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

1 Samuel 16v7 heart 04

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?

Love (Hebrews 10:5-10)

candle of love 01

To select the texts for my messages during the season of Advent this year, I went to each Sunday’s readings and looked for each week’s theme in them. The text in which I found the word for the day became the basis of my message.

I found Hope in Psalm 25:5 – ‘Lead me by your truth and teach me, for you are the God who saves me. All day long I put my hope in you.’

The word Peace was in Luke 1:78,79 – ‘Because of God’s tender mercy, the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide us to the path of peace.’

There was Joy in Isaiah 12:3 – ‘With joy you will drink deeply from the fountain of salvation!’

The theme for the Fourth Sunday in Advent is Love. However, when I read through the readings for this week, the word Love isn’t actually mentioned. I thought about using a different reading which actually mentioned Love, but that seemed like taking the easy way out. So I decided to look for where the kind of love that God has for us in Jesus is talked about in the readings for the day and base my message around that.

Most of the time when I listen to people talk about love, I hear them describe love as a feeling. We can talk about love for our spouse or partner, our family, possessions or even chocolate as the way we feel about them or the way they make us feel.

When the Bible talks about love, however, it doesn’t usually talk about a feeling. Instead, a biblical perspective of love can be understood as what someone is willing to sacrifice for the one they love.

We find this kind of love in Hebrews 10:5-10, especially in verse 10 which says,

God’s will was for us to be made holy by the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ, once for all time. (NLT)

We can find God’s love for us in this verse in a number of ways. The first is in what God the Father was willing to sacrifice for us. God the Father gave up his child when Jesus left the safety of heaven and entered our world as an infant. I can only imagine what it will be like for my children to leave home and go out into the world on their own. It must have been a whole lot harder for our heavenly Father when his Son left heaven to enter our world because God knew the suffering and pain that he would go through in his earthly life. Out of love for us, however, our heavenly Father was willing to make that sacrifice for us.

It would be hard enough when our children leave home, but to lose a child must be one of the hardest things in the world to endure. I’ve known a number of people who have experienced this tragedy, and I have seen the grief and pain it causes. When we look at the life and death of Jesus from this perspective, then we can see the depth of God’s love for each of us. God’s love for us is so great that he sacrificed his Son in order to open a new way for us to become his children. Every one of us is so important and precious to our heavenly Father that he willingly gave up his Son so that we can be restored in relationship with him as his holy people.

The second way we can encounter the love of God in Jesus’ sacrifice is by seeing it from the perspective of the Son of God. Jesus knew that the offerings which were sacrificed in the Temple during ancient times couldn’t bring us back into relationship with God. Jesus knew that the only way to overcome what kept us apart from our heavenly Father was for him to offer his life as a sacrifice for us on the cross. We encounter the love of God in Jesus when he sacrificed what he wanted for himself and followed the will of the Father. He did this by entering into our humanity, going to the cross and dying in our place so we can be made holy, washed clean and made right again through the work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ love for us is so great that our relationship with our Father in heaven is more important to him than his own life. I don’t think this kind of love made Jesus feel particularly good. It wasn’t a love that was based on feelings. Instead, the love of God we encounter in Jesus is defined by and expressed in what he was willing to sacrifice for us in his birth and life, in his suffering and death for us.

It is important, then, that when we hear the Bible talk about love as sacrifice. For example, when Jesus teaches that the greatest command is to love God with all our hearts, minds, soul and strength, and to love others as ourselves (Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28), he isn’t just talking about how we feel about God and others, but what we are willing to sacrifice for them. Another example is in John’s gospel when Jesus gives his followers the new command to love each other in the same, self-sacrificing way that he loves us (John 13:34; 15:12,17). He even says that people will know we are his followers when we practice self-sacrificing love for each other (v35). Paul’s letters are full of practical examples of what this self-sacrificing love looks like as the early followers of Jesus practiced it in community with each other. In the end, the way of Jesus is about following him in being willing to extend God’s love to others by sacrificing for them.
In everything we do as the people of God, whether as individuals or as a congregation, being part of God’s mission in the world means extending his self-sacrificing love to others. We do this by practicing a form of love that looks to what’s best for others, no matter what it might cost us. That’s not an easy road to walk, but Jesus knows that because he has walked it ahead of us.

This Christmas, as we celebrate the birth of Jesus, it’s important to remember that what’s at the heart of our festivities is a love that cost God everything. As we encounter this love in the birth of Jesus, and as we remain in this love through faith in him, his love will shape us into people who are willing and able to love others in the same way.