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The David Story 2: How to Make a Difference

June 30, 2012

A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, June 24, 2012. This is the second sermon in our summer series on the Book of Samuel and the biblical David. 

Mark 4: 35-41          1 Samuel 17

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Israel always struggled with being different.

From the time Yahweh heard their cries in the brickyard of the Egyptian King, Israel was marked out for difference. They insisted on the right to worship a God who didn’t care about production schedules, eternal monuments, or imperial power; a God who heard the cries of the oppressed and overlooked. In other words, a God unheard of in the ancient world. Pharaoh, of course, could not recognize the divinity in this demand, only the rebellion, and so he demanded of the Hebrew people increased productivity, longer hours with fewer supplies; when Moses protested, the Pharaoh chose to meet miracle with magic, and ultimately, just before he was beaten, the Egyptian King sent out his full imperial force, the chariots and mounted riders, symbols of Egypt’s military power, to stop the Hebrew Exodus and the Hebrew God.

But after they had crossed the Sea on dry land, it was Israel who could proclaim:

I will sing to the Lord, who has triumphed gloriously,

horse and rider God has thrown into the sea.

The lord is my strength and my might and has become my salvation.

This is my God, whom I will praise, the god of my ancestors whom I will exhalt.…

Your right hand, O God, glorious in power,

your right hand, O Lord, shattered the enemy.

[And then the all important question:]

Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods?

Who is like you, majestic in holiness, doing wonders?

In your steadfast love you lead the people whom you redeem…

The Lord will reign forever and ever (Exodus 15)

Israel’s difference in life and liturgy is a mark of following a very different kind of God, one who saw, heard, and responded to the cries of her people, in order to save them.

God had acted to save them from oppression and to establish justice. From this time forward, the people were to serve no pharaoh, no king, but only God. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, you shall have no other God before me.” God would lead them through the wilderness with a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night. Later God would lead them through the teachings of Moses and the Council of the Elders. Still later, when Israel had settled into the hill country above the coastal plains, God would raise up judges, men and women who would lead the people through their periods of internal conflict or against their external enemies. But Israel’s judges didn’t hold office, and really weren’t political leaders, certainly not kings. When the conflict was ended they would return to their homes and their tribe, and only then would peace be restored.

A different way of serving a very different God. And it made a difference.

When Israel first emerged from the Sinai after wandering for forty years, they passed through the land of Moab, on the Eastern side of the Jordan River. And King Balak of Moab saw them and was afraid, because of their great number. ** Basically, he feared a new military enemy had moved in next door. And if this had been any nation he would have been right to be afraid. So he called his prophet, a man by the name of Balaam son of Beor, and asked that Balaam provide the customary curse for an enemy. But Balaam responded, “How can I curse what God has not cursed, or denounce what God has not denounced? From the tops of the crags [can] I see them, from the hills I behold them; Here is a people living alone, and not reckoning itself among the nations! (Num 23: 8-9) The Lord their God is with them, acclaimed as a king among them. The God, who brings them out of Egypt… (Num 23: 21). No, Balaam has nothing but blessing for this people who live so differently as to constitute a new thing among the nations. One can only bless what God has blessed.

Israel was different. But it is no easy thing to be different.

It is no easy thing so serve an invisible God, to find holiness is Sabbath rest, or God’s presence in a community seeking justice. It is no easy thing to serve a sovereign who does not require protection or fixed borders or even a temple with its priesthood, but a sovereign who lives in a tent and who requires that we welcome the stranger and free the slave – because once that was us. It is no easy thing to be faithful through our fears, to trust God to find a way when there seems to be no way; it’s not easy to proclaim God’s reign among us when other powers, violent, destructive, arrogant powers, seem to rule the world.

Yes, Israel always struggled with being different.

And so the time came when they demanded a king of their own, “so we can be like the other nations.” Oh no.  When the people came to the prophet Samuel demanding a king, God said to Samuel, “they have not rejected you, but have rejected me as their king. Go ahead, do what they wish, but warn them what to expect from a king…” Israel’s experiment with monarchy was never a happy one.

Their first king, a man by the name of Saul, was a king like other kings. He led them in battle, and was sometimes successful, but he was also jealous, disobedient, inconsistent – an unfit ruler for God’s people. So last week we heard how God withdrew favor from King Saul and let God’s favor rest on a young shepherd boy named David. From that time forward, Saul suffered as King.

Our second scripture reading this morning continues our reading through of the Book of Samuel and the story of David during our worship services this summer. Just before we hear the story, though, I want to involve you in an experiment of my own.

