I Samuel 16-18, Psalm 85, John 20
God looks deep within us
I Samuel 16 – 18
Chapter 16 is one of the great chapters of the Bible. It offers a call narrative, which still speaks powerfully to our lives today. Samuel had just hewed King Agag body to pieces in the conclusion of the previous chapter. Samuel, who is a judge, priest and prophet, now resembled a ruthless warrior. God asked him, “How long will you grieve over Saul?” (1 Sam 16:1) God was ready to move on, and informed Samuel that he wanted him to anoint one of the sons of Jesse the Bethlehemite as king.
So Samuel went to Bethlehem, where the people greeted him with fear and trembling. After informing them that he had come “Peacefully,” he asked to see the sons of Jesse. When he saw Eliab, Jesse’s eldest son, Samuel thought that this was certainly the man whom Yahweh had in mind to serve as king. Eliab was tall and handsome, just like Saul. But Yahweh told 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.” (1 Sam. 16:7)
It takes most of us a long time to learn this lesson. We look for an attractive spouse or seek to date someone who is handsome, but it is what is within the person that matters most. Character trumps everything over time. Virtues are discovered within a person. A pretty face, a handsome suit or a beautiful dress can only take you so far. God also sees within us. Wise people look to spend their time with people of character and virtue. The Russian author Leo Tolstoy wrote fabulous descriptions detailing the exterior of his characters, but his counterpart Fyodor Dostoevsky described people’s souls. He looked within, while Tolstoy was content with the exterior.
Yahweh guided Samuel to choose the youngest and least likely of Jesse’s sons. David was a shepherd. He was receiving training in leadership by watching out over his father’s flock. One shepherd after another will be summoned in the Bible to do God’s work. While young and inexperienced, he is described as, “skillful in playing [the harp], a man of valor, a warrior, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence; and the Lord is with him.” (1 Sam. 16:18) That’s a sterling reference. When the Lord is with a man, he cannot fail.
Chapters 17 and 18 demonstrate this as Lord’s favor shifts from Saul to David. The tale of David and Goliath is one of the most beloved stories in the Bible. It is the lesson that Sunday school students never forget. There is, however, so much more to David than a giant slayer. As one of the leaders of my church said after completing The Bible Challenge, “I used to teach Sunday school and I taught about David and Goliath, but now I know David.” David indeed is one of the most fascinating characters in the Bible. We know more about him than any other character in the Bible except Jesus.
Three things are worth noting in these chapters. The souls of Jonathan, Saul’s son, and David are bound together, painting perhaps the most tender and powerful image of male friendship to be found in the Bible. (1 Sam. 18:1-4) Second, Saul became irate when he heard the women singing, “Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands.” (1 Sam. 18:7) Anger consumed Saul, and he began to walk about his palace like Richard Nixon in the final days of his presidency, raving, making threats and speaking to himself. The author makes it clear that Yahweh was with David “in all his undertakings.” (1 Sam. 18:14) This is the best recipe for success, being faithful to God so that God may make us prosper in his service. Third, Saul gave his daughter Michal to David as his wife, making David his son-in-law. It’s not a match made in heaven, despite Michal’s initial love for David. This will soon come undone. Passion can be a dangerous thing. The people who adore us can later detest us, if we do not meet their expectations.
It is very easy in this world full of morose news with killings and oppressive dictators around the world serving their own interests rather than their peoples’ interests and God’s interests to lose faith in life and in God. Today’s psalm offers enormous hope. The final four verses are worth writing down and taping to your mirror to see each morning when you wake up or read as you begin your day. The Psalmist writes,
Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
righteousness and peace will kill each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
and righteousness will look down from the sky.
The Lord will give what is good,
and our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness will go before him,
and will make a path for his steps. (Ps. 85:10-13)
No one offers more resurrection appearances than John. The Fourth Gospel highlights several episodes when Jesus appeared after he was resurrected including his visit with Thomas, which no other gospel reveals. This short episode is told in only five verses, but it has gone in history as one of the most powerful stories ever told. It is a story that anyone who has ever doubted can comprehend.
