Menu Close Menu

What's with the Stick

A Homily from II Samuel 1:17-49

© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines

Virginia-Highland Church

June 22, 2003 (12th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

For centuries, the Philistines and the Israelites had been like two children sharing a small room. They continued to push and shove against one another, each trying to stake out as much territory as possible. By the time of our text for today, tensions were particularly high and frequently violent. The Philistines were expanding to the east, and King Saul was widening the Israelites’ boundaries to the west. Conflict was inevitable.

One such conflict took place at Socoh. On one mountain stood the gathered armies of the Philistines. Camped on the other were Saul’s forces, and they glared at each other across the valley in between. Each side waited for the initial charge that would signal the beginning of the battle.

Instead of careening down the hillside with a shout, the Philistines only sent forward one foot soldier. He was not, however, a typical warrior.. His name was Goliath, and various texts place his height at anywhere between seven and nine feet tall. As if that were not impressive enough, Goliath marches forward covered from head to toe in polished, bronze armor.

To the Israelites, standing with the sun at their backs as it danced off the armor like flame, it must have looked like the Philistines had shot a tower of fire at them. Add to that the massive sword hung at his hip, the javelin strapped across his back, and the spear the size of a small column in his hands; Goliath was the ancient world equivalent of an M1A1 Abrams tank.

Armed to the teeth and virtually invulnerable, Goliath stood in the valley and called out to the Israelites. “Why have you formed up for battle?” he asked. “I am a Philistine, and you are the army of Saul. Why don’t you send one of Saul’s soldiers down here, and just the two of us will fight. If he wins, then we will become your slaves. If I win, then you will become ours.”

This was not an unusual practice at the time, although it was rare for an enemy to actually surrender if their champion was defeated. Nevertheless, it is not exactly the sort of challenge that a warrior-king can turn down if he wants to command the respect of his troops. There was only one problem, Goliath was death incarnate; and every Israelite soldier – including their fearless monarch – was absolutely terrified.

Apparently the Philistines were in no hurry to escalate to a full battle, and Saul was in no hurry to be humiliated by the Philistine giant. Every morning for weeks Goliath would parade in his armor before the Israelites; shouting curses and daring one of them to come meet him on the field of battle. And every morning Saul’s soldiers would mumble into their beers and suddenly remember that they had other things to do.

So, while all of the grizzled veterans stood in their armor and trembled, a young shepherd boy showed up with a basket of food for his brothers. (In case you’re wondering, we have giants, lions and bears in this story – but no wolves.) The boy’s name was David, and he was the youngest of eight brothers. The three eldest were in Saul’s army, and their dad sent David with food for them and for their commander.

When David arrived with the food he went to chat with his brothers. As they were talking, Goliath made his daily appearance. While David stood on tiptoe to peer over their shoulders, one of them made the comment that the king would richly reward the man who slew Goliath. “In fact,” the man went on, the king would probably marry the lucky fellow to one of his daughters. Wealth and power and glory, just waiting for the man who was willing to make a suicidal charge into the waiting spear of a nine-foot tower of death.

David, with the ears of a young adolescent, only heard the first part of that. He looked up at the older soldier and asked “Um, what exactly did you say someone could get for killing the big guy?” The man repeated the list, and David’s eyes began to gleam.

David’s brother Eliab overheard and said, “Look at you! Don’t you have a couple of sheep down there you should be looking after? You’re just a reckless boy, coming down here to watch all the excitement.”

A couple of things should be noted about Eliab’s comments. First, he wasn’t exactly eager to run down and fight Goliath himself. If his concern were with people doing their duty, he wouldn’t have had time to lecture David because he would have been busy polishing his shield and strapping on his armor. In addition, Eliab’s criticism had no basis in fact. David wasn’t shirking his duties, he was honoring them by making the long trip to the battlefield to take care of his older brothers. Yet Eliab, either out of jealousy or pique or simple orneriness chose to ignore that.

Goliath had been pestering and embarrassing the Israelites for weeks, and there was nothing Eliab could do about it. He had no solution himself, and so the first person to come along willing to at least think about fixing the problem got an earful.

There are Eliabs in every setting: in most church committee meetings, in most boardrooms and offices, and even in most homes. Churches in particular have problems that linger and fester sometimes for generations. For one reason or another, when someone (usually a newcomer) is actually willing to dig in and tackle the problem – that’s when the Eliabs pounce. “Who do you think you are? Shouldn’t you be doing something else? What makes you think you can fix this if I couldn’t?”

There’s not a complicated moral in the brief and forgettable part Eliab plays in the story. Don’t be like him. If we can’t slay the giant ourselves, we should simply shut up and get out of the way of the person who can.

David gave Eliab exactly the attention he deserved – which is to say essentially that he ignored him. “It was only a question.” he said, and then turned and asked it of someone else just to make sure he understood exactly what might be at stake here.

