A Story About Imagination

This past Sunday, I was invited to preach in my home town, at Balls Creek Campmeeting in Denver, North Carolina. It meant a great deal to me–I grew up attending campmeeting every year, and I have so many fond memories of family, friends, and the deep roots of tradition and community. It was great to reconnect with folks, even if it was brief. Here is the sermon I preached, on David’s anointing, God’s opening of Samuel’s eyes, and the importance of developing a godly imagination.

A Godly Imagination (1 Samuel 16:1-13)

This is a story about imagination.

When I was a kid, some of my favorite toys were Transformers. These were “robots in disguise,” which looked like cars, trucks, and other vehicles, but you could twist and turn and arrange them until they became robots. There was a cartoon series, which is now a movie franchise, but what I really liked was the toys. I loved manipulating them, turning them from one thing into the other—robot to car, car to robot, again and again. It was especially fun when my parents couldn’t figure out how to do it, so as a 6- or 7-year old I would get to show them how.

Transformers tagline was “more than meets the eye,” which is appropriate. Transformers required imagination. You had to look at one thing—say, a semi truck—and understand that it had the potential to become something else—Optimus Prime, which all experts agreed was the coolest transformer of them all in the late 80s and early 90s. You had to have imagination to see what this thing could become, and to see how it could get there. To play with Transformers, you had to see differently, with more than just your eyes.

The story of Samuel anointing David is a story about imagination, about seeing differently, about looking at something the right way, which might not be the way you’re used to. It’s about training your eyes, your heart, and your imagination to see things as God sees them.

Looking on the Heart

This story is probably familiar to most of us. God has just rejected Saul as king over Israel, because Saul disobeyed God. God tells Samuel to stop grieving for Saul, travel to Bethlehem, and find a man named Jesse. One of his sons, God says, is the one I have chosen to be king over Israel in place of Saul. So Samuel goes, and he sees Jesse’s son Eliab and thinks “Surely this is the LORD’s anointed.” But God tells him, “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.” Eventually, after seeing seven of Jesse’s sons, Samuel discovers that God has chosen David, the youngest son. It was David who apparently had the kind of heart that the LORD was seeking.

But I don’t think it’s David’s heart that’s the main question in this story. David is soon going to emerge as the central character of the rest of 1 and 2 Samuel, and will be known as a man after God’s own heart. What’s in his heart will be important when he fights Goliath; when he’s on the run from Saul; when he refuses to kill Saul and take the throne by force; and when he sleeps with Bathsheba and has her husband killed. David’s heart will be the focus of all those stories, but it’s not the focus here. The focus here is Samuel’s heart—his attitude, his thinking, his feeling, his conscience, and most importantly, his imagination. Samuel is the main character in this story; Samuel is the one who needs to learn to see as God sees.

The whole story, in fact, is an account of God gradually opening Samuel’s eyes, until Samuel can look at a situation and a person and see more than meets the eye. It’s a story of Samuel, step by step, acquiring a godly imagination.

Asking the Ridiculous Question

At the beginning of the story, Samuel is grieving over Saul. But God helps him see a better future, the possibility of a new king. Then Samuel wonders how he can do it, because if Saul hears about it, he will kill Samuel. Again, God shows Samuel what to do, how to travel to Bethlehem safely by offering a sacrifice and inviting Jesse’s sons to the sacrifice. And when he’s there, God helps Samuel see that the LORD’s choice for a king will depend on the man’s heart, not on his outward appearance. One step at a time, God opens Samuel’s imagination, enabling him to see differently. He comes to see new possibility where before there was only failure; he comes to see a way past what looks like an insurmountable obstacle; he comes to see people the way God sees them, acquiring an ability to look at the heart and not only with his eyes.

But the real test of Samuel’s new imagination is what happens when Samuel sees all of Jesse’s sons and realizes that the LORD has not chosen any of these. He asks a ridiculous question: “Are all your sons here?” I say this is a ridiculous question because Samuel had invited “Jesse’s sons” to the sacrifice—not just some of his sons, but all of his sons. And Jesse made 7 of his sons pass before Samuel. In the Bible, 7 is the number of perfection or completion. So symbolically, all of the sons are here—the number 7 suggests it. What it seems like is that all of Jesse’s sons are here. Samuel had no reason to believe otherwise. I want you to understand what a leap of imagination this must have been, to wonder if there might be something more. From everything his eyes and his prior knowledge told him, Samuel had every reason to conclude that all of Jesse’s sons were standing in front of him. And God had told Samuel that one of Jesse’s sons would be anointed king.

