Lectionary Commentaries for November 7, 2021
All Saints Sunday
Commentary on John 11:32-44
Commentary on Isaiah 25:6-9
I have a confession to make: I am a little bit obsessed with the “Below Deck” series on Bravo. It’s not primarily because of the young adult drunken drama, but more about how the interaction of the guests and food represent various models of the “extravagant life.” For one group, that extravagance is represented by obscure delicacies like sea cucumber ovaries (a news flash for this biblical scholar), while other guests want “kids’ food” like chicken fingers and burgers. And when the request for the perfect food is not matched by the chef’s own visions, then the real fireworks happen! This interaction demonstrates that extravagant food is not about nourishment, but about culture, identity, and dreams.
Isaiah 25:6 demonstrates that this is not a new phenomenon. The menu the author has prepared would fit many a yachtie’s palate. Even if one can live without sucking marrow out of the bone, the act of doing so, fat dripping down one’s chin, is an enactment of deserved privilege. This text is not actually about food, either. It uses food to symbolize the radical change in fortune that the text envisions.
The most annoying guests on “Below Deck” are those who feel entitled to luxurious service and who feel that they have the authority to pronounce what that entails. This is not Isaiah’s audience. Although scholars debate the authorship or date of this particular chapter, the poem is set in a collection that reflects a particular historical context: the rise of Assyrian domination, which led to the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel and subsequent siege of Jerusalem.
Siege warfare weaponized food scarcity by cutting off food supplies to the population within the city walls. Poems throughout the ancient Near East attest to this practice by their frequent references to cannibalism in such situations. Ezekiel likens the besieged city to a cooking pot with bits of body parts floating about. Isaiah 25 depicts it as a funeral mound; the whole city becomes a famished corpse shrouded for burial.
The “mountain” in the poem probably refers to Jerusalem, although it could be applied to almost any city, since they were usually built on raised ground. The elevation provided some natural advantage to people within the city who could throw things like mill stones (see Judges 10) onto the heads of the attackers. We know that Hezekiah, who was king at the time that the Assyrians besieged Jerusalem, had prepared for this attack by digging a tunnel through the caves under the city to reach a freshwater spring. Without access to fresh water, the city would have fallen.
This bit of poetry ascribes the siege to a personified Death in verse 8. In the myths of the surrounding Canaanites and northern Phoenicians, Death was a deity who swallowed its prey. His most notable victim was the storm god, Baal, who was god of fertility and life. While in the myth, Baal is saved by his irate sister, Anat, who slashes Death to pieces with a scythe; in this text, Yahweh out-destroys Death by swallowing the swallower.
The backdrop of the divine contest casts the feast in verse 6 as a victory feast. In mythic texts, which are clearly engaged and re-interpreted here, the victory of Yahweh/Baal results in the material flourishing of the human communities they protect. Rainwater flowing from Baal’s palace completes the cycle of threat and victory. For Isaiah, an overflowing table symbolizes economic and communal abundance.
This poem does not engage agricultural images of fertility, however, but remains focused on the urban mountain. This mountain was also the site of the temple to Yahweh and so it is not so much a political monarchy that is saved. It is the people’s identity as Yahweh’s congregation.
In place of fields fed by fresh water, the action that represents the change in fortune is the wiping away of salty tears. The reference to tears engages two communal activities that can now cease. First, mourning the dead was a communal action, often performed by a professional group of mourning women. The higher the status of the deceased, the more elaborate the mourning rituals. Second, the tears also reflect practices of ritual lamentation carried about the male priestly clergy at the temple. The practice of ritual lament is prominent throughout Mesopotamia and the Levant, especially laments over the destruction of cities. The book of Lamentations consists of five such laments for Jerusalem after it had been destroyed by the Babylonians.
The divine offer of a tissue then is more than just empathy. It functions as divine sanction to end the mourning because the laments have been heard. This section of the poetry, then, brackets the description of mortal combat with two images of safety and rejoicing.
The poem ends with the extension of that divine favor to “all the earth.” This would include all other nations and peoples, to be sure, but also all of creation, including animals and plants. This victory that has cosmic ramifications results in the overturning of mourning into sounds of rejoicing for the divine victor who has conquered the forces of death.
Unlike “Below Deck,” Isaiah 25 addresses an audience all too familiar with starvation and war crimes. Even if it was written much later than the events that inspired it, it reflects the communal trauma created by the march of empire through the land of Israel. That march of empire, replicated later by the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Romans, used food scarcity to create a path of mourning and destruction in its wake, just like we have seen lately in Afghanistan, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. Isaiah 25 asks us to imagine a God who would take those crying, hopeless people and give them a permanent home on a luxurious yacht surrounded by every kind of extravagance.
Commentary on Psalm 24
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.
Commentary on Revelation 21:1-6a
René Such Schreiner
Any sermon on today’s lectionary passage ought to be prefaced with “Spoiler Alert!” as the beginning of the end of John’s apocalypse is narrated in dramatic detail. Maybe “Super Spoiler Alert!” might be a better warning, because this is not just the end of the book of Revelation, nor just the end of the New Testament, but the end of the entire history of salvation as told in our Christian Bible. The lectionary passage itself ends with this proclamation from “the one who is seated on the throne”: “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end” (21:5-6a).
Yet, while knowing how a movie ends often spoils the experience of watching the movie, knowing how the Christian history of salvation ends enhances our ability to walk with Christ from the beginning, through to the end. Knowing how the story ends allows for a particularly Christian view of “history”—the conviction that, rather than being arbitrarily pushed through time by human actions, humanity is instead being pulled into time through God’s loving intention.
