Tag Archives: Saul

Just a Sunday School story..?

This sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s 8am and All Saints 10:30am Eucharist’s on 21st June 2015. The readings were 1 Samuel 17:32-49, 2 Corinthians 6:1-13 and Mark 4:35-41.

FEE-FI-FO-FUM! I SMELL THE BLOOD OF AN ENGLISHMAN….

David and Goliath. The ultimate sporting cliché, a true underdog story, one of those Sunday School classics – the ugly mean giant, the handsome little lad, the stones and the slingshot – we can close our eyes and let this one just wash over us, we’ve heard it so many times.

But when the authors put together the narrative history of Israel’s transition from a marginal company of tribes to a centralized state, as found in the two books of Samuel, they weren’t looking to tell fantastic tales to entertain the kids while the adults got on with the ‘real’ theology – and if we take the time to look again at this part of the story we find subtleties in the way it is written and a real depth of meaning that can help us in our role as God’s people, the Body of Christ, today.

Coming in at this part of the story misses out some of the important pointers for our journey.

At the start of the chapter we see that Saul, first and reigning king of Israel, is failing in his one primary task – to keep the Philistine threat at bay. This threat is then embodied in the description of Goliath himself – not a ‘giant’ in the Jack and the Beanstalk mould but still around 6 foot 9 of intimidating, arrogant Philistine muscle, a huge man for that culture, and dressed to kill in the literal sense, with the author taking his time to describe every last detail of his kit. No wonder the Israelite troops are left “dismayed and greatly afraid.”

So, enter David. The young, handsome eighth son of Jesse, who last week we heard has been anointed king in succession to Saul but is still very much under the radar, and left tending the sheep and serving his older brothers. He appears on the frontline with supplies for the fighting men, but is taken aback by both the sheer front of this oversized enemy shooting his mouth off and the terrified reaction of his fellow Israelites.

“Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?’” he asks – an innocent question of youth, befitting of a Sunday School setting maybe, yet one that reveals a great truth. The army of Israel, full of men supposedly bigger and stronger than David, are immobilised by fear as if the living God is irrelevant to the battle. David is not afraid precisely because God is never irrelevant in the lives of His people – it takes the innocence of youth, the boy described earlier in 1 Samuel as “after Yahweh’s own heart,” to be the one to state this deep theological truth. Maybe unsurprisingly, however, those older warriors – given voice by his own brother Eliab – don’t want to hear him. They rebuke him, ignore him, try to put him back “in his place” – but, in the case of his siblings, forgetting or deliberately avoiding the fact that his place since Samuel anointed him is as the chosen King.

So this is where we come in. David’s words are repeated to Saul, now a desperate man clutching at straws, willing to give an audience to a youth who, for all he knows, was just flapping his gums.

There must be part of Saul that is delighted to find even one boy in his camp, an army defeated by their own lack of faith, who still holds dear the innocent dream of the “living God” that Saul once swore to uphold.

David speaks first. Surely Saul, as king, should drive the conversation, but David is the chosen one, and our narrator wants to remind us again that David is now called to lead. His words are a declaration of salvation and solidarity, showing he is both Saul’s servant and willing to give his life for God’s people. Remind you of anybody?

At first Saul dismisses the idea – looking at David’s outward appearance, he judges him too young, too small. But as we heard last week, God is interested on what is on the inside – what is in our hearts – meaning the smallest of things can contain enough power to make a great difference. David is prepared to state his case, painting a picture of a brave shepherd in the face of wild bears and lions, delivering his flock from the assaults of the enemy. But then he does something amazing.

He shifts the emphasis from what he has done, to what God has done through him. Up to this point nobody has had the courage, the faith, to invoke the name of the living God, but David does now – The Lord, Yahweh, has delivered him from the bear and the lion, and Yahweh will deliver him, and His people, from Goliath and the Philistines. As it has been, thus it will ever be.

David’s faith moves Saul – even giving him the courage to speak the name of the Lord – but still Saul wants to do things on his terms. He hasn’t grasped yet how radical David’s trust in God is. Saul wants him fit for battle, to dress and behave like any other soldier in any other army. But David refuses, and walks out in faith – leaving the comfort and protection of armour and tradition behind to stand in the light of the Lord with just five smooth stones rattling in his bag and the fire of God’s love blazing in his heart.

