Sunday, July 27, 2014

Divine Designs for David #6

Jeff Garrison
First Presbyterian Church
2 Samuel 24:15-25
July 27, 2014

It’s hard to believe we’ve come to the end.  Today is my last Sunday in this pulpit as your pastor.  I have been honored by the opportunity to serve our Lord Jesus Christ with you in Hastings.  Anything that was done here during my tenure, including this building, needs to be credited to our Lord.  You will continue to be in my thoughts and prayers.  Remember that all we do is to be done to the glory of God.  We are placed here on earth for a specific period of time; when we’re done it should be our hope that we’ve left the world a better place and have done what we can to prepare the next and future generations for their walk with God.
For the past two months we’ve been looking at some of the key passages concerning David, Israel’s greatest king.  Today, we’ll look at one of his last major acts as a king.  In the next chapter, which is the opening of First Kings, we learn that David is old and confined to bed.  Hospice has been called in; his days of ruling are over.  Our passage today is David’s last great adventure as a king, in which he is again reminded that God, not he, is in control.[1]  This last chapter in Second Samuel is complex and difficult.  If you read it all and ponder it, you come away with the realization that we don’t fully understand God’s ways.  Knowing our limitations is a sign of human wisdom.
David had made another blunder…  He’d ordered a census of the people so that he might know how many soldiers he could put into battle.  He’s thinking like a politician, like a military strategist. We don’t see anything wrong with this, do we?  He’s being a realist.  But deeper behind his decision is the lack of trust in God.  He places his faith in human power—something we’re all tempted to do.  Walking by faith is tough.  We want the assurance that comes from having enough people or enough money or enough weapons and forget that in the Kingdom’s economy, God’s will trumps everything we might bring to a situation.
Since Israel is to depend upon God alone, and not human power, Israel is punished.  The angel of pestilence descends.  In three days 70,000 people die.  But right before the angel consumes Jerusalem, David’s capital, God intervenes and the city is spared.  Out of Thanksgiving, David acts by consecrating a piece of ground upon which Solomon will build his temple. David’s last public act in 2nd Samuel results in a place for the future generations to worship God.  There is something noble about such an act, or remembering that in the end it isn’t about us, it’s about God.  Read 2 Samuel 11:26-12:15.
For two days, David has been hearing reports of pestilence throughout his kingdom.  Plumes of dust from the hooves of horses have been seen approaching Jerusalem from all directions—couriers rushing into the palace out of breath with the news of scores of people becoming mysteriously ill and dying.  The numbers have begun to add up.  500 here; 1,000 there; 1,500 over yonder.  The toll skyrockets.  In all, some 70,000 people will die.  The deaths begin on the outer-edge of the kingdom and moves closer and closer to Jerusalem…  The great and powerful king stands helpless before the approaching doom.  His Surgeon General doesn’t know what to do.  His personal physician is at a loss.  Even with the modern technology we have today, they’d still be at a loss for doctors can’t come up with a cure overnight.  They can do nothing! David’s heart is heavy and further troubled by the realization that his sin is resulting in the death of so many.
The angel of pestilence ravaged Israel.  But then, right as the angel is set to destroy Jerusalem, God steps in.  We’re told the angel was at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.  There are two important clues here.  First, a Jebusite would have belonged to a people who were in what became Israel before the Hebrew conquest.  The fact that a pagan owned this property links together Jerusalem’s past with its future role as Israel’s holy city. 
Second, for whatever reason, threshing floors are often a place where a connection is made between earth and heaven.  Maybe because these floors were where grain was beaten to separate the wheat from the chaff, it’s a place for purity. There are other references in the Old Testament to such interactions between the divine and humans at threshing floors. This threshing floor is located on a hill to the north of David’s city, perhaps at what we might call an industrial park today.  The angel is on the very edge of Jerusalem when his destruction is halted.  On this hill overlooking the hamlet, as Jerusalem was at the time, the angel just has to stretch out his arm and Jerusalem will experience God’s wrath.  It’s as it was with Abraham with whom, when he was about to strike Isaac with the fatal stab,[2] God holds back the hand of destruction. In both cases, with no moments to spare, God intervenes.  
        But God does intervene.  God grabs the death angel’s hand and spares Jerusalem.  David experiences the grace which can only come freely from an Almighty God.   David is told by Gad, a prophet, that he should build an altar on the threshing floor.  Much of the text I read involves the transaction for this piece of property.  Araunah was glad to give David the property and the makings of a sacrifice, but David realizes that accepting such gifts wouldn’t make it a sacrifice.  We saw David’s reaction last week to Nathan’s story.  David was ready to wring the neck of the guy who decided to eat his neighbor’s pet lamb instead of butchering one of his own.  To be a sacrifice, it has to cost something. David understands, so he pays liberally for the ability to make a sacrifice. 
        There’s a lot in this chapter that we struggle to understand.  God is free to act (if you read the chapter in the entirety, you’ll learn that God planted the seed for the census in David’s mind and later punishes Israel for it).  That we don’t understand and we just have to accept that God’s ways are not ours.  But I think we do understand David’s struggles.  He is concerned and like a good shepherd is willing to lay down his life for the sake of others.  Furthermore, his insistence on paying a fair price for the ability to make a sacrifice is noble and reflects and understanding of what it means to offer our best to God.  We’re not to offer God handouts (especially not hand-me-downs given to us by others).  We’re to offer God our best, especially when we realize what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, whose sacrifice frees us to live as generous disciples.  David knows, as Jesus will later state, “that everyone to whom much is given, much will be required.”[3]  Out of thanksgiving, David insists that he pay his own way even though he knows he (like us) can never repay God. However, he can show his gratitude and in doing so, David sets in motion events that will lead to the         building of Solomon’s temple.
        As this is my last sermon with you, I want to encourage you to remember to keep God first and foremost.  This congregation has been especially blessed.  Follow David’s example: don’t look for others to pick up the slack.  I encourage you to continue to be a blessing to others.  
        Yesterday, I took a break from writing the sermon to walk around the church property.  If you haven’t done this lately, I recommend it.  The patches of wildflowers that were planted the year before we began building are all in bloom. Butterflies and bluebirds can be seen in flight.  The paths have been recently mowed which made it all the more enjoyable and my thanks to all who have done the mowing and worked hard to make this place presentable.  I am going to miss this place as well as I will miss you and will hold you in my heart and prayers.  I thank you for graciously allowing me to serve as your Pastor and I thank everyone who had anything to do with Tuesday night.  It was a memorable evening.
        On this walk yesterday, I was reminded that there is beauty everywhere in this world in which our Heavenly Father created and declared good.  Enjoy it and accept the blessings and moments of grace God has given us, but don’t hoard them, share them with others.  And remember, that we’re all a little like David who could stray from the path, but be pulled back and in the end do the right thing.  David was the man after God’s heart. He trusted the Lord even during his dark days.[4]  Whatever happened to us in the past—even the painful stuff—can be used by God for his good and work in the world. 
        Let’s put the past behind us and turn our lives over to Jesus, give and return thanks to God, and in all things trust in the Lord. Amen.
©2014  Jeff Garrison and First Presbyterian Church, Hastings, MI

