Ever since it’s appearance in the late 1700’s, Sunday School has played a key role in teaching boys and girls how to read the Bible like they’re not Christians.
When little Johnny is taught the story of Noah’s ark, he learns three truths from it:
(1) Noah was good and God loved him;
(2) Noah was obedient and God saved him;
(3) If Johnny is good and obedient, God will love and save him, too.
When young Teresa is taught the story of Daniel and the Lion’s Den, she learns:
(1) Daniel was faithful even when bad men were against him.
(2) God rescued Daniel because Daniel was faithful to God.
(3) If Teresa is faithful, God will rescue her from bad people, too.
All narratives are easily kidnapped and pressed into service by our self-absorbed egos. Give us a story, ask us which character we identify with the most, and we’ll choose the hero or heroine. We see ourselves in them. They embody our desires for victory, success, approval. Bible stories are no different.
Five Smooth Stones: A Me-Centered Approach
Take the account of David and Goliath. Do a Google search on this story. You’ll find hundreds of Sunday School lessons about “Five Smooth Stones” that you can use to battle giants in your own life.
*“With Courage, Confidence, Preparation, Trust, and Victory you can overcome!”
*“With the Spirit of God, Past Experience, the Word of God, a Vision of Something Big, and a Heart Full of Faith, you can take down the giants you face!”
Each lesson is a variation on the same threefold theme:
1) David chose five smooth stones when he faced Goliath.
2) God has given you Five Smooth Stones to face giants in your own life.
3) If you use these stones, you too will be victorious.
Notice that there’s almost always one thing missing from lessons such as these: Jesus. The one the Bible is all about. The center of the Old Testament. The author and perfecter of our faith. And who has taken his place? We have. Our faithfulness. Our obedience. Our battles, weapons, victories. Sunday School has become the place for self-affirmation, self-actualization, self-esteem.
As we do in daily life, so we have done in our reading of the Bible: we have placed ourselves at the center, and Christ at the periphery.
A Re-Reading of David vs. Goliath
Allow me to sketch out a very different way of teaching the narrative of David and Goliath. It’s not a story about us overcoming giants; it’s a story about Christ overcoming us, killing us, and saving us.
The Philistine behemoth of a man who stood on the battlefield is more like us than we care to admit. He is, in fact, the incarnation of everything that’s wrong with us. We are born enemies of God. We are full of ourselves. We not only have a giant problem; we are a giant problem. We defy God. We exalt ourselves. It’s all about me. If Goliath were Roman instead of Philistine, his Latin motto would be homo incurvatus in se, that is, man turned in upon himself. A navel-gazer. An ego-addict. This is who we are as sinners. We’re foes of heaven, giant sinners.
What we need is not to be schooled in the art of moral improvement. Goliaths can’t be reprogrammed into good boys. What we need is not for David to hand us a 100 page, self-help guide on how we can have the best life now if we just clean up our act and get our priorities in line.
No, Goliath needs one thing: he needs to be killed. And that’s what our David does.
Our David, the new and second David, marches out onto the battlefield to slay us. We need to die before we can live. There is no other way.
But Christ, the Son of David and David’s Lord, does not sling a rock into our big heads. He has a liquid weapon. He holds us under the water of baptism. There in that wet death we are joined to a bloody death—David’s own. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Romans 6:3). We die, but die with him. We are drowned, but we are crucified with him. David wraps his arms around us Goliaths and plunges into the watery grave with us. Together we die. And together we rise.
Not with five smooth stones, but with the eighteen words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” we are killed but also resurrected. We die to ourselves and are raised into Christ. We who bore the image of Goliath now bear the image of David. We die and rise in him.
“I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal,” God says (Deuteronomy 32:39). This is how God works on us. How he always works on us. He crucifies us in water, and enlivens us in that same water. We are drowned as Goliaths; we are raised as Davids. We die to ourselves and live in Jesus.
A Better Way
This, I would suggest, is a better way to teach the story of David and Goliath to our children. Rather than telling them what great things they can do, tell them what great things God has done for them in Jesus Christ. Rather than making this story another tale of personal victory, tell it as good news about Christ’s victory for us.
Who knows, with this approach, we might just begin teaching our children how to read the Bible like they’re Christians.