I preached this sermon on Sunday June 21st after Dylann Roof entered into Mother Emmanuel AME church and opened fire killing nine innocent African-American men and women. Although I did address this tragedy directly in my Sunday sermon, I have typed up this manuscript paying special attention to the issue of racism in our society today.
As we move through our series on David, we come this morning to a story that almost needs no introduction; the story of David and Goliath. It would be easy this Father’s Day to address the story of David and Goliath like this: “Goliath was a giant. We all face giants. As dads, we face giants of time management, changing culture, and media saturation. David faced his giants, and if you follow these principles, you can face your giants too.” We could do this with any number of giants in our lives, addictions, disease, racism, political divisions, etc. etc. The problem is, however, that facing your giants is not the point of this story. In order to get at exactly what this story is about, let’s do some background.
As our story begins, Saul has lined up the armies of Israel against the philistine army. The Philistines were not, as modern parlance would indicate, an uncivilized and unadvanced people group. Quite the opposite is actually true. Contemporary historical accounts speak of a people group identified as “The Sea People,” or Peleset, from which we likely get the name “Philistine.” The peleset were a fierce warrior people with highly advanced weaponry and military capabilities. Ancient Egyptian records speak of them attacking Egypt under Ramses III, effectively neutralizing the powerful empire of Egypt. Many historians believe the peleset were the people responsible for overthrowing the dominant empire in the Western Mediterranean, the Hittite Empire. Not only that, but it is likely the Peleset that swept across Mycenaen Greece, destroying their civilization across the time of a 100 or so years and plunging Greek civilization into a 300 year long “dark age.” In other words, these people had toppled or neutralized the most powerful kingdoms and empires of the day.
Not only that, but now the Philistines had settled in southwest Canaan. We first read about the Israelites coming across Philistines in Judges when Samson engages with the Philistines. They had continued to spread across the region becoming more and more powerful. Furthermore, we find out in 1 Samuel 13:19-22 that the Philistines possessed technology that gave them an undefeatable advantage over the Israelites. To put it simply, the Philistines were an iron age fighting force while the Israelites possessed only bronze age technology. Thus, the Philistines possessed a fighting force against which the Israelites could not hope to stand. Not only that, but they spread across the world as a force of domination and enslavement. So, the battle in today’s lesson was not only about a specific territory or city, but the Israelites very existence as a people was at stake.
It is also important to remember that Ancient Near Eastern people saw warfare in explicit spiritual terms. In other words, as armies of nations drew up for battle, their gods drew up for battle as well. The competition was not just between the soldiers on the field, but the gods of the nations. We have already seen in 1 Samuel how when Israel was defeated earlier, the Philistines made a point of capturing the Ark of the Lord and placing it in the temple of their god, Dagon, as a sign of Dagon’s superiority. Thus, the battle we are witnessing in today’s lesson can be seen not only as a battle between Philistia and Israel, but as a battle where God is fighting for His own people.
In fact, this is a central theme of the entire Bible. Throughout the Bible, God is fighting for His people. Think back to God’s cursing of the serpent in the Garden of Eden. He promises no less than that a champion would be born to Eve who would engage the serpent in open combat and crush his head, undoing his destructive work. Notice here that the power of this serpent is, in fact, sin. This is precisely what makes God’s battle for us so tricky. He is not simply fighting against an enemy that seeks to destroy us. Rather, the enemy he contends against for us is, in fact, us. “We have met the enemy and he is us.” In this vein, we find sin to be in the lives of all humanity much as the Philistines here in this story. It is a powerful and dominating force that threatens to conquer and enslave us.
It is precisely at a time like this, when a young man whose head is filled with thoughts of hatred walks into a church bible study, enjoys an hour of kindhearted hospitality, opens fire, and kills nine defenseless people. While the reasons for this young man’s actions are complex and convoluted, they are simultaneously simple. It is sin. It is the same power that exists in your life and mine. It took 21 years for the seeds of sin to erupt in this young man’s life and God only knows what blossoms may have born fruit in our lives had the circumstances of our life simply provided the fertilizer for them to grow. As C.S. Lewis has said, like a machine made to run on gas, we were made to run on God. Any imitation might allow us to sputter on for a mile or so, but the machine will eventually break down. We don’t know how or when that break down will happen. One thing we do know is that the invading horde of sin never ceases its onward march.
