Looking at the Heart (1 Samuel 16:1-13)

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My message for this Sunday changed significantly since the start of the week. I was going to look at 1 Samuel 16:1-13, exploring the differences between outward appearances and what lies at the heart, the external and internal, in regards to people and what we focus on.

Then things started changing with growing concerns around the spreading of the COVID-19 coronavirus in Australia, and in particular the ban on indoor gatherings of 100 people or more.

Many congregations that I’m aware of are cancelling most or even all forms of ministry that involve personal contact, including regular worship, in order to prevent the spread of the virus. I understand the need to be careful and responsible in our contact with each other to minimize the spread of the virus as an act of love. What is sitting rather uncomfortably with me, though, is the way ‘doing church online’ seems to have become the Christian church’s default option without exploring other ways of connecting together as sisters and brothers in the faith.

If there’s one thing we need right now as we face the threat of the virus is to be building each other up in faith and love so that fear and isolation don’t overwhelm us.

That’s where I start to hear the story of Samuel anointing David in 1 Samuel 16:1-13 speaking into our circumstances. I believe that we have had a superficial perspective of church for far too long. In the culture of my particular church organization, our understanding of church has revolved largely around attendance at Sunday worship, being a member of a congregation and maybe being involved in some committees, rosters or activities in the congregation. When I listen to what Samuel says in v7, I can’t help but view these activities as the outward appearance or function of church.

What God looks at, of course, is at the heart. This includes the heart of what it means to be church.

There are lots of ways people define what it means to be ‘church’ and there is usually something good we can find in most of them. My favourite definition is one that Martin Luther wrote about five hundred years ago, that the church consists of ‘holy believers … who hear the voice of their Shepherd’ whose ‘holiness exists in the Word of God and true faith’ (Smalcald Articles, Part III, Article 13). The way I read this is that whenever God’s people gather around his Word in faith, that is the church.

This sits well with what is written in Hebrews 10:23-25 which says,

Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promise. Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near. (NLT)

If there’s one thing our world needs right now to combat and overcome the fear people are experiencing about the COVID-19 virus, it is hope. As the people of God who trust in the life-giving promises of Jesus, we have hope to offer all who need it. The challenge I face pastorally is how to help the people of our church grow in the hope which comes through faith so we can be people of hope, bringing hope to people who have none. Part of God’s solution, according to Hebrews 10:23-25, is to keep meeting together.

Exactly how we are going to do that in these days of limits and requirements of how many and where we can meet will a challenge, but not an insurmountable one. We can meet together around God’s word in faith in family groups, in a few families getting together, in our regular small groups, with a friend or two, or in larger worshiping groups, and so on. Maybe we need to be offering more services which cater for groups of smaller numbers of people meeting together in worship at different times, not only on Sundays but even during the week. How we will do this belongs to the ‘outward appearance’ or the externals that Samuel talks about. Why we gather together, to encourage and build each other so our hearts are full of faith, hope and love, becomes the more important question.

We can look for ways of gathering together in the freedom the gospel gives. It’s significant that when Samuel met David, he saw that David ‘was dark and handsome, with beautiful eyes’ (v12 NLT). God didn’t accept him because he was good-looking, but he didn’t reject him for being attractive either. God was interested in David’s heart and that he trusted in God. Likewise, in our current situation, how we meet together really is an external thing. Why we meet together – to hold on to the hope Jesus gives us, to motivate each other to love and good works, and to encourage each other in difficult times – this is the heart of what it means to be church and what is really vital.

My plan at the time of writing is to ask our congregation who will worship on Sunday how we might be able to gather together in the future. We need to accept that different people will be looking for different ways to connect together around God’s word in faith, according to their circumstances, and to give people the freedom and the opportunities to do that. God is looking beyond the externals to see our hearts, and wants to fill them with faith, hope and love through his Holy Spirit. We will find these as we gather as his church around his Word in faith. Then we will have real hope to bring to the world.

If you have any thoughts about how we can be helping you to gather around God’s word while we watch and wait for further developments as the virus takes its course, please let me know. I really see this as an opportunity to get past what can often be superficial, external appearances of church to really get to the heart of what it means to be the people of God in the world, living with hearts full of faith, hope and love, to bring God’s blessings to everyone we meet.

More to think about & discuss:

  • In what ways do you see people focussing more on the outward appearance than what lies at the heart, or, in other words, on what something looks like instead of what it really is?
  • In what ways might we do that as church?
  • Why do you think God is more interested in what’s at the heart instead of the outward appearance?
  • How might your life be different if you focussed more on other people’s hearts than on how they look or what they do?
  • How might your life be different if you focussed more on your heart trusting God than on what people see?
  • How can our congregation help you through this time to:
    • gather with others around God’s word?
    • hold on to the hope we have in Jesus?
    • motivate one another to love and good works?
    • encourage one another to trust in Jesus?

