One day I hopped on the Lake Street El in Oak Park, IL, got off in the Chicago Loop at Adams and Wabash, walked over to the Grant Park bandshell to listen to the likes of Delta Blues legend Sleepy John Estes play a solo set on guitar at the Blues Festival. Then came Bo Diddley and all the Diddleys with two drummers up on risers, back-up singers, dancers; a full-on stage show. His iconic Bo Diddley sound backed him as he sang songs like:
You can't judge an apple by looking at a tree,
You can't judge honey by looking at the bee,
You can't judge a daughter by looking at the mother,
You can't judge a book by looking at the cover.
Oh can't you see,
Oh you misjudge me,
I look like a farmer,
But I'm a lover,
All these years later, it turns out this is one of the major themes of the Bible: things are not as they seem to those who walk in faith. Consider Samuel sent by God on a mission to find Israel’s next king, for YHWH had immediately regretted making Saul the first king for his people [1 Samuel 15:34-16:13]. Samuel is sent to Bethlehem just outside Jerusalem to the family of Jesse. The folks are fearful at his appearance, and with good reason. Sam had just been sent by God to clean up one of Saul’s failed assignments. The result: “Samuel hewed Agag, king of the Amalekites, in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal [15:32].” When Sam invites them to join him in offering a sacrifice to the Lord you can bet they accepted the invitation. Then the pageant begins. With the Lord whispering in Sam’s ear, Jesse is instructed to bring out each of his sons, beginning with Eliab. Eliab made quite an impression on Samuel, but the Lord cautioned, “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.”
It turns out, according to Walter Brueggemann, et. al., (in their commentary Texts for Preaching), “The LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” The various ways in which men and women in our and every age are tempted to do just the opposite can be documented in our racism, our sexism, and our various forms of idolatry (love of money, clothing, glitzy automobiles, and the like). It is only when we learn to see beyond that which is most visible that we begin to assess people in terms of their character and their commitments.” Shorthand analysis: You can’t judge a book by looking at its cover.”
Eliab is turned away along with six other sons of Jesse. The Lord says, see if there is just one more son, as if he doesn’t know! Well, says Jesse, there is the youngest little runt of the litter who is out tending sheep. A shepherd. Evidently a good shepherd, perhaps like that other good shepherd of old, Moses. Sure enough, small of stature with ruddy cheeks, in comes David and God says to Sam, we’ll take that one! YHWH instructs Samuel to anoint him then and there, and immediately, we are told, the Spirit of the Lord “came mightily upon David from that day forward.” The rest, as they say, is history, and centuries later another good shepherd is born, in Bethlehem some say, a child named Jesus, son of Joseph who was of the house of David.
St. Paul picks up on this theme writing to the church in Corinth, “so that you may be able to answer those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart. For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all…” [2 Corinthians: 5:13]. What the world sees as death is just the beginning of a whole new life, a whole new creation! Or, put somewhat differently, those who, like Paul, “walk by faith, not by sight,” see the whole world in new ways that remain “unseen” to others in this world: “… even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” We can be confident in this despite how things may look at the present time. You can’t judge a book or the world by looking at the cover. We see not as others see, but as the Lord sees: others may look at outward appearances, but those who walk by faith and not by sight, like the Lord, look at the heart.
And when Jesus, that distant relative of King David, speaks of the Kingdom of God, of God’s reign in this world, or what Verna Dozier calls The Dream of God, “a friendly world of friendly folk beneath a friendly sky,” he speaks of this Dream of God as hidden, not always visible, but always present and always growing and spreading we know not how [Mark 4:26-34]. Nor is it necessarily the result of our labor. They ways of God are hidden and mysterious. It’s like a seed a farmer plants in the ground, hidden in the darkness of the soil. The farmer sleeps and wakes while the rains come, the sun shines, nutrients in the soil do their work, and the grain sprouts the farmer knows not how until one day the harvest is ready. Like the Corinthians, it may not be readily apparent, but it is coming, and surprise: it is here! Don’t be fooled by appearances, look more deeply into the heart of things. You can’t judge a book by looking at the cover!
It is like a mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds that somehow becomes a great bush, so great that the birds of the air can nest in its branches – God’s creatures can find home and shelter out of what begins as the most insignificant tiny seed. Sheltering any and all who come to rest in its branches. Who could imagine such a thing? The Dream of God is like this tiny seed – can we see to the very heart of God’s Dream as it comes to fruition in us and around us? Do we see that we are the shrub in which others come to rest and shelter among our branches? Or, like most mortals, do we look at the world and simply judge the surface of things and people and events? Later Jesus will say, if we only have faith as small as a mustard seed, we can uproot trees and plant them in the sea; we can see how we have misjudged everything looking at the surface and not at the heart of things. If we only have faith as small as a mustard seed!
If you have faith as small as a mustard seed/
If you have faith as small as a mustard seed
You can take trees and hurl them in the sea/
You can take trees and hurl them in the sea
The lame will walk and the blind will see/
The lame will walk and the blind will see
Wars will cease with the end of greed/
Wars will cease with the end of greed
Loaves multiply so there’s enough to feed/
Loaves multiply so there’s enough to feed
As you sow you shall receive/
As you sow you shall receive
As you pray you will believe/
As you pray you will believe
Trust in the Lord, He’ll supply every need/
Trust in the Lord, He’ll supply every need
As you follow Christ you’ll begin to lead/
As you follow Christ you’ll begin to lead