September 30, 2018

Rock Star—The David Saga, III: Giant-Slayer

Passage: I Samuel 17

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Then David took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the wadi, and put them in his shepherd’s bag, in the pouch;
his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine. —I Samuel 17:40

 

During the days of Israel’s first two kings Saul and David a thousand years before Jesus, the Hebrews’ perennial antagonists in the land of Palestine were the Philistines, seafaring folk who hunkered down on the coast of the Mediterranean southwest of David’s hometown Bethlehem and his eventual capital city Jerusalem. The name of the geography we’re talking about—Palestine; ‘Philistines’ is pelestim in Hebrew—was actually named for the Philistines.

Ancient armies would often conduct ‘War by Proxy’; instead of thousands of soldiers killing each other, the respective Commanders-in-Chief would each select their fiercest warrior to grapple one-on-one with his counterpart from the other side.

Before the contest begins, the Commanders-in-Chief agree that the army of the victor would take the spoils; battle over, only one dead soldier.

The Philistines’ proxy is Goliath. Goliath stands 6'9", a respectable height for an NBA forward, and about 18" taller than the average Philistine or Hebrew in 1000 B.C.

Goliath wears 150 pounds of armor. The shaft of his spear is the size of a weaver’s beam, or not significantly smaller than the beams in this ceiling. The spearhead alone weighs 37 pounds.

Goliath emerges from the Philistine ranks and yells across the valley to the Hebrews, daring them to send their best, but no Hebrew will accept his challenge. This goes on for 40 days in a row—40 days in a row.

A wealthy shepherd from Bethlehem named Jesse has eight sons; three of them are soldiers in the army of King Saul. From Bethlehem, Jesse sends his youngest son David with provisions for David’s three soldier brothers. In this story, David is supposed to be nothing more than the Dominos Delivery Boy.

When David gets to the front and hears the giant Philistine taunting his countrymen, he just can’t stand it and volunteers to be Israel’s proxy.

Now, pay attention: David is not in the army; he’s probably too young, younger than 18, a teenager. If he is an average Hebrew from the time, he stands about 5'3" and weighs 130 pounds.

King Saul is skeptical, but nobody else has volunteered these last 40 days so Saul eventually agrees and lends his armor to David, who staggers around under the weight of it for a few trial steps, gives up, and lets it clatter to the ground.  Can you see diminutive David blinded by the visor of a helmet three sizes too big?

So David goes out with nothing but his camelskin loincloth, shepherd-boy sandals, a shepherd’s staff, and a slingshot. On the way to confront the giant, he picks up five famously smooth stones from the creek in the valley but needs only one, and dispatches the giant with a single shot.

This is a projectile weapon; this is one of the early guns in the history of warfare; the stones are his bullets.

The advantage and also the terror of guns is that they allow you to kill from a distance, and that’s been the progression of weaponry ever since; we keep inventing new weapons that allow us to kill from further and further away, like drones in Afghanistan controlled by soldiers in Arizona.

But David knows he can’t engage Goliath on the giant’s terms; he has to stay at least arm’s length away, because David is more shrewd than strong; he’s got more brains than brawn.

This story is simply irresistible. All human beings love stories in which an unranked underdog beats the Vegas odds and defeats a favored foe.

We love the Miracle on Ice at the 1980 Olympics; or the ‘69 Mets; or Appalachian State beating Mighty Michigan (unless you’re a Wolverine); or when an injured and disgraced Tiger Woods comes back at the age of 42 after a five-year drought to win his 80th tournament; or George Washington crossing the Delaware with his rag-tag, barefoot militia-men to confront an Empire on which the sun never sets. That’s sports and history.

But also our fiction. When we invent our make-believe stories, this is the one we tell again and again and again. We love it when tiny, peace-loving, pipe-smoking Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee defeat Sauron and Mordor and the evil Orcs; or when Luke Skywalker annihilates the Empire’s Death Star with his lonely little X-wing fighter; or when bespectacled Harry Potter takes down serpentine Valdemort with his apparently harmless little wand, or when Millie Bobbie Brown as Eleven takes down the bullies at school in Stranger Things.  Even the Die Hard and Equalizer films are variations on the David and Goliath theme.

One scholar speculated that the David Saga was recorded not so much for the purposes of theology or history, but simply as entertainment. In this sense it is like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey or Virgil’s Aeneid.  It’s how we entertain ourselves; these are the ancient equivalent of theater and cinema and television shows before there was drama or film or Big Bang Theory.

But it’s more than entertainment, right? How is this ancient Sunday School story holy scripture for us today? How is this God’s word for you and me today?

This is what I heard God telling me this week; see if it works for you. I heard God telling me that I’ve got to know what makes me a force to be reckoned with.

David tries on King Saul’s awkward armor and knows instantly that this is not what is going to give him the victory over a superior opponent.

It is not always strength and size and bravado that make us a force to be reckoned with. All David takes into battle with him are the humble tools of his menial trade—a shepherd’s staff, a slingshot, and five smooth stones. Oh, and one more thing: David brings God with him.