A Deeper Hunger (John 6:24-35)

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I chuckle to myself whenever I read the conversation Jesus had with people in the crowd who are following him in John 6:24-35. It reminds me of some discussions I’ve had in the past with friends from Queensland or New South Wales about football. We were using the same words, but we meant very different things. When I said ‘football’ I was thinking of Australian Rules or AFL. When they said ‘football’ they were meaning Rugby League or Union.

We were using the same language, but were talking past each other because we understood the words in different ways.

That’s what seems to be happening throughout John 6. Jesus had just fed 5000 men, plus women and children. The crowds were pursuing Jesus because they wanted him to keep providing them with free bread. Who can blame them? Imagine how much easier life would be if you had an endless supply of free bread appear on your doorstep each morning!

While they are looking for someone to feed their stomachs, Jesus was talking about providing them, and us, with something to satisfy a much deeper hunger. Jesus wanted to give us something that will feed our hungry hearts and souls, not just our stomachs.

We all have hearts that are hungry for something. For example, I have come across a few authors who say that every person is looking for answers to three fundamental questions: Who am I? Where do I fit? What am I here for? These questions of identity, belonging and purpose can be thought of as hungers we have. We can also be hungry for things like acceptance, self-worth, peace, rest, hope, and the list goes on.

When we try to satisfy these deeper hungers in ways that give us short-term relief, do they ever really satisfy? Our consumer culture offers us temporary solutions that help to distract us from our deeper hungers, but never fulfil them. We can do something similar in the church when we try our best to keep busy, or consume a particular style of worship, or engage in other activities that look nice and ‘Christian’ from the outside but which end up distracting us from our hunger rather than really satisfying it.

One thing that always stands out to me when I read John 6 is that when the people asked Jesus what God wanted then to be doing, Jesus replied that ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent’ (v29 NIV). In other words, the one thing God wants us to do is trust that Jesus is the one who can really satisfy our deeper hungers.

Jesus provides whatever our hearts and souls might be hungry for. If we’re hungry for identity, Jesus gives us a new identity as children of God whom he loves and with whom he is pleased. If we’re hungry to belong, Jesus gives it to us by making us members of his body, as brothers and sisters in God’s family, to live out our identity in Christ-centred community. If we’re hungry for purpose, Jesus calls us to participate in God’s mission by being disciples who make disciples and redeeming, restoring and renewing all of creation.

Whatever our deeper hunger might be, Jesus feeds us through the power of his Spirit through the gospel. Jesus accepts us just as we are as a free act of grace. Jesus gives us value by telling us we’re worth dying for by giving his life for us on the cross. Jesus gives us peace as he establishes a new relationship between us, our heavenly Father, and each other. Jesus gives us rest as he carries our burdens for us through prayer and the love we experience in Christian community. The resurrection of Jesus feeds us with hope as he promises that no matter how difficult or dark life might appear, he has given us a life that nothing, not even death, can overcome. No matter what our hearts and souls might be hungry for, Jesus can provide us with what we need.

One of the most important aspects of my work as a pastor is to help connect people’s hungers with what Jesus offers us as the Bread of Life. It begins by honestly asking ourselves what our hearts and souls are hungry for. This can really challenge us and might require some soul-searching because often we’re not too good at admitting our hunger and we can be very good at masking it with superficial attempts at filling the holes. However, when we are able to recognize and admit our deeper hungers, and when we are able to find that Jesus can and will satisfy those hungers, then we are able to share that bread with others.

We become like Jesus’ disciples who received the loaves and fish that Jesus had blessed and distributed them to the 5000 men plus women plus children who had come to hear him speak. When we have fed on the Bread of Life and found his goodness for ourselves, we have something good to share with others – the good news that Jesus offers us life to the full (John 10:10) here and now as we trust in him for everything to satisfy the deeper hungers of our hearts and souls. When we have found this Bread for ourselves, we can distribute it to others who are hungry for the goodness of God in their lives too.

What is your heart hungry for? What might be missing in your life that is keeping you from living the life to the full that Jesus promises? If you’re honest answer is nothing, that your relationship with Jesus is strong and you’re finding everything you need in him, then praise God that you have something good to offer the people around you who have hungry hearts. If, however, you have a hunger that you can’t fill, then let me know and let me help you find how Jesus can satisfy that deeper hunger. Or if you’re not connected with our church, look for a pastor, or a Christian sister or brother, who can help you. Search the Bible together. Listen to what God promises you in his word. Bring your hunger to God in prayer and keep pursuing the goodness of God in Jesus, the Bread of Life.

