It might be safely said that I do not always find the Gospel message in the final reading of the Bible assigned in the lectionary, the one labeled “the Gospel.” I often times find the most promise-laden message to be found in the words of the prophet, or in the songs of the ancient temple or in the letters of Paul, though during the Christmas season, the assigned readings from Paul seem a little thin to me.
It is not that there is not “Gospel” to be found in the Gospels, that it where it normally resides, they are called that for a reason; but Gospel is the translation of the Greek word “euangelion” into English by way of old English (not the same thing) which simply means good news and sometimes, the best news of all is in the original promise found in Isaiah, or in the verses sung in the Temple in praises to God. You never know where it is going to leap out from, showing the love of God in the clearest, most interesting and engaging way. Well, maybe you do; I never do.
But I will often find the single verse, the single phrase sometimes that speaks most loudly out of the scriptures, the one that makes a point that I think the Bible is trying to make, one that I think I can make well.
That is the real power of scripture, to me at least. It reads me as much as I read it. It interprets us as we read it, and what we need to hear rises to the top and confronts us when we need confronting, comforts us when we need comforting, encourages us when our zeal is lagging it is always breaking down our self-made, self-important barriers, killing us with the Law and making us alive in the good news again and again.
It is the living word of God. It is not fixed in one place and the most important verse is not the same from day to day. If it were, then we could just memorize it and catalog it and index it and have some kind of key that would let us know what verse applied for each and every trouble that arose in our lives. It would be like an encyclopedia of God’s grace.
A reference manual, the instruction book, like the one you got with your old VCR and never read and put up with the clock flashing 12:00 forever and ever.
Load of people see it that way, you know. They see the Bible as the reference book, where they go when they need to know something, when they want to see what God has to say about something, whenever they just feel like it.
I have a lot of books like that, mostly because I have a lot of books, but I have cookbooks that remind me how long to cook a turkey and at what temperature in order to have a good Thanksgiving meal, several dictionaries in case I want to know how to say something in French or German or Arabic or Greek or Hebrew (I have a lot of dictionaries).
I have the New York Public Library Desk reference in case I need to know who Warren Harding’s vice president was.
I have many, many books and I use them in just the way that many people use the Bible. They are there when I need them, or rather, when I am forced to admit that I need them.
That’s the danger it seems to me, of treating the scriptures as if they were merely a pile of data, a list of tremendous acts of power by God. They no longer intrude where they are not asked, they become the servant of us, something we control. That’s fine for my dictionaries and my encyclopedias and such, that’s even fine for the instruction manual for my satellite controller and DVR, but for the scriptures?
Today the words of Isaiah called out to me, grabbing my attention and sparking my imagination and I thought that was wonderful enough to make note of it. If I had been only looking at the Gospel, I would have been at sea as some of my compatriots confessed to have been on Facebook when looking at this week’s scriptures.
But the phrase “and he became their savior in all their distress. It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them,” caught my attention this week. It speaks to both the issue I have been going on about a little too long this morning, and also the fact that God is not about shouting instructions at us, about giving us a manual for living, but with living through our trials with us, at our side, in our hearts, with God’s very presence.
To begin with, God does not come when we ask for it; God intervenes in the world when we need God to do so. In their distress is what Isaiah says, in – our – distress. When we are broken and lost, God comes to us to be sure, but the fact is, when we are elated, God comes to us too, and when we are sad and when we are hungry and when we are lustful and when we are bored.
So long as we are not holding God off, God comes to us, so long as we are not imposing our own expectations on what god is and what God means and what God wants, God comes to us. God comes to us, not on our schedule and not at our beck and call.
It requires from us nothing more than our being available to receive God and nothing less than letting go of our own pride and being available to receive God.
Yes, I know that those are the same thing, but while it seems like an easy thing to do, being available, when you think about it, it is also the hardest thing of all, especially nowadays when we have most days scheduled down to the minute.
