A Call to Courage
A sermon brought forth from 1 Samuel 17 and Ephesians 6:10-24 preached on September 5, 2021
We’ve made our way to the final words of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Paul has done his best to open our Divine imaginations. He has certainly challenged us, stepped on our toes, too. He’s out to wake us up to who God is and who we are in God. He’s told us that we cannot encounter the vastness of God, the sheer holiness of His being, without first being stripped of our self-importance.
Paul knew this personally. He spent half his life asserting himself over, and at the expense of, others. Before his conversion, Paul’s approach to ministry was characterized by coercive power, competition, and an underhanded influence. But then Christ collided with him along the Damascus Road.
I’ve spoken of this before. It’s something we cannot forget because it has to do with all of us. What happened to Paul along the Damascus Road was not just a conversion but a head-on collision, a God-designed catastrophe. Broken pieces everywhere. Jesus collided with him on purpose. Jesus wrecked Paul because he needed to be wrecked. Though Paul realized the details of his conversion were extreme, he also believed that the internal work he had to do in its aftermath was something that every Christ-follower must experience.
As the scales fell off his eyes, Paul could see that all his anxious, destructive, self-important, and self-determined ways had made less of him and less of God.
These last words from Ephesians can easily be misconstrued as a call to arms. We can read a passage like this and be reminded of the Crusades and all the other instances when a call to faith has been misunderstood as a call to engage in aggression or warfare. This is a devastation of this passage and ones like it. Neither is this a call to the kind of defensiveness that keeps us at arms-length from everything around us. Paul doesn’t write to us about the God who created this world and how we are called to live in it and move about it only to get to the end and tell us to go into hunker down or adopt a bunker mentality.
Because a passage like this one is ripe for misinterpretation, I want to fold in our first passage. I need you to see the way David, a child at this point, approaches the giant, Goliath. Exploring David’s confrontation with Goliath will help us interpret Paul’s final message from Ephesians.
The Israelites and the Philistines have taken up battle positions; two nations are geared up for war. Anxiety is high. Both the Philistine and Israelite soldiers are at volatile levels of hostility. King Saul, knowing no other way to equip a warrior for battle, takes David, this child, this unassuming shepherd boy, and dresses him in a coat of armor, fits him with a helmet, and hands him a shield and sword. David can’t move for the weight of it all. He’s not used to it.
There’s no doubt that Saul was trying to help, equipping David with the latest in military weaponry. This sort of gear had worked for others, but none of it was right for David. This shepherd boy would be doomed if approached Goliath in the same way King Saul and his 10,000-man military would, with all this armor. David, as young as he was, knew himself well enough to realize this. He was bold enough to say so.
“This suit of armor is not suited for me. This is not the way I work. I need to confront this giant my own way.”
David takes off Saul’s armor and grabs his sling—the one he chases off wolves with. There’s a nearby stream. David walks to its edge and he kneels. In view of a few thousand armed soldiers, right in front of Goliath, this shepherd boy kneels, picks out five smooth stones, although he’s confident he’ll only need one of them. And in front of the enemy of his people, David kneels.
Pastor Eugene Peterson puts words to the starkness of David’s actions when he writes,
“Until David walked into the Valley of Elah and knelt by that brook, the only options seemed to be a bullying Might or a fearful Right. Take your choice: brutal Goliath or anxious King Saul. David kneeling, unhurried and calm, opened up another option: God, God’s ways, God’s salvation. How do we so easily lose sight of this?” 1
In that moment, David refused to join everyone around him in their battle-fevered ways. David’s calm God-centeredness witnessed to a greater strength than any legion of warriors could ever possess. That’s a kind of courage that’s tremendously rare. This is incredibly hard to do. We so easily give ourselves away to brutality and anxiety, especially because that’s all we see. This brutality and anxiety, they’re borne of a vast insecurity—a self-destructive disquiet of soul.
There are many around us who are battle-fevered and defensive. It takes divine nerve, a God-soaked fortitude to walk these battle lines possessed by calm, unhurried, and God-focused, God-centered courage. But that’s what David did.
The last piece of armor Paul mentions is prayer. It’s not last because he needed to list the more important or practical stuff first, but because prayer is what all the important stuff is made from. Prayer is the strongest and most practical piece of armor made available to God’s people. Like David, we equip ourselves best in face of our Goliaths by kneeling.
Paul uses the word stand three times in these closing words from Ephesians. It’s understood a fourth time. No one could have guessed it, but when David kneeled by the brook, he became the tallest, strongest one there that day. Certainly, the most courageous.
How is David, this small shepherd boy, inexperienced in hand-to-hand combat, so calm as he kneels in the daunting shadow of Goliath in this battle-heated valley of Edom? How does he keep his cool in this cauldron of war? Are we going to be those shaped by our fears?
Paul needs us to know that there is an evil presence in the world. It’s a spiritual one, and it feels personal, and it thrives on our fear. It’s a power that is intent on unraveling us, and the worst thing we can do is ignore it, pretend evil isn’t real, that it cannot strip our humanity away from us, that it doesn’t threaten our wellbeing. We will be like all those around us, so easily lost in Goliath-terror, Goliath-sickness, where everything we say and do is in frazzled reaction to, dominated by, the perceived threats around us?
There are too many around us who talk tough, who project strength and vigor, but it doesn’t take much to see that behind their venomous language and aggressive demeanor is a crippling fear. If you look underneath, you can see how terrified they are. We are those who know of a calmer strength, one that comes from and trusts in a resilient love that some might call fortitude. This morning, I want to call it courage. It’s a quiet, God-determined resolve. It comes when we trust in something that others around us cannot see—that even in the threatening shadows of all our Goliaths, we be those who are prayer-dominated, God-governed, and thus free.
These final words from Ephesians are a call to clarity and courage. So, let’s take the promises within Paul’s last words and make them our call to courage—our directive for the Way ahead.
“Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.
“Be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord's people.
“Pray also for words given you and I so that we may fearlessly make known the mystery of the Gospel.
“Pray that we all may declare Christ fearlessly, as we should.”
“Pray,” “be alert,” “pray,” “pray.”
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful! Alleluia! Amen.
Eugene Peterson, Leap Over a Wall: Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christians, 1998.