DAVID & GOLIATH The Rev. Brian E. Backstrand June 21, 2015
His height was six cubits and a span. Or four cubits and a span. Two different heights, because the manuscripts vary, but the same result—a giant. In one version of I Samuel 17, Goliath is 6 feet 9 inches. In another version, he is an unbelievable 9 feet 9 inches. A fantastic height. He comes out every day for 40 days. He is a monster. A hulk. A supreme enemy. He should play for the NBA.
Two men are to represent the fortunes of two armies and of two nations. Two men, one of whom has been coming out in between the camped armies of Israelites and Philistines for the symbolic 40 days (that’s 40 years in the wilderness, 40 days of temptation for Jesus, 40 Biblically symbolic days). And so, after forty days of taunting the other side, the two men finally do battle. The big man who has been issuing the taunts is a giant. The other is a ruddy youth, a shield bearer for the King. He is an overlooked shepherd boy with just a slingshot and a lot of nerve. We all know the story: The little guy wins.
But it is not the first little guy to win. Consider little Joseph earlier. Like David he is the youngest. He is placed in the pit of a deep well and left there by his brothers. Some of them want simply to kill him. Others hesitate. So he is placed in a deep dry well and sold off to traders as a slave. Off he goes to Egypt. And – eventually – the little guy wins. He becomes the interpreter of dreams. He becomes powerful– an administrator of great ability. He survives a scandal scare. And eventually he welcomes his starving brothers during a famine that drives them down to Egypt begging for food. He welcomes them – although they at first do not recognize him. The little guy wins.
Now the whole army of the Israelites and King Saul see Goliath as a huge and fearsome enemy. He is a giant. Saul tells David You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are just a boy and he has been a warrior from his youth. Saul and his people see a giant and a young boy with a lot of nerve. But David sees things through another filter, another screen. David the shepherd boy, the defender of helpless sheep, sees Goliath as just another bear, as just another lion. And he has killed them both. So—through his filter, and through his experience—he reduces the giant, places the giant in perspective. He knows the power of a single stone in slingshot. He takes five stones from the dry river bed and literally runs out to meet him. A bold, disconcerting move from a shield bearer who is unafraid and ready to do battle.
In this technological world that we live in, we might see something interesting here. Saul wants David to use his armor. That is, to use the best weaponry that he as king can provide the young lad. David tries it out. He walks around. David strapped on Saul’s sword over the armor and he tried in vain to walk for he ws not used to them. Then David said to Saul, “I cannot walk with these for I am not used to them.” So David removed them.
Five smooth stones. A shepherd’s bag. A sling. That’s all he had. That’s all he needed. That’s all he was comfortable with. He used what he had. What he had he knew well and could employ with power.
Interpretations vary. In Judaism, one of the points of the story is to show David as the true king of Israel. Saul is weak; David is bold. David is the true king. Later traditions portray Goliath as the great example of paganism. And David is the ruddy youth who becomes the champion of Israel. David says at one point: You come to me with sword and spear and 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.
Christian interpretations take this classic encounter and spin it in another direction—a more expansive one. Here Goliath in his massive strength and height and power represents the enemies of God. And David represents a young King, God’s King who wins a decisive victory over the enemy of God’s helpless people. This encounter and this victory with stones and a slingshot also in Christian thought prefigures the work of Jesus. Jesus is an unknown. Jesus is not powerful. Jesus wins a great victory over the spiritual forces of sin, of death itself, over the power of evil in the world. This takes place on the cross where a decisive battle changes everything.
Today we dedicate the portrayal in marble of the dove of peace. This is a vision of the Holy Spirit coming as a dove to bring peace into a broken world. The opponent of peace – that is, hatred and violence and destructive power – is a true Goliath. War and the cycles of war and the power of hatred is a huge Goliath. The destruction of the environment for greed for profit for a life of ease – this also is a Goliath that disrupts peace and harmony and the created order itself.
Why the dove? Like a ruddy shepherd boy, the dove seems relatively harmless and vulnerable. The dove is portrayed as pure, as white and gentle. The dove is a form of the Holy Spirit when Jesus is baptized. The dove was said to be so pure that this was the one form that Satan could not transform himself into. In the account of the great flood, the dove is the bird which symbolizes peace and order in the natural world. Noah releases the bird and the dove comes back with an olive branch in its mouth, signifying not only that there was dry land again but that there was peace and order about to once more appear. For the Celts, the mournful cry of the dove meant the peaceful passing of someone. The dove is associated with purity and innocence.
And so—peaceful, hopeful, pure, innocent, gentle—the dove seems harmless. But the dove, the spirit, the presence of the Almighty is a huge force operating in our lives and in the world for good. The dove is capable of bringing down vast empires and vast powers. All in the name of peace and of harmony and of YHWH as the final ruler and king.
This past week we witnessed an example of the power of the spirit, the dove of peace. A young man came into a black church in Charleston South Carolina and lingered for more than an hour as a welcomed guest in a bible study. Then he opened fire. He killed and killed and destroyed. Yet, when he was captured and arraigned, the families of some of the fallen, powerful and tearfully told him that they forgave him. What kind of power enables people to face their enemies and forgive them, disarm them with love? It must be the work of the dove of peace. It was not just classy. It was not just poised. It was someone deciding to choose love and not violence. It was actually rending; Someone deciding to arm themselves in the power of naked love and not the power of vengeance and retribution and hatred that simply would make them part of the violence of the young man himself. Someone listened to the dove of peace.
Can we take this David and Goliath story a bit farther away from the dry stream bed where they fought and place it in our world? You and I have a slingshot and a bag of smooth stones. They are not much, at least to look at. But there they are. At least here is one interpretation: One is the smooth stone of compassion. One is the smooth stone of honesty. One is the smooth stone of faith. And another is the smooth stone of hope. Yet another is the impossibly smooth stone of forgiveness in the face of unspeakable evil.
And giants? Our goliaths? One of them is the often unspoken giant of racism.
Maybe we do not understand what we have. What kind of power do we have when we love one another ; what kind of power we have when we love ourselves; what kind of power we have when we love our enemies? That power is elusive, but also real. That power must be the work of the dove of peace, brooding over our broken and fallen world. Brooding over our broken and fallen lives.
What we have is an unseen power that is available to us if we but trust it. Let us believe. Let us take out of our bag a smooth stone, the smooth stone of love.. And let us use it this week…somewhere in our lives. Let us use it boldly, this little stone of love. To take down a giant.