I conducted a poll this week on facebook and in the office, and you can answer the question for yourself: “When you think of David, the shepherd boy and King of Israel, which story do you think of first? Don’t think. Just answer!”

The results I had this week were fascinating. I heard from over forty people and every single one of them named David and Goliath (our story for today) as the story that comes to mind first – every single person except for clergy and the educators. With only one exception, pastors and teachers named some other story from the David cycle: the love and friendship between David and Jonathan, the affair with Bathsheba and the subsequent attempt to cover it up, David’s return the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, David’s struggles as a parent of rebellious children.

Those who thought of Goliath often remembered pictures they saw in a Bible as children, or a memorable church school lesson about the powerful giant being defeated by the little boy. One good friend remembered the five stones taken from the river as symbolic of the shepherd’s skill in contrast both to the mighty warrior and the king’s armor. By the way, the one exception to the clergy was my wife Noelle, who is simply exceptional in everything. She recalled David and Goliath not only from childhood but because the farmworkers with whom she has worked so closely for over ten years have drawn upon this story again and again as they have confronted the giant corporations who purchase Florida produce in order to demand justice in the agricultural supply chain. The successes they have achieved, which are significant, have felt like the victory of David over Goliath.

Goliath was a giant, whose height was six-cubits and a span – somewhere between seven and ten feet tall.  He was a bully, strong and intimidating, but still human. His helmet and chain mail weighed (?? Pounds). He carried a spear the weight of six-hundred shekels of iron – about 19 pounds. By comparison, a modern javelin like you might see in the Olympics this summer weighs about a pound and a half. Goliath is impressive. And he is meant to be. He is a challenge to Israel’s absolute trust in God. A challenge they are failing.

Listen now for the Word of God. [read the story of David and Goliath 1 Samuel 17: 34-49]

When I was a child, I thought David was quite arrogant. And of course, as a child, that was something I reveled in. The little guy standing up to the bully, the underdog triumphing over the champion, the simple, clever, shepherd who can not only defend God’s reputation but boast about it.

But of course, David’s speech is not about himself, but about Israel’s God, the one who sees, hears and responds to the cries of God’s people in order to save them. It is a statement about the basic justice of Israel’s God. “David has been sustained in moments of great crisis not because … he is superior in strength to the wild beasts, but because [Israel’s God] is unalterably opposed to all who prey on human happiness and well-being.”

In this moving speech, which, as much as any other text in the Old Testament, shapes our memory of David as the shepherd-king, the “flock” is paradigmatic of Israel and of humankind in general. The God of justice is committed to the preservation of faithful people and to the defense of those who cannot defend themselves.” (Quotations in this and the following paragraph are from Brueggeman, et al. Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary).

 According to David, God will once again see, hear and respond to the cry of God’s people in order to save them. In other words, the story of David and Goliath is not about David, but about Israel’s God and this God’s moral commitments. “The giant will be defeated not because David is stronger or cleverer than the Philistine, but because [Israel’s God] is both cleverer and stronger than either Goliath or David. In the word of Walter Brueggemann, “It is not David but God who will decide the day. David, as Israel’s new shepherd, will do the deed, but it is in reality the God who has chosen David and who loves justice which will strike down the Philistine champion.” Through the use of unconventional weapons, this unconventional boy bears witness to the unconventional power of God. David restores Israel’s difference, and for this he will known as a man after God’s own heart.

Our mission statement as a congregation calls upon us to make a difference in the world. We do this not through heroic actions, but by living differently. We gather each week to worship God, we find inspiration in a book written over two thousand years ago and dedicate ourselves to learning its story. We trust in God’s purposes among us, even when we cannot see them. And we face our fears, knowing that God is in control of the stuff that really matters. We prefer God’s way of being manifest in a community of justice, of identifying with the poor and the stranger, of peaceful resistance to the oppressive powers of the world, to the many other paths of success and happiness available to us. We slip out of the many kinds of armor we are provided and offer ourselves in all vulnerability to give praise to the God who hears our cries. And we do this knowing that it does not make life easier, but much, much, harder.

The hymn we are about to sing is a paraphrase of Psalm 107 (“Give Praise to God Who Hears Our Cries,” which will appear in the new hymnal Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal). The singing of psalms in paraphrase is the most long-standing musical practice in the Reformed tradition, dating from John Calvin’s own congregation in Geneva in the Sixteenth century. In this psalm, we hear the enduring story of salvation, the witness of a great choir to a God who makes a difference in the lives of a different kind of people, who through all kinds of trouble, wandering, sickness and fear, find cause to sing God’s praise – for God’s steadfast love endures forever. Identify your story in this song, and give thanks to God.

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