The Bible can feel off-putting. Probably it is no one’s idea of a page-turner, not with the fusty prose, hodgepodge of plotlines, and hard-to-pronounce place names. The print is so small, and the book itself dauntingly big. Wherever you begin, odds are good that, soon enough, you will get bogged down and will end browsing around on Netflix. The Bible really does not reward casual skimming and rarely yields to those being forced by parents, nuns, professors, or whomever to read it. Most people who pick up a Bible have the same nervy, flummoxed look about them as somebody who, until just now, had never held a baby: ‘What do I do with it?’ Perhaps to take this too far: Like newborns, Bibles ask of us something like love and a little awe; if we are tense and withdrawn, they will know. But as with opening our arms to a child, opening our hearts to the scriptures can be magic, can be medicine. We may well be melted, may be mended. And, you know, the charm of babies is not only that they are so stinking cute. Of course, they are, but more – we see in them what we are, at its most pure and desperate and wonderful. Humans might not ever know what beauty is within us were we not given to see it here, right here, drooling on our good sweaters. And, and, equally so, it is close to impossible to look upon a babe-in-arms and not see a bit of God. Babies are bundles of human fear and hope and goodness … and God. So much of ourselves and so much of God are bound together in their tiny bodies – which is no small part of why, I think, they affect us so powerfully and profoundly.
It is the same with the Bible; there is so much of ourselves and so much of God to be found within. The Bible reflects back to us the full range of human experience: joy, gratitude, desire, triumph, heartbreak, struggle, betrayal, defeat. All that we are, all that we might be – it is there to see, sketched with a rawness and an unflinching honesty. And, and this, all this, the stuff of our lives is conceived as opening and opening and opening unto God. Every facet of existence is thought to be pregnant with holy significance, and the countless unknown saints and sages and scribes behind the Bible have preserved this insight, as they have learned and lived it; they show us what of God there is to be found in gladness, in trial, and in pain. Scripture is, in essence, a trove of stories about and memories of and reflections upon humankind’s earliest encounters with God. The Bible is what people could put into words of their having been met by God.
And, it should be said that it is not easy to express all that one has experienced of God. Any encounter with what is transcendent strains against the language we use to give it voice. So it is more apt to say that the Bible is a struggle – a great, worthy struggle – to put into words what it meant for people to have been met by God. And different people describe this in different ways and succeed in different measures. The Bible is a gathering together of diverse perspectives (sometimes bogglingly, discordantly diverse perspectives) of what it looks like, what it feels like when God is present to us. For instance: The sagas of Genesis are family stories which show us how God is present in broken relationships. The lustful rhapsodies in the Song of Solomon show us how God is present when lovers rejoice in sharing their bodies and their lives. And, germane to today’s reading, the oracles of the prophets, of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Daniel, Hosea, and Isaiah – on the whole, they show us how God is present when it seems as though all hope is lost. Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Daniel, Hosea, Isaiah – we call them prophets, but know that a prophet is not a soothsayer is not a palm-reader is not the crazy guy crowing on the street corner about the coming heat death of the universe. A prophet does not see what will be; a prophet sees what is, sees what is happening beneath the havoc of the day, sees, feels those spiritual undercurrents which most of us are simply too caught up in to name or to understand. That is, a prophet is not one who tells the future, but rather one who tells the truth about our reality. By a patient and excruciating attentiveness to the world around them, in our time, practiced most movingly by poets and scientists, prophets reveal a dimension and a structure beyond ordinary seeing. Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Daniel, Hosea, Isaiah, the biblical prophets, in times of staggering national devastation and loss, crawl through the ruins of what was; and what they unearth, what they give us to see is God, God present as fierce, indestructible, matchlessly galvanizing hope.
Isaiah’s words – ‘A child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom’ – spoken as they were in the midst of catastrophe and total civic collapse, with conquering hordes on the horizon, and the monarchy and the temple and the courts and the marketplace already reduced by the pandemonium to shambles, with violence only just beginning to break out, with the worst still to come, Isaiah’s words trace out a truth astonishingly, almost unthinkably radical: by God, yet shall we rise. The simple, foolish surety of his vision is enough to bring you to tears. Jerusalem is crumbling around him, but Isaiah knows what he knows and sees what he sees – that God will not forsake them, and is, God is, even before the fall, calling forth a future from the ashes. Isaiah knows what he knows and sees what he sees – that God is raising up one who will govern deservedly and righteously, whose impress upon the nation will be kindly and peaceable, and who will usher in an age of justice worthy of that ancient city on a hill.
The Bible … there is so much of ourselves and so much of God within this book – which is why, I think, it affects us so powerfully and profoundly. If, with openness, delight, and expectancy, we humble ourselves before this book, what we will find is women and men very much like us, who have known joy and misfortune and love and heartbreak and glory and shame and hope and fear, and who have, in it all, through it all, come to know God. All that we are – it is there to see, the stuff of our lives, lifted up and opening and opening and opening unto God. If we honor these, the stories and memories of humankind meeting God for the first time, if we reverence these stories and memories as if they were the teensy, perfect toes of a little baby girl, of a little baby boy – the truths, the old truths to which these stories and memories testify, the truths, the old truths to which the scriptures bear witness will speak, to us, today. What is true, what is right, what is good, what is of God – this will direct itself to us. We will be addressed. And because, to be addressed by God is always also in a sense to be summoned and to be commissioned, to be sent out on a mission of holy significance, know that if and when God has a word with you, God will have God’s way with you. What is true, what is right, what is good, this, all this will have its way with you; you will be changed, will be beautified and emboldened, and you will be sent out to tell of what you have seen and felt and known, you will be sent out: a prophet after the manner of Isaiah.