[1] This is the last public act recorded in the Samuel/King narrative.  Chronicles has some different stories such as David raising money for the temple.
[2] Genesis 22:11
[3] Luke 12:48
[4] Walter Brueggermann, First and Second Samuel: Interpretation, A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Louisville: John Knox Press,1990), 356.   See also 1 Samuel 13:14

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Divine Designs for David: The King is Corrupt

Jeff Garrison
First Presbyterian Church
2 Samuel 11:26-12:15
July 20, 2014


        We’re continuing our summer series, “Divine Designs for David.”  I’m skipping a lot of what happens to David.  I could easily spend two years preaching on the great king and sadly, I only have two sermons left with you.  I am going to miss you. I have enjoyed preaching from this pulpit and have many fond memories of being up here in front of you struggling to proclaim God’s word.  I’m thankful that it’s not all up to me; God’s Spirit is with us.
          So far, we’ve hit the high points in David’s rise to power.  Now that he’s king, we’re going to look at the first of his many low points.  This was not a text that I wanted to end my time with you, so I jumped ahead a bit.  Next week, after jumping over more low points in David’s life, we’ll talk about the future as David consecrates the site of the temple which would not be built until after his death.
        Although David was Israel’s greatest king, he was corruptible.  Like other kings (and other mortals like us), he was sinful.  David, the man after God’s own heart, was tempted by the powers of his office and the beauty of Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, a general in his Army.  Maybe this sermon should be titled “Divine Designs of David,” for the king certainly claims more power than was entrusted in him as he ignores God’s law.  
        This is a well-known story and you’ve heard it before, but just in case you haven’t, I encourage you to go back and read all of 2nd Samuel 11.  David is no longer the warrior-king; he is living royally in Jerusalem while his armies are out in the field fighting.  There, living the easy life, David spies Bathsheba taking a bath and has her brought to him.  Although we’re not told for sure the arrangements, she really has no say in what happens because he’s the king.  They spend the night together and then go about their lives only to discover a few weeks later that Bathsheba is pregnant. David tries to cover his tracks.  He recalls Uriah for some R&R in the hopes he’ll sleep with his wife and think the forthcoming child is his.  But Uriah is a more honorable man than David and he, with his mind on his soldiers’ suffering, refuses.  So David takes extreme measures and arranges to have Uriah killed in battle by having the army fall back, leaving the general out in front, exposed to the Ammonite army.  With Uriah dead, Bathsheba mourns appropriately and then marries David.  We can imagine the headlines in the tabloids: “Compassionate king marries widow and pledges to raise the child she’s carrying.”
        The story of David and Bathsheba and the attempts of the cover-up are told in a wonderful narrative style.  But at the end of 2nd Samuel 11, where we will begin reading, the story shifts from narrative to a statement of facts. I’ll pick up reading with this “summary.”  Here, Bathsheba is not mentioned by name, but as the “wife of Uriah,” as a reminder that she does not belong to David.  Something else that provides insight is that God isn’t been mentioned in the preceding narrative.  As king, David is hoping to cover up his deed.  He can hide this from mortals, but not from God for now we learn that the Lord isn’t happy.  God has been watching…  Read 2 Samuel 11:26-12:15.

Forbidden city with temple in background
       The Forbidden City in Beijing, the huge palace that housed Chinese Emperors for centuries, is an amazing place.  There are hundreds of rooms and all kind of courtyards.  Thousands of people can mill around the city and you don’t feel crowded.  The craftsmanship and artistry are amazing.  I spent almost the whole day there and didn’t see everything.  You begin at the south of the complex, across from Tiananmen Square and work your way north through the various parts of the palace.  As you get closer to the end, to the more private areas of the resident Emperor, I couldn’t help but notice that a ways north was a temple up on a hill.  After touring the city, I climbed the hill and was treated with wonderful views of the Forbidden City as well as the rest of the Beijing. This Buddhist temple had been strategically placed. It was built to overlook the City of the Emperor.  It was built to remind those in power that they may rule over men and women, but they still must answer to one who is higher. 
View of the "Forbidden City" from temple
        In old New England churches that also served as town meeting halls, you had a raised pulpit and a lecturer that was down on the floor level. When township business was conducted, it was done in the shadow of the pulpit and its heavy Bible to remind everyone who has the ultimate authority.  If we think we are beyond God’s law, we have deceived ourselves and like David, in our story today, will sooner-or-later have to answer for our sin. 
        David learns a painful truth.  He cannot hide his sin.  Even kings are to be held accountable.  Up until this point, David has been rising in power, now cracks are appearing in his facade.  Things will never be the same.
        Shortly after the assassination of President Kennedy, Patrick Moynihan (a friend of Kennedy’s and a member of his administration) was asked by reporter about resuming life.  Moynihan said, “We shall laugh again, but we shall never be young again.”  That’s how it is with David and with all of us who find truth about our lives in this passage.  We may laugh again, but we will never be young again.[1]
        In Chapter 11, and I would encourage you to go back and read it, David is the one sending.  He sends the army into the field; he sent for the woman bathing in the garden; he sends dispatches to Uriah that ultimate leads to his death.  He’s a king and he has power.  However, the 12th Chapter begins, “The Lord sent Nathan to David.”  Kings are not the only one who can send and summons.  There is one to whom even kings must bow and Nathan is a prophet which means his first loyalty isn’t to a king or a nation (even though he is a trusted advisor of David’s). His loyalty is to the God who calls him into the prophetic ministry.  Nathan comes to David and instead of directly confronting the king, calling him a sinful jerk, tells the king a story, a parable.