This story is one of the longest in the Hebrew Bible, about 1,600 words, or just a little shorter than this sermon, so I had to condense it for you this morning, but when you get home this afternoon and study this story in its entirety, as I’m sure you will, notice that David is the only one in this story who remembers that God is one of the dramatis personae.

Saul and his Hebrew soldiers have completely forgotten about God, but David sneers at his towering antagonist and says, “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, and this day, my God will give you into my hand.”

David knows that with five smooth stones in his pocket and the name of God on his lips, he can defeat a 6'9" foe protected by 150 pounds of armor and a spear the size of a weaver’s beam.

In Biology 101 I learned about something called gigantism. Do you know about gigantism? Gigantism is when an organism grows so big it’s sick. It can happen to plants and animals and people. In people gigantism often results from a malfunction of the pituitary gland.

Gigantism happens in institutions as well. At the time of Jesus, the Roman Empire was the most ripped superpower the world had ever seen, but not long after Jesus it started to expand and exaggerate and swell and thin out and metastasize across the earth like a cancer and over several centuries it sickened and enfeebled until there was nothing left but a defenseless village for the barbarians to pillage.

A few years ago, the football program at Penn State got so big it was sick. Penn State is a great, great, great institution, but it’s not because of its football program; that’s just window dressing. It got so big it became blind to the health and safety of its students and the children of State College.

Maybe the Roman Catholic Church is so big it’s sick. Look, I love and respect the Roman Catholic Church. It is the Mother of all Churches; it is the Mother of us all. But it’s not great and precious because of its priests and bishops; it’s great because of its children, and the people in charge of the institution forgot about that.

Fifteen years ago, not long after 9/11, when America was intent on revenge, Newsweek published a cover article entitled “Why America Scares the World.”

The answer, was, in a word, because it’s too big. Fareed Zacharia quotes the foreign minister of Mexico at the time: “We have studied in the United States or worked there. We like and understand America. But we find it extremely irritating to be treated with utter contempt.”[1]

America is great indeed, but it’s not because we’re so big and so strong and have a formidable Pentagon. Look, I’m glad for our strong defense. Can you say that from a Christian pulpit? Well, I just did. I’m glad for our strong defense, but that’s not what makes America great.

What makes America great is our Constitution;  our ideas; the technology we export around the globe; the cinema, the drama, the literature, the journalism; the culture of freedom and innovation that breeds things like Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft; our optimism, our hope, our always “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward for what lies ahead,” like St. Paul himself.

Individuals and institutions have to know what makes them a force to be reckoned with. David is not great because he is big and muscular; David is great because he is sly and slippery. With five smooth stones in his pocket and the name of God on his lips, he can slay giants.

One of the stories Malcolm Gladwell tells in his really very fine book about the David and Goliath tale is about the little town of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in southern France, not far from Lyon.

In 1940, the Germans set up a shadow French government in the city of Vichy. Marshal Philippe Pétain, the dictator of this shadow government, ordered that every morning all French school children face the French flag and give it a Nazi salute, arm-outstretched, palm down.

The people of Le Chambon just took all the flags down. “Patriotic French children,” they said, “should not give an obscene salute to a Quisling government.”

Marshal Pétain then ordered that on August 1, 1941, the first anniversary of the Vichy regime, every church in France should ring its bell at noon. Amélie, the custodian at the Protestant Church in La Chambon, refused to ring the bell. “The bell,” she said, “does not belong to the Marshal, but to God. It rings for God, or it does not ring.” Yes? Five smooth stones in her pocket, and the name of God on her lips.

Pretty soon, Jews from all over France began to trickle in to Le Chambon. A Protestant would arrive in town on the train with ten or twelve Jews, get off the train, and start knocking on Protestant doors until every Jew had shelter and a hiding place. This happened over and over again. Friendly police officers in Le Chambon would warn residents if the Nazis were planning a raid and the Jews would be moved to safe places.

The schoolchildren of Le Chambon—the school children—wrote a letter to the Germans: “We feel obliged to tell you that there are among us a certain number of Jews. But we make no distinction between Jews and non-Jews. It is contrary to the Gospel. We have Jews. You are not getting them.”

People began referring to the region of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon as the Plateau of Hospitality. I would like us to strive to earn that label here. Let’s be The Plateau of Hospitality.

Mr. Gladwell writes, “You see the giant and the shepherd in the Valley of Elah and your eye is drawn to the man with the sword and shield and glittering armor. But so much of what is beautiful and valuable in our world comes from the Shepherd, who has more strength and purpose that we ever imagine.”[2]

David knew what made him a force to be reckoned with. With five smooth stones in his pocket, and the name of God on his lips, he can slay giants.


[1]Fareed Zacharia, “The Arrogant Empire,” Newsweek, March 24, 2003, p. 31.

[2]Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants (New York: Little Brown, 2013), pp. 263–275.