Lectionary Commentaries for November 1, 2015
All Saints Sunday (Year B)

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 11:32-44

Ginger Barfield

Death is real and harsh. No resuscitation of Lazarus from the dead should sentimentalize or simplify that truth.

It is the end of June and the state of South Carolina and the nation are reeling from the trauma of a twenty-one-year old white man named Dylann Roof who entered the historic Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston and sat for an hour through Bible study and prayer before allegedly killing nine innocent victims.

Two of those killed, Rev. Clementa Pinckney and Rev. Daniel Simmons, Sr. are graduates of Lutheran Southern Theological Seminary where I teach. I knew Clementa personally. The nation grieves a tragedy. Many of us feel the intense personal pain of the death of these nine.

As I write this article, my family and I are dealing with end of life decisions with my mom. After four years of passionately fighting, first the ravages of cancer and then the horrendous treatment effects of eradicating that evil, my mom is looking the harshness of death in the face. There comes a time when in physical weakness, one can fight this evil no longer.

Death is not easy. We should not sentimentalize any facet of the claim that death has over all of us on this day where in our liturgies, we will read the names of all those who have been snatched from us since All Saints Day 2014. Death stings personally.

As we prepare to preach this well-known text on Lazarus, Martha, Mary, and Jesus, we need to hold out the reality of the personal pain and grief that is in the biblical text and that is wounding so many.

The names we read,

            the bells we ring,

                        represent serious and real voids for those who have lost a loved one during the year. We must hold that sacred as we hold this text sacred.

The text for today is but a portion of the entire chain of events that narrate the death of Lazarus in John 11. It is helpful to hold the entire chapter in mind as we prepare, but two verses and their verbs seem especially helpful for a sermon about death’s real sting.

John 11:33-35 capture Jesus’ response to Mary’s indictment: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not be dead!” What a charge! How many of us have also cried out to God with similar words: “If you loved us, you would not have let _____ die!”? Jesus can also observe the weeping of Mary, and the tears of those who were coming out from the house with her. Mourning and grief are palpable in these verses.

The NRSV translates the end of verse 33 with “he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” For the integrity of the Greek verbs and the reality of the wounds of death, this translation is too weak. The first verb has a connection to anger. It is not simply a strong feeling, but it is more of a passion and pain that comes from anger at the situation (also used in v. 38).

The root of the second verb is tied to a stirring up of oneself on the insides. It can be used in a physical sense for stirring up water, disturbing the calmness of the still water. In a more personal sense, it signifies both mental and internal disturbance that is akin to almost being physically sickened and disturbed.

Then in the shortest verse of the Bible, verse 35. Jesus weeps. Jesus has the same reaction that the mourners do — he weeps real tears.

Jesus was angry and groaning deeply in his spirit and he was stirred up in his mind, heart, and body by Lazarus’ death. He cried aloud.

Even the incarnate God is broken in his heart and soul by the death of his friend Lazarus. Death grieves God. So also, does death break our hearts and stir up our souls

It is within this context that we tell the story of Jesus’ offering life anew to Lazarus. Death stings. It stinks (v. 39). No perfume or pat answers can remove this.

And the miracle is that smelly, dead man comes walking from the tomb at the simple command of Jesus: “Come out.” This death for Lazarus is defeated. He will need to clean up and take off the grave clothes, but Lazarus gets another chance at life. However, death is not forever defeated for Lazarus. This is not the resurrection of Jesus; it is the temporary recovery from death for Lazarus.

What are we to say in the midst of the suffering and reality and death? Is it enough to toll the bells and read the names? No. We are to proclaim the truth of the sting and stench of death. We are to acknowledge the grief and anger that may never totally depart those who are left in this life. We are to state the reality of the disturbing fact of the brutality of death.

Anger, deep disturbing pain, agitation of spirit and body are palpable across South Carolina and the nation as we wait for the last of the long line of nine funerals.

But the gospel truth does reign. We have our hope not on things on this earth but in the power of the cross of Christ and the resurrection of those who are his children. Jesus’ words of John 11:25 are the resounding gospel note that we proclaim this day: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.”

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 25:6-9

Anathea Portier-Young

In this remarkable passage, the Lord prepares a lavish feast at the Lord’s own sacred mountain.

All peoples are invited: oppressors and oppressed, powerful and lowly, native and foreigner (Isaiah 25:6). The host of such a feast can only be a king.

In the ancient near eastern world, such feasts provided opportunities for mighty rulers to display their wealth and power, foster loyalty, communicate their protection and providence, negotiate treaties, and render judgments. The feast was a hallmark of empire. But the shared meal also has a sacred and intimate character. It brings pleasure and satisfaction. It engages the senses. It establishes and strengthens relationships.