There were two men: one rich and another poor.  The rich man had plenty of sheep and the poor only one little lamb, which he treated as if it was his own child.  One day the rich man had a guest and wanted to throw a banquet featuring lamb-chops, only he doesn’t want to waste his own flock, so he takes the poor man’s lamb and has it roasted for his guest…

Notice a few things about this parable.  We’re not told much about the rich man, only that he has more than he needs.  But we’re given an intimate picture of the poor man, the one who loves his one little ewe lamb so much that he treats the animal like a daughter.  The two men are juxtaposed in such a way that we are left with no doubt that the rich man could feed his guest many times over from his own flock and that the poor man was so impoverished that the only joy he had from life came from his pet lamb.  Hearing this story, David acts as a righteous king.  He’s furious!  In anger David proclaims that the rich man must die; words that will come back to haunt him…
        David doesn’t see it coming.  A parable can be like a Trojan horse.[2]  You don’t know what has happened until it is too late.  David doesn’t realize Nathan is setting him up, allowing the mighty king to convict himself. It’s too late; the messenger has delivered God’s message and the king hears it.  When Nathan points to David and says, “You are the man!” David is no longer free to rationalize his sin. He’s forced to acknowledge his guilt and to accept God’s punishment.
        Because of David’s repentance, he does not die as he himself had judged. Instead, God relents and allows David to live.  But the child carried by Bathsheba, the one conceived by him, dies.  David has to accept a terrible truth.  His sin led to the death of an innocent child just as it had already led to the death of Uriah, an innocent man.
        We can’t understand why the child dies for the sin of the parents.  From a human standpoint, it seems unfair… And it is, but when we think about it, lots of children suffer from the sins of their parents: those living with abuse, suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome or crack babies and that’s only scratching the surface.  We don’t understand.  It seems unfair (and it is) to have one suffer for the sins of another, which is exactly what Jesus did for us when he died on the cross with our sins weighing heavily on him.  The innocent one died for us!
        Like it or not, this story, as well as the crucifixion, reminds us that our actions have implications upon others.  Someone else often pays for our sins.  David and Bathsheba’s afternoon liaison wasn’t just a causal affair between two consenting adults (and there is debate over whether or not Bathsheba could have been consenting when the king “sent” for her).  Regardless, this story first involves Uriah (who never knows what happens when he’s set up to be slain) and then Bathsheba’s child.  What we do affects others. We don’t live in a moral vacuum.
        During the Clinton administration, this passage was often alluded to as it was during the Nixon administration.  Both Presidents had a hard time admitting their mistakes.  Both had to be confronted with the hard truth of their actions and neither was as brave as David.  Even after being caught red-handed, they both continued to deny what they’d done.  Why is it that we seem to be unable to admit our mistakes?  It’s not just Presidents, politicians and kings; we all struggle with admitting that we’re less than perfect.  And such an admission is a necessity that will bring us into a relationship with a forgiving and merciful God.
        Personally, I find the person willing to confess to be a lot more trustworthy—be they a friend or politician.  I just wish we had a few more examples from which to choose.  Unfortunately, the ruling principle seems to be, “Don’t get caught.”  We’re reminded here that God’s judgment remains and even the most powerful will have to reckon with it.
        At some point, we will all lose our innocence.  We will all come to the place when we know we are guilty—when we hear the prophet say, “You are the one!”  When that happens, we know there is no way to return to what once was.  The truth of our own sinfulness and shortcomings will weigh heavily upon us.  At such a time, we have a choice. We can isolate ourselves from others, hiding our shame, living in fear and constantly attempting to defend ourselves…  Or, like David, we can live with the hope and assurance that comes from admitting our sin and accepting the judgment and love of God.  The two go together: judgment and love!
        To those of us who live in the shadow of the cross, this second choice makes sense.  God loves us; God forgives us; and God stands ready to welcome us back home. But before we rejoice, we must examine ourselves.  Are we bold enough to admit our mistakes and to accept the consequences?  For regardless of how well we cover our tracks here on earth, God watches.  Amen.
©2014  Jeff Garrison and First Presbyterian Church, Hastings, MI

[1] Walter Brueggemann, David’s Truth in Israel’s Imagination and Memory (Fortress, 1985), 65.
[2] Martin B. Copenhaver, “He Spoke in Parables,” Christian Century (13-20 July 1994), 681.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Divine Designs for David: The Shepherd Boy Becomes the King

