A Sermon No One Should Preach

David and GoliathI know it’s often easier to critique than to offer positive contributions, but I was just meditating again on the story of David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17. And I was remembering poor sermons I have heard over the years on this favorite Sunday School story (you know it’s fun when talking veggies have their own rendition). At the time, they seemed like poignant Biblically-based messages that spoke to my life, but as a pastor now (and wanting to be faithful to the intent of Scripture) they were simply atrocious (even when offering valuable points that have little if anything to do with the text’s intent itself).
So here’s one: “You need to slay the giants in your life!” The preacher begins to name those giants: pride, lust, fear, smoking-drinking-and-chew, and going-with-girls-who-do (or something like that). It’s animated. You bring to mind all the sins you have committed and all the potential challenges you may face in life. You swing your air sling, followed by a chopping motion…and now the head of victory is in hand. It’s powerful. You are ready for any altar call given. The problem is…it just isn’t the point of this story.
Another day, another preacher: “God has given you five stones to defeat your enemies!” The stones are rattled off with exaggerated booming-voiced, staccato-like gunfire. The giants from the last message won’t stand a chance. Your stones of faith, forgiveness, prayer, reading your Bible, and going to Sunday School (or something like that) are powerful weapons in the arsenal of any David looking to be victorious over the enemies of their soul. The problem is…this also is not the point of the story.
Yet another day and another preacher (indicating the rejection by David of Saul’s armaments): “Use what has been tested and proven!”- followed by six more points every David-like leader needs to know in order to succeed (you have to have at least seven to be a truly spiritual leader after all). The litany of kingdom-wise business bullet points is overwhelming. You know you will actually need to have a couple of pens just to take all of the notes, because this message is LOADED with truthiness. Again, not the point of the story.
Is there no end to the directions this favorite tale has been taken? What is the point anyways? Put simply, the LORD (the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob…the God of Israel) is lord of all. The LORD will not be mocked. The LORD is truly God. The LORD is the champion of His people. The LORD will act to deliver through those whom the LORD chooses to anoint.* This is ultimately a story about the LORD.
So the next time you preach 1 Samuel 17…make sure you know the point of the story…and don’t just start loading your slingshot with whatever you find along the way, try using what is already there. You may be surprised what the LORD will do with His own word.
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* I just realized I gave five points…now that should go in my pouch for future slinging. 🙂
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Adapted from my post authored at bluechippastor.org on July 1, 2013.

Dancing Like David Danced

The History Channel is releasing “The Bible” (by Mark Burnett) tonight as part of a five part, 10 hours series. Its being promoted everywhere. There is plenty of excitement about this series. The problem is…I’m guessing it will be a let-down like so many other “Bible-esque” specials on the History Channel, Discovery Channel, etc. These folks just can’t seem to get things right (nor Hollywood for that matter). Sensational: Yes! Accurate: Not so much.*

So why did I choose THIS picture? Because it is based on the VERY inaccuracy I was sharing in my lectures this last Wednesday from 2 Samuel 6. The photo shows King David  leading the cheerful throng before the ark of the LORD up to Jerusalem. So what is wrong with the photo, you ask? David is exposed (and I’m guessing wearing a sort of loin-cloth) as he leads the procession (others have shown the same). What’s wrong with that (I mean I’ve heard a TON of preachers say as much…and there’s several songs about how we want to “dance like David danced“)?
The text of Scripture actually says he was wearing a “linen ephod” (אֵפוֹד בָּד Sam.6:14) and doing so among the priests made him to be like the priests who carried the ark (1 Chron.15:27). This is the very same term as 1 Samuel 2:18 where Samuel wears a “linen ephod” as he ministers before the LORD. Its the same as the “linen ephod” that the priests at Nob were wearing when they were put to death by King Saul (1 Sam.22:18). In fact, the Hebrew “ephod” (which is just a transliteration into English) has cognates in other ancient languages with reference to priestly garments (most notably in Ugaritic).
It was not a sort of underwear. It was priestly and intended to be worn in public view. So why in the world is David depicted in this photo this way, and why have so many said as much? Quite simply because no care is taken in interpreting Scripture. Too many have taken the derisive words of David’s wife, Michal, as if they are the truth (“How the king of Israel has distinguished himself this day! He has exposed himself today before his servants’ slave girls the way a vulgar fool might do!”- 2 Sam.6:20 NET). The narrator has told us otherwise (it was a linen ephod – 2 Sam.6:14). So should we take the word of Michal, or the word of the narrator? Was he looking priestly as he led the procession, or was he dancing in his tighty-whiteys. The text is clear…are we?
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* As much as I don’t want to admit this Jim West is right. 😉

Who Do You Believe? Jean Valjean and the Amalekite

Les Miserables 1999
Les Miserables 1999 (Photo credit: Rick Payette)

My wife and I went on a date (admittedly a rare occurrence with four children) to see Les Misérables. It was a wonderful (at times depressing) musical film adaptation of the classic book by Victor Hugo (which I have never read). One of the things which struck me was the sense in which we are beholden to the story delivered by Jean Valjean. He tells of his reason for the nineteen years imprisonment (stealing bread for his sister’s son) as an inclusio (in the opening scene just before his release and again at the end just before he dies).
The question is: Can we take Jean Valjean at his word?  It is a literary technique to allow for ambiguity by keeping such significant claims in the mouth of the perpetrator.  After all, don’t most criminals have some form of justification that is claimed?  Should we believe this man who wants to assert his innocence?  As it turns out, we are never shown the actual incident.  There is no narrator who asserts this claim. Such things would actually validate the claims of Valjean, but as it stands (at least in the musical film adaptation…again…I haven’t read the book so I cannot say at all how it is presented by Victor Hugo) we are actually left to wonder if Valjean speaks the truth or not.  I want to believe him (he is the “hero” of the tale), but struggle to do so (he is also the man in need of constant redemption).
This leads me to think of the account of Saul’s demise in 2 Sam. 1:1-16. In this account, we find an Amalekite who brings word to David that Saul is dead. He recounts a tale of Saul instructing to take his life so that the Philistines would not have the pleasure. As it stands, we might be bound to believe this account of the Amalekite (in fact, David does; vv. 14, 16). But the narrator in 1 Samuel 31:1-6 states that Saul tried to convince his own armor-bearer to finish him off, but in end falls on his sword to end his life to which the armor-bearer does likewise (vv.5-6).
So which account should we believe?  The words of the narrator (1 Sam) or the character of the Amalekite (2 Sam)?  I personally think it is normal that one would accept the words of the narrator over any character given that the narrator typically asserts some sense of omniscience in all accounts. This is the conundrum of literary stylizing.  One cannot simply assume that all characters (particularly those painted in some way as untrustworthy–a criminal imprisoned for 19 years, an Amalekite) speak the truth. It is this ambiguity which actually helps to create a deeper sense of reality to the whole tale. We do not know the reality, but in the end it would not matter. In either case, we are led toward other matters more pressing: the redemption of Jean Valjean and the rise of David as king in the place of Saul and his sons.