Because Jesus promises that when we trust in him for what our hearts and souls are hungry for, we’ll never be hungry again.

Looking Past What We See (1 Samuel 16:1-13)

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Most of us have heard the saying to never judge a book by its cover. There are always dangers with coming to conclusions about people, circumstances and other things by taking a superficial view of them and not taking the time and effort to find out what’s going on under the surface.

So why do we do it so often?

We live in a very superficial culture where appearance is everything. The media emphasizes looking good, wearing the right clothes, having the right body shape, and so on. Marketing often makes the packaging more important than what the product. Social media dictates that people’s perceptions of us are based on our profile pictures, so we can be constantly taking selfies or paying for professional photographers to find a picture which will help the world decide that we are acceptable or worthwhile.

The way something looks is often more important in our society than what it is.

In the church, we have also fallen into the trap of making conclusions about people or situations based on appearance. We can be judged by people in the church by the clothes we wear to worship, how we wear our hair, whether we have tattoos or piercings, or other ways in which we might present ourselves. Our actions and behaviours are often judged by others, especially if we don’t come up to expectations of what is acceptable behaviour – just ask any parent of young children who are noisy during worship. When we make decisions in our congregations about changes or new directions in ministry, people can be critical without knowing the full story. We tend to make decisions and judgements in the church based on what things look like rather than what they really are.

But God doesn’t work that way.

I love this story of Samuel anointing David to be the new king of Israel in 1 Samuel 16:1-13 because God tells Samuel that he doesn’t look at outward appearances. God looks at the heart (v7). God looks beyond the superficial things that we are usually preoccupied with. He looks beneath the surface to see what’s really going on in our hearts.

For God, who we are is much more important that how we look.

In the Hebrew way of thinking, a person’s heart isn’t just an organ in our chest that pumps blood around our bodies. A person’s heart is what lies at our core, at the centre of our being. During my student days I worked in a supermarket and used to put cans of artichoke hearts on the shelves. I was surprised to learn that artichokes are a vegetable, not a small, furry animal. An artichoke’s heart is what is at its centre. In the same way, when the Bible talks about our hearts, it is referring to what lies at the centre of who we are. What lies at the centre will shape who we are and what we do.

We aren’t told in 1 Samuel 16 why David’s heart was different from his brothers, so we can only guess, based on the stories we have of David in the Old Testament. As we get to know David, we find a person who made mistakes and did some pretty horrible things. But what seems different about David is that he had a heart that was open to God and was turned towards God. The centre of David’s being was oriented towards God’s goodness as he relied on God’s grace and love.

Maybe, in the same way, God is looking for us to have hearts that are turned towards him and are open to his goodness. God looks past our appearance, how we look and even what we do, to see if our hearts are turned towards him. Whatever our hearts are turned towards becomes our god, so God looks to see whether our hearts are turned towards him or away from him. He is looking to see if our hearts are open to his grace or closed to the goodness he wants to pour into them by the power of his Holy Spirit. It’s not up to us to try to work that out for other people because we can’t see into people’s hearts. But God is looking to see what lies at the centre of our being and whether or not God has a place there.

Because God wants to give us new hearts that are orientated towards him and open to his goodness. Everything that lies on our hearts which would be an obstacle to or disqualify us from a relationship with God has been taken by Jesus and put to death on the cross. The message of forgiveness is that Jesus removes everything which lies in our hearts that is wrong or bad or unclean. He has carried it to the cross and put it to death once and for all. In its place, Jesus fills our hearts with goodness and love and purity and peace. He mends our broken hearts with his grace and gives our hearts new life as he gifts us with his Holy Spirit and restores us to being the people he created us to be. This love re-orients our hearts and turns them towards God who fills us with his grace.

That is why Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 5:16,17 not to evaluate others form a worldly point of view which only looks at superficial externals. Paul wants us to see each other from God’s perspective, as he looks into our hearts and sees Jesus. Everything about us that is old, broken and wrong is gone. In its place, God gives us the life of Christ which is new and full of shining goodness and purity. This is how God wants us to see each other, as well as ourselves: as people whom Jesus loves, for whom he died, and who are made new through the gift of his Spirit. When Jesus lives in our hearts, at our core and the centre of our being through faith, then we are a new creation and his life has begun in us.

Whether we are talking about or ourselves or others, it’s good to never judge books by their covers. God never just looks at the external appearance, so why should we? Instead, God looks at our hearts and sees Jesus who fills our whole being with his goodness, grace and love. The challenge is to see each other in the same way.

So, this week, who could you look at in a new way from God’s perspective? Is there a person or situation where you’ve only seen the external appearance? How might your perception of other people be different if you looked at them with God’s eyes and saw them as people for whom Christ died?

