Our passage from 1 Samuel this morning is, of course, from the middle of one of those Bible stories that the church knows and loves—the story of David and Goliath. At first blush, it might seem odd to take this story and pair it with this morning’s text from 1 Timothy; but there are a few things in this story worth thinking about as we consider Paul’s words in this letter. First, there’s something in the backstory here that David knows and Saul doesn’t, which is critical to understanding what’s going on. You see, in chapter 15, Saul disobeys God, and Samuel declares that God has rejected Saul as king of Israel. Saul of course knows that, but what he doesn’t know is that God has already chosen his replacement: David, whom Samuel anoints as king of Israel in chapter 16. What we see here in chapter 17, then, is David taking his first steps into the new call and the new responsibility God has given him, stepping into the leadership vacuum left by Saul’s unfaithfulness. In other words, this story isn’t just about who’s going to kill the big bad giant—it’s about leadership, and what it means to lead the people of God.
Second, both Saul and David know that leadership requires training. When David volunteers to go out against Goliath, Saul says, “You can’t do that—he’s a trained, experienced warrior, and you’re an inexperienced, untrained boy.” David responds, “I’m not that inexperienced. You might think being a shepherd doesn’t count for much, but God has been using it to train me for this new responsibility to which he’s called me. As a shepherd, I’ve had to fight lions and bears single-handed to protect my flock, and I’ve killed them every time and rescued the sheep they tried to carry off. I’m no stranger to fighting, and so far, I’ve never lost a fight; I have been prepared by God to fight Goliath.”
Third, and most important, is one more thing that David knows and Saul really doesn’t: the battle belongs to the Lord. Saul puts his faith in the strength of his armor and the edge of his sword—which is why he’s hiding in his tent, afraid of Goliath, instead of leading his people. David, by contrast, puts his faith in God, trusting that “the Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.” Why? Because the Philistine has mocked and dishonored the name of God, and God won’t let that slide; the Philistine must be defeated, and God is going to make that happen. As the world normally judges these things, young shepherd vs. experienced warrior giant is a severe mismatch—Hoosiers has nothing on that one; but David understands that the world is missing something, and that if the Lord of creation is on the side of the shepherd, then it’s the giant who’s out of his weight class.
In these first and third points, I believe, in the things Saul didn’t understand, we see the basic reason for his failure as king of Israel. He didn’t really know what it means to be a leader under God—he didn’t understand what leadership really is, or what it’s about. That’s a common mistake, to be sure; we tend to look at leadership positions as a chance for people to make sure things are done their way, to realize their own vision and make their priorities everyone else’s priorities. That’s certainly how we see things done time after time in our politics—frequently with disastrous results, especially for politicians who are unwilling to listen to those who disagree with them and take their concerns seriously. The results were certainly disastrous for Saul, bringing both his reign and his life to a premature end. That’s the kind of thing that happens when you see leadership as a form of self-expression and self-actualization.
What David understood that Saul didn’t is that in God’s view, being a good leader is first and foremost about being a good follower—specifically, a follower of God. He was confident against Goliath not primarily because of his own skills—though they played their part—but because he was close enough to God to recognize what God was doing in that situation, and what God wanted him (as the newly anointed king of Israel) to do. Godly leadership isn’t about imposing our will on our circumstances, but about seeking and following God’s will in our circumstances, and doing so in a way that makes it clear to others so that they can follow us in turn. It’s the sort of thing Paul’s talking about in 1 Corinthians 11:1 when he says, “Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ.” That’s it in a nutshell. In the Christian view, leadership is mimetic—which is to say, it’s all about imitation. We learn to follow Christ by imitating others who have learned to follow him more closely than we do, who in turn are following others who are yet further along in their Christian walk, who in turn are following others who went before them; and each of us, as we learn to follow Christ more nearly, lead others in turn to do the same. That’s leadership; that’s discipleship; that’s the Christian life right there.
