Of Storms and Giants

1 Samuel 17:32-49Mark 4:35-41

Have you ever stood face to face with a giant? Have you been the underdog, the odds stacked against you? Then have we got a story for you.

Or have you ever found yourself in the midst of a storm? Has the world swirled around you, out of control, throwing you into fear and panic? Then have we got a story for you.

Our texts this morning are rich stories of storms and giants, and of God who remains at work in the midst. And on our way to these stories, we will take a brief detour this morning to meet a brother in Christ halfway around the world. He has battled giants and prevailed. He has ridden the waves of storms and lived to see the sunshine. His name is Firas.

Firas was one of the first people Elizabeth and I met when we moved to Zababdeh, the little Palestinian Christian village in the northern West Bank where we spent three and a half years. We had met Firas through a photo, of all things. Presbyterian friends of ours in Chicago had visited Zababdeh in 1996 and had stayed with Firas’ family. They gave us photos and asked us to bring our greetings.

It didn’t take long in the small village to find the family, and we were soon invited in for coffee and conversation. Firas’ gentle spirit, simple faith, and quick wit broke through the language and culture barriers. We became fast friends.

Firas told me of his dream to become a Melkite priest. The Melkite Church sits in the ecclesial divide between East and West, practicing identical liturgy to the Greek Orthodox Church, but in communion with Rome and the Pope. Firas took us to see Zababdeh’s abandoned Melkite church building, its stone walls crumbling, its windows broken, its grounds overgrown with cactus in covered with garbage. He pulled out an oversized iron key, opened the door, and invited us in. The floor was littered with old prayer books and candles that had melted with time and lack of use.

“My grandfather was the last priest here,” he told us. “He was ordained in the 1940s by the bishop of Haifa. But when the war of 1948 happened, we ended up on one side of the border. The bishop and the rest of the churches in the Galilee were on the other. In forty years, they forgot about us. When my grandfather died in 1985, they didn’t send a new priest. We asked for one again and again. I even went to seminary, and I am ready to serve the church. The bishop keeps telling us to wait. We have been waiting for fifteen years now.”

Periodically, Firas would still come to pray alone in the abandoned building, reciting the hymns and prayers he remembered from his youth. But most of his days were now spent trying to support his small family, a task made all the more urgent by the fact that his wife was pregnant with twins. In case you’re wondering, Melkite priests, like Orthodox priests, can be married. When tensions between the Israelis and Palestinians flared again, Firas found himself out of work. He had been working for piece-meal, sewing in an Israeli-owned sweatshop in the village. Citing the political realities and the economic risks, the factory closed its doors.

The giants of history and politics towered over him. The storms of economic uncertainty and weighty responsibility swirled around him. He was disillusioned with the Church and its hierarchy. He was anxious, perhaps even afraid, for his family. But his faith in his Lord and the certainty of his call remained sure. In Firas’ darkest days of storms and giants, I suspect that he turned to the texts we read this morning to renew his strength and encourage his faith.

Have you ever stood face to face with a giant? Then have we got a story for you.

Last week, we met the small shepherd boy David as Samuel the prophet journeyed to Bethlehem and anointed him to be the next king of Israel, the successor to Saul. This week, the small boy has gone to the front lines to bring food to his brothers who are fighting for Saul. The giant Philistine Goliath has taunted the Hebrew people for forty days now, and no one has dared to confront the mighty warrior. The odds are overwhelmingly stacked in the giant’s favor. And yet, the little shepherd boy dares to speak up and step forward. The scene that follows is somewhat comical: Saul, the king who towers over Israel, hands David his outsized armor. Like a child playing dress up, David stumbles around for a while in shoes twice the size of his feet. As David casts the armor aside, the scene becomes harrowing: Goliath continues to issue the challenge, armed with sword and shield and javelin and spear. David the underdog faces him down, armed only with a stick and sling. And the scene builds into its dramatic conclusion: the two run to meet each other between the front lines, David grasping tightly onto the rocks in his hand. He loads his sling, winds up, and lets fly. The rock burns through the air. The battle is won. The day is saved. The giant is slain.

Or have you ever found yourself in the midst of a storm? Then have we got a story for you.

Last week, we sat with the disciples as Jesus told us the parable of the mustard seed that grows into God’s disruptive, wondrous kingdom. This week, we board the boat to cross the Sea of Galilee, headed toward the Decapolis to bring Christ’s message to the Gentiles. Jesus falls asleep. A storm comes up, as they often do over that lake, tossing and turning the boat. The waves crash the boat, sending it out of control. The lake churns and swirls around them. The disciples are thrown into fear and panic. They wake Jesus up – not necessarily because they think he can save them, but because they cannot figure why their teacher could even imagine sleeping at a moment like this. He turns to control the waters. The rains subside. The waves die down. The lake is still. The storm is calmed.