Jeff Garrison
First Presbyterian Church
July 13, 2014
2 Samuel 1:1-16

We’re continuing our series titled, “Divine Designs for David.”  Over the past four sermons, I’ve traced David’s rise to power from a shepherd boy who is anointed to become king, to a poet and musician capable to calming the soul of Saul, and then a warrior who takes down a giant.  In the stories I’m jumping over, David and Saul engage in a running battle.  Even though Saul becomes David’s enemy, David always respects him as God’s anointed king.  Twice, David has an opportunity to kill Saul and even though he knows Saul would kill him, if given the opportunity, David refuses to harm the king.  David is an honorable man.
In our text today, David learns of Saul’s death.  The path is now open for him to become king, but instead of doing a joy dance, David mourns.  David is close to God and knows that the defeat and demise of our enemies is nothing to celebrate.  Instead, we are to be humbled over the fate of others, even when it presents us an opportunity.   I preached on this text once before, in the old church.  That sermon I titled, “Gloating is not a Christian trait.”  The title still holds and I’ll use it as a refrain today.  We have to careful of how we express our joy; especially when we are blessed while others are not blessed in the same ways. 
In this passage, we see David at his best.  A lesser man might have thrown a party, but David grieves for what has been lost.[1] READ 2 Samuel 1:1-16…

