The Story of God's Expanding Love
A dramatic proclamation sermon for Reformation Sunday
(drawing on the biblical stories of Job, Ruth, the Ethiopian Eunuch [Acts 8:26-39], and the story of the King James Bible, with references to Deuteronomy 23, Psalm 62:11-12, and Proverbs 11:31).
On Reformation Sunday we often focus on the story of Martin Luther, and the way that God’s Reforming Spirit inspired the changes in Christ’s church that birthed our denomination.
The Protestant Reformation, however, is only one in a long history of reformations, although they have not always been as clearly recognized.
Throughout the history of God’s people, there have been individuals who experienced God’s Spirit and action in their lives in ways that have challenged existing assumptions about how God works and what God wills.
Today, we are going to hear from four such figures – from scripture and history. Through their stories, we are invited to explore a broader experience of God’s reforming habit, and to consider how God is inviting us into the never-ending work of reformation.
Since my story is told in the oldest book in the Bible, I guess it makes sense for me to start.
You have probably heard my name before. I’m Job.
You may also have a general sense of my story: how I seemingly had everything and then lost almost all of it.
Wealth destroyed; children killed; physical health attacked by sores and pain, all to test whether I would remain faithful to God through my ordeal.
My name is basically a byword for unjust suffering.
But what you may not know is where I am from. Since my story is found in the Hebrew scriptures, many people assume I am an Israelite.
I’m not. I am actually from the land of Uz.
If you don’t know where that is, it is not surprising. My country is otherwise only mentioned in scripture in Jeremiah 25, in a list of countries that were going to receive God’s wrath.
That’s not exactly the kind of place where you would expect to find a man who is described in the Hebrew Scriptures as “blameless and upright, who feared God and turned away from evil.”
But, if you think about it, it makes sense that I would come from an unexpected place… because my story is all about violated expectations.
In fact, that’s kind of the point of my whole story.
There’s this assumption that seems to pop up in every culture that people are supposed to ultimately get what they deserve… and it is reflected in scripture too.
Read Proverbs chapter 11, especially verse 31:
If the righteous receive their due on earth,
how much more the wicked and sinners?
Or try Psalm 62, verses 11-12
God has spoken one thing — make it two things — that I myself have heard: that strength belongs to God, and faithful love comes from you, my Lord— and that you will repay everyone according to their deeds.
This is the argument that my friends made for more than 30 chapters after I suffered my series of calamities.
They saw me suffering, and they deduced that God MUST be punishing me for something. I MUST have done something to deserve it.
They came to me at the lowest time in my life; they saw the depths of my pain… but the accepted wisdom that all suffering is earned was so entrenched that they preferred to argue it with me than to offer any actual comfort.
And from one angle, I can understand. The need to explain unjust suffering is a universal instinct.
It hooks us, because we hate feeling helpless when we encounter pain. We want to believe there is a reason for it, so that we can do something different than the person who is hurting and protect ourselves from their fate.
And more than that, we want to believe that an all-powerful God would obviously protect us from harm unless we in some way deserved punishment.
But the whole point of my story is that this universal instinct is WRONG. Suffering is not evidence of divine punishment.
My suffering was not a punishment for some hidden sin. There was nothing I could have done differently to spare myself.
DESPITE what all the wisdom writings says – even plenty of Bible verses – the “pious” responses to my suffering just did more harm.
And so, God made sure my story – the story of a righteous man from UZ who suffered unjustly – was included in the Bible… as a reminder to question the pious wisdom that everyone assumes must be true… especially when it ends up doing harm.
Even in the oldest written account in the Bible, God was already calling for reformation.
Hi. My name is Ruth, and – like Job – I am also a foreigner whose story gets a whole book in the Bible.
My nationality itself, however, is what is shocking about my story.
I am a Moabite, and the Law of Moses has something pretty unequivocal to say about my nation. According to the book of Deuteronomy:
“No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord, ‘because they did not meet you with food and water on your journey out of Egypt… you shall never promote their welfare or their prosperity as long as you live.”
Of course, there is a history to this law. It was given to the people at a time of vulnerability – when their wandering in the wilderness was a recent wound and when neighboring countries (like Moab) posed a threat of inter-marriage that might draw them away from the worship of God.
But even several generations later, you might wonder how I – a Moabite woman – got an entire book of the Bible named after me.
Well, it’s not because my story magically erased that genetic legacy of the journey out of Egypt.
While my family did welcome the family of Naomi (when I married one of her sons after they moved to Moab to escape a famine in Israel), the focus of my story comes when Naomi and I travelled back to Israel as impoverished widows… when we were the ones who needed food and water.
And that means that when Naomi’s kinsman, Boaz, allowed me to glean in his fields, and told his workers to leave extra grain for me, and offered food and drink and protection to me, he was directly violating the law of Moses by promoting my welfare.
But there is no rebuke for him in the story, or for me.
We end up married with a family…. and out of our bloodline comes King David, yes THAT King David… after just 4 generations.
Remember what the law in Deuteronomy had to say about excluding from God’s Assembly the descendants of Moabites to the tenth generation?
According to that standard, King David was still several generations out of bounds.
But God’s plan was not going to be derailed by an insular law born out of an experience of national trauma.
