Lectionary Commentaries for November 1, 2009
All Saints Sunday

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 11:32-44

Henry Langknecht

On the one hand, even without the accompaniment of the other appointed lectionary readings or the liturgical themes of All Saints’ Day (not to mention the other forty-three verses of John 11), this pericope has some great possibilities.

For starters, the raising of Lazarus and its immediate aftermath provide a turning point in John’s gospel. Beginning in John 2 (with the changing of water into wine), the narrative arc of John’s account has been constructed around a series of signs performed by Jesus. These signs inspire many who witness them to believe in Jesus (as they do in verse 45 of this chapter) and in some cases to worship him (cf. John 9:38).

At the same time, these signs have caused anger and fear to build up among the religious leadership. The raising of Lazarus is the climactic sign that launches–we learn in verses 47-53–the plot to kill Jesus “for the sake of the whole nation.” Granted, it is hard to preach a book’s narrative structure because to do so either means wading through more back story than a sermon can hold or assumes that hearers have just heard read aloud a larger portion than just thirteen verses. But such background information can still serve the sermon if it keeps the preacher, at least, attuned to the pivotal importance of this story.

Even at that, one element of this pericope (still somewhat apart from the All Saints’ Day context) reveals an aspect of this story’s Christological importance and the corresponding shift in faith required of believers. It’s clear from the early verses of John 11 that Jesus knows what the power of God can and will do for Lazarus. The befuddlement of the disciples in that early exchange makes it equally clear that his followers do not. When Mary greets Jesus in verse 32, she echoes Martha’s earlier almost-but-not-quite faithful greeting in verse 21, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Similarly, the Judean bystanders muse in verse 37, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” These remarks acknowledge Jesus’ power, but only as the power to keep Lazarus from dying. With the possible exception of Martha’s hint of a farther-ranging trust (see verse 23), there is no suggestion that anyone has grasped Jesus as “the resurrection and the life” has power beyond death.

This failure to be fully grasped (and therefore fully loved and trusted) is the likely cause of Jesus’ tears (contrary to the popular notion that his tears provide proof of Jesus’ human grief). We know that Jesus is not weeping for grief because the observers think that he is weeping for grief and in the John’s gospel such observations are almost always wrong, becoming then an occasion for Jesus to open people to the deeper truths of his being (e.g., Nicodemus and being “born again” or the woman at the well and “living water”). Jesus weeps because when they say to him, “come and see,” they lead him to the grave (compare with how “come and see” is used earlier in John to lead people to Jesus!).
The performance of this text should capture this frustration as it builds through verses 37-38 (where Jesus is greatly disturbed) and then again in verse 39 where we see Martha (the housekeeper!) unable to imagine beyond the stench.

The lector/preacher has an amazing opportunity to embody Jesus’ humanity and divinity as he or she considers how to voice the command in verse 43, “Lazarus, come out!” Power and love, authority and grief (or perhaps even disgust) over their unbelief mingled together; variations on that command could become a powerful sermon refrain!

On the other hand, it is the feast of All Saints and this portion of John 11 will be heard in the context of the other readings and possibly alongside liturgical rites that commemorate those who have died (and in some congregations those who have died in baptism) since last November 1. In this context, the reading from John provides a case where the eschatology meets the road. The other lectionary readings present lofty theological and eschatological visions; John gives us a concrete, real-life exhibition of what resurrection and life can accomplish.

When I’m sitting in the congregation on All Saints’ Day, here is what I’d like to hear: I want you, preacher, to bring me face to face with death and remind me (convince me?) that death is the enemy. Certainly feel free to welcome all of death’s extended family (sin, despair, brokenness, division) in order to make your case, but keep the focus on death, on mortality and the threat it is to our sense of purpose, imagination, and value. Remind me that even under the best of circumstances (when it takes place at the perfect moment between “why did she have to die so soon” and “why did he linger so long”). death is still the enemy. Yes, the war has been won but the fight is not over and death is still a fearsome frontier. Help us to identify with Martha and Mary and the Judean onlookers whose trust in Jesus lacks imagination and into-the-future distance. And then proclaim to us the risen one who stands with God to wipe away those tears and secure us so that we are never put to shame.

I would also like to hear testimonies and stories that tell about Jesus, the resurrection and the life, standing outside dark, stench-y, places in our world calling forth hitherto unimagined life: “_____, come out!” Show us where God is freeing people from death–not so that they can go to heaven, but so that they can serve (Lazarus hosts a meal in chapter 12!) and be living witnesses to the life-giving power of God (even nettlesome witnesses that make others want to kill them again!).

