November, 13, 2011

Have You Met My God?

This morning we are going to embark on a new journey that will take us to the great season of Advent.  This series has been a work in progress for me and has really taken shape in the last couple of weeks as God has laid some things on my heart I want to share with you.  Much of this series has come out of a discussion that has been going on here recently.  It is not an out-in-front discussion, but rather one that has been happening behind-the-wall to borrow a phrase I used Wednesday night.  In reality, it is a conversation that has been happening for much longer than that, but it seems to have a yearly cycle and this is the time of year it becomes the most relevant.  What I’m talking about is faith.  We are going to take a snapshot look at faith for the next three weeks.  Now, this is obviously a much larger topic than to which we could possibly hope to do justice in three weeks which is why we are simply going to look at some snapshots.  My hope, however, is that these snapshots will be broad enough that when fully assembled we will have a good working definition of faith on which we all can agree.  In all of this, the question I want to guide us is very simple: what is faith?  Over the next three weeks we are going to examine this question from three different angles: where does faith begin, what is the basic nature of faith, and where is the balance point between faith and sight?

With all of that said, let us narrow in on the first of these three angles: where does faith begin?  In order to answer this question, we are going to look at a story.  In truth, this is probably the most well-known story in all the Bible.  Which Biblical story do you think comes to peoples’ minds before any other?  David and Goliath.  Everybody knows the story of David and Goliath even if they don’t know anything else about the Bible.   It’s part of the cultural fabric of the West and if we’re really honest, it’s part of the collective memory of humanity.  Cultures not shaped by the Gospel still have some form of the David versus Goliath story.  Whenever you hear a modern story about an underdog attempting to triumph in the face of impossible odds it is described as a “David and Goliath story.”  This is particularly true in the world of sports.  When teams like Davidson, or perhaps VCU (sigh…), have their magical runs in the relevant tournament they are often referred to as giant-killers.  Where do you think language like that comes from?  Now, the story of David and Goliath certainly is a story about an underdog triumphing in the face of impossible odds with God’s help, but when seen in its full context, it is about something much more than that.  What we actually learn in the story of David and Goliath and its aftermath is the manner by which David came to the incredible success he experienced throughout his life.  Speaking of incredible success like this, by the way, doesn’t mean everything was easy for him.  Quite the opposite in fact.  He faced more and worse hardships than nearly anyone in this room has or will.  He is the only person in Scripture described as being after God’s heart and yet on a number of occasions he failed to live up to this vaunted title with spectacular fanfare.  He was often the embodiment of Martin Luther’s much later admonition that if we are going to sin, let us sin boldly.  If we are going to take the foolish step of transgressing God’s laws, we might as well get our money’s worth out of it.  Yet, David is the namesake for the lineage of the Messiah.  The question worth asking here, then, is: what was the foundation for all of this?  How did he come by such great success as he achieved?  Yes, he was a man after God’s heart, but where did that begin?  In the story of David and Goliath, we find the answer to this question.  Turn in your Bibles to 1 Samuel 17 and we’ll get started.

Now, this is a big story so we’re not going to read all of it.  But, we are going to work through it closely because I want you to see what perhaps you haven’t seen before.   The story begins with a battle scene.  This was a day of pitched battles where the opposing armies would encamp on opposite sides of a valley or field and mostly sit and wait.  This particular battle pitted enemies as stereotypical as KU and MU…until MU ran off to the SEC, the cowards…or perhaps as stereotypical as David and Goliath themselves—perhaps because they were the nations that produced these mythic enemies: The Israelites and the Philistines.  The Philistines had once again gathered to hassle the Israelites.  Then, as now, there were a variety of reasons why nations such as these fought with each other.  It could have been territorial expansion, revenging or avenging an old wound, demonstrating who was the bigger man so-to-speak, or perhaps to show whose God was bigger and badder.

Now, in this particular battle, the Philistines moved to settle things by a champion death match.  This was not an uncommon occurrence in that day.  This is where each side sent out their best warrior and whichever side’s champion won this individual contest won the battle.  Frankly it isn’t a terrible idea as only one person dies if both sides play fair.  In any event, in this particular battle the Philistines offered a champion combat because they had an ace in the hole.  They had Goliath, a behemoth of a man nearly ten feet tall and whose armaments were more than two normal sized men could carry.  Goliath marched out into the valley and the hearts of the Israelites melted.  They had heard rumors of the Philistine giant, but seeing him revealed all their fearful imaginings did not give him the full credit he was due.  When the giant appear to lay down the gauntlet, every man in the army from the greenest recruit to King Saul himself was terrified.

