Lectionary Commentaries for November 4, 2018
All Saints Sunday

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 11:32-44

Brian Peterson

Today’s text gathers us around a newly occupied tomb, surrounded by the typical mix of grief and loss, accusation and anger.

In that unlikely setting, Jesus tells Martha that she will see the glory of God (John 11:40). We know what it is to long for a glimpse of that glory, perhaps especially at times reflected in the scenes of John 11. On this All Saints Sunday, we remember the long line of the faithful who have come before us, whom we honor and treasure. Yet we may also wonder just where we see God’s glory in a procession that always ends up at a death. We know from experience how death, with all its daily minions, stinks. Where is it that we glimpse God’s glory?

“The dead man came out” (John 11:44). It would be difficult to imagine a more unlikely sentence. This is utterly beyond our experiences. We’ve been given plenty of indication earlier in John 11 about what will happen, but we may still be startled by the man shuffling out of the tomb, unexpectedly alive. Surely such a miracle is where the glory of God blazes forth.

Except this expectation doesn’t seem to play out in the text. In John11:36-37, the people at the funeral are divided about Jesus. Some affirm his love; others criticize him for not doing more for sadly dead Lazarus. The reaction is no less divided (but it is more deadly) after Lazarus stumbles his way back into the light of the living. Jesus ensures freedom for Lazarus in verse 44, but the following verses note that although some believe because of what they saw (verse 45), others begin to plan how to kill both Jesus (verse 53) and Lazarus (John 12:10), and thus stop the outrageous behavior of one who calls the dead back to life, and of the dead who have the temerity to obey.

Perhaps such reactions prompt what may be the most exegetically puzzling aspect of this text: the profound emotional responses of Jesus. He is “greatly disturbed” in John 11:33 and 38, a word that commonly signifies indignation or anger. He is “deeply moved” (verse 33); he weeps (verse 35). What is all this about? Is it an indication of human grief felt by Jesus? Is he upset because the crowd’s grief is hypocritical? Is he angry at people’s continued inability to believe (this weeping as a Johannine version of the Synoptic Jesus weeping over Jerusalem)? Is he upset because his own death and tomb are approaching?

Commentators are intrigued by this emotional Jesus, and all of these suggestions have some plausibility within John’s narrative. Unfortunately, John doesn’t seem interested in clarifying the reasons for Jesus’ emotions here. Whatever the precise trigger, it is worth noticing that Jesus does not remain unmoved in the presence of this death and grief. Such things are not overcome by Spock-like lack of emotion; that is not how God’s glory will appear.

Though not specifically labelled as such, the raising of Lazarus is the climactic “sign” within Jesus’ ministry in John. In this Gospel, the astounding things Jesus does are not “miracles,” not simply places where the general patterns of the world swerve wildly. Instead, they are revelations, signs that point beyond the astounding event itself to something else. More precisely, they point to someone else. They testify to Jesus as the Son to whom the Father has given life (John 5:25-26). This scene points to Jesus’ own glorification through his death and resurrection (12:23). There too we will find a tomb, a stone, grieving women, the linen wrappings and face cloth. This means that if we focus on Lazarus being brought back to life and perhaps even wrestle with why others whom we love were not similarly brought back, we have missed the point rather badly. This text is also not simply about how Jesus will raise us on the last day. This was Martha’s confession, and (though true) it was not sufficient. Jesus calls Lazarus out, like the good shepherd who calls his sheep and gives them life (10:3, 27-28). This is what Jesus does for all those who believe in him. Jesus has the power to give life now, because Jesus is the presence of God’s life become flesh for us.

Jesus raising Lazarus does not negate the promise of the day that is coming when all those in the tombs will hear his voice and come out (John 5:28), but it is not primarily about that claim. What it reveals is that Jesus is the one in whom there is life (1:4), the one who even now calls us out of all the dark and binding places of death (5:25). In grief, people do not only need or want to know that Jesus is powerful enough to raise the dead. After all, then why didn’t Jesus do more to help their own family member, or to stop the monstrous daily march of death through our world? But Jesus is life itself; Jesus himself is resurrection’s defeat of death. Jesus is the place where death ends and everlasting life begins. Without denying the eschatological promise of resurrection and death’s final elimination, the life of Jesus breaks into our present and transforms it. What we need to hear is that on both sides of the grave there is life for us because Jesus has been sent to call our names. On both sides of the grave Jesus is life for us.

This is what All Saints Day is for: not just to remember those from long ago or those whose deaths are still painfully near, and not just to point ahead to that ultimate promise of resurrection, though both of these are certainly part of this day and to be affirmed. More centrally, however, this day is about what all God’s saints have known and experienced, that here and now there is no death or grief or fear so deep and dark that the voice of Jesus cannot reach into it, call us out, and bring life.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 25:6-9

Michael L. Ruffin

All Saints Sunday is a day to remember those who have died. It is difficult to do so without remembering that we are going to die too.

