1 Samuel 16:1-13 – Solitude of the Heart

The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king.”

But Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears about it, he will kill me.”

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 to do. You are to anoint for me the one I indicate.”

Samuel did what the Lord said. When he arrived at Bethlehem, the elders of the town trembled when they met him. They asked, “Do you come in peace?”

Samuel replied, “Yes, in peace; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord. Consecrate yourselves and come to the sacrifice with me.” Then he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord.”

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

Then Jesse called Abinadab and had him pass in front of Samuel. But Samuel said, “The Lord has not chosen this one either.” Jesse then had Shammah pass by, but Samuel said, “Nor has the Lord chosen this one.” Jesse had seven of his sons pass before Samuel, but Samuel said to him, “The Lord has not chosen these.” So, he asked Jesse, “Are these all the sons you have?”

“There is still the youngest,” Jesse answered. “He is tending the sheep.”

Samuel said, “Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives.”

So, he sent for him and had him brought in. He was glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features.

Then the Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; this is the one.”

So, Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David. Samuel then went to Ramah. (New International Version)

Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is the richness of self. - May Sarton

Appearances can be deceiving.

One of the best ways to see beyond mere physical sight is to engage in the spiritual practice of solitude. Solitude is not loneliness but a deliberate retreat from normal routines to be alone with the Lord.

The faith of both Samuel and David were strengthened through solitude. It prepared them for public service and made them godly. Because they had established patterns of being alone with God, they had an inward solitude even when in a crowd. That is why Samuel could have an interaction with the Lord, even when among lots of people.

Solitude is important because it is the true path to listening well.  A person whose faith has been shaped through solitude has an ability to carry on a dialogue with God while, at the same time, having a conversation with others.

Christ’s relationship with the Father was formed through solitude. Jesus was able to have simultaneous conversations with God and people since he practiced solitude on a regular basis. Jesus began his ministry with solitude (Matthew 4:1-11); made major decisions through solitude (Luke 6:12); and taught his disciples to practice solitude (Matthew 17:1-9; 26:36-46).

Solitude is necessary because engaging the world is important. Effective interaction with others requires times of retreat for solitude with God. Solitude as a spiritual discipline:

  • Gives us freedom from the need for constant noise and activity.
  • Allows God to shape our faith rather than conform to the world.
  • Liberates us from other people’s expectations for us.
  • Helps quiet internal noise and racing thoughts so we can better listen to God.
  • Provides the opportunity for reflection upon and preparation for future events.
  • Creates encouraging speech for the benefit of others.
  • Fuels a desire to keep practicing solitude because of its benefit.

Solitude taught Samuel obedience.

Samuel learned obedience through years of solitude with old Eli the priest. “Speak Lord, for I am listening” became a way of life for Samuel, as he was trained in how to listen well. 

Samuel’s greatness as the Judge of Israel did not lie in his original ideas or the initiatives he took, but in simple obedience to the commands of God. Years of obscurity and solitude as a child created the ability to hear and carry-out what the Lord told him to do.

Even Samuel, as godly as he was, could not rely on personal observations about choosing the next king of Israel. Because he had long years of practicing solitude with the Lord, Samuel was able to clearly hear divine speech and anointed the right person as king. Samuel did not trust his own judgment but relied on God’s direction.

Solitude characterizes God.

Christians serve a triune God of Father, Son, and Spirit. God has complete and perfect solitude along with focused engagement with humanity. Through spending time with God, people can simultaneously interact with divinity and humanity.

It is a bit like my wife who began her broadcasting career in radio by simulcasting the AM station in one ear of her headphones, and the FM station in the other ear. She could que a record for the FM station while, at the same time, forecasting the weather for the AM station. Her ability was born of practice and commitment to her craft.  In the same way, we have been given a vocation to engage the church and world, and the ability to have a solitude of heart while interacting with others.

God, unlike us, sees us completely, inside-and-out – which is why we are dependent upon solitude of heart so that we can make proper judgments. God urged Samuel to not look at the outward appearance because this is how wrong judgments happen.

Solitude formed David into a king.

David was on nobody’s short list to become king. He was so far out there as a candidate for the position that his own family did not even think it necessary to have him present for the sacrificial feast. It is just like God to have a way of choosing the people we think would be the least likely to do anything.