Now, it is with the threat of the Philistine armies conquering them that the Israelites demanded their king. You’ll remember that they asked specifically for “a king like all the nations have.” Now, the request for a king was not exactly an illicit request. In Deuteronomy 17, God gave Moses the stipulations for the appointment of an Israelite king. While they were allowed to ask for a king, he had some restrictions. It must be an Israelite, which would keep them from folding under the protection of some more powerful emperor. It had be the man whom God chose. He was not allowed to gather horses for himself. In other words, he couldn’t create a military stockpile of horses to arm his cavalry or his chariots with. He was not allowed to horde wealth and gold. So, he would not have the power and security that could be bought by money. And finally, he was not allowed to marry foreign women, precluding him from building a system of political alliances that would provide security for his people.
Now, when you think of Ancient Near Eastern Kings, don’t think about modern European monarchs. Think of a third world war lord instead. They are powerful men who rise to power through their ability to protect those who are under them and exploit them for their own riches. The Israelite king was not to be like this in any way. He was not to be able to provide for his people security through military prowess, monetary wealth, or political alliance. His strength was to come from elsewhere, faithfulness to the Lord. It was God’s explicit design to remove everything from this king’s administration that would tempt the people of Israel to think that they didn’t need God.
As a side note, this is perhaps why, as one historian of the church has noted, it’s almost as if the gospel is allergic to wealth. When we have plenty, it is easy to deceive ourselves into thinking that God is irrelevant to our lives. However, when disaster strikes and we lose what our souls had rested on, if we turn to God, we often find that He is, in fact, all we need. I think this is very pertinent to the issue of racism. In the aftermath of Dylann Roof’s shooting, a well intended movement has sprung up to remove the Confederate Battle Flag from South Carolina’s state house. I support this movement, especially since the flag was raised during the civil rights movement as an act of defiance. However, I worry that this lowers the problem of racism down to a level that we can manage it. Don’t get me wrong, lowering the flag is a wonderful gesture. However, it does nothing to deal with the great disparagement in incomes between white and black people in America. It does nothing to deal with the disparity in incarceration rates in the African American community. It does nothing to heal the centuries long wounds that exist right beneath the surface that none of us want to deal with. The bible does not portray our sinful condition as something that we can manage. It is beyond our strength. And since it is beyond our strength, we need the very power of God to overcome it. Rather than respond with a knee jerk reaction that we are not racist, we should instead ask the Lord (and a loving brother or sister in Christ) to show us every trace of racial pride, prejudice, or hate that continues to reside in our hearts. Is your sin something you can manage? If so, why did you need the Son of God to die for you?
This is not what the people of Israel asked for though. They had asked for a king “like the nations.” In other words, they did not want a king whose only strength and hope was in the Lord. They wanted a king who would provide a sense of security through his own strength that would allow them to live their lives unaware of their need for God. They didn’t ever want to face a situation that would drive them to their knees in prayer. And they got what they asked for.
Saul was the king they wanted. He was strong. He came from a good family. He was a head taller than anyone else, language reminiscent of how the spies of Israel described the ungodly Canaanites who inhabited the land before them. He promised to be a king who would be strong enough to protect them. They finally had a king like all the nations have.
And yet here the army of Israel is lined up for battle, and Goliath strides to the front. We read earlier how weaponry had been almost non-existent in Israel. This situation may have changed some, but even still we can suspect that few Israelites were armed very well for battle. The opposite is true for Goliath. He has armor, an iron javelin (probably a long curved sword), a spear with an iron head, even his shins are protected by armor. He is like an Ancient Near Eastern tank. And he stands there and challenges Israel to produce a champion who can fight him. Oh, and by the way, Goliath is nine feet tall. Don’t the Israelites have someone tall? Someone a head taller than everyone else? Where is he?
There’s something very important in the narrative here. Listen for it. Do you hear it? Silence. Saul knows of the challenge and yet he runs cowering from the battle lines. This is an important part of the story. You see, Israel has longed for a king who would lead them into battle. Now they’ve gotten what they asked for, and it has backfired. You see, if your security rests in your strength, then there’s always someone stronger out there. If the only strength you have is in yourself, your strength will become your weakness.
