Chaminade. Buster Douglas. Texas Western. Appalachian State. David Tyree. Rulon Gardner. Maybe some of those names sounded familiar to you; maybe none of them did. I realize not everyone will know these names, but for those who follow sports closely, most of those will have brought to mind a single moment, game, or event.
Chaminade, for example, is a tiny college of about 2000 people in Honolulu. In December of 1982, they hosted a game against the University of Virginia, who were the undefeated and top-ranked team in college basketball. The Virginia squad was led by Ralph Sampson, the National Player of the Year all three of his years as a varsity basketball player, and considered by many the greatest basketball player in college history.
Of course, you know the story – unlikely though it was, the tiny little college beat the superpower in one of the great upsets in the history of American sports. Buster Douglas defeated the previously-unbeaten Mike Tyson in Japan to claim the heavyweight championship of the world, Texas Western was a small school that played Adolph Rupp’s famous Kentucky, and defeated them for the national championship when no one gave them a chance. Appalachian State is a tiny school, at the time not even in major college football, who traveled to the University of Michigan and shocked them in one of the biggest college football upsets of all-time. David Tyree made the phenomenal, one-handed, helmet-trap catch that kept the New York Giants’ season alive in the Super Bowl against the undefeated New England Patriots and eventually led to a Giants’ victory. Rulon Gardner was a heavyweight wrestler who won Olympic gold in 1996 by defeating Aleksandr Karelin of Russia, who hadn’t lost a match in over 15 years of international competition.
Inevitably, stories like these are always compared to “David and Goliath.” This one Bible story is so well-known that it crosses into the popular consciousness. Many people who’ve never set foot in a church in their lives know the basic outline – little boy kills a giant. You almost have to know it in order to understand such a common phrase. So let’s talk about the story a little bit.
As most of you know by now, I’ve been preaching through the Old Testament this summer, beginning in creation. Last week, we got all the way up to Ruth, which took place in the time of the Judges, who were special people called by God to lead Israel. Well, eventually, the Israelites got sick of not having an official king. I think when most of us read this, we can very smugly argue how silly it is of them; after all, they were following religious leaders who were very close to God. Isn’t following God better than following a king? Well, yes, it is. Of course following God is better than following after human leaders. However, it’s also understandable that when a foreign king wants to work out a treaty, or a trade deal, or you need to raise an army, having a king would be helpful. So eventually the last of the Judges, Samuel, prays about it, and God agrees to help Samuel find a king.
He finds a young man named Saul. Saul was tall, handsome, smart, and skilled at battle. He seemed like a good choice, and Samuel anointed him king. Israel was now in the “modern” world, just like everyone else. Of course, as anyone who’s been around for a long time knows, being “modern” means having all the new problems that you never had to deal with before. I mean, for example, new cars have a lot of fancy computer parts; so much so that some of them can park themselves, or slam the brakes for you when you’re in danger. On the other hand, with each innovation comes something new that can (and will) break, and now it’s harder to fix than ever before. Likewise, having a king meant new problems. I don’t want to get into all of Saul’s issues right now – I’ll pick up with more of that in a couple weeks – but we need to know the situation.
Anyway, David, as some of you know, was the youngest of eight brothers. His three oldest brothers were all old enough for war, but he was still at home working, tending the sheep. He is, after all, a very famous shepherd – a job which will later prepare him to be the “shepherd” of all the Israelite people. These older brothers serving in the army were bound to want a care package from home, so his father Jesse had an idea: David should go take them some food. And, while he’s at it, why not take some to King Saul, too? So David did that. He dropped the food off with the guy in charge of watching over everyone’s stuff, and he went to talk to his brothers.
But as he got there, he saw a giant of a man come out. This was Goliath of Gath, one of the Philistines, with whom the Israelites fought. I had a teacher in high school who first opened my eyes to the word “Philistine,” which can be pronounced as “PHIL-iss-teen” or a “PHIL-iss-tyne.” That second pronunciation sounds an awful lot like “Palestine,” doesn’t it? Well, that’s because the Israelites and the Palestinians have been fighting over the land of Israel for a long time.
Anyway, Goliath comes out, and David hears for the first time that Goliath is taunting the army. With good reason, too; Goliath is listed as being six cubits and a span tall. Those are ancient measurements, but they’re really easy to understand. A cubit is the length from a man’s elbow to the tip of his middle finger; people estimate that to be about 18 inches. A span is from the tip of a man’s thumb to the tip of his pinky, when he spreads his fingers apart; people estimate that to be about nine inches. In other words, they estimate Goliath to have been 9’9”. That means he was very nearly the height of a basketball hoop! Well, it’s understandable why people were intimidated, isn’t it? He has a whole bunch of armor on, all of it described as being very heavy. He’s carrying weaponry basically as big as a man. He is truly a giant. And if you have a guy like that on your side, I guess it’s no surprise what the Philistine army does next.
