This past couple of weeks there has been a flurry of articles in British newspapers about the future of the church in Britain. This future is being predicted, of course, by projecting current trends forward a few years. Every ten years in the UK there is a census, and each time the census is taken, the number of Christians drops. Between 2001 and 2011 the number of Christians in the UK fell by 5.3 million – about ten thousand a week. As the statisticians pointed out, if that rate of decline continues, Christianity in Britain will become extinct in 2067.
Even in the USA, which is a lot more religious than Britain, the statistics are not encouraging. The Pew Forum recently published a survey indicating that the percentage of the US population calling itself Christian fell from 78.4% to 70.6% between 2007 and 2014. In other words, in a period of only seven years, the size of the professed Christian population in the USA fell by 10%. In Canada also, all the signs seem to indicate that an increasing percentage of the population identifies itself as having ‘no religion’.
I think we’ve all noticed this. Simple observation tells us that many – perhaps most – churches are graying, and even young people who come to church aren’t coming as often as their parents and grandparents did. Those who want to attend church on Sundays and to practice the teaching of Jesus during the week are now swimming against the stream. And a huge part of our population has no connection with organized Christianity at all. At one time we Christians felt like we had real power and influence in the land; now, for the most part, we do not. It’s easy for us to be fearful, as if a great giant has appeared on the scene and is advancing menacingly toward us. There’s nowhere to hide. There’s no escape. The end is nigh.
What’s all this got to do with David and Goliath? Well, let’s continue.
The Philistines were originally from Crete; they were a seafaring nation of battle-hardened warriors. They first appear in the Bible in the Book of Judges, living in an area of Palestine roughly equivalent to the modern-day Gaza strip. They had a huge tactical advantage over Israel in that they had iron before the Israelites did, and iron wins out over bronze almost every time.
In the second half of the eleventh century BC the Philistines were pushing east, threatening the territory of the tribes of Israel. This threat was a huge part of the reason why the Israelites asked the prophet Samuel to give them a king to lead them in battle. When Saul took on the kingship, this was part of his job description: do something about the Philistines, please! But it turned out to be a difficult proposition.
Last week we read of how Saul’s disobedience led God to reject him as king of Israel. Instead, God sent Samuel to Bethlehem to anoint David, the youngest son of Jesse, to be king in Saul’s place. But David was a shepherd boy, and it would be a long time before he succeeded to Saul’s throne. For now, Saul was still king, so he was the one who led the armies of Israel to the Valley of Elah to do battle with the Philistines. The Elah is actually a wadi that is dry for a lot of the year. On either side of the valley are wooded hillsides, and the two armies took up their positions on opposing hillsides. Of course, neither wanted to come down and put themselves at a tactical disadvantage by having to cross the valley and attack uphill.
And so Goliath makes his appearance. The book of 1 Samuel is a little unclear as to just how tall he was; the Hebrew manuscripts say ‘six cubits and a span’, which is about nine and a half feet, but the Greek translation of the Bible, which may have worked from even earlier manuscripts, says ‘four cubits and a span’, about six foot nine, which may be more realistic. He came out to challenge the Israelites to single combat, a common practice in the ancient world; heavy bloodshed would be avoided by each side choosing a fierce warrior and letting them duke it out.
Ancient armies were made up of three types of troops: cavalry and chariots, infantry, and projectile warriors – that is, archers and slingers). Goliath was a heavy infantryman, and when he issued his challenge, he obviously expected to be met by another heavy infantryman. Certainly that was what he had prepared for. He wore chain mail made of bronze; it weighed about a hundred and twenty-five pounds, and it covered his body and his arms and reached down to his knees. He had bronze greaves protecting the front of his shins, and a heavy metal helmet, and he carried three separate weapons: a javelin made of bronze, which he would throw with great force at an enemy, a sword, and a short range spear with a thick shaft and a cord attached to it so that it could be retrieved and used again. It had a sharp tip made of iron weighing about fifteen pounds. Truly, Goliath was a terrifying figure; no one in the Israelite army dared to take him on.
