Faithfulness and Justice: Reformed Faith in the Face of Empire

[A Reformation Day sermon preached at 1st Christian Reformed Church, Barrie, Ontario on Oct. 25, 2015. This service brought together congregations from the northern half of the ecclesiastical body known as “Classis Toronto”. The texts were: Psalm 33, Hab. 2.2-17 and Rom. 1.8-17]

I’ve always had the same problem with my Bibles.
From the very beginning of my Christian faith,
some 46 years ago,
my Bibles have tended to fall apart.

My most recent Bible is an NRSV, held together by duct tape.
I can’t read the first three chapters of Genesis in this one anymore,
and Colossians is so marked up and worn that it is literally falling apart.

And before I started using the NRSV,
my NIV also fell apart – a totally broken binding.

Now what is interesting to me is that where the first break happens
in this old NIV is precisely at tonight’s psalm,
then another break at Jeremiah 2,
and then again at Matthew 24.

Perhaps we could call the destruction of my Bibles over the years
the result of an overly zealous practice|
of the reformation principle of sola scriptura, scripture alone.

Now I could surmise why the second and third breaks
in the binding of my NIV occurred where they did,
but tonight’s psalm leads me to reflect on that first place
where the binding came apart.

You see, Psalm 33 is not only one of my favourite psalms,
and not only includes one of my favourite verses in the Bible,
it is also a psalm that encapsulates
what I take to be the heart of a reformed vision of life,
the heart of reformed theology,
and the reason why I found myself drawn so early in my Christian walk
to a reformational worldview.

The debates about ‘justification by faith’ – whether in the 16th century or today –were not what brought me to embrace a reformed understanding of Christian faith.

Nor, I confess, did the infamous five points of Calvinism,
– reflecting a debate at the end of the 17th century –
lead me into the embrace of reformed faith.

While these theological debates were important in their historical context,
they have always been too abstract for me.
They’ve never really touched me where I live.

But as a young Christian,
I went to the University of Toronto and met some folks
who had a reformed faith that totally captivated my imagination.

Here was a faith deeply rooted in an embrace of the goodness of creation,
in the face of so much world denying piety.

Here was a faith that understood all of life
to be rooted in the creative Word of God,
in the face of so much narrow biblicism.

Here was a faith that embraced God’s rule over all of history,
in the face of a false sacred/secular dualism.

Here was a faith that had the audacity to dethrone the powers that be,
in the face of a church that had become too comfortable and accommodated.

This is the radical worldview that I met at the
Christian Reformed campus ministry to the University of Toronto in 1974.

And I am eternally (quite literally, eternally) grateful
to this Classis and to this denomination
for having the vision to plant that campus ministry so many years ago.

A rich creational theology.
An understanding of all of life redeemed.
A comprehensive vision of the Kingdom of God.
And a radical call to discipleship.

That’s what I met in the U of T campus ministry.
That’s what I came to understand to be at the heart of the Reformation.

And that’s what we meet in Psalm 33.

In this psalm we are invited into the heart of a covenantal imagination.

It’s all there just in the words that the psalmist loves to use:
The word of God, the dabar Yahweh, the covenantal word of tora
meets a culture of deceit and political spin.

The faithfulness of God, his covenantal truthfulness
meets a culture of infidelity and cover-up.

The righteousness of God, God’s call to holy integrity
shines in the face of creation and soul destroying sin and evil.

The justice of God, the protection of the orphan, widow and stranger
stands before the injustice of a world of oppression.

No wonder the psalmist calls us to rejoice, praise and sing!

Gratitude and praise is befitting those who follow such a God.

And then we come to my favourite verse.

It is here that my imagination was liberated.
It is here that we begin to plumb the depths of covenantal faith
the depths of the very nature of creation,
… perhaps even the depths of God himself.

After singing that Yahweh “loves righteousness and justice,”
the psalmist proclaims that …

“the earth is full of his unfailing love,”
“the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord.” (Psalm 33.5)

Full of love.
Overflowing in love.