        Fishermen (and even fisherwomen) are known for telling stories.  The size of a fish grows with each telling. The perils and hardship endured while fighting a beast is enhanced.  The twelve inch bass caught last weekend becomes Moby Dick and the angler, unlike Ahab, successful brought the monster into the boat.  When we hear such stories, we accept them with a wink of the eye and then, tell our own stories, embellishing them the same way.  This week, I learned a prayer I want to teach all of you who love to fish to pray.  For those of you who golf, you might modify this prayer for your purposes.  I discovered the prayer in the most unlikely of places, the men’s room in my grandmother’s nursing home. The prayer is simple and goes like this; “Lord, give me the grace to catch a fish so big that I do not have to lie about it.  Amen.”  Can you say it with me?  “Lord, give me the grace to catch to catch a fish so big that I do not have to lie about it…”
        We like to win, don’t we? We enjoy bragging on our accomplishments, right?  It’s healthy to feel good about ourselves but we have to keep it in check.  After all, gloating is not a Christian trait.  This is especially true when there are winners and losers. When we obtain satisfaction from the woe of others, we bring shame on our Savior who bids to humbly follow him and to look out for the welfare of all people, especially those who cannot help themselves.  We’re called to pick up our cross and we can’t gloat much when we have a hunk of wood across our shoulders.[2]
        But if there ever was a man in the position to gloat, it was David.  Saul had been after his hide for years, and now he’s dead.  His sons are also dead.  Not only does this mean that David’s number-one enemy is gone, it also opens the way for him to claim the kingship of Israel.  The king is dead and so are those sons who might challenge David’s claim for the throne.  David should rejoice, you’d think?  He should do one of his gleeful dances before the Lord.[3]  I’m sure that’s what the Amalekite thought as he brought the good news to David.  Here this poor guy has traveled nearly a hundred miles, he’s dirty and his clothes are ragged.  He’s got good news; he’s bringing the crown and armlet for David to wear as the new king.   This guy thinks he has a chance to kiss up to David; maybe he’ll be given a cabinet position or an ambassadorship in his new administration.  But that’s not the case.
        This Amalekite messenger brags on what happened to Saul.  Now there is some discrepancy between his report of Saul’s death and what is described in First Samuel.  There, we’re told that Saul’s body was riddled with arrows when he falls on his sword and dies.  Now we’re told that Saul was still alive, leaning on his spear, and begs the Amalekite to put him out of his misery.  The Amalekite describes his role in Saul’s death as being merciful.  “Saul asked for me to kill him and I did because I knew he couldn’t live much longer,” or so he says. 
Now, I’m not sure how to put these two versions of Saul’s death together.  The only thing for certain is that Saul died.  Perhaps he didn’t do himself in well enough and didn’t finally succumb to death until after the Amalekite came upon his body.  Another possibility is that Saul was already dead and the Amalekite, collecting loot from the battlefield, spies Saul’s body and decides to take the crown and present it to David hoping to make a good impression on the new king.  In other words, like a fisherman, he makes up the story in order to impress David. 
        David does three surprising things.  First, he and his men assume the posture of mourning, tearing their clothes, crying and fasting.  Then he has the Amalekite snitch killed, not exactly the reception the guy expected.  In David’s eyes, the guy condemns himself by acknowledging that he killed the “Lord’s anointed.”  This seems harsh to our ears, but assuming the role of God is a violation of the first commandments and such was the penalty in those days.    Finally, in the verses that follow our reading, David composes a song for King Saul and for his good friend, Saul’s son, Jonathan.  David leaves out all Saul’s failures and shortcomings.  In a way, he rewrites history to lift up all that was good in Saul and his son.
        Jesus tells us to love our enemies.[4]  You have to admit: it’s a catchy phrase, and few of us do it well.  After all, how many of us can honestly say we love whatever candidate for President we didn’t vote for during the last election?  Or how about the boss you hate, or the neighbor whose dogs bark all night, or the guy in High School who stole your girlfriend, or the girl who was selected prom queen when you didn’t even make runner-up.  And if we can’t love our fellow citizens, how can we be expected to love the terrorist out to do us in?  Loving our enemies seems to be an impossible command, but maybe there is something in David’s character that shows us what it’s all about.  David could have gloated over Saul’s death, bragging that the corrupt king received his just desserts.  That’s what we have a tendency to do, isn’t it?  But David doesn’t do that, and I suggest there are at least two reasons why. 
