Reformed and Always Being Reformed:  Our Presbyterian DNA
III.  The Sovereignty of God:  God in Our Streets

Isaiah 58: 6-14 & Revelation 21:1-6a, 15-21; 22: 1-7

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 30th January 2005

© Reverend Kenneth E. Kovacs
Catonsville Presbyterian Church
Catonsville,  Maryland

For almost two thousand years the church has continued to pray, “Maranantha!” meaning, “Come, Lord Jesus.”  We pray this in Advent when we’re expecting the birth of Jesus.  But we find these words not part of the birth narratives of the gospels, but at the end of the Bible, in Revelation 22:30 to be exact.  The church waits for Jesus’ return.  But the return of Jesus, according to scripture, marks not the end of the world, but the healing or the restoration of the world.  As I have tried to stress on many occasions, the final vision we’re given in Revelation is not of annihilation, of total destruction, of a God so angry with humanity that its destiny can be severed from God’s will.  In fact, from the opening pages of Genesis right through to the end of Revelation the witness of scripture makes it very clear that human destiny and the purpose of God will not be severed; they are intertwined, because as we saw last week, Yahweh is a God of the covenant whose faithfulness to humanity and to creation will not change.  What we’re given at the end of Revelation is a glorious vision of people reformed by God’s grace.  John tells us, “Behold, I saw a new heaven and a new earth!”  He sees a new city, a new place to call home, a place where people live in peace with one another and with God.  And it is striking that the Bible, while beginning in a garden ends in a city.

The great Presbyterian prophet and preacher, George Macleod (1898-1991), made a bold claim more than forty years ago as Europe and the United States entered the Cold War and witnessed the build up nuclear arsenals.  He wrote the end will not “come with an atomic explosion followed by thin air, …instead, a crisis whose fulfillment will be a city with streets, a community. . . .”[1]  One might say Macleod didn’t know what he was talking about.  Today, even after the end of the Cold War, we are closer to nuclear annihilation than we were forty years ago, with the threat of dirty bombs in our major cities, some would say almost inevitable.  Today, Iraq, the traditional setting for the Garden of Eden, is a country whose streets are full of dust, destruction, and death, where children are not safe and where even today people are putting their lives at risk to vote.  So what do we make of Macleod’s claim?  Is it true?  Look at your streets.  The suburbs might be safe (although they’re not as safe as we might think), but look to the city – any city.  The health of the city is the true measure of a nation’s strength.  Drive down Route 40 into Baltimore or along Martin Luther King Blvd, then venture off Route 40 or King Blvd. to the side streets, wander around, get lost intentionally, drive around and look.  So what do we make of Macleod’s claim, the promise of a new city, a true community where people can live?  Be careful how you answer, because depending on your answer, you might be questioning the entire vision of scripture.

This morning we continue to explore what makes us ‘tick’ as Presbyterians.  Two weeks ago we look at the way Presbyterians read the Bible, last week we looked at the Presbyterian view of worship.  Today, we address perhaps the most distinctive aspect of being Reformed:  an emphasis on the sovereignty of God, which then leads to the transformation of society.  They might sound like completely different theological ideas, but they’re related – you’ll see.

Therefore, let’s turn first to John Calvin (1509-1564).  He was one of the great minds of the Reformed tradition and the spiritual leader of the city of Geneva.  Calvin wrote voluminous commentaries on the Bible, composed the monumental Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559), which was widely read throughout Europe and America.  Every Presbyterian minister has studied these texts at seminary (I’ll never forget discovering that my former colleague in Mendham, however, used one of his volumes of Calvin to prop up and level his desk!  I was not amused).  Calvin preached every day on alternate weeks at the Cathedral of St. Pierre.  His was one of the finest theological minds of the church.  But what a lot of people don’t know is that under his leadership the church in Geneva, “provided refugee relief and resettlement, sought jobs for the unemployed, encouraged public education, and worked to provide health care for all Genevans.  As the leader of the Genevan church, Calvin spoke out vigorously against unfair business practices and public policies that ignored the needs of the poor.  Anything that contributed to the welfare of the city and all its residents was significant for him.  Calvin expressed deep interest in providing a more economical cooking stove for the poor and prodded the municipal council to construct a sanitary sewer system throughout the city.”  He even introduced dentists to the city![2]  At the end of the Institutes, Calvin makes the very bold statement (for his time and ours) that the person with the most important calling was not the minister, but the civil servant – because the civil servant has the responsibility of caring for the civitas, the inhabitants of the city, the place where people live.  That’s what God cares about and that’s what God’s people should care about.  This is a major part of what it means to be Presbyterian.

