DELIVERED AT REVOLUTION ANNAPOLIS, 21 JULY 2019
Good morning! My name is Kenny, and I’m the lead pastor here at Revolution. I’m also–and you might be able to tell this just by looking at me–not much of a fighter. I never have been. I remember the first real fight I ever got into was in third grade: I was on the playground, and there was another boy I was in an argument with, and after yelling for a bit, we shoved each other. And then, right as things were escalating, I remember the bell rang that ended recess, and our teacher called everyone to come in. And at that point, the other boy, who was closer to the school building than I was, turned from the teacher back towards me and reached his hand out, as if to shake it. So, I took his hand…and he suckerpunched me right in the face. I fell down, and he and all the other kids ran up to where our teacher was to go back into school. I sat on the ground for a second and then brushed myself off and started to head in…but by the time I got to the line, I was late. So, I got detention.
I am 70% sure this is a true story. It happened a long time ago, but I think I’m remembering it right.
In any case, this story comes to mind this morning because today, as we continue in the fifth week of our summer series Stories We Tell, we are turning to our first story that’s really about interpersonal violence…and this always makes me uncomfortable. I’m generally okay with natural violence, or even Divine violence, when God intervenes in His creation in destructive ways: those things make sense to me, on some level, because I can accept that the sinfulness or selfishness of our actions in this world have consequences. But I really don’t like stories where people are violent towards other people…and that violence claims to be justified on God’s behalf. I don’t think I dislike these kinds of stories because I got punched in the face in third grade! But I do think there’s something about fighting that always feels like a failure to me. If we’re fighting, that means we have failed to fix our problem in some other way. At a moment when we should have shaken hands and gone back to class, one (or both) of us have made another choice: to get revenge…or just to cause pain.
In the history of the church–and in ancient Israel’s history before that–there are so many times when people’s desire to hurt one another has gotten wrapped up in all kinds of problematic ways with their beliefs about “God’s will.” It has been–and continues to be–a serious problem for the church as we proclaim ourselves to be people of grace, love, and hope to not only the people in our world who look like us or believe what we believe, but to everyone, no matter their background or even their hate towards our faith. If the key to the kind of life Jesus lived and challenges us to follow is perfect love, we ought to question any and every time we believe we are being led towards violence.
As most of you know, before I was a pastor at this church, I was in the worship band. I love to play music, and for most of my life, I have loved playing in church bands. I still love it, and I miss being able to do it more! My favorite part of playing worship music is the music…but words also matter to me. And every once in awhile, a song gets popular in church culture that has words that just get under my skin. Nine years ago, there was a song by Chris Tomlin called “Our God” that you will still hear sometimes, and during the “bridge” of the song (which is that repetitive part, usually near the end!) the lyrics go:
And if our God is for us
Then who could ever stop us?
And if our God is with us
Then what could stand against?
And man, I hated that part of this song. It bothered me not because it’s technically untrue: the words actually come from the book of Romans. But there’s something about singing those words, in America in 2010, that felt backwards to me. It felt like what we were saying was really: “if we are Christians, whatever we do will succeed.” And that flips the equation in an important way: because God isn’t a secret weapon that we get to wield, as followers of Jesus, in our own conflicts. We are the instruments God gets to use in whatever ways he sees fit. Maybe I’m doing that thing I often get accused of doing and “reading too much into it.” But then again…maybe I’m not. Maybe these questions about violence, and God’s authority when it comes to what we do and who (or if!) we fight, matter more than we might think they do.
All of that is a long way of getting into our story for today, which is one where these two big ideas–first, that interpersonal violence is fundamentally a selfish act, and second, that God is the one in authority over all things–start tangled up before they end up getting sorted out again. It’s the story of the young, future king of Israel David and the fearsome giant Goliath. It’s a story that is so well known, the basic plot is part of our cultural vocabulary: we see “David and Goliath” stories everywhere, and even saying those two names together is a shorthand way of identifying one side in a conflict as a heroic and brave underdog and the other as a too-cocky strongman.
It also implies who is at least “supposed” to win in a conflict: nobody roots for the “Goliath.” In America, especially, “Goliaths” are the rich and heartless and ruthless bad guys: they are giant corporations, rogue billionaires, arrogant elites…they are the hockey team from the rich side of town; they are Cobra-Kai. And we all want to be the Davids: the pure-of-heart underdogs who take those jerks down a peg.
But if we take a step back from the way we adapt the story of David and Goliath in American culture to look at the story itself–and why it was retold for generations–what might we see? How might it be different? And if we start with those initial questions about God and violence in our minds, what do we see getting tangled up…and sorted out…in this story?
The “David and Goliath” story can be found in the 17th chapter of the first book of Samuel the prophet, whose origin story we heard last week! It begins with a border dispute between the Israelites and their neighbors to the west, the Philistines. During the reign of their first monarch, King Saul, the Israelites have been working to fortify and secure their borders against other regional powers. At the start here, the Israelites are attempting to keep the Philistines out of an area called the Valley of Elah, and this has led to a stalemate, where both armies have encamped on neighboring mountains. Each day, an enormous Philistine–a giant–named Goliath comes down to the valley in the middle and taunts the Israelites saying,
1 Samuel 17:8-10
“Why have you come out to draw up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not servants of Saul? Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me. If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants. But if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us […] I defy the ranks of Israel this day. Give me a man, that we may fight together.”
