A sermon based on 1 Samuel 17:32-49 & Mark 4:35-41
Today we find ourselves with two of the most famous stories in the Bible. Ones we have heard over and over again. The Old Testament gives us David and Goliath, that epic tale of the shepherd boy who took on the mighty giant. It’s a story we have grown up with. A story we love. A story we tell to our children about the brave wee boy who faced up to the mighty giant.
The Gospel gives us Jesus calming a storm. Again, it’s a story we have heard often, although we mostly hear the versions where Jesus comes walking on the water in the middle of the night. Luke even has Peter getting out of the boat and joining in until he notices the waves and sinks.
So, what are we to make of these familiar stories? What does placing them together like this allow us to see? What can they offer up to us in our world so very different to that of kings and armies and boy shepherds and giant warriors? Our world seems so very far from the days of the miracles and wonders of Jesus.
Except our context isn’t so very different, is it?
Again and again we find ourselves at war, standing face-to-face with another giant, another group of people who are different from us, who for reasons we don’t really understand end up on the opposing side, there to be fought, to be defeated.
And that, for me at least, is one of the difficulties with this story of the shepherd boy and the giant. We take sides. God takes sides. The giant warrior Goliath and his Philistine army are bad. They are evil. They are the enemy. That kind of labelling sticks around for a long time. We still call uncultured people ‘Philistines’ today. How’s that for a bit of latent racism?
This was almost a sermon about armour that fits. That’s the easy sermon for today. We look at little David trying to wear the armour of the great king Saul and we see that it doesn’t fit. The armour weighs the little shepherd boy down. It restricts his movement and limits his reach. It’s a great sermon for a church which feels threatened and insecure, who look around and see a scary world where the enemy is all around and where the great secular giant stands taunting us to come out and fight.
We could talk about casting off the past, freeing ourselves from the traditions that bind us, hold us down and keep us from reaching beyond our walls. We could see our traditions and doctrines as the armour of the past that no longer fits us, but it’s all that we have. Without the armour we are exposed and open to attack.
We could see ourselves as the underdogs. Just one well placed stone fired from our slings and the giant will be vanquished and everything will be wonderful.
We could sing some more hymns of war-like triumph like Fight the Good Fight… How about Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before? All too often that’s exactly where this story takes us… We watch with the Israelites as the shepherd boy walks out with his sling and some stones, we quake as the giant Goliath laughs at his puny opponent, we hold our breath as the pebble flies, time standing still as it strikes the mark, and we explode with joy as the giant falls to the ground. Victory is ours. Our God is greater than your god. We’re better than you.
And we hardly even notice that we are sucked into a never-ending cycle of violence. This week this took the form of a white man walking into a prayer meeting in a black church in North Carolina and murdering nine people as they prayed for peace to God, the same God in whose name untold violence has been done across the centuries. There will be cries for the gunman to be executed, as though an eye for an eye is justice rather than revenge, but it seems that the most startling and most difficult thing to understand is a victim’s children expressing their forgiveness and love for the person who shot their mother. That’s what’s missing from the story of David and Goliath. We rationalise a violent story as being about overcoming adversity or winning against the odds. David stepping out and making peace with Goliath would be a story worth holding in such high esteem.
So, let’s step away from the murder of one larger man by another smaller one, as though it is some kind of example of faith. Let’s look instead at the contrast between that story and the example of God’s Son, Jesus, as we find it in our Gospel reading today.
This story of the storm comes at the end of a tumultuous day for Jesus. Earlier he had been brought news that his cousin John the Baptist had been murdered by Herod.
There’s a moment of temptation there. Remember when Jesus goes off into the wilderness after his baptism by John? After 40 days alone he is tempted, tested. Power and dominion are part of the test. Just say the word and all this can be yours. But Jesus doesn’t want it. Rely on God. That’s where real power lies. So there will be no armed rebellion with Jesus riding on a great white horse in shining armour at the head of the people’s liberation army. There will be no revenge. Herod will meet his maker at another time and in a different way but Jesus will not take up arms.
Instead Jesus tries to find somewhere peaceful to grieve for his cousin. Instead followed and surrounded by thousands of people. He feeds them all with a few loaves and some fish and heals the sick. He chooses to restore people to health and wholeness.
Again we read that Jesus tries to get some peace and heads out in a boat with the disciples as evening falls. He’s exhausted and is soon asleep in the back of the boat.
A gale blows up and soon the water is crashing over the sides, swamping the boat. The disciples are terrified and start to panic. They call on Jesus for help. “He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’”
Peace! Be still.
Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?
It’s interesting that in the face of the gale and swollen waves that Jesus chooses to speak peace. Peace. He rebuked the wind and waves in their violence and chaos and brought peace.
It happens again and again in the Gospels. Jesus never once harms someone. He heals hundreds and feeds thousands. He talks of service and humility. He speaks about forgiveness, not just the moving past a small hurt but the difficulty of facing pain and suffering and choosing peace and lasting justice built on the restoration of relationship and community.
And still we choose David, the warrior poet, rather than Jesus, the healer and peacemaker, as our preferred model. Perhaps it’s just easier to see ourselves in the flawed humanity of David than the perfection of Jesus. But to do that means we don’t take seriously the fully human Jesus. We make him into some kind of sterilised angelic being, gliding through the world in sparkling white robes that new improved Daz could only dream of. We don’t see Jesus wading through the mud and garbage of the world with the rest of us.
We see only the glory of Jesus on the cross and forget that it was humanity’s love of power and violence that put him there.
There are many giants to be slayed.
God’s word is not safe,
it is dangerous.
It’s not benign,
it is powerful.
It encourages action and dissent
and sounds an alarm for us
to take up its challenge
and fight the monsters of today.
And in that call to action there is a choice
Always the same choice
Do we strap on our ill-fitting armour
draw our swords
and march out to slay
those ideas that scare us,
those people who are not like us
and don’t like us?
Or do we stand in the face of the storm
speak the words of Jesus:
Peace! Be still!
For God does not dwell in the past,
and these stories do not remain on the page.
Will we continue to stand in amazement and look with awe upon the Son of God who commands even the wind and the waves but we still fail to hear the words he speaks to us:
Why are you afraid? After all that we have seen. After all that He has done. Have you still no faith? Are you still afraid? Peace! Be still.
The Good News is a living word
that speaks in every age,
that calls on God’s people
to rise to new challenges,
to seek new ways,
to love and to serve
all God’s people,
not just some of them.