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The following is a revision of the lecture I gave on the last day of my Introduction to the Bible class at Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, Idaho on 5 Dec 2014.

Every part of the Bible speaks, in its own way, the good news that God has not abandoned the world to self-destruction. The Bible tells the story of how God is renewing a corrupted creation. The story definitely portrays God’s work, but it aims also to get its readers involved. Recognizing the Bible as the Five Act Drama of Creation, Israel, Christ, Church, and Eschaton[1] helps show how Bible not wants not spectators, but rather, participants in the play. The present time takes place between Christ and Eschaton. So we know where the story has been and where it’s going, which urges people to live from the patterns of life Jesus portrayed toward the ultimate future God has planned for the world—the New Creation.

In other words, the Bible wants witnesses: a community of people who have seen how God is at work in the world, who have been caught up in God’s project, whose common life shows how God is saving them, and who actively participate in how God is working now to eliminate violence, sickness, oppression, and sorrow through making peace, health, justice and joy.

What does it take to be that kind of community? Most basically, it requires us to pay attention. Pay attention to the context in which we live in light of how deeply we have paid attention to the scriptural story.

In May 1963, Time magazine interviewed the Swiss theologian Karl Barth. Among the more quotable things Barth said in that interview is this: “Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret your newspapers from your Bible.” For American readers, his advice could not have been more timely.

In the U.S. in 1963, the Black Civil Rights movement was in full swing. Less than a month after Time interviewed Barth, John F. Kennedy met with Civil Rights leaders at the White House hoping to avert the March on Washington planned for that August.

It happened anyway. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech to a crowd of over 250,000 in front of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963:

Dr. King exemplifies the kind of attention required to live the scriptural story.

First, Dr. King knows his context: America as it promised to be and its founding principles in contrast with the injustice and oppression his people were suffering. That’s Dr. King reading the newspaper, only he doesn’t have to read it because he’s in the thick of it. It is happening to him, to his family, to his friends, to his congregation.

Second, Dr. King knows his Bible. Biblical images language pervade the speech, but Dr. King also quotes the Bible. Twice, Dr. King quotes directly from the prophets: We will not be satisfied until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream” (Amos 5:24). Dr. King also quotes Isaiah 40:4-5, dreaming that “one day every valley shall be exalted and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”

Third, Dr. King knows how to read his context through his Bible. By calling for floods of justice and righteousness as the solution to America’s problem, Dr. King implies that Israel’s sins of old now pervade America: “they sell the righteous for silver, the needy for a pair of sandals, trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way” (Amos 2:6-7). They “oppress the poor, crush the needy,” and then turn to God with sacrifices and offerings of thanksgiving (4:1, 5). The worship of God’s people is abominable when they crush the vulnerable and refuse justice to the marginalized, so God says, in Amos 5:21-24:

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Amos’s words address people who claim to follow God and yet demonstrate their unfaithfulness through unjust treatment of the poor and powerless. “Stop this stench of playing at worship and do justice.” That’s the message Dr. King speaks to citizens of the U.S. who claim justice if not also Christianity as a hallmark of American society. In context, Dr. King’s reading of Amos shows that America is neither just nor Christian if it does not open the floodgates of justice and righteousness for all its citizens.

Dr. King’s reading of Isaiah 40:4-5 shows what he expects less from the U.S. government than from God. Isaiah 40 promises comfort to God’s people, the end of their captivity, and their return from exile. Earlier in his speech Dr. King used the words “exile” and “captivity” to speak about the “plight” of the “Negro … in his own land.” By reading his own context through Israel’s situation in Babylon, Dr. King calls for God to level the American social landscape and make a true home for his people. When that happens, “All flesh shall see the salvation of God!” In Dr. King’s own Christian tradition, the person who definitively fulfills the promise of Isaiah 40 is Jesus. So it makes complete sense that Dr. King exhorts the crowd to conduct their creative, relentless protest without physical violence or hatred. He does not say violence, anger, and hatred are unjustified. But for those who follow Jesus, the way to freedom is to resist and overturn patterns of injustice without fear and without violence. Serving the God who raises the dead makes fearless vulnerability possible.

If you’ve followed the news at all since August 9, and especially if you’ve paid attention in the last two weeks, you know that much of Dr. King’s dream still has not come true. Police brutality disproportionately perpetrated against Black men and boys has drawn international attention with the killing of Michael Brown, John Crawford, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice—all while they were unarmed. Since last Tuesday, separate grand juries ruled that the officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner, respectively, would not go to trial. Regardless of what you think or you’ve heard about how each of them was doing something suspicious or illegal just before they were killed, the statistics reveal a grave injustice: In the US, in a confrontation with police, a Black teenager between the ages of 15-19 is 21 times more likely to end up dead than a White teenagerHabakkuk 1:2-4 gives voice to the rage, grief, and lament to God that this reality elicits:

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?
Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?
Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.
So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous—therefore judgment comes forth perverted.

What is God doing for a situation like this? In a Word: Jesus. In Luke 1:46-55, Jesus’ mother, Mary, gives us perhaps the most powerful view on what his birth means for the world:

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.

The heart of Mary’s song of praise shows how God brings down the powerful and raises the oppressed. Mary knew a thing or two about being caught up in God’s plans.

The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner 1896

The Annunciation, by Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1896

No mere human being has been more deeply involved in God’s saving the world than Mary, Jesus’ mother. She demonstrates that even though the work is God’s, human beings have a real part to play. And you know what? Mary could have said no. The question isn’t whether or not God will work, but which human beings are going to be on God’s side of history. In Luke 4:18, Jesus confirms that he stands for the captives and the oppressed, and promises them liberty.

If you want to be on God’s side of history, you must pay attention—both to how the Bible describes God’s plans for the world and to how the world is not yet “God’s good future.”[2] Heed the voices of those who cry out against injustice and oppression. Listen to people who don’t look or think or live or love the way you do, and learn how the world is trampling them into the dust. Learn the meaning of privilege. Live your life awake to the world around you, and awake to the scriptural story.

Being caught up in the story, between Christ and Eschaton, means that the players aim to live a way of life that is true to where the story has been and where it is going. At the same time it is not up to them to make sure the whole drama turns out right. The book of Revelation is clear: In the end, God wins, and it’s God’s doing. But in this space and time, the Bible tells us how to play—how to improvise—within the whole drama that is God’s story of saving the world.[1]

On our first day I asked you to think of this class as a game, and the syllabus as the rules for the game that both show us how to function in this class and allow us to have fun even as what we’re doing is also even more serious than life and death. The Bible’s story is the syllabus for all of life.

That is why the best interpretation of Scripture’s story is lived. The best interpretation of the Bible is a community that embodies life patterns that could only be possible if the story the Bible tells is true—if Jesus actually is Lord, Christ, and Savior. And so the Bible leaves its readers with a question: “Which story will you live?”

[1] See Samuel Wells, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos, 2004).

[2] I borrow these words from the late Dr. Allen Verhey, who used them often to describe the destiny of the world in terms of God’s final redemption.