A good friend of mine was killed in an automobile accident when he was sixteen. My mother died when I was seventeen and my father when I was twenty. For some reason, I strongly sensed my mortality before any of those deaths occurred. It’s strange to me that I’ve thought less and less about my inevitable death as I’ve gotten older.

And I am getting older.

I turned sixty a few weeks ago. I remember when I thought sixty-year-old people were old. Now, I think of them as middle-aged (because I know so many 120-year-olds!). In recent years, I’ve spoken at the funerals of two of my childhood friends. In recent days, I’ve learned of the deaths of two of my contemporaries from my hometown.

Maybe I should start thinking more about my mortality. Maybe we all should.

An All Saints Sunday sermon offers an opportunity to proclaim the hope we have in God as we face the reality of being mortal people living in a broken and dangerous world. Isaiah 25:6-9 helps us do that.

What is

Our passage occurs within Isaiah 24–27, a distinct unit within the book of Isaiah. Because of its intense interest in the future and a supposed affinity with apocalyptic writings, this section is often called the Little Apocalypse of Isaiah. More recent scholarship downplays the apocalyptic nature of these chapters, but there is no denying their interest in God’s future working out of God’s purposes.

But in anticipating a glorious future, Isaiah 25:6-9 acknowledges a difficult and challenging present for its original readers. Whether this passage (and Isaiah 24–27 as a whole) originates with Isaiah of Jerusalem or with exilic or post-exilic writers and editors (as seems most likely), it acknowledges that the people being addressed experience death. The text may have in mind the deadly experiences of warfare and exile that Israel and Judah have encountered, but the fact that the passage addresses “all peoples” (Isaiah 25:6) leads us to consider the universal experience of death.

All individuals die. “All peoples” in the sense of “all nations” are also subject to death. The mighty empires — whether of Isaiah’s time, the exiles’ time, the post-exilic period, or our era — are at risk of dying. Moreover, “death” can refer to experiences other than literally dying. The people may experience such severe physical, emotional, social, or spiritual deprivation that they feel like they’re dying.

The book of Isaiah explicitly talks about such negative experiences in other places, including Isaiah 24–27. They are implicit in our passage’s proclamation of a much brighter future.

What will be

Our passage further develops a theme first addressed in Isaiah 2:1: “In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it” (verse 2). Now we read that God is going to bring about the promised wonderful future “on this mountain” (verse 6), which is Mount Zion. And the glorious future will include not only Israel but “all nations.”

This future will feature communal celebration. The Lord will provide a bountiful feast (Isaiah 25:6) that all nations will enjoy together. The divisions and conflicts that take away so much joy from life will be gone as all nations fellowship with each other and with God. (This part of the text could be the basis for an excellent Communion sermon.) God’s great future will include full provision and complete community.

This future will also feature life without death. The Lord “will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever” (Isaiah 25:7-8a). Death covers all peoples and all nations in the sense that everyone dies. It also shrouds them in the sense that it is a dread and a threatening presence. The awareness that death is coming for us and for our loved ones can be oppressive. But those who share in God’s great future will know only life. They will never have to mourn again, for “the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces” (verse 8a).

These are the things the text looks forward to. They haven’t happened yet. Oh, the exiles got to return home. They rebuilt Jerusalem and constructed a new temple. The nation even had a brief period of independence under the Hasmoneans. But nothing like what this text describes has happened yet, has it?

What is redux

We thought about “what is” in an earlier section; the subject there was the difficulties that the first readers of this passage faced. Let’s revisit “what is” with a focus on us. What is our present situation?

Well, we still live with death, and many of us live with the dread of death. We still live with physical, emotional, social, and spiritual deprivation. We still live with divisions between nations and with divisions between people within nations and within communities. We still look forward to that day when God will make things right, will bring people together, and, most significantly for this Sunday, will destroy death forever.

The New Testament also looks forward to that day. Revelation 21:1-6a (the lectionary’s second reading), contains words reflecting the hope of Isaiah 25:6-9: “(God) will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4). Given that Revelation expresses the same hope as a text written six or seven centuries before it, has nothing changed?

Yes, something has changed. Jesus has come. Jesus has lived, died, and risen. This Sunday’s Gospel text is the story of Jesus raising Lazarus (John 11:32-44), which demonstrates the life-giving power of Jesus. As the New Testament makes clear, we can experience that life-giving power here and now, even though we still await the glorious fulfillment of all things when death will be no more. We still live with death. But because of Jesus, we live with life, and that gives us even greater hope.

