This Advent, I will be watching the shepherds in our story. “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night…” – who is watching, and what they see and hear – it makes a difference to me. On the third Sunday of Advent 2014, we considered the story of our brother David and his battle with Goliath. The scripture was from I Samuel 17 and Philippians 4:12-13.
Goliath was big and mean and, at least to Jewish eyes, ugly. Twice a day for forty days this behemoth came out to taunt the people of God, daring them to send someone up against him in battle. Earlier in chapter 17, we discover that he is either seven or nine feet tall, and that his armor alone weighed more than 126 pounds. The tip of his spear weighed at least fifteen pounds. He was, truly, larger than life. A giant.
Saul, the king of Israel, was no slouch. As we talked about on the youth retreat last month, he was chosen by the Israelites as their leader, at least in part, because of the fact that he stood “a head taller” than anyone else. Saul is the the biggest, baddest, giant-est guy that Israel knows. And he is scared to death of Goliath.
And David is a young man, the eighth-born son of an insignificant family. He’s not even shaving yet. He’s not a king, he’s not in the army – he’s a shepherd.
We know he’s a shepherd because he tells that to Saul and anyone else who cares to listen. As he describes himself, we learn that he thinks that his experience as a shepherd might be an asset to him as he opposes Goliath.
You see, in his role as a shepherd, David had come to understand a few things. First off, he knew that he was not a sheep. I’m not entirely sure, but I would imagine that they probably cover that in the first day of shepherd school – making sure that the prospective candidates are able to differentiate the herd, the value, the symbol of wealth and life itself – from the hired help.
And probably in the same lesson, David learned that he was not the master. He was a representative of someone greater than he who bore the ultimate responsibility to protect something valuable.
When he gives his resume to King Saul, he points out that in the course of his duties as a shepherd, he had come up against big, ugly, scary foes. In fact, he says, he “delivered” the flock from the beast. He goes on to elaborate, saying that the reason he was able to “deliver” those lambs from harm is that he himself had been “delivered” from the predators. It was, he says, God who delivered him. Here, in the thirty-seventh verse that tells us the story of Goliath’s taunting of the Israelites, someone finally gets around to naming YHWH, the God of Israel. And it is David, the shepherd boy.
It seems as though the entire nation of Israel was focused on the fact that our tall guy wasn’t as tall as their tall guy, and therefore, we were doomed. The kid that nobody’d ever heard of shows up and reminds them that God is the one who delivers, and that the creator of height and strength is not always impressed by crude displays of them.
David prevails on Saul and wins the opportunity to oppose Goliath, who disdainfully boasts that he will make mincemeat out of this little kid.
David gives as good as he gets here, and says, “Look, there’s going to be a lot of mincemeat today, but it won’t be me!” He sounds an awful lot like Goliath in his boasting, with one extremely significant exception: in verse 45 he declares that he has come, not in his own strength, but in the name of YHWH, the God of Israel. In verse 46 he says that YHWH will “deliver” Goliath to David and that, as a result, “all the earth may know that there is a God…” Because of what YHWH will do.
As we continue our Advent observations of some of the shepherds in our story, we are called today to consider the reality that the news in today’s scripture is not that there are giants afoot in the land: the core message is that God chooses to use people so that the whole world can see something of God’s intentions for life and health and wholeness.
God uses David to triumph over Goliath, not so that we will learn something about David – but rather, so that we might learn something about God. So this morning, we look at David – and we learn about God. And as we learn about God, we learn something about ourselves and our place in the world.
One of the things that has not changed is the truth that there will be giants. There are always giants that stand between us and God’s best for the world. Some of these brutes are incorporeal – that is to say, faceless and internal. I know that many of you have struggled against giants named depression, or fear, or anxiety – hideous monsters that sometimes only you can see. Other giants are more visible, but no less scary: many of us stare down beasts like a broken marriage, a child who is lost to us, or savage treatment by a trusted brother. We know that other people can see these villains, but it seems as though their malevolence is focused entirely on us.
And, of course, in addition to the deeply internalized or personal giants who threaten to tear us apart, there are demons like racism or environmental destruction that threaten not only us, but the entire community as well. Make no mistake, beloved – the world is as full of giants as it was on the day that David and Goliath stood against each other. There have always been giants.
And, at the risk of speaking something of which you are already aware, your pastor would remind you that you are no giant. And because you are not a giant, you have nothing to gain by pretending that you are, or can be, one.