And if you’re feeling blessed this week with some theological nimbleness (so as not to misrepresent the Bible story or our baptismal theology), remind us that our own baptisms were both Jesus moments (buried and resurrected with him) and Lazarus moments (unbound in order to serve and witness).


First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 25:6-9

Juliana Claassens

Food is not just the fuel that we use to propel our bodies through the challenges and joys of daily life.

Food is also a source of comfort; food is associated with fellowship as people eat together, celebrate together, and mourn together (cf. the notion of “funeral food”). It is little wonder that when Israel was trapped in the chaos of nations at war, one superpower following shortly on the heels of another resulting in food shortages and even famine, and they inevitably projected their hopes for salvation to the future, they did so in terms of food.

Isaiah 25:6-9, part of the Isaianic Apocalypse (Isaiah 24-27) that envisions the final redemption of God’s people in terms of a cosmic battle with the forces of chaos, proclaims God’s salvation in terms of a glorious banquet held upon Mount Zion. After God has destroyed all that seek to oppress the faithful, God is said to host a feast of rich food, the choicest, most luxurious foods possible. On the table would be literally “fat” dishes filled with marrow as well as well-aged distilled wines, i.e., wines that miraculously will not turn into vinegar if kept longer than a season.

Three points stand out from this rich text: First, in sharp contrast with the deprivation and the destruction that marked the daily lives of the prophet’s audience, the banquet celebrating God’s victory is characterized by exuberant joy. The joy that in Isaiah 24:11 was said to have gone into exile, now has returned with a force that erupts in jubilant praise songs (Isaiah 25: 1-5, 9; 26:1-6). After all the years in which there was no wine to drink and no songs to sing (Isaiah 24:9), people now will participate in a feast of good food and wine, rejoicing in God’s salvation.

Second, it is significant to see how God’s liberation extends to all people, as evident in the five-fold repetition of the word “all” in verses 6-8. In this eschatological vision, Israel imagined that God’s saving actions on their behalf should not only benefit the community of Israel, but also extend to all the peoples of the earth (cf. Genesis 12:1-3), offering an intriguing perspective on the question people have struggled with throughout the ages, i.e., who is the “all” that have a place at this table.

Nevertheless, one should not romanticize the notion of radical hospitality evident in this text. Right after all the people are invited to the banquet hosted by God, it seems that all people really are not all as seen in the harsh words directed to Moab (verses 10-12). This contradiction helps us to understand something of the constant struggle of discerning God’s word amidst the complexities and the messiness of life made up by real people who are very different from one another.

Third, the reason why Isaiah 25:6-9 was chosen to be the lectionary reading on All Saints’ Day−the day on which we remember our loved ones who have already departed−probably has to do with the fact that this text asserts that the newly restored age cannot be fully established until every threatening force is removed. In verse 8, God is said to swallow up death forever. Typically it is the “earth,” the “deep” or the “underworld”/”Sheol” that is said to do the swallowing (cf. e.g. Exodus 15:12; Proverbs 1:12). But now death and mourning, symbolizing all that threatens life, will be swallowed up by God (or one could say eaten). Moreover, we read in verse 7 that God will swallow the shrouds that envelop the people, so destroying all evidence of mourning (cf. also verse 8 when God is said to wipe away the tears from the faces of all).

This text strongly asserts that God will destroy the last enemy, i.e., death, forever — an idea that is continued in Isaiah 26:19 when Israel’s dead are said to rise from their deathly sleep and join in the joyful singing. Even though these texts probably do not refer to the resurrection per se at this point, one rather could say that the metaphor of resurrection is used to image God’s restoration of Israel (cf. also Ezekiel 37). In later years, the Christian church would draw on these texts in light of what they had experienced in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Reading a utopian text such as Isaiah 25:6-9 amidst the stark realities of our current context with its markedly cataclysmic flavor, given the economic woes, the political strife, and the rising unemployment that have consumed our lives, is interesting indeed. It is remarkable to consider how believers centuries ago in the midst of the chaos that characterized their lives could proclaim that God will intervene and liberate them from all that seek to destroy life in all its goodness.

When things fall apart, when darkness is all around, amidst the hostility, fear, and cynicism that these days seem to be everywhere — at work, on the television, at home — it is good to remind one another that we believe in a God who is present in the chaos, a God who is fighting to deliver God’s children from whatever threatens their wellbeing. Moreover, the image of a banquet denoting a joyful celebration even when Israel found itself at the height of the conflict is a powerful reminder of what is important.