Have you ever stood face to face with a giant? Have you ever found yourself in the midst of a storm? Then have we got a story for you.

Within months of Firas losing his job, Elizabeth and I witnessed nothing short of a miracle. He had managed to connect with the new bishop of Haifa, who immediately saw the spark of faith and the desire to serve. Within weeks, Firas was praying with the Bishop daily. Within months, the Bishop began to speak of ordination. And in less than a year, it happened. Firas the unemployed father of three became Father Firas, the Melkite priest. Donations for the church building came from Melkites in Germany, Presbyterians in Houston, and even Muslims in Qabatia, a nearby village. The Melkite church reopened its doors and heard the gospel for the first time in nearly twenty years. Giants of doubt lay slain. Storms of uncertainty were calmed. The power of God triumphed.

Do you have your own story of overcoming obstacles or of a sense of peace in the midst of chaos? It might not be as dramatic as the felling of a giant; or as miraculous as the quieting of a violent storm; or as prophetic as the reopening of a church in the midst of a war zone. Even so, have you experienced the power of God in a way that gives you that certainty of faith? If you have, I encourage you to share it – with your pastor, with each other, with friends and family. If you haven’t, my hope is that you will.

Friends, brothers and sisters in Christ, here in this place, in worship and in service, in fellowship and in learning, we begin to discover God at work in the world, in ways both subtle and vivid. And as we do, friends, let us remember this simple notion: There is no “and they lived happily ever after” in these stories. For Father Firas, he still needs to rebuild the trust of his congregation broken by twenty years of neglect. And the political uncertainties of Israel/Palestine make the challenge of ministry that much greater. For the shepherd boy David, the battle continued throughout his life – with armies, with Saul, with his own demons of power and lust. For Christ and his disciples, the storms raged on – from Pharisees and Romans, from crowds and multitudes, eventually leading to their deaths and martyrdom.

The point of these stories is not that they provide us with upbeat ending of a Hollywood movie. The point of seeking to live a life in faith is not that misery will leave us alone or that, as a friend once said, “God will place a ‘No Trespassing’ sign on our spiritual lawns.” As Christians, as a people who worship a Lord who died the humiliating death of a cross, we cannot preach or practice a faith that merely becomes a desire to escape from the agonies of life. In the moments of pain, we must know that Christ suffers with us. In the moments of triumph, we must remember that God rejoices with us.

And in those moments of triumph, over storms and giants, we must return again to our stories from this morning. As Firas the unemployed, overeducated factory worker becomes Father Firas, we might be tempted to think that this is an economic lesson, a “rags to riches” story. But a Melkite priest’s salary is barely enough to provide for a growing family and a church in need of repair. Instead, the point is that this young servant of God is able to dedicate his life to this service. The word of God is preached, the sacraments are practiced, and the gospel is alive in the land of Christ.

As David defeats Goliath, we might be tempted to assume that this is a moral lesson about David’s trust and Goliath’s arrogance, or a political lesson about Israelites and Philistines. But in a scene that is replete with images of violence and destruction, David gives this utterly subversive word: all that happens is so “that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that everyone gathered here will know that the Lord does not save by sword and spear.” In other words, the purpose of David’s defeat of Goliath is to point directly and clearly to the Lord God, whose weakness is stronger than human strength.

Likewise, as Christ quiets the waters, we are tempted to think that this is a spiritual lesson about the power of prayer. But the disciples never pray. In a story where Christ calms the storm, they call him teacher, not Lord. And they are more afraid after he stops the winds than before. The point here instead is that the disciples are learning more about their teacher; in fact, they are learning that he is no mere teacher, that he is no mere miracle worker or magician. Just as God breathed over the face of the chaotic waters of creation, Christ stills the sea with a word. He is worthy to be worshiped; there is divine power in his hands and in his words.

Friends, in each of these stories, the temptation is strong to let the triumph point to itself; the Israelites defeat the Philistines, Father Firas achieves his lifelong dream, Christ makes safe passage for his disciples across the lake. Instead, we must remember – in our lives as in our Scriptures – to allow the triumph to point to the power and presence of God’s very self. This is the essence of faith, a perfect love that casts out fear, where our agonies and celebrations alike can give glory to our risen Lord.

The storms will still rage. The giants will still tower. Through it all, let us hold on tight to the rock that is our faith. Amen.