A sermon on Mark 4:35-41 & 1 Samuel 17 by Nathan Nettleton
There was a line in the prayers of confession that we used over the last four weeks that may have struck you as odd. In it we confessed as sinful the times when we live within our limits. Most of the time, living within your limits is regarded as something of a virtue. I remember laughing out loud a few weeks ago when a football commentator had just been praising a particular player for being someone whose awareness of his own limitations enabled him to be a very effective player, and just as he finished saying it, that very same player attempted something a bit over ambitious which failed spectacularly, and the flummoxed commentator said, “And he’s just reminded himself of why he should stick to playing within his limits.” Mostly we regard it as wise and prudent to know our limitations and work to our strengths and avoid getting ahead of ourselves. So why have we been asking God’s forgiveness for the times “when we live within our limits, touching the bounds only for reassurance”? Well, I think a couple of tonight’s scripture readings might go a long way towards answering that question.
The young David, at the time he took on Goliath, was not, I suggest, someone who was ever likely to have been accused of playing it safe and living within his limits. Cocky, yes. Foolhardy, probably. A bit full of himself, quite possibly. As a teenage kid he goes on about how he’s killed bears and lions in the wilderness before and he’s up for dealing with this giant warrior who has been terrifying the army for days. And, so the story goes, sure enough, he goes out there and kills the giant with nothing more than a slingshot. This is not someone who plays it safe and lives within his limits.
But actually, this story is not told as one of someone who is over confident in his own ability. For all David’s cockiness, he does not claim that it’s all about his own ability at all. He sees this giant as something that is challenging God and God’s purposes, and he is confident that God is more than capable of bringing down the giant. All that God needs, says David, is someone who is willing to make themselves available to step into the danger zone with their trust in God and allow themselves to be used by God.
The contrast here is portrayed in wonderfully comic terms. Firstly the king and the army try to ridicule him into changing his mind, and then when they relent and decide to allow him to have a go — after all no one else is willing to have a go — they try to rig him out in the usual armour and weaponry, but David can hardly stand up in it all, let alone move freely to go out and face the giant. “Boy, this is really going to help. Not!” But the point is clear. When we are faced with daunting challenges, with things that want to subdue us and enslave us and rob us of our freedom to be all that we were created to be, our first instinct is always to employ the conventional weapons and put our trust in technologies and techniques and our own abilities to deploy those things. We want to meet fire with fire and take on these threats on their own terms. An eye for an eye, a hate for a hate, a sword for a sword. But when we do that, one of two things happens. If we are capable of wielding the weapons, we are still like Saul’s soldiers, fully equipped but only too aware that we are still absolutely no match for Goliath who is equally equipped but twice the size. Or if we are not practiced in the use of such weapons, we stand there like David in Saul’s armour, fully equipped but so weighed down that we are sitting ducks. Either way, Goliath is going to have his way with us, no problem.
The story we heard in the gospel reading is, in many ways, the same story. Again there is a terrifying threat from a powerful enemy. Again experienced campaigners are quaking in their boots and fearing for their lives. And again there is one who stands up and says it is not about numbers, it is not about the quality of our equipment, it is not about our abilities or our strength or our experience. It is all about what God can do and whether we can trust God enough to get ourselves out of the way and let God deal with it. And again something that threatened to violently overpower us and subdue us and keep us in our place — cowering, subservient, limited, compliant — is overcome.
In this second story, as Jesus stills the storm, we see in more detail the response of the rest of us as we observe the courageous freedom of the one who steps beyond the limits and trusts God to deal with the situation. The disciples seem almost more terrified of the one who has subdued the threat than they were of the threat itself. “Who is this man. We were terrified of the power of the storm, but this bloke makes the storm look like a pussy cat! We might as well be riding in a boat with an atomic bomb. Who knows what might happen?!”
