Sermon: Slaying The Giants: Our Champion
Scripture: 1 Samuel 17: 4-11
Date: February 3, 2019
Fighting battles between great armies around 1000 B.C. was a very different proposition from our conventional concept of warfare. It had its roots in the ancient idea that wars on earth mirrored the battles that took place amongst the gods. So each nation had its own god as their champion, and when the gods fought in the heavenly realms, the nations fought on earth. And whichever champion prevailed in the heavens dictated the results of the battles between nations on earth. By the time the Israelites began the conquest of the land that concept of war had evolved. When armies faced off, like the Israelites and Philistines did in the story of David and Goliath, it was rare that whole armies would do battle. Instead each army would choose one of their ranks, a champion if you will, to fight for them against the champion of the opposing army and whichever individual prevailed dictated which army was victorious. That’s why kings were chosen, not so much for their wisdom or ability to lead and govern justly and fairly, but rather for their strength and might. And so the writer of Samuel tells us that in keeping with this understanding of warfare that the Philistines chose their mightiest warrior to be their champion. A champion named Goliath came out of the Philistine Camp, Samuel writes. And he shouts to the Israelite camp, Army of Israel, why are you lining up for battle? Choose your champion and send him down to fight me. If he can defeat me, then my people will become your subjects, but when I prevail, then you will become our subjects.” So rather than inviting the entire army to do battle against him, as we sometimes think, Goliath is really calling for the Israelites to send out their champion to fight him on behalf of the Israelites. And because Saul was chosen to be King more for his might and strength, then any spiritual criteria, the assumption would be that he would be the military champion of the Israelites. But once Saul took one look at Goliath, he lost the courage to go up against him. And so he sought a new champion for Israel. Now a surface reading of this story is that Saul is just looking for someone to get him off the hook, to go against Goliath in his place, so that Saul could save face, and perhaps shut Goliath up. But when we consider the role of the champion, we realize that it is much more than that. The future of the Israelites as well as the conquest of the land, was dependent on finding a champion that would not only go against Goliath but who had a realistic chance of beating him. So at first glance we might think, “why not let David volunteer?” until we realize that the Israelites were not in need of a sacrificial lamb but rather they were in need of a champion. Saul’s attempt to persuade David to not confront Goliath was not out of concern for David, but to send David out without any realistic chance of victory, meant defeat for the entire nation of Israel and the end of the conquest of the promised land. You see, the story of David and Goliath essentially redefines the understanding of who a champion was as far as God’s people were concerned. Before Goliath stepped forward as the champion of the Philistines and challenged the army of Israel to send out their champion, the understanding of champion was who was the biggest and the strongest among them. But when David stepped forward to challenge Goliath he made it clear that from that day forward, Israel’s champion would not be one chosen for brute strength and size but rather would be one sent from God. David was certainly no physical match for Goliath, but as big and powerful as Goliath was, he was certainly no match for the God of the Israelites. From this time forward whenever the Israelites would search for a worldly champion to stand up against the foreign kings and invading armies, they would fail and be defeated and often carried off into exile. But when God is your champion, there is nothing, no army, no personal giant, that can defeat you. Before David and Goliath the people looked for a king like Saul to be their champion. But inevitably those champions would face defeat. But starting with David, they looked to God for their champion. And so for the next 1000 years, when confronted with the giants, rather than seeking a champion among men, they ultimately looked to God to send a Messiah, a Savior, a champion to restore the kingdom. When you need a champion to stand up against your personal giants, do you look to the world or do you look for God to be your champion. And often God would raise up the most unlikely of champions. Daniel for instance. And Jonah. And then Jesus came, born a baby of Bethlehem. A champion in the line of David. And most said, He can’t possibly be the Messiah. The great King we’ve been waiting for. He can’t possibly be our champion. So weak, and small and vulnerable. And just as Saul had told David, they said He can’t possibly be our champion against the Romans, and Herod, and the priests and pharisees. He can’t possibly slay those giants. He’s just a baby, a sacrificial lamb, armed only with the word of God, only a tattered cloak for His armor. Only a handful of fishermen for an army. And even those disciples questioned his ability to defeat the giants. When the cross loomed before Him, Menacing, challenging, taunting, threatening, sure defeat, Peter took up the sword . But our great champion, turned sure death into victory. And defeated the giants once and for all. No one had ever prevailed against the Cross. If you are the Messiah they taunted, why don’t you call upon an army of angels to fight with you. But the only weapon Jesus had was the presence of God. And He told us that His presence is all that we will ever need to defeat the giants. That is what this Sacrament is all about. Taking on the presence of Christ and heading into the world – victorious. “Come to me, all who labor and need rest, and I will be your champion.” One pastor describes this new understanding of champion like this:
And what is the battle in which we’re engaged? We may think we know. It may be a battle to succeed, to be liked, to be accomplished, to be happy. Or maybe it’s a battle to survive, to provide for ourselves and those we love. Those battles are very real. And they are too much a part of the human spirit to dismiss them altogether. These are the battles that Goliath challenged us to fight. But, David knew, that of far greater importance, is the battle for our spirits. If we are alert, there are countless challenges everyday to the faith that lives within us. There are so many ways we are daily tempted or assaulted to let our confidence in the love of God be shaken. This is the love that gives us peace, wholeness, life. This is the love that makes us truly human, that enables us to fulfill the deepest purposes our lives could hold. This is the love that makes us champions for the people of God. In comparison to this war, battles for popularity, success, power, even survival, pale in significance. With armor and weapons and allies the world little understands, our Lord attacks the powers of darkness, leading the final charge with no troops following after. Jesus is our champion.
