I remember sitting in Sunday school some years ago and hearing the David and Goliath story for the first time. I’m sure most of you remember it too. It ran something like this:
David was a little shepherd boy working for his father. He’s the underdog that everyone can root for. He’s a good boy who follows the law. He is the youngest of the sons of Jesse. He’s the unlikely one of the bunch, handsome and ruddy, small and unassuming in stature. You get the picture.
The Sunday school teacher described the meaning of the story in three steps. 1) David was chosen and went to the river to get five stones. 2) “David is like you,” he said. “God has given you great gifts.” 3) like David, he went on, if you use those gifts, you can defeat your Goliath.
As the saying goes, God sometimes puts a Goliath in your way so you can find the David within you. Thankfully, I had the great advantage of not having to look far to find David.
Point is, much like me, my namesake isn’t the center of the story. In the ancient church, David was interpreted in light of Christ, as what St. Augustine calls a ‘prefiguration.’ This means that what occurs in David is an imaginative advance of what is accomplished in Christ. David is the vessel by which the good news is communicated. What my Sunday school teacher missed was not that David was a sinner, though the curriculum skipped over that for the most part as well; no, what my Sunday school teacher missed in the telling of the story, in the centering of David in the narrative, was Jesus.
That the early church was committed to understanding the story of the Hebrew scriptures as the same continuous revelation of Christ meant that they were also committed to a rather creative reading of the text. If the Hebrew Scriptures were gesturing towards the fullness that is the Son of God, then they supposed that it could not be referring to our action. That is, David was never viewed or interpreted as a person we were capable of emulating, who was faithful to God, who lived a good life, who did all the right things and followed through when the time came. He was not a moral example. David stood in as a characterization of what occurs in Christ.
The early church understood the opposition between David and Goliath to be an opposition between Christ and humanity in its captivity to sin. The valley into which David descends to face Goliath is interpreted as Christ’s descent into hell. He wrangles the devil, kills the death that holds us captive, and opens to us the life in him. The battle of Revelation that is our second scripture is played out in the Davidic narrative.
Now, bear with me here. Let’s go through the story again. Let’s listen to what the early church might have heard: Goliath, the giant of the time, the dominating force in geopolitics, decked out in the latest and greatest of armor and weapons, challenges the Lord and his people Israel. He presumes to be God. Goliath, you might begin to recognize, is a lot like us. Goliath does not mince words: he is here to deny God’s presence and covenant, for as he says, “today I defy the ranks of Israel,” today I “curse David by my gods.” David, the prefiguration of Christ, remains unmoved. He announces Goliath’s defeat even before he approaches the battlefield, saying to Saul that “the battle is the Lord’s.” David descends into the valley of death in order to meet Goliath head on – just as Christ condescends in the flesh to deliver us from the death that holds us captive. The stone David launches at Goliath is the proclamation of the Gospel – Christ knocks Goliath off his feet with the full message of God’s steadfast determination to disallow Death a victory.
With that stone, David denies us the ability to identify with him. The stone he throws is “the stone the builders have rejected that has become the cornerstone.” David, the early church saw, was to be identified with Christ, not ourselves. David knew that Israel needed to be saved.
Like it or not, we don’t need more Goliaths. We don’t need more Goliaths because we already have more in common with him than we do with David; we don’t need more Goliaths because we can already see ourselves in him. We defy God everyday. We sin. I mean, we armor ourselves with language and structures of security and its corresponding violence. Everyday, we praise the gods of this world, giving them the honor and glory that only Christ deserves. Everyday, we make the mistake of thinking ourselves to be a David, when the reality is we are a Goliath, to our neighbors and to ourselves. How we treat our neighbors deeply how we treat God, and who among us can say that they have truly loved each and every one of their neighbors?
Let me put it bluntly: the Revelation scripture today, through which we read the narrative of David, declares in unrelentingly militant terms that Jesus is Lord and that the powers of this world have been overcome. Goliath has been defeated, struck dead by this truth. The grip of sin on the world is no longer; Jesus has taken the violence that orients our lives and thrown it on its head. David’s act prefigures Christ in the radicality of its claim: there is but one Lord, and it is God.
In 1916, Karl Barth declared that the church should not be a place of refuge, but rather a place of disturbance and crisis. This is not because God is not our shelter in a time of storm; it is not because God does not care for us in our weakness. The church is a place of disturbance and disruption precisely because of the Lord it proclaims. The church is the place that witnesses to the overcoming of the powers of the world that is found on the cross and in the empty tomb. The church ,constituted through its word and sacraments, is where the world is reminded that its violence will not be returned with violence but with the truthful speech of the grace of God.
The church is where we die to our goliath’s, where we die to ourselves. St. Augustine notes that Goliath’s forehead, being the only part of his body not covered in armor, notably does not have on it the sign of the cross; that is, Goliath has, in all his armor, left himself vulnerable to the truth of the Gospel message, and it smacks him in the face. The church is where we hear the Gospel that reminds us, ever so gently as a rock to the forehead, that in our armor of the world we have indeed sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
However, as Revelation declares, this stone is also the stone that gives us new life, for in it “the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down.” In this watery death, the death inaugurated by “the blood of the lamb,” we are invited into the life that is Christ Jesus. The baptism we share wraps us into the truth that sets us free. That is, our baptism is into death, setting us free from the clinging to life that is the narrative of this world. We can, therefore, truly proclaim the goodness of God, we can rejoice with all the heavens because we have been released from captivity to sin. We need not cling to life anymore, even in the face of death, because God in Christ has thrown down the great Dragon that accuses us before Him.
Apart from God, we are resigned to the woe of the earth, to the devil’s wrath, to the self-absorption and endless failure of pretending to be God. Without Christ Jesus, we are liable to identify ourselves with David, rather than with Goliath. Without the God who descends in Christ and is crucified on our behalf, the kingdoms, empires, and nations would have final say in our allegiance.
For apart from God, David reminds us, we have no hope. There is no sword or power that can overcome the Devil: it is the blood of the lamb and the proclamation, the speech, that overcomes.
Apart from the mercy of Christ and the truth of his freedom we are impotent to be ministers of the kingdom. David reminds us of this – he is not a glorious majestic figure in the story. The strength that ultimately defeats Goliath is not his own, for “the battle is the Lord’s.” In fact, David strips of all armour and safety, taking with him only the markings of a shepherd, the markings of that same shepherd who is nailed to the cross: he makes himself vulnerable to the violence Goliath wishes to enact because the Lord does not save by sword and spear. David, as the prefiguration of Christ, approaches Goliath with only the truth of the cross, the conviction that, truly, God does not return our violence with violence, but with the ever disruptive word of forgiveness and grace, the word of Easter.
David is denuded, made to appear naked in front of Goliath’s menacing figure. This nakedness is constitutive of a people who follow Christ, a people whose lives are marked by the truth of the cross. Revelation shows us that the time of the devil is short, because he has been thrown down by the cross. It is the cross on our foreheads and on our hearts that reminds us of the glory of God that makes us naked in the truth. No pretensions can be held. So, let us come, naked and free, to worship with Michael and all the angels, glorying in the forgiveness and love that is given to all creation by the blood of the lamb and the word of that testimony.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, AMEN.