We come to the Bible seeking a little relief from the drama in our lives and what do we find? A text cracking and sizzling with fear, rage, resentment and wonder. If you want an escape from the drama, the Bible is the last place to look. Wherever you look in holy writ, the dramatic tension is palpable. Snap! Crackle! Pop!
The fireworks are an inevitable outgrowth of the Bible’s big story. Working through the children of blessing, God aims to bless the world. Simple enough. But what if the children of blessing don’t want to bless the world? What if they squander their holy inheritance in the service of strange gods like money, sex and power? What is God supposed to do then?
The God of the philosophers dwells in passionless certainty. The God of the Bible lives in the tension between grace and justice and, as a direct consequence, suffers wild mood swings. This God has no Plan B. It’s us or nothing. The dice are tumbling and the stakes are high. If you don’t get that, the Bible will always be a bizarre jumble. That’s why most of the book never gets read. That continual snap, crackle and pop can be unnerving.
We don’t avoid the biblical backwaters because they are weird or nasty; we avoid them because we fear we will be sucked into the drama. At least, that’s my hypothesis. To test it out, I plopped my finger into the text at six random intervals and here’s what I found.
My finger first fell on Leviticus 19:33:
When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself.
The relevance to this text is embarrassingly obvious. If we are instruments of universal blessing, the embrace of strangers, refugees, aliens and immigrants goes without saying. But can a preacher say that and stay employed?
The second place my finger fell was Psalm 79:1-2:
O God, the nations have come into your inheritance;
they have defiled your holy temple;
they have laid Jerusalem in ruins.
They have given the bodies of your servants to the birds of the air for food,
the flesh of your faithful to the wild animals of the earth.
The psalmist feels betrayed, and who can blame the guy? Didn’t God promise to bless and protect the heirs of David and Solomon? So why, circa 586 B.C., are Nebuchadnezzar’s soldiers trashing David’s city and Solomon’s temple? Has God revoked his blessing? High voltage drama. Snap! Crackle! Pop!
My finger fell next on Ezekiel 2:8-9:
Like the hardest stone, harder than flint, I have made your forehead; do not fear them or be dismayed at their looks, for they are a rebellious house.
Marvin Tate, my Old Testament professor, called Ezekiel “the weirdo of the Old Testament.” But Ezekiel was weird for a reason. He was forced to journey into the heart of God and, if we follow, some of that weirdness will rub off on us.
As the armies of Nebuchadnezzar advance on the holy city, Ezekiel sees the whirling wheels of Yahweh’s chariot lift off from Solomon’s temple and soar off into the wilderness, never to return. Is the story over? Have we lost our God? Snap! Crackle! Pop!
Then my finger fell on Luke 13:4-5:
Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them — do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.
Over 600 years have elapsed since the time of Ezekiel, but bad things are still happening to good people. “You will perish” isn’t a reference to hell. If God stepped aside for Nebuchadnezzar, Jesus says, why will he not do the same for Caesar? On the cross, the brutal tension between grace and justice unleashed a bolt of lightning that sliced through the heart of God and rolled away a tomb stone.
But the old world of Nebuchadnezzar lived on. In A.D. 70, 500 children of Abraham were crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem on a daily basis. This went on, month after month, until the walls were breached, Herod’s temple was burned to the ground, over one million children of Abraham were dead and 100,000 more were forced into slavery.
Has Pharaoh prevailed at last? The voltage has been cranked up so high the wires of revelation are ready to snap.
My finger fell for a fifth time, this time on Philippians 3: 2-3:
Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh! For it is we who are the circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh.
The Apostle Paul wrote these words from a Roman prison cell. He wouldn’t leave that cell until the guards led him to the place of execution. Paul writes with a passion the world hadn’t seen since the days of Ezekiel and Jeremiah. The Apostle knew his time was short, but his thoughts were fixed on the new creation communities he had established in Caesar’s back yard. If we are blessed to be a blessing, Paul asks, how can circumcision be forced on Gentile Christians? Are we new creations or are we not?
And what will happen when Paul follows his Savior in death while the dogs of Philippi live on? Snap! Crackle! Pop!
Finally, my finger fell on obscure verses from the strangest book in the Bible, Revelation 11:1-3:
Then I was given a measuring rod like a staff, and I was told, ‘Come and measure the temple of God and the altar and those who worship there, but do not measure the court outside the temple; leave that out, for it is given over to the nations, and they will trample over the holy city for forty-two months. And I will grant my two witnesses authority to prophesy for one thousand two hundred and sixty days, wearing sackcloth.’
Almost every word in John’s Revelation echoes the Old Testament. Back when Solomon’s temple lay in ruins, Ezekiel was commanded to take a measure the dimensions of the New Jerusalem God had prepared for the wedding of heaven and earth. And now, with a second temple laid to waste by a second Babylon, John is told to measure the temple, even while its outer courts were overrun by the very “nations” Abraham’s children had been called to bless.
Into this ugly scene “two witnesses” appear: Moses (who butted heads with Pharaoh) and Elijah (who waged spiritual warfare against Ahab, Jezebel and the priests of Baal). Things always look bleak for God’s prophets, John is saying, and nothing has changed. But the cross broke the devil’s back and, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, “the kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our God and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.”
If you repeat my experiment, your random finger will fall on six very different passages, but you can bet that the dramatic tension will be just as severe. Bible reading isn’t supposed to be easy, pleasant or nice. Frail children of dust are called to live like new creations, an undertaking so audacious it literally killed God to pull it off. This biblical snap, crackle and pop may be unnerving, but it’s our only hope.