We celebrate the good-looking. Hollywood reinforces that. Personally, we spend time primping and making sure we look our best in public. On local to national stages, we elect leaders who look like leaders. Consider how often the question is asked during presidential primary season, “Does he or she look like a president?”
And I found out personally, just a few weeks ago, that appearances matter. After Annual Conference, I stopped shaving and stopped combing my hair. I was on vacation! And I tend not to be vain about my appearance. So it was that I went out, my hair looking like Einstein’s, my face clearly unshaven for days, and ran into someone I knew from Macon on the beach. She didn’t recognize me at first and then, once she’d recognized me, was clearly concerned about my appearance, wondering if I was okay. She interpreted my disheveled look as that something was wrong or I was unhealthy. I was certainly okay! I was relaxed! But of course, that’s not what my appearance communicated to her.
We care how we appear and how others appear. One poor man, known around his community to be very ugly, learned this the hard way. Folks who knew him described him this way:
“Thin as a beanpole and ugly as a scarecrow.” “Odd-featured, wrinkled, inexpressive, and altogether uncomely face.” “The ugliest man I have ever put my eyes on.”
And that’s just a sampling! He, at least, had a good sense of humor! After being called two-faced, he stated “I leave that to [those who can see me]. If I had another face, do you think I’d wear this one?”
But even still, his appearance almost kept him out of office as people initially were repulsed by his appearance. He just didn’t look like a leader.
Appearances matter, and so we work hard to manage ours and we make judgment calls about others using appearances. We won’t go into a bathroom at a gas station if it looks dirty. We won’t patronize a restaurant if the kitchen appears to be gross. We cross the street if the person walking toward us looks unseemly or too different from us. We quickly decide if someone is a friend or foe based on appearances, whether or not it’s fair or warranted. We worry about whether we’ll be accepted or not in a new environment based on how we look.
We’re a very image conscious people. And we often make our appearance-based judgments subconsciously, for we’ve learned throughout our childhood to make judgment calls based on appearances.
And that’s exactly what Samuel is doing in our scripture; making judgments based on appearances. The time has come for a new King over Israel and God has sent Samuel, the prophet through whom God anointed Saul king, to go to the family of Jesse, in Bethlehem, to find Saul’s replacement. God is done with Saul, for Saul has proven not to be a leader after God’s own heart. And so, Samuel goes to visit Jesse and his family. Hear now our scripture, 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13:
Then Samuel went to Ramah; and Saul went up to his house in Gilbeah of Saul. Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the LORD was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel. The LORD said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” Samuel said, “how can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the LORD said, “Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the LORD.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” Samuel did what the LORD commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the LORD; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse with his sons and invited them to the sacrifice. When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the LORD’s anointed is now before the LORD.” But the LORD said to Samuel, “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.” Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the LORD chosen this one.” Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the LORD chosen this one.” Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The LORD has not chosen any of these.” Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The LORD said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the LORD came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.”
Saul looked like a king. When he comes on the scene, Saul is described as sturdy, strong, upright, handsome, the captain of the football team. He’s the kind of guy that everyone rallies around because his good looks and charming demeanor are naturally attractive. Those kind of characteristics, good looks and charm, cause us, even subconsciously, to raise those individuals up to leadership roles. We think they’re born and made for that role because of how they appear. Thus the question oft asked every quadrennial, “Does he or she look like a president?”
The Israelites made the same mistake with Saul. To the public, he appeared like a strongman, he appeared like a decisive man, he appeared to be the great leader they’d hoped for. His managed public persona fooled the public into thinking that he was something that he was not. For Samuel knew what God had long ago figured out. Saul had proved to be weak, unwilling to make hard decisions, preferring to live a life of luxury. He took advantage of his position in order to further his wealth, status, and comfort. That made him ineffective, for he wouldn’t lead Israel into battle unless he absolutely was forced into it. He wouldn’t provide for his people unless he was coerced into it. And he was idolatrous, worshipping himself, for he was King after all, and that meant he could do whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted, how he wanted. He did so because Saul believed that appearances mattered.
And Samuel apparently thinks so, too, for when he shows up at Jesse’s place and meets Jesse’s eldest son, Eliab, he thinks that he’s met the next king. Eliab is handsome, strong, everything that Samuel’s perception said was worthy of being a king. But God said to Samuel in verse 7, “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.” And so it was that the next six sons presented after Eliab, all strong and sturdy and good looking, were rejected as well, for their hearts were not, as 1 Samuel 13:14 says, “after God’s own heart,” which is God’s qualification to be king.
Appearances, it seems, don’t matter to God. But, we might notice in verse 12, after David has arrived on the scene, the deuteronomist, the author, describes David this way, “Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome.” The deuteronomist says nothing about David’s heart, which in the Old Testament refers to a person’s character, will, and faith. There’s no word about David being “a man after God’s own heart,” there’s no word about David having solid character, aligning his will to God’s will, of having any kind of faith. Not a word about matters of the heart. Only a word that he’s good looking; he looks like a king.