Most of us probably would have thought “I must be misunderstanding something.” Either the LORD sent me to the wrong Jesse, but probably, one of these guys is the new king and I’m just not hearing the LORD right. Most of us would have looked at the choices in front of us and picked the best of the available options. Maybe it’s Eliab after all—he’s got a royal vibe, seems like a strong leader.

But Samuel had the imagination to see more than what was standing in front of him. He had the imagination to ask “Are all of your sons here?” He had the ability to envision something new, to ask an unexpected question that opened the way for still another new possibility. “There is still the youngest,” Jesse said, “but he is with the sheep.” “We won’t eat until he gets here,” Samuel said. And when he arrived, Samuel saw that this was the LORD’s chosen one. And he anointed David as the new king—the beginning of David’s dynasty, the ancestor of Jesus the Messiah.

God was making a way, but it required Samuel to have a godly imagination to find and follow that way.

This is a story about imagination. It’s a story about Samuel’s imagination, Samuel’s ability to see the present and future as God sees it, unhindered by the limitations of everything he thinks he knows and sees.

And like so many stories in the Bible, it’s also about you and me—it’s about our imagination, our ability to see our own lives, our circumstances, our society as God sees them, not letting our own preconceptions or attitudes hold back our ability to envision something better that God has in store for us.

Now Is the Time for a New Imagination

If God’s people ever needed to develop a new imagination, that time is now. We want to think that it’s only non-Christians who need to change, who need to learn to see better, who need a renewal of their hearts and lives. But the fact is, we followers of Jesus in the 21st century are the ones who need a new and better imagination.

Samuel was the Lord’s prophet, the holy man of Israel, the one everyone recognized as a trustworthy spokesperson for the Lord. Samuel was called a “seer,” for crying out loud, and his vision was faulty until the Lord spoke to him and showed him the right way to look at the world.

There’s a lesson here for us, the ones who think we see the world rightly because we speak Christian things and talk about the Bible. The sad truth is, we religious people are just as susceptible to spiritual blindness as everybody else. We lack a godly imagination even though we’re the ones who are supposed to have it. If you don’t believe me, just look at the hateful rhetoric that Christians spew on the internet toward people of other faiths, the very people Jesus commands us to love. Just look at the religious leaders, priests and preachers, who abused their authority so they could abuse people they were supposed to serve. Just look at the way Christian stuff is marketed using the same techniques as all the other stuff in this world, because so much of it is a business. (I work for a Christian publishing company, I’m pointing fingers at myself here too. We do good work and I believe in our mission, but sometimes I wonder.)

If you don’t believe we in the church need a new imagination, just look at the way our churches divide and split along lines of political ideology, mirroring the divisions in society when we ought to be finding a better way. Both liberals and conservatives claim the name of Jesus, and claim God’s support for the policies of their party of choice. Is one half of the Church mistaken? Never my half, always the other half, right? Or do all of us lack a godly imagination? I think all of us, in the church and out of the church, tend to be see dimly with a vision that would crown Eliab king because we focus on outward things like money, or power, or pleasure, or a thousand other things. Even we in the church need to learn to see as God sees.

If there was ever a time when God’s people needed a new imagination, that time is now. God wants you and me to have a new imagination, to be able to see our lives and this world as God sees them—to be able to see the future of life and hope that God wants to bring about—because God does want to bring about such a future, where the law of the land is truly love of God and love of our fellow humans.

We need a new imagination. It’s very easy to miss what God wants to do in our lives and communities because we’re too busy wallowing in the past and worrying in the present. I think we all have regrets. We look at the church of the past, and wonder why the church of the present isn’t as good as it used to be. We probably think it’s better than it really was, but the fact is that church attendance is declining, and the church has far less influence in society than it used to. It’s easy to look at the past with regret or sorrow, or to look at the present with despair.

Or maybe our personal story takes a bad turn, whether through mistakes we made or bad things that are totally out of our control. We face obstacles; we have setbacks; we fail. We get exactly what we want, only to discover it’s not as good as we thought it would be. You know what that’s like; we all do, those experiences are part of life, part of being human.