First of all, he knew God had anointed Saul as King and therefore, it wasn’t up to him to usurp Saul’s position or God’s authority.  When God wants David to take over, he’ll make it happen.  It wasn’t David’s role to force God’s hand (nor was it the Amalekite’s.  Secondly, David knows life is sacred, especially the life of the King of Israel who was anointed by the Lord.  Rejoicing over someone’s misfortune is petty; it doesn’t honor a life created by God.  It took humility, but I wonder if by not gloating over the demise of Saul, David found himself in a better position to unite the various factions within Israel and truly create a united kingdom?   Humility often pays off.  Think about the times you bit your tongue and refrained from making a sharp rebuttal that would only have destroyed a later opportunity to mend fences?
        I’ve been somewhat of a student of Lyndon Johnston.  After all, he’s the first president I really remember and when I was in the second grade I’d go around and ask people what you’d get if you stuck your finger in the President’s ear.  Know the answer?  Johnson’s wax.  Even as a kid I was a sucker for a corny joke!  Johnson had some detestable traits, many of which I’m sure he shared with other politicians regardless of their political stripes. Johnson understood other people’s sympathies.  This can be a good thing, but for Johnson it was an important trait because he would then exploit these sympathies as a weakness and thereby strengthen his own position.[5]  
Exploiting weaknesses: that’s the way things work in the real world...  But as Christians, we’re called into a different world for we’re citizens of a different kingdom.  Winning isn’t nearly important as maintaining our focus on Jesus Christ, who, on the cross, achieved all that is ultimately important.  Jesus calls us to be servants, to lift up one another, and to lead lives of humility and grace.  Such a life shuns gloating.  Such a life refuses to exploit the weakness or the misfortune of others.  Like David, instead of rejoicing at the demise of others, we should be sad at a life wasted.
Blaming others is another way things work in the real world.  I saw a clip from the John Oliver show this past week in which a guest on the program, a human rights advocate from Uganda (where new laws threaten those who are gay with execution) said this about blaming the West and their former colonial rulers for their situation Africa is now in. This is what he said: 
"I think we have to move beyond blaming people…  We are wasting our potential; we're wasting our intelligence, our human resource, our humanity, blaming people who have moved on. I think that's a waste of time and we have to move on."[6]

Not only did David not blame Saul for his troubles, he insisted on honoring the man even though Saul would have had David killed.  David knew that the needed to put the past aside if the nation was going to move forward and it was better to do this by honoring Saul than by blaming him for all that is wrong in Israel. Wouldn’t it be nice if our politicians did the same?
        As I said earlier, at this point in his life, David was at his best.  Next week, we’ll see that he, too, did some despicable things.  But here, he is honorable and if we followed his example here (by not gloating), we’d be living in a manner that would bring honor to our Savior, to our God. 
        Following Jesus means we look at the world with new glasses.  We need spectacles that allow us to see and identify with the pain and the hurt of others.  We need eyeglasses that focus on Jesus out in front, and not ourselves.  We need to reorient ourselves, reminding ourselves that our victories are small and insignificant when compared to the great victory that we all share in, Jesus’ victory over death and evil.   As Paul says, if we boast, it should only be in Jesus Christ.[7] 
How we act and respond to the troubles of others says a lot about us.  If others see us as gracious, generous, and welcoming, then they’ll be those who will want to join us.  We should welcome them with open arms.  But if we’re seen as elitists, as people who have to win at all cost, it’ll be a different story.  Few people will want to be around us.  What will it be?  How will we live?  Amen.
©2014  Jeff Garrison and First Presbyterian Church, Hastings, MI

