On the Way with David
It seems to me a timely gift that we're spending this morning in the company of David. I don't know about you, but I'm more overwhelmed by the news these days than usual. Every day, there seems to be something else going on that is deeplyl troubling, if not downright surreal. I know from conversations this week that many of us are totally distraught at the images and stories that have flooded our TV screens and news feeds recently, of desperate and vulnerable families torn apart under the guise of national interest, or safety, or something. But to be honest, that seems like one in a long string of things that are deeply disturbing, all over the world and in our own backyards. Perhaps it's just that 24 hr news keeps us constantly bombarded, but it feels like in this moment many people seem somehow more aware of how sin-scarred we really are, more aware of the world's brokenness; a brokenness that can seem impossible to heal, or even to face, with anything like hope. A lot of conversations seem to end in head-shaking and silence.
I think that both of today's Scripture stories resonate these days, but it's David who I want to pay special attention to this morning. It's David who calls us out of inaction, who summons us out of despondency, who reminds us, as every biblical prophet and pastor does, of the conditions in which we live and move and have our being.
Before we move into the famous and beloved story of David and Goliath, I think it's worth acknowledging the dangers of oversimplification, or over-moralizing Scriptures. I don't want to be lazy in our dealing with God's word, and limit it to a handful of principles for handling life's ups and downs. That would be easy enough to do. But when we get lazy with Scripture, we become tone deaf to God's voice. We start using Scripture to justify ourselves, rather than allowing it to mold us and shape us into the people that God wants us to be. David and Goliath has become a kind of folktale about how little guys can take on big guys and win, which is an inspiring and popular idea. And I suppose that if it encourages us to take a stand when needed, that's not a bad thing. But I think that this story is far richer than pleasant morals, and poppy encouragement about personal success. If we're paying attention, this story snaps us awake, reminds us of who and whose we are, and compels us to act in the world in ways appropriate to that marvelous truth. There's a reason that generations upon generations of people, seeking to be shaped in the will and way of God, have returned to this story in times of crisis and chaos. We'll be wise to join them.
Let's pray: Living God, work in us this morning, by your Spirit and your Word, to shape us according to your will and your love. Help us to know you more fully, that we might make you more fully known. In Jesus' name we pray: Amen!
I want to look at three parts of this story, three things David does, that can help us consider how to faithfully navigate the particular tumults of our times. 1) David calls us to see the world in a radically different way than we are accustomed to, or expected to. 2) David reminds us that as people holy, chosen, and beloved of God (Colossians 3:12), people made in God's image (Genesis 1-2), created with purpose and joy, we have been given everything we need to live the way that we've been created to live. And 3) David compels us move, to act in a way appropriate to those first two things--a holy vision of the world and of ourselves.
So first, David's call to see the world in a radically different way. The lectionary drops us into the middle of this story, but I want to encourage you today to go home and read all of 1 Samuel 17. This story is told in such a way that we cannot avoid how wildly different the way David sees the world is, than Saul and Saul's armies.
To orient ourselves, we need to look back a little further. A few weeks ago we heard about the disaster of Israel's request for a king, in response to the troubles going on around them. (You can read about that in 1 Samuel 8.) What makes that scene so disastrous is that Israel wants a king so that they can be like other nations, which is exactly what they're not meant to be. Since God called Israel into being, since God freed Israel from Egyptian slavery and drew them into a new and holy way, their vocation, their mission was to be not like, but a light to the nations--a beacon that pointed to the beautiful and demanding and loving ways of YHWH their God, for this broken and beloved world. Their strangeness compared to others was to be the way that God was going to bless all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:3). They were to be the way that God's love and justice and righteousness would take shape in the world. But eventually they just wanted to be like other nations, wanted a king who would lead them into battle and protect the national interests.
Today we see that they got just what they wanted. Here they are in battle, following their king, lined up in a kind of crude symmetry, across a valley from the Philistine armies, mimicking this other nation. The result is not flattering. Turns out that they don't do "like other nations" terribly well. We enter the situation as the troops are cowering in fear of Goliath, the giant from Gath, who with his extravagant armour, his blustering taunts, his brutal self-confidence, is a picture of everything that God's people are called not to be. Saul, the king who was supposed to lead them, is beside himself with fear, and the armies of Israel are paralyzed by the spectacle of the giant who does "like other nations" decidedly better than they could hope to do.