This works on the Israelites, who are terrified of the man and continue to fret in their encampment. It goes on for 40 days.
This is the first part of what I was talking about earlier when I said that this story begins with the entanglement of those 2 big initial points: one, that interpersonal violence is selfish and two, that God is the source of authority. Here, Goliath is making the conflict as interpersonal as it can possibly be: he is willing to fight any Israelite, one on one, for the future of the two kingdoms. But where he’s wrong is on that second point, about whose army Israel is. He says, “are you not servants of Saul?” To the descendants of the Israelites who told and retold this story for generation after generation, this moment was the first part where every child’s eyes would have widened: they would have heard Goliath’s mistake!
Because the Israelites aren’t servants of their king…they (and their king) are servants of God. So, Goliath is woefully miscalculating who he is up against! And for the original audience of the story, that point would have been immediately clear.
But, as a story, the tension here then mounts up…because what we see next is that the Israelites are making the same mistake Goliath is making: they, too, have forgotten who they serve.
In the next few verses, a humble shepherd named Jesse sends his youngest son, David, to check on his older brothers, who are serving in the Israelite army. David becomes our window into the lives of the everyday soldiers, and when he arrives, he witnesses some perplexing and upsetting things: the soldiers are abuzz about the giant, but although they are terrified of him, the gossip is all about the rewards being offered by King Saul. They say to David,
1 Samuel 17:25
“Have you seen this man who has come up? Surely he has come up to defy Israel. And the king will enrich the man who kills him with great riches and will give him his daughter and make his father’s house free in Israel.”
David asks around about this, and sure enough, it turns out to be true: the carrot being dangled in front of the soldiers in order to motivate them to fight Goliath isn’t the honor of serving God but the rewards of serving the king. Surprised by this, David goes before Saul and says to him,
1 Samuel 17:32-37
“Let no man’s heart fail because of [Goliath]. Your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.” And Saul said to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him, for you are but a youth, and he has been a man of war from his youth.” But David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. And if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard and struck him and killed him. Your servant has struck down both lions and bears, and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, for he has defied the armies of the living God.” And David said, “The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.”
There are a few things to note here, and I am really tempted to get into David’s own pridefulness here…but I think that if we really want to see this story as a story–which is to say, to see it for its original purposes for the Israelites–I think this is a red herring. The heartbeat–at least, at this point–is whose side David recognizes he is on. At the core of the David and Goliath story is this odd mix-up of favorites and underdogs: the Israelites see Goliath as an obviously superior threat to them, and Saul sees him this way, too! But David has a different and–it turns out–more righteous perspective: he realizes that Goliath is no more a threat to God than those lions or bears were. And Goliath is actually actively defying God! David sees this fight as almost too-easy: obviously, God will humble the arrogant Goliath, and it will be an honor and privilege for David to be the one through whom God acts.
This is the part of the story where things are rightly ordered again, because here, David’s recognition of God’s authority means this isn’t really an incident of interpersonal violence…which is so often an exercise in selfishness. It’s a fight between God and a giant…and David is just the instrument. The “selfishness” in Goliath’s position–boasting in his own greatness–and the selfishness in the Israelites’ position–the bribery of King Saul’s rewards–both fall away as David sees the situation for the absurdity that it is: some man is openly mocking God. This, in David’s time, as in any time, is a reckless and foolish thing to do.
So, the story unfolds just like we might imagine it will: David refuses the king’s armor (some heavy symbolism there), gathers 5 stones from the riverbed for his sling (some more heavy symbolism here: why 5 stones?), and then he squares off against the giant. The giant taunts him, laughing at David’s puny choice of weapon. David replies by saying,
1 Samuel 17:45-46
“You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a 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. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down.”
It’s a pretty cool moment. Then, with his first stone, he knocks Goliath unconscious, takes the giant’s sword, and cuts off his head. The crowd goes wild! For a moment, things are rightly ordered.
So, where are we going with all of this? What can we really see?
The big, big point–the headline here–is a pretty simple and important one: what makes David’s fight with Goliath important is that David realizes who the real underdog is. He understands that all authority is God’s. Moreover, that the Israelites are a people set apart by God for his own purposes, and he has promised to preserve them now and forever. Goliath is nothing before God: he’s just a tall man with a big stick.
This is an idea that meant a lot to the Israelites, and it means a lot to us, too, because we also cower time and again before false gods and empty threats. We allow things that seem like “Goliaths” in our own lives to keep us in submission, even though a greater and better hope is right here with us. We become slaves to addiction or depression, when the God of all hope and authority is on our side. We can be challenged by the story to see our fears for what they are, and to trust again in God’s love for us and his power over earthly afflictions.
