A sermon preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison for Your Church,
June 20th 2021
‘And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span,’ (17:4) about six foot, nine inches, or two metres and six centimetres tall. Goliath was pretty big; bigger than King Saul, who himself was head and shoulders taller than the rest of the Israelite population. (10:23) And although Israel had demanded a king because, among other things, ‘he will go out before us and fight our battles,’ (8:20) there’s no indication that Saul was eager to take on Goliath.
When Goliath shouted out to the Israelite army, ‘choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me … give me a man that we might fight together!’ (17:8, 10), surely the Israelites must have thought, “Where’s Saul?” Just like the other nations, Israel had a king, but their king was keeping a low profile .. and who can blame him?
I don’t know when you first heard the story of David and Goliath. I first have heard it as a young child, and I suspect it’s the same for most of you. Even today, if you google ‘David and Goliath in the Bible’ you will be offered numerous versions of the story aimed at children. The BBC even offers online resources for running a school assembly, aimed at Key Stage 1 i.e. children aged between five and seven years old. Here’s a scene from it:
Never mind some armour, David could have done with an umbrella! The accompanying cartoon video concludes with the words, ‘… Goliath the big elephant, beaten by David the tiny ant.’
In that BBC cartoon Goliath comes crashing to the ground, defeated. They don’t explicitly tell five and six year children that David killed him. They also stop short of informing them that, having stunned or killed the giant with a stone from his sling, David then made sure of things by using Goliath’s own sword to behead him. That’s a grisly detail that the compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary also decided to omit, stopping the reading at verse 49. I’m sure you’re suitably grateful that I reinstated vv.50-51 so that you would not miss any of the action.
I wonder, is this a story fit for children? You have to be careful with it. We adult Christians also have to be careful with it, especially if we are looking for wisdom concerning our situation today. When we’re feeling small and the challenges we face look gigantic it’s tempting to look to this story for comfort or solutions. We can do that, though we need to avoid affirming and celebrating some elements of the story, ones at odds with Christian faith and convictions.
The United Reformed Church is a small church. Never a huge denomination, we are numerically much smaller than when we came into being in the 1970s, and our numbers decrease year on year. Yet whilst congregations shrink their buildings remain just as large. Our denominational structures creak and groan, and our age profile is increasingly ‘mature’. We are a small church facing gigantic challenges. And perhaps the greatest of them all is that we live in a society which is not hostile to religion, but ignorant and apathetic. Once, in Western society it was almost unthinkable not to believe in God’s existence, and to express that through religious practice. Nowadays, religion is a marginal activity, in which you can participate if you wish … but why would you?
So, what can little churches facing big challenges glean from the story of David and Goliath. Let’s compare the two protagonists. Goliath is big. He comes equipped with up-to-date bronze age military equipment: helmet, mail-coat, leg-greaves, and shield. On top of that he has the latest high-tech spear, its head made of that new-fangled iron no less. Goliath is confident, putting out his challenge to single combat, convinced he will be the winner. And Goliath is also rather rude. Apart from his hints about cowardly King Saul, when he sees David we’re told, ‘he disdained him … and cursed David by his gods.’ (17:42, 43)
David was not qualified to be a soldier, like his brothers who were in the army. A youngster, his job was to stay home and look after the family sheep, apart from when delivering food to his brothers. He was too small. When ‘Saul clothed David with his armour … put a bronze helmet on his head … clothed him with a coat of mail [and] … strapped Saul’s sword over the armour’ (17:38, 39) David could not walk a step, which is not very helpful in mortal combat. But …
But David did have experience of life and death situations, rescuing lambs from attacking lions and bears. And David did have some military technology of his own – a sling, which could fire stones at a heavily armoured giant and hit him, long before Goliath could get close enough to get his hands on David, and fulfil his promise to give David’s ‘body to the birds of the air and the wild animals of the field.’ (17:44) Is the moral for us, then, “dump the traditional methodology that weighs little churches down, replacing it with some new piece of kit – Zoom perhaps! – which will enable us to punch above our weight and so triumph over the powers and principalities of our time”? That doesn’t sound quite right to me.
To be fair to David, he realises that his victory is not down to a technological fix. When he tells of his encounters with lions and bears, and when he faces the prospect of combat with Goliath, he says, ‘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.’ (17:37) The sling and the stones are needful – no doubt about it – but it is the presence and power of God that gives confidence and brings victory. So, is the real moral here that little churches should put our faith in God, who will enable us to punch above our weight, so overcoming the powers and principalities of the twenty-first century? That still doesn’t sound quite right to me.
David, though, is aware of God, and the need to bring God into the conversation that needs to take place when you find yourself facing a giant. This story of David and Goliath is a long read, but the action element – slings, stones, and beheading – form only a small part of it. Most of it is in the form of speeches, and it’s in David’s speeches (not anyone else’s) that the person and activity of God gets introduced. That suggests to me that when confronting today’s giants, little churches should spend more time of time talking about God, compared to the time we spend talking about which techniques or activities will get us out of our current fix.
Also, importantly, when we think about God, we do so by viewing God through the lens of the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Do that, and you might begin to wonder whether churches are supposed to be in the business of punching above our own weight – giant-slaying for the purposes of being triumphant. David bought into that understanding about the need to triumph. When the armour he was offered did not fit, he tried another military technology. What, though. if we were offered a different sort of armour altogether, one available through contemplating Jesus Christ.
the gospel of peace,
the Sprit (which is the word of God).
These are the components of the armour of God according to the letter to the Ephesians. Think about Jesus Christ and this is the sort of armour that comes to mind. Truth, righteousness and the rest do not constitute a technology, a fix, or a programme for slaying a giant. Instead, they are God-focused. Start with these things first, and then we’ll find ourselves better equipped to take on a giant or two.