At this point in the story the scene suddenly shifts to a teenager named David.  His three oldest brothers had joined Saul’s army to battle against the enemies of their people.  David, the youngest of the family, was at home watching the family flocks.  Wanting news of his older sons, David’s father, Jesse, sent him to the camp with a gift of food.  When David arrived, however, he heard the giant’s challenge.  And, like any patriotic 16-year-old, he wanted to know who was challenging his people and what was being done about it.  Look at how this went down starting in 17:24: “All the Israelites, when they saw the man fled from him and were very much afraid.  The Israelites said, ‘Have you seen this man who has come up?  Surely he has come up to defy Israel.  The king will greatly enrich the man who kills him, and will give him his daughter and make his family free in Israel.’  David said to the men who stood by him, ‘What shall be done for the man who kills this Philistine, and takes away the reproach from Israel?  For who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?  The people answered him in the same way, ‘So shall it be done for the man who kills him.’”

Well, like any older brother, when David’s oldest brother, Eliab, heard his snot-nosed little brother nosing around like this he let him have it.  And like any little brother, David ignored his older brother and kept at it until word of this big-talking kid reached Saul’s ears.  Not really having anything else to do and wanting something to distract him from the present circumstances Saul summoned the young man who proceeded to make his case.  Stay with me in 17:32: “David said to Saul, ‘Let no one’s heart fail because of him; your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.’  Saul said to David, ‘You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth.’  But David said to Saul, ‘Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it.  Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, since he has defied the armies of the living God.’  David said, ‘The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.’  So Saul said to David, ‘Go, and may the Lord be with you!’”

I have to think Saul wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry after this speech.  The only person in Israel who had shown even the remotest interest in taking up the giant’s challenge was this little kid who didn’t stand a chance.  But, if they were going to lose, he might as well throw out a sacrificial lamb.  Who knows, maybe the Philistines would laugh so hard at the pitiful state of his people that they would have pity on them.  So he dressed David in his armor, but the kid was too stubborn to take it and off he marched, stopping only to grab some suitable stones for his sling.

When the giant saw his victim he was offended—and enraged.  This went beyond pathetic to him.  It was an intentional slap in the face.  It was a direct assault on his military prowess that they would send this lamb out to fight a lion.  If this was the best these puny people could muster up to defend the name of their gods, he would tear him to pieces and slaughter the cowards himself.  And yet, this was no ordinary kid.  There was more to this one than met the eye.  Look how David responded to Goliath when finally given a chance in 17:45: “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.  This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth, so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand.’”

With this final charge echoing in his ears Goliath let loose a war cry that shook the hillsides and made some of the Israelites soldiers hide their faces in fear.  Eliab certainly feared the worst and started figuring out how to break the news to Jesse.  The cry reverberated in the valley until it was suddenly cut short by a stone that buried itself deep in the beast’s forehead.  As both sides looked up from behind their shields with surprise—for no one truly wanted to see this young man obliterated for no good reason—they were in disbelief.  The giant was chest down on the ground and the boy was holding his head in the air.  The Israelites were as enlivened as the Philistines were demoralized.  Clearly the God of Israel was superior to those of the Philistine barbarians and would now lead the people in vanquishing their foes.

Well, things went quickly for David.  Saul took him into his household as a trusted military leader.  His God-powered genius showed itself many more times as he led men to victory over the Philistines again and again.  King Saul’s son and heir, Jonathan, became his dearest friend in the world.  All the people looked to David as a national hero.  Things continued in this direction until Saul’s company returned home.  As they marched back into town the women came out to greet them with song as was customary in that day.  But their song attributed to David a level of glory and military prowess that was a full order of magnitude greater than that of Saul—Saul has slain thousands and David has slain ten thousands.  All of a sudden, the image of David evolved in Saul’s mind.  No longer was he a trusted military commander.  Now he was a potential rival to his throne.  You see, although Saul was a big man and looked the part of king, at heart he was small, petty, insecure, and afraid that he would lose what he never really felt should have been his in the first place.

Saul’s turn was sudden and dramatic.  The next day while David, who was a court musician for Saul, was playing his lyre, Saul flew into a rage (caused by an evil spirit the text tells us) and tried to literally pin David to the wall with a spear—twice.  Amazingly, David didn’t turn on Saul and in fact remained in his service.  But, their relationship was forever changed.  Listen to the fallout in 18:12: “Saul was afraid of David, because the Lord was with him but had departed from Saul.  So Saul removed him from his presence, and made him a commander of a thousand; and David marched out and came in [in other words he went out to battle and came back from battle], leading the army.  [And as a relevant side note: we praise our Lord and maker for each of our veterans who have gone out and come in. And for those who have only gone out we are grateful for their sacrifice and pray the Lord’s comfort in the lives of their families.]  David had success in all his undertakings; for the Lord was with him.  When Saul saw that he had great success, he stood in awe of him.  But all Israel and Judah loved David; for it was he who marched out and came in leading them.”