Going Beyond Regret and Despair

That’s where Samuel was at the beginning of this story. Samuel is grieving over Saul, he was looking with regret and sorrow at the past and present. Saul had been the king, and Samuel was Saul’s friend. Samuel had anointed Saul to be the first king over Israel, so Saul’s failure was Samuel’s failure. But God has rejected Saul for disobeying him, and as God’s prophet Samuel had delivered this harsh news to the king. And so Samuel was in his hometown, grieving Saul.

God’s first step is to get Samuel to see beyond Saul’s rejection and recognize the possibility of a new and better future. Samuel is wallowing in disappointment and regret. But God has seen the potential and promise of a new king among the sons of a man named Jesse in Bethlehem. God needs to lift up Samuel’s heart, to lift up his imagination.

And God needs to do that in our lives too. The hope in this story is that God meets us in those places of regret and despair and calls us forward into something new. “Get up, take your horn of oil, and go!” God says. And if we focus too much on the bad things of the past—or if we spend too much time missing the past—we risk missing out on what God has in store for us in the present and the future. So our first step has to be Samuel’s first step: we have to stop grieving, get up, and start following God’s lead. We have to listen to God, open ourselves to a new imagination by going where God tells us to go.

Listening to God

How do we know where God wants us to go?

We listen to God. That means reading the Bible, not just talking about the Bible; it means praying; it means going to church, worshiping God; it means receiving Communion; it means talking with your fellow Christians in a godly way so that you build each other up. It means doing all those things John Wesley called the means of grace, the ordinary channels through which the Holy Spirit speaks to us. Because here’s the thing: a lot of things are going to speak to you pretending to be God. A lot of those things are going to come through your television or your smart phone. That stuff is not God—even the news, even the Internet personalities you love and trust—those things are not God. Listen to God, through the means of grace, and it will help you see all those other messages for what they are. When Samuel listened to God, God began to open renew his imagination.

God saw something better for Samuel and the people of Israel than a failed, disobedient king. God sees something better for you and me too, and God wants to renew our imagination to help us see it.

You’re Dead Anyway

There’s risk to Samuel in following God. “How can I go?” Samuel asks. “If Saul hears about it, he will kill me.” Samuel’s life is in danger. God’s next step is to help Samuel see past the risk of his own life and help him envision a way to carry out this what God has called him to do. So God instructs Samuel to celebrate a sacrifice, and to invite Jesse and his sons to the sacrifice. God moves Samuel from “this is impossible” to “If we do it this way, maybe it can work.” And God gives Samuel courage to try even though it’s risky.

I have a friend who used to talk about hard things God calls us to do—the way our commitment to following Jesus makes us uncomfortable, leads us to places we’d rather not go, requires some sacrifice from us. My friend would often say about these things, “You’re dead anyway.” What he meant by that is that we who are baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into his death, we have died with Christ so that we might have the hope of being raised with Christ. We’ve died to sin, we’ve died to our old self, we’ve died to our faulty way of seeing the world. So we can take risks, we can be creative in our pursuit of God’s will, and maybe we’ll fail, but we’re dead anyway. Because we’ve died with Christ, we have the hope of eternal life anyway. When we realize that, it changes the way we see the world, we start to get a new imagination. We begin to see the world as God sees it, and we begin to act accordingly.

Don’t Settle for Less Than God’s Will

And finally, when Samuel followed God, Samuel developed the confidence and the imagination not to settle for less than God’s will. When Samuel looked at Jesse’s 7 oldest sons, conventional wisdom and observation told him that these were all the possibilities. But Samuel knew that God’s will was not there, and he didn’t settle for what was possible; he opened his imagination to something that seemed impossible and asked a ridiculous, unexpected question. “Are all your sons here?”

If we want a godly imagination, we have to commit ourselves to God’s will and risk asking ridiculous, unexpected questions of our lives and of our world. Is this really it? Are these all the possibilities? Isn’t there anything else we can do? Isn’t there any other choice we can make?

When we relentlessly look at the heart and ask after God’s will, then we have an opportunity to find surprising, creative answers to these questions in our lives and in our communities. We can find answers that truly look like faith, and hope, and love, that truly result in peace, and joy, and generosity, and truth.

It’s my hope that you, and I, and all of us will have a godly imagination, that we’ll be capable of seeing the things that God would bring about and how God is calling us to be a part of them—because as one of my favorite poets once said, “Nothing can save us that is possible. We who must die demand a miracle” (W.H. Auden, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio). It takes imagination to demand a miracle. And this is a story about imagination.

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