There was a commercial once for a travel site that asked if the listeners (it was a radio ad) if the listeners would be able to drop everything and travel for a year if all of their bills would be paid during that time. Debbie and I looked at each other and said, “When do we leave?”
I have made great hay over our inability to stop by and see each other and been told how rude that is but I want to say again that while I might not be thrilled by you coming over and seeing the state of my living room on some days, I would still never turn you away. I do not mind the interruption. I have gotten used to it.
Because God is constantly interrupting me, swooping in and saving me.
Not from my despair, some days God swoops in and saves me from my pride, some days it is from my irrational exuberance, some days it is from loneliness and some days it is from meaninglessness, boredom and lack of direction.
After a while you just expect it to happen.
Blythe and Larry likely as not have the flu or some variation of a respiratory infection in the flu/cold family. They called and said that they were unlikely to make it this morning and that Blythe would call and try and find a replacement for the worship assistant. I’ll stop by later and bring a pot of soup I was making yesterday when she called.
It was a bigger pot of soup than I had envisioned when I started, it just kept getting bigger and bigger as I went along; it is ham and bean, made from scratch. There are twelve quarts of it, now I have someplace for some of it to go because all of you have my phone number, all of you know that I am available to you whenever you pick up the telephone and dial it. I will not turn you away.
It seems a small thing, but being saved from twelve quarts of soup is a blessing for me. I get to do something I love and help some people I love in the community that I love and then preach about it, which I love.
If God had not taught me to be available, to surrender my calendar to the people of God now and then, then I would perhaps not answer the phone on my days off in the same way that I do not often answer email on my days off.
I would have missed the call from Faith asking that someone come and pick up the wheel chair that we left at her place last Sunday when we sang for her and her neighbors out at Vineyard Commons. She says she’ll be walking from this point on now that she’s gotten her pacemaker and blood is efficiently being pumped to her brain and her muscles.
I got an interruption of joy at Faith’s recovery, her absolute turnaround with the installation of that little device.
You do not know what the interruption will be, you cannot tell how it will turn out, you cannot just be available when you want, seeking God when you feel like it. There is so much you might miss.
Jesus being born to us was an interruption. It interrupted out long run of thinking that our righteousness was about us; that God’s love was about us; that the story of creation began with us and ended with us and all of the important parts had to do with nothing but us.
It’s the same thinking that makes us think that the Bible is there for us only when we are willing to admit that we need it, that it is about us.
It blinds us to the truth that Jesus’ birth and everything else, every other interruption that comes our way from God is not about us, it is for us.
Joseph and Mary hear a very similar message to the one Debbie and I heard, “get up and go,” the same message that Abraham heard, the same message that Jacob heard, the same interruption. Maybe they don’t come from angels anymore, maybe the fiery pillar or the burning bush no longer speak, but the interruptions from God have not ceased.
After all, God “became their savior in all their distress. It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them.”
His presence for me was felt through the phone calls from Blythe and from Faith. I cannot say how it will come for you, how God’s presence in your life will be felt, but if you are available to receive it, if you hold back your pride and your expectations long enough to see what God will bring to you in the interruption, then you will see what God has for you.
It might be a baby in a manger, or an unexpected trip somewhere, or maybe just a chance to be the presence of God for someone else.
Because each time the interruption comes, each time God moves someone to call, or speak, or somehow be the interruption, two people are involved; one is the instrument of God, and one is the recipient. Both have to be open, both have to be prepared to be moved not just to move, both have to be open to hear God speak to them through perhaps an unlikely voice.
Joseph and Mary heard the voice of God say to them go to Egypt because God wanted to preserve their lives, to fulfill the prophesies so that you and I could see Christ as the savior foretold in the scriptures.
We do not know what would have happened if they had been too busy, or if Joseph had just taken a job, or if Mary were too tired.
They were ready, they were open, and they were blessed and through that blessing, the world was saved.
When God interrupts you, how will you respond?