts. We build up layers of stone, little by little, so that our hearts are less vulnerable, so that we are less vulnerable, so that we are safe. But it’s awfully hard to love with a heart of stone. Which is why the God of love talks so much about hearts. Like when, through the prophet Ezekiel, God says, “I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” Because while the world would do its best to break your heart, would judge your heart for all its stoniness, would dismiss your hardened heart as unworthy or unusable or unloveable, God looks at your heart and says, “aha! now that’s something I can work with! That’s a heart that needs me! I think I’ll anoint it and claim it for my own.” And the waters are prepared, and the oil is poured, and you are named and claimed as a baptized child of God and you are anointed and sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ. Forever.
Talk about history repeating itself. Eventually, God would reclaim the kingship, by coming into the world, by becoming the king, the anointed one, the meshiach, the christos. But as has been God’s way from the beginning, it didn’t happen the way people were expecting. It happened in God’s way, with a homeless, teenage mother, from a backwater of a backwater; with a baby whose first breaths were taken in a stable right down the street from where David was anointed; with a king who rode in on a donkey, not a camel; with a king whose crown was made of thorns, whose sovereignty was rejected, whose message was dismissed, but who showed us the true heart of God. The heart of God who would come to us, because we can’t get it together to go to God. The heart of God who would reserve the right to surprise us time and again with the kind of grace and love that we could never earn, the kind of grace and love that is so ridiculous that we could never even believe it, not even when we’ve seen it, not even when we have experienced it, not even when our own hearts of stone have been ripped out time and again, replaced with clean hearts and right spirits.
This is the history that repeats itself, as we live out our baptism, as we rise again each morning, as we are resurrected each day with a new heart, a clean heart, a heart of flesh. New, every single day. Because God is patient. God has looked on your heart, as God looked on David’s heart, time and again; God has looked on your heart of stone and said, “aha! now that is something I can work with! That’s a heart that needs me! I think I’ll anoint it and claim it for my own.”