Calvin would probably cringe at our attempt to clearly separate religion from politics, because he didn’t see the Christian life as a private affair between the believer and God, but as a public experience.  This is because the world is not divided up between the sacred or secular, they are false dichotomies.  Psalm 24 says it best, “The earth and all it contains belongs to the LORD. (Psalm 24:1)” Central to the Reformed tradition, as our Book of Order makes clear, is the “affirmation of the majesty, holiness, and providence of God who creates, sustains, rules, and redeems the world in the freedom of sovereign righteousness and love.” (G-2.0500).   The Reformed tradition lifts up the Biblical insight that we live in a world that is ruled by the providence and benevolence of God.  There is no area of human life that is beyond God’s grace and no area of human life beyond the scope and concern of the Christian.  God is sovereign.  God is in charge.  God has redeemed and is redeeming this world and calls us into being so that we might live the freedom promised to the children of God.  Now you will immediately ask if God is sovereign and so benevolent, then how does one account for tragedies like the recent tsunamis?   The Bible never gives a consistent, uniformed answer.  For some, this will make the Bible irrelevant.  But I can tell you what the Bible does say.  The Bible says, as Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) so perfectly once summarized, the grand arc of human history is moving toward justice.  The grand arc of the cosmos is moving toward justice.  We can either be on the side of justice or stand in its way.  God’s judgment is upon those who stand in its way.

Now by ‘justice’ I need to point out that the justice of God in the Bible is very different than our common understanding of it.  We tend to think justice has been served when the punishment is equal to the crime, when there is a justification done for an apparent wrong, justice is a ‘leveling’, making even, paying back.  

In scripture, we say with Monty Python, “And now for something completely different:” justice is God’s graceful work to create, retain, and maintain humanity’s ability to be in relationship with God and with one another.  Justice means a healing of a relationship that was broken or severed.  It pulls people back together.  The justice of God is the cross which heals our alienation with God.  Justice, to quote from our opening hymn, is “seasoned with mercy.”[3]  Justice is a synonym for mercy.  The justice of God will yield, will have a social dimension, even a political one, where people are called into healthy, affirming relationships within society where people are treated as persons created in the image of God, are given freedom to thrive under God’s benevolent reign, and are able to love one another and God.  God’s heart is committed to God’s people and therefore God’s righteousness must extend right to the heart of where people live – right to the streets where God’s people live.

Yahweh is a God of justice who is not satisfied with empty religious rituals and those who parade pious platitudes.  As we saw last week, if our worship is faithful then our worship will send us out into the streets to fight, to struggle, to protest, to yearn, to pray for the very same things that God requires. 

And what does Yahweh will for the creation?  What will true worship produce?  What Yahweh requires – and these are not optional – is that we loose the bonds of injustice, where injustice is seen as everything that dehumanizes a person and severs relationships; that we loosen the yoke of oppression and allow those oppressed to go free.  In fact, scripture tells us not only must we loosen the yoke, but once it is off the back, we’re called to break it so that it can never be used again.  We are called to share our bread with the hungry.  God calls us to bring the homeless poor – that refers to those who lost their homes due to the burden of debt—and bring them into your home.  God calls us to clothe the naked.  And don’t turn away from the needs of your family.  God calls us to stop pointing the finger, stop blaming other people, or even giving them the finger!  Stop speaking evil of people.  Stop your insipid gossiping.  Satisfy the needs of the afflicted.

You’re probably thinking, “Wow, this is a tall order.”  Maybe it feels like a tall order for the church in our age because we’re worrying about other things like survival and budgets.  Why, if a church got involved in all these things, we might make people uncomfortable, it might lead to conflict and division in the church.  People will say the church is meddling in society or politics, let them keep to their Sunday best.  But that is not the saying of Christ and not the will of Yahweh.

