When I was growing up, in the days before cell phone cameras were ubiquitous, there was a popular TV show called “Candid Camera.” Those of you who are old enough may remember that the program’s premise was that the show’s crew would set up some kind of strange or silly situation – like a mailbox that talked when you put letters in it – then film ordinary people’s reaction with a hidden camera.
At some point the show’s host, Allen Funt, would step out and say to the person caught unknowingly on film, “Smile, you’re on candid camera.”
The show’s theme song is one of those useless bits of trivia that my brain has retained for decades. It went like this – “When you least expect it, you’re elected. It’s your lucky day. Smile, you’re on candid camera.”
I’m fairly sure that Allen Funt and company did not intend this, but the first line of that theme song – “when you least expect it, you’re elected” – has a decidedly scriptural message, one that could easily be applied to today’s Old Testament reading.
It is a difficult time in the history of Israel. Saul, the first king of that promised land, has turned out to be a disappointment, so much so that God regrets making him king.
“Quit grieving over Saul,” God tells the prophet Samuel, who has been Saul’s mentor and proponent. “I have rejected him from being king over Israel.”
God is looking ahead now, and has already chosen the next king, one of the sons of Jesse from Bethlehem. At God’s orders, Samuel goes to Bethlehem and finds Jesse, and asks Jesse and his sons to come make a sacrifice to God.
When Samuel sees Jesse’s oldest son, Eliab, tall and handsome, he is sure this must be the one God has chosen to be king of Israel.
But God quickly lets Samuel know he is wrong. “I have rejected him,” God says. “The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
One by one, seven of Jesse’s sons come before Samuel, but God rejects each one. Perplexed, Samuel asks Jesse if he has any other sons.
Well, there is one more, Jesse says. The youngest, David. But he’s not here; he is away tending the sheep.
We’ll wait until someone goes and gets him, Samuel replies.
We can imagine that they had to wait quite awhile, maybe several days, because sheep can wander far afield while grazing.
But finally the boy arrives and appears before Samuel, not knowing why he has been summoned.
And God says, “Rise and anoint him, for this is the one.”
The one who is least expected is elected. The boy David is filled with God’s spirit from that day forward.
David, of course, becomes the greatest king of Israel – brilliant in battle, an accomplished musician, faithful servant of God, ancestor of Jesus. Many of our psalms are attributed to him.
We often forget David’s humble beginnings or fail to recognize how unlikely it was that he be chosen as king of Israel.
David hardly had the pedigree of a king. His family had humble roots. And even within that humble family David is not a prominent figure, the youngest son, relegated to the lowly job of shepherd. So unimportant that his own father doesn’t think to call him in when Samuel asks to meet his sons.
Yet this is the one who God chooses to rule over Israel, and whose bloodline leads to the Savior of the world.
The truth is that God has a habit of electing the least expected.
Who else would choose Abraham, age 99, and Sarah, age 90, to give birth to a son whose descendants would become the nation of Israel?
Who else would choose Moses, a stutterer on the lam for murder, to lead the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt and to the promised land?
Who else would choose Mary, a young, unwed, poor teen-age girl to be the mother of the Messiah?
Who else would choose as the Messiah’s first followers not the powerful or prominent members of the religious establishment, but fishermen, tax collectors and a woman possessed by demons?
And after the Messiah dies, who else would choose Paul, one of the most rabid persecutors of Christians, to become the most prominent evangelist and theologian in the history of Christianity?
As Paul says in his letter to the Christians in Corinth, “God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.”
None of these pivotal figures in the history of our faith were likely to have been chosen by the standards of the world. But as God reminds Samuel, God sees differently from humans.
We are likely to look at the outward appearances, the pedigree, the credentials. God sees the heart, the will, and inner character. And so God finds possibilities for grace in the most unexpected places and through the most unlikely people.
This habit of God did not end with the close of scripture. Throughout history we find that the greatest good often comes not from the rich and powerful and influential, but through unexpected vessels of God’s grace.
Think of Rosa Parks, whose refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus sparked a civil rights movement that changed this nation.
Rosa Parks was steeped in her faith, and had trained in civil disobedience. She was ready to act in faith when the opportunity arose, but a black middle-aged seamstress was still an unlikely candidate to change the course of history, as were many of her colleagues in the Civil Rights movement.
And of course, God also elects people for tasks that do not change history, but are important nonetheless.
People like my friend from Nashville, Charlie Strobel, a Catholic priest who looked out his window one very cold winter night and saw a group of homeless men gathered around a fire in a trashcan, trying to keep warm.
Charlie went out and invited them to spend the night in the church. They came back the next night and the night after that. Soon Charlie was calling other churches to ask them to open their doors.
And thus was born Room in the Inn, a program in which dozens of Nashville churches have provided thousands of nights of shelter to people without homes.
Charlie wasn’t expecting to be elect to care for the city’s homeless, but God had other plans.
God’s patterns are clear, and yet we so often forget or ignore them. Like Samuel gazing at Jesse’s oldest son, we tend to confuse appearance for reality.
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann notes, “We still live in communities for which the patterns of power seek to become permanently entrenched.
“Too often we fail to look for possibilities of grace and hope beyond traditional channels of power, influence and success.
“We ignore the possibilities in those who are customarily absent from the gathering of power – those who live in the inner cities, the elderly, immigrants, and people of other races and faiths,” he says.
“We do not believe that God can find hope for a new future among the marginalized and dispossessed. We may not truly believe that God can find the possibility of grace in us.”
But God’s actions throughout history tell us otherwise. They tell us to pay attention to those on the margins.
And they tell us not to discount our own worth and potential as instruments of God’s grace.
God is always calling us, as individuals and as a community, to step out in faith, to take risks, to allow ourselves to be filled with God’s spirit, to believe that God sees possibilities in us that we could never dream for ourselves, to be open to the possibility that when we least expect it, God may elect us.