Chapter 20 of John’s Gospel begins with a whole lot of running. These folks are wearing jogging shoes. Early in the morning on the first day of the week, which was Sunday, Mary of Magdala came to the tomb. The gospel writers rarely include a detail unless it serves a deeper purpose. When we read that Mary came while it was “still dark,” John is speaking on many levels. Everyone involved in Jesus’ ministry and all of his friends and family are feeling raw. They are suffering from an open wound that sudden and traumatic loss inflicts upon us.
They are angry, hurt, fearful and unable to grasp much of what has taken place. Their spirits are “still dark.” Their ability to comprehend the crucifixion is “still dark.” Their optimism is “still dark.” When Mary saw that the stone had been rolled away, she ran and summoned Simon Peter to come and see. Simon Peter and John, the beloved disciple, ran to the tomb to verify her report, but the other disciple reached it first, peered in and saw the burial shroud thrown to the ground. Jesus was gone! (John 20:5)
They did not know what to make of it and could not equate what the Old Testament predicted with what they were now witnessing. So, the disciples headed home. I am sure that we would have done the same thing. Mary, however, stood outside the tomb and wept. There are times when all that we can do is cry. Our eyes fill with tears as we remember our parent, spouse or friend who has died.
Then Mary peered into the tomb and saw two angels, sitting where Jesus’ body had lain. They asked her why she was weeping. Then she turned around and saw Jesus, but could not recognize him. We are never at our best after a great loss. Sometimes, it feels like we are losing our mind. We misplace our car keys and search for them. Normally, we discover them in a few minutes. When we are grieving, we spend an hour searching and find that they were in our pocket, which we had checked three times. We think that we are losing our mind.
Then Jesus called Mary’s name, and she snapped out of it like a hypnotist restoring someone who has been in a trance. “Rabbuni!” or “Teacher” shouted Mary. Jesus made certain that people knew that he was alive and had conquered death. He had no intention for the people who were important in his life to be left doubting.
Later than same day, the disciples were huddled together in a room. Think of this room as the church. Individuals can discover God alone, but it is in the company of other faithful believers where our faith flourishes best. Gathered together in a room, Jesus entered through closed doors and appeared among them as if to show that there was nothing that God could not do.
“Peace be with you! As the Father sent me, so I send you,” said Jesus. Then he breathed on them, just as he breathed life into people who were dead or ill and restored them to wholeness. He said, “Receive the Holy Spirit! If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven…” (John 20:23) He empowered them to carry out his ministry in the world.
We are all aware that one person was not present. Thomas was missing. Everyone grieves differently, and perhaps Thomas’s way of grieving was to be alone. Many of us have had this experience. The mistake that Thomas made was that he withdrew from Christian fellowship. He sought loneliness rather than togetherness. Because he was not there with the other disciples, he missed seeing Jesus. We miss a great deal when we separate ourselves from Christian fellowship. Things can happen in the church that we never will experience on our own.
So Thomas was not there when Jesus came. We know that Thomas was an emotional disciple. Recall that when a messenger informed Jesus that his dear friend Lazarus was very ill, the disciples knew that Lazarus’ village in Bethany was a dangerous place to visit. The Jews and Romans there were searching to arrest Jesus. Jesus, however, told his disciples, “Let us go to [see Lazarus]” (John 11:15), and Thomas blurted out, “Let us also go that we may die with him!” (John 11:16) This single sentence speaks volumes about Thomas. He was committed to Jesus, and he was willing to die with him.
Thomas clearly had the courage to face death with Jesus, but he simply could not believe that Jesus had risen from the grave. “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails,” Thomas told the other disciples, “and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Thomas doubts are our doubts. There is not one of us, who at some point in our faith journey has not wavered in our faith. We have had moments when our doubts outweighed our faith. We have believed in Jesus on one day, and on the next day we doubted everything. Our belief went up and down like a volatile stock. It was unsteady as a drunk wandering home on a sidewalk.
Jesus returned to the disciples again. This time Thomas was present. He said to Thomas, “Reach your finger here; look at my hands. Reach your hand here and put it into my side. No longer doubt, but believe.” Thomas said, “My Lord and my God!” In that short phrase Thomas moved from the valley of doubt to the summit of Christian faith. There was no halfway step for Thomas. When a man or woman fights through doubt and comes to a state of faith, his or her life is transformed. It is like the difference between being single and getting married and having children. It transforms how you see everything.
