The readings for Year B Proper 7 include the story of David and Goliath, and the story of Jesus calming a storm on the Sea of Galilee
The story of David and Goliath has entered our cultural vocabulary like few other biblical narratives. Even people who have never opened a bible know what is meant by a David and Goliath situation. Even people who roundly reject the reality of God, and of God’s Word, use the image of the small shepherd boy surprisingly defeating the giant to rally sympathy to their side. Some may not know or remember that it comes from the bible at all.
There is something exciting about seeing a story take on a life of its own. It’s like seeing a child grow up and strike out on unexpected and imaginative paths. It’s all good. At the same time, we are people of the Book. Before we run off with a story it’s a good idea for us to look back, to remember where it came from, and what it tells us, not about multinational corporations and citizen activists, governments and dissidents, big business and small local enterprises, however apt the simile might be; we are charged first to remember what the story tells us about God.
Having spent the past week in the company of several of God’s children at our Summer Music Camp, it is easy to see God’s hand at work in the enterprise, imagination, irrepressibility, and foolhardiness of the boy David. Jesus tells us several times that if we want to see God at work, we could do worse than to look to the children. “Let the little children come to me,” he said, “for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs;” and again, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” Or as the prophet Isaiah put it, “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.”
In other words, the true citizen of the kingdom of God does not come onto the scene, stomping into the world beating his chest like some over-amped giant.
There is a theological argument, which I don’t want to get too bogged down in now, but I’ve been reading Sarah Coakley’s Powers and Submissions* if you want to find out where I’m coming from; to summarize my take-away for today, there is a discussion of whether God set aside godliness in order to become a human child, or whether the act of becoming human – the vulnerability, the weakness, the helplessness, the reliance upon the love of others in order to be viable – whether that is, in fact, the essence, an essence of what it is to be God. What if in the person of Jesus – in humility, vulnerability, generosity of self, from birth to rebirth – what if in his life with us we really do see God? Isn’t that, after all, what he has been trying to tell us all along?
This does not rob Jesus of his power, let alone reduce God to powerlessness. Jesus is still the one who commands the wind and the waves with a word, even as God spoke them into submission at creation. It does say something about what kind of power is to be called godly, and what use of power is considered righteous.
It means that the story of David and Goliath is not the story of God sneaking secret strength into David’s arm, or supernatural aim into his slingshot. It means that God is with David precisely in his childishness. It means that God is present in his refusal to admit the possibility of impossibility. That God is with him in his naked vulnerability, without armour or steel, still wrapped in the softness of childhood. God is with him in his foolhardiness, and in his ability to strike at the heart of the matter without beating about the bush; his lack of tact and his direct and deadly aim. God is with him not despite but because he is a very human child.
In the person of Jesus, God’s own self grows, vulnerably, helplessly, in the womb of a woman, and is born into an occupied territory, and is smuggled out of the country as a refugee.
In the story we tell, Jesus has more in common with the infant asylum seeker without voice, without agency, without country, without her mother, than with powers and principalities who seek to deny her humanity.
Jesus is close, so close to the child taking shelter in the back of her mother’s car as the bullets fly on the corner of Lee and Harvard. He has been there. He is still there, still vulnerable, still unarmed, still dying, still promising new life.
Those moments when we feel that nothing we do makes a difference, that we are too small, too quiet, too weak, too young or too old, too human – those are the moments to remember that Jesus’ power is in his very vulnerability. When we feel as though nothing that we can do will make a difference – in our own lives, to the pain of a friend, to the pain of the world – that is the time to remember how Jesus’ childlike and generous humanity is enough to still the storm, to topple the giant, to defeat the dragon. Those are the David and Goliath moments, when we are small and the problems of life loom large.
Jesus may never be closer to us than when we feel overwhelmed and unready, afraid and unprepared, defenceless, tossed about by the storm, praying for a moment’s peace. Jesus is with us especially in those moments. They are his specialty, the reason for his Incarnation.
Small stones can topple giants. Small words can calm the waves. “And a little child shall lead them.”
Ten years and fifty weeks ago, there was a particularly nasty terrorist attack in London. That Friday morning, sitting at the pool watching my young daughter and her friend at the end of their week of swimming lessons, it seemed wrong that the sun should shine, that the birds should sing, as though nothing had changed. Then I noticed something that made me smile despite myself. It was Friday – fun day. The children were playing on the slide. Down, splash, haul out, round and back to the stairs. Their lifeguards shouted, “No running!” but the children were too full of life to walk. So they looked at one another, held hands, and started skipping instead.
Smart little souls. Irrepressible optimists. God, in God’s childishness, finds a way past our defences, takes aim at our spirits, slays us in our sin, and in the moment of impact, opens our eyes wide in surprise to the possibility of grace.
*Sarah Coakley, Powers and Submissions: Spirituality, Philosophy and Gender (Blackwell Publishing, 2002)