Dripping, saturated, soaked, running over in love.

And not just any love.
This is steadfast love.
This is covenantal love.
This is a faithful love.

As far as the psalmist is concerned,
love goes all the way down.

The earth is full of the Creator’s love.

It is the very nature of the creation to be full of this love.
The earth, the soil, the micro-organisms,
the world and all that is in it,
is full of God’s covenantal love,
permeated to its very core by steadfast love.

The word that said, “let there be,” is a word of love.

The God who said, “this is good, good, good, good, very good,”
recognizes that goodness because the creation is wrought by divine love.

Martin Luther King was undoubtedly right when he said that
“the moral arc of the universe is long,
but it bends toward justice.”

But the universe bends toward justice
because it is rooted in love.

On crisp fall days like this past weekend,
it is easy to believe that the earth is full
of such steadfast love.

The delightful chill in the night air,
balanced by the warmth of the day;
the startling blue of the afternoon sky
and the breathtaking array of the night stars;
the stunning shock of colour in the fall canopy
and the abundance of the harvest …
all bear witness to a creation of delight,
all testify to the steadfast love of the Creator.
That is … until you start to think about beheadings in the Middle East,
the refugee crisis,
the rattling of the sabers of war,
the ecological desecration of our planet,
hundreds of missing aboriginal girls in Canada,
the machinations of the economics of greed,
the deceit of nations,
and the consumer emptiness of our culture.

Then it’s a little difficult to see the world as full of such steadfast love.

So, what happens when the steadfast love of God meets the counsel of nations?
What happens when the word of the Lord meets the propaganda of empire?
What happens when the justice of God meets a world hell bent on war?

Well … steadfast love turns to judgment:
the counsel of nations is rendered null and void,
the propaganda is frustrated and unveiled as deceit,
the implements of war are rendered powerless.

The corollary to a rich creation theology is a robust theology of history.
The God who calls creation into being is also the Lord of history.
The God who creates out of irrepressible love
will not tolerate forever the arrogant forces of sin, greed and hate.

And this God is not blind.
He sees what transpires in his world.

Nor is this God impotent.
He moves in history to bring the mighty down from their thrones.

You see, my friends, the psalms do not call us to empty praise.
The psalms do not always fit well in the happy music
of the ‘worship set’ at church.
The psalms do not present a sentimental world of sweet love.

No, the psalms envision a world that is full of the steadfast love of God,
in the face of a culture hooked on avarice,
in the face of a species who seem bound to betrayal,
in the face of a culture taking a dive.

And that is why this psalm ends with hope.

To sing this psalm is to hope in God’s steadfast love,
even when it doesn’t seem like the earth is full of that steadfast love,
even when it seems that the earth is wracked by hatred and violence.

To sing this psalm is to wait for the Lord,
even against the evidence.

To sing this psalm is longingly to pray for that steadfast love
to be manifest in our lives
so that our hope will be fulfilled.

Psalm 33 invites us to live in a world of grace,
a world that is full of the steadfast love of God,
with eyes wide open to all that would strip us of such love,
to all that would render the world so much less.

Every time I read this psalm,
I am reminded again and again
of the breadth and depth of a reformed worldview
and why deep, deep gratitude is at the heart of Calvin’s theology.

I think that is why my old NIV fell open to this psalm so often
that the binding finally broke.

But what if it is more than just the binding that breaks?

What if it looks more and more as if the covenant itself is broken?

What if, over and over again it is not the plans of the nations
that are frustrated by God,
but it is the providence of God that is frustrated by the nations?

What if history looks as if a king is saved by his great army,
|the warrior is victorious by his own strength,
and the war horse, and other military procurements
are proven to be the only hope for victory?

What do you do when the earth is not filled with the steadfast love of God,
but is drenched in blood,
and filled with violence?

What do you do when history and hope won’t rhyme?
When you have seen the future and it is murder?
When you have been waiting in hope for the Lord to be your help and shield,
but you seem to have been left defenseless before the powers of this age,
and it sure looks like you are waiting in vain?

