five smooth stones

I Samuel 17:1-50; Mark 4:35-41

David and Goliath. The names have moved from the Bible into the generic language of our culture. David is the poster boy for the perennial little guy who defeats the giant Goliath. It has become a children’s fable, a metaphor for overcoming our fear and defeating the giants in our life. You would think that more than three decades of preaching that I would have preached at least one sermon on this familiar tale. But no. I have not. It leaves me wondering why, why not? And then I read, read I Samuel, and remember. I remember that these stories are not pretty, not easily turned into metaphors, not readily removed from the brutality of Iron Age Canaanite culture. To read these narratives is to be taken into a world where raw power is interwoven with hidden providence that is revealed in all manner of human personalities. In handing these stories on to us as scripture Israel and the church make the claim that speaking of God’s activity in the world requires a thick, artistic, honest telling. If God is active in this world it is in this world (not a cleansed version of this world) - this world with all its raw power, active somehow through the strange mix of personalities we know and are (Walter Brueggemann, “Power, Providence & Personality”).

Today let us host the story of David and Goliath. Let us notice what we may not have noticed before and listen for a Word from God that we may not have heard before. The first thing to notice is that it is the third of three stories that introduce David. First this unknown, unvalued shepherd boy is secretly anointed to be king by the prophet Samuel. Then, King Saul is incapacitated by an evil spirit until David’s music on the lyre brings healing relief. And now, in the third scene, David arrives on the public stage of Israel in its war with the Philistines.

The Philistines are everything Israel dreams of becoming. Powerful. Advanced. Wealthy. Productive. Growing. People like the Philistines are the reason that Israel insisted that they, too, have a king. It is the reason that they have Saul. Saul, who stands head and shoulders above everyone else in Israel (I Samuel 10:23). King Saul is Israel’s best attempt at being like everyone else in the world. But when matched against the Philistines big King Saul, like Israel, looks puny. Did you notice that in listening just now to the story once again that we only heard the name “Goliath” mentioned twice? Throughout the tale he is simply called “The Philistine”. He is representative of Philistine power. In the story he is not actually called a giant. Our translation twice calls him “a champion”. The Hebrew says, literally, “the man of the betweens”. Goliath is prepared to stand between the armies. He is a big man. About six foot nine. Not only is he impressive in stature but he is daunting in his armour which takes four verses to describe in detail. Goliath is the personification of the Philistines’ dominance. His speech is full of bombastic confidence. This is the conventional power we are familiar with - conventional political power, conventional economic power, conventional military power. When confronted by this overpowering enemy King Saul and all Israel are “dismayed and greatly afraid”.

Enter David. He’s a shepherd from Bethlehem. Does it ring any bells? It is supposed to at Christmas time. God enters the story in an unlikely character from an unlikely location. Three of David’s seven brothers are recruits in Saul’s army. David’s elderly father - Jesse - sends him to the front lines with food for his brothers and ten cheeses for the commander (perhaps to ensure that the boys aren’t put into too much danger). David makes the trip back and forth every day so that he can keep tending the sheep. And every morning and every night the Philistine comes forward and invites Israel to send an Israelite to settle things once and for all, man to man. This goes on for forty days and forty nights. Does this sound familiar? Like the forty days of the Flood? Like the forty years on the long journey to the Promised Land? Like Jesus tempted in the wilderness for forty days? Right. Israel is confronted by conventional, raw power for a long time and lives in fear for a long time and sees no way out for a long time.

Then one day David hears Goliath. And David sees that all the Israelites run for their lives the moment they set eyes on the Philistine. David asks two questions. He wants to know what kind of reward there is for killing the Philistine. And he wonders what kind of person “should defy the armies of the living God?” The crowd tells him that the reward will be threefold - wealth, the king’s daughter’s hand in marriage and freedom for his family. Before David can respond his oldest brother, Eliab, yells at him: “Why have you come down? ... I know the presumption and evil of your heart; for you have come down just to see the battle.” Eliab can not see God at work in the story. God’s providence is hidden. He can only see a kid brother who wants to gawk at the battle from a safe distance. David’s answer sounds like the answer of a younger brother: “It was only a question”. But which question? He asked two. He asked about the reward. Then he asked what kind of person would defy the living God. One question sounds like he is weighing risk and reward, the conventional mathematics of a soldier for hire. The other question sounds like the unconventional logic of the first character in this narrative to mention the living God. I told you. Speaking about God in our scripture requires a thick, artistic, honest telling. David’s motives aren’t clear. He says he only asked a question. But he asked two questions. And when he turns from his brother and speaks in the same way the people answer again as before. Namely, if you kill Goliath you’ll be rich, you’ll marry the king’s daughter and your family will be free. David’s motives are not yet clear. Or maybe they are mixed motives, as our motives always are.