Wherever we gather around a table in these difficult times, we are challenged to still savor the goodness of life: the food, the wine, the fellowship with the people around our table. Actually the image of the Eucharist where we gather around the communion table celebrating and looking forward to the heavenly banquet is a regular reminder of the table as sign of fellowship and hope in things to come. Finally, the inclusive nature of this vision reminds us, especially when things are most distressing, how very important it is to look beyond ourselves and beyond our immediate circumstances to find ways to include others at the table (even those Moabites!).


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 24

Rolf Jacobson

Psalm 24 is an entrance liturgy.

It is very likely that the liturgy was designed to accompany a procession into the Temple.1  The theme of entrance unifies the poem–it describes humans entering in God’s space (“Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?” verse 3) and God entering human space (“Lift up your heads, O gates!…that the King of glory may come in” verses 7, 9).

Similarly, the poem describes the contrasting natures of the God is who enters into human space and the nature of those humans who are able to meet the advent of this God. Psalm 24 is about the advent of human beings into the presence of God, and the mutual advent of the King of glory into the presence of “those who seek the face of God.”

The psalm bears a three-part structure:
1 Declaration of the Lord as creator of all (verses 1-2)
2 Liturgy of the entrance of humans into God’s sphere (verses 3-6)
3 Liturgy of the entrance of the Lord into the human sphere (verses 7-10)
The ending of the liturgical poem both completes the rhetorical movement of God into the human space and provides a fitting theological bookend to verse 1. The King of Glory of verses 8 and 10 is the same Lord who first established his kingship creating and founding the world (verse 1).

Creator of All
The opening verses begin the movement of the poem by asserting that the earth belongs to the Lord, because it was created by the Lord. The rhetorical point scored is that the earthly sphere–into which the Lord moves in this psalm–is already the Lord’s by virtue of the fact that he created it. The Lord’s coming is not the hostile act of an invader conquering that which properly belongs to another. Rather, the Lord comes precisely as the proper lord of earth.

Entering God’s Space
In the second stanza, the focus of the liturgy zooms in from the universal focus to a focus on the Jerusalem Temple–the intersection between heaven and earth. Who may process from the profane space of the world into holy space of God’s Temple? The surprise is that the requirements to do so are not ritual–as in much of the rest of the Old Testament and indeed throughout the ancient Near East–but moral.

James Luther Mays notes, “The adjectives ‘clean’ and ‘pure’ do not belong to the Old Testament vocabulary of ritual purification; they are ethical terms.”2  The requirements that the people do not take up my life falsely and do not swear deceitfully should be understood in light of this theological understanding and in light of the Decalogue prohibition against taking up the name of the Lord falsely. Cleanliness and purity is not for one’s own sake, but for the neighbor.

If the first half of this second stanza (verses 3-4) is about law (what is required of humans when entering into God’s presence), the second half (verses 5-6) is about promise (what is bestowed on humans when entering into God’s presence).

If entering into God’s sphere requires one to leave something at the altar, as it were, one also leaves the altar with something sacred: a blessing from the Lord. The connection between what is left and what one leaves God’s altar with is reinforced by the Hebrew verb “take up” or “lift,” which is used in both halves of the second stanza. One does not take up my life falsely and when one leaves, one will take a blessing from the Lord. Thus, there is a promise to balance the law. And like the law, the blessing is bestowed not for the sake of the individual per se, but for the sake of the neighbor.

The Coming of the King of Glory
The second stanza describes the coming of mortals into God’s space, while the final stanza heralds the coming of the King of Glory into the human space. The psalm’s key word lift now appears four more times in stanza three (verses 7 and 9). Ancient gates had no parts that moved up and down–this is not a metaphor for the raising of a portcullis to allow entrance. Rather, the metaphor refers to the lifting of one’s head to acknowledge the entrance of one who is greater, more important, more gracious than the self. To lift one’s head at God’s entrance to acknowledge God as God.

This reverent and faithful attitude, metaphorically commanded of the Temple gates, is the proper stance of all life toward the Lord. It is the confession that is required when the Lord enters human space to acknowledge the Lord as king. As with all confessions of faith, to confess one truth is to deny competing claims. To confess the Lord as king is to deny all other claims to sovereignty. To confess the Lord as king, means that I am not the ruler of my own life.

But again the psalm asks, who is the king of glory? The Lord, strong and mighty. But according to the New Testament, the strength and might of this king are unlike those of any earthly king. This King, who from eternity had the power, authority, even sovereignty–gave it up. Rather than kill, he chose to be killed. “You who were once estranged and hostile in mind…he has now reconciled in the body of his flesh through death” (Colossians 1:21).