What do you do when there is a tragic gap between vision and reality,an ever widening gulf between worldview and world,
a deep chasm between promise and fulfillment,
a devastating conflict between theology and real life?

Well … you keep singing.

But now you sings the blues.

Now you move from hymns of praise and rejoicing
to painful, raw, honest and abrasive songs of lament.

This brings us to Habakkuk.

Talk about living in the tragic gap.
Talk about a gulf between worldview and world.
Talk about a theological crisis of the deepest proportions.

What are we to do with Babylon?

Even if the Lord of history is to employ Babylon to do his bidding,
even if the covenantal God will use such an empire to punish his people,
even if all of that is just by the terms of the covenant,
how on earth …
(literally, how on earth – this earth full of the steadfast love of God!) …
how on earth…
can the God of steadfast love, justice and righteousness
be seen to be faithful to his covenant promises
while allowing such unfettered violence to reign over his people,
and over his creation?

This is Habakkuk’s complaint.
This is the prophet’s lament.

Almost echoing the psalmist’s affirmation that
“the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him” (Ps. 33.18 NIV)
Habakkuk abrasively asks,
“why do you look on the treacherous,
and are silent when the wicked swallow
those more righteous than they?” (Hab. 1.13b NRSV)

And so the prophet says that he will stand at his watch post
until he has an answer to his angry question.

That is where I have found myself many times over these years.

And that is where I have met so many of the young adults
who have found a place in our campus ministry.

Standing at the watch post,
crying out in lament,
longing for the vision of Psalm 33 to be the reality of our lives,
struggling to remain in this vision, to keep this faith,
looking for hope across the horizon of our lives, with tears in our eyes,
and refusing to put up with any quick and cheap answers.

What do we do with Babylon?
What do we do with Babylon’s myths and guns,
with Babylon’s cultural power and economic control?

What do we do, as Martin Luther once put it,
with the Babylonian captivity of the church?

This was Habakkuk’s question.
This is the question that my students are asking.
And this is the question that we must return to as a reformation church.

Our crisis is one of vision.

While we want to see the world with Psalm 33 eyes,
our vision is cloudy at best and horrifying at worst.

In the face of Babylonian captivity, in the face of empire,
Habakkuk can’t see with covenantal vision,
because the world in which he lives doesn’t look much
like the world of Psalm 33.

And so God replies.

There is still a vision, so make it plain that everyone can see.
There is still a vision in the midst of empire,
and it is a vision of ending.
There is still a vision to end this horror.

It is a vision that lies just beyond the range of normal sight,
you will have to strain your eyes a little,
but once you see it, it will become as clear as day

The tables will be turned on the empire,
God assures the aggrieved prophet.
What goes around, comes around.
The proud will fall from their elevated places.
The plunderer will be plundered.
The violence at the heart of your economy will revisit you.
And the terror of your rule will rebound upon you
in a terrorism that will no know bounds.


“… because of human bloodshed, and violence to the earth,
to cities and all who live in them.”

Twice, we hear God say these words in this short oracle:

“… because of human bloodshed, and violence to the earth,
to cities and all who live in them.”

The insatiability of empire can never say ‘enough.’
There is never enough wealth.
There is never enough power.
There is never enough imperial expansion.
There is never enough plunder.

And such insatiability is always covered in blood.

Bloodshed and violence beget bloodshed and violence.

That is an ironclad law of the universe.

Human bloodshed.
Violence to the earth.
Violence to the cities.
Violence to those who live in them.

The geo-political violence of empire
always, always, always
is manifest in ecological violence
and a violence at the heart of urban life.

Same old, same old.

But the God of shalom,
the God of justice,
the God of creation,
the God of love
will have nothing of it.

And so the good news for Habakkuk
is that this whole idolatrous house of cards will fall.

And great will be its fall.

But there is more.