[1] Walter Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 212.
[2] Matthew 10:38, 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23, 14:27.
[3] 2 Samuel 6:21
[4] Luke 6:27, 35.
[5] Robert A. Caro, Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson (New York: Alford Knopf, 2002), 136.
[6] Pepe Onziema on John Oliver's show
[7] I Corinthians 1:31; 2 Corinthians 10:17                                                                             

Sunday, June 29, 2014

June 29, 2014: Divine Designs for David: Meeting the Giant

Jeff Garrison
First Presbyterian Church
June 29, 2014
1 Samuel 17:41-51

       There were two boys, twins.  One was an optimist, always looking on the bright side even when there wasn’t any reason to be optimistic.  The other son was an extreme pessimist.  Nothing was ever right and the future was always bleak.  This bothered the mother, so she sought advice from her boys’ pediatrician.  “What can I do to even these two kids out?”
       “Madam,” the doctor said, “I know just what you need to do.  On their birthday, give the pessimist a box of all kinds of toys and give that optimist a big box of manure.  That’ll even them up.” 
       When the twin's birthday came around, she did as the doctor directed.  The pessimist tore into his boxes, grumbling about the quality of the toys and how they would all be broken by evening.  Then the optimist opened his box.  A big grin came upon his face as he proclaimed: "You can't fool me.  Where there's manure, there's a pony."
       Many of us, maybe even the majority of the human race, are tainted a bit with pessimism. Of course, we like to cover it up by saying we're realist which really means we've been beaten so many times that we don't see the possibilities God has set before us.  And even though we don’t always have a rosy outlook, if we were to take a poll, I’m sure we’d all say we prefer the friendship of those who are optimistic even though we will often make fun of them. It was no different in David’s time.  For you see, David was an optimistic.  Why else would he have gone up against Goliath, the giant?  But his was a qualified optimism, he was optimistic because he trusted in God.
       We're in our third week of our series, "Divine Designs for David."  The seventeenth chapter of First Samuel is a long one and in a way, should be read as a unit.  But there is not enough time so I encourage you to read it to yourselves this afternoon.  The narrator of this chapter goes to great length to create tension.[1]  Israel is once again at war with her age-old enemy, the Philistines.  And the Philistines now have a secret weapon, a giant.  It’s like they got to go first in the players draft and they chose the superstar who is capable of great things but also has a big mouth and is full of trash talk.  His talk has Israel's army shaking in their boots.  They are afraid, for they trust only in their own might. But David, the young shepherd boy has faith and offers a different vision of what might happen when he asks if he can take a shot at the giant. For David, size is a liability.  Goliath is a bigger target.  With his men in fear, Saul allows David the chance to prove himself.  Discarding all the armor he's offered, he marches out to take on Goliath's challenge with only a slingshot and five smooth stones...  Read 1 Samuel 17:41-51.

