It feels like a while since I read – in full – story of David and Goliath. (And in case you’re thinking I chose this passage deliberately at this moment when we are in a David and Goliath struggle with the Association, can I say – no – it is legit the lectionary reading for this Sunday! I could have used one of the other three… but who could resist?) It is, however, long! Challenging for contemporary attention spans – in church at least! And re-reading it this week, I realised, there are some parts of the story that never made it into my Sunday School lessons!

You are familiar, I assume, with the Australian Government classification ratings – G, PG, M and above – and the directive CTC, to check the classification.

Thinking about the David and Goliath story we were taught as children (if that was the case for you), the version of the selected verses we read today, I would give it a G classification. There is content that may scare young children – Goliath is very big and scary – but it is suitable for everyone.

The focus in this version is the contest – and the contrast – between David and Goliath. Goliath is big! Four and a half cubits tall according to the earliest manuscripts or six and a half, according to the later ones. A cubit – the length of a forearm – is said to be 18 inches (42 cm) making him either 6 foot 9 or 9 foot 9. Does anyone think in metric? Almost 2 metres or almost 3 metres. Three metres is extraordinary, but even two makes him a giant beside the average soldier – estimated to be 5 foot 3 (160cm). (For comparison, that looks like President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, standing next to the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen.)

And Goliath is very scary! His armour weighed 5,000 shekels, around 57 kilograms, and he also carried a helmet of bonze, greaves of bronze (if you’re not into ancient armoury those are the pieces that cover your legs), a bronze javelin, and a 6cm wide spear with a 6.8 kilo spearhead. (That, for reference, is carry-on bag weight, but you are carrying your carry-on on the tip of your spear!) He was big and scary, and the text wants us to know it. This is, according to one commentator, the single longest human depiction in the entire Bible!

And David? Three times he is called young and inexperienced. He is (verses 14-15) the youngest son – and works as a shepherd, “just a boy”, King Saul says (verse 33) and in verse 42 Goliath disdains his youth – and his youthful good looks!

And when it comes to armour – not only does he have none – but there is quite a comic moment in the text when he tries some on. Verse 39: “he tried in vain to walk for he was not used to [walking in armour].” There are some great images in the thirteenth century Morgan Bible of David trying to pull the armour on – and then off – and how awkward he looks doing it!

And so, these two face off – David and Goliath in their David and Goliath struggle – and the extraordinary happens and, despite his lack of size and experience and equipment, David wins!

The message of the G version is that God barracks for the underdog, more than that, God battles for the underdog – the underdog who puts their hope in God. As David puts it, “so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord does not save by sword and spear, for the battle is the Lord’s, …he will give you into our hand.” We might, at this junction in our church life, be hoping other assemblies would heed this message as well!

But if we go back and read more of chapter 17, there is another version of the story. I’m calling this the PG version – the version children (and adults too) might find confusing or upsetting and need some guidance to understand. In this version the contest is less focused on David and Goliath and more on Saul and David, the king God rejects (chapters 15 and 16), and the king God accepts.

Because 1 Samuel 17 is a sharp critique of Saul’s kingship. What have we been told about Saul from the moment he appears in 1 Samuel 9? “There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he; he stood head and shoulders above everyone else.” (9:2) And a chapter later, “When he took his stand among the people, he was head and shoulders taller than any of them.” (10:23) So why, when Goliath calls out Israel’s champion, over a period of 40 days, is Saul’s response fear and dismay (verse 11) and silence?

David, in contrast, sounds like a king! Note that when he comes to Saul he speaks first, an indication that he is the true king. “Let no one’s heart fail because of him,” he says, “your servant will go and fight with this Philistine …since he has defied the armies of the living God.” (17:32 and 36)

However, the text doesn’t entirely condemn Saul. He was the king chosen by God. He was Israel’s great miliary leader, and, in this conversation with David he is concerned – “you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth” (17:33); he is persuaded by David’s conviction; he blesses David – “may the Lord be with you” (17:37); and he is generous – he gives David his own armour!

