June 22, 2021

The Real Underdog (1 Samuel 17:32-49)

A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler

1 Samuel 17:32-49

A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler

Sunday 20th June 2021

1 Samuel 17:32-49

Everyone likes an underdog. Seeing the little guy (or girl) overcome the big boys (or girls) warms the hear. From the sporting encounters of Scotland versus England, to the survivors of Grenfell Tower – to choose two examples from the past week alone – we love to see David beat Goliath.

Such is the power of the biblical story we have heard today that it has become a metaphor for improbable victories. David is the little lad from the back of beyond – the eighth son and the overlooked shepherd boy as we heard two weeks ago – who for some reason is destined to be the greatest figure of the Hebrew Bible. This is the story of a boy who looks after the luggage train who thinks he can take on this giant of a man armed to the teeth, even though all the armies of Israel cower in the face of this man-mountain. Although not part of our reading today, the description of Goliath in all his might is the longest description of the appearance of any human being in the entire Bible. Even the words mount up. He is simply enormous. We naturally root for David, with his five smooth stones and his slingshot.

And yet we know that Goliath is going to lose. The biblical author is setting us up for this across the whole story, all 58 verses of it. In fact, so weighted against Goliath is the story that when it comes to the actual conflict itself, the battle is accounted for in a single verse. As far as the biblical author is concerned, there is no contest. If there is an underdog in this story it is Goliath, because what really matters is not David’s deed, but the words he says and what they tell us about what it means to be a person of biblical faith. As the commentator Walter Brueggemann puts it, “Goliath did indeed have the whole armour, but it was not ‘the whole armour of God’.”

The striking thing about David’s defeat of Goliath isn’t his skill as a slingshot marksman, although that will have come in useful as a shepherd boy; it’s the boldness of his speeches and the way in which his attitude to the military predicament of the Israelites is grounded in his faith in the one he calls “the living God.” Whether it’s before King Saul or before Goliath, David is unafraid to voice his trust and confidence in God, something which the Saul is unable to do (and which maybe the cause of his military crisis), and something which Goliath, with his faith in the gods of the Philistines, cannot do. Whether David is addressing the King of Israel or the Champion of the Philistines, he will name and claim the Lord God. David knows that the one he calls “the living God”, and “the Lord of Hosts, the God of the armies of Israel” has not only made a solemn covenant promise to be the God of Israel, but has also been faithful to that promise in military victories in the past. Faced with the might of the “Lord of hosts” and the “God of armies”, Goliath and his gods do not stand a chance.

What this story is written for is to remind us that, first, God is faithful to his promise, and that there is a God who can deliver and rescue; and second, that David, not Saul, is the one through whom God will fulfil his promise, for David is the one who trusts in the Lord. Remember: the Lord Jesus Christ is “the Son of David”, not the “Son of Saul.”

So here are a couple of reflections for us to ponder. One is about the importance of faith-speech, about not just internal believing but public proclamation of the reality of the living God. This is what David is able to do and, as far as the person who has crafted this story together in such a compelling way is concerned, this is what stands out in David.

Having this ability not just to believe but to speak words of faith into situations is one of the hallmarks of biblical faith. It gives confidence in God to the speaker and to the hearer. You don’t need to look beyond what we do in this service to know how important words in worship are to sustaining faith. When we speak out words of faith, we sustain and hold to faith. The public utterance builds up and encourages us, enables us to believe and trust in the living God, while at the same time encouraging others to the same. When we practise faith-speech, we encourage ourselves and we do something similar for those who hear it. Maybe you noticed that when David was before Saul, his faith-speech enables the embattled king to faith-speech too. David says, “The Lord who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.” And, for the first time in this story, Saul can engage in faith-speech too: “Go,” he says, “and may the Lord be with you.”