First things: living through suffering with integrity
This notion of time is evident in John of Patmos’ talk of the “first things” passing away (Revelation 21:4). What are these first things? According to the voice from the throne, the first things are sources of suffering: all the things on heaven and earth that serve as sources of death and mourning and crying and pain. Even prior to the global pandemic and climate crisis, we could claim to know all too well the harsh realities of death, mourning, crying and pain. Along with the first century communities John of Patmos was writing to, we are living in and through these “first things.”
It is a difficult thing to live with death and mourning and crying and pain, and this is why John narrates the end of the story for us. Knowing the end of the story equips us to live through suffering without corruption: without falling into complicity with the systems producing and benefitting from that suffering.1 Note that nothing in our passage indicates that knowing (read: “believing in”) the end of the story somehow magically exempts us from suffering. This is consistent with the entire book of Revelation: it does not tutor us on how to avoid the suffering the first things bring, in and of themselves. Rather, John narrates the reality of suffering and empowers his hearers to live into and through that suffering with integrity—as followers of Christ, to the end.
The New Jerusalem and the bright day of justice—two dreamers
Knowing the end of the story is key to living through the first things with integrity. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. acted on this when he delivered his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech by presenting his hearers with the image of “the bright day of justice.” Where John of Patmos sees the New Jerusalem adorned by God as bride, Rev. King sees “the bright day of Justice”:
“There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.” – Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Aug 28, 19632
Notice that Rev. King did not say, “we hope for…” or “as we continue to work for…” the bright day of justice. Rather, that bright day of justice is a given for him—a reality that he could see and that he declared for his hearers. Like John of Patmos, Rev. King knows the end of the story. Also, like John of Patmos, Rev. King describes the reality of living through the dissolution of the “first things” (the unjust systems), citing the “whirlwinds of revolt” and the continued shaking of nations’ “foundations.”
Indeed, the scripted portion of Rev. King’s speech was short and dominated by an inventory of his hearers’ sufferings; it contained only a brief mention of the bright day of justice. However, halfway through his scripted speech, Rev. King extemporaneously launched into his “I have a dream…” declarations. Either Mahalia Jackson (famously present that day) or his own intuition urged him on to better convince his hearers of this bright day of justice.3 The vivid imagery Rev. King so eloquently described in 1963 continues to inspire today. It is the vivid end-of-the-story imagery—the bright day of justice so convincingly communicated via his “I have a dream…” litany—that continues to inspire the peaceful trajectory of the civil rights movement today. Knowing the end of the story matters.
Hope in the beginning of the end
As a seminary professor and some-time preacher, I have had the opportunity to ask rooms full of seminarians and churches full of worshipers, “How does our story end?” Invariably, I get blank stares in response. I can’t help but think this has something to do with preachers’ aversion to the book of Revelation. But here, with today’s passage, is an opportunity to preach Revelation as the message of hope that it is. With crisis-weary hearers all around us—asking, “Could this be the beginning of the end?”—proclaiming the beginning of the end of our story may be the best place to start.
- For example: “In the face of ecological crisis, what needs to be uncovered is both the need for drastic overhaul to the way our world operates and the means of living differently. The call of John [of Patmos] to costly witness and non-participation… may be able to provide resources for alternative ways of inhabiting our scarred cosmos…” Ryan L. Hansen, “On Trying to Praise the Mutilated World: Reading Revelation in the Midst of Ecological Crisis,” in Reading the Bible in an Age of Crisis (Ed. Bruce Worthington; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 289.
- https://www.npr.org/2010/01/18/122701268/i-have-a-dream-speech-in-its-entirety Accessed 31 August 2021.
- https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/i-have-dream Accessed 7 September 2021.
Why do churches dedicate a Sunday every year to the commemoration of all the saints that have preceded us?
Those who began this tradition understood that doing so would provide an opportunity to acknowledge that we stand upon the shoulders of those who lived and died before us, and to give them recognition.
In a society that glorifies individualism, providing such opportunities and taking the time to reflect upon the contributions of our ancestors reminds us that what we have accomplished in life is partially due to the saints that preceded us. This is particularly significant for members of many cultural groups whose value systems include recognition and honor of ancestors.
In Mexican and Haitian cultural value systems, learning about the respect and honor given to ancestors can provide enlightenment to U.S. Christians. Both traditions of ancestor recognition include annual celebrations for ancestors who have passed away. In Mexico this commemoration is called “El Dia de los Muertos” (The Day of the Dead); whereas in the Haitian tradition it is called Fét Gede (Festival Day of the Dead).
In these traditions, despite having passed away, the dead continue to be viewed as relevant for those who are still living in the present. Those ancestors who have passed are believed to have entered a higher plane of existence from which they can provide guidance and support to the living. Perhaps, to some extent, physical earthly death should not be viewed as the final reality of our ancestors/Saints within our Christian tradition.
Theologically, the Lutheran/Protestant traditions have had some difficulty in acknowledging an in-between status for the dead. Christians have also sought ways to bring the dead back into existence by celebrating all Saints Day.
When reading the gospel lesson for this day I can’t help but think that all those who preceded us in death moved on to a higher plane than those of us who remain among the living.
When Mary encounters Jesus she is understandably distraught. We all mourn the physical death of our loved ones; however, Jesus reminds Mary that physical death is not the end but is a temporary move to a higher plane before the final resurrection.
The dead saints no longer need to deal with earthly challenges, and we can shift our focus to consider the contributions they can continue to make to our lives. One such shift can include our deceased ancestors reminding us that no human being is an island, but that we are who we are because we were guided and loved by our ancestors, who continue to do so from another realm.
Death is not the end! Can we believe in the resurrection, like Jesus admonished Mary to do?