All of us were taught in school that stories have a plot and one or more subplots. The plot is the story’s theme or idea. The subplot is a side story that unfolds and sometimes creates some tension or struggle for the main character.
For example, William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a love story of a man and a woman falling in love. The subplot details the old rivalry between their families, the Capulets and the Montagues, making the love between this man and this woman a forbidden love.
The restrictions on the young lovers to engage in their romance adds to the drama. The subplot ends up playing a vital role in the tragic end of their love and their lives.
The Bible is God’s love story for humanity.
God chose one man, Abram, who became Abraham, and through him a special group of people called the Jews emerged that God used to show humanity his love.
God said to Abram, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” (Genesis 12:2-3)
All of us like to feel special. So think about how special this one man, out of all the people on the earth, must have felt that God chose him and his descendants to bless others.
Abraham is so special that three major religions trace their heritage back to him: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.
One thing that is often overlooked by all three of these religions in the blessing of Abraham is that God wanted to bless all the families of the earth through him and his descendants. This is part of the Bible’s subplot.
The plot? God loves us and made us to be in fellowship with him and to rule over all that he made on earth.
The subplot? He chose a special group of people to bless all the families of the earth.
It is important to point out that at our core we are selfish people. We have a very difficult time sharing. We are all about self. We are all about protecting our own kind, our own stuff, our thoughts, and our ways of living. We are not instinctively good at blessing the stranger.
This becomes evident in the Jewish story. The Jews became very self-centered and smug in their relationship with the Almighty. They forgot about blessing others and kept God to themselves.
God sent prophets to warn them about their overconfidence. But they wouldn’t listen. They had the temple in Jerusalem. In the temple they had the Ark of the Covenant, which represented the presence of God. They believed that that there was no power on earth strong enough to harm the temple or the people that worshiped there because God lived there and God would not allow anything to happen to His house.
God sent judges and prophets to call the people to repentance. The people would repent and be restored to fellowship with God for a while. Then life became all about them again and they would lose sight of God and the cycle of disobedience started over again.
Eventually Assyria invaded and destroyed The Northern Kingdom called Israel and Babylon invaded and destroyed The Southern Kingdom called Judah and destroyed the temple. Both times, people were led away into exile while others were left to suffer in the rubble and destruction.
So the Psalmist wrote words like these to express their deep sadness:
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
2There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
3for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” (Psalm 137:1-3 NIV)
In exile, the people learned the nature of repentance and restoration. They learned that God was with them wherever they were: in their sorrow, in a foreign land, where two are three are gathered in his name, that is the synagogues, their new places of worship.
They began to learn more about their true purpose: “in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”
It was during the exile that the Jews had an opportunity to bless other people groups of the earth, where in the past it had been their tendency to only bless people like themselves.
If you think about it, that really is our tendency –to bless only those who look like us, who talk like us, who come from the same part of the country as we do, who vote like us, who are the same religion as we are, who dress like us, who have the same interests as we do.
We don’t like to bless people that are different from us, who disagree with us, who oppose us, whose morals are not like ours, who skin color is not the same, whose language and customs are different from ours.
We don’t like to bless an Ex-spouse, an Ex-boyfriend, a former boss, or someone who has spread gossip about us.
But when we do, we are hooking into a subplot of the Bible that Jesus modeled.
When Matthew presents the family tree of Jesus, not only does he show us that God choose people like Abraham, Gideon, Samson, and David, but he also chose people like Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and “the wife of Uriah,” who were not just women, but Gentiles.
This would not have gone unnoticed by the readers of Jesus’ genealogy. I can assure you that Jesus was both aware of his heritage and aware of his purpose for coming. He understood that he was a part of both the plot and the subplot of God’s love story for humanity.
As a part of the plot, Jesus was God incarnate who came through the lineage of Abraham, to carry the message first to the Jews. He did this by helping them understand that they needed God’s love and that they needed to be born again because sin had caused them to be out of fellowship with God. He came to share with them the grace and the love of God and to show them how to be a servant leader. He came to forgive sins and as the incarnate Son of God he had that power.
He knew he was a part of the plot and he said as much when he preached his first sermon to his home people in the synagogue and he used the scroll of Isaiah as his text.
