But if we walk in the light, just as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ, His Son, cleanses us from all sin. 1 John 1:7

3rd Sunday in

1 Samuel 16:1-13

Today’s lesson from the First Book of Samuel includes this very significant statement:

“For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

Samuel had been told by God that he had chosen one of the sons of Jesse of Bethlehem to be the next king of Israel. But Samuel hadn’t initially been told which one.

Samuel assumed that one of Jesse’s older, stronger, and seemingly more accomplished sons would have been the Lord’s natural choice. To Samuel, they looked like good “king” material.

But God had chosen their youngest brother David instead. God could see things in David that Samuel could not see – things that made him preeminently qualified to be King Saul’s future successor on the throne, according to God’s standards.

Samuel was reminded on this occasion that he should never presume that he knows what God is doing or thinking, apart from God’s revelation of what he is doing and thinking. Samuel was reminded on this occasion that God’s will is always to be trusted and not second-guessed and that God’s actions are always to be accepted and not criticized, because God knows more than we do.

Of course, God knows more than we do about everything. But in this case, the focus was on the fact that God knows more than other people know regarding what is really going on in someone’s heart and mind.

God alone knows what someone’s inner beliefs and convictions really are. God alone knows what someone’s motives and intentions really are. And God alone knows what someone’s inner temptations and personal struggles really are.

“For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

We should always be wary of judging someone’s motives, or of drawing conclusions about the sincerity of someone’s faith, based only on subjective factors.

Certainly, we can make judgments and draw conclusions regarding such things on the basis of someone’s outward statements and outward actions. But otherwise, we are admonished by the Eighth Commandment – especially as our Small Catechism explains it – always to put the best interpretation on questionable things.

So, if someone says he believes in Jesus, then we accept that he believes in Jesus – even if we may have our doubts – unless he gives clear and incontrovertible evidence that he is not actually a Christian.

Also, the members of a congregation may be aware of a fellow member’s spiritual weaknesses and may observe that person’s occasional failures or frequent lapses in regard to some specific sin.

But others would probably not be aware of his just-as-frequent expressions of repentance in private confession with the pastor, or of his being absolved and confidentially counseled regularly by the pastor: as he daily struggles against his weaknesses with the Lord’s help, and as he daily calls upon the Lord for forgiveness – perhaps doing so even seventy times seven times.

So, the members generally may not know as much as the pastor knows. And of course, the pastor in such a case does not know as much as God knows, about what is really going on in somebody else’s heart.

The pastor knows what another person says he believes, and he responds accordingly. But the pastor does not – with absolute certainty – know what another person actually does believe.

“For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

When the Lord looks at your heart – when he probes and examines the tangled and confused thoughts and feelings that reside, all jumbled up, inside of you – what does he see?

You might be able to hide and cover up your religious hypocrisies, your wicked thoughts, your selfish motives, or your greedy desires so that other people don’t know about them. But don’t ever think that God does not know about them.

In Matthew’s Gospel, we hear Jesus say this:

“For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. These are the things which defile a man.”

Such defilements proceed from the human heart, because – according to the sinful nature that we have inherited from Adam, and with which we are all born – these defilements are in the human heart. And God sees them.

He sees all of them. According to the old Adam that is in you, and in his fiery holiness, God sees all of them in you. And he doesn’t like what he sees.

King David speaks these sober and sobering words in Psalm 53:

“God looks down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there are any who understand, who seek God. Every one of them has turned aside; they have together become corrupt; there is none who does good, no, not one.”

There are consequences to what our holy God sees, and to the righteous judgments that he makes based on what he sees. Through the Prophet Jeremiah, the Lord himself declares:

“The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked; who can know it? I, the Lord, search the heart, I test the mind, even to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his doings.”

A human being – even an unregenerated and unbelieving human being – can hide the more shameful and repulsive aspects of his sinful heart from other people. He can suppress the more overtly harmful impulses that arise from within himself, and not outwardly act on them.

He can be a respectable person in this world. According to the standards of civil righteousness, he may indeed be respectable and may be successful in restraining himself from committing crimes and publicly disgracing himself.

But what is in his heart – in his mind, in his soul and spirit, and in his will – is not hidden from God. It does not escape God’s notice. And unless something extraordinary intervenes – something gracious and something divine – it will not escape God’s punishment on the Day of Judgment.

“For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

What people need – what all people need – is a new heart: a heart that does not anger God when he sees it, and when he sees what is in it. And so we pray regularly, in the words of Psalm 51,

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”

And that is what God does in the gospel of his Son Jesus Christ.

Long ago, through the Prophet Ezekiel, God had promised to do this for his chosen people: and through them for the disciples of his Son who would be taken from all nations; and be baptized into the new spiritual Israel, destined in Christ for an eternal, heavenly promised land. The Lord says:

“For I will take you from among the nations, gather you out of all countries, and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you… I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes…”

This is what happens when God’s message of forgiveness and renewal in Christ comes to you, touches you, and creates and restores faith within you.

This is what God the Father does in you by his Spirit. And this is what God the Father now sees in you in his Son: who died and rose again for you, to reconcile you to God; and who now lives in you, to enlighten your mind, to liberate your will, and mystically to live out his life of love for humanity through you.

In his Epistle to the Ephesians, St. Paul offers a prayer for the Ephesians, and for all Christians both strong and weak; and he offers encouragement to the Ephesians, and to all Christians in all times and places. He writes:

“I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, …that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height – to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

We continually need this kind of prayer, and this kind of encouragement: from St. Paul on the sacred page of Scripture, and from each other in the fellowship of the church. We continually need God’s pardon and help, which he does graciously offer in the means of grace: whenever his forgiveness is verbally announced into our ears, and sacramentally placed into our mouths.

We always need these things from God and from God’s people, because we always vacillate between our old sinful nature, which is still inside of us, and our new godly nature, which God has birthed within us.

The old nature is filled with death and corruption, while the new nature is filled with God’s grace and life. But the power of life is stronger than the power of death. The grace of God is stronger than the corruption of sin.

And, the righteousness of Christ covers all who repent and truly believe in him: justifying them before God; and making them acceptable and pleasing to God, in time and in eternity. In his Epistle to the Romans – quoting also from Psalm 32 – Paul writes that for one who believes in the gracious God who justifies the ungodly,

“his faith is accounted for righteousness, just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; Blessed is the man to whom the Lord shall not impute sin.”

So, when we come before God in Christ – redeemed by his atoning sacrifice, and washed in his blood – God does not see the death and the corruption. When he looks inside of us – not in his fiery holiness but in his grace, through the lens of his Son’s righteousness – he doesn’t see evil and decay.

He sees the wondrous, saving work of his own hands. He sees Christ, who dwells in our hearts through faith.

Even if we often falter and fail – and if our faith is weak – we have a right standing before God, as long as the one to whom we cling with that faith is Christ.

Even if we experience our own existence as a life that is full of inconsistencies – and if other people see us in that way, too – God, in Christ, does not see us in that way. He sees us, and counts us, as beloved children in his family, and as full citizens of his kingdom: from whom all sin has been lifted and cast away in Christ as far as the east is from the west.

“For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” Amen.