When it came to me and my family, God’s work of reformation looked like mercy and welcome overcoming the letter of the law.
And that welcome opened the door to the nation’s greatest king. That’s quite an argument for God’s commitment to Reformation of excluding laws.
Ruth’s story demonstrates the early willingness of God’s people to re-think the limitations of the law of Moses, but that willingness was inconsistently applied.
I lived 1,000 years after King David, at the same time as Jesus and his early followers, and I was still excluded from the assembly of the Lord.
You see, that same chapter of Deuteronomy that cast shade on the Moabites also prohibited men like me from participating in worship or being part of the assembly of God.
I am a eunuch, and that made me categorically excluded. Just because of who I am.
You might ask why I cared.
I was not an Israelite after all. I was a court official in Ethiopia. My people had their own faith and customs – customs that accepted my role in society.
But my role took me to Jerusalem, and I was captivated by the faith I encountered there. It called to me as my own traditions never had. I wanted desperately to understand how I, too, could follow the One True God.
I got a scroll of the prophet Isaiah and tried to read and understand. I knew there was truth and life in it for me… but it seemed just out of reach. I feared that I would, indeed, be excluded from the assembly of God’s people forever.
But then God sent the apostle Phillip to me while I was travelling on the road from Jerusalem.
He explained God’s prophecy to me and how it spoke of Jesus who had come to unite ALL people to God.
It was like he unlocked the door that I had been standing and knocking at for so long, never knowing if I would be allowed inside.
My joy was like nothing I can describe. I asked Philip “what can stand in the way of me being baptized?”
And the answer was: NOTHING!
Not my foreign heritage.
Not my lack of training and understanding.
Not my status as a eunuch, no matter what the law of Moses said.
There, by the side of the chariot track, Philip baptized me in a pool of water and affirmed that I belong to God just as I am!
It was a moment that transformed my life… but it was also a reformation in the early church… one that opened its doors to those who had been excluded from God’s people for more than a millennium.
If only that kind of welcome had survived the church’s entrance into the political power structures of Europe.
Hi. I’m King James. The King James who commissioned the King James version of the Bible.
(Yes, I know, it’s embarrassingly egotistical for me to have named a translation of GOD’s word after myself… as it turns out, reverence for God’s Word may not actually have been my primary motivation.)
Unlike my three siblings in faith who have just shared their stories, my involvement with the Bible’s development is NOT about challenging accepted truths and having that challenge reform God’s people and expand their understanding of welcome.
Rather the opposite, in fact.
The King James Bible has somehow been elevated by many Christians as the unquestioned standard for biblical revelation – one that can never be questioned or re-examined.
I find such a stance… ironic.
For one thing, at least a part of the reason for the existence of this translation is because of the recognized need to “re-examine” biblical translations that weren’t communicating effectively.
There were plenty of other English translations of the Bible at the time I commissioned the KJV, but the resources of the crown allowed for more intentional scholarship to go into this translation,
scholarship that actually looked at the original languages and did a better job of communicating the meaning of the text into words the common people could understand!
And my translation did that! … In 1611.
But a few hundred years have passed since then.
And incredible advances in biblical scholarship.
It really doesn’t make any sense to set this one translation in stone and make it the only standard for all time.
The other irony is that whole power dynamic that I mentioned a minute ago.
Because there is A SERIOUS history of power-plays that went into a King of England sponsoring a translation of the Bible for the Church of England.
First, there was the whole creation of the Church of England when Grandpa Henry wanted to divorce his Catholic wife to marry his mistress, and decided the easiest way to do that was to jump on the Reformation bandwagon and start a new church with himself at the head…
And then there was my personal history, particularly the fact that I’m gay, and did not hide it, and the Church of England did not approve.
So, it’s fair to say that my sponsorship of the new “authoritative” English translation was also a power play:
I gave the church something they wanted, to appease them for me being who I wanted… who I am.
Which calls into question what this venerated translation of the Bible was really communicating… and what it communicates now.
If we lift it up as an unquestionable authority… whose authority does it really express?
Or that of a church that wanted to control a crown?
Or a king that wanted to appease a church?
And why is the Bible – the book that tells the story of a God who chose to abandon power in order to hang on a cross – the focus of so much conflict about power and authority anyway?
Somewhere along the line, despite the rich and compelling stories of reformation that have continually called God’s people to set-aside patterns of thinking and laws of exclusion that would cut people off from God’s grace… somewhere in that history the churches born out of “the Reformation” started thinking that their job was to defend AGAINST reformation – to hold onto old language and defend existing power structures, rather than asking what NEW thing God’s Spirit might be doing.
Like I said… ironic!
But even in the King James Bible… you can still read the stories of Job, and of Ruth, and of the Ethiopian Eunuch.
And you can hear the call to question old ways of thinking… (look at Job),
And to reject old prejudices and grudges… (look at Ruth),
And to embrace outsiders who might seem like they don’t belong, or make you uncomfortable… (look at the Eunuch).
Because the story of the Bible as a whole IS the story of on-going Reformation… and that is a story that we are invited to join.
Pastor Serena: Thanks be to God.
 Deuteronomy 23: 3-4, 6