Sermon delivered by Keith Herron, pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo., on June 21, 2009.
I Samuel 17 (1a, 4-11, 19-23) 32-49
One summer evening during a violent thunderstorm, a mother was tucking her small boy into bed. The thunder was fearsome because the lightning struck close by shaking the house. The trees outside the boy’s windows were blowing from side to side and the light from the streetlight outside his window cast moving shadows across the room making the room look alive.
The boy’s mom was about to turn off the light when he asked with a noticeable tremor in his voice, “Mommy, will you sleep with me tonight?” The mother smiled and gave him a reassuring hug. As moms sometimes do, she giggled a little hoping it would make the boy calm down and said, “I can’t dear,” she said. “I have to sleep in Daddy’s room.”
The long silence was broken at last by the boy’s faltering little voice as she pulled the door closed and the boy said insultingly, “The big sissy.”
Almost everyone has a special childhood fear of some kind or another. And for many, the fears of childhood are so strong we remember them clearly into adulthood. Thankfully, most of our childhood fears are not based on reality but figments of our fruitful imagination based on all things we don’t yet understand. Do you remember how frightening your childhood was? There were ghosts in the closets and behind the doors. There were monsters under the bed or in the attic. There were all kinds of scary sounds we didn’t understand. Things that go bump in the night and “lions and tigers and bears, oh my.” We adults can smile about those things now, but I want every child here this morning to understand that every adult here has experienced the same fears you may feel on occasion. Kids, take a good look around you. Every adult you see here has cried like little babies when they were scared, me included. We’ve all had our scary moments and cried out in the night for our parents to come and turn on our bedroom lights and hold us until we could go to sleep.
Our Bible story this morning could easily be considered among the Bible’s classics. It’s a favorite of both children and adults for good reason: It’s a story that gives us courage to face our fears. It’s about a young boy who faced whatever fears he may have had and how he mustered the courage to counteract his fear.
Just before halftime of Super Bowl XXIX, a commercial, carrying the theme, “The right equipment makes the difference,” offered a fresh twist on the story of David and Goliath. Picture an adolescent with shoulder-length hair wearing a simple smock cut to mid-thigh and short sleeves so his young athletic build had the freedom of a full-range of movement. Dangling from his left hand was a leather sling and in his right hand was the shepherd’s staff on which he leaned ever so slightly as it offered him support. Standing before him was a line-up of the most intimidating, burly men one could imagine, most of them with long dark hair wearing uncut shaggy beards. All of them were wearing bronze armor with crested helmets and clutching either a sword or a spear. The men taunted the small boy who stood alone in front of them. Then the tallest and fiercest of the men stepped forward.
Unshaken and unwaveringly calm, the boy fingered the round smooth stone in his hand as he loaded it into the sling and began to slowly twirl the stone over his head, faster and faster the sling blurred as the camera zoomed in closer. Suddenly the sling stopped as it was unfurled and the camera’s focus shifted to the giant’s stunned face as the stone that was spinning in the sling was now embedded into his forehead. The giant slumped to his knees and his whole body fell forward and the boy moved in to retrieve the stone. After prying it out of the giant’s forehead, he looked at it in the palm of his hand and smiled, then he held it up to the camera to reveal the Wilson Sporting Goods logo. Welcome to the Madison Avenue version of the Bible!
In this story from the Bible, Israel is squared off against the Philistines, their long-time nemesis. The Bible tells us these neighboring nations fought frequently. The Philistines lived in the fortified cities along the coastal plains and when the fighting was down on the plains, their iron chariots gave them a decided advantage over the sandal-footed Israelites who were better suited fighting among the craggy hills of the central highlands of Israel.
This battle took place in the Valley of Elah, one of the valleys connecting the plains to the central highlands. The Valley of Elah is shaped more like a football stadium with one rocky ridge facing another on the opposite side. Between the two ridges, the grass grows green like a great athletic field because of the water that runs through the valley. It’s the perfect setting for the perfect battle. It’s easy to visualize this story in your mind’s eye because you can imagine one army inhabiting the rocky ridge on one side while the other army was assembled on the other side. Neither army wanted to cross the flat valley and attempt to knock their enemy off the higher ground, as they would lose whatever advantage they had. It made perfect tactical sense that the Philistines would send out their fiercest fighter, Goliath, to singly challenge the best of the best among the Israelites. Mano a mano, we might say, the best against the best with the advantage decidedly in the Philistines’ favor because of Goliath’s ability to strike fear into the hearts of the smaller Israelites.
