SUNDAY SERMON: The wisdom to know the difference

By Rev. Stephen Baldwin

OT: 1 Samuel 17:(1a, 4-11, 19-23), 32-49

David and Goliath is one of my favorite stories in the Bible. The young shepherd David—exceedingly small, extremely vulnerable, entirely unprepared to fight anyone, let alone a giant warrior—somehow manages to take down Goliath with only a slingshot. But why do they fight in the first place? 

Well, it’s not all that complicated.  David’s Israelites and Goliath’s Philistines were at war.  Why?  For the same reasons anyone goes to war…pride, power, natural resources.  The world may have turned, but it hasn’t changed all that much. 

       The Israelites sat encamped on top of one mountain while the Philistines sat encamped on another, with only a valley of sand and stones between them.  David is not with the army at first.  He’s too young to fight. His brothers are fighting, but he’s back with the sheep.  His only interaction with the soldiers is to bring them coffee.  Well, not coffee, but you get the idea.  He was no soldier; he was an errand boy. 

       Goliath was the ultimate soldier.  He approached the Israelites in full armor, with a helmet, leg guards, chest plate, and sword.  Plus, he’s big.  Black bear big.  And he loves to fight.  They would settle their war by each sending their best fighter.

       Saul, Israel’s king, wants no part of a fight with Goliath.  Neither do David’s brothers.  Neither does anyone else in their right mind.  So Goliath shouts insults at them for 40 days and nights trying to pick a fight with someone, anyone. 

       One day David comes to the battle lines to deliver food and hears Goliath.  “I’ll fight him!” he volunteers.  “I’ve fought lions and bears protecting the sheep.  I can do it.” 

       Saul isn’t amused.  He tells David that a boy who plays with animals is no match for a giant armed to the teeth.  But David is determined, and Saul has no one else to satisfy the Goliath’s hunger for blood.  He sends David on one condition—that he wear his armor. 

       David tries it on.  But it’s so big and heavy and clunky that he can barely move, much less fight a giant.  He sheds it completely, and strides down the hill to fight the giant armed only with a few smooth stones and a slingshot.  Like most heavyweight fights people pay big bucks to watch on television, it’s over before it even begins.  David flings a stone.  The giant dies.  Israelites rejoice.  Philistines flee.

Normally when I preach on this story I focus on the decision David made which determined the fight–the decision not to wear armor. David made an innovative decision no one else would have, and it enabled him to achieve victory. 

But this week, something else struck me about this story. Go back with me in the story to the 40 days and nights when Goliath was taunting the Israelites. During that time, not a single person was willing to stand up and fight for their people. For 40 days, the Israelites did nothing. 

Of course, they had good reason. Goliath was a bad man. None of them could’ve prevailed. David was made for the moment. But it raises a very interesting idea that we wrestle with all the time. The idea of a sin of omission.

Sometimes, the worst thing we can do is…nothing at all. When we think of sins, we often think of the bad things we do which we regret. But sometimes, it’s the things we don’t do at all which can hurt the most. Not speaking up when others gossip about a friend. Not stepping in when we see someone who needs help we can provide. Not communicating with a loved one. 

The Niebuhr brothers were famous theologians back in the early 20th century. Reinhold and Richard Niebuhr disagreed about everything, including nothing. Did that make sense? Of course not. Let me explain. 

As Japan was becoming more aggressive in the 1930s, Reinhold wrote an article called, “The Grace of Doing Nothing.” He argued that sometimes we think we are more important than we are, and if we get involved in situations which do not concern us then we can inadvertently cause harm. He was talking about American intervention in world war. 

His brother, Richard, wrote a response to that argument called “Must we do nothing?” He believed that we ought to confront evil at every turn, even if it meant risking war, even if it wasn’t our fight directly. Some things are worth fighting for. 

David obviously would have gotten along with Richard much better than Reinhold. They were both men of action, who saw doing nothing as the worst course of action possible.

While we do not control matters of war and peace such as they were concerned with, we do face difficult situations everyday, which leave us unsure what to do. Should I give the homeless woman a ride? Should I reach out to my cousin who I haven’t spoken to in too long? Should I stand up to the guy at work who causes so many problems? 

The story of David and Goliath teaches us that doing nothing was exactly the right thing for David’s brothers…and exactly the wrong thing for David. The wisdom is in knowing the difference. 

When you’re in a difficult situation, there may be grace in doing nothing. At other times, doing nothing may be the worst possible thing you can do. We lean on God for the wisdom to know the difference. 

I’d like to ask you to say the words of the serenity prayer with me, which is about that very subject, and which was written by…Reinhold Niebuhr. 

God…grant me the serenity…to accept the things I cannot change…the courage to change the things I can…and the wisdom to know the difference…Amen. 

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