There in his hometown of Nazareth on the Sabbath day, “He stood up to read, and unrolling the scroll that was handed to him “ he found the place where it is written: 18“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, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked. (Luke 4:18-22 NIV)
Why were they so complimentary of him? Because these gracious words were for them, the chosen ones.
As people were subject to Roman rule, they saw themselves as the prisoners. They saw themselves as the oppressed. They were amazed that Jesus somehow felt anointed of God to come and set them free, to help them see their way.
Let me say to you, church, that as long as you see yourselves in the plot of the Bible, you will not be offended.
As long as you see yourselves as the ones for whom God’s healing balm is meant, you will be comforted.
We are in the plot, there is no doubt. Although we are not Jewish, we are in the plot because we are in need of being redeemed. Like Adam and Eve we have yielded to temptation. We have listened to the Father of Lies. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We are in need of a Savior.
We are part of the plot of the Bible because all of our righteousness is as filthy rags and we cannot save ourselves.
We are a part of the plot because God provided the bridge of redemption that we need in the person of Jesus.
Jesus showed us how to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and he showed us how to love our neighbor as ourselves through sacrificial service. As long as we see ourselves coming up short in both of those areas and embrace the words of John 3:16, we will not be offended by the plot of scripture.
It felt good for Jesus’ congregation to hear his words from Isaiah the day he preached his first sermon to them.
But sometimes preachers don’t know when to quit. Have you ever noticed that? It’s past 12:00. People’s tummies are rumbling. The Methodists are beating us to the restaurants and the pastor is just on point two of five.
If Jesus wanted a great big “that-a-boy, Jesus,” he should have stopped with the plot. But he went on to point two.
When Jesus started talking about the subplot of the Scriptures he began to create tension in his congregation.
He reached back in stories of Jewish faith and spoke about the time the prophet Elijah was sent to a Gentile widow in Zarephath during a 3 1⁄2-year famine. Although there were a lot of Jewish widows in that region, the scripture only mentions him ministering to a Gentile widow.
He began to tell about how Elisha the prophet healed another Gentile, Naaman the Syrian from leprosy, but no others are mentioned being healed in Israel.
This did not go over well with his people. They turned on him.
It would have been like a white preacher during the civil war preaching that the Bible favored abolition.
It would be like some conservative Christians being told they should be loving and welcoming to homosexuals, Muslims, or Democrats.
It would be like some liberal Christians being told they should be loving and welcoming to NRA members, Republicans, or those who believe that abortion is killing a person.
The subplot put Jesus’ hometown at odds with him like Shakespeare’s Capulets and the Montagues were at odds with the love of Romeo and Juliet.
“They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.” (29-30)
Most of us can find ourselves in the plot of the Bible. Our challenge is to find ourselves in the subplot. When we are comfortable sitting in our padded pews, saved by the grace of God, confident that we are heaven bound, it is easy to lose sight of the subplot of the Bible.
“In you, all the families of the earth will be blessed,” God said to Abraham.
We know that Abraham is our spiritual father. So we must not forget then that we are called to minister to the marginalized, to people who might be looked over or passed by, to those who are lonely and need a friend, to the poor and uneducated, to the lonely, to people who don’t look like us and who are different from us.
We are also called to minister to the arrogant, the bigoted, the rude, the proud, the selfish and the self-seeking.
We lose sight of the subplot of the Bible when we become comers instead of goers. The Great Commission says, “Go.” Sure, it tells us to gather. It tells us not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together. Yes, Jesus does say, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” because all of this is part of the plot. (Matthew 11:28)
But then he says, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:19-20 That is the subplot.
Show me a church that understands the plot and is living out the subplot, and I’ll show you a missional church. I’ll show you a people who have been troubled by the gospel but instead of pushing Jesus away, have allowed Jesus to radically change their lives and their church. They have been troubled enough to change.
When is the last time you have read or heard something from Jesus’ gospel that has troubled you or challenged you to the point that it has changed your perspective, attitude, your direction, or your actions?
If you can’t remember a time, then perhaps you are spending too much time reading the plot, that Jesus came to love you and to die for you, and not enough time reading the subplot, that Jesus came to call you to bless all the people of the earth—all of them, not just those you are comfortable around.
Sometimes we have to be troubled enough by what is going on around us to get involved. We have to be troubled enough by God’s Spirit to love our neighbor. We have to be troubled enough to ask the question, “Who is my neighbor?”
We have to “go,” because our neighbors are not coming to us.