This is the dilemma of sin. Even our goodness is rotten at its core. Think of it this way. You struggle with some sin. Let’s say it’s anger. You see the damage it causes around you. People don’t like you. Your children are afraid of you. It’s hurting your marriage. You realize that anger is hurting your life, so you decide to do something about it. You go to Barnes and Noble and get “Seven Ways to End Anger.” You teach yourself the technique. You calm the storm of your soul by screaming “SERENTIY NOW!” However, you still haven’t dealt with the core issue. Self. You are an angry person because you are a selfish person. So, if your motivation for curbing your anger rests in serving your self you are cutting the stalk while you pour fertilizer on the roots. You are fighting fire with gasoline. This is why you can’t control yourself.
Or suppose you have an addiction. You see the havoc it causes in your life. Perhaps you have hit rock bottom. You decide to quit. You start off strong, but after a while you fall back into temptation and you fall to temptation. What is your first reaction? You hide it. Why? Because you still haven’t repented of your self-centeredness.
If you truly want to change, you have to strike at the root of sin, which is the reality that you and I simply ignore God. Like Bishop Fitzsimmons Allison is wont to say, from the time we are born we are the center of our horizon. The whole world revolves around us. Those things that happen to us that we like we call good. Those things that happen to us that we don’t like we call bad. We are, in fact, selfish at our core. We love to have Him in our lives when having Him in our lives gives us what we truly want, but when it costs us something? Well, that’s a different story. And this is why we can’t defeat sin in our lives. Because every time we try, our motivation rests in the root of what we are trying to combat. That is why it is like fighting fire with gasoline.
This was Israel’s problem. They wanted to be able to live without depending on God and so they rested on strengths that would eventually blow up in their faces. They rested in the strength of Saul, now here was someone who was stronger than Saul. Military might and physical strength was not enough. This is our problem as well. In an age of refrigeration, who still prays for their daily bread? And yet, with all of our technological advances we still can’t stop what happened at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston from happening.
Let’s stop and talk about this for a minute. What is the root cause of this? That this young man was a racist is undeniable. The hatred that a person would need to have in their heart to perpetrate an act of such destruction is unspeakable. And yet, hatred is not the real problem.
Everyone seems to be focused on that, but where does hatred like that come from? Think about it. If you listen to a racist organization (no matter what race or races they hate), they will say something to this effect; “We don’t hate (insert people group here). We just love our own people group so much.” In other words, hate doesn’t come from nowhere. It comes from self-righteousness. When I turn my race, culture, or ethnicity into an idol such that my identity is grounded primarily in what I perceive as the goodness of those who are just like me, I will hate anything that jeopardizes that identity. The only way I can hate other people based on their race is if I’m driven to that hatred by the pride of my own racial identity.
And that is what worries me about much of the response to these shootings. Everone is worried about hatred and ignorance and racism, but no one is worried about self-righteousness. You saw this immediately after the shooting happened when all the same old pundits settled into all the same old ideological foxholes and started launching all the same old handgrenades at one another. Very few, however, looked to see the problem within themselves. No one is looking at their own sin. And so, the problem remains and the seed of the evil in our midst continues to be sown. In the heat of our passion, we hate the haters and hate, subtly, wins. As long as we as individuals, as a church, and as a society continue to look for the problem ‘out there’ and fail to deal with the self-righteousness that resides within, all of our attempts to end prejudice will only amount to fighting fire with gasoline. At this point we should perhaps stop again and ask if there is any hope.
That is exactly what the people of Israel are asking. They have the powerful military leader they wanted, but since his only strength resides in his own strength, he cowers. And then here comes David. He is almost the exact opposite of Saul. He’s the youngest of seven sons. He is overlooked by everyone, especially his family. He balances his time between watching over his father’s sheep and running provisions to his brothers on the front line. David is a nobody. And yet, as the troops gossip about the greatness of the champion Goliath and how undefeatable he is and how hopeless their situation is, David sees the situation differently. The armies of Israel hear a giant challenging their weak army. David here’s a mere human challenging the God of the universe.
There is a deep and profound reason for this. Saul and his soldiers are primarily concerned with their own glory and so they hear the taunts of Goliath and react with shame. David, however, is concerned not for his own glory, but for the glory of God. Saul and all of his army are worried about themselves. David is concerned for the glory of God and the welfare of His people. Saul’s worst nightmare is that he or his men may die. For David, to have God’s glory besmirched is unthinkable.