The empire and its violence cannot overturn God’s love for creation.

And so, remembering that “the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord,”
the oracle promises anew that,
“The earth will be filled
with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord,
as the waters cover the sea.”

Judgment is never the last word.
Judgment is always a word on the way.
A clearing of the way for a better word.

A world filled with violence,
overflowing in blood,
will be transformed.

This is the vision, Habakkuk.
Can you see it?

And if you are having a hard time seeing through the smoke,
then just take a look at the proud.
Take a look at the masters in the empire.
Look at those who wield this destructive violence.
Look at the 1% who will soon own more than 50% of all the wealth.
Take a good look.
What do you see?

They project such an ethos of ease and comfort.
They appear to be so secure and confident.
They appear to have everything under control.

But look more closely.
Do you see that their wealth is treacherous?

Do you also see that such arrogance cannot endure?
Can you see that this is a world that can only implode?
Can you see that an economy of insatiable consumption,
is like Death that has never had enough?
Can you see that such an economy will swell and bloat
until it explodes?
Can you see that an imperial economy of exploitation and injustice
will necessarily call forth rebellion?
Can you see that if you heap up what is not your own,
if you set up a world economy of plunder,
if you secure that economy through a geo-politics of bloodshed,
and if you continue to do violence to the earth and to cities and to those who live in them,

then the whole thing is going to rebound on you?
Does it take too much just to open your eyes and see all of this?

And if you can’t see it, then might you be able to hear it?

If you listen closely enough,
can’t you hear the cry of the stones in the walls
and the plaster responding from the woodwork?

We may be blind to what is going on,
but the rest of creation is not.
We may simply see the shiny architecture of opulence
in the construction boom all around us,
but the building materials know better.
And so they, like all of creation, cry out in travail,
call out in protest to how they are employed in service of idolatry,
bear witness against a culture of treacherous wealth in the face of poverty,
call out a shameful housing policy that builds condos for the rich,
while 165,000 Ontario households are on the waiting list to get into                                      affordable housing.

Shame, cry out the two by fours and the drywall. Shame.

But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate.

Because you see, hidden in this vision,
almost drowned out by this deconstruction of the empire,
set in contrast to the proud in all of their disquiet,
there is another word.

St. Paul noticed it.

St. Paul knew that this was the heart of the matter.
St. Paul knew that while the empire was collapsing,
there was one anchor in the storm,
one thing that you could build everything on
in the reconstruction project of our culture, our economy, our lives.

“Look at the proud!
Their spirit is not right in them,
but the righteous live by faith.”

The righteous live by faith.
Those who would seek justice live by faithfulness.
Faith, faithfulness, is at the heart of the matter.

But there is a question here.
There is, not surprisingly, a matter of interpretation,
both in Habakkuk and when St. Paul cites Habakkuk in Romans.

Whose faith?

Our reading this evening offers from the NIV offers one interpretation:
“the righteous will live by their faith.”

Now here is an interesting thing.
That interpretation of Habakkuk is well grounded in the Septuagint,
that is, in the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew text.
In fact, we could say that the Greek translation is itself an interpretation.
The Masoretic text, however, (that is the Hebrew text), is best translated:
“The righteous will live by faithfulness.”


Whose faithfulness? Their own?
Or the faithfulness of the very God who has been addressed from the watchtower?

How can you trust that this vision, though taking such a long, long time,
will come to pass?
How can you hang on with righteousness in the face of wickedness,
with justice in the face of injustice?

Only because the one who gives you this vision,
the one who calls you to such righteousness, such justice,
is the faithful one.
Live in the security of this faithfulness.

Whose faithfulness?
It can go either way in Habakkuk,
and I think that St. Paul intentionally embraces both interpretations.

At the very foundation of his letter to the Romans,
indeed the foundational text for the Reformation,
Paul writes,
“For in the gospel the justice of God is revealed through faith for faith;
as it is written, ‘The one who is just will live by faithfulness.’”