Of course, as human beings, we need structure, and the Christian community needs leaders with certain skills—the interpretation of Scripture, administration, leading worship, teaching and caring for children, and the like—and so we establish certain specific positions to insure that we have set leaders who bring those skills to the table; so it has been ever since the beginning, which is why Paul had established Timothy in Ephesus. God gives those gifts to the church, and they’re important—I’m much better at this job than I ever would be at Pam Chastain’s, for example, and while Alice Seiman is a wonderful deacon, that doesn’t mean she’d be happy to come up and preach—and continued use and development of our gifts through training is important as well; but you can see here the same thing we saw in chapter 3, that Paul’s primary concern for Timothy and for the other leaders of the Ephesian church is not their skillset but their character. Implicitly, Paul would rather have a pastor who’s a mediocre preacher but whose life shines with the love and goodness and holiness of Christ than a brilliant preacher living in serious unrepentant sin—and so would I, and so I’m sure would any of you. The most important thing about our leaders is not that they talk well, but that they live well.
This is why Paul says, “Train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.” Train yourself to be godly. This is something of an unfamiliar concept for much of the American church. We tend to have the “In His Steps”/WWJD sort of mindset that says, the way to live a godly life is whenever you come up to a decision, ask yourself what Jesus would do and then do that. That’s great in theory, but it doesn’t really work all that well in practice. Sometimes, it’s not really that obvious what Jesus would have us to do; and when we face temptation, we probably know full well that Jesus wants us to resist it, but that doesn’t make it any easier for us to turn and walk away—especially if we’ve developed a pattern of giving in to that particular temptation. Then too, there are lots of times when the decision goes by too quickly for conscious thought—one of your kids misbehaves, or someone cuts you off in traffic, or a co-worker insults you, and you react, just the way you always react when that happens. Looking back, you might well realize that that wasn’t what Jesus would have wanted you to do, but you’re not thinking about that at the time—you’re not thinking beyond the situation.
The truth of the matter is, performance requires preparation—and this is true of any kind of performance. If you want to go out and compete in our little mini-triathlon here, you need to train your body to be able to go the distance. One of my favorite colleagues out in Colorado, Rob Wilson, is the pastor at Eagle River Presbyterian Church, out west of Vail. He’s also an avid triathlete who used to keep himself in shape by biking the 24 miles back and forth from his house to the church; when we had meetings in Summit County, the next county east of Vail, sometimes he’d bike there, going up and over Vail Pass, which is about 12,000 feet. One summer he went up and did the triathlon in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and as he was telling us about this, he mentioned off-hand that they’d moved the triathlon from Salt Lake City to get away from the bad publicity after one of their racers died. We wondered if he was sure he wanted to be competing in an event that killed its participants, but he shrugged it off, because he knew he was up to it.
Or take another test of endurance, of a sort—think of MasterWorks. Poor Gert, with a major recording project right in the middle of that—I can’t imagine how he stayed on his feet the whole time. I don’t know how many of the concerts you made (for me the answer was the same as last year: “Not enough”), but there were some truly brilliant performances. The closing weekend was especially memorable, with Tchaikovsky’s Fourth and Mahler’s First—I was rather amused, actually, that Saturday night, because it didn’t look like the audience wanted to let the orchestra out of the building. I know Dr. Kavanaugh was exclaiming for months over how good this year’s students were, and there’s no question from their performances that their talent was amazing. But they didn’t just show up each weekend and play; they spent long, long hours rehearsing, alone and together, to get the music right so that they could perform at that rarefied level.
We understand this, when it comes to physical disciplines. Certainly, if I announced that I was going to go out and do a triathlon this week, you’d be justified in questioning my sanity, since there’s no way on God’s green Earth I’m up to that. We get that for a Michael Phelps or a Michael Jordan, for a Peyton Manning or a Michael Johnson, that their athletic success in the big moments is just the visible part of a massive iceberg labeled “training”; we understand that if they don’t put in the work the other six days, when it comes to game day or race day, they’re not going to get the results.
The problem is that too often, we forget that this applies to our performance as spiritual beings, too. If we’re going to perform when our faith is tested, when temptation hits us, when we have the chance to talk about Jesus with a non-Christian friend—if we’re going to be like Jesus in those moments when we can see it matters—then we need to lay the groundwork for that with the rest of our lives. We can’t just roll out of bed and go out and live like Christ; we need to train our minds and our bodies to operate in that way, to let him reshape our ways of thinking and reacting, to let him remake our habits and our patterns and our accustomed behaviors in his image.