If that’s the message you most need to hear today, we should repeat it! God is greater than fear. He is greater than what oppresses you. And you are his. Do you see things this way? How can you remind yourself of this?
But as true and encouraging as this is, there is more to this story. Because it is also a story warning us against what happens when we confuse ourselves for gods. When we assume that God’s power is a weapon we get to wield, so long as we say the magic words or pray the magic prayer. Saul brings the “weapon” of David’s faith into his own camp, and he tries to wield it. Even though he is right there at the battle with the Philistines, he never objects to the formula Goliath presents: every day, for 40 days, he hears Goliath say that the soldiers of Israel serve Saul…and he never protests. He has presided over a situation that David, when he arrives, immediately decides is absurd.
And we make this mistake, too. We sing out, “If our God is for us, who can stand against?” and even though those words are true, what we mean when we say them is: Because I am a Christian, I am right and I cannot lose.
This might seem really abstract, but let me try and explain how it is digging at me this week: when I stepped into my current position at the end of last year, I thought the hard part of this job would be the pastoral part. I thought late night phone calls or emergency emails would wear me down and stress me out. But that hasn’t been the case: in fact, those things are often–despite the pain within them–encouraging to me. It feels right and good to be able to sit with someone in a dark time, or to counsel or help others in a moment of need. It’s not exhausting, it’s life-giving. But what has been hard has been watching and trying to measure the success of our church. I know that many of the metrics we use for church health are bad measurements: I know that tracking tithe dollars or Sunday attendance doesn’t tell us nearly as much about how healthy we are as a church as seeing folks volunteer in a new position or attend a new group or grow in their commitment to their faith are! But here’s the thing: tracking dollars and butts and seats is way easier than tracking those things…and it can feel like a measurement of success, even if it’s a poor one.
So I find myself sometimes feeling like a failure after a Sunday when attendance was low. I feel defeated, like I have let everyone down. I want to figure out what magic button to push to make things change and fill the seats on a Sunday…or the baptismal pool, for that matter.
But what I’ve been thinking about a lot this week is how much I’m acting, in moments like that, like Saul did in his fight with the Philistines. I’m looking at what I’m doing, and trying to figure out how God can show up and help me win. I’m singing to myself, “If our God is for us, then who can stand against!” and I think I’m being appropriately humble. But in truth, I’m treating God like a secret weapon. Whether I want to admit it or not, I’m being incredibly selfish.
But what this story challenges me to do is to flip that script: the point isn’t whether I succeed or even whether or not Revolution succeeds. It doesn’t really matter if we’re a church of 100 or a church of 1,000…what matters is what God is doing in our city. What matters is his victory, and his authority. The “goliath” isn’t church attendance; the “goliath” is inequality and hardship and heartbreak in our community. That’s the enemy; that’s what’s mocking our God, saying that this is “just how things are,” and there’s nothing anyone can do to make things better.
And we should be a church of Davids in this context: we should be a people who look around at the fearfulness and timidity and low expectations of our community and wonder, who in the world do these people think they are? Who do they think God is? Poverty is not a challenger to God. Racial injustice is not a threat. Medical debt is no contender. Fear and hopelessness and loneliness are paper soldiers to our God. And if we can recognize this, God can use us to show our city love and power and authority like it’s never seen before. Our God is not fickle or indecisive: he tells us over and over again that he loves every single one of these people; he grieves the way our selfishness and our sin set us against him; and he will fight to bring them back into a relationship with him. That’s his work, and we know it. And man, I feel sometimes like we see these truths and talk about these truths, but we can be so, so hesitant to grab stones from the river and let God use us to do something that the world might think is impossible but we know is nothing remotely out of God’s ordinary. And you know what keeps me from doing that? It’s worrying whether or not our church will grow enough.
What a crazy thing to worry about! God’s mission is what is important. Sharing what we have learned about who he is with people who need to feel deeply loved by him is what matters. We can and should be fearless in the roles we play in our community because we know who the “Goliaths” really are.
That’s all so abstract, I’ll close by trying to make it as personal to us as I can. What I’m getting at is this:
Are we really paying attention to the things God cares about in our lives and in our community? What is he doing? Where is he opening doors for us to be light for others? And when we see those opportunities, are we stepping into them with a real willingness to let God use us?
Are my eyes and ears open for my neighbor? When I hear about an opportunity to take food once a month somewhere, or join an Open Table to support someone transitioning out of homelessness, or offer a ride to someone, or open a room in my home to someone, or to foster or adopt, or to serve inside or outside my home church…when I hear about these things, is my instinct to say, “of course I’ll do those things! I hope there’s still room! I can’t wait to see how God has victory here!” Or is it to deflect, like the soldiers do to David, and say: “surely, someone else will do it.”
Because here’s the thing: God will not be mocked. Someone else will do it. But man, what a privilege it would be for that someone to be us. To be this church. We could be fearless. Not because it means anything at all for us or our future…but because God is great, and if we are with him, what could stand against?