At this feast, God’s lordship, providence, and power are on display. God is preparing to judge and to save. But God does it in a way utterly unlike any earthly royal host. The Lord does not partake of the rich meats and aged wine that the Lord has offered to the guests. Instead, the Lord’s mouth opens wide to swallow the veil that covers the peoples, the woven cloth that is woven upon the nations. And finally, the Lord swallows death.

This image startles. A cloth is not food. It does not nourish. And how can death bring life? Why has the host chosen such a meal? What is its significance?

Elsewhere in the Old Testament, swallowing and death are frequently found together. Moses sings of the Lord’s victory over the Egyptian armies: “you stretched out your right hand, the earth swallowed them” Exodus 15:12). In Moses’s graphic portrayal of divine victory and deliverance, the earth represents the ground that opens to receive the bodies of the dead. By extension, it also symbolizes the netherworld (Proverbs 1:12). Earth thus becomes a metonym for death itself. When earth “swallows” in this passage, we can also picture the gaping maws of death opening wide to devour the living.

A similar occurrence of this metonym is found in the book of Numbers. Following the rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, Moses instructs the people that “if the LORD creates something new, and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up, with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, then you shall know that these men have despised the LORD” (Numbers 16:30). The earth swallows bodies and belongings alike (Numbers 16:32; see also 26:10; Deuteronomy 11:16; Psalm 106:17), enacting by this swallowing an irreversible divine judgment against those who have rebelled.

But in Isaiah the Lord does not swallow people. Instead, the Lord swallows “the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations” (Isaiah 25:7). The English word “shroud” evokes death, while “sheet” evokes sleep. Yet the words in Hebrew have other connotations. The first word in this pair is literally a veil or covering, while the second refers to something that is woven. Using artful repetition and sound-play, the poet-prophet refers to the “covering that covers” and the “weaving that has been woven.” We can see that they are metaphors, but what is meant by them?

We can take a cue from the third item that the Lord swallows, death itself (Isaiah 25:8), and ask, how are a veil, or a covering, and a woven cloth, related to death? Are they simply the death shroud, as the NRSV suggests? Or can they mean something more? Perhaps the imagery is meant to convey that the nations have been veiled in a way that renders them blind to the Lordship of God, or they have imagined themselves to be covered, that is, protected, from divine judgment. The image of weaving evokes a luxurious commodity, suggesting that by privileging material prosperity the nations have chosen for themselves a living death.

To swallow is to consume utterly, leaving no trace behind. In removing the covering, the veil, and the luxurious curtain, the Lord erases every false story the nations have told, every false security, every destructive value. The nations are then truly ready to be judged or to be saved.

To swallow is also to take something into one’s own body. When the Lord consumes death, the Lord rearranges the cosmic geography. Death no longer resides in the underworld, the earth, or the deep. God has taken death into God’s own self. Circumstances that seemed to spell final destruction for God’s own people no longer have the power to end the life of God’s people. God de-creates the order of life and death and makes possible a future for God’s people beyond death and destruction.

The royal feast of judgment thus becomes for Israel a day of salvation (Isaiah 25:9). God wipes away the tears from every face and removes his people’s reproach (25:8). These details remind us that death was present at God’s feast. It was not simply a dish set before the King. Death and suffering were heavy on the heart of God’s guests, who came with mourning and weeping. God’s people carried with them the shame of insults hurled at them by the very nations with whom they now shared wine and rich food.

The royal feast on God’s mountain is an event both sacred and political. At the passage’s conclusion, the fate of the nations is unclear — perhaps they, like death, are also swallowed up. Perhaps they are redeemed. Perhaps they too are invited to rejoice in the Lord’s salvation. But if so, they have had to abandon much that was familiar in order to remain at God’s table.

Preachers today might ask, how is the Eucharist simultaneously a feast of judgment and salvation? What does it mean for us today to say that God has swallowed death, the veil, and the woven cloth? Help your congregation to know the cost and comfort of releasing death and claiming new life at God’s banquet table. Help them to say, “This is the Lord for whom we have waited, let us be glad and rejoice in [God’s] salvation” (Isaiah 25:9).


Commentary on Psalm 24

Mark Throntveit

Psalm 24 is notoriously difficult to interpret.

While virtually everyone sees that it falls into three parts: verses 1-2; verses 3-6; and verses 7-10, their disparate nature renders most attempts to explain their interrelationship conjectural at best and speculative at worst. Oh well … here goes!