All well and good, but there’s also another example of faith-speech in this passage, when David faces Goliath. Faith-speech isn’t just for internal use only. Faith-speech is for the heat of the battle, not perhaps when faced with a physical opponent like Goliath, but when we face the challenges of life in the public square. We have forgotten how to do this in Western culture. So long has what Matthew Arnold called “the sea of faith” been ebbing away, that we are seriously lacking in confidence and practice in engaging in public faith-speech. “By what right?” we ask ourselves. “Faith is a private matter” we hear Christianity’s critics claim. And so, like Saul and the Israelite army, we have become reticent about faith-speech, and so we have ceded ground to the modern-ages Philistines and Goliaths . We urgently need to recover our confidence here, both individually and corporately. If the God we sing and speak about here in church is the God he claims to be, then he is the God of the public square not just the private opinion. And you and I are his spokespersons.

Think about your life for a moment, think about your workplace, your home, your relationships. What sort of faith-speech might you contribute there? What does your faith in, to use David’s phrase, “the living God”, have to say about what’s going on there? Can we learn to speak words of faith more naturally in these places? What enemies might need to be faced down with faith speech: perhaps not actual people, although the bully and the crook are good examples of where a stand might need to be taken; but what about the enemies of injustice, discrimination, religious intolerance or illiteracy, or a culture which is not conducive to human dignity and flourishing. Having a faith that remains internal or silent here risks ceding ground to these enemies. Faith-speech names the enemy and begins to face it down, even if you only have ‘five smooth stones’ with which to fight.

And the other reflection I have to offer on this passage is in the power of the name of God. In David’s culture, as in many cultures today, naming something is a powerful thing to do. The name of God – “YHWH” – which we translate as “Lord” is such a powerful thing that, in Jewish thought, to use the name of God literally can mean to bring God into the situation. This is why, for example, we pray ‘in the name of Jesus’. Using Jesus’s name is a very powerful thing to do. When we are in sorrow or trouble, simply calling on Jesus by name is the most simple and reliable prayer we can make. So powerful is it that in the East, a whole tradition of Christian prayer has emerged based on the repeated and repeated and repeated Name of Jesus. It is also why, biblically speaking, taking the name of the Lord in vain is such a serious thing to do. Beyond the rich tapestry of Anglo-Saxon swear words I can think of and regularly hear – it is when someone uses to Name of Jesus in that way that I take the most offence.

The Name of the Lord is a precious gift to David. It is his greatest weapon and, according to the storyteller of 1 Samuel, only he among all Israel appears to have the courage to use it in the face of Goliath and the Philistine hordes. This is because, alone in Israel, David does not doubt what God has done before: because “God has delivered”, God will deliver again. He, like Peter in the book of Acts, knows that “there is no other name under heaven…by which we must be saved.””

Perhaps we could use the name of the Lord in this way. The American author Lydia Baxter lived as an invalid her whole adult life. In 1855 she published a book of poems, some of which became popular hymns in the late 19th century. She would tell her friends, “I have a very special armour. I have the name of Jesus. When the tempter tries to make me blue or despondent, I mention the name of Jesus, and he can’t get through to me any more.” She wrote, “Take the name of Jesus with you, child of sorrow and of woe. It will joy and comfort give you, take it then where’re you go.” Sometimes it’s simple words like that, the smooth stones of simple trust in God, that will fortify you more than the armour of theological sophistication.

At the end of the story of David and Goliath, we have discovered just how and why Goliath was always the underdog. There are all sorts of earthly reasons why David might have been able to slay Goliath – there’s a TED Talk by Malcolm Gladwell all about it if you’re interested. But Gladwell’s conclusion – that giants may not be as powerful and invincible as they seem – is ideal for the closed secular world of management-speak. But it smooths over or ignores the one thing about all that the biblical story wants to tell us, which is that Goliath is the underdog because God is alive and and work in and through David.

And, faith claims, that through the power of the resurrected Jesus God is alive and work among us as well. We may not have five smooth stones, but armed with ‘faith the size of a mustard seed’, “no foes shall stay his might, though she with giants fight, he will make good his right to be a pilgrim.” Amen.

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