Scripture is full of idol stories. The Book of Acts has two idol stories, one in Athens (Acts 16) and one in Ephesus (Acts 19). Paul was coy in Athens, a disposition he rarely displayed. Ephesus was a tougher audience, and the idol Artemis had a beloved place in the local economy. Many of us who preach the lectionary and opted for the Old Testament may have felt an Ephesian warm humid breeze in the air this past weekend.
The lectionary provides a wonderful format to preach the scriptures. It covers vast themes. It connects to a Christian calendar. It provides options: Gospel, Epistle, Old Testament and Psalter. Many of us find the lectionary makes us preach Bible. Often the lectionary provides us the opportunity to shift biblical text to acquire a gentle coyness from which to say, “Oh, Athenians, I perceive that you are a religious people and know many Gods.” Other weeks, the lectionary leaves us with the Chamber of Commerce in Ephesus and under the many shadows of Artemis.
Months ago, I looked at the options for June 25. I preached the Mark 4 passage three years ago. My thinking went, “if I’m preaching the whole Bible, I needed to look to the Epistle or the Old Testament.” I lacked heart for the Second Corinthians passage.
This left David and Goliath. Everyone loves the story. This is a fun story. Months ago, I told my staff where I would be going that Sunday. Fear and faith was the general theme. Music was chosen. “A Mighty Fortress” had been reserved.
As June 25 drew nearer, my study became more focused on 1 Samuel 17. I remembered that the Artemis idol in my community is the defense industry. Hampton Roads, Va., has more military jobs than any other community in our nation as there are 91,000 households on the DOD payroll here.
Hampton Roads grieves now over the reality that the aircraft carrier the USS George Washington will move its carrier group to the Pacific, and thousands of jobs will be lost. There has been ongoing discussion of how we can possibly keep the jets of Oceana Naval Air Station in our region; if the jets go, so will supporting civilian jobs. Home values fall. Business withers. Tax revenues drop.
I Samuel 17 is a military chapter. Some commentators are more blatant about talking about the role of armaments and military strength in this David and Goliath encounter. Bruggeman is clear in saying this is a chapter about love of military power and arms and about where faithful trust belongs. Most others in my library share a constant thread in the fabric of their commentary that this is a chapter spending lengthy oration on military placements and strategies, and perhaps even more on military equipment and armaments.
Goliath was about shock and awe, military superiority, strength and equipment, size and potential for devastation. The giant’s spear point weighed 19 pounds, antiquities’ cruise missile; his armor weighed well over 100 pounds over his nearly 10-foot frame. As Saul and Goliath peered across the valley day after day, there is no confusion about their focus. They were not observing the other’s prayer life and belief in God. They were gauging the other’s power, size, military punch and armaments. Day after day, Goliath intimidated Israel.
Israelite enlistments had been reduced to a trickle. Enter an anointed shepherd laughing at Saul’s own sizeable armor. David muses why somebody hadn’t taken down this loud mouth obscene infidel. David naively talks about trust in a God who has intent and will for the chosen people. He muses about past fears of lion and bear, and then this ruddy boy sets out to clear the Philistine metal and clamor from the field.
June 25 David strolled into Hampton Roads where armaments rule, where sling shots just don’t beat cruise missiles.
After speaking to the difficulty adulthood brings us in believing David and Goliath stories, I called attention to some of the less obvious truths within the story. First, David and Goliath is not a story about the two advertised individuals. It is a community story. It is about two specific communities named Israel and Philistia. It is in our Bible because it is an Israelite story.
Perhaps this story is more about David, Saul and God’s people than it is the behemoth shouting obscenities out in the valley. It is a story about how Saul responded to shock and awe. It is a story about how David responded to shock and awe. It is a story about how a community of God’s people responded to shock and awe. It is a story about God’s response to shock and awe.
I provided a brief interruption to talk around armaments. I shared: “America lost 3,000 children to polio in 1955. We scrambled our resources into medical research and within a couple of years the national resolve and the sugar cube with the dot provided by Jonas Salk eliminated the deaths of any children to polio in our country. However, in 1994, for the first time, 3,000 children died because of the speeding bullet of a handgun. This number has increased year after year. Last time I checked, it had doubled two or three years ago. We didn’t like polio killing our children, and hence we abolished it. On the other hand, we Americans seem to be much more appreciative of our handguns, our armaments, so children continue to die.”
Our love of armaments causes us to think this is a story about infidels, not about armaments.
This Bible story has a gory ending. Goliath lies dazed and half unconscious. David draws Goliath’s own sword, and Zarqawi-like beheads the Philistine giant. This is ending leaving our stomachs with a moral uneasiness. We would prefer an ending with a trio singing “Amazing Grace” or “Let There Be Peace on Earth.”
Yet, we know Goliath would have returned the next day with a little more bronze on the forehead of his helmet. As we look at David over Goliath, the giant’s sword in hand, remember the words of Jesus pushing a disciple’s sword back into its sheath: “Those who live by the sword die by the sword.” Perhaps Goliath chose his fate, David the actor employed to play the part.
I was very careful about what I said and did not say. I didn’t talk about the Atlantic fleet or Oceana Naval Airfield. I didn’t talk about Iraq or American foreign policy. I didn’t mention that our nation spends 47 percent of the armament dollars spent on the whole planet each year. I didn’t mention that 75 percent of the world’s armaments are manufactured in our nation. Donald Rumsfeld’s name was never spoken.
Most of these thoughts were already in the listeners minds. Our people drive by a statue of Artemis or hear one of her priests every day. We preachers don’t need to say everything when the congregation already knows the truth. That was why the room had a distinct Ephesian warm humidity about it.
Sunday, David, Saul, Goliath and a well-armed congregation gathered. Hampton Roads and Ephesus met at Sucoh. Artemis and the Gospel bumped into one another again. For a few people for a few moments, there was an uncomfortable warm humid Ephesian breeze.
Larry Coleman is pastor of ChurchlandBaptistChurch in ChesapeakeVa.