Pentecost 4: What do we say?
Sermon preparation for June 21st
I learnt most of my OT from the 1950’s Ladybird Books of religious stories; one which I remember vividly – The Shepherd Boy of Bethlehem (Series 522:1955) – the story of David and Goliath – the book is now selling on the internet for £17:95 – quite a hike from the original cost of 25p.The story of David and Goliath is easily told. The Philistines were dominating Israel in battle. But rather than proceed with the mass slaughter of battle, they decided to settle matters with a duel between their champion and Israel’s champion. Their champion is the massive Goliath. Goliath is ten foot tall and has so much armour he has to get someone to carry his shield for him. Israel’s champion ought to be Saul, who is also very tall, and who has plenty of armour of his own. But Saul isn’t interested. So David steps forth from obscurity. Using wit and wisdom rather than hustle and muscle, David defeats Goliath. The Philistines flee and the Israelite army is refreshed and rejuvenated.
Most world religions seemed to have had their David and Goliaths. In Islam Goliath appears in chapter 2 of the Qur’an (II: 247–252), in the narrative of David and Saul’s battle against the Philistines. In Jewish thought the Babylonian Talmud (Sotah 42b), Goliath was a son of Orpah, the sister-in-law of Ruth, David’s own great grandmother. In Greek thought a story very similar to that of David and Goliath appears in the Iliad, written circa 760–710 BC, where the young Nestor fights and conquers the giant Ereuthalion. In recent usage, the phrase “David and Goliath” has taken on a secular meaning, denoting an underdog situation, a contest where a smaller, weaker opponent faces a much bigger, stronger adversary; if successful, the underdog may win in an unusual or surprising way.
Possibly it is in this underdog state of affairs that the figure of David before Goliath has captured the imagination of our public conversation. I guess we like this story because it confirms something we believe is at the heart of our culture. Stand up for the little guy. We somehow all like to see ourselves as David, the Forest Gumps of our world, with the odds stacked up against us. History is littered with the little guys – like Rosa Parks, the first lady of the civil rights movement who refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus in 1955; the brave New York police, fire fighters and citizens who rushed into the Twin Towers to save lives following the evil Al Qaeda attack on September 11, 2001; Emily Pankhurst, leader of the British Suffragette movement and other women and men who put their lives and reputations on the line fighting for voting rights for women; local communities and activist groups that take on large multinational supermarkets for space in our High Streets. Last month, we saw the little guy, the former slain Archbishop of El Salvador, Archbishop Romero beatified. He became the voice of the voiceless, an outspoken critic of the military regime during El Salvador’s bloody civil war. The Irish people too spoke out last month in the overwhelming vote in favour of same sex marriage. The social revolution in the Republic of Ireland that took place on the 22nd May was extraordinary in it speed and in the way it has shown the diminishing the might, influence and authority of the Roman Catholic Church. We may assume that Kings and Queens like David who ruled over Judah and Israel became are all powerful, but in our Parliamentary democracy the Queen in the recent State opening of Parliament exercised authority not by imposing her will, but by representing and articulating the voice of the people.
But alas. As I re-read the battle story again and later the events of King David’s later life I became aware that there’s a painful irony about what became of David after the fall of Goliath. Following the battle, he is, full of confidence, bravado, pride, full of faith, full of hope, telling Saul he doesn’t need the heavy armour and telling Goliath he doesn’t need mighty power and bombastic big talk. David defeated Goliath. The people swung behind their poet warrior. David became king, Israel’s 2nd King and ancestor of Jesus, David the man of many contrasts. And gradually the terrible irony, the satire, the mockery begins to kick in. David became Goliath. David became the inflated, bullying, beached whale he had begun his career by destroying. Just like Elvis Presley, for whom fame and fortune turned gyrating hips into bloated cheeks. David became Goliath. What a tragedy that was.
But alas the truth is we spend so much time trying so hard to be Goliath? We can spend our energies building up our supply of swords and spears and javelins. We clad our car and our house and our country to look like Goliath, with so many safety and security features we can hardly move around in them. Durham at the moment is enjoying a party atmosphere, exams are over and Cathedral degree ceremonies will soon take place, Why is a Durham degree so coveted? Because it gives you a chance to be Goliath. It gives you the armour, it gives you the weapons, it gives you the respect, it gives you the acclaim. All the things Goliath had. All the things David didn’t have. Why are our mainline denominations feeling such a creeping sense of panic in this country right now? Because they’re facing numerical decline. Why is that a problem? After all Christianity isn’t any less true just because it is less widely believed. The reason it’s a problem is that mainline denominations have assumed for as long as anyone can remember that they’re supposed to be Goliaths – perhaps the recent defiance of teaching in the Irish Roman Catholic Church is a case in point. They’re supposed to be huge, they’re supposed to be important, they’re supposed to be players on the national stage, they’re supposed to be the acknowledged voice of the people. All the things Goliath was. All the things David wasn’t.
But the poignancy doesn’t end there. When we read this story we don’t just see the contrast with David’s later life (he had 8 wives!). We also think of the one whom a dozen or more times in the gospels people call the Son of David. When we think of Jesus as Son of David, are we thinking of the David who became Goliath? Or are we thinking of the David who overcame Goliath? The tragic irony is the same as before. We know that in walking the way of the cross, Jesus was the disarmed young David who walked slowly and calmly without armour to face the Goliath of empire, and death. But we constantly fall back into celebrating Jesus as if he were the kingly David of power politics and conquest – the David who became Goliath. We take a long, lingering look at the God revealed in Jesus of Galilee, the God made known in touch, and word, and silence, and not in weapon, or wealth, or war.
We say we like David but we choose Goliath.
Reading: 1 Samuel 17:1a, 4-11,19-23
Minister of St Andrew’s Dawson Street, Crook