By far the most common approach to Psalm 24 sees it as a liturgy that sketches the return of the Ark of the Lord. This return may be identified with an actual battle; David’s bringing the Ark to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:13-19; 1 Chronicles 15:25-16:3); Solomon’s completion of the Temple construction (1 Kings 8:1-11; 2 Chronicles 5); part of the pre-exilic Feast of Tabernacles; or the post-exilic Babylonian Akitu Festival marking the advent of the New Year. Since Israel did bring the Ark into battle and enjoyed military success as a result (1 Samuel 4), one assumes it would also have been brought back and that its return would likely be celebrated.

Creation and divine kingship are constitutive of other ancient Near Eastern processionals and these are clearly present in verses 1-2 and 7-10. The holy mountain and the sanctuary appear in verse 3. Verse 6 uses vocabulary found in pilgrimage texts. Verses 7-10 mention God’s glory five times, and many passages locate God’s glory in the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem Temple or in the tabernacle that preceded it (Exodus 40:34-38). In addition, each of the three sections is assigned its own setting: Verses 1-2 as pilgrims approached Jerusalem; verses 3-6 at the city’s gates; and verses 7-10 at the actual ceremony.

Obviously, much of this reconstruction is conjectural, presuming a number of rituals and ceremonies of which we have no record, especially verses 3-6, usually construed as a “test” for admission to the Temple. But the qualities addressed by this test are moral, while admittance to the Temple was denied only for physical reasons.

Recent work on the psalm, provides a measure of encouragement for this reading. First of all, there is a growing consensus that Psalm 24 is an entrance liturgy due its placement in a series of psalms displaying a concentric structure:

A Psalm 15 entrance liturgy

 B Psalm 16 psalm of trust

   C Psalm 17 prayer for help

    D Psalm 18 royal psalm

     E Psalm 19 torah-psalm

    D’ Psalms 20-21 royal psalms

   C’ Psalm 22 prayer for help

  B’ Psalm 23 psalm of trust

A’ Psalm 24 entrance liturgy

Second, investigation into the religious culture of the ancient Near East has provided several examples in which statues or idols were led out of a temple only to be returned to the temple, later, in what may be described as cultic parades. If the Ark can be construed as representing God’s presence without breaking the force of the first commandment’s prohibition against idols or graven images, we have a backdrop for this obscure mini-liturgy.

Verses 1-2 celebrate God as the creator of all. This ringing proclamation of divine sovereignty is made all the more emphatic by the placement of “(to) the Lord (belongs)” in rhetorical exposure as the first word of the psalm. Its omission in the second half of the verse provides yet another emphasis since it must be recalled in order to make sense of the phrase. The causal ki that begins verse two claims that God’s creative activity with regard to the ordering of chaos, symbolized by the sea and rivers that figure so prominently in the surrounding culture, is the reason for God’s ownership.

Verses 3-6 make clear that only those who “seek” (verse 6) God can enter the Temple as indicated by “the hill of the Lord (i.e., Zion)” and “his holy place.” But this seeking is a matter of the will. “Heart” refers to what we would call the mind. Matters of the heart, in Hebrew, have to do with the will, not feelings or emotions as in our culture. Similarly, the adjectives “pure” and “clean” that belong to the sphere of ritual in our way of thinking, in the psalmist’s culture are matters of morality and suggest that the proper qualifications will be concerned with integrity and honor. Those who gain admittance are showered with blessing, vindication, and salvation (verse 5).

In a similar fashion, verses 7-10 depict God’s parallel entry, cast in the imagery of Mesopotamian festive processionals that return the divine “presence” to its dwelling, as a celebration of the Divine Warrior, the King of Glory, Yahweh Sebaot (Yahweh of Armies) This claim connects God the deliverer (verses 7-10) with God the creator (verses 1-2). Into this presence of God as creator and redeemer the worshiper enters (verses 3-6) and receives the blessing, vindication, and salvation (verse 5) that he seeks.

One shouldn’t miss the message of verses 1-2 in our day of ecological crisis. The earth does not belong to us and we are not given permission to do to it as we wish. “The earth is the Lord’s (as emphasized in the text), and all that is in it.” We are fast approaching a point of no return with regard to human exploitation of the environment.

In the context of All Saints, this text proclaims the victory of God, not least the victory over evil and death that is ours in Christ Jesus. As we await his triumphal return we can take heart that our loved ones lie safely in his care.

Second Reading

Commentary on Revelation 21:1-6a

Greg Carey

“See, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:5, NRSV).

As we enter Revelation 21 everything has changed. With John we see both a new heaven and a new earth. A holy city descends from heaven, resplendent with gold, jewels, and divine light. After chapters of trauma and conflict on a cosmic scale, after Death and Hades finally meet their end, everything has become new.

