This is Rev. Graham Crawford’s sermon for Sunday, 21 June 2015:
If you want a frozen pizza to have in your freezer for emergencies, in the USA, one of the options is Tombstone Pizza.
Originally it was the product of a small bar or pub in Wisconsin, but it grew and grew until it attracted the attention of one of the big multinationals and it is now part of the Nestle empire. Part of its success has to be its marketing. After all, who would forget the phrase, “What do you want on your tombstone?” The inference being, of course, that you can choose all sorts of toppings.
However, it is also something which we all think about from time to time. Some people get very creative with their tombstones or gravestones, as we more usually call them here. I have a book in my library, “A small book of grave humour,” which contains many fabulous epitaphs, although one of my favourites came after the book was published, which is on Spike Milligan’s Gravestone. “I told you I was ill!”
However, the inscription had to be written in Gaelic in order for it to be approved by the Chichester Diocese. I plan to be cremated, so I will not have a gravestone or even a tombstone, but if I did I know what I would want on it:
“31 What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
I think these are some of the most powerful and reassuring words of scripture.
That is why I make no apology for reading them at nearly every funeral, for I believe every grieving person should hear these words and receive the comfort that they bring, for they speak of the limitless power of an almighty and ever-living God and in the midst of life’s stresses and strains we sometimes need to be reminded of that power and of the fact that our God is indeed the living God. As we sang with the children: “God is not dead; he is alive!”
We have already heard a version of the story of David and Goliath and so I do not intend to repeat it here, but it does deserve comment because the central message is one which we hear echo down through the other scriptures of the day and indeed in Romans 8.
Preachers through the ages have used the story of David and Goliath as a springboard for challenging believers to be courageous in the face of the “giant” obstacles that come their way. No doubt, the narrative’s early popularity had something to do with Israel’s recurrent status as a small nation going up against the world’s great powers from Egypt and Mesopotamia.
In the modern era, Goliath has been changed into a metaphor for illness and rejection, the fear of failure and the threat of persecution. Athletic teams (particularly poor ones) have taken courage from David’s amazing victory against all odds. Hopeful small business owners have adopted David’s “can do” attitude in going up against giant competitors in the hope of carving out a niche for themselves. Some of those who visualize themselves in David’s sandals have succeeded. Others have failed. But is this what the story is all about?
Using David’s unlikely victory as an inspirational lesson may be helpful, but that is not the intended purpose of the story, which insists that it was not David who defeated the giant opponent, but God. David may have been both courageous and skilful, but he succeeded because he was faithful. He was a man after God’s own heart, empowered by God’s own spirit.
The author finds several opportunities to contrast David’s behaviour with Saul’s action—and non-action. While Saul and his army were paralyzed by inaction before the Philistine threat, David never wavered. Why? Not just because he was fearless, but because he was so devoted to God that he could not bear to hear the giant’s taunts against Israel and its God. He could not endure seeing God’s people shamed or God’s honour besmirched.
Saul’s attempt to clothe David in his own armour suggests that the king, like other men, put his trust in armaments and numbers and physical ability. In contrast, David put his trust in God alone. God had given David the ability to defeat fearsome lions and dangerous bears—why should it be any different with a heathen soldier? Perhaps it is significant that David was the only person to mention God’s name until Saul finally picked up on David’s faith and sent him into battle with the blessing “May the LORD be with you” (17:37).
What is more significant is that David seems to be the only person who regarded God as a living God (17:26, 36). Israel’s army, stymied and scared, seems to have regarded their god as irrelevant. There is no suggestion that Saul had called for a priest to offer sacrifice or pray for the people, no indication that God’s favour or aid had been invoked. Goliath proclaimed his god’s power, but Israel did not answer. Perhaps David’s greatest accomplishment is that he reintroduced the presence, the power, and the life of God to the equation. When modern believers fall prey to the discouraging obstacles of life, they often do so with little hope that there really is a living God who loves them and cares for them. The difference between growing people of faith and non-practising religionists may come down to the issue of whether they think of God as a cultural icon or a living presence.
If the God of Israel had no more life than Dagon, the god of the Philistines, then Israel’s army was surely in trouble. But if Israel’s God was living and active and willing to fight for his people, a whole new script was in order. When we come to 1 Samuel 17 in search of inspiration or guidance, our central challenge is not to take courage in their own smallness, but to find hope in their God’s reality and relevance. Faith communities cannot stand firm amidst the gods of modern culture unless they are willing to trust the same faithful God who empowered David’s victory over the giant.
I believe that one of the biggest challenges for us is to show effectively the power of the living God. This was not an issue for Jesus. He could call on the power of God in quite dramatic fashion as we will see from our Gospel reading this morning (Mark 4):
35 That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, ‘Let us go over to the other side.’ 36 Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. 37 A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped.38 Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, ‘Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?’
39 He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, ‘Quiet! Be still!’ Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.
40 He said to his disciples, ‘Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?’
41 They were terrified and asked each other, ‘Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!’
In order to gain a fuller picture of the events in the storm on the lake, it is worth remembering that this passage belongs together with the story of the healing of the demon-possessed man which follows in chapter 5, the man named legion because he was possessed by so many demons.
It is Jesus that wants to travel over to the other side of the lake. So far He ministered on the western, Jewish side of the lake. Now He wants to reach into the Gentile area too, the side that did not experience yet the nearness of the Kingdom of God, did not hear the good news, and experience its power! On that side there is still darkness, there is no experience of the living God.
I believe that there is a connection between the storm and the healing of the demon possessed man that I have alluded to. The storm did not start by coincidence! It was meant to stop Jesus on his journey over to the other side. It was meant to stop Him spreading the good news and the power of God’s coming kingdom over there, among the gentiles!
I am always finding it astonishing that in spite of their expertise of the lake and its sudden nature to turn stormy, and in spite of their nautical skills they turn in terror to a carpenter, a worker in wood, someone who never left the dry land to save them in the storm! It had to be a massive storm, make no mistake about it. One that could not only stop them on the journey, but could swallow them up or else they would not have been so fearful, after all they were used to normal storms on the lake, but not this storm. This storm had a menace about it that struck fear into their hearts.
You should be under no misapprehensions here. Following Jesus, or taking Him and His good news to still dark places will still stir up opposition, conflict, quite possibly a huge threatening storm! Nothing has changed in this regard over 2,000 years. Every Christian, every true follower of Christ needs to be prepared for that! Part of that preparation means fighting within ourselves a tendency to believe that when we are in trouble because of Jesus, we assume He doesn’t care – as the disciples suggested that he did not care if they drowned. We lose sight of His love for us, demonstrated on the cross and allow the massive waves of conflict and opposition, and the fear of them, to come between us and Him and doubting His love to be genuine can mean we lose our faith in Him. The disciples, and indeed we, should not forget His words by which he started us out on the journey with Him: ‘Let us go over to the other side.’
We need to trust both his plan and his presence. For if we call on his name he will be there ready and willing to show the power of the living God in rescuing us from that which would do us most harm. Jesus has the power to subdue the power of darkness with His Word and as a result brings calm and order into chaos and fear!
However, do not be under any misapprehensions. After all Jesus’ word and demonstrated power caused a different terror among the disciples. For a brief moment they experienced the glory and lordship of Jesus over nature and its forces! Taking Jesus just as He is we must realise how great, amazing and powerful He is! He is Lord over all! That should assure, calm and unsettle every believer! ‘My Saviour is alive and he is Lord over all!’
It was this assurance that spurred Paul on. If you think you have it tough as a Christian witness in a largely pagan world, listen to what Paul endured (2 Corinthians 6):-
3 We put no stumbling-block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. 4 Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; 5 in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; 6 in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; 7 in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; 8 through glory and dishonour, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; 9 known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed;10 sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
The key to everything that Paul endured is right there in verses six and seven:
6 in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; 7 in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left.
All that he did and all that he endured he was able to achieve in the power of God.
Not in the power of some idol made of stone, or some fabrication of the mind, but in the power of the living God.
It is that power that
- allowed David to kill Goliath,
- Jesus used to calm the storm and bring the Gospel to the gentiles,
- allowed Paul, in spite of horrendous opposition, to carry the Gospel throughout Asia Minor, Greece and even into the very corridors of power in Rome.
The power of the living God, that is what allowed all of this to take place.
It is the power of the living God that will enable this church to flourish. It is the power of the living God that will take the Gospel beyond these four walls throughout the lanes and streets of Lossiemouth. It is the power of the living God that through mission, your witness, my witness and all the tools that we can muster that will take the Gospel well beyond what we could even imagine.
No wonder Paul could write in the verse just before our reading, “Indeed God is ready to help you right now. Right now, not after lunch, not after your lunchtime snooze, not after your ship comes in or your kids leave home, but right now.”
Today is the day of salvation. Today is the day of salvation. So if you come across any taunting giants like Goliath, any storms in life like the disciples or any opposition like Paul, if anyone doubts that we serve a living God I challenge you to join with David, Jesus and Paul and say: “How dare you!”
Today is the day of salvation; I call on the name of the living God. For God says, “At just the right time, I heard you. On the day of salvation, I helped you.” So today put your trust in the power of the living God.