7/1/18: David and Goliath, 1 Samuel 17:1a, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49
David and Goliath
Fifth in the series: Holy, Broken Hallelujah
First Lesson: 1 Samuel 17:1a, 4-11, 19-23
Second Lesson: 1 Samuel 17:32-49
Rev. Scott Dickison
Last week we met David, the young shepherd boy from Bethlehem, called in from the fields to his father’s living room where he would be anointed by Samuel as God’s new choice to be king of Israel. But in the process, we were given an insight into the heart of God, a truth that extends beyond that scene and this story and out into and through the whole of scripture, and we hope, the whole of our lives. When David’s eldest brother, Eliab, comes before Samuel, tall and strong with all the outward marks of strength, Samuel would have anointed him then and there, but the voice of the Lord comes to him saying, “The Lord does not see as mortals see: they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
We might have those words echoing in our heads this morning when we pick up the story one chapter later with this epic showdown.
David and Goliath.
Among the pantheon of biblical stories that have worked their way into popular consciousness. You hear these names and you know immediately what’s at stake. It’s the classic underdog story. There’s the mighty Goliath: the pride of the Philistines, a monster of a man, shouting and waving and mocking the Israelites and challenging them to send someone out for a one on one battle for all the marbles—a classic villain if there ever was one.
And then there’s David, with his youthful naiveté to offer himself to battle. Then his moxy—maybe the slightest touch of arrogance—as shrugs off the king’s generous offering of armor and weapons. Shrugging off the king! Who would do such a thing?! We love it!
We love an underdog story. We love the charm and inspiration. We love to imagine ourselves as the little guy, fighting the power that be, scrapping and clawing against all odds. Isn’t this always how we imagine ourselves and understand our success? Of course it is! Regardless of how it squares with reality…
Sam Wells, the former dean of the Chapel at Duke University preached a sermon years ago on this story of David and Goliath at the baccalaureate service for all the new Duke graduates. He said at one point, “We want our movies to be about David, but we spend our lives trying desperately hard to be Goliath.”
“We think it’s quaint and clever,” he writes, "that David got by with five smooth stones and a sling, but we spend our own energies stockpiling swords and spears and javelins…”You’ve just spent four years of your time and energy,” he told all the new graduates, “the academic world’s best facilities, books and teachers, and a large swath of someone else’s money acquiring the prestigious social and economic entry ticket known as a Duke degree. But think for a moment. Why is a Duke degree so coveted? Because it gives you a chance to be Goliath. It gives you the armor. It gives you the weaponry. It gives you the respect. It gives you the acclaim. All the things Goliath had. All the things David didn’t have.”
Nobody wants to be Goliath in this story because we know how the story ends. But in the story of our own lives—the twists and turns of which we don’t know (even if, as people of faith, we can claim to know the ending, which we forget sometimes)—we choose the path of Goliath more times than not.
Goliath is the world’s version of power and security, and when we’re honest with ourselves, he’s our version of power and security, too. The size, the strength, the armor—Lord, the armor! Did you notice the attention scripture gives to Goliath’s armor and David’s lack of it? We’re told precisely what Goliath was wearing, how big it was, how heavy:
He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail; the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of bronze. He had greaves of bronze on his legs and a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders. The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron; and his shield-bearer went before him.And we’re told, too, of Saul’s armor that David was to wear:his bronze helmet, his coat of mail.
How much do we cling to security? We want all the armor we can get. Not to mention whatever esteem or acclaim or respect we can manage to collect. It’s alluring to the point of being intoxicating.
In fact, the demoralizing part of this story is what happens next. As Wells points out, the crowds would soon turn and David would become king, and a “terrible irony” would take shape. David becomes Goliath. David becomes a bully, using military strength and imperial command to manipulate things and people—even leading to the death of vulnerable people under his rule and his own family's ruin. David would soon become Goliath, and it would one of the great tragedies of scripture.
What a tragedy it is, when we become the things we once fought against. And yet, we see it so often. Success, maybe especially unexpected success, has a way of changing things, changing people. We see it in business when the scrappy, innovative start-up comes in and “disrupts” the industry, but before long finds itself as the behemoth fending off all the new start-ups gunning for them, struggling with the same pressures as the behemoths they overthrew: Amazon, Uber, Tesla. Virtually every big company today was once a small one. And very few companies stay that big for long—none of them forever. Anyone remember Blockbuster Video?
We see it in sports. The added irony to Wells’ sermon is that Duke used to be that scrappy underdog school no one had heard of, but 30 years and a bunch of championships later, they’re the ones everyone loves to hate. I know that was the fear of many when Mercer beat them a few years back. No offense, but I think the underdog status is safe for now!