Being in the pasture day after day and night after night by himself was just the right curriculum that trained the next king. Shepherding was not a lonely affair for David. It was a rich experience of solitude which developed a solid relationship with God. Out in the field, away from all the wrong judgments of the world, David learned to discern God’s voice – a skill he carried with him the rest of his life.

Solitude is our path to spiritual maturity.

Solitude might seem unrealistic for extroverts, and only something for introverts. Yet, solitude is essential to creating a robust faith in God. The following are some steps toward the practice of solitude and allowing it to bring you into a closer walk with the Lord.

  1. Practice “little solitudes” in the day. The early morning cup of coffee or shower, the drive-time to work, the lunch break, the quiet at night when all is dark and everyone in bed are opportunities for solitude with God to reorient and redirect our lives.
  2. Find or create a quiet place designed specifically for solitude. It might be a room, a closet, or a chair. It might be outdoors. It can be anywhere that helps you be free from distraction and invites you to connect deeply with Jesus.
  3. Begin the day by spending at least 10 minutes alone with God in silence. Over time, work your way to even more minutes, even hours. I am a believer in an hour a day keeping the devil away. Eventually, take an entire day away, every few months. Consider taking a weekend or even a week away once a year.
  4. Read Holy Scripture slowly and meditatively. Listen to what the Spirit may be saying in your reading.  Keep a journal handy and write down your observations. Allow prayers to arise from what you hear from the Lord.

This might seem optional only for those with discretionary time – but it is no more optional than planting in the Spring to get a harvest in the Fall. Such fruit results in the slaying of giants….

**Above photo by Rakicevic Nenad on Pexels.com

Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15 – Just Like a Cedar of Lebanon

It is good to give thanks to the Lord,
    to sing praises to your name, O Most High;
to declare your steadfast love in the morning,
    and your faithfulness by night,
to the music of the lute and the harp,
    to the melody of the lyre.
For you, O Lord, have made me glad by your work;
    at the works of your hands I sing for joy….

The righteous flourish like the palm tree,
    and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
They are planted in the house of the Lord;
    they flourish in the courts of our God.
In old age they still produce fruit;
    they are always green and full of sap,
showing that the Lord is upright;
    he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.
(New Revised Standard Version)

The Lebanon Cedar tree is the national symbol of the nation of Lebanon, displayed on their national flag. Throughout history, this massive tree has served as a positive image of strength, stability, and uprightness.

Although the tree grows to about eighty feet, what is most impressive about the Lebanon Cedar is it’s large canopy, with branches stretching out to fifty feet. Thus, we have an apt metaphor for the spiritual life.

Whenever we engage in consistent rhythms of giving thanks for God’s steadfast love in the morning and expressing gratitude for the Lord’s great faithfulness at night, we not only grow up in our faith – stretching vertically toward God – we also grow horizontally, reaching out and being a canopy of righteousness for those who need safety, security, and sameness.

Human flourishing occurs deliberately, not by happenstance. It takes intentional work in attending to the development of the soul, the needs of the body, educating the mind, and feeling deeply about things so that the whole person thrives and enjoys life.

Yes, the body grows old and we all must die. Yet, although we might physically waste away, our inner selves can continue growing strong and spreading a wide canopy of righteousness that branches out with grace.

Unfortunately, the great forests of cedars in Lebanon have dwindled over the centuries to 13% of what they once were, due to over-harvesting its wood for shipbuilding, furniture making, and other uses. Even old King Solomon used Lebanon Cedars as the timber for the original Temple to God. Today, the oldest trees still surviving are 3,000 years old – which makes them truly biblical trees.

Indeed, in old age they are still producing cones and sap. The cedars are a testament to strength, resilience, and staying power. And that is exactly what the Lord wants to produce in us – a massive testimony of faith and patience, rooted in the soil of God’s grace, slowly but surely growing for the benefit of others.

This growth is a direct result of God’s activity. The Lord nourishes and sustains humanity, providing the right conditions of righteous soil, living water from heaven, and the warm sun of grace and mercy. We are then able to stretch both tall and wide, becoming an earthly manifestation of God’s goodness.

The Lord doesn’t keep us down but extends abundant grace so that we can extend to others that which has been extended to us. And if we keep maintaining this divine/human rhythm of grace, there is an ongoing and seemingly endless process of growth, even across three millennia.