Saul tries to find an Israelite warrior brave enough to accept Goliath’s challenge.
‘The Israelites said, “Have you seen this man who has come up? Surely he has come up to defy Israel. The king will greatly enrich the man who kills him, and will give him his daughter and make his family free in Israel”’ (1 Samuel 17:25).
But no inducement seems to be sufficient. Reasonably enough, Saul’s soldiers are probably thinking, “The reward sounds pretty good, but I’d have to survive the battle to collect it! And what are the odds of that?”
Interestingly enough, until this point in the story no one has mentioned the name of God. But a change comes in verse 24, when a new voice is heard, asking a vital question: “For who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?” This is the voice of little David, the shepherd boy, the youngest son of Jesse of Bethlehem, who has turned up at the battle to bring food for his brothers.
David is different; he’s not afraid. Why not? Well, it seems to me that there are two reasons.
First, David lives his life on the basis that God is real. He’s actually willing to stake his life on that reality. He’s like Peter when Jesus called him to step out of the boat and walk in the water toward him. That act made no sense at all - unless God is real, and is able to do amazing things in the real world.
This is the faith that David has. Saul thinks he’s foolhardy: “You’re just a boy”, he says, “and he’s been a warrior for years. ” But David won’t back down:
“Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it…Yahweh, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine” (vv.34-35, 37).
And later on, as he’s advancing into battle against Goliath, David says,
“I come to you in the name of Yahweh of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied…so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that Yahweh does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is Yahweh’s, and he will give you into our hand” (vv.45-47, excerpts).
David isn’t afraid, because he believes that God is real, and that God cares enough to intervene. A thousand years later, Jesus believed the same thing. None of the ruling powers were very happy about him, but Jesus walked through the land acting in faith that God was real, and that God cared enough to intervene. And so the sick were healed, the lepers were cleansed, the dead were raised, and the good news spread like wildfire: the kingdom of God is at hand! Even after the powers that be killed him, God raised him from the dead, and he sent out his defenceless messengers all over the ancient world. Wherever they went, they announced the good news that love is stronger than death, and that God has appointed a new king over the world, Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah of Israel and the Lord of all. Of course, we know the story, and it all seems believable for us today, but at the time it seemed anything but: the little carpenter from Nazareth, leading a kingdom of God movement! Rome would make short work of him!
But Jesus was not afraid, as David was not afraid, because he believed that ‘there is a God in Israel’. And I wonder if that’s part of our problem today? That even though we say we believe in God, we’re not willing to step out in faith and stake everything on him? We need a human plan, a training course, a healthy budget – anything but staking absolutely everything on God, and God’s power to change the world.
But there was a second reason why David wasn’t afraid, and that was because he wasn’t planning to let Goliath tell him how the battle should be fought. Goliath was a heavy infantryman, and he challenged the Israelite army to send him a heavy infantryman to engage in single combat. That was what Goliath was armed for, and Saul tried to prepare David to fight him on those terms, by giving him his armour. But David wouldn’t take it; “I can’t wear this stuff! I’m not used to it”.
No – David was a slinger, a projectile warrior. Malcolm Gladwell explains this:
‘Slingers had a leather pouch attached on two sides by a long strand of rope. They would put a rock or a lead ball into the pouch, swing it around in increasingly wider and faster circles, and then release one end of the rope, hurling the rock forward. Slinging took an extraordinary amount of skill and practice. But in experienced hands, the sling was a devastating weapon…An experienced slinger could kill or seriously injure a target at a distance of up to two hundred yards’.[i]
Gladwell goes on to cite a recent study by a ballistics expert with the Israeli defence force. He calculated that a typical stone hurled by an expert slinger at a distance of thirty-five metres would have hit Goliath’s head with a velocity of thirty-four metres per second – more than enough to penetrate his skull and render him unconscious or dead.
