I want to start this morning with the number 40.
This morning’s scripture lesson (1 Samuel 17 (excerpts)) tells us that for 40 days, morning and evening, the Philistine war hero, Goliath, stood before the Israelites and shouted his challenge. For 40 days, morning and evening, this towering giant of a man, armed to the teeth, suited up for battle in his glittering armor, came to the no-man’s-land between the two armies and bellowed his defiance. For 40 days, morning and evening, the Israelites trembled at the intimidating sight and the menacing sound of the enemy champion.
Now, whenever we hear the number 40 in the Bible, it ought to ring a bell in our minds. Forty is a number that appears in scripture more often than pure chance would suggest. And most of the time, when the number 40 crops up, it has to do with a time of hardship and suffering, a time of testing and trial, a time that seems to last forever.
When Noah built his ark and brought in the animals two by two, the story says, the rains came down for 40 days and 40 nights and flooded the entire earth.
When the Israelites escaped from slavery under Pharaoh in Egypt, the story says, they journeyed for 40 years in the wilderness before they finally reached the Promised Land.
When Jesus was beginning his public ministry, the Spirit drove him into the wilderness to fast and pray and be tempted by the devil for 40 days.
So when the ones whose work it was to keep, to pass on, and, eventually, to write down the stories say that Goliath challenged the Israelites for 40 days, morning and evening, what I think they really mean to say is this: that this was a moment that tested even the most optimistic person’s hopes. This was a moment that tried even the most patient person’s endurance. This was a moment that eroded even the most resilient person’s persistence. This was a moment when it seemed like the armies of evil had encamped against them and there was no way out. This was a moment when the powers of this world seemed very, very strong. This was a moment when the promises of God seemed thin, fragile, elusive, inconsequential. This was a moment that felt like it would go on forever.
I don’t know about you, but that moment feels very familiar to me these days.
I read the news and I hear about families who have fled untold violence and desperation, who have journeyed through desert and wilderness like Mary and Joseph with the infant Jesus. And their search for asylum has brought them not to safe harbor, but to the unspeakable trauma of having their children torn from their arms with nary a word about where they will be kept, or who will care for them, or when or whether they will ever see each other again. And I think about my child, and what I would do to keep him safe and close, and I feel the visceral horror of imagining myself in those parents’ shoes.
I read the news and I hear about government officials quoting scripture to justify these practices, telling us that civil authority is ordained by God and that these inhumane policies are in our best interest. And I pull out my Bible and find the dozens, yea hundreds of passages that teach us that as people of God, it is our duty and our delight to love our neighbors—especially when they are vulnerable, especially when they are suffering, especially when they are hungry or thirsty or poor or naked, especially when they are far from home in a foreign land, especially when they are children, for God’s sake.
I read the news and I hear language that dehumanizes and disparages entire groups of human beings on the basis of national origin, primary language, racial and ethnic background. And I think of Burma, and Rwanda, and Bosnia, and Cambodia, and Germany, and Armenia, and so many more. And I think of Jesus, a brown-skinned member of a marginalized religious and ethnic group… a refugee as a child; as an adult, a resident of an occupied land… ultimately the target of state-sanctioned execution because he dared to say, out loud and for everyone to hear, that God loves the nobodies best of all.
I read the news, and it is like drinking poison, and I find myself feeling ill, angry, hopeless, powerless. It is as though Goliath has been standing at the battle line, morning and evening, booming out his defiance of all that is good and right and holy for what feels like forever, and I can hardly even imagine things being otherwise any more, so entrenched are the powers of fear and terror, violence and injustice.
But then I remember that the story does not end with Goliath. Then I remember about David.
He was an unlikely hero. The youngest of his father’s sons, still just a boy, yet to come fully into his strength.
He was trained not as a military man, but as a shepherd. Where Goliath presumably spent his days practicing with the spear and the javelin and the shield, David was out at the sheep camp, keeping watch over his father’s flocks with a slingshot and a shepherd’s crook.
He wasn’t even really part of the army. He was more of an errand-boy, running back and forth between the battle lines and the home front, carrying supplies and provisions and news.
No one expected heroism of him. No one asked him to volunteer. No one thought he could do it. In fact, they tried to talk him out of it when he put himself forward, tried to convince him that he wasn’t qualified.
“You’re just a boy, David,” they said. “Let the men take care of this.”
But David knew that he had something to offer. David knew that he had a job to do. David knew that the God of justice, the God of compassion, the God of mercy, the God of love, the very Creator of heaven and earth, had knit him together in his mother’s womb for just such a moment as this. So up he stepped.
And when Saul tried to dress David in his royal armor, David said no, because he knew that what was needed was his own authentic and vulnerable self.
And when Saul tried to arm David with his royal sword, David said no, because he knew that all he needed was already within his grasp.
So he picked up five stones from the dry riverbed. He put them in his shepherd’s bag. He pulled out his slingshot. And everything changed.
Friends, it may not be you or I singlehandedly who will slay the Goliaths of our day. But you and I, every one of us, has resources within us that can, that must, be put to use in the quest for justice. Even if they’ve told you that you’re too young, too old, too naive, too jaded, too queer, too brown, too female, too poor, too anything else that might, in the eyes of this world, seem to diminish your power—you are nothing less than a reflection of God’s own image, and you have resilience and wherewithal that this world desperately needs.
You and I, every one of us, has an authentic truth to tell that matters more than we can ever know. David could barely walk in Saul’s armor; he surely would have fallen to Goliath if he had gone to battle dressed in that way. But standing in his own skin, using his own tools, showing up authentically as himself and doing what he knew how to do—when he did that, he was unstoppable.
You and I, every one of us, has a role to play in the ongoing, ever-evolving story of the people of God. This moment matters far too much for any of us to throw up our hands and allow Goliath to intimidate us into believing that there is nothing we can do. This moment is not the first or the only moment, for we stand on the broad shoulders of all who have faced down injustice before. But this moment is our moment, and it’s going to take all of us to bend the arc of this universe a little further toward justice in our time.
So, friends, summon up your truth and your courage. Reach deep into your shepherd’s bag and gather up the tools and resources you find there. Look around you and choose your five stones from the wadi. And in the name of the God who has brought us safe this far, in the name of the very Lord of Hosts, let’s get to work.
The Rev. Jocelyn Gardner Spencer is the pastor of First Congregational Church of Woodstock. This sermon was reprinted with permission from the church website.
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