I was standing on a street in Richmond, Virginia one day talking with a friend about what it was like to have children. I was about to get married, and Mims and I wanted to start a family. So, I asked my friend, “Walter, what is it like to have children?” He said, “Marek, do you see that car that just passed by?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “When I was single, I used to think, ‘How cool! That’s a Corvette. I wish that I owned a car like that!’ Now I think, ‘That jerk! He’s driving way too fast. He could hurt someone!’ It changes the way that you see everything,” said Walter. That’s what faith does as well. It changes our entire outlook on life. Hence Jesus spoke down through the centuries and said, “Happy are they who find faith without seeing me.” (John 20:29) Faith, however, is not an end in itself. It is God’s gift to help us discover and experience abundant life now.
We are told that Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, after being resurrected which were not written down. Those that were written down in order that me might live by faith and not by sight alone. (John 20:31)
Extra rabbinical Christian writings tell us that a lot about Thomas’s extensive missionary work after he came to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead. According to legend, the apostles cast lots to divide the world into fields of mission to share the message of Jesus. The portion allotted to Thomas was India.
Around the end of the first century the Gospel of Thomas, which claims to record the secret sayings which Jesus spoke and Didymus Judas Thomas, was written down. This document was lost, but was rediscovered in 1945 at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in a cache of hidden manuscripts. Also among them was the Book of Thomas the Contender, which purports to be a secret conversation between Jesus and Judas Thomas.
The most extensive writings associated with Thomas is the Acts of Thomas, written in the third century. It’s tells us about Thomas’s miracle-filled mission to India and his martyrdom. Tradition has it that Thomas built churches along the way, from which we get the symbols of our church – the builder’s square and the spear used to kill Thomas. Syrian Christians in Malabar on the southwestern coast of India claim a direct lineage to those converted by the Apostle Thomas and call themselves Christians of St. Thomas. Thomas is said to be buried near the city of Madras in India.
Eugene O’Neill wrote a wonderful play about the Lazarus, the man who was resurrected from the dead called Lazarus Laughed. In it he imagines the story of what happened after Lazarus was brought back from the dead. From the moment his friends see him, Lazarus is full of laughter.
“What did you see on the other side of death?” they ask. Lazarus answers, “There is no death! There is only life!” And he bursts into a laugh that O’Neill describes as “full of a complete acceptance of life, a profound assertion of joy in living, devoid of all self-consciousness or fear.”
After Jesus’ death, Lazarus begins to preach about how Jesus frees people from the fear of death. His greatest confrontation comes when he faces the cruel Caligula, heir to the imperial throne. Caligula realizes what it takes to rule the populace: “We must keep death dangling before their eyes,” he says. He demands that Lazarus be brought before him and threatens him with torture and execution. Lazarus looks into the twisted leaders face and softly laughs, O’Neill writes, “like a man in love with God,” and tells Caligula, “Death is dead, Caligula, Death is dead!”
The biggest change in Lazarus’ life was that he wasn’t afraid any more. There is a power that can conquer even death. There is no fear. There is only life. And what we have to do is open our eyes to it, and begin to see, to live with the wonderful joy and freedom that gives. “Laugh! Laugh with me!” Lazarus says. “Death is dead! Fear no more!” “If I could only laugh your laughter,” Caligula says. That’s what you and I are given today – the chance to laugh at death and everything heartbreaking in our world. Because the Resurrection of Jesus promises eternal hope just as the daffodils are blooming again and winter is yielding to spring. Like Thomas, our namesake, may we say, “My Lord and my God!” and in doing so move from the valley of doubt to the summit of Christian faith. Amen.
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 Sam. 16:7)
My Lord and my God! (John 20:28)
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe. (John 20:29)
How are you tempted to judge by appearance rather than by sensing what God reveals to you about a person and their character? What obstacle or challenge stands before you or your family that looms large like Goliath? How much proof do you need in order to believe that Jesus rose from the dead? Are you able to call Jesus your Lord and your God? If not, what holds you back?
Almighty and Everlasting God, you sent your only Son Jesus to come live among us and to die as one of us for the sake of our sins and restore all of humanity back into relationship with you. Sanctify our broken lives. Cleanse us from our sin. Take away our unbelief and replace it with a profound faith and trust in you and in what Jesus did to conquer death for our sake. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania