During the time in which the story in 1 Samuel first was told, Israel is constantly at war with the Philistines. Ancient warfare was highly ritualized. In Homer’s Iliad, we read how battles were conducted in ancient times in the epic story of the siege of Troy, about 1200 BC. We see that each side would send out its great champion who would fight on behalf of his people. Often the battle would end with that, because whichever champion won the other side would be so demoralized it would retreat. At this time, the Philistines have a champion who is described as well, huge, Goliath. And the problem is that the Jewish forces have no champion at all. The Jewish troops are stationed on the one side of the Elah Valley, south of Jerusalem, a place that you can still visit today in Israel, and the Philistines are on the other. Goliath is marching out in front of the Philistine lines, shouting curses at the Jews and challenging someone to come and fight him. Choose yourself a man and let him come down to me shouts Goliath. If he can fight me and kill me, we will be slaves to you; if I defeat him and kill him, you will be slaves to us and serve us. The mortified Israelite army has to listen to this, because no one is willing to take on Goliath. One day, David, who is still a shepherd and not a soldier, shows up on the battlefield bringing food for his brothers and he’s shocked by what he sees. Outraged at Goliath’s blasphemous insulting of the God of Israel, David volunteers to fight Goliath, though he has a hard time convincing everybody to let him go out into the field. Finally, he convinces King Saul with his steadfast faith in God.
Why do we love the stories of the underdog so much? Well at least I do. We’ve watched Rudy so many times we can recite the lines, and I cry every time Rudy gets put into the game. Mighty Ducks, the first one, is another favorite, I sit on the edge of my seat until the end of the game, even though I’ve seen them win a bazillion times. The Rookie, Star Wars, Chariots of Fire, Remember the Titans, Field of Dreams, and the list goes on. And there are many where the underdog doesn’t win in the end. Little Big League, Tin Cup, Any Given Sunday. The reason I bring all this up is that I wonder at the question, which comes first, our passion for rooting for the little guy, or the story of David and the story of Jesus? I think it is a fascinating question.
I remember my first New Testament professor telling us that all history is written from the perspective of the winners. History published in history books is written from the perspective of the winners. The losers don’t write history, and their story is rarely told in history books. Western civilization loves its winners and are often assigned near divine status, or, at the least, God is on the winner’s side status.
And yet we have before us this story of David in which the underdog becomes the champion. And we have this story of Jesus, in which those who are low are raised up, those who are on the margins are brought to the center, those who have no power are empowered, and lowly fisher folk become disciples.
I wonder if it is human nature to be on the side of the winner. Is it part of our DNA? The biological story may support that. We know the story of the survival of the strongest. We know that the human drive is to procreate, to survive and to thrive. In the animal kingdom the weakest and the smallest don’t last long. But Jesus shows us that in God’s kingdom in dying we are alive, as sorrowful yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich, as having nothing and yet possessing everything.
God’s kingdom is very different from human’s kingdom. In God’s kingdom, the underdog becomes the champion. In God’s kingdom, fisher folk become disciples and bring the Good News to all nations, to all people, to the ends of the earth. In God’s kingdom, God has faith in the people, and the people respond with faith the size of a mustard seed in God. In God’s kingdom, faith the size of a mustard seed is enough to grow and accomplish great things. In God’s kingdom, not only does the underdog win, not only does the lowest get lifted up, but even what is dead has new life. Even faltering faith of the disciples can become awe.
The Good News is that God’s kingdom has begun. Jesus’ life, and love, suffering and death, and resurrection began God’s kingdom. In God’s time God’s kingdom will be fulfilled. In the meantime, you and I can be active participants in God’s kingdom. We can respond to God’s love, we can respond to God’s faith in us. We can be on the side of the underdog. We can be with the lowly disciples in the boat.
So I return to the all time best underdog movie, Rudy. For those of you who don’t know the story, Rudy grew up in a steel mill town where most people ended up working, but Rudy wanted to play football at Notre Dame instead. There were only a couple of problems. His grades were a little low, his athletic skills were poor, and he was only half the size of the other players. But he had the drive and the spirit of 5 people and has set his sights upon joining the team. He spent two years at St. Mary’s working on his grades and working his way through school. When he finally got into Notre Dame as a junior, he walked on to the team and served on the ‘scout’ team as pretty much a tackling dummy. By the time he was a senior, he had endeared himself to the really good football players, and they really wanted him to be officially recognized as a member of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, and that would only happen if he participated in at least one play. Rudy’s teammates had already experienced his heart, and his steadfast faith, and insisted to the coach that Rudy suit up. So in the waning moments of the last game of Rudy’s senior year, the team and then the fans chanted Rudy, Rudy, coach put him in and Rudy ran a couple of plays. It wasn’t about winning at all, it was about a little guy who responded to life in big ways and with gusto. it was about faith, it was about being fully engaged in relationship with God and with others.
Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness: Come let us adore him.
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