Robert Wadlow was known as the Giant of Illinois.
Born in 1918, he grew to be the tallest man who ever lived. At least, the tallest we can confirm. Because of a disease of his pituitary gland that was, at the time, incurable, he produced massive amounts of the human growth hormone. That caused his body to grow to the astounding height of eight feet eleven inches.
By some accounts, Goliath was even larger. He stood, according to scripture, at six cubits and a span. There’s some disagreement about how tall exactly that is. Some translations say four cubits. And then, there’s disagreement about just how long a cubit was. But, we can say Goliath was at least six feet, seven inches. Still tall; especially considering that humans were generally shorter in his day than they are today. But, by some accounts, he was as tall as nine feet, nine inches.
His compatriots, the Philistine Army, stand behind this giant, ready to go to battle. Across the valley, the Israelite army sits encamped, too, ready for battle. Goliath comes out and not only challenges them, but taunts them in a way that evokes fear from King Saul and the Israelites.
Let’s hear that story from 1 Samuel.
“When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid.”
And rightly so. Goliath is more than just a giant. They have three big reasons to be dismayed and greatly afraid of him.
First, Goliath is huge. We’ve already noted his height; a mammoth for our time and even more so for his time when people simply did not grow as tall as we do. But not only this, scripture notes that he’s a champion; a Hebrew word that literally means he stands between. He can stand between two men and not be taken down. He’s a battle-hardened warrior; probably with big muscles and the intimidating stance and presence that any champion warrior would have. Goliath is huge.
Second, he’s overwhelming. The scripture goes to great lengths to describe his armor. It’s the best the Israelites have ever seen and probably represents some technology they didn’t have. This would be intimidating enough. What armor will the Israelites use against him? What weapons? They’re overwhelmed by the challenge. Not only that, but when he says “Today, I defy the ranks of Israel,” he’s insulting them. He’s saying “today I disgrace, I shame, I spit on the ranks of Israel.” He’s so confident in himself that he believes there is no defeating him. This is a psychological victory for the very next verse indicates that King Saul and all of Israel are indeed intimidated by this disgrace, this shame. They cannot stand against him. Goliath is overwhelming.
Third, the stakes are high. In the ancient world of Saul and Goliath, a single battle between two warriors would sometimes determine the outcome of an entire battle. In Goliath’s challenge, there’s more than just egos involved. Should Goliath win against Israel’s best warrior, all of Israel would be defeated and could become Philistines. Or, at a very minimum, Goliath’s victory would give a huge psychological advantage to the Philistine army ahead of the ensuing battle between both nation’s armies. The stakes are very high indeed.
In this moment, the Israelite army in confronting Goliath is facing a huge, overwhelming, high stakes challenge.
It’s no wonder that “Saul and all Israel…were dismayed and greatly afraid.”
And isn’t that the case whenever we face serious challenges? Confronted with some huge, overwhelming, and high stakes challenge, don’t we also become dismayed and greatly afraid?
Certainly, we do. We can relate to Saul and all of Israel as they face down this giant whose challenge is huge, overwhelming and high stakes.
For we have known Goliaths of our own:
A terrible diagnosis, perhaps of cancer or some other disease.
A marriage that is failing and seems inevitably headed for divorce.
A family conflict that threatens to turn legal. Or a family conflict that results in hurt and broken relationships.
A financial loss that threatens the foundation of our families or businesses or institutions we love and support.
A sin or action we’ve taken that’s caused others to look at us differently, poorly, threatening our sense of self and our sense of stability.
Or perhaps a secret sin or some secret we keep that we dare not tell others, lest they think poorly of us, but still the secret destroys us internally.
All of these are huge, overwhelming, high stakes, challenges.
And those are just the personal challenges we face. The news reminds us on a regular basis of challenges we face together, as a society. There’s the difficulty of finding labor, shortages of supplies, rising costs for doing business, and other economic concerns. Then there are wars and rumors of wars, as Jesus said and violence in major US cities that’s on the rise.
All of those are huge, overwhelming, high stakes, challenges.
What are we to do in the face of those?
When Goliaths appear in our lives, how are we to respond?
First, we should respond like Saul and the Israelites, with dismay and fear.
If we don’t, we’re not human. Those emotions are not wrong and, indeed, they’re useful from a psychological perspective. They help us process and they activate parts of our brain that keep us safe.
Sometimes when we’re facing these kinds of challenges, we hear that Christians are somehow not supposed to react with fear and dismay, that somehow we’re just supposed to shrug our shoulders or stand resolute, unmoved by our cancer diagnosis, failing marriage, threat of financial ruin, or some problem deep in our soul we won’t talk about.
This is simply not true. God designed us to have this fight or flight response we call fear. God designed us to be dismayed. We should feel those things. We should respond in that way when these huge, overwhelming, high stakes challenges appear in our lives.
So the question is not whether we should experience fear. We should and we do and we will. The question is whether or not the fear defines us.
Fear defined Saul. He went into his tent and sulked. We can imagine him wringing his hands in dismay, desperate for a solution but believing none exists. All the Israelites ran in fear back to their tents, saying to one another “have you seen him?” With much fear and trembling.