And that’s what happens, isn’t it? Even more than we fear the forces that limit us and lock us in to the same old slaveries we’ve always put up with, we fear the possibility that it might not be necessary to put up with them but that we might be called to put our hands up to be used by God in overcoming them. As much as we may dislike and resent those oppressive forces, the gives us a certain comfort by giving a clear structure to our world. The limits are clear and inviolable. We can touch them for the reassurance of knowing where they are and therefore where we are in the scheme of things. They make the world predictable and understandable. They give us an awareness of our limits so we can live safely within them.
And so enslaved people will fight to defend their oppressors, and domestic violence victims will keep covering up for their abusers, and we will keep clinging on to our pain and our fear and our quiet despair and live within our limits, touching the bounds only for reassurance that everything is as it should be, predictable, dependable, sad, but safe so long as we respect those limits. And the prospect of encountering one who shows us that the limits are not the limits is so frightening, that we relegate Jesus to the pages of history so that Jesus stilling the storm is not a hope for tomorrow but a curiosity from the past, and David facing down Goliath is not a whisper of possibilities but the exception that proves the rule, and as long as they are back there, we can cling to our normality and avoid the terror of uncertainty.
But what if it is all a carefully crafted lie? What if the laws of nature are not so inevitable after all? What if it is not true that the only way to overcome bigger giants is with bigger weapons? What if it is not true that the only way to survive the storm is with superior technology? What if it is not true that the only way to end terrorism is with terrifying violence? What if it is not true that the big forces like the economies and politics and business and military systems will simply go on doing what they have always done and there is nothing that can be done about it? What if it is not true that the only way to deal with bad behaviour is with tighter rules and stricter punishments? What if it is not true that nothing can ever change about my life, and that I will always be who I have always been and there is no point in hoping for anything different ever? What if Jesus really has risen from the dead and even death is no longer an unavoidable limitation that we have to factor in and submit to?
Let me tell you “what if”. We’ll be falling to our knees saying, “My God! Who is this man?” That’s what if. Because it is both terrifying and what we desperately hope for, and the two sides of that are so bound up with one another that it is almost impossible to claim the hope without facing the terror. We can’t claim the hope and look to God to act without letting go of both our resignation and what have seemed like the only alternative ways of fighting back. David can not stride out before Goliath trusting only in God if he is also weighed down by the armour of a just-in-case fall back position. He has to leave the one behind in order to live the other. We understand facing giants with weapons or waves with a better boat, but facing giants or waves with nothing but a trust in God feels desperately vulnerable and insecure. And it is desperately vulnerable and insecure. It is the way of Jesus and look where it got him. It is the way that often appears to everyone else to be the way of complete failure. When Jesus was hanging on that cross, nobody saw it as his hour of victory. The waves and the giants don’t come any bigger than the towering hatred and bitterness and hostility that Jesus was facing. He resisted the two temptations of either pulling his head and living within his limits, or meeting fire with fire by resorting to using the same weapons as his enemies. And it was a real temptation. “I could pray to my Father who would send down legions of angels to fight for me.” But he didn’t. Instead he went out to face those giants armed only with his five smooth stones of vulnerability, surrender, trust, love and mercy. And at the time, it looked as though all was lost. But who has won and who has lost is another one of those things we thought was some kind of immutable law, isn’t it? Another one of those unchanging realities that govern our lives that we can’t do anything about. But three days later, word started to leak out that perhaps it wasn’t so, that perhaps death had lost its sting, that perhaps the scale of winners and losers had been turned upside down. Christ has risen.
I don’t know just what giants or waves are threatening you at the present time. Well, for some of you I have some idea about some of them. But whatever they are, it probably is true that you can’t defeat them by yourself. And you will probably only be giving them what they want if you try. It is a good thing to know your limits, and to be aware of what you can’t do. But that only has to confine you if everything was up to you, and it isn’t. Being aware of your own limits can be a step towards trusting God to take care of the rest. We confess living within our limits to be sin when in fact God has called us to step out and live within God’s limits instead, allowing God to take care of what always was and probably always will be beyond our personal limits. So let your healthy recognition of your own limits be the point at which you let go and trust God for whatever comes next, even if it be facing terrifying giants or storms. For here at this table, you will meet the risen Lord who can face them for you and with you and through you, and here you will be handed all you need.