Saul sends for David. David says he is ready to fight the Philistine. Saul says that David is no match, that he is just a boy, that the Philistine is a professional, battle-hardened warrior. David says that just as he has been delivering lambs from the teeth of lions and bears, so will the living God who delivered him from the lion and the bear, deliver him from the hand of this Philistine. Did you notice? The tale is once again thick, artistic, honest. David begins by saying that he was the one doing the delivering, the saving, rescuing lambs from danger. But then he shifts. Then he says that it was the LORD, YHWH, the living God who did the delivering, the saving, the rescuing. There is a hidden actor who is at work behind the scenes and between the lines. David trusts in the hidden activity of the living God.

David enters the story as an unconventional warrior. He is a shepherd, not a soldier. That is the reason that Saul’s armour and sword just get in the way. “I cannot walk with these; for I am not used to them” says David. He takes off the bulky conventional armour, picks up his shepherd’s staff and walks over to the wadi, the creek, to choose “five smooth stones” for his sling shot. David enters the fight with a weapon. But it is not conventional weaponry. Five smooth stones against a soldier in full battle gear. It sounds like guerilla warfare. The mighty Philistine is armoured against everything that is seen on the conventional battle field but is not protected from one thing - a shepherd who knows how to use a sling, and who trusts in the living God. Of all of the moments in this story it is this one that offers for me the place of entry. Somehow I find myself - I see us - down there in the wadi, selecting those five smooth stones. When Eugene Peterson writes about pastoral ministry he imagines the wadi as the Old Testament. Then he picks out five often overlooked books and sees in them the five smooth stones needed to defeat the forces that confront congregations who place their trust in conventional leaders and powers: Song of Songs for prayer-directing; Ruth for story-making; Lamentations for pain-sharing; Ecclesiastes for nay-saying and Esther for community-building. Perhaps it is no accident that for years now we have organized our life together around five traditional marks of the church. They are not just five handy teaching points. They are five weapons against the overpowering trouble that threatens to defeat our hope for a world made right by God, for families reconciled by God, for souls saved by God. Re-imagine the five marks of the church as those five smooth stones picked from the wadi. Liturgia - worship of the living God. Didache - training in the way of the God we meet in Jesus Christ. Koinonia - adoption into community of the family of God. Diakonia - servants of the unconventional Messiah, Jesus, who shepherds and who saves the lost lambs. Kerygma - proclaiming the message of the living God whose unconventional Messiah bears our suffering and carries us through death to life.

You know how the story ends. David and Goliath meet. The Philistine is unimpressed by his unimpressive foe. He disdains David as a nothing, curses him and promises to let the birds and the wild animals feast on his carcass. David says that he carries no sword, no spear, no javelin. But he does come in the name of YHWH who will deliver Goliath, and not only Goliath but the whole Philistine army whose bodies will, this day, be food for the birds and wild animals “so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the LORD does not save by sword and spear”. This, says David, is not a conventional God. This God works in hidden, surprising, unexpected ways to triumph. Then, in two short verses, it is over. A smooth stone sinks into Goliath’s forehead. The narrator reminds the audience: “there was no sword in David’s hand”. He is Israel’s new king, its Messiah, because he remembers and trusts the unconventional ways of YHWH, the living God, when others have returned to the conventional ways of power and have given up on the hidden, living God.

On another day, in another scene, David’s unconventional descendant - the new Messiah - is at sea, asleep in the boat. His students are terrified of the storm, the wind and the waves. The boat is swamped. They are about to drown. All the evidence, all the statistics, every diagnosis points to the same inevitable conclusion: death. They shake him awake with their aching prayers, asking “Don’t you care that we are dying?” He rubs his eyes. He rebukes the wind. One smooth stone. Then he tells the sea: “Peace! Be still!” A second smooth stone. There is nothing but a dead calm. He looks at his beginners class and says: “Why are you afraid? Do you still not trust?” They are no longer afraid of the wind and the sea. Now they are afraid, in awe (literally “afraid with a terrible fear”) because this Good Shepherd’s words are more powerful than they can fathom. Then they remember his name. In Greek he is “Jesus”. In Hebrew “Joshua”. His name means: “YHWH delivers”. His parents named him “the living God saves”. In that case, what have we to fear? In that case, why are we afraid? Why, indeed?

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