Unsurprisingly Goliath is less than impressed. He has been playing the crowd so long he is not going to back down to this cheeky bairn. He runs his mouth like an American wrestler cutting a promo before a match – calling on his gods, explaining in detail how little of David will be left when he’s finished with him.

Imagine being an Israelite soldier standing on the front line, seeing little unarmed David stride forward, hearing again Goliath’s terrifying, graphic declarations of his power. You’d give David seconds before he was nothing but a smear on the landscape.

But David’s speech is better, more compelling. He shows no fear in his lack of conventional weapons, no doubt that he will not just defeat but humiliate his enemy, and evokes memories in the Israelites around him of God’s faithful rescues of the past.

“It isn’t me you are insulting, but Yahweh. It isn’t any army you face, but God’s chosen people. And God will be glorified throughout the world when he saves his people again – not by the conventions of human warfare but by his own mysterious ways.”

Basically it is David the missionary, urging Israel to rediscover their faith, turn back to the living God and begin walking in his light once again.

Then, after all the, build up, the fight itself is almost an anti-climax. One smooth stone from a little creek bed hits Goliath on the head – whack whack sword cut off his head, the giant now is dead.

Yet this is the bit we are used to focussing on. This briefest of sections runs through popular culture – as we said earlier, everyone knows a David and Goliath story when they see it. But as we noted with the Holy Trinity a few weeks ago, the common perception wildly misses the point. Without the speeches and the backstory it is just the little guy getting lucky, or being brave, or displaying amazing intestinal fortitude, and sticking it to the big man. When you scratch the surface, it is the final act, the cherry on the icing on the cake, of a long reminder of the power and presence of God with His people, and His great saving love for us.

For God is bigger than any of the giants we face, any of life’s storms. That can be really hard to believe sometimes, especially when you are caught in the middle of them – but, from experience, I can tell you He truly is there.

Just as David did we need to let our relationship with the living God inform and impact how we face all life throws at us. Take the families of our Christian brothers and sisters brutally murdered at a Bible study in Charleston just a few days ago. They have gone to great lengths to rise up through their pain and anguish to speak words of forgiveness to the man accused of the killings. And this comes as a surprise to many people, making as many headlines around the world as the hate crime itself. But it really shouldn’t. The BBC quoted Dr Alton Pollard III, Dean of the Howard School of Divinity, in their report –

“God is always greater and because of that, even in horrific conditions, we can still be faithful… Because of faithfulness, we have the capacity to forgive.”

Chris and Camryn, the children of murdered Sharonda Singleton, summed it up simply –

“Love is stronger than hate.”

When we stand in faith, when we have the courage to let God strip away the things the world says are important, the things we hide behind or even battle to uphold, and just give ourselves over to the Lord in love and trust, it changes the game. It does not make the situation just go away. It may not make it less terrifying or less painful or at all ‘easier.’ But all three of our passages today show God has brought those who have faith in him through many, many battles and storms – and that same God is with us in ours, surrounding us with His great love and inspiring us to show the same to all who we meet, to bring them to faith in Him who will save us and take us home at the end of our final chapter.

Not bad for a Sunday School story, eh?

Amen

David Goliath

Facing The Fear

This sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s 9:30 Eucharist on 25th January 2015 – The Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. The readings were Jeremiah 1:4-10, Acts 9:1-22 and Matthew 19:27-30.

What are you scared of? What makes you truly afraid? Spiders? Heights? The curate standing up to preach?

I think it’s fair to say we all have things that make us uncomfortable, some things that we don’t like the idea of, and some things that, as Timothy puts it, “scare the life out of my skin!” It’s also true that some of these fears are irrational, but some are not – and either way, the fear is no less real. I know we are hugely blessed that, for the majority of us in here, we have less reasons to be afraid than many other people in this world, but this doesn’t make our fears any less valid – just we are probably in less immediate danger, or have more chance of avoiding them in 21st century Roker (unless you truly have a fear of the curate’s sermon…)

But consider how you feel when confronted by even the thought of those fears. Here we are, in a safe place surrounded by good people, yet just thinking about that thing that scares us will have left some here feeling uncomfortable or worse – sorry for that.

But imagine if you suddenly felt God calling you to confront one of those fears. And not just one of the irrational ones – finding a spider in the bath in this country is unlikely to be a life or death matter, however creepy some find them – but a really dangerous one. Ananias finds himself in this position in today’s New Testament reading.

