Thursday, November 16, 2017

What can we say come June 24? 5th after Pentecost

  Two stories with a storybook, almost fairy-tale feel about them. Before we linger over the marvelous Old Testament text, 1 Samuel 17, David’s thrilling victory over Goliath, let’s look into the Gospel, Mark 4:35-41 – a familiar, reassuring, confusing, dubious and theologically rich passage. 

    When I think of Jesus in that boat, I think of the so-called “Jesus boat,” the first century fishing boat archaeologists almost miraculously managed to retrieve and save from underwater back in 1986. Pilgrims who travel with me to Israel are gaga when they see it. I wish they found an engraving on the prow, like “S.S. Simon Peter.”  Surely it’s a boat Jesus saw, and maybe (probably?) stepped in to at some point in his life on the lake.  The boat reminds us of the reality of the Gospel narratives: real fishermen in real boats on a real lake – that’s where Jesus taught, healed, and… fished.

    It’s precisely this mundane reality that then is called into question by the rest of the story. Jesus, creator-like, simply speaks and the waters grow calm.  Did this happen?  Feels symbolic – and yet who knows?  Skeptics shudder though.


   Yes, storms blow up rapidly on Galilee; anyone who’s spent time there has a story about a sudden turn in the weather.  This photo is of me reading this very Gospel lection – and as I prepared to read, massive clouds rolled in and pelted us with hail.

    Regarding preaching this text, I once saw the charismatic Methodist preacher Walter Kimbrough walk down into the crowd as he was re-narrating the story. 
When he got to the part about them finding Jesus, he grabbed a guy on a pew and began shaking him, pleading with him, “Don’t you care if we perish?”  I tried this in my own church.  Went well at services one and two, but then at our third service I just picked the wrong guy.  Try this at your own peril…..

     The theology is profound.  I love the question: when Jesus said, Peace, be still – was he speaking to the sea (of course he was…) or to the jittery, frenzied disciples?  Psalm 46 echoes through it all: Be still, and know that I am God.  The creation aspect underlines what I think N.T. Wright has argued for – that God’s redemptive work isn’t limited to the salvation of individual people, but is a creation-wide recovery project.

     So, now to the Old Testament, 1 Samuel 17, the cool episode you probably adored as a child (as it features a child! – although as an adult you shudder when you realize its climax is grisly): the battle between David and Goliath. The battle has a fairy tale feel to it, but if we’re attentive, there’s a lot there. Why does it resonate even with grown people? 
Francesca Murphy (in her Brazos commentary on 1 Samuel) may be right: “It is because we yearn to believe that ‘strength is made perfect in weakness’ (2 Cor. 12:9).” David was still small. His role in the war with the Philistines was to carry his big brother’s lunchboxes. But this small one was the one who rose to Goliath’s challenge.

     King Saul, tall and covered with armor, was the official leader. And yet David was the one who led. The Bible’s crazed logic comes into play: “A little child will lead them” (Isa 11:6). It was the little one, the laughable one, the one who felt clumsy in the armor no soldier would do without, who won the day. Unprotected, unknown, uncredentialed, David was small enough, even weak enough, to lead.

    We wouldn’t extract “leadership principles” from this story, or we’d be putting little kids with pluck in charge of all the big churches and companies. Malcolm Gladwell wrote about cases where the underdog wins through cunning and surprise and how a disadvantage can become an advantage; he titled his book David and Goliath.

     Our story in 1 Samuel 17 is very different. It’s not that the underdog beat the big guy. The real confrontation that day was theological. The question was not Who can beat the other guy? but rather Who is God and who isn’t? David brazenly responded to Goliath’s mockery by saying, “But David told the Philistine, “You are coming against me with sword, spear, and scimitar, but I come against you in the name of the Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel’s army, the one you’ve insulted.  Today the Lord will hand you over to me. . . . Then the whole world will know that there is a God on Israel’s side” (1 Sam 17:45-46).

     Goliath had a hilariously unfair advantage in size and armor, but he did not have “God’s armor” (Eph 6:11). Who is God? Not Goliath or the Philistine deity, and not even David, the small one.

     There are moments when the leadership required is for somebody, anybody really, to stand up for God, to insist on what is right—even if everyone else chuckles, even if the one standing up is unarmed and doesn’t stand a chance. Many times in my ministry such crucial moments have presented themselves. Sometimes I’ve taken my stand. Sometimes I’ve leaned forward but too carefully. Sometimes I’ve slinked away to safety. Sometimes I’ve failed to notice that now is the crucial moment. And sometimes I’ve thought I was defending God’s honor when really I was picking a fight for myself. Courage, discernment, and humility are what we need and pray for.

     Saul had been on point when he pushed back: “You can’t go out and fight this Philistine” (1 Sam 17:33). David listed a few of his achievements, but Saul was right: David was not able. It is not human ability that will finally achieve God’s good end and deliver God’s people. Yes, David whirled his slingshot and planted the first stone into the lone unarmored spot on Goliath’s huge body, right between the eyes. Was this a divinely directed shot? Incredible skill? Luck? All three? When God’s work gets done, when good unfolds, is it skill, providence, chance, or some holy and secular mix of them all?

     David does appear to be something of what Peter Drucker would call a “natural,” someone with confidence who effortlessly inspires and understands priorities. David’s shedding of conventional weaponry is intriguing, isn’t it? Do we stick with tried and true methods? With what has always been effective? When can leaders travel a little lighter, experimenting with the unconventional? Can we get out of a rut by asking a real child? Or at least asking what impact our action might have on a small child? I know a real estate developer who got involved in educational equity in his spare time. Realizing one of his projects would unwittingly contribute to skewed disadvantages for children not far from his project, he altered his plan, made allowances for poorer residents, didn’t cash in as much profit as he could have, but did what he believed God was asking him to do.

     The beheading is grisly… but I love the suggestion I first heard in Hertzberg’s classic Old Testament Library commentary on 1 & 2 Samuel – that the anachronistic notice that David took Goliath’s head to Jerusalem (which wasn’t a place for the Israelites just yet…) has a titillating reference.  Jesus was crucified at Golgotha (hear the Gol in there, as in Goliath) – the “place of the skull,” perhaps a traditional understanding that the big stone outcropping was the head of Goliath, deposited there by David centuries before.  The theological suggestiveness of this is rich indeed...

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 The 1 Samuel 17 section is partially excerpted from my new book on leadership, Weak Enough to Lead.

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