Spoiler alert: The Sixth Sense, Star Wars and Shrek
One of the longest-standing jokes in my family comes from when the presenter on a local television station announced the upcoming movie in his most dramatic voice: “Toniiiight – Bruce Willis is dead in Sixth Sense”. Years later, someone just has to say, “Toniiight…” and uproarious laughter ensues.
(For those who aren’t laughing yet, this was a major spoiler: the fact that Bruce Willis’ character in this movie turned out to be dead was about one of the biggest plot-twists in movie history…and we (and he!) only find out in the last few minutes of the whole story!)
I suppose knowing the plot-twist up front is not the worst thing in the world. It does somewhat dull the entertainment experience, but we can still get enjoyment out of watching Star Wars if we already know Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father*, or Shrek if we know that Princess Fiona is also an ogre (OK – that last one was definitely not the most earth-shattering of reveals, but can you honestly say you saw it coming from the beginning?).
Take a moment to think of a plot-twist which threw you for a loop. Where were you? What were you reading or watching? What was your response? What usually happens in a moment like this is that we have to rethink everything: go back through the entire plot and re-understand it, reorientate ourselves, look at it with new eyes, apply new meaning to scenes or lines which had seemed somewhat arbitrary until now…everything that has come before has to be re-examined and interpreted through this new revelation. Now imagine having a conversation with someone who didn’t stay for the last 10 minutes of the movie, or missed the line, “Luke, I am your father” (or whatever your big plot-twist was). Imagine that person is insistent that they don’t need to see the end or know what happens: they got the gist of the movie. Or imagine someone writing an entire character analysis on Darth Vader – doing an in-depth zoom into his personality, his motivations and the decisions he makes – without knowing or taking into account that he is Luke Skywalker’s father. When we stop short of the twist or ignore the implications of it, we not only miss the entire point, but wander around in the world with a completely misguided view of the whole story. As a friend who I will meet one day once said, “Not only have you not seen the film, but you’ve seen it wrong!”**
Four paragraphs in and I haven’t explained why I am talking about plot-twists when I wanted to talk about Jesus. So here goes: I would like to suggest that Jesus is the biggest, most mind-blowing, story-reorientating, rebuild-the-foundations-of-everything-I-have-ever-believed plot-twist in all human history. Not just in my own life (which He most definitely is), but in the life and stories of all the people of God and, specifically for today’s blogpost, in the stories of the people of God as these stories have been assembled together in the Bible. After centuries and millennia of people journeying with God, refining how they discern God’s character, motivations and will, making humongous mistakes, still trying to work this out with God, still learning more and more about who this God is who continues to walk with them…God puts on skin and lives and dwells amongst us. The Bible itself, through the declarations of the writers of the Gospels and the Epistles, tells us that Jesus is the exact representation of God (Hebrews 1:3), that if you have seen Jesus, you have seen the Father (John 14:9), that Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15), that if people thought they had understood/seen God before, that was nothing on what Jesus has now made known (my own “paraphrasing” of John 1:18). Jesus isn’t just like God – Jesus is God. God is like Jesus because Jesus is God. Have I mentioned that this is mind-blowing?
I think the reason I am so passionate about this is that it feels like some of us have not read the end of the story, or have read it, but haven’t quite figured out just how much of a plot-twist (or revelation) this part of the story is. I can totally understand that there are people who read the Bible as “just” a book and come out at the end seeing Jesus as a good man, a prophet, a wise teacher, another very rich character in a book full of rich characters. But this cannot be the case for those of us who have professed that Jesus is God, those of us who have embraced the foolishness of the Cross (1 Cor 1:18) as wisdom and truth and have re-orientated our entire lives around it. We can’t go on with business as usual – we can’t “unhitch” the revelation of Jesus from what we read in the Hebraic scriptures*** or just apply what we read in the Hebraic scriptures as if the Author and Perfector of our faith didn’t appear in human form and actually give us more insight into them.
And this isn’t just a theoretical “glitch”, something which should be argued and debated in academia or seminaries, but is not applicable to us “lay” people; the way we read and interpret the Bible has real-life consequences for all of us and, most importantly, for many of the most vulnerable in our society. I am often confused by seemingly well-meaning Christians who use certain scriptures to justify, for example, praying against their (human) enemies, or excluding certain groups of people from communities (or even countries) or advocating for oppressive economic policies. It seems like the rationale is ”this verse is in the Bible, and the Bible is the word of God, therefore this verse gives me authority to…”.