Just as Saul is not a villain without redemption, David is not a hero without blemishes. His first response to Goliath’s challenge is to ask – twice – what the reward would be for killing him! It’s an ambitious streak that does not endear him to his oldest brother, Eliab. “Why have you come down?” he asks, “With whom have you left those few sheep in the wilderness? I know your presumption and the evil of your heart; for you have come down just to see the battle.” And David responds like every younger brother everywhere, “What have I done now? It was only a question.” But David – with his slingshot – is more than an ambitious, annoying little brother. He is a killer. Judges 20:17 confirms the lethal accuracy of ancient armies with this weapon.

Russian author and Soviet dissident, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, while serving as a captain in the Red Army in WW2 was sentenced to ten years of imprisonment and internal exile for criticizing Stalin in a private letter. His non-fiction work, Gulag Archipelago, in 1973, exposed the Soviet penal system, and so outraged the Soviet government that Solzhenitsyn was stripped of citizenship and exiled to Europe and the United States for 20 years.

Rather than becoming bitter, however, Solzhenitsyn, who returned to his faith as an Eastern Orthodox Christian, said he was thankful for prison, for the deep insight it gave him into human nature. “If only it were so simple!” he famously wrote, “If only it were true that there exist evil people insidiously committing evil deeds, whom it is necessary simply to separate out and destroy… When I lay there on rotting prison straw… it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains… an un-uprooted small corner of evil.”

What Solzhenitsyn discovered was also true of Saul and David. Both were complex characters. Both could be possessed by the Spirit of God and tormented by evil desires. Both needed to acknowledge their need for God and repent of their reliance on ambition and power and cunning and aggression.

The same is true in our situation. Many in our Assembly who voted to disaffiliate churches and disaccredit pastors, also grieve over this decision. They are not pure villains. And the Open Baptists are not blemish free. Sometimes, I confess, Eliab’s accusation, “You have come down just to see the battle”, could be levelled at me. The adrenalin of conflict and drama can be addictive. And we can fool ourselves into thinking that a new Association will solve all our problems. Not so. The line separating good and evil, as Solzhenitsyn says, passes right through all human hearts and Associations are the work of – very – human hearts. “Rise up,” says our psalm, “so not let mortals prevail… Let the nations, [let our institutions, let our associations, let us] know that we are human.” Let us know we need the living God.

Finally, there is also the horrific version of this story – one worthy of an M classification or greater – for content of a violent nature and themes that require a mature outlook.

In verses 50 and 51 we read that, having struck Goliath down with a stone, but having no sword in his hand, David ran over to him “grasped his sword, drew it out of it sheath, and killed him; then he cut off his head with it.”

It is an act of extreme violence. One presented, in the text, as sacred violence justified by the fact Goliath has defied the armies of the living God. David says, “I will… cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth, so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel…”

These texts are challenging. Are we dealing with a more primitive understanding of God? Or are the horrors of war an inevitable and inscrutable aspect of the intersection of God’s will and human history?

All we know is that as Christ has set us a different example. Matthew 5:43-44: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” All we know is that Christ, the living God, went all the way to death rather than resort to the violence we see here. All we know is Christ and Christ crucified because he loved us – all of us. As German Lutheran pastor, Martin Niemöller, reflected toward the end of his life, “It took me a long time to learn that God is not the enemy of my enemies. He’s not even the enemy of his own enemies.”

Last weekend’s Assembly was painful. It is even more painful when relatives of mine say, “Oh yes, we voted for disaffiliation and disaccreditation, but our relationship will stay the same.” I feel they are saying, “You are no longer my sister in Christ, but we’re still friends,” whereas, for me, the friendship has altered, but nothing can alter the reality that we are brothers and sisters in Christ.

Nothing can alter the reality that Christ died to make peace with us and between us.

Nothing can alter the reality that the line separating good and evil passes right through all of our hearts – that we all need God.

Nothing can alter the reality that victory in ours through God who loves us.

Can I invite you to sing with me these words – from a prayer by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Goodness is stronger than evil;

love is stronger than hate;

light is stronger than darkness; l

life is stronger than death;

victory is ours, victory is ours, through Christ who loved us,

victory is ours, victory is ours, through Christ who loved us.