Fourth Sunday After Pentecost

Life has been compared to a battle. When I was growing up, my dad used to tell me: “Son, life is a battle.” When I was older, whenever I went home to visit, my dad used to ask me: “Son, how goes the battle?” The word “battle” is offensive to some today. They say that it engenders a spirit of aggression, even violence, especially in young boys. Maybe they have a point. Nonetheless, it captures how people experience their lives. There is a struggle, because there is opposition. And sometimes this opposition is so fierce that it threatens to overwhelm and defeat us.


Our first lesson gives us the occasion to revisit one of the most epic battles of all time. We have here the famous contest between David and Goliath. In the ancient world, there are stories in which a single contest between two champions replaces battle between their respective armies. Coming from the second millennium BC, there is the story of the Egyptian named Sinuhe, forced into such a contest. He stood up to a warrior who had no equal, who had conquered all the land. Sinuhe outwitted him, and defeated him in hand to hand combat, using his own battle axe against him. And then there is the classic scene in Homer’s Illiad, where the Greek hero Achilles fights the Trojan hero Hector. People may remember the film adaptation of the scene in the movie Troy, in which Brad Pitt plays the role of Achilles.  


A single contest between two men is what is proposed here. There is a champion in the Philistine camp named Goliath. He calls out to the Israelite army to send a man to come and meet him in a fair fight. If he is defeated by this one, then the Philistines will become Israel’s slaves. But if he prevails and kills the Israelite, then Israel will become the slaves of the Philistines.


The terms of this proposal are definitely favorable to the Philistine side. Goliath is a formidable foe. He stands over 9 and a half foot fall. He wears 125 pounds of armor. And he wields a spear with a 15 pound iron head. There is no one in the ranks of Israel’s army who can overcome and defeat him. All the soldiers are stricken with fear.


We referred earlier to the opposition we face in life. “Goliath” is or used to be a well-known trope in our language. Goliath represents to us the opponent we cannot defeat. We’ve come to the end of our rope. We’ve concluded it is hopeless. We’ve exhausted all our resources. We’ve considered all our options. We wake up in the morning and return to the battle lines day after day, but we are just going through the motions. We’re not getting anywhere. There’s no forward progress, there are no breakthroughs. As long as Goliath stands between us and our most cherished goals, we cannot reach them. We get discouraged. We lose heart. Goliath ridicules us, curses our efforts, and makes us feel ashamed of ourselves for even trying. We are at a standstill, paralyzed with fear.


One day David shows up at the Israelite camp. He is not a warrior, much less a champion. He’s a shepherd, as we learned last week. His father has sent him with supplies to his brothers on the battlefront. He is there long enough to hear the taunts of the enemy Goliath. Israel does not know it then, but it’s in this shepherd boy that their hope of victory rests.


We can pause here to ask the question: Does God’s help come to us in the form that we do not expect? How God works in this world is opaque to us. Ecclesiastes tells us that nobody can understand what God does here in this world. No matter how hard people try to understand it, they cannot. Even if wise people say they understand, they cannot; no one can really understand it (8:17). That is true to our experience. But one thing we do know. God prefers to display his power in human weakness. This is what he actually tells the Apostle Paul when Paul begged him in prayer to take away his thorn in the flesh. God refused, and said to him instead: “My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). Paul makes the same point elsewhere: “God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong” (2 Cor. 1:27). How else are we to understand David and Goliath? Indeed, how else are we to understand the central claim of the Christian faith—that is, in the crucifixion of a powerless man God has triumphed over all the powers that stand against him and his people?


God’s people are not impressed with David. Eliab, the tall and good-looking brother destined to be a success in life, as we noted last time—he does not think that the battlefront is any place for a little runt like David. Saul too is nonplussed. “You cannot go up and fight against this Philistine, for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior since his youth.”


Saul represents the voice of reason, the voice of the narrow, calculating self. This is how we are in the face of the Goliath that opposes us. Reason tells us: “Be realistic. Clearly you can see what you’re up against. There’s nothing you can do about it.” We are not open to help from an unexpected source, because we don’t face our opposition from the stance of faith. Jesus tells his disciples about this stance when he says: “if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you” (Matt. 17:20).


Is it possible that our own Goliath persists in our life, because we don’t have faith? Let’s be clear. It’s not as though our faith itself will remove it. That is wishful thinking. But it is our faith that opens us up to receive help from the God in whom we have put our faith. And it is our faith that gives us the eyes to see this help when it arrives in a form we do not expect. Saul does not have this faith. Therefore he cannot see this help in the person of David.