Facing the Philistines and seeing the immense Goliath standing in the valley, in the middle of that battlefield, was too much for Saul and his men. The Israelites stood motionless as Goliath cursed them and taunted them day after day for forty days in a row to come down from their elevated perch to fight him man to man. Maybe for Father’s Day, we could call this a version of the neighborhood brag that “my dad can whip your dad.”
This story takes fear to the extreme in telling us of the physical strength of the mighty Goliath. Goliath of Gath is said to have been anywhere from 6’ 9” to a nearly 10’ tall depending on which interpreter you believe. Besides his immense size, even his name, “Destroyer,” was psychologically disturbing to the soldiers. With a name like “Destroyer,” we might consider him to be the first action figure in history. He epitomized chaos and disorder in the minds of those smaller Israeli fighters who were scared like little children. To fight Goliath was a suicide mission and no one wanted to lose on behalf of all their kinsmen. Every man standing there listening to the taunts of the giant challenging them to fight to the death was terrorized out of their minds. No one moved. No one volunteered for the fight. They were all frozen and mute.
Isn’t that the way most of our problems seem? We develop a sense of dread from the fear of all the ways we will be defeated and our fears grow in size. Goliath was surely a big man, but can’t you see how his actual size might vary according to the size of the fear of the one describing him?
There are giants in the land that frighten us still. Even the toughest among us feel fear like little children when we’re afraid. The giants we face today torment and bedevil us. Fear is a potent, powerful enemy and we can become enslaved by our fears. Some fears are so traumatic you don’t go a day without thinking about them. They follow you like your shadow. Our injuries don’t even have to be exotic or life threatening to be significant. They can be ordinary experiences that are painful and personal for them to stick to us like flypaper. In fact, they can be so ordinary that we underestimate their power. They can lurk just under the surface and we consider so insignificant we’re too embarrassed to deal with them. Unresolved, they become crippling and we suffer immensely. Fear is an amazingly powerful emotion and most of us are emotional prisoners to our fear.
Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin described Franklin Roosevelt as a surprisingly peaceful man. When he was elected president in 1932 during the worst years of the Great Depression, he felt that the country’s worst problem was not the failure of the economy but was the pervasive feeling of fear among the American people. When he said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” it helped because it seemed to make the country believe that the worst years were behind them and that better days were ahead. A sense of optimism was slowly released and people began to let go of their hopelessness.
What we learn from his early years was the fact that Roosevelt was not always so confident. When he was just entering politics, he was considered a political lightweight. His own cousin, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, couldn’t stand him and thought of him as a mama’s boy with no backbone. But Roosevelt’s backbone came about as a result of his struggle with polio contracted when he was a young boy. He faced a traumatic experience that nearly took his life and he learned to be empathetic for the hurting people he encountered. He also learned what leadership meant in his work at Warm Springs, Georgia, where he helped others suffering from the same crippling disease that had taken away his own mobility.
Do you have the resources to face your fears? Or do you feel overwhelmed by the giants you face?
David was just a shepherd boy when he happened to come along where his older brothers were camped waiting for the battle they would fight with the Philistines. Instead of fighting, both armies were waiting to see what would happen as Goliath, “the destroyer,” as he waged a psychological war with the fearful Israeli highlanders. In David’s eyes, he couldn’t believe there wasn’t someone among Saul’s troops who wouldn’t immediately take on this blustery challenge. David was different from his kinsmen because didn’t live in his fear. He had faced mighty challenges out in the fields as he watched over this father’s herds and he knew that he had a mighty ally who was watching over him in battle. Consequently, David went to the stream and picked out the five stones he would carry with him onto the field of battle. Rather than shrinking in the face of his fear, he lived in his faith in God who had carried him through terrific battles before.
After 30 years in prison, Nelson Mandela spoke eloquently of his fears. Not only had he defeated apartheid, the giant in his life, he had been elected the president of South Africa. In his inaugural address in 1994, he said these words: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our Light, not our Darkness, that most frightens us.”
How big is your fear? Are you standing on the field of battle frozen in a silence that consumes you or are you down at the brook selecting five smooth stones confident that God will help you meet the challenge?
After serving as bridge pastor at First Congregational Church of St. Louis, Missouri, during the past year, Herron moved recently to Lawrence, Kansas, where he will continue to minister in interim settings. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).