Sermon for Trinity 3.
1 Samuel 17:45
But David said to the Philistine, ‘You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.
Do you ever feel, like me, that the church is somewhat the underdog today? What with falling numbers, rising bills and the slow onslaught of secularism, we can feel perhaps that the giants are just too many.
If that’s the case, the story of David and Goliath has much to teach us. We know the story from Sunday School and as a stand alone tale it tells us of victory for the little man – victory for the one who trusted in God, despite appearances suggesting his imminent defeat.
Most of us will not be called upon to battle a giant, at least not a literal one. So how can we take this is as God’s encouraging word for us today in our situation? We can take the template of the story and see what it can teach us, bit by bit, about 'the art of battling giants'. *
*The phrase is taken from Malcolm Gladwell’s 2013 book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants, a great read, which takes the theme of the original story to illustrate multiple ways in which underdogs and the disadvantaged in society have battled against the odds and won, not despite their difficulties but almost because of them.
Gladwell had been a writer many years before he published David and Goliath but it was this book he says brought him back to the faith of his childhood:
I realised what I had missed. It wasn't an "I woke up one morning" kind of thing. It was a slow realisation something incredibly powerful and beautiful in the faith that I grew up with that I was missing. Here I was writing about people of extraordinary circumstances and it slowly dawned on me that I can have that too.
Reading between the lines, what happened during the writing of the book was that so many of the amazing stories of courage against adversity were from Christians whose faith had stood up to the most terrible prejudice or suffering, that Gladwell was faced with something very real that he felt he wanted to regain, i.e. his Christian faith.
So it’s an important book from an influential sociologist, and if we know the power of the story of David and Goliath can bring forth such a personal confession of faith, we know there’s something (or someone) powerful behind the story.
There are three movements to the story, which I’d like to take as headings as we think about our own situation as part of a church in the 21st Century that sometimes feels like the underdog.
1. Know your giants
The writer of the story does not hide the real nature of the giant; he presents the case realistically. Goliath is enormous, he is powerful; he is well armed and dangerous. At the end of the section about Goliath, we read ‘When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid’.
What does this say to us? Be realistic. Know the culture you live in. Know the culture your children and grand children live in. Hang around with people and look, observe. What things are not being talked about? Where is God present and where does he appear to be absent? What things exercise people? What things are people worried about? Read the papers; be informed about the state of the church in the community here, and in the wider situation of the 21st West. It’ll break your heart sometimes; it’ll mean focussing on real tragedy such as the South Carolina shootings this week. It’ll mean not underestimating evil. Know your giants: neither live in the past with rose tinted spectacles, nor despair of the present. Because…
2. Giants aren’t always what they seem
So Goliath is a terrifying giant. Or so it seems. Here Gladwell is interesting because he suggests that the very strength and might of the giant Goliath may have in fact been his downfall. He relies on heavy armour; David is nimble and has speed on his side. Goliath was a seasoned fighter and thought that David would come to him in the usual one-to-one combat; he wasn’t expecting a stone to come winging its way through the air and strike him on the head. Gladwell writes of the advantage of the seemingly innocuous stone in a sling:
Eitan Hirsch, a ballistics expert with the Israeli Defence Force, recently did a series of calculations showing that a typical-sized stone hurled by an expert slinger at a distance of 35m would have hit Goliath's head with a velocity of 34m per second – more than enough to penetrate his skull and render him dead or unconscious.
What does this say to us? It perhaps suggests that the very things that tell us we’re struggling as a church might be the means for us to fix our hopes firmly on the surprise that God brings, in the form of unlikely victors.
Yes, secularism is a pervasive force. Yes we have a media that is suspicious of religion, certainly of Christianity. Yes, to all intents and purposes the people we live with and work with are getting along fine without God and many people one meets think they’re the masters of their own destiny.
But look deeper. There is still curiosity about spiritual experience. There is a hunger for mystery. There is loneliness; there is marital breakdown. There is illness and people we love die. We are mortal and none of us knows what’s around the corner. This is true of everyone you meet, even the very young. Teenage mental illness and depression is rising; fear of terrorism is high. There will always be a need for a people who know what/Whom they believe and who can hold out hope. In the Philip Larkin poem, Church Going, after painting a gloomy picture of an empty church, the poet admits wisely, that despite people abandoning traditional religion, ‘someone will for ever be surprising a hunger in himself to be more serious’.
And so we don’t lose heart. We pray for our neighbours. To pray for your neighbour, you need to get to know your neighbour. To know your neighbour is to love to your neighbour. If you pray for them, you will get to love them. If you love them, you will be expressing God’s love for them, and that way you can be a beacon to Christ. That’s what we’re here for. And finally…
3. ‘Giants’ are a matter of perspective
After describing Goliath, the writer of 1 Samuel turns to David. David’s perspective was entirely different to that of his contemporaries, and to that of King Saul. He could see that the real problem was not the giant, but the people’s perception of the giant. He says to Saul, ‘Let no one’s heart fail because of him’ (verse 32). God eventually chose David over Saul because ‘God looks at the heart’. David saw that this particular battle was a battle about faith. The people had lost faith in God to deliver them.
Have we lost faith in God to renew the church? To grow the church? To provide for the church?
What are your giants? We all face personal giants but as a church we don’t make things better by mourning our fall from a previously assumed superior place in the cultural imagination. Yes, things are ‘very different’ now, but people have always said that of their time. We can either be completely unaware of this fall from grace, which I think by now is unlikely; or over play it, and I do hear a lot of what might pass for overplaying the tragedy of this fall. I hear church people wringing their hands about secularisation, mourning the loss of this and that, instead of getting on and re-imagining what living the Christ-centred life actually looks like in the 21st Century. It’s all a matter of perspective.
We may as well come to terms with the fact that Christendom is dead or at least nearly dead, and let God take us by surprise with his own solutions, which rely on faith and remembering his power is made perfect in weakness. This is how David defeated Goliath. His perspective was God’s perspective, and his victory God’s.
‘Why are you so afraid?’ asks Jesus. ‘Do you still have no faith?’ (Mark 4:40).