It’s not as if faith is a rejection of reason. If the help does not make sense at first, that does not mean that it’s nonsense. David may not be a warrior, but he’s not a novice. He’s had his own training. This would not be his first fight. When he was in the pasture tending the sheep, he faced fierce opponents. Whenever a lion or a bear snatched one of the sheep, David’s job was to rescue it. There was no one to help, no one to call. But David went after the sheep and rescued it from the jaws of the predator. And if the lion or the bear turned on him, he seized it by the hair, struck it and killed it. David may not be a warrior, but he emerged victorious from harrowing, life-threatening battles. He knew these victories happened, thanks to the power of God.


It’s on the foundation of these smaller victories that David builds his expectation of a bigger one. There’s something for us to see here too. Whenever we face an impossible situation, God invites us to recall his past faithfulness to us. There were past situations that appeared to us impossible, but God brought us through them. If God did this for us in the past, why can’t we trust him to do this again for us in the present? But we don’t tend to do this. The fear and anxiety of the present moment always cloud our vision of the past. Instead of quietly trusting God, we are like the disciples in the boat in our gospel lesson. In their desperation, they cry out: “Teacher, don’t you care that we are perishing?” We have a hard time remembering God’s past faithfulness in times of crisis. But David chooses to remember it. That’s why he can say with confidence: “The Lord who saved me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will save me from the hand of this Philistine.”


David’s words are meant to persuade Saul to let him fight the giant. Saul commissions him with God’s blessing, but we wonder whether he really heard David’s words. His immediate response is to clothe him in his armor. This is reasonable, but that’s precisely the point. Saul operates within a frame where faith has no place. He’s imagining that God’s people wage war as the world does. He does not know that the weapons God’s people fight with are not the weapons of the world. Saul is unspiritual and worldly. That’s why he’s ineffective in leading this battle, which is a spiritual one.


David leaves the armor behind, and then goes to the stream to select five smooth stones. This is an insult to the giant. David’s behavior suggests that he’s going to play fetch with a dog. The contrast between the champion’s impressive armor and weaponry and David’s sling and stones is dramatic. But we should not underestimate David’s strategy. Bible students tell us here that the stones would likely have been between 2 and 3 inches in diameter and, and when flung by a competent marksman, could reach speeds of 100 to 150 miles per hour.  


In fact, Goliath does underestimate the threat that David poses. Goliath was used to dominating the room wherever he went. He was used to facing greater, more formidable opponents than the boy before him. That’s why he doesn’t give David a dressing down. David is not worth his time. His words are brief, which reflect his naïve belief that he will make quick work of the boy.


Goliath is not prepared for the speech that David gives to him. Only when he hears David’s words does he realize that he’s in no ordinary battle. He’s in a spiritual battle. His adversary is not the shepherd boy; it is the God of the armies of Israel. This is a battle he cannot win. This may be hard for us to appreciate when the Goliath we face harasses us day after day. We lack perspective. We have forgotten the word that God addresses to us as his children: “You belong to God, and have conquered them; for greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world” (1 John 4:4). The popular saying: “God is bigger than your problem” applies here. Perhaps the first step in overcoming the Goliath in our lives is the determination to see God as bigger than our problem.   


Goliath comes with sword and spear and javelin. These are the weapons of the world, weapons we can see, weapons that make us afraid. But David comes in the name of the Lord, who does not save with sword and spear. David has the right perspective. The battle is the Lord’s.


The battle does not last long. After all the anticipation, the fatal blow happens in an instant. There is only one stone slung at the giant, and it finds its mark. The giant falls face down on the ground. We should not miss the significance of this last verse. It is a gesture of worship. The giant falls prostrate before the one true God. We spoke earlier about the right perspective. Worship brings things into focus. It allows us to see God better. When the almighty God is in view, our giant’s power in our thinking begins to fade.


What are the Goliaths in your life? Giants come in all shapes and sizes. Whatever they may be, the good news is that it is not God’s will for us to live with anything that paralyzes us with fear, that demoralizes us day after day. These giants harm us and rob God of the glory in our lives. God wants to take down our giants so we can walk free and live a life of integrity. God does this because it brings glory to his name. God wants people around us to look at our lives and say: “Your God is real!” Let us put our faith in the God of David, the God of Israel. Let us trust him to defeat the giants in our lives. Amen.   


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