“Tell me the old, old story,” the familiar hymn pleads. From the beginning, Scripture commands us to tell the story of God’s mighty acts in the world. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might…recite [these words] to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise up” (Deut. 6.5-7).
One of the old familiar songs evokes another means by which the characters of the Bible passed on the stories of God’s actions in the world: “Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by thy help I’ve come; and I hope by Thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home. Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God; he to rescue me from danger, interposed his precious blood.” The Ebenezer, a stone Samuel set up to remind Israel, “Thus far the Lord has helped us” (1 Samuel 7.12).
In telling and retelling these familiar stories, of Cain’s fratricide, of Noah’s drunkenness, of Abraham’s pimping out his wife to Pharaoh, of Moses’ murdering rage and retreat to a backwater sheep farm, to the epic showdown in the courts of Pharaoh; from playboy Samson to a skeptical Gideon to an innocent young shepherd boy turned rapist and murderer king; from a suffering servant to a weeping prophet and finally to a young man beaten bloody and hung upon the cross — these stories remind us that only “by thy help” we’ve come and only through God’s good pleasure (certainly not by anything we’ve earned) do we find any hope of restoration to the fold of God.
In the Reformed Tradition from which my faith history emerges, we have a saying: Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda, secundum verbum dei. The church is reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God. The verb here is passive. The church is not “always reforming” itself. Rather it is always BEING reformed through encounter, constant encounter with the Word of God through the power of the Holy Spirit.
From one generation to the next we are “prone to wander, prone to leave the Lord we [say we] love.” In our worship service we always say a prayer before reading Scripture, a prayer that invokes the presence of the Holy Spirit to help us in our reading. We do this because we know that absent the interpretive work of the Spirit we will certainly shape God’s word to our purposes, make it mean what we want it to mean rather than open our hearts to hear what God is saying to us, right here, right now.
The reformers knew instinctively that the lives and practice of God’s people are always, always in need of reformation. Still today.