In our scripture reading, for instance, even after Saul agreed to allow David to face Goliath, he tried to make this shepherd a little more gigantic. While Saul’s armor was not quite as good as Goliath’s, it was still pretty impressive. Saul ordered the boy to put on his bronze helmet and iron mail and everything else – only to discover that the kid could not even walk with them on. Saul’s mistake was in trying to turn David into a copy of Goliath, but at the end of that attempt all he could see was a shabby imitation of the Philistine warrior.
When we face the giants in our lives or our world, we have to remember that we cannot prevail against them on our own, or with the weapons that they have brought. When we are verbally abused, it is tempting to say, “Oh, she thinks she’s so funny? Wait until she hears this!” When someone smacks us hard we want to rear back and smack them harder, not realizing that, as Gandhi pointed out, the problem with ‘an eye for an eye’ is that sooner or later everyone is blind. We are here this Advent trusting in a God who sought to equip us to overcome the giants of our world, not by sending a huge military or angelic force to do a little butt-kicking, but by coming himself in the form of a powerless and vulnerable infant. We cannot defeat the giants in our midst by trying to out-giant them, lest we become them.
So to review, what I’m saying is that every single day for the rest of your life there will be giants that threaten you, us, and all you love. There are always more giants. Furthermore, it is at best unwise and probably impossible for you to stand against these giants using the same tactics with which they seek to destroy you.
If that’s true, then two things can happen. One, you may live to see the triumph of good over evil. Your marriage may survive, your child might come back home, your cause may be vindicated. Hallelujah for that!
Seriously – you may be given the opportunity, like David, to stand over an enemy that you have personally vanquished. Like David, you may find that God delivers you from the giant. Like Nelson Mandela, you may emerge from an unjust prison sentence and declare victory in ways that had seemed unimaginable a decade ago. Like the story line of so many great movies, you may find that you emerge from your battle with depression or fear or betrayal or grief or molestation or poverty and be able to say, “Thanks be to God, I’m still standing. Here I am, world. That giant is powerless over me now!”
I hope that is what happens. I hope that you emerge from this battle victorious and aware of the God who delivers in your time, in your life, in your circumstance. I know that God, and can point to some giants in my own life from which I have been spared.
But the reality is that you may go up against a giant in battle and die trying. Unlike David, the Apostle Paul, who wrote those incredibly encouraging words from our New Testament lesson, was himself beheaded by the giant that was the Roman Empire. In fact, only one of the original twelve followers of Jesus died a natural death. More than that, though, our world is full of people who have not been healed of their blindness, whose babies died even after we prayed, who are still threatened by others simply because of the way that they look or walk… Sometimes, it seems to me, Goliath wins.
There are some giants that I will not live to see defeated. Sooner or later, one of the giants in my world will probably get to me.
But thanks be to God, it’s not about me or you. Every one in this room will be dead within a hundred years, and most of us a lot sooner. Your life, no less than the shepherd David’s, is not intended to stand on its own – you and I are here to point to the exact same truth to which that young boy pointed twenty-five hundred years ago: that there is a God who claims this world and all of its people as his own. And that God has not only beautiful intentions and glorious hope, but overwhelming power to bring those intentions to fruition in his own time. In the mean time, the way that I live and the way that I die will point to the God who stands against giants and who promises, in the end, to disarm them all.
Let’s go back to the scripture reading one last time. What is the worst thing that could have happened that day when Goliath taunted the people of God and roused David into coming out for battle? What would be the absolute worst outcome of that day? Would it be the defeat of David?
I don’t think so. It’s possible that Goliath could have come through on his threats to make bird food out of David. But worse than the idea of David being killed is the thought of David going out there and wearing Saul’s armor. David trying to be Goliath, using Goliath’s tactics. Because as soon as we start trying to be the giant, we’ve lost sight of the One who came to subdue the giants forever.
We are in the in between – we know Christ has come and given shape and purpose to his people. And we confess that there are still too many giants on the loose, and so we point to his second Advent. Something is going to kill me in the next few days, years, or decades. I hope I die pointing to the truth that our brother Isaiah spoke about twenty-five hundred years ago:
For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrong;
I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring in the midst of the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge them, that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations. (Isaiah 61:8-11)
When I face the giants, I want to be wearing God’s equipment, not Saul’s. I want my life to be an arrow that points to how big God is, not the fact that I’m three inches taller than you or a foot shorter than him. I want to be a part of that garden that will bring forth righteousness and praise. That’s Advent. That’s courage. That’s being a shepherd. And, by God’s grace, that’s what we’re here to do. Thanks be to God. Amen.