An Underdog Story?

Scripture:  1 Samuel 17:38-50

I attended Milan Elementary School, so I know the story well.  The year was 1954, this was before Indiana high school sports had divisions based on size.   Milan High School had a total enrollment of 161 and they found themselves playing at Hinkle Fieldhouse against the ten times larger school of Muncie Central in the state championship.  In the final seconds, star player Bobby Plump took a buzzer beating shot which scored and gave the Milan Indians the victory 32-30.  I actually lived in Milan in 1986 when the movie Hoosiers came out, so even though it was an event that took place thirty years prior it was a story that was well and alive in the mind of the town.  Even though the event was nearly seventy years ago, there is still a museum dedicated to that one season and specifically that one game in the town of Milan, IN.  It is a story that continues to endure because it is a quintessential underdog story, and we love a good underdog story.  We love it when the little guy, through grit and moxie is able to beat the bigger and favored foe.   The 1954 Milan Indians is a story endures because it is a sports story that embodies the underdog narrative.  They were a small school, the proverbial goliath taking on the larger consolidated school, a proverbial goliath.  This morning’s scripture is arguably one of the best known stories in the bible, to the point that even people with nearly zero familiarity with scripture know what you mean when you refer to something as a David vs. Goliath match up.  The story this morning’s scripture portrays has become known as the archetype for all stories where underdogs emerge victorious.

Throughout the summer we are going to be looking at some of the good old stories from the Bible that we all know and have some familiarity with like this one.  As we examine these well-known bible stories we might find we do not know the story quite as well as we think.  The story of David and Goliath is a good example of this, because this story is arguably not an underdog story.  At no point in the story does David actually consider himself the underdog.  From the very beginning David nothing but confident that God will provide the victory.  This not an underdog story it a story of a slayer of giants slaying giants.

This morning we read just the exciting end of the story, but the whole story can be found in 1 Samuel chapter 17, and it goes something like this.  God’s chosen people were emerging as a proper nation under their first true king, Saul.   Neighboring the borders of this fledging nation were the Philistines, a federation of city states who shared the same deities and cultural identity.   Because the Israelites had conquered the promise land generations ago, the Philistines were hemmed in with the Egyptians on one side and God’s chosen people on the other.  Being the weaker of the two nations, the Israelites often had to fight off Philistine incursions.   The story beings with one such potential battle.   In between the Philistine cities and Jerusalem the armies of the Philistines met the assembled army of the Israelites.  The opposing forces had both camped out on opposing hills, with a valley between them.    This led to a stalemate.  Neither side wanted to be the aggressor who rushed across the valley and had to fight a literal uphill battle.  To break this stalemate, the Philistines had an ace up their sleeve.  They had a hero, a giant.   How tall Goliath was is up for debate, because translating ancient measuring systems is a bit on inexact science.   His height ranged from six foot six to nine feet, with a decent estimate being somewhere around just over seven feet.   This would mean we can realistically picture Goliath as the same height and build as Shaquille O’neil.   While this is not the size of a mythological giant, it is even in our modern era big enough to take notice.  Even today, people the size of Shaq just seem to be built on a different scale than most of us.  This contract likely would have been more striking in antiquity.  Due to archeological remains, we know that the average human height around this time period was roughly 5’5.  Goliath would have towered over the forces assembled on the battlefield.

Since the two armies were at a stalemate, the Philistines proposed a battle of champions.  In ancient literature this concept shows up multiple times when full on fighting between two opposing forces seems too risky to both involved parties.  The idea is simple and laid out in 1 Samuel 17:8-9 where Goliath is recorded as saying, “Choose a man and have him come down to me.  If he is able to fight and kill me we will become your subjects; but if I overcome him and kill him, you will become our subjects and serve us.”

Now I do not think anyone ever expected it to work that way.  After Goliath lost the Philistines did not just shrug their shoulders, admit they got beat fair and square, and then submitted to the Israelites.  However, winning the battle of champions would be a huge morale victory that would lead to a route and easy victory because the battle of champions was more than just a fight between two men.  It was also understood to be a divine fight.   It would have been understood in antiquity that the champions were essentially avatars for the deities of the people, and the winning champion would have represented the winning god.  Goliath makes this clear in verse 10 when he shouts, “This day I defy the armies of Israel.”  Goliath was doing more than just defying the armies of Israel, he was also defying the God that the army represented.   Goliath knew how big and strong he was, and he was betting on himself and he was betting that not even the God of Israel could take him down.

