How the Mighty Fall
First Sunday in Lent
1 Samuel 17:40-51
March 1, 2020
St. John’s Lutheran Church—Chicago, IL
In the name of + Jesus.
Bigger is better. That’s the unwritten principle of our age. Business lives on growth. The story of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak building Apple into the global giant of technology that it is today is the stuff of American legend. Mark Zuckerburg got a movie made out of his humble beginnings with The Facebook, and is there any area of life that Amazon has not grown into? (If you’re listening, Alexa, I’ve got an order on the way).
I read a book several years back called Good to Great. It was how some companies become great (also meaning big), and others don’t. The irony is that, in reading it several years after it was published, I discovered one of the great companies was Circuit City. Which had gone bankrupt and closed all its stores. Not so great. A few years later the same author wrote, How the Mighty Fall. I’m not as confident with his assessment this time around. Perhaps the problem is that it’s still built on the premise that bigger is better.
We’ve imported this mindset into the Church as well. You can go on lcms.org and pull up a graph of membership, attendance, and giving for every congregation of our synod (presuming that they’ve accurately reported their stats) and compare their growth. I’ll save you some trouble; there’s a lot of downward sloping lines.
It’s rumored that the late great revivalist preacher Billy Graham once remarked that our Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod is a sleeping giant. Actually, it was a comment from a Japanese Admiral about the United States after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Whether Billy Graham actually said it or not, the image was so compelling that our own publishing house published a book called, Waking the Sleeping Giant, with the idea that we need to rise up and use our heft to take the world for Jesus.
Am I the only one, though, who’s thinking, “Giants don’t tend to fair too well in the Bible”? Rather than rise up and use our heft, perhaps we should be watching for smooth stones guided by divine providence.
It’s an old hat interpretation of the story of David and Goliath, but it bears repeating: size and strength give the delusion of certain victory. Goliath, with his overwhelming size advantage and weaponry and armor mocks the small shepherd David, armed only with a sling. And when the Philistine looked and saw David, he disdained him, for he was but a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance. And the Philistine said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods (vv 42–43).
You heard the rest of the story a moment ago, and it’s probably a familiar one if you’ve spent a few minutes in a church. It’s also one of those rare biblical stories that still has some cultural traction, I think. But I also think that the real meaning of the story gets obscured all of the time because we are still interpreting it from the principle of bigger is better.
Here’s the issue. David becomes the hero for the little guy facing seemingly insurmountable challenges. The story of David’s victory with his little slingshot is the encouragement you need to face the “Goliaths” in your life and overcome them. But the unwritten denouement of this story is that your purpose for overcoming your “Goliath” is to yourself become a giant.
This also happened to David. He defeated the Philistine champion, showed himself skilled and worthy of leadership. He was anointed king and by a long and winding path became likely the most powerful king of Israel’s history. And Israel flourished under his rule like America during its post-war boom. And that is when David became an adulterer, a murderer, a thief, and a liar.
How the mighty fall, indeed.
David fell under Goliath’s delusion that his greatness was in strength, power, and size.
When you hear the story of David and Goliath, who’s the character you identify with? I would be flabbergasted if you said anything other than David. Part of that is the way the story is written; David’s the protagonist, and it is written more or less from his point of view. We are invited to step into his sandals and take up his sling, and even to feel the five smooth stones from the brook in our own hands.
I’ll wager $100 that no one here immediately identified with Goliath. Even after I told you that Billy Graham called our church body a sleeping giant and warned us to be on the lookout for flying stones, you were probably still hesitant to identify with the giant. Even when I affirmed that our default principle in the church is “bigger is better,” you still had a hard time conceiving yourself as Goliath, the bigger and better warrior.
Allow me to submit to you that your part in this story is neither David nor Goliath. Here’s the clue. Then [David] took his staff in his hand and chose five smooth stones from the brook and put them in his shepherd’s pouch. His sling was in his hand, and he approached the Philistine (v 40). Why five smooth stones? He only needed one to do the job. Various allegorical interpretations have been given. One is that the five stone represent the Pentateuch, the five books of the Law. And certainly standing on the Law (which includes not only God’s laws, but creation, captivity, deliverance, forgiveness, atonement, and promise), is essential to gaining a victory. But the images evoked both by the five stones in David’s hand and that fateful stone that sunk into the forehead of the giant also point us in a different direction.
The five wounds of Christ. Hands. Feet. Side. In fact, in many traditional altars, there are five crosses etched into a stone insert for the very same reason. David’s five stones prefigure the nails and spear that sunk into the flesh of Jesus.
But allegorical interpretation can be dangerous—perhaps we’re just reading into the story something that isn’t there. But David’s own words give us the definitive answer to our question. Then David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied” (v 45).
David is the one in the story who comes in the name of the Lord. This is the precise greeting given to Jesus as he enters Jerusalem for His passion: Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. His name is, in fact, the Lord. Jesus means, the Lord saves. No matter the size or strength or weapon or armor of the foe.
God does not put His name on the big and strong; He stakes his claim among the weak to gain victory over the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. Jesus engages in battle bearing the Lord’s name and wounds that result from weakness. But as the nail pierces His hand, it deals a fatal blow to the Adversary. And with the words, “It is finished,” Jesus crushes the head of the old dragon.
So where is your place in the story if you’re neither David nor David’s defeated enemy? You are either a part of Israel’s army or a part of the Philistine army. The issue is not whether you’re the hero or the villain of the story; the issue is whether you retreat behind size and strength and the devices made with human hands, or whether you stand behind the name of the Lord, no matter how weak it appears.
Therefore, the story of David and Goliath is simply a call for you to stand in your Baptism. That’s where the Lord’s name is; that’s where it was given to you. Water doesn’t appear to provide the weapons or armor needed to win a battle, but water’s strength can be deceiving. After all, it was a brook that smoothed that stone in such a way that it could take down a giant.
Baptism declares God’s name, so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord saves not with sword and spear. For the battle is the Lord’s (vv 46–47).
The Lord Puts His Name with the Small and Weak
And thereby wins the victory.
In the name of + Jesus.
Jacob W Ehrhard
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