United (Acts 4:32-35)

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Can you imagine being part of a community of faith like the one described in Acts 4:32-35?

Here we have a picture of a group of people living in the reality of Jesus’ victory over death. They had been following Jesus and witnessed his resurrection They were so convinced of God’s goodness and life-giving love in Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit that they were totally focused on the needs of the people around them. They were willing to do whatever it took to take care of others, even if it meant that they sold their homes or property to do it. All of this resulted from the unity the believers had in heart and mind. Their faith in the resurrection of Jesus brought their community together to the point where they were able to prioritise the needs of others because they trusted that God would provide for their own needs.

We can be so amazed at the disciples’ willingness to sell their homes and property that we miss the reason why they were willing and able to be so generous. What is crucial to this story is that they were united in heart and mind. During the years I spent growing up in the church as well as my years of ministry as a pastor, I have seen too many communities of faith divided over a range of issues. Particular aspects of the congregational activity were important to some and not to others. Some had very strong opinions about what the congregation was doing or how it should have been done. The result was divisions in the church as factions developed and relationships broke down.

I’m not saying this to be critical of the church. Instead, I believe we need to be honest about the realities in our churches before God if things are going to get better. When we compare the dis-unity and fractures that exist in our church with this community of believers in Acts 4:32ff, it is easy to see that we are not what we could be. As a result, just as the community in Acts was able to testify powerfully to the resurrection of Jesus and ‘God’s grace was … powerfully at work in them all’ through their unity, so our witness to Jesus’ resurrection and the flow of God’s grace is often impeded by our arguing, infighting and disputes.

Acts 4:32-35 gives us a glimpse of God’s vision for his church. Instead of adopting a consumer, individualistic attitude to the faith where our prime concern is what’s good for me, the vision that God gives us in this text is a community of people who are so convinced of the reality of Jesus’ resurrection that they are all willing to do whatever is necessary to look after each other, no matter what the cost to themselves.

This is what Paul describes in Philippians 2:2-5 when he writes:

… make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus… (NIV)

Paul was imploring the Christians in Philippi to be ‘like-minded’ with each other and with Jesus, just as the believers were in Acts 4:32-35. As members of the body of Christ, he wants them to give a faithful witness to the love of Jesus by ‘not looking to (their) own interests but each of (them) to the interests of the others.’ This is what was happening in Acts 4. This is the vision God has for our communities of faith. We give the most powerful witness to the resurrection of Jesus when we are able to put aside our own priorities, preferences or agendas, and come together as one by the power of the Holy Spirit to provide for the needs of others.

This is what faith is about: trusting in the giving nature of God so that we become giving communities. Faith in God is about trusting that our heavenly Father loved us enough to give us his one and only Son, that Jesus loved us enough to give his life for us on the cross, and that the Holy Spirit loves us enough to breathe the life of the risen Christ into us so we share in his life now and forever. Through this faith, we share in the nature of God so we become giving people. Faith in the giving nature of God will always shape us to become giving people, both as individuals and as a congregation, just like it did in Acts 4:32-35.

As I prepared this message for our congregation on Sunday, I kept asking myself, do we believe this is possible? It’s easy to read this story from Acts 4 and think it’s wonderful that they were so united in heart and mind that they were able to provide for the needs people had in their community, but is this just a nice story from a time long-gone? Or do we believe that the Spirit of the risen Christ can bring us together in heart and mind, to give us the heart and mind of Jesus, so we can live in unity with each other and live for the needs of those around us?

I’d like to believe it is. I’d like to believe that Jesus, who has overcome sin, death and the power of the devil, can also overcome our selfishness, our pettiness and our disunity to bring us together as one. Every person in a congregation or faith community has needs of one kind or another. The way God wants to provide for those needs is through the living, breathing body of the risen Christ – through you and me and the grace he gives us. The needs may be different from the needs in Acts 4, but the needs people in our communities have are still real. The way God wants to meet those needs is through us, people who believe in the resurrection of Jesus.

In Growing Young, one of the essential strategies for a congregation to be effective in its ministry with young people is fuelling a warm community. When I listen to this story about the early church being one in heart and mind and their willingness to share whatever they had with each other, I can see a community of believers that is warm with the love and grace of Jesus. Sure, they ran into problems, as the story of Ananias and Sapphira explains (Acts 5:1-11), but there was still unity among them which lead to God’s grace being powerfully at work among them.

How would you like to be part of a community like this? Do you believe that such a community is possible here and now? If the Spirit of the living God can raise Jesus to life, then I believe that he can also unite the hearts and minds of followers of Jesus in his grace and love. Like Jesus said, for people this might be impossible, but with God all things are possible (Matthew 19:26).

Which leaves me with one final question: what are we willing to give for this kind of community to exist in our communities of faith?