Which raises a question. In verse 7, it appears that appearances do not matter to God. But in verse 12, we get a hint that perhaps appearances do matter to God. So which is it?
Do appearances matter?
For our man from Illinois, the one we referenced at the beginning of this sermon, appearances mattered, for people were repulsed by him. But for those who got to hear him speak, for those who conversed with him or heard him debate, for those who were in his personal presence, they found him remarkably beautiful. Consider Lillian Foster who stated, “His face is certainly ugly, but not repulsive; on the contrary, the good humor, generosity and intellect beaming from it, makes the eye love to linger there until you almost fancy him good-looking.” And his wife, who earlier had stated that her husband was “not pretty,” later stated “[he] may not be as handsome a figure, but the people are perhaps not aware that his heart is as large as his arms are long.”
And indeed, it was Abraham Lincoln’s heart that people spoke to. It was his character. It was his will. It was his faith. These are the things that stood out about Lincoln. He may have made mistakes along the way, like suspending habeas corpus, he may have struggled to find the right leader for the Union army and delayed too long in firing generals like McClellan, but no one doubted Lincoln’s resolve, Lincoln’s will to do his best to do the right thing, Lincoln’s faith in God; in the words of our text this morning, no one doubted Lincoln’s heart.
He wasn’t pretty, in fact, he was so ugly modern historians have questioned whether or not he had a disease that physically deformed him. Many modern commentators say that we’d never elect Lincoln today because he was simply too ugly. Our society, they suggest, is so much more centered on appearances mattering that we’d never give him a chance. And that would be too bad for us, if true, because Lincoln’s heart was beautiful.
None of us would argue that Lincoln was God’s appointed leader for the country at that moment. Not only that, but we know that Lincoln was a man after God’s own heart. So in light of our scripture this morning, do appearances matter?
Yes, for Lincoln serves as an example of what our text says matters to God: for God, it matters how our hearts appear.
The author, the deuteronomist, is infatuated with David. He has good looks! He appears like a king! But God has looked deeper and found his heart to be “after God’s own heart.” We know this because, to Samuel, God says in verse 12, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” God has looked at the heart and discovered that, in David, he’s found his next king. Appearances matter, but the heart matters more than physical appearance or perception.
The question of do appearances matter is a question of priority. God prioritizes the heart over physical or perceptive appearances. God cares more about the character, will, and faith of leaders than what they look like or how they’re perceived. Such a word speaks a powerful truth for us today, both in whom we select as our leaders and in our own, personal, leadership.
Within the walls of our church, we hold many leaders. We have community leaders of various kinds. We have leaders in the legal community. We have leaders who volunteer their time with different community organizations. We have leaders who serve beyond Eastman and Dodge County in various capacities.
Furthermore, we have leaders who are leading this church. Many of you are serving in various leadership capacities, both named and unnamed, throughout our church, keeping it running and serving and ministering. We also have leaders of families, for some of you are matriarchs and patriarchs of your family. Some of you are having to lead your families through difficult moments, suddenly thrust into that matriarchal or patriarchal role. We have leaders among our youth, for some are leaders at their schools and some are leaders in extracurricular activities. We have leaders of all kinds of people who set examples, whom we look up to.
And, of course, I am a leader. I have been very reflective this week as today is the year anniversary of my first Sunday as your pastor. I have been reflective about what I’ve learned and how I’ve grown, about what we’ve accomplished and what still remains to be done after a year, about how we’ve grown as a church and what our next faithful steps are as a congregation, about how we’re serving our community and about how we need to be serving our community.
This church is full of leaders. We’re all leaders in various ways. Whether you have an official title that states that you’re a leader or you’re filling a family role of leadership or you’re setting an example here at the church, we are all leaders in some capacity.
And so, as leaders, the question before us this morning is the one that faced Jesse and his eight sons; it’s a question of appearance, a question of how our hearts appear to God.
Are you a woman or man after God’s own heart?
No matter your physical appearance, no matter how you’re perceived here at the church or in the community, are you a leader ”after God’s own heart?” When passing by Samuel, would God say of you, “this is the one,” or would God say, “Neither has the LORD chosen this one?”
The difference between the two is subtle and yet substantial. It’s the difference between whether or not our hearts are after God’s own heart. Whether or not we’re regularly seeking after God with all that we are and all that we have, or if we’ve left our faith in cruise control.
The difference is one that I pointed to in my very first sermon with you. It’s the difference between doing for God and doing with God.
Leaders who do for God have decided they know best, that they know exactly what God wants them to do and then go and do it.
