A Kingdom of Small Beginnings

We humans are a rather predictable lot. Our heads are turned by good looks whether we want them to be or not; we can know someone is manipulative and still find ourselves caught up in their charm. We are drawn to the biggest, the most powerful, and the ‘best’. The shiniest. The brightest. But these criteria are not a person’s measure. And today’s readings remind us that they are not what is valued in God’s kingdom.

Last Sunday, we saw how Israel, no longer content with the charismatic but unreliable leadership of the judges, demanded to be ruled instead by a king. The text shows God as going with the flow; God knows monarchy is not the best option for Israel, but, like a wise parent, decides to let the kids make their own mistakes. It’s no surprise then that the first man God selects to be Israel’s king represents every kingly ideal they could possible imagine: He’s giving them exactly what they think they want. The Bible introduces Saul by saying: “There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he; he stood head and shoulders above everyone else” (1 Samuel 9.2). As his story goes on, we see that Saul is a skilled warrior and wily politician. And so, he fits the role perfectly. Of course things don’t go well with Saul — there is more to kingship than looking the part. And so at the start of today’s reading, God has had enough of the upstart king and sets in motion a plan for what comes next. What’s interesting is that the way God goes about this starts the long process of undermining and redefining what kingship was going to look like. And in so doing, it reveals quite a bit about God’s character and heart.

The story begins with Samuel lost in sorrow over Saul. God tells him not to worry and that a new plan is already in motion. Samuel is to travel to Bethlehem to the house of Jesse, where he will find and anoint the next king of Israel. Jesse proudly parades his sons before the prophet. Samuel is immediately struck by the firstborn, Eliab, for all the reasons everyone had been so enamored with Saul. But God tells Samuel to move on: “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16.7). One by one, Jesse’s sons are brought before Samuel, and one by one Samuel knows they are not the next king. Finally he asks, “Are you sure these are all of your sons?” Jesse notes that he does have one more, but he’s the youngest, who is out watching the flocks. Samuel summons the boy, David, and God tells him, “This is the one.”

It’s a small beginning. Not only is David the youngest of his family, but Saul still has years left of his reign. God chooses David because of who David is, not because of his future good looks as a man or successes in battle. David spiritually becomes Israel’s King here, as a boy. It will take a long time for that spiritual reality to grow into a physical and political one.

In choosing David over his elder, bigger, taller, stronger brothers, God is not only beginning the process of redefining what leadership and rulership look like for God’s people, but is also reinforcing old lessons from their history. For the younger brother Abel was chosen over Cain, the younger brother Isaac was chosen over Ishmael, the younger, more intellectual, twin Jacob was chosen over the stronger “man’s man” Esau, and one of Jacob’s youngest sons, Joseph, was chosen to lead and save his older brothers. Throughout these narratives, God makes a point of not choosing the ‘obvious candidates’. Bigger isn’t better in God’s world; a strong heart is preferred over a strong body.

These seeds of a different way of looking at the world come to full life in the New Testament, where we see an entire ethic based on humility and service — a full rejection of the ways of this world and its ‘business as usual.’ In one critical text, Jesus rebuffs his disciples’ jockeying for power and privilege, telling them:

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. (Matthew 20.25-28)

And writing to the Christians in Corinth, Paul would say: “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1.27).

Today’s Gospel reading picks up on this theme of looking past appearances for the potential within. Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to the mysteries of agriculture: A farmer works, yes, but his work does not make the grain grow. He trusts that the small seeds he scatters will grow up into a tall and bountiful harvest. Likewise, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed, which, while very small, grows to become a bush large enough to shelter birds.

God’s Kingdom is a Kingdom of small beginnings. The least likely candidate can do the best job. A little can go a long way. The foolish can reveal the greatest wisdom. The weakest can reveal the greatest strength. These are the ways of God. And, as Christians, these are to be our ways too.

Glory to God, whose power is revealed in weakness, whose greatness is revealed in humility.

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