But the Bible itself does not allow us to do this! The Bible points us to Jesus as the Truth, the Bible tells us that all authority has been given to Jesus, the Bible itself tells us an entire story which leads to the revelation of Jesus-as-God and the revelation of the Love-of-God in its sharpest focus as Jesus on the Cross (speaking forgiveness in death and Peace in resurrection). This is a plot-twist which may require many of us to re-examine everything we have ever understood, known or been taught about God and God’s activity in our world.
And even in the telling of this greater plot-twist, it seems that Jesus brings fresh understanding to the Hebraic scriptures: not just in “actions” or “revelations”, but sometimes in ways which almost feel like actual text edits…Stick with me and I will give you a few examples. How about all the “You have heard it said…but I tell you” verses in the Sermon on the Mount? It almost seems like Jesus is specifically taking Mosaic law and…correcting it. We are no longer given permission to hate our enemies: we must love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. We are no longer given permission to seek revenge (an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth): we are called not to visit violence or vengeance on each other. In the same address, He tells us that He is not abolishing the law, but fulfilling it: something an Author and Perfector is quite within His rights to do.
How about this one? Luke 4:16 and onwards tells us about Jesus’ “inaugural statement”; His first sermon. Jesus opens the scroll which has been handed to Him and reads from Isaiah 61:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
Recognise that one? The Jewish audience present that day would have recognised it too, but they would have been waiting for more…You see, Jesus puts a full-stop where there had only been a comma. He stops short of one of the most recognisable parts of the scripture. The end of this passage in Isaiah 61 follows on from the proclamation of the year of the Lord’s favour also to proclaim “the day of vengeance of our God…”. Jesus stops mid-sentence, rolls up the scroll and sits down.
What could this possibly mean? Those hearing Him had put a lot of hope into the thought that, one day, God would avenge all the injustice against them, that God would send a Messiah to eradicate their enemies over the ages…the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the foreigners who had enslaved them or dragged them into exile, the Romans who were currently occupying their land at the time of this being read. And now Jesus stops short of proclaiming vengeance and sits down…(and then, carries on talking about God’s favour on the foreign widow and the Syrian [and then gets chased out to be thrown off a cliff]…).
Jesus has brought us to a clearer understanding of the Law and Prophets. And, apparently, He did this for His followers all the time (I have put some examples in the footnotes) and, even more exciting, they carried on doing it in the power of the Holy Spirit after Pentecost. It was through their knowledge of Jesus-as-God and the power of the Holy Spirit that they were able to look back through Scripture together and (re)interpret God’s will around Gentiles as followers of Christ, for example (Acts 15).
So, where does this leave us? I would like to end with another story in the Bible which can help us. It is commonly known as “the transfiguration”. (You can read about it in the 3 synpotic Gospels: Matthew 17: 1 – 8; Mark 9: 1-13 and Luke 9: 28 – 34). Jesus takes James, John and Peter up a mountain to pray. During this time, He is “transfigured” – His face was changed and His clothes were a dazzling white – and the disciples see Him holding a conversation with Moses and Elijah (Yes: Jesus is in conversation with the embodiment of the Law and the Prophets respectively). When Peter hastens to offer to build them each a shelter, God answers: “This is my Son, whom I love [have chosen]. Listen to Him.” When the disciples look up from the shock, they see only Jesus. Not Moses and Elijah in conversation with Him, on an equal footing with Him – Jesus alone.
I like to think that this is an invitation…into how we are to live, into how we are to make choices, into how we are to read, weigh-up and discern the importance and application of what we read in Scripture:
Listen to Jesus: Let Him be the lens through which we read the Hebraic Scriptures and the anchor by which we interpret the Epistles.
Listen to Jesus: allow Him to transfigure the Law and the Prophets so that they find their fulfillment and perfection in Him.
Listen to Jesus: Follow in the footsteps of the One who is self-sacrificing, co-suffering, enemy-embracing, Peace-breathing Love.
Listen to Jesus: Allow the greatest Plot-Twist in all history to reorientate our entire lives, to give us a new axis, to give meaning to everything which has come before and all that will come after.
Listen to Jesus.
* – Having said this, if you are wondering in which order to introduce Star Wars to the next generation, there is only one way to do it (no debate: you can debate with me on anything else I have said, but not this) – and that is the Machete method: https://www.nomachetejuggling.com/2011/11/11/the-star-wars-saga-suggested-viewing-order/
*** – What some would call the “Old Testament”…but I think the term “Hebraic Scriptures” is a better description as it provides continuity in Scripture which I think is meant to be there.
Some other verses which point to new understandings of Scripture:
“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” – Luke 24:27
“He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.” – Luke 24:44-45