This was David’s plan. Instead of fighting Goliath on his own terms – size, strength, conventional weapons – he was going to run fast, choose his ground, and use the weapon he was confident in, the one he knew could strike with deadly accuracy far beyond the range of Goliath’s weapons. And that’s exactly what happened.
And maybe there’s a message for us here too, in this strange new world in which we find ourselves, when the church seems to be staring extinction in the face. Christians of my age grew up in a world of big: big buildings, splendid cathedrals, big organizations, established procedures. In England, where I grew up, the Church of England is the established church, integrated with the systems of government. Here in Canada, when our General Synod meets, we continue to pass motions calling on governments to do this and that, as if governments actually care a hoot about what the Anglican Church of Canada thinks.
You see, we’re still used to big; we find it reassuring. But maybe ‘big’ isn’t what’s called for today. Goliath was big and well protected, but he was also slow and inflexible, and that slowness and inflexibility cost him his life when David took out his sling and stone. And maybe today it’s the nimbleness and speed and flexibility of David that we need.
And we also need David’s absolute confidence in the weapon in his hands, even if pacifists like me might be a little uncomfortable in this military analogy. David had confidence in his sling and stone, because he had seen it work many times before. And I would suggest to you that what we need today is absolute confidence in the power of the gospel to change people’s lives. The early Christians had no big administrative structures, no cathedrals, no seminaries to train apostles. What they had was a message that they called the good news. People heard it, believed it, and committed themselves to it, and when they did that, their lives were transformed. It was like moving from darkness to light, they said; it was like being born again; it was like being raised from the dead.
Those of you who follow Reed Fleming’s blog may have read this story on Friday:
I had the most extraordinary experience this week. Linda and I attended the AGM for…a women’s ministry in Saint John. There in the front row was someone I didn’t recognize. She was beautifully dressed and seated next to a young man who was obviously smitten with her. It turned out he was her fiancée. I did notice a tattoo, which was reminiscent, but I could not figure out where I had seen it. This young woman was the key speaker at the meeting. As she was introduced my jaw dropped…this was Holly!
I met Holly over three years ago. She was a hilariously funny and very creative person with a terrible drug addiction, which was obviously killing her. At the time I met her I was working closely with my friend Catherine. Catherine was an outreach worker at our church. She became a great friend and support to Holly and it seemed for a while that there might be hope in Holly’s dark world. Just about that time Catherine’s employment came to an abrupt halt and we lost track of Holly. The last glimpse of her I had was as she was standing on a street corner. She was selling her terribly thin body in order to buy more drugs. After that I didn’t see her. I assumed that she had probably died in some crack-shack.
I remember feeling upset that we should be brought into her life and then because of a decision by others, lose that entrée. I did not know that God had a bigger plan than I saw. A local women’s addiction centre sent Holly to a treatment centre where she ‘got clean’ and more importantly found Jesus!
I did not recognize the no longer rail thin young woman. As she spoke she gave credit to Jesus that now she was clean, reunited with her children, no longer living on the streets but living in a house. She has a young man who is also a Jesus follower and she has a future!...
I was upset when Holly was no longer in our orbit, (but) God has his ways which are higher than mine. Holly’s story will keep me going for a long time. I know others in very similar circumstances and I pray “God what you have done, do again. Nothing is impossible for you.”
This is the power of the Gospel to change people’s lives. As we share our faith confidently with others, we will see it happen, and the more we see it happen, the more our confidence will grow.
So, brothers and sisters, let’s not be afraid of Goliath. Despite statistics, the church does not need to die - but it may need to change beyond our imagination. Like David, we need to learn to walk out into the world in the confidence that God is real, and that God cares enough to do amazing things. We need the courage to abandon our fascination with ‘big’ and ‘strong’ and embrace ‘small’ and ‘flexible’, as Jesus and the early church did. And we need to recover our confidence that the Gospel of Jesus is really good news and that it has the power to change people’s lives. Truly, as David said, there is a God in Israel – and in the whole world – and if we are running with him, we do not need to be afraid.