Ironically, this dramatic newness draws from ancient wells. It pulls from Isaiah 65:17, which also proclaims new heavens and a new earth, an order so completely transformed that “former things” are forgotten (see Isaiah 43:18-19; 66:22). When I hear this passage from Revelation, I think back to Paul, who declares a renewal that has already been accomplished in Christ. Appropriating Isaiah’s language, Paul declares old things passed away. “See, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). In announcing the dissolution of the old order and the arrival of the new, Revelation reasserts very old promises.

Revelation’s proclamation of total newness grounds itself in God’s character. First, God has demonstrated God’s own faithfulness toward Israel. This is the dimension Isaiah celebrates: the God who chose and formed Israel as a people will see to Israel’s salvation. Second, for the author of Revelation the “testimony of Jesus” embodies that divine faithfulness by making possible the renewal of all things. In Israel, and specifically through Israel’s messiah, God has always been working salvation and renewal. Now, Revelation proclaims, is the moment of consummation.

Consummation indeed, for the holy city arrives adorned as if she were a bride being presented to her husband. Many readers will find this metaphor troubling. After all, ancient brides typically enjoyed little agency in the selection of their husbands and would be subject to their men for life. We are to imagine very young women, usually in their early teens, dressed so as to appeal to husbands just about twice their age. As a bride, the new city appears in stark contrast to the “great city” presented in Revelation 17. The new bride will be dressed simply, modestly, as opposed to Babylon’s precious metals, fine jewelry, and richly dyed garments. There’s no escaping the patriarchy that determines this image. At the same time, the bride’s modest appearance stands in contrast the opulence — extravagance purchased through the exploitation of millions — that adorns Babylon.

Preachers will know that many congregants scarcely expect a good word from Revelation. For example, some will reject Revelation because they regard it as too world-averse. Our society loves this heaven and this earth. In many ways that’s a good thing. Our consumerist culture invests ultimate value in enjoying the here and now. Revelation’s message that the here and now must pass away for a new thing sounds not only silly but even offensive to modern ears. What about the glorious creation we inhabit: Should we not cherish it? What about the many loves we enjoy: Should we abandon them? Does Revelation call us to despise the wondrous world in which God has planted us?

Preachers will also look out for those congregants who expect Revelation to provide pie in the sky salvation, an escape from the troubles and conflicts of this world. According to this view, Revelation destroys the world we inhabit, along with most of the people who dwell in it, in order to deliver holy people to “heaven” with its pearly gates and golden streets. Some Christians actually hope for this outcome. According to the rapture theology so prevalent in some circles, believers will be taken up to heaven before the world descends into chaos. More common are the Christians who expect the gospel to provide other-worldly salvation without effecting much change in this world. On All Saints’ Day we are especially mindful that all of us share the hope for life beyond death, including our connection with the saints who have preceded us.

Both sets of hearers, the world-affirmers and the world-escapers, need help hearing this passage. Two features of this passage, often overlooked, provide resources that may renew our imaginations.

First, the new creation features no sea. The sea’s absence may trouble us at first. Almost all of us love water. We take particular pleasure in the ocean. (For Revelation’s readers, “the sea” means the Mediterranean.) But for Revelation the sea’s absence belongs with the eradication of death, mourning, crying, and pain. As it does in some other Jewish literature of the period, the sea is where evil empires operate. In the great war Satan takes his stand alongside the sea, and the wicked beast arises out of that very same sea (Revelation 12:18-13:1). The beast makes war against Jesus’ followers and kills many of them. Moreover, the beast is closely aligned with the great city; after all, Babylon rides upon the beast’s back. When the “great city” is destroyed, those who mourn include especially political rulers (“kings”), merchants, and sailors (18:9-20). The beast-ly empire conducts its military and diplomatic operations on the sea, just as it handles commerce on the sea. In Revelation the sea’s absence does not reflect aversion to the world; instead, it’s part of Revelation’s condemnation against an empire that uses war and commerce to oppress ordinary people.

Second, we note that the new city comes down to us from heaven. We do not go up to it. Revelation does not imagine the saints escaping this world for a heavenly reward. On the contrary, the saints inhabit a brand new world created right where they live. This new world may not have a sea, but it does include a river, “bright as crystal” (Revelation 22:1). This new world hardly represents an escape from everyone else and their troubles. When Revelation says God has come down to dwell with mortals (21:3), it means it. The loud voice proclaims, “These peoples will be God’s” (21:3, my translation). Drawing again from Isaiah’s vision, Revelation describes “the nations” walking in the light of the new city (21:24) and finding healing therein (22:3; see Isaiah 60:11; Jeremiah 3:17). Revelation envisions a renewal, not an escape.