That’s why Paul tells Timothy to reject the myths and nonsense of the false teachers. Their twisted version of the gospel empty, vacuous, devoid of anything of value—it was little more than a trap to catch the credulous and the foolish. There was simply nothing in it to build spiritual strength and wisdom. Instead, Paul tells Timothy to continue to nourish himself, to continue to feed himself spiritually, on the words of the faith and sound teaching—which is to say, on the true gospel of Jesus Christ, and the teachings of Paul and the other apostles—and then to put that to work by teaching and leading the church in Ephesus accordingly. Just as we develop physical fitness by eating good food to give our muscles the energy and the nutrients they need, then using that energy and those nutrients to strengthen them through exercise, so we develop spiritual fitness by feeding our souls on the truths of God and his word, and then teaching those truths to others and working to put them into practice in our own lives.
This is what it means to train ourselves to be godly—it’s to organize our lives in such a way that everything we do and everything on which we spend our time contributes to the goal of making us more like Christ. Is that book, or that magazine article, or that TV program, good food or junk food? Is it contributing in any way to our growth in Christ and the strength of our spirits, or is it weakening and undermining us? As Dallas pastor Matt Chandler rightly says, it’s not just a matter of whether something is sinful or not—it’s a broader question: does this feed our love for Jesus, or does it draw our love away from Jesus? Most of the things that cause us to love Jesus less aren’t sinful in and of themselves—but our love for them overgrows its proper bounds, and they take an improper place in our lives. Baseball was a big one for me that way, as I used to plow a great deal of time and effort and mental energy into following the game; I had to prune it back a long way, I had to redirect a lot of that time and effort and energy, because baseball—which I continue to affirm is a good thing—was taking my heart away from God, and also from my family, and interfering with my spiritual growth.
The responsibility of leaders like Timothy, then, is to model this: to train ourselves in godliness so that others can see the value of such training in our lives, and be inspired to follow us. It’s not enough just to say that this is good and worth doing, especially when the culture around us is saying otherwise, because quite frankly, the culture has a bigger megaphone than the church. People need to be able to see that training in godliness has value in this life; the culture needs to see that from the church, which means that the church needs to see that from its leaders. It’s essential to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, but it’s not enough just to say it; how we live needs to back up what we say if we want anyone to believe it, or to care.
This is especially true when we face opposition, as Timothy was. It seems pretty clear that his relative youth was being used by the false teachers as an excuse not to listen to him, when the real problem was that they didn’t want to hear what he was saying; this was no doubt highly frustrating, and it was a real challenge to figure out how to respond in a way that was actually constructive. Paul gives him three answers to that challenge. One, don’t give in—continue to preach the gospel, and to call the church to live in accordance with the true will of God. Two, don’t give up—don’t let anyone look down on you, but be diligent in doing what you’ve been called to do; hold on, hold fast, persevere. And three, rise above the fray—don’t try to fight fire with fire, but instead, set an example that your opponents can’t ignore.
It all comes back to this: Timothy’s job is to preach the gospel faithfully, whatever may come, doing everything possible to make sure that people get the message, which means living in such a way that they can see the gospel at work in his life. This is why he needs to be spiritually fit, and why I need to be spiritually fit, and the elders, and all of us, because we have a job to do, and a mission to carry out: to be a pillar to uphold the truth of the gospel, to keep it as the vision before our own eyes and to lift it high for all the world to see. We are called to proclaim to all the world, in our words and in our silence, in our actions and in our stillness, the mystery of our faith, who was revealed in a body, vindicated in spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the Gentiles, believed in throughout the world, taken up in glory. We are called to hold up this truth and shine his light; we’re called to preach this good news, that Jesus Christ came into this world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost, to proclaim it and live it out, until in the end, Jesus Christ alone is our vision, and our wisdom, and our wealth, and our home.