And in his death, moreover, death has already reached out to grasp the world, so that we need not die in the same way. “We have been buried with him by baptism into death…we have been united with him in a death like this, and we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:4). Who is the king of glory? Jesus Christ−who did not count sovereignty or equality with God a thing to be exploited, but emptied himself into a manger, being born in human likeness, in human form.


1Some material in this essay is taken from The Book of Psalms, by Rolf Jacobson, Beth Tanner, and Nancy Declaisse-Walford (NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns, forthcoming). All rights reserved.
2Psalms, 121.


Second Reading

Commentary on Revelation 21:1-6a

Craig R. Koester

This vision from Revelation twice uses the word “pass away.”

It is used for the passing away of a world (21:1) and then for the passing away of all the first or former things (21:4). “Pass away” is a word that in our ordinary speech means death. When we receive word that someone has died, we often hear that the person has “passed away.” All Saints Sunday is a time to remember those who have died.

As we call to mind the family members and friends who have passed away–in the past year, the past decade, the past generation–we also gain a sense of a world that is passing away. When the people we know die, they take with them the experiences of the First World War, the Great Depression, and the Second World War They take with them the sounds and smells of the machine shop, the barn, or the kitchen in a house that has long been torn down. Their faces look back at us from the photos in an album, their expressions coming from a time that is now out of reach. When the people who are closest to us pass away, a part of our world passes away. Death does this.

What is surprising is that in Revelation the word has the opposite sense. We assume that things “pass away” when death comes, but in Revelation things “pass away” when death goes away. In Revelation’s strange upside-down world, saying that the first or former things have passed away means: “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more” (21:4). The first heaven and earth that pass away (21:1) constitute the world in which death was operative. To take death out of the picture is to bring about a new world.

A new world. Revelation’s vision of the future encompasses human beings and the world itself. The God who created the world holds out a future for the world and for the people who belong to it. Throughout Revelation, God is identified as the Creator. In the throne room vision in 4:11, God is given praise for having brought all things into being. In 5:13, every creature in heaven and on earth gives praise to God and the Lamb for the life they bring. To speak of the future in terms of a new creation in 21:1-6 does not deny the value of the first creation. Rather, it affirms that creation is what God does. The counterpart to new creation is not dissolution but new creation.

Death is real for those whom God has created. Yet in Christ, there is also the promise of resurrection–and resurrection is a new act of creation. Resurrection is the promise of a new existence, a transformed existence. This is also what John envisions for the world itself. Death affects all of us and the world to which we belong. Yet in his restless will to redeem, God holds out the promise of making us and our world new.

The new creation is marked, in part, by an absence of powers that oppose God and diminish life. In its dramatic visions, Revelation tells of the final defeat of evil and the liberation of earth and humanity from the forces that have held it captive. The resurrection of all the dead brings an end to death itself (20:14). Therefore, in the new creation there is an absence of death, mourning, crying, and pain–for all those marks of the former, fallen world have passed away (21:1, 4). At the same time, the new creation is characterized by the presence of the God who gives life. A voice from the throne declares that God’s dwelling will be “with humankind”; he will dwell “with them,” and “God himself will be with them” (21:3).

Revelation does not speak alone here. The opening lines of chapter 21 are a cascade of biblical promises brought to their realization. In breathtaking succession, the words of the prophets are taken up and re-proclaimed. To say, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth” takes up the theme of Isaiah 65:17-18. To speak of the new Jerusalem descending like a bride adorned for her husband echoes Isaiah 61:10. Announcing that God’s dwelling place is among people recalls Ezekiel 37:27. Proclaiming that death will be no more and that God will wipe away every tear from their eyes is a resounding affirmation of Isaiah 25:7-8. To say that the first or former things have passed away returns to Isaiah 65:17, while declaring that God makes all things new echoes Isaiah 43:18-19.

The use of language from the prophets in this climactic vision of Revelation is more than a curiosity. It underscores the integrity of God. What God has spoken, God will do. There is integrity between God’s speech and action. Revelation’s vision for the future does not rely on an optimistic reading of the present. Sin, evil, and death all call the future into question. Yet the prophets and the author of Revelation bring a word of hope into the present by affirming that the God who has created all things is the same God who brings all things to their completion.

God is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end (21:1). The world’s existence and our own existence are framed by the presence of God. All Saints Day provides a moment to remember that death is real–for those we love and for we ourselves. It also provides an occasion to recall that death is not final. In God, the future holds the promise of life.