And that’s how they stay. In a state of fear. And that’s what fear does when it defines us: it immobilizes, it causes us to sulk in self-pity. Fear can be, on its own, huge, overwhelming, and high stakes. Sometimes the fear becomes worse than the problem itself, as it blinds us to solutions and blinds us to how God is moving in power around us.
We will first react with fear whenever a huge, overwhelming, high stakes challenge confronts us. But then, we have a choice about whether or not the fear will define us.
Saul was himself blind when God’s power showed up on the scene. Saul’s fear blinded him to see what God was doing.
God’s power came through in a small boy of little regard; a member of a dirty and lowly profession, the shepherds; from a family of little reputation. David shows up and Saul can’t see what God is doing.
As the story progresses, we discover that David, this boy, is the solution. God has provided a way out for the Israelites. Saul can’t see it until the deed is done and David has slain the giant. Then, flush with the psychological victory, the Israelite army rushes forward and carries the day in battle.
Sometimes, we get to see God move in power like that. Even if we’re blinded by fear. But what do we do in the mean time, while fear is blinding us and even overwhelming us. It’s easy to look back and say how we saw God move in power after God has delivered. And it’s tempting to proclaim here in this sermon that we must simply wait; God will move in power, just wait for it.
But life is at its toughest when fear is present, when we face those huge, overwhelming, high stakes problems and don’t know what to do next. What do we do while we are waiting for God to deliver? How do we gain sight to see how God is moving in power? To discover, as Saul was unable to, when David has shown up in our lives to defeat our Goliaths?
We have assurance that God will deliver. As I’ve said in previous sermons, God will because God has; God will deliver because we can see in our past how God has delivered. Sometimes that deliverance takes us by surprise and is not at all what we expect, like David as the solution to the challenge of Goliath. Sometimes, death itself is freedom and deliverance, a most surprising form of God’s deliverance.
But while we’re in fear, we have no idea what that deliverance will look like. So what do we do while we’re waiting for that deliverance? Because it sure can feel like it takes a long time before God delivers, especially when fear is present.
This is especially true when the problems we face are just like how we’ve described Goliath: huge, overwhelming, and high stakes. Those terrible health diagnoses, especially the ones that seem terminal; the failing familial relationships, especially those failing marriage relationships; the awful financial downturns that can affect those we love or even institutions we love; the loss of reputation in town or the secrets we keep that eat us up from the inside; all of those and more can invoke tons of fear and leave us feeling helpless and hapless, defined by our fear.
It’s incredibly difficult to wait for deliverance and not be defined by fear. It’s incredibly difficult to not be Saul in this story; immobilized and distraught, defined by his dismay and fear. We all know this because all of us know what it’s like to face a huge, overwhelming, and high stakes challenge that evokes tons of fear.
But that fear need not define. This story points our way to discovering freedom from fear.
So let’s focus our attention in this story not on how God delivered, but what we must do while we wait, to keep that fear from defining us and discover that freedom from fear is possible while we wait for God’s deliverance.
To discover that freedom, we must choose to focus on God instead of focusing on our fear.
Note that Saul and the Israelites stayed focused on their fear. They simply kept looking at their fear, being immobilized by it, refusing to pray or seek God’s wisdom or otherwise turn to God.
In his speech, Goliath calls the Israelites, “servants of Saul.” That should strike us as odd. The Israelites were never to be servants of a king. God rescued them from being servants to a king named pharaoh so that they could be servants of God!
We, too, are servants of God. In David’s speech to Saul, David repeatedly calls on God’s name, the first time God is mentioned in this story at all. Saul is focused on his fear. David is focused on God.
And that difference in focus makes all the difference.
If we stay focused on our fear, it will define us while we await deliverance.
But if we focus on God, fear will still be present but it will not rule the day, it will not rule our lives, it will not define us.
We will all face huge, overwhelming, high stakes challenges. Those health diagnoses, failing marriages, family disputes, internal threats, money troubles, will hit all of us or those we love. They happen. And our initial response will be fear, as it should be.
But then, we must choose to focus on God.
What does that mean? It means three things, directly related to those words huge, overwhelming, and high stakes.
First, when huge challenges arise, do a small thing and pray. Prayer is about mindset as much as it is being with God; it keeps us focused on God, it keeps us grounded in God. There are many ways to pray. Some of those are outlined on our website. Come and chat with me if you need help getting started or finding a new way to pray.
Second, when overwhelming challenges arise, get simple. Do the things God has called you to do. Love on your family. Serve on your boards and here at the church. Knit things for people. Cook them food. Whatever it is you do you to help others, do it. Serving God in the ways God has designed us cuts through the overwhelm to remind us that we are more than our fears and more than our challenges.
Third, when the stakes are high, be lowly and humble. So often it’s when fear hits that we feel prompted to get right with God. This will require confessing sins, it will require getting right with God if you’ve been negligent in your relationship. It will be hard, no fun work. But at the end, we will know this: we belong to God. God will provide. And we will experience the height of God’s love that is higher than any stakes we know.
When Goliaths appear in our lives, huge, overwhelming, high stakes challenges, get focused on God. Pray, serve, and get right with God.
No matter the giants you face, the fear doesn’t have to define you. In the face of fear, pray, serve, and get right with God. Focus on God in the face of your Goliaths and discover freedom from fear.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.