With Jesus as our champion, the battles are already won. The giants are already defeated. And with His presence, ‘Take and eat, this is my body given for you. Take and drink and join in the new covenant of love and grace and joy and peace which I champion.” He wins the victory for us. Because all you need to be champions when the giants loom before you is the power of His Spirit dwelling within. With Christ as our champion, no giant can possibly defeat us. And with this Sacrament Jesus gives us the only weapon we will ever need. This is my body. This is my blood. This is my presence.
In all of the stories that were shared at the time of President George H.W. Bush’s death last November concerning his presidency, perhaps the most frequently told was about the Fall of the Berlin Wall, which happened on his watch. It was to a great extent the defining moment of his presidency. For thirty years the wall had loomed as a giant in the heart of Germany, dividing east form west, freedom from oppression, hope from despair, love from hate. It taunted families that longed for reunification. And challenged the armies of NATO to send a champion to fight against it. Though Ronald Reagan is generally credited with launching the movement which eventually toppled the giant, it really started before that famous speech in which Reagan called for the wall to come down. And culminated after he left office. It started in the churches of East Germany. I recently read this description of what took place:
One of the central churches in the movement to topple the wall was the ancient church of St. Nicholas Lutheran Church in Leipzig, for centuries it had sat in the heart of that city. Born out of the reformation, Martin Luther had preached from that pulpit. Johann Sebastian Bach had played the organ there. The church had a history of being a David against the world’s Goliaths. And so when the oppressed people of East Germany were looking for a champion, they looked to the church. And as the movement grew, there were nightly prayer services that often spilled over into the streets. On one particular night, not only had hundreds entered the church for prayer but thousands gathered on the street outside. Seeing such a large crowd forming and well aware of the potentially explosive situation, the communist government moved troops into place according to its contingency plans. While the church prayed for freedom and peace, praying for the destruction of the Berlin Wall and all barriers to freedom it represented, but also for nonviolence, especially that night. And then the people came out of the church, and joined in the demonstration, but they urged the demonstrators not to fight the troops but rather join them in prayer and thousands of candles were passed around to the assembled crowd. So that soon the streets of the inner city were lined with protestors and church people alike holding burning candles in the gathering darkness, and rather than yelling out words of hatred towards the communist soldiers, the streets rang with the singing of songs and hymns, and the offering of prayers. There was no riot, no violence, that night, and the troops did not move in to disperse the crowd. And it was not long until the movement succeeded and the giants were defeated and the wall came down. Afterward the commander of the troops commented, “We were prepared for anything that night, for everything. Everything except candles and prayers.”
The Philistine Champion Goliath was ready for anything as he challenged the Israelites. Everything that is except a champion armed only with the Spirit of God. God’s presence. If we confront the giants in our life relying only on our own strength and our worldly weapons, we will fail because the giants we confront are the champions that emerge from those worldly struggles. But if we confront those same worldly giants armed with God’s Holy presence, the body and blood of this sacrament, His Holy Spirit, then there will be no worldly champion that can defeat us in the heavenly realm. So take and eat and drink at this table and let Christ be your champion in this world and for all eternity.