The Lebanon Cedar is one of the most hardy trees on the planet. It’s thick trunk, expansive branches, resistance to worms and insects, and fragrance make it an apt emblem for the spiritual life. The righteous person is like this majestic unwavering tree, standing as a testimony to longevity, strength, beauty, and usefulness in the world.

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. (Ephesians 3:16-21, NIV)

Luke 11:14-28 – Replace the Bad with the Good

Jesus was driving out a demon that was mute. When the demon left, the man who had been mute spoke, and the crowd was amazed. But some of them said, “By Beelzebub, the prince of demons, he is driving out demons.” Others tested him by asking for a sign from heaven.

Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them: “Any kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and a house divided against itself will fall. If Satan is divided against himself, how can his kingdom stand? I say this because you claim that I drive out demons by Beelzebub. Now if I drive out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your followers drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. But if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.

“When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own house, his possessions are safe. But when someone stronger attacks and overpowers him, he takes away the armor in which the man trusted and divides up his plunder.

“Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.

“When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first.”

As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.”

He replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.” (New International Version)

You have likely heard the old adage that nature abhors a vacuum. That is, when a loss or change leaves a hole in something, that hole will quickly get filled with something else.

To stop doing one thing is only half of a necessary process. To start doing another thing is crucial.

In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus tells a story about a demon-possessed man. He was delivered of his oppression. However, a problem arose because the man had no replacement for the demon. He simply did nothing after the demonic expulsion.

It didn’t take long for a group of demons, seemingly seeking such a situation as this man, and took full advantage of his vulnerability. In the end, the man was worse off than before – all because of the vacuum created without the hole being filled.

We are meant to hear God’s Word and obey. Both are necessary to the process of deliverance, growth, and spiritual development.

Whenever the process is only half-baked, we have double-minded people, divided in their loyalties between God and money/power or something else.

Getting rid of judgmental spirits is important but it’s only half the process. The other half is to intentionally make space for genuine inquiry, listening, and dialogue. Without the focus on helping one another through mutual discussion, a group of folks will inevitably degenerate into discouragement, even despair, as the demons of judgmentalism come back in full force.

Kicking hate to the curb only truly works if it is replaced with a spirit of love, concern, and compassion for one’s fellow human. An environment in which people feel free to share of themselves and their feelings is the result of deliberately seeking to do so. Simply policing hate in others eventually causes the demons of hate to establish themselves even deeper than before.

Attempting to eliminate a culture of secrecy and shame can only really come through courageous acts and words of creating a climate of openness which carefully and compassionately enables individuals to boldly name their shame and destroy the blood-sucking vampire feeding on them in the demonic shadows of night once-and-for-all.

A zombie apocalypse won’t happen, that is, unless the only thing we’re concerned about is getting rid of zombies. If our end game isn’t the thriving and flourishing of real live people, our planet will be overtaken with the living dead.

“We look forward to the time when the Power of Love will replace the Love of Power. Then will our world know the blessings of peace.”

William Gladstone

We live in a divided world, polarized chiefly around things we are against, rather than crafting a vision together of what we are for. It does little good to kick people out of power either through force or elections, only to have no collective and compelling cause to rally around and place our efforts.

I’m all in for the cause of living Christ’s Great Commission through making disciples, embodying the Great Commandment of loving God and neighbor, and taking up the Great Challenge to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly. It is these activities which motivate me to put away hate, hubris, and half-baked ideas so that a healthy process of spiritual formation can happen.

If our lives are already filled with a good spirit, there will be no room for any bad spirit to enter. And if we’ve picked up one, let’s make sure to not only expel it but occupy the space with the grace and goodness which comes from knowing a good and gracious God.

Be intentional about replacing the bad with the good. If a hole is created, fill it with mercy.

O God, the source of all health: Fill my heart with faith in your love, that with calm expectancy I may make room for your power to possess me, and gracefully accept your healing; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

**Above engraving of Jesus healing a demon possessed man, by an Italian artist, 1591.

Luke 8:4-15 – Christ’s Parable of the Soils

While a large crowd was gathering and people were coming to Jesus from town after town, he told this parable: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown.”

When he said this, he called out, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”

His disciples asked him what this parable meant. He said, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that,

“‘though seeing, they may not see;
    though hearing, they may not understand.’