This is what really lights a fire under David.  He was just visiting the frontlines to deliver supplies to his brothers who were in the army.  He happens to be there at the right time to see the giant, hear Goliath’s challenge, and witness the combined army of the Israelites backs away in terror.   David is outraged.  In 1 Samuel 17:26 David challenging asks “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?”   David cannot believe that this challenger who mocks both God and the chosen people has not yet been dealt with.  David does not back down and this eventually gets him before King Saul.  1 Samuel 17:32 states “David said to Saul, ‘Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servant will go and fight him.”   This is not the language of an underdog.  David was fully confident that the giant would be slayed.   To prepare him for battle, Saul offers David his armor.   However, it does not fit right and David even has difficulty in moving in it.  This is where we picked up the story in this morning’s scripture reading.  David goes with what he knows.  He takes his staff, his sling, and grabs five smooth stones to go face the giant.

We know what happens next:  The shepherd boy versus the giant.   Goodness, it feels like an underdog story, but David still is not acting like one.  Goliath taunts David with a grisly fate.  David does not let this phase him in the slightest.  In fact he still acts with confidence, he yells back, “You come against me with sword and spear and Javelin, but I come against you in the name of the LORD almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.”   David shows zero fear and refuses to back down by concluding his speech with: “the whole word will know that there is a God in Israel.  All those gathered here will now that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give all of you into our hands.”

Which as we read this morning is exactly what happens.  Goliath is defeated and the Israelites pursued the Philistines all the way back to their cities.  When we read the story as recorded in the scripture David vs. Goliath is not an underdog story.  At no point does David ever assume that he is the underdog, throughout the entire story he acts as if his victory is a forgone conclusion.   Showing up with sticks and stones in an ancient duel is kind of like bringing a knife to a gunfight, but that is exactly what David does.  Despite being outgunned, he is still supremely confident he is going to triumph because he fully trusts that God is with him.  Goliath bet on himself and his own power, but David bet on God.  This is less an underdog story and more a proclamation that God is always the sure bet.  As we consider this morning’s scripture and the story of David vs. Goliath I think there are two main points we can take away on how we can better live out our faith.

First, we should be ourselves.   David did not defeat Goliath wearing Saul’s armor.   He relied on what he knew and trusted God to do the rest.  In the story David vs. Goliath, David is unapologetically himself, and that is a lesson that we can all learn and take to heart. There is a philosophy in business, which I believe can apply to living out our faith as well, called leading with your strengths.  The idea is instead of spending all of our time and energy to fix perceived weaknesses, energy should be poured into doing what we are good at even better.  We cannot all be great at everything, so we lead with our strengths and become the best at what we are already great at.  Every single one of us is uniquely created by God and we are not an accident.  David was perfectly equipped to be used by God to slay a giant, and you are perfectly equipped for whatever it is God is calling you to do.  David knew who he was and he trusted that God could use him to make a real difference.   In the same we should be ourselves, we should be the people that God crafted us to be, and we also should trust God to us who we are want we are to accomplish God’s purposes and make a real difference.

Second when it comes to facing the obstacles, in our lives, the giants in front of us we should follow the example David set.  After David had collected his stone and descended into the valley to face Goliath, his next actions are perhaps the most remarkable part of the story.  The detail is recorded in verse 38 of this morning’s scripture “As the Philistine moved closer to attack him, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet him.”   David ran towards the problem in front of him.

If we are serious about living out our faith, if we are serious about taking what we believe about loving God and loving neighbor and putting it into action, then we will face problems.  We will face road blocks and snags along the way.  Sometimes we might even face opposition as giants block the path.  In those instances then we should be like David and run towards them.  When it comes to faithfully living out our calling, we can let fear keep us from surging forward.  I am reminded of a young baseball player who embodied this mentality.  He set the record that no pro-baseball player wants.  In the 1923 season he held the record for striking out the most times.  This baseball player went down swinging a lot.  In an earlier season he had earned the nickname the “strikeout king” and he even set a record for the most career strikeouts that stood for 30 years.    This athlete was not an underdog though because today no one remembers George Herman Ruth, better known as Babe Ruth, as the strikeout king.   In 1923 he also set the record for the most homeruns in a single season, the highest batting average in a single season, and he set the record for career homeruns that stood for a generation.   Babe Ruth was once quoted as saying, “Never let the fear of striking out get in your way.”   We miss 100% of the pitches we do not swing at, and we cannot let fear hold us back.    When it comes to living out our faith and the way forward seems daunting or even insurmountable then we should follow David’s example.   We run ahead full speed, knowing that it is God who has our back.  , we should swing away, and we trust God to deliver.

This morning’s scripture is of a familiar story, but the actual story may be a bit different than what we are used to, because surprisingly the story of David. Vs. Goliath is not an underdog story.  It is a story of God triumphing.  While it is God who wins the victory, it is also a story of trusting in God even when others may doubt.  May we learn from this story.  May we trust for God to deliver in our own lives.   As we seek to faithfully follow God may we lead with our strengths.   May we do what we are good at in the most excellent way possible, and we trust God to do the rest.   May we run forward with confidence trusting that is God who has our backs.  In all that we do, may we faithfully seek to follow God, knowing that if we are following God’s leading then we can be confident that we are not the underdogs.

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