Through faith for faith.
Through the faithfulness of God is born the faithfulness of God’s people.
Our faith is a response called forth by God’s faithfulness.

And Paul will go on to say that God’s faithfulness,
to his creation full of steadfast love,
to his covenant with Abraham,
to the vision of Psalm 33,
and to the oracle of Habakkuk,
is manifest in one man – Jesus the Messiah.

That is why Paul refers over and over again in the first 17 verses of Romans
to the gospel, the gospel, the gospel.

The gospel of God, rooted in the torah, writings and prophets,
is the good news of Jesus.

The gospel of God is that the promises are fulfilled in Jesus,
through his resurrection from the dead.

The gospel of God proclaims Jesus as Lord,
against all false challengers to the throne.

The gospel of God has gone throughout the world,
and is being proclaimed at the very heart of the empire.

The gospel of God is dynamite! It is the power of God for salvation
for everyone who embraces the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.

In the gospel “the justice of God is revealed through faith for faith
as it is written, “The one who is just will live by faith.”

Now if you are still with me, and I know that this is a bit of a heavy sermon,
… but it is Reformation Sunday, after all …
then you might be wondering why I have replaced
the word “righteousness” with “justice.”

Well, there are good reasons to translate the Greek word dikaisosume as “justice,”
carrying with it the overtones of the two Hebrew words for
justice and righteousness.

Now these three words – gospel, faithfulness and justice – are at the heart
of the Roman empire.

You see, just as Habakkuk is struggling with God’s faithfulness
in the face of the Babylonian empire,
so also is Paul addressing Christians living at the centre of the Roman empire.

And you have to remember that when Paul reaches back to Habakkuk,
he is not engaging in cheap proof-texting.

No, he reaches for that one line from Habakkuk 2 (“the righteous live by faith”)
within the whole context of Habakkuk’s critique of empire.

That is why Habakkuk is so useful to Paul.
They are facing the same kind of imperial context.

And in the face of the empire’s boast
that Roman ‘justice’ was the apex of civilization;
that the gods had bestowed ‘faithfulness’ on Rome;
that the only good news, the only gospel worth listening to
came from Rome;
that Caesar was the lord of all, and the one through whom
salvation is secured …

Paul proclaims that there is only one Lord
and his name is Jesus;
there is only one Saviour,
and he is the Messiah;
there is only one gospel that has real power
and it blows away Rome’s imperial propaganda;
there is only one God who is faithful;
and there is only one justice and it is the justice of this God.

My friends, Calvin and Luther knew
that Paul’s letter to the Romans was explosive.

And so, with it ringing in their ears,
they led a reformation of the church of Jesus Christ.

They attempted to embrace anew the power of the gospel,
the depths of God’s faithfulness,
the expansive nature of the promises,
the radical call to discipleship.

The Reformation was rooted in the interpretation of scripture,
addressing the social, religious and political struggles of their time.

They allowed scripture to challenge tradition.
They allowed biblical faith to address all of life.

Luther and Calvin listened deeply to God’s voice in scripture
to address the pressing questions of their time.

To be faithful to them we must do no less.

If we are to name ourselves as reformed,
if we are to honour the Reformation in 2015,
then we will need to embrace anew this comprehensive vision,
we will need to continue to read and interpret the scriptures anew,
and we will need to embrace a gospel that sets us free from
our own Babylonian captivity.

Keep faith dear friends, and you keep God.
Keep faith and you will see clearly.
Keep faith, embrace a righteous justice,
and the vision will open up to you.

God is faithful.
The earth is indeed full of the Creator’s steadfast love.
The gospel is the power of God for salvation to all.
For in this gospel, the justice of God is revealed
through faithfulness for faithfulness.

As it is written, “the one who is just will live by faith.”

Thanks be to God.

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian, a retired CRC campus minister, the founder of the Wine Before Breakfast community, and farms with Sylvia Keesmaat at Russet House Farm.He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is cowritten with Sylvia Keesmaat and entitled Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.

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