“This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God. Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. Those on the rocky ground are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away. The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature. But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop. (New International Version)

The Parable

“Whoever has ears, let them hear,” said Jesus. Truly hearing Christ’s words and listening with focused attention is paramount to the Christian life. Our ears are the soil of our lives. Ears attentive and devoted to listening to Jesus are good soil; ears distracted, inattentive, and stopped up with ear wax are bad soil. Receptive listening to the Word of God brings a fruitful harvest of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. Genuinely believing what we hear from Jesus is crucial. God’s Word falls on four different soils….

  1. The seed on the path. A path is for walking, which is why the seed never takes root. Here there is no listening. When we act without listening, our actions will be misguided. 
  2. The seed on rocky soil.  Here there is no deep listening. A lack of attentive hearing results in a shallow person who perhaps relies more on Christian clichés or on their personality or abilities instead of the sown Word.
  3. The seed on the thorny soil. Here there is significant listening. However, there is too much listening to a cacophony of voices and not enough singular listening to the sown Word. Listening to the wrong voices will cause an unfruitful life. So, we must be careful to whom we are listening.
  4. The seed on good soil. A devoted listening to the Word without distraction leads to a productive, fruitful believer.

“There is a difference between listening and waiting for your turn to speak.”

Simon Sinek

The Nature of Parables

A parable is a genre of biblical literature. Parables are as much about concealing truth as they are conveying truth. A person must give focused attention to the story to learn from it, much like a good novel conveys truth about the human condition without being preachy or outright saying the truth. Or it’s much akin to a good movie relying on character development and the power of story for its message, instead of being a straightforward documentary.

Jesus neither strong-arms people nor puts them in a full nelson to force them into God’s will. We will miss out on God’s working, if we are looking for a big dramatic hoo-ha of an event. That’s because it comes as an awareness within people and works its way out. For those not intent on changing, they will find Christ’s words confusing. They might “hear” Jesus, yet fail to really listen, since they have their own ideas about how God ought to operate.

Yet, grace is still present. The very fact that Jesus addressed the crowd of people demonstrates he cared enough to communicate. He could have said, “Hey, you guys, get lost, I’m just going to interact with people who really listen to me.” Instead of coming at the crowd and bursting through the front door, Jesus mercifully came to them through the side door so that they would be able to receive the message. 

Puking the good news of Jesus all over people without really listening is a bad idea. Neither is being worried about saying something offensive, so nothing is said at all. A better approach is asking permission to tell your story of what Jesus means to you, or what you are learning from God’s Word.

The Parable Interpreted

The focus is the experience of the seed in a variety of soils. Outside powers acting on the Word – devouring birds, rocks, the burning sun, choking thorn-bushes – demonstrate the Word is central and needs to be received well:

  1. The path is the inability to hear God’s Word because of hard-heartedness. The devil snatches it before any real understanding can take place.
  2. The rocky soil is hearing just enough to respond with joy. But the person drops out when hard circumstances occur. “I didn’t sign up for this!” is their cry. They needed to count the cost of discipleship before responding to the message. This is merely a professing Christian, nothing more.  Rather than listening and internalizing the Word, there is only positive affirmation without any action or practice. So, tomorrow the message is gone and forgotten. When difficulty comes, there are no supporting words to draw from, so the person fades away, unable to navigate life successfully.
  3. The thorny soil also hears and responds to the message. This person is also a professing Christian, nothing more. The issue here is that they also listen to voices of worry and wealth. In a sort of spiritual attention-deficit-disorder, there is no ability to filter all the voices calling out, and so, no growth.
  4. Listening with the intention of understanding and putting into practice the message heard is what brings about fruit. Receiving the Word through careful listening brings about spiritual growth. God brings the growth when we focus on the Word. And when a whole group does this, then it creates a greenhouse effect in which people cannot help but grow in the Lord.

Conclusion to the Parable

The simple reception of God’s Word leads to fruitfulness. The first soil did not receive the Word, though it listened. The second received it with joy but under pressure let it go. The third received it with only one hand because the other hand was busy. Only the fourth soil received the Word with both hands.

Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law, day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—whatever they do prospers. (Psalm 1:1-3, NIV)

The old adage that we were created with two ears and one mouth, so that we will listen twice as much talk, is a truism. It’s hard to receive any words of encouragement, help, or reproof if you’re tongue is flapping in the wind.

Careful listening, attention to memory, and patient application are the pathways to realizing an abundant spiritual harvest of righteousness and peace.

*Above paintings, The Sower by Vincent Van Gogh, 1881 & 1888