David was clearly ambitious and intrigued by the possibility of prosperity, and the text is not subtle about it. It should be noted that these same characteristics that made it possible for him to step out to face Goliath are also the ones that eventually lead him to the greed and arrogance that were his downfall. Ambition that leads to obedience to God apparently has a place, but when it leads to self-serving pride it has outgrown its purpose.

Both Saul and David saw an opportunity, and the warrior-king sent for the gawky shepherd boy. One look at David, though, told Saul that the teenager wasn’t exactly the mighty champion he had hoped for. “You’re a shepherd and a boy, and he’s a man who’s been training for battle since his birth.”

David puffed up his chest, and said, “Being a shepherd isn’t as easy as it seems. Lions and bears come along and try to steal the sheep. When they do, I have to hunt them down, kill them, and rescue the lamb.” “I’ve killed lions and bears, I can handle Goliath,” David added proudly.

Saul was unimpressed, and said nothing.

Realizing that he perhaps took the wrong track, David started again. “Well, actually, God has saved me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear. God can save me from the hand of the Philistine.”

This is what convinced Saul, and it is also the part that is often left out of the frequently overused citations of this story in secular life. If there’s one biblical story that almost everyone in Western culture knows, it’s the one of David and Goliath. News anchors, advertisers, and business people all love to use this story as the standard cliché for the little person who takes on an enormous institution or an entrenched power base.

Unfortunately, they completely reverse the point of the story. It is not an anecdote of the underdog who pulls themselves up by their bootstraps and defeats the enemy. There are no self-made women or self-made men in the Bible. When David claimed that it was his prowess that would defeat Goliath, Saul ignored him.

Yet when David said he was willing to trust God, that was another matter. Saul sent someone to fetch his armor. Saul’s assistants brought the helm and the coat of mail, and strapped it – along with Saul’s massive sword – onto the diminutive shepherd boy.

Looking something like a child trying on his fathers overcoat, David tried to take a step and almost fell over. He was no warrior, and he could not even move with the stuff on. God did not call him as a soldier, God called him as a shepherd; and was as a shepherd that he would meet the Philistine champion.

God does not call us to do things the way other people do them. God does not call us to be something we are not. God calls us to reach the full potential for which we were created.

For David, that meant facing the deadliest warrior in the land with the weapons of a shepherd. He picked up his staff and his sling, stopped to pick up five smooth stones from a wadi, and then marched out to meet Goliath.

Goliath laughed. “What’s with the stick?” he guffawed, confident that his sharp blades would make quick work of the ignorant shepherd. Thousands of years later, it is hard not to remember that we leave this place for a violent world where many people think their wealth or their weapons makes them as powerful as gods. If they pause to consider Christians or Christianity at all, they do so with the patronizing sarcasm of Goliath.

Yet we enter that world under the protection of another Shepherd, who time and again has proven that no amount of weaponry can stop the power of God.

Which is exactly what David told Goliath. “God,” he shouted, “does not work by swords and spears.” We might add today that God does not work by tanks, or jets, or cruise missiles. In those rare events when an act of violence or an act of war is used to serve the purposes of God it is either with God as the victim (in the person of Jesus) or with an almost comical example such as that of a shepherd boy standing against a giant.

God does not work with swords and spears. God works with those who are faithful, and those of us who trust that – if we do our best with what we know best – God will have a purpose for us.

And so, proclaiming that – in this instance at least – a battle will serve as a legendary example for everyone to know that there is a God who is more powerful than the world; David charged toward Goliath.

Goliath – expecting to swat away the shepherd’s crook and skewer David – raised his sword and charged back. Imagine his surprise when the rock – flung from the sling in David’s other hand – hit him square between the eyes.

Goliath – who had every advantage and every reason to win – lost. David, who had almost nothing going for him, won. David won because the victory wasn’t his victory, it was God’s; and because the only thing he did have going for him was his obedience to the One who created him.

Our lives are littered with Goliaths. The Church – when it turns into an institution of oppression – can even become one. A small group of GLBT Christians spent last week in Phoenix protesting spiritual violence at the annual meeting of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. They came because they believe that even a few faithful Christians can be a voice against ignorance and bigotry. It doesn’t matter how many of them there were. It simply matters that they answered God’s call.

It is easy to stand like Saul’s army, staring with fear and self-doubt at the places we would like to go. It’s easy to think that we need special training or certain gifts to overcome what stands in our way. Like Goliath, our weaknesses or doubts can taunt us for years until – in our minds – they become undefeatable foes.

There are no undefeatable foes for God. None. Whatever stands between us and accomplishing the work of God… whatever stands between us as individuals or us as a community of faith… no matter how big it may seem it is not enough to stop the power of God.

Almost as famous as the image of David and Goliath is the one of Don Quixote tilting at windmills that he thought were giants. His giants were phantoms of his own mind, a waste of his time and his energy that could have been spent going after the real evils of the world.

If we are willing to look with the eyes of faith, and see what genuinely stands between us and the will of God; God promises to stand with us; and nothing can stand against God.