They let Goliath taunt their opponents. But not only that, they put the entire war on him. The Israelites and Philistines were fighting over land that they each felt rightfully belonged to them, which is the same as now in the Holy Land, if you pay attention to that sort of news. Anyway, the Philistines decide that the best and quickest way to get this over with is to have Goliath challenge anyone who will take him on in single combat. This was actually a fairly common way of attempting to resolve warfare in the ancient world, as the thought is that it would cause a lot less bloodshed. That sounds really good in theory; problem was, most of the time, the losing side didn’t take it so well, and the battle would happen anyway.
So David listens to these taunts from this giant, and he wonders why no one is accepting the challenge. This is a really important part of the story, because I think it goes to show us something we can all learn from children. Remember, David is just a boy. He has four older brothers who are also too young for battle, and 15- or 16-year-olds would’ve probably been considered battle-ready. Therefore, David must be early-elementary age.
He sees the giant, and his reaction isn’t fear, it isn’t distress, it isn’t worry about his older brothers. His reaction is that God can obviously help win that fight. Goliath is taunting the Israelites, which by extension means he’s making fun of God. David won’t stand for that. He asks what will happen to whoever beats Goliath, and he’s told that such a person would marry into the royal family, and be made rich, and the last thing probably means that they won’t have to pay taxes anymore, either. So David is like, “What’s the catch? We serve God, so we’ll obviously win – so why isn’t anyone going out there and doing something?”
Like I said, there’s something for us adults to learn from David. He doesn’t see the size of the obstacle. I mean, he sees it, but he doesn’t let it phase him. He’s too young to know how hard things can really be.
Of course, David points out later that he has killed lions and bears. Sure, but they’re not as smart as a human. And besides, no one from Israel would want to put their whole army at risk of losing, just because they took on this giant. So the armies just sit and look at each other while Goliath goes on taunting. David doesn’t see those things, though; he has the faith of a child, the certainty that God will provide. It’s a good thing to keep in mind.
So often, we let ourselves be limited by what we can imagine. And let’s face it – our imaginations as adults are colored by experiences that limit our vision. Children have nearly unlimited imagination, so they can see things clearly that we lose over time, including an understanding of what a big obstacle is.
David is reprimanded by his older brothers, who haven’t seen their food yet and think he’s there just to gawk at the war. They think he’s being childish – and he is. But in this case, it’s that childishness that’s going to save. He decides that, if no one else will stand up for God, he has to do it. So he decides to do volunteer to fight Goliath. Saul, sensing that this will at least make something happen, lets him. Again, if we want to talk about why Saul’s not a good king later, we can. But sending an elementary-school-age kid to fight a giant is not a decision a good king makes, even though it happens to work out in this instance.
And again, Saul fails the test of seeing like a child, even when he agrees to let David go into battle. He outfits him with heavy armor. He does it because… well, Goliath’s in heavy armor, so David had better be, too, right? But that’s silly; if someone’s going to hit you with a sledgehammer, you don’t notice the wooden handle and say, “Ooh, I’d better get a wooden handle, too.” You need the tools that will help you do your best work. I mean, obviously, David is never going to beat Goliath by fighting the way Goliath would choose to fight.
So David does what he knows, and uses the gifts God has given him. God has given him an abundance of faith, so that’s his first weapon. And let’s face it – faith is what’s carried the Israelites for so long – so it’s probably time to remember that, even if it’s hard to keep in mind. But second, he’s gotten rid of lions and bears with his slingshot. So he strips off the trappings that the world thinks he needs, and he uses what he knows. He doesn’t need heavy armor that won’t fit and probably won’t protect him, anyway.
David outfits himself with no armor at all, because that’s what gives him the best chance of winning. God gave him this ability with a slingshot; God gave him faith to slay giants. So David uses those things. We so often trust in ourselves and the things of this world, rather than trusting in God. We trust in our money, in our families, in our standing in society; we trust in the people around us, we trust in what we’ve been taught. We trust in so many things, but we don’t always look first to God.
The story of David is a story about how even the weakest, the smallest, the unlikeliest can succeed when they do God’s will, rather than believing in what the world sees. David has confidence. Some of that is self-confidence. But note; there’s a difference between believing that he can do it, and believing that God can do it through him. And it’s the latter that David believes. For us adults, especially, we tend to see obstacles as being too big, and we tend to fall back on what’s worked in the past instead of finding our spiritual imagination. For the kids out there today, as you get older, you’re going to have a tendency to forget what it’s like to be a kid and feel pressure to grow up. But let’s be honest: sometimes, grown-ups need to remember to think like you. So always remember to have faith in God, no matter how old you are. Let your imagination open up to believe that God can do remarkable things. And let your faith be your guide. Amen.