Isaiah 25:9 says, “It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.” Jesus has already come, but we still wait. We wait for his return. We wait for God’s salvation to be fully ours. But we wait knowing not only that the Lord will come, but that he has come.

There was hope in the present that Isaiah 25 originally addressed. There is even greater hope in our present, because we live on this side of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.


Commentary on Psalm 24

Mark Throntveit

Psalm 24 is notoriously difficult to interpret.1

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.


1 Commentary first published on this site on Nov. 1, 2015.

Second Reading

Commentary on Revelation 21:1-6a

Katherine A. Shaner

Few preachers decide to preach on Revelation. It is an enigmatic book, and preachers and pew-sitters alike often feel ambivalent about it.

Yet our reluctance within traditions that use the RCL to approach Revelation has left a theological and interpretive gap that has been filled by Christian and popular American traditions who see the text as a script for the end of time. It is a script that emphasizes the exploitation of creation, abominable violence against people who are not a certain kind of Christian, and rescue from death and destruction for a select few. From Late Great Planet Earth to Ghostbusters to the Left Behind series of books and movies, this script is everywhere in popular culture. More insidiously, this popular interpretation has influenced international policy (moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem is part of the script), deregulation of ecologically destructive industry (earthquakes in Oklahoma from fracking are part of the script), and militarism (reinvigoration of nuclear proliferation is part of the script).

While many preachers balk at preaching politics, particularly on an All Saints Sunday that falls right before an important national election, I wonder if even the usual approach to this holy festival draws on parts of the Revelation script. Many times, the remembrance and celebration of the saints who have died during the past year focuses on their removal from our realm, the earthly realm, to the realm where God is. We represent our beloveds as those who have “gone home to be with God,” or “those whom God has received,” or “our beloveds in heaven” — as if those who have died are in a faraway heaven where God dwells. Yet this faraway heaven creates distance between God’s presence and our own earthly lives. Certainly grief and remembrance might feel like the absence of God in such a way that we long for rescue or at least escape from the everyday pain and hardships. Sometimes we grasp at the vision of our beloveds rescued from this life, living with God in the New Jerusalem without realizing the implication of the script — that we have been left behind and God is far away from us in our grief.

This pericope need not follow this script at all. We see a vision of the new Jerusalem coming down within a renewed creation. Notice that the holy city is coming down to earth. God is not in a far-off heaven. God’s dwelling place is not a vision of perfection apart from our present reality.1 Rather, Revelation gives us an image of God’s homecoming into our world — a homecoming that not only destroys death but also renews the world within the creation. While the image uses an analogy that has its roots in the patriarchal commodification of women (verse 2), the sense of God’s carefully attended city coming to earth is a strong antithesis to the idea that God rescues us from an abandoned earth. John proclaims that “the home of God is among mortals” (verse 3). God comes into mortality, into our frailty, to dwell with us. God wipes tears, soothes grief, and heals pain because of the renewal of the earth, not because of its destruction.

For All Saints Sunday, the hope from this reorientation to God’s presence among mortals comes in the remembrance of holy ones who, like us, lived their mortal lives with God in their midst. For this reason, communities could include in the celebration of the saints those who have been baptized in the previous year — the newest saints living in God’s home, right here in our midst.

Of course, this perspective depends on a flip in our usual framework for reading Revelation. So often we read it as predictive of events to come. Yet the accepted scholarly definition of apocalyptic literature2 describes texts like Revelation (and the dozen or so other early Christian and Jewish texts drawing on similar themes) as revealing rather than predictive. In other words, the vision John the Seer describes in these verses is not a view of the future from a crystal ball. Instead John’s vision lets us see God’s home among us without the veil of human destruction and violence. The passing away of the first things (verse 4) and the creation of a new heaven and new earth (verse 1) need not be understood as the necessary result of obliteration. In fact, the verb used in verse 4 is aperchomai, meaning “to go away, depart, or cease,” rather than apollumi, which would indicate destruction and death. The new heaven and the new earth are not replacements for the world where we live but rather a renewal of the creation in the space where God has always been — among the saints from every generation and era.

Preaching Revelation on All Saints Sunday gives us the opportunity to think about God’s power of presence in life, in death, and in life after death — God’s power of presence in beginnings and in endings. The good news rings true when we call the names of the saints across the veil between life and death into remembrance — God’s home is here, among mortals, in the renewed creation.


1 I am indebted to Barbara Rossing’s continued and creative work for much of my own scholarship on Revelation, particularly, The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 2004).

2 John J. Collins defines an apocalypse as “a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal … and spatial.” See Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 5.