And here we see how self-righteousness is destroyed. You can’t be obsessed with your own glory when you are obsessed with the glory of another. This is, by the way, where the goodness of the God of the bible rests. As a triune God, each of the persons of the Trinity are obsessed with the glory of the other co-equal partners of the Trinity. So, the Father longs to glorify the Son, the Son to glorify the Father, and the Holy Spirit to glorify the Father and the Son. So in His godhead, God is both obsessed with His glory and absolutely and completely humble as each person pours forth praise for the glory of the other.
This is, precisely, where our own evil resides. We are obsessed not with God’s glory, but with our own. Because of our obsession with our own glory, we hide and cover our sin instead of facing it head on. This is true with the problem of racism. None of us wants to believe that we ourselves are, in fact, racist. We don’t want to think that our perspective is conditioned by our experiences. Though we judge people in a thousand different ways, and many of those are related to race, we don’t want to think of ourselves as prejudice. You see, the problem here is not just any kind of prejudicial attitude or racial pride. It runs much deeper. The problem is what lies at the heart of every person. We want to be the king with infinite glory and praise and we will kill anyone (metaphorically speaking of course) who stands in our way. So, you see, this is why we can’t solve the problem on our own. We need help.
This too is something David understands. In one of the children’s bibles we sometimes read to our kids, David is portrayed as a sort of confident and cocky little boy. When he tells Saul that he’ll face Goliath he says “I can kill the giant. I am strong!” This is not at all what the real biblical text says. Rather, David says “I can kill the giant. God is strong!” In other words, he trusts the Lord. This is the fundamental difference between David and Saul. David trusts God. Saul trusts himself. He has seen God’s faithfulness time and time again as he’s protected his flock from bear or lion.
So, David gets ready to fight. Although Saul offers him his own armor, David knows it won’t help and trusting in God’s grace to protect him he leaves it behind. He picks up five smooth stones by the river. He runs to engage the giant in combat. And with nothing more than a rock and a strip of leather he takes Goliath down. Seeing that the Philistine champion is dead, the Israelite army is transformed. They are no longer afraid. They charge the Philistines fearlessly now and follow their champion, the boy shepherd David.
But remember, our enemy is neither the Philistines, nor Goliath, nor any powerful agent of empire. It is our own self-righteousness. This giant cannot be slain with a mere stone. In fact, every effort we make to slay that giant only enflames it. But we have our own champion; not David, but great David’s greater Son. He is, in fact, the good shepherd. Although He is righteous, He became sin for us. Although He is innocent, He was punished for us. He didn’t face a giant in battle, but a cross in shame. He didn’t charge into battle with a sling in His hand, but came into a world in rebellion against him with forgiveness in His heart. While we were obsessed with our own glory, He laid His glory aside, put on shame, and was nailed high on a cross for all the mockers to see. And because we have such a champion, like the Israelite army after Goliath’s defeat, we can take up our swords and fight, not for our own glory, but for the glory of the one who laid His glory aside for us. Do you want to know what this looks like?
As much as the pundits want to fight over policy and whatever else, look at Charleston. Look at the family members of the victims Dylann Roof gunned down in cold blood. If you have not seen the video of them facing that twisted young man as his bond was set, you should. We never know how we would react in such a situation, but those people responded with amazing grace. Where does that kind of forgiveness come from?
Realistically, it only comes from one place. The reason why those men and women were able to look at the one who murdered their loved ones was that Christ had already conquered the Goliath of their own self-righteousness. They knew themselves to be forgiven sinners who must then forgive in turn. They sought to show in that courtroom what they themselves had been shown in the courtroom of God’s justice.
Do you wonder if you could do such a thing? Could you look at someone who hated you for no other reason than the pigment of your skin and love them? Could you speak to one who killed people you loved ripping them out of your life and forgive him? Most of us if we were honest would say we wouldn’t. But remember that you champion, the Lord Jesus Christ, has conquered the Goliath of your own sin, your own unforgiveness, your own pride, self-righteousness, and hate. Consider this, you have the same champion that the families of the victims at Mother Emmanuel have. What we saw in Charleston was not an instance of the greatness of the human spirit, but the power of the Holy Spirit who works in the lives of believers. You have that same spirit in you too.