And we see it in the church. There was a time at our founding when baptists were the enemy of the state, persecuted for their beliefs. Leaders jailed and even executed for their insistence that freedom—of conscience, or interpretation, of religious practice, is God-given. And by and large, we won. Those principles have by and large been adopted in the church and in the world at least in word if not in deed. And baptists are and have been the largest religious group in the country from the past 100 years or so. But as we’ve moved from the margins to the center of things, our preferences have changed. We’ve had a spotty history of fighting for the same freedoms for others that we’ve enjoyed for ourselves. Somewhere along the way, baptists, and the church in America turned into Goliath. And if we don’t feel so strong these days it may be because the weight of our armor is taking its toll.
And we see it in our country, too, don’t we? America was once the scrappy underdogs fighting the empire: a bunch of farmers and tradesmen without proper supplies or resources but a handful of strategic advantages and the strength of our convictions who somehow took down the British Empire. And we still think of ourselves this way! But now we’re the empire, there’s just no getting around it. We’re the largest super power the world has ever known and we throw our weight around, we hope for good. But plenty of other nations would have good reason to wonder sometimes. What kind of empire we will be is still for us to decide, but we can’t claim to be the underdog anymore.
Scripture tells us that in David God was doing something new: calling someone from the outside the normal circles of power to be God’s king for the people. A nondescript, un-credentialed shepherd boy from Bethlehem—good looking, we’re told, as if to remind us that there’s beauty on the margins, too.But he’s not even the most outwardly king-like of his brothers. David was something new, unexpected. Someone, we learned last week, whose potential only could have been seen by a God who doesn’t see how humans see, a God who looks upon the heart. And it was so: in David, scripture tells us God had found “a man after God’s own heart.” Someone whose heart was like God’s heart, which is to say someone with compassion. This is really where all of this is pointing. If you had to pick one word to describe God in the Bible, compassion might be it. Certainly it describes Jesus, who we claim is God in the flesh. Compassion literally means “to suffer with.” To see another’s pain and suffering and vulnerability, and to share in it somehow. This is how we know God’s heart to be, and it’s when David breaks from this bend toward compassion, his feeling with people, especially those vulnerable people under his charge, that his situation begins to unwind before him.
You see, in the end, it’s only compassion that separates the Davids of the world from the Goliaths. A concern for for others. A capacity to see their struggles and the ways they’re vulnerable. It’s compassion that keeps us close to the heart of God, that let’s us know we’re seeing how God sees. And compassion seems to be something we’re short on right now.
It seems we don’t really know how to suffer with each other. We’re so separated in almost every conceivable way: geographically, politically, socially, culturally. There’s not a lot of compassion for people we perceive as different from us, or “one of them”—on all sides. The problem is that the effects of this general lack of compassion isn’t spread around equally. It’s the people who are vulnerable who suffer most from these divisions and general absence of compassion and kindness. We certainly see it in Washington, which conventional wisdom might say is just a result of the divisions throughout the country. But I can’t help but wonder if this lack of compassion actually intensifies there and is then spread around the rest of the country.
But I found myself wondering about the state of compassion this week closer to home. I’m sure you’ve heard by now the conversation around the proposed budget for Macon-Bibb in the coming year. It’s been going on for sometime, but earlier last week a proposed budget was released. There was no millage rate increase, but instead this budget struck all funding to “outside agencies.” And by “outside agencies” we mean things like the library system, all public transportation, the entire parks and recreation department, the Department of Family & Child Services, Board of Physical Health, Board of Mental Health, Meals on Wheels, the food bank. Not decreases in funding, but the cutting of all funding.
There was understandable outcry, and a new budget was proposed late Friday that included limited funding for some of these programs in exchange for a millage rate increase. They’re set to vote at the Commissioners’ meeting this Tuesday.
And I’m not going to claim to know the solution here. And it’s clearly a case of choosing the least bad option available. And the whole budget crisis has certainly has been a long time coming, since consolidation and probably even before that—no doubt. But the least bad option can’t be the one that places the burden on the most vulnerable among us, the people who depend on these agencies that in so many ways carry out the compassion of our community. As we say so often around here, our church budget is among the most theological documents we have because it tells the story of what we believe and what’s important to us. But the same is true of any budget. And I just have to believe we believe is something different from this.
How do you think David felt when he shook off Saul’s armor—heavy and ill-fitting as it was—and headed out to meet the challenge before him? Did he feel vulnerable?
Did he feel helpless?
Or did he know, maybe for the first time, what it was like to feel free?
 Sam Wells, “Five Smooth Stones,” preached May 14, 2010, found on Faith and Leadership, https://www.faithandleadership.com/five-smooth-stones
Brueggemann offers this helpful insight in his commentary on 1 and 2 Samuel, 124