Summer 2020: Old Testament Heroes
August 30, 2020
Rev. Fritz Nelson
Text: 1 Samuel 17:1-58
As we wind down our summer series on the characters of ancient Israel we turn to Goliath, the giant killed by the shepherd boy destined to be king. Goliath was one of several physically intimidating Philistinian champions from Gath, a coastal city reputed to be the home of an ancient race of giants. Our bibles list Goliath at about nine feet tall. We’re going to be reading an older version of the story listing Goliath at six feet, six inches, still a giant compared to the average ancient Israelite.
When the story begins the battle against the Philistines is at a stalemate, a situation representative of the long relationship between the two groups. The Philistines, who lived along the coast, wanted access to the fertile interior. The Israelites, who lived in the interior, wanted access to the coast. Yet neither could defeat the other. The war dragged on for generations. The Philistines were the Israelites’ Goliath.
The older version I mentioned comes from the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament used by the first generations of Christians.
So many Goliaths. So often I feel like a David. Goliath’s actually the giants name. Over the millennia it came to mean anything so seemingly large, or powerful, or scary, or controlling we quake in our armor before it like the ancient Israelites who feared Goliath’s size, his strength, the sharpness of his sword, the heft of his spear, the weight of his armor. And David – although we know David would become Israel’s all-powerful king, a warrior as feared as Goliath – has come to mean anyone small, weak or powerless, an every-person who has to face a Goliath with only a sling and a few rocks. The minute men vs. the Red Coats. The protestor facing down the tanks in Tiananmen square. Rosa Parks on the bus. Mr. Smith goes to Washington. You taking on your insurance company or trying to make ends meet as the economy collapses. My friend Tifiney’s battle with Jobs and Family Services.
Of course David’s not an every-person. He’s a shepherd, called by God to protect God’s people Israel. His sling is a shepherd’s weapon, perfect for long range defense of sheep from bears or armies from giants. His sling is also a humble weapon. A mighty hero would have taken sword and shield and gone toe to toe with the giant. With his sling, David stays well out of range of Goliath’s sword while still getting the job done. A shepherd with a heart like God’s, a shepherd driven by faith.
We all have our Goliath’s. Tifiney’s Goliath was Columbiana County Jobs and Family Services. Actually, it was more our country’s disjointed social safety net then the employees of Jobs and Family Services who, for the most part, care deeply about the people they serve. The well-being of Tifiney’s family depended on a good working relationship with Jobs and Family Services, yet every meeting felt like a battle, for which Tifiney prepared as if for war. As she dueled with the staff, seeking to protect her pride, her dignity and her family, meetings would devolve into shouting matches. She was labeled a problem client. She could never win.
Tifiney was one of the first graduates of Pathways to Independence, a program of The Way Station and supported by the Columbiana deacons. Some of you met her last year at the picnic in the Columbiana park. She credits Pathways to Independence with teaching her a different way to combat her Goliaths, the way of a Shepherd. She learned to let her love for her children override her desire to be respected. She found compassion for those charged with enforcing rules they don’t make. She learned to fight from long range using patience, listening, humility, calm and steadfast perseverance. A deepened faith helped her realize she didn’t fight alone. The battle indeed belonged to the Lord.
As the Goliath’s of COVID-19 and systemic racism have terrified our country, we’ve seem two responses. Some want to go toe to toe. The want to express legitimate anger. They want to protect their pride. They want to assert supremacy. Buildings burn. Cases spread. Guns go off. People die. Goliath wins. Others sought to act with humility and patience, to examine their own behavior and make changes. To respect the vulnerable and show care for their neighbors. To be prudent and wise, to be patient knowing the battle belongs to the Lord. Marching on Columbus with guns didn’t get schools reopened or high school football played. Burning cities and shooting protesters will do nothing to heal the deep wounds of systemic racism.
A former boss caught her husband in bed with the babysitter. I know, a total cliché, but its true. She got the best lawyer money could buy and took him to the cleaners. She won the battle, the divorce made her very rich and she has done much good with his money, but the burned bridges still smolder, the enmity still radiates throughout her family, years later Goliath still reigns. Another acquaintance had been through two husbands, both as, if not more, troublesome than my bosses.’ She divorced them with resolve, but also with love for her children, compassion for her exes, with patience, listening, humility, calm and steadfast perseverance. Thanksgiving at her house featured all her kids, all her exes, her current partner and even her exes new partners. They weren’t a big happy family, but they could spend two hours together. Fighting like a shepherd, she’d defeated her Goliath.
At some point while being immersed in Goliath’s story, I realized Israel may have had a trained warrior near Goliath’s equal. It was their King, King Saul, whose primary qualification for kingship was his size. He stood, we’re told, “head and shoulders above the rest.” Yet he would not, could not fight for God’s people. As king, his only option was to go toe to toe, warrior to warrior. If he lost he would lose legitimacy in the eyes of his people. The entire kingdom might fall. So Goliath was left to terrorize and threaten, until David, assured of victory, unconcerned about pride, could fight as a shepherd, concerned only for his sheep.