Perhaps that's what's so stunning about the first part of the story, is that the people are totally immobilized. They're sort of acting the part of an advancing army, but Goliath comes out and issues his challenge for 40 days in a row (which biblically speaking, means a real long time), daring the people of God to challenge his version of things. For 40 days, they can do nothing but stammer and stutter about how someone should do something. They're completely ineffective, utterly incapable of responding to Goliath's dare.
The truth is, I have a fair bit of sympathy for Saul and his troops. I don't have a hard time imagining how they're feeling. Confronted by those who swear by the gods of Mammon and Mars, by those who bellow with confidence in themselves and their way, the spectacle can be overwhelming. It's easier to stand still and let them bluster, than to move. It's certainly safer.
Of course, it's not just the arrogance of the powerful that's constricting. Even when they run out of breath, the enormity of the world's brokenness stifles and stunts. St. Paul talks about sin weighing us down and binding us: sin in us and out of us; all the stuff, the action and inaction that mangles the relationship between us and God, our best selves, our neighbors, and creation. All that stuff weighs and binds. I'll never forget the first time I walked the DTES, and was completely bewildered by the pain and hurt and challenge that permeates those few blocks in our own city. I wanted to retreat quickly to the blissful ignorance of my middle-class life. I did.
David walks in and reminds us that the options that have been laid out for us--submit, cower, or turn away and pretend everything's fine--are not, in fact, all there is. David reminds us that there is God. David calls us into the same shift that Paul did last week: to understand the world in relation to God, rather than letting the world dictate the way things are, rather than letting the world tell us about the limits of who and how God is. David reminds us that we have been called into relationship with the Living God--we're made for it! David speaks God's name into this crisis, and it's like a veil lifts. It's not that the problem magically disappears, but it's put in the right context. David expands the vision, giving us dramatically more space to move. If sin binds, God's name releases. Psalm 18, one of David's prayers, remembers that God brings us into a wide space (verse 19), into the expansive boundaries of grace, into the presence of the One who holds all things.
Goliath and the Philistines had completely consumed Saul's imagination; that's all he could see. David reminds us that we are dealing with decidedly more than what's in front of our noses, or broadcast through our TV screens. Let no one's heart fail: YHWH who has saved, will save. David declares that to Saul and to us. Those are the conditions we're working in.
Of course, there's a trite way of saying that--a way that says we don't need to worry about kids in cages, or injustices that are much closer to home, in our country, our city, our homes. There's a way of saying that God will handle it, which lets us off the hook; a way that lets me retreat to my comfortable, middle-class life, and change the channel. To say that the God who saves will save, can be a way of throwing up our hands, or sitting on them as the case requires. It can be a way of minimizing our own responsibility to love not just God, but also our neighbors, with everything we've got. There's a way of pointing to God that is just an empty platitude (that's using God's name in vain), comforting to those of us who are comfortable, and of no use at all to the desperate and vulnerable people whom God cares passionately about, the poor and the broken whom God meets in the ash heap (I Samuel 2:8, Psalm 113:7), with whom God self-identifies in the broken body of Jesus.
David denies us that empty platitude option. His memory and vision of who and how God is, is not an invitation for Saul to continue to stand petrified and useless; it's not a suggestion that if we just wait it out, maybe Goliath will get tired and go home, or be voted out in the next round. David's memory of who and how God is, is an animating memory. David's confidence in God is incarnated, given flesh and bone, muscles and sinews, in the stringy body of a teenaged shepherd. His confidence gives David a nimbleness, a flexibility that couldn't be more different from the inflexible, immobility of Saul's fear. The difference can't be overstated.
David calls us out of our own narrow views, our own incapacity to see beyond the facts of the moment, and to remember that we are in the presence of, and called into conspiracy with, the Living God: the One whose ways and thoughts aren't ours, the One at whose name the mountains tremble, the One whose living dream is a world inverted, a world freed from the blustering brokenness of Goliath and his ilk, freed from the powers committed to the way things are. When God frees us, God puts us in a broad place, resets the conditions of our lives, gives us an ability to remember that there is more at work in and among us than we can possibly imagine. We can breathe again. We can move.