But do you know what will happen when we do the will of Yahweh?  The light of God will break forth like the dawn.  In fact, like the morning light the dawn will arise in the darkness itself and push the darkness back as the darkness dissolves away.  The warmth from this light will cause a deep healing to spring up quickly, Isaiah tells us.  He’s talking about a healing tissue that grows over a deep sore or wound.  God’s justice will come like light to heal the wounds of God’s people.  It will satisfy the needs of the people.  God will take that which is arid and parched and make it moist with life.  God will make us strong again.  We shall become like a watered garden with springs that know no end.  When God’s justice is at work the ancient ruins shall be rebuilt and new foundations will be built so that people can live and prosper.  The people who do this work of Yahweh will be known as Repairers, as the ones who restore the streets for us to live in.

You see, Yahweh is concerned about the streets – the place where people live in community and interact, the public square, the marketplace, the shopping mall.  The streets represent where people live.  When there’s a celebration, people take to the streets.  When there’s a protest or a riot against injustice, people take to the streets.  In the streets people make statements about who they are and what they believe and what they suffer and what they demand and for what they hope.  The street is the intersection where person faces person and that’s where God wants to be, that’s where God is.  Sometimes people wonder if God is really in the church (and on bad days I ask the same question).  But what I know is that God is wherever people live and that’s where the church of Jesus Christ needs to be.  God wants to dwell with us right at the center of our lives. 

Why is all of this important?  Because in the streets of the world we find open sewers and children playing in garbage.  In our streets we see prostitutes and drug pushers dehumanizing people, the mentally ill kicked out of hospitals, the homeless poor weighed down by bankruptcy and debt.  Streets were made to live in and play in, but our neighborhoods are vacant.  People are locked away in their homes, because it is not safe to walk on the streets.  But even our homes are not safe.  The streets are full of violence and rage.  Children cannot play in the streets if bullets are whizzing past their ears.  Streets, instead, divide communities.  I remember years ago driving down the notorious Falls Road in Belfast, a street that divides Protestants from Catholics, an extremely dangerous street patrolled by armored vehicles (I took pictures of it all, at the risk of being arrested).  When the rock group U2 sings about a place “where the streets have no name,” they dream of a place where the streets can be a place where people, all people, can live together.

We claim our name as Reformed Christians because we believe that we are being reformed by the Spirit of God who will not rest until all is reformed to reflect the glory of God.  That’s why the vision held out for us in scripture is not one of destruction and catastrophe, but the restoration of all things.  There is still plenty to do.  In Romans, Paul can talk about how even the creation waits with eager longing, yearning to be redeemed (Romans 8).  The people long for justice, for good relationships that build people up, person-to-person and person-to-God. In the cities of God, Zechariah tells us, “old men and women shall again sit in the street…each with staff in hand because of their great age.  And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in the streets (Zechariah 8:4-5).” There will be a new heaven and a new earth and in that earth there will be a city of God – the New Jerusalem, 1500 miles square – which is the Bibles way of saying it is very big!  It is a massive, broad place for every tribe and family, where the streets are laid with gold, and a river of life that brings life to all flows through the streets.  There God will dwell with us and us with God.  There all our prayers will be answered for it shall be on earth as it is in heaven.    That’s God’s vision.

What do you say to all of this?  Idyllic?  Fanciful?  Unrealistic?  Unlikely?  Careful how you answer.

[1] George Macleod, Only One Way Left:  Church Prospect (Glasgow:  The Iona Community, 1964 [1956]), pp. 45-46.

[2] Joseph Small, The Great Ends of the Church (Louisville, KY:  Curriculum Publishing, Presbyterian Church (U. S. A.), 1997), p. 23.

[3] Hymn quotation:    __________.  Cf. the quotation from the worship bulletin:  “The quality of mercy is not strained./ It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven. . ./ And earthly power doth then show likest God’s/ When mercy seasons justice.”  William Shakespeare (1564-1616), The Merchant of Venice