We now know Paul as a great man – a great saint – without whose letters we would lack so much great teaching in the faith, such wonderful writing. And yet we shouldn’t underplay just how scary the prospect of meeting this man would have been for Ananias.

In the chapters of Acts before this reading we see how jealousy and fear of the Romans had led to the persecution of the early church, leading to imprisonment & flogging. When we first meet Paul, at that point known as Saul, it is at the stoning of Stephen. At first he seems more of an observer than a threat – a young man minding the coats while the really scary people get on with the business of killing a man by hurling rocks at him. But the first verse of chapter 8 I find chilling: “And Saul approved of their killing him.”

What would it matter if he ‘approved’ of it or not – unless his opinion was valued by those in charge. Then we see his true power.

“That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.”

Saul was leading a campaign of terror against those who professed Jesus name – and seemed ruthlessly good at it. This leads us up to the first two lines of today’s reading which cement all that has gone before.

“Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.”

Saul was on a mission to destroy this Jesus cult, and was not going to be held back.

Then – a miracle. Jesus himself intervenes. Saul is left blinded and understandably shocked by what happens – all his certainty, all his belief, his zeal his passion shown as misdirected, as against the wishes of the God he thought he was protecting. No wonder he spends the following days fasting & praying, trying to make sense of it all.

So, enter Ananias. And imagine for a moment you’re praying, taking a quiet moment in a busy day, when you have a vision. Is it a daydream, a flash of images, just words? Whatever and however it happens, suddenly you become aware that God is speaking to you – and is asking you to do something unbelievably terrifying, scarier than your worst nightmares. Worse than picking up a spider, looking out from the top of the church tower, or discovering too late that it’s me climbing up to the pulpit. In Ananias case, he is to go to the most dangerous person in the region, a man who is rounding up friends and fellow believers, who has been involved in the killing of his associates, and talk to him about Jesus. To put it in modern terms, it’s maybe up there with one of us being asked to parachute into Northern Nigeria and have a chat with the leader of Boko Haram

But it is unmistakable. God wants Ananias to go, and remarkably says He is going to use Saul as a missionary to the world. So Ananias goes, lays on hands, and the rest is history.

Our history.

For this is a massive part of the story of our faith, of our journey to eternal life and salvation. And it shows, amazingly, the biggest stumbling block to love – to God’s love being shown to the world – isn’t hate. It’s fear.

We spoke a few weeks ago about how perfect love casts out fear, about the way to win the war on terror, to defeat the evils of this age is through love conquering fear, and here is a great example. Because if Ananias had succumbed to the fear of what mortals could do to him – if he had run scared from facing Paul – or if he’d thought more about what ‘people’ said and thought rather than listening to the Lord – I appreciate the offer, Lord, but Saul is evil and terrifying and I, little old me, will have no hope facing him – he wouldn’t have gone.

And alongside this, if Paul’s fears had got in the way, he too would have run a mile. What if he’d sat there thinking of all the things he’d done in his life – the persecution, the pain & misery, the mistakes he had made – and decided he wasn’t worthy of being a follower of Jesus. That he wasn’t good enough. Or if his pride had put up a barrier – if he’d worried about what this change of heart was going to look like to those around him. Imagine what would happen if a well-known atheist like Richard Dawkins suddenly came out and said he’d become a Christian. That he was wrong about Jesus & faith and was now not just a believer, but truly committed to helping others find a relationship with their creator.

Paul had to overcome the fear of what people would say, how people would react, the complete change of direction his life would have to take because of his newfound belief in Jesus. And thank God he did. Because there is a distinct possibility that, without Paul’s mission to the Gentiles, without Ananias listening to God and facing his fears, we would not be here today – or, more importantly, would not have the love, hope and amazing privileges that come from being in a relationship with God our Father, though Jesus His Son by the power of His Holy Spirit.

Through prayer, through time reading the Bible, we have direct access to the one who made us, loves us and wants the very best for us, in this life & beyond. Who knows us better than anyone – just look at the words spoken to Jeremiah in our Old Testament reading.

So I don’t know about you, but I think this story of Paul’s conversion should bring great comfort and courage to us all. Because once again it shows ordinary people being called to do extraordinary things by God – and then being equipped to do them. It shows nobody is beyond salvation, no matter what has happened in the past. It shows there is true forgiveness for sins, true redemption of lives. It shows people like you and me overcoming fear with love, and changing the world.

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