From there, things got kind of weird.  Saul decided to keep his enemy close by making him a son-in-law.  He does this in order to send David into more battles with the Philistines in hopes that they would do the job for him.  Saul offers two of his daughters in marriage to David who initially humbly refused both offers.  It was customary then for grooms to pay their future father-in-law a bride price, or a sum of money intended to make up for what the family would lose in the girl’s lost labor.  David was poor and couldn’t have afforded the amount Saul would have asked for.  He also recognized that as a lowly peasant there would not have been any political advantage in the union.  Saul wasn’t one to be deterred and shrewdly recognized that where David wouldn’t respond to charity and overstepping his social bounds, he would respond to a challenge of valor.  He offered to let David exchange the customary monetary bride price with a much more…gruesome display of bravery.  He tells David to bring him the physical evidence of 200 forced Philistine male conversions to the religion of Yahweh thinking there was no way he would manage such a feat.  Much to Saul’s displeasure, however, David soon returned with the pile of foreskins and Saul dutifully gave his younger daughter Michal (who had the hots for David) to him in marriage.  In the face of such obvious evidence of God’s presence in his life, Saul began to fear David even more.  The story closes with a summary statement of all David’s success.  “…David had more success than all the servants of Saul, so that his fame became very great.”

So then, how did David come by all this success?  Well, the text pretty plainly tells us that the Lord was with him.  But, I don’t think that’s the whole story here.  God doesn’t just pick people randomly who He will be with in this manner.  He does so with great intentionality and because they have given Him a gift of trust.  From all of this, and in particular those parts that I read to you straight from the text, we can say that David had a pretty high degree of trust in the Lord.  I mean, he was talking about going to fight a giant who had been trained to squash bugs like him for many years and had the trust to say, “The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.”  There is no evidence that David was ever even the slightest bit afraid of Goliath, or Saul for that matter.  The reason for this that seems to scream out of the text is his great trust in God.  But, and here’s where we’re going this morning: what was it about God that He trusted?  Why did He have such trust in God?  I mean, we hear people all the time today proclaim their trust in God.  But what do they really mean?

I submit to you this morning that they are putting their trust in God’s character.  David was convinced of the character of the God he served.  He had experienced that character for himself and the more of it he experienced, the deeper his trust became.  As he learned to trust in God’s character, he became able to rely more and more heavily on God.  And of course, the more heavily we rely on God, the more likely it is that we will find success in our various ventures because we will be pursuing those pathways down which He directs us.  When we are relying on God to lead us in the things He wants us to do, we can’t not succeed.  Indeed, David succeeded because He trusted in God’s character.

Let me explain, then, how all of this relates to faith.  What is faith at its most basic level?  It is trust in God.  If we have faith in God, we are trusting Him to do or act in a certain way.  Well, how do we come by such an ability to trust in Him?  Is it blind?  Do we merely muster up this ability from within ourselves even though we don’t really have any evidence to support our decision?  It sounds silly to put it that way, but this is how many, many people understand faith.  They think of faith as a blind leap off a cliff in hopes that something catches them.  This is in fact how we are taught to think about faith by our culture.  After all, Hebrews 11 defines faith as the conviction of things not seen.  But is this what is meant?  Allow me to answer this with a resounding NO!  That is not faith.  That is stupid.  Faith is a trust which is based on prior knowledge or experience.  David had experienced God’s deliverance and had studied the Law carefully and so He knew who God was.  He knew the character of the God He served.  It didn’t make any difference that he hadn’t physically seen God.  He had a weight of prior experience and knowledge on which He based His trust.  He had come to know God’s character intimately and because of this could rely on Him when he stood up to giants.  David succeeded because he trusted in God’s character.

This kind of faith, by the way, is not just a God-thing that it should seem unfamiliar at all.  People exercise Biblical faith in things other than God every day.  In fact, you all just exercised it after we finished singing the doxology when you sat down.  You didn’t know with complete and absolute certainty that those pews were going to hold you.  It is within the realm of possibility that their collective structural integrity was compromised when you last stood up.  But you sat anyway.  You sit in chairs all the time, in fact.  You do this because you have sat in chairs before.  You’ve seen pictures of other people sitting in chairs.  You know that chairs are made for sitting in.  And so you sit.  You have an unshakeable faith in chairs because you know the quality and character of chairs.  Even if you’ve had the experience of sitting in a chair and it falling out from under you, you still sit in chairs because you rightly assess that one bad experience against the sum total of the other successful experiences with chairs both you and everyone else you know have had.  In fact, if someone had a chair collapse underneath them once or even twice and gave up sitting in chairs entirely, you would rightly think them to be crazy.  You succeed in finding rest in chairs because you trust in their character.  David succeeded because he trusted in God’s character.  Do you see the parallels here?  In this book are roughly 1,500 years of testimonies of God’s trustworthy character and if that weren’t enough, you can find another 2,000 years of anecdotal evidence in the annals of church history.  Yes, people—and maybe even you—have felt let down by God before, but these experiences, as hard as they are, need to be weighed in light of everything else we know about God’s character.  David succeeded because he knew that God’s character doesn’t change in the face of giants or jealous kings or enemy armies.  Or, do you think David ever lost a lamb to a lion or a bear?  I’ll bet he did.  But this undoubtedly hard experience didn’t cause him to give up on God because he knew God’s character.  This is the key for us.  Faith begins when we trust in God’s character.  This means we have to learn it.  And if we want others to have faith we’d better start teaching them the same.  David succeeded because he trusted in God’s character.  Our faith begins when we do.