Friday, February 28, 2014

Where is the Miracle?

If you haven’t read it yet, check out Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath – Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. He has an amazing way of making academic work accessible… usually relying on research from the social sciences. He is skilled at marrying interesting research with interesting stories.

It is not mostly about the Biblical account of David and Goliath… but rather a collection of stories and observations about overcoming obstacles (usually significant obstacles) like disease, or broken systems, or discrimination.

It is not mostly about the Biblical account of David and Goliath… but the story serves as the introduction and basis for the book. This isn’t a Christian book from a Christian publisher. It is not anything like a commentary or the sort of thing to accompany devotions or a Bible study. But it does provide a useful perspective. It is a good book that I’m glad to recommend.

Gladwell effectively challenges what may be the most common way this story is perceived.

The people of God, under King Saul, were in danger of being overrun by the Philistines. The battle lines were drawn at a valley that had seen many wars before and would see many other wars throughout history. On one ridge stood the Philistines, and on the other stood King Saul’s army. 

A giant, Philistine champion named Goliath sought to end the battle with a personal challenge. He ventured into the valley and called on the Israelites to send someone to meet his challenge… winner take all. But nobody from Saul’s army was up for the challenge; the giant was too fierce, and fear paralyzed the Israelites. 

Into the scene stepped young David. He wasn’t part of the army, just a boy who was sent with provisions for his brothers that were among the fighting men. Nevertheless, full of the Spirit of God he responded to Goliath’s challenge. Without the weapons designed to meet Goliath’s challenge and without armor to protect him from the giant’s blows, David ventured out to fight in the name of the Lord.

He put a stone in a sling, and desperately flung it at the giant… and miraculously, the giant was slain. Just like that, the battle was miraculously won by David’s small stone and God’s mighty act.

That’s pretty much how we know the story… isn’t it?

One question we might ask is: Where was the miracle? When precisely did the miracle occur? Where can we trace God’s action?

I think Gladwell would agree that there was something truly extraordinary, even miraculous, here in the story… but if we think that the miracle occurred spontaneously as the stone was in the air, Gladwell would not agree. And I’m convinced that he is right.

Gladwell makes a convincing case that both David’s weapon and David’s strategy were suited for a win. David’s sling was certainly a deadly weapon.

And then there is the matter of David’s strategy. Goliath was calling for an Israelite to meet him on the battlefield on the giant’s terms. He was calling for someone to suit up and slug it out with swords and spears. It was the sort of thing that happened from time to time throughout history. It was a gamble… but if it worked out (for either side) it could bring an end to the battle and save countless casualties.

But that is not exactly what David had in mind. It turns out that it really wasn’t anything new that a warrior like Goliath (heavy infantry) was susceptible to air assault. Maybe you’ve seen battle scenes depicted from bronze-era battles. A scene from the Lord of the Rings will do… take out the orcs and the wizards and you have something like a typical bronze-era battle.

When the infantry pressed in, the artillery would go to work. Bowmen would send arrows flying. Catapults would be unleashed flinging their cargo. And slingers would deploy their weapons. A significant portion of the infantry would be lost in this first melee before they were even close to be able to use their swords, spears, and axes. Goliath knew, in general, that a skilled slinger could take him out.

But Goliath wasn’t concerned about a slinger. He expected his foe to be another slugger, weighed down with heavy armor. David’s strategy caught Goliath entirely by surprise. He may not have ever realized what was happening to him… and if he did realize what was happening, it was clearly too late.

So… was it really just a matter of a boy’s small stone and God’s mighty act?

Like I alluded to earlier… I don’t dispute God’s involvement in the story. I believe that there is a genuine miracle here. The question remains: When did the miracle occur?

Our answer could say a lot about how we believe God works through us. If you believe that the miracle spontaneously occurred when the boy slung the rock… then your approach to God’s work through you may be more a matter of a sort of haphazard or even reckless approach, hoping that just maybe God will do a miracle. But if you, like I do, think that the miracle included the preparation and practice and ingenuity of David… then your approach to God’s work through you may be more comprehensive and disciplined. 

This is an excerpt from a sermon I preached on 12/29/13; check out the audio and my manuscript here.

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