I love the way the lectionary readings often carry such reinforcing messages. We hear this story in Mark’s gospel of how the disciples were terrified of dying when their boat was destroyed in the storm. Jesus says, “What, this? This bothers you?” I can almost hear what Jesus may have thought but did not say: “I know what lies before you. It makes this storm look like a puff of wind.” But he didn’t say that. He just calmed the waves and the wind and in my imagination, he went back to sleep.
I love what Mark says next: “They were terrified.” That is just SO human. Storm: terror. No storm: still terror. If we don’t see ourselves in the disciples, we miss a very important lesson. They are us. We are so often afraid.
In the same way, Saul’s army camped opposite the Philistines are us, too. This story of David & Goliath has become an icon in our culture. Like “Cinderella story,” we all know what we mean by telling of a struggle between David and Goliath: a school teacher wins a court battle against Bank of America and it will almost certainly be described as a “David and Goliath” story. But I have a problem with that, mostly because that view of this story is profoundly wrong.
As a child I experienced this story as a triumph of the little kid against a big, mean, angry giant. After all, it carries many of the images of Jack the Giant Killer, doesn’t it? And I was a kid during the Cold War, so that gave a ready enemy to play the role of the Philistines. But thinking David was an underdog, who wins an unlikely triumph, is turning the story upside down.
Many of you know of popular English author Malcolm Gladwell. He’s written some fantastically popular – and useful – books, including “The Tipping Point” and “Blink.” He’s fascinated by this story and gives a fabulous account in one of his Ted Talks. It’s worth the 15 minutes.
Gladwell explains the specifics, so I’ll let you watch his video – seriously, you should do that this afternoon. I’ll stick to the outcome: David was never an underdog. He was in fact the only one who could win. More importantly, he alone saw things accurately. And seeing things as they really are is the most powerful weapon a warrior can carry in battle.
Let me break it down a little.
First, both the Palestinians and the Israelites are in a no-win stalemate. A move by either to attack the other would bring defeat. So they sat there for weeks hurling insults.
Into this scene walks David. Now David was not like the others.
David had a set of certain skills. I wish I could sound like Liam Neeson saying that, but just imagine it for yourself. Skills that were useful at the time. He also had an attitude of faith, self-assurance, and what is more valuable, David had the confidence borne of prior success, without yet having reached the level of hubris that plagues so many heroes. He explains to Saul that he isn’t a soldier and has no use for armor or sword. He will rely on his strengths, not try to compensate for his weaknesses.
Saul doesn’t get it, but something he sees in David cause Saul to trust the entire kingdom in the boy’s hands. If I wrote this story I might want David to prove his prowess with the sling, but that’s not how it’s written. David convinces Saul.
And no, it doesn’t make sense, but that is simply evidence that the Spirit of the Lord is a powerful thing. David had it.
So David went out to fight Goliath.
Historians have theorized – probably accurately - that Goliath was more hat than cowboy. He was big and noisy, but he very likely suffered a genetic condition known as ACROMEGALY. If so it put him at a serious disadvantage. But none of the Israeli soldiers knew that, including David.
So David was no fool. He knew that he could defeat Goliath only at a distance. Rather than meet Goliath in hand-to-hand combat, David beaned him with a stone from his sling.
Let me emphasize that a slinger was no stranger to the battlefield. In those days there were three components to large armies: cavalry, heavy infantry and artillery. The artillery was made up of slings and arrows. Artillery has defeated many infantry attacks. David was a slinger. And as a practiced and brave shepherd, he knew his craft.
It is likely that the stone flung from David’s sling struck Goliath with the power of a 45 caliber bullet. Of course he went down like a sack of potatoes.
All this surprised the Philistines. Also the soldiers of Saul’s army. The Philistine army fled and the Israelites chased them killed them. Saul’s victory was complete. From that day he sought to keep David close. No surprise there.
But I am left wondering – as I hope you are wondering – what this has to do with you. This is a great story, but if it is merely interesting, you – and I – have turned a deaf ear to God. This is not merely interesting.
Like the disciples in the boat, like the soldiers of Saul’s army, we are prone to fear. We are afraid we’ll get cancer. We’re afraid we’ll lose our job. We’re afraid we’ll fail a test, or get a ticket, or that thieves might break in. We are afraid that our faith isn’t good enough. We’re afraid that we aren’t as faithful as Abraham, or David, or Paul.
Author Stephen king says “Fear is the emotion that makes us blind.” I think I agree. In the small boat, all we can see is the storm and our own inadequacy. We KNOW this will not turn out well. Standing opposite the Philistine army, seeing this giant warrior, we KNOW we cannot defeat them. Our end is here.
But our fear makes us blind to the salvation God has prepared.
I am afraid of cancer, but God has given me medicines unimagined by my parents. I am afraid I will lose my job, but God has prepared me for that moment when I might answer the call to serve others. I am afraid I won’t measure up when God judges me. But God wants my salvation even more than I do, and He loves us more than we fail Him.
I’m freaking out and God says, “Peace. Be still.” I cower behind my shield hoping I might at least be the last to die by a Philistine sword and God says, “Watch this, and have faith.”
The story we have to learn is that we often do not see the world as it really is. We think Goliath can’t be defeated when in fact there is no way Goliath could ever have won. The true understanding of this story is that David’s faith made him the victor before he ever picked up the stones.
May we all have that kind of faith.