       Like many boys, when it came to reading, I drawn to biographies of great warriors.   I was probably ten or twelve when I and some of my friends read about Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys and their attempt to capture Montreal during the American Revolution.  Only taking a small force that could move quickly and surprise the British, Allen picked his soldiers wisely.  One of the tests was that they had to be able to hit a tree with a long rifle from 50 yards while running.   We decided we’d start a club made up of boys able to perform a similar feat.  Of course, none of us had long rifles.  We only had BB-guns which couldn't hit a target at 50 yards with the wind behind us.  So we cut it down to 50 feet but that still was difficult as the bb's often struck the ground before reaching the tree.  We finally settled on about 25 feet and would run in front of the tree that was about six or eight inches in diameter and shoot.  You knew, with the thud, if you hit the tree.  Over a few afternoons we slaughtered, at least in our minds, a whole forest of Long Leaf Pines and were ready, if the call had ever come, to march on Montreal.
       Kids are drawn to stories of those who accomplish great feats (although I think we must have skipped the part in the book of Ethan Allen and his boys being defeated and captured in Canada).  Such stories spur our imagination and encourage us to strive to be better, which is probably why the story of David and Goliath is such a hit with children-especially boys.
Goliath, the giant Philistine stands nearly ten feet in height and wears 126 pounds of armor and has a spear like a fence rail with a metal tip weighing over fifteen pounds.[2]  He’s an imposing enemy!  The only thing bigger than Goliath’s biceps is his mouth; he could have been a professional wrestler.  He’s big and strong and so full of himself that he mercilessly taunts the Israelite army.  They flee in fear of the giant.  Who will go up against Goliath?  Who will face this giant who could crush you by just falling over on you with the weight of his armor?  
And then David comes along.  Think about this, Israel’s army is already sulking from having been taunted by Goliath, now they have this kid, this shepherd, who also taunts these seasoned warriors by asking, “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?”  The soldiers are afraid and the boy volunteers to take on the giant.  If you read the entire story you’ll see that his older brother gets mad at him, telling David to get back to the sheep.  But David insists on hanging around and asks for a shot at Goliath.  They take this your boy to Saul, the king.  At first, Saul is upset, thinking this is some kind of joke, but then when he realizes David is the one person in the camp not intimidated by the giant, he offers the boy is armor.  This is a funny scene; the boy is so weighed down by the armor that he can hardly move.  He asks that the armor be taken off.   Instead, he takes his staff and his sling and picks up five smooth stones in a dry creek bed and is ready to meet Goliath. 
       Five stones to take on a giant…  Think about it, just five smooth stones.  You may recall another young man, from China in the late 80s, back when they were having pro-democracy protests.  Do you remember him?  We just recognized the 25th anniversary of the protests.  This young man stood in front of a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square.  I’m sure many thought he was crazy, yet that photo got plastered around the world and forced China to change policies.        Five stones to take on a giant...  In the Gospels we read about another young lad, this one with only five loaves which he offers to Jesus to feed thousands.  The folly of youth, we might think.  Yet it took one stone to drop the giant, one photograph of a young student to pressure the Chinese government to stop their persecution, and the lunch of one boy to feed 5000...  Is this the folly of youth or the hope of optimists? 
       What was it that made David an optimist when the rest of the Israelite army shook in their boots?  David was assured of his actions because of his faith in God, a faith which he boldly proclaimed to the soldiers.  David knew that God was on his side.  David didn’t trust himself; he trusted in God, the Creator.   And because David had faith, he took it upon himself to do what he knew must be done and he went out and defeated Goliath, an action that rallied the Israelites as they were able to beat back the Philistine invaders. 
       This story is wonderful because it shows us what one small act can do.  Not only did David defeat the giant, his single act of faith inspired an army.  David had a vision of Israel being victorious.  He knew what was possible, and because they saw him in action, Israel’s soldiers caught the vision and were able to be victorious.  What acts of ours might inspire others?  You know, we’re always on display.  Do others see us living our faith?
       Of course, we need to remember that David’s strength wasn’t in his arm nor was it his eyesight that allowed him to hit the bull’s eye with this first stone.  David’s strength comes from God.  He knows not only the God of the past, who had saved Israel from Egyptian brutality, but a God who is still alive and with Israel.  David comes off a little cocky in this passage as we see with his exchange of words with Goliath.  This confidence is seen throughout the passage as David expresses confidence to Saul and Israel’s soldiers.  But it is never confidence in his arm or in his plan.  David’s confidence is always in God.  As Paul tells us, if we’re to boast, we should boast in the Lord.[3]  It isn’t David’s skill that allows him success; it’s his trust in the Almighty Creator.  If we trust in the Lord, we can do great things.  If we don’t, we may find ourselves in over our heads.
       The church today needs a few Davids to help inspire us to reach out, to think big, and to remember that we are the Lord’s and if God is with us, we can do great things in his name.  Amen. 

©2014 Jeff Garrison and First Presbyterian Church, Hastings, MI

[1] Walter Bruggemann, First and Second Samuel: Interpretation, a Commentary for Preaching and Teaching (John Knox Press,  )
[2] See 1 Samuel 17:4-8.  The weight and height equivalents (for cubits and shekels taken from Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 2002), 488.
[3] I Corinthians 1:31