Leaders who do with God are constantly seeking after God’s heart, to discern God’s will and God’s desires.
Leaders who do for God have a static, unchanging, conception of who God is, of what truth is, and of what that means they should do as a result.
Leaders who do with God are aware that their own perceptions color their understanding of God and are thus constantly seeking after God’s will and discernment, ready to change course and make different decisions, even if they’re unpopular, because they know that the first task of leadership is to constantly seek after God’s heart with your own heart.
The difference is subtle but substantial: are you, as a leader, seeking to do for God or with God? Is your heart seeking to prove your faith and leadership to others by merely claiming God, or is your heart constantly seeking after God’s heart?
Saul did for God. For him, leadership had become idolatry. He believed so firmly in himself, in his desires and wishes, in his rightness in all things, that he didn’t need to seek after God. He believed that because God had placed him in that position, God had given him that leadership role, God had anointed him in the same way that Samuel anoints David in verse 13, and so Saul had decided that he already knew best and knew what to do. Saul’s relationship with God was in cruise control. Saul was doing for God.
David, however, does with God. For him, leadership for much of his career wasn’t idolatry but rather God-focused. Over and over again, he makes the unpopular decision not to do the most expedient thing, especially when there’s civil war between his army and Saul’s army. Most famously, when Saul steps into a cave where David is hiding to relieve himself, David doesn’t kill Saul because God tells him not to, much to the frustration of his soldiers. Over and over again, his army and his court question the decisions he makes because they don’t seem to make sense, they don’t seem like the right thing to do. And over and over again, that’s because David is consistently and constantly seeking after God’s own heart, choosing to do the things that God has asked him to do, no matter how odd they may seem. David’s heart was usually seeking after God’s heart. David was very often doing with God.
And so the choice stands before us today as it did a year ago. Will we do for God, or will we do with God? Will we decide that we already know how to lead, that because we believe in God we’re already fully equipped to make decisions? Or will we be aware that we’re in constant need of God’s guidance, that we must be consistently seeking to align our hearts with God’s heart. In our current leadership roles, if we’re honest in our self-reflection, would God have Samuel pass us by, or would God say of us, “this is the one.” Are we worshipping God by constantly seeking after God with our hearts, or have we, like Saul, made idols out of our leadership, worshipping ourselves and our roles because we believe God has put us in that position?
I pledge to you I struggle between the two. I have caught myself in this past year doing for God instead of doing with God. It’s a constant struggle, but that’s just the point. If we’re struggling, always trying to make sure we’re doing with God, we’ll sometimes fail and do for God, we’ll sometimes make idols out of our leadership, but within that struggle, we’ll find ourselves transformed into the leader God has called us to be, such that we can confidently say that God has said to us, in the positions we hold, “this is the one.”
And I think I struggle, and we struggle, in this way because we too often idolize the wrong kinds of leaders. We value the leaders who stick to their guns, no matter what. We value the strongman type of leader who confidently says to us that he already knows everything that’s right. We hold up on high leaders who refuse to change their minds, who push their agendas, who bully and coerce, because we think that’s what leadership is supposed to look like. No matter if they’re getting rich in the process, no matter if they’re actually acting in ways that seek to secure their own power and privilege, we think that’s what good leadership looks like, and so we elect them and model ourselves after them.
But we model ourselves after Saul. God says of those kinds of leaders as God would say of us if they are our model, “neither [have I] chosen this one.” David exemplifies what God expects of leaders: that a heart after God’s own heart has humility as its primary value. Humility to submit to God constantly, asking for discernment and direction. Humility to change your mind and admit to being wrong. Humility to say you’re sorry when you’ve offended or caused trouble. Humility to not appear as the strongman but to appear as the kind of leader Jesus was: a servant.
Our leadership vision is terribly skewed. We see ourselves the way we see the leaders we elect. Change your vision, for that’s not God’s vision. God looks at too many of our leaders today and says, “neither [have I] chosen this one.” And so, choose for yourself a heart after God’s own heart. Choose humility.
Appearances matter. It matters how your heart appears to God. Is it open to God’s will, to God’s direction? Are you a person of character?
Appearances matter. It matters how our leaders’ hearts appear to God. Are we electing and supporting leaders who are open to God’s will and direction? Are we electing and supporting leaders of character?
Appearances matter. The appearance of our heart to God matters. Our character and the character of our leaders matters. In whatever leadership role or roles you hold, make the appearance of your heart your first priority. For we have this confidence about our hearts and, thus, about our leadership; the prophet Jeremiah states, “Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart.”
Seek after God with all your heart. Don’t leave your faith in cruise control. For God is counting on you as a leader to be a person “after his own heart.”
However your leadership has looked in the past, choose this day to be the kind of leader of whom God would say, “this is the one.”
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.