The foundational claim of the Bible about us is that we're created to reflect God's glory, God's love, justice, and righteousness in the world. This is the second thing that David reminds us; the second truth he calls us into. We're sufficient in these bodies, in this time and place, wherever and whenever we find ourselves, to do that, in our own peculiar ways. By God's lavish goodness, we have been given everything needed for godliness and for life, St. Peter preaches (2 Peter 1:3). It's quite a stunning thing to say about us. It's also a demanding thing. It requires diligent attention. It requires allowing God to shape us--not anyone, or anything else. (That's why prayer and Scripture are so integral to faithful maturity. We quickly forget God's voice; we quickly forget the expansive conditions we're working in. We need the word, the presence, the love that frees us, so that we can run the race set before us, as St. Paul and others put it.[1 Corinthians 9; Hebrews 12:1])
I think one of the most fascinating and revealing parts of the story is when Saul tries to dress David in his armor. Of course, it doesn't fit. In it, David's not nimble and flexible anymore. He sort of looks the part, but he's clumsy. He's weighed down and constricted. I imagine Saul's helmet falling down over David's eyes; the sword comically heavy in the teenager's hand. It's kind of a funny scene, but I think it points us to the profound truth that David, who comes in the name of the Lord, can't do things in the way Saul or Goliath, the way of the world. I think it requires some meditation and prayer to translate this accurately to our own lives, but what I think is clear is that as he strips off the cumbersome armor, David bears witness to the fact that God's people are meant to walk in a different way. We're meant to strip off the ways and means of the world, of so-called "other nations," and put on the ways and means of God, and God's kingdom. Long after, St. Paul will describe our battle gear as the whole armor of God: the helmet of salvation, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the belt of truth, on our feet whatever will make us ready for peace, in our hands the sword of the Spirit--the power of Scripture to protect and to guide (Ephesians 6).
I want to avoid prescription and easy answers about what this looks like in our lives, because God doesn't work in generalities. Instead I want to invite us to follow David's lead, to pray and to listen; to believe that we're called--each of us--into God's work; to face the brokenness of the world not on the world's terms but on God's. As Christians, this means walking in the will and way of Jesus: the way of self-giving love, of forgiveness and grace, of passionate concern for those who can't earn our concern; the way that is good news for the poor and the broken; the way committed to the border-breaking love of God, whose desire is to see all things reconciled, all things renewed, all things truly alive.
Which brings us to David's third invitation: action. I love the point in the story when the tension is the highest, the decisive moment has come, and we're told that "David ran quickly to the battle line." Surrounded by the presence of God, marked with the name of the Living God, equipped particularly and specifically, David--David who is too young, too pretty, too inexperienced, too unarmed--runs forward. There's no hesitation, no binding fear. The battle is the LORD's, and David runs.
I think this is an image worth meditating on. Where is God calling us--together, and in our own lives--to run, to move with energy and intention and confidence that the battle is the LORD's? It's worth reminding ourselves that David took down one Philistine; he didn't conquer the world, or end all wars. He simply lived in the world, where he found himself, as though it were God's world, after all. He gave flesh and bone to his trust that God is living and active. He called the people, calls us, to do the same. The powers hell-bent on brokenness are perfectly happy if we stay watching 24 hr news cycles. David calls us not to sit paralyzed by spectacle, but to run, to live and move and have our being, freely and fully, wherever we are, in the sure and certain confidence that we do so in the name and presence of the God whose love for this world can't be stopped, even by death.
There's a reason that the early church was called The Way. It was made up of folks--often the most unlikely of people--learning to live in a new way, shaped by prayer and Scripture, with the kind of reckless freedom that we see as David runs to the battle line. It was a way that testified that the will and way of Jesus is true, regardless of the situation; a way that brought to life the truth that the Living God is at work: that the God who has saved, will save; that the lives of women and men, children and seniors, rich and poor, slave and free, and on and on, all people (Acts 2:17) are sufficient to magnify God's love in this world, without qualification; it's a way that bears witness to the fact that the power of the Living God is at work, here and now, even in us, to do more than we can possibly imagine.
It's the way we're called to. May it be so.