Small stature, giant faith
Given on Sunday 3rd February 2008 at The Abbey by The Vicar, Canon Eric Woods
If, visiting a medieval mansion or Tudor country house, you have ever cracked your head on a lintel or low arch, you will have discovered for yourself, rather painfully, that people were a good deal shorter four or five hundred years ago than they are now. Being myself 100 per cent East Angle, I know that my Anglo-Saxon ancestors a thousand years ago were at least as tall as I am now, and the Saxon sarcophagus by the Vestry door proves the point that as a race we have not simply grown taller century by century. What seems to have happened is that, especially in the 14 th century, a prolonged sequence of appalling harvests interspersed by bouts of the plague (particularly the 'Black Death' which devastated the country between 1348 and 1350) all but stripped us of our health, wealth, height and vitality. As an aside, I think that much more work needs to be done about the consequences of the death in the middle of the 14 th century of something like two-thirds of the English clergy, and the subsequent recruitment of under-educated, under-qualified and not necessarily suitable replacements. How far did that hasten the Reformation? But I stray from my point. Englishmen who once walked tall were now greatly reduced in stature. Their buildings which still survive prove the point. "Olde Worlde" pubs commonly have signs which read Duck or grouse , and being fairly tall I've done more than my fair share of grousing as I have banged my skull on a beam or stone slab under which my medieval ancestors would have passed with ease.
So a "giant" in Old Testament terms might have seemed huge in the 15 th century, but not necessarily by today's standards. Similarly, it is likely that a six-footer would have seemed very large indeed in the time of King David. And yet all the evidence is that the giant Goliath, whom we met in our first lesson this evening, really was a good deal taller than that. Modern translations give us his height as nine feet, but the Hebrew actually says 'six cubits and a span'. Now a cubit was a rather vague unit of measurement. To sort it out we have to begin with what we can measure today, which is Hezekiah's Tunnel in Jerusalem, still functioning after 2,700 years as a major water conduit for the city. By measuring its length and comparing it with the Biblical record, it is possible to calculate that a cubit was about 15 inches. Six cubits would therefore be 90 inches, or 7'6". Then you have to add a hand's span. Mine is 9", and that would make Goliath 8'3" - a remarkable height even today. It's not unknown. The Royal College of Surgeons possesses the skeleton of a nine-foot Irishman, and sometimes such great height is caused by an hereditary phenomenon, such as an excess of a growth hormone produced by the pituitary gland. We know from the Book of Deuteronomy that there was in the Middle East a race of people known as the Rephaim , who were all incredibly tall but who were eventually forced out of their homeland by the vast army of the Ammonites. They took refuge with the Philistines, who admired them for their physique and employed them extensively in their army. So we can be pretty certain that Goliath was a descendant of these earlier Rephaim , and that he had followed his ancestors into the army and shared their characteristics of self-confidence, arrogance and an overweening belief in their own invincibility.
Yet a slight and youthful shepherd boy, David son of Jesse, overcame this giant who had put such terror into the Israelite army. David scorned armour and chain mail, heavy swords and helmets, and went into battle with his sling, five smooth stones from the brook, and a bright and invincible faith. The Philistine threw back his head and roared with laughter. As he did so, he exposed his forehead, and the whistling sling-stone found its mark.
Still today we tend to invest our trust wrongly. Bigger is always thought better, and might is right. I hate to make a point which could sound purely political: that is not what the pulpit is for. So my point is not meant to be political, but historical. Anyone who has every read the history of Afghanistan knows that whatever empire has tried to conquer or subdue that troublesome land - in the last two centuries the British, the Russian and the American - has always failed despite vastly superior forces. People simply don't know enough history. If we did, we would never make the mistake of imagining that bigger is better and that victory always goes to the strongest. After all, where are the vast armoured reptiles which once dominated creation? They have all disappeared. The stegosaur was covered with horn and bone from its tiny head to its mighty tail, but it was no match for diminutive primitive man, unarmoured but mobile, much less strong but much more intelligent. At the battle of Crecy in 1346, the heavily armoured French knights were defeated not by yet heavier English knights but by the longbows of unmailed bowmen from the English shires. The Armada was scuttled and scattered not by yet heavier English galleons but by light and swift corvettes. The British Expeditionary Force in the Second World War was evacuated not by battleships and ocean-going liners but by a whole armada of little boats, and returned to win the day. And in the darkest of those dark days, faith and hope were kept alive not by a feted golden princeling who had been Edward VIII, but by his modest, stuttering younger brother George, and his young Queen who pronounced herself glad when Buckingham Palace was bombed, for now she could look the East Enders in the face.
And so it is with our faith. We live in an age which looks for success, and big numbers, and in the Church that means highly talented clergy with multi-gifted congregations. I tell you, I would rather be priest to a dozen humble souls who say their prayers and trust in God than I would be priest to a thousand highly successful, competent folk who have no humility and little understanding of their need of God. And I would rather be an ordinary parish priest who says his prayers and stands before God with the people on his heart than I would be a gilded careerist priest of glamorous powers and glittering images.
And why do I say all this? Because we stand on the brink of Lent, which gives us an opportunity to recover our sense of proportion and realise afresh our need of God. Lent has this wonderful effect: it puts things into perspective and cuts us down to size. Our position as the finest building in Dorset and one of the greatest churches in the land will not slay the dragons of doubt and despair, of pain and anxiety and hurt, that afflict so many of our fellow parishioners. Rather we must be big enough to be small, and to accept and believe that God has chosen us, without glamorous powers or glittering images, to be his church, his people, in this place. I may look more like a Goliath than a David, but a David is what I pray to be. And you of bright faith and constant prayer, you who doubt your abilities but trust in the Lord, to you God has given a special commission to be his church in this place, and to do battle with all the forces of doubt and indifference, of selfishness and greed, of hatred and envy. And together, standing before God with this parish on our hearts, and trusting in Him and Him alone, we will truly be invincible, because we will be fighting in the name of the King of kings, the Lord